Using sunscreens, unsurprisingly, is one of the essential sun safety tips. As much as these products are important for sun safety, studies now show that sunscreen ingredients pose threats to the environment. So, what is the environmental impact of sunscreen, and how do we avoid sun damage while preventing environmental contamination?
If you enjoy being in the sun, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the need for sun protection. Summer being around the corner means heightened awareness about the importance of sunscreen. However, now we know that sunscreen usage is crucial all year round. It’s one thing to protect the skin, but it’s another to pay attention to environmental safety.
Read on as we explore how our sunscreen use can impact our coral reefs, ocean waters, and other environmental harms and what we can do about it.
If you’re looking for a sunscreen that poses less environmental harm, with many reefs safe, check out our guide to the best zero-waste sunscreens, most of which also come without plastic packaging.
Exposed skin in the sun is at a risk of absorbing ultraviolet rays (UV) that can cause various long-term damages like skin cancer. Sunscreens serve as crucial sun protection tools. They help to create a barrier against UV filters that cause skin cancer, sunburns, and other damages. To prevent skin cancer and ensure UV filters, wearing sunscreen is an easy and successful remedy to the worst of the sun's rays.
In today’s world, various products exist. Over the years, we’ve seen an influx of sunscreen products in the market from various brands and companies. These range from chemical sunscreens to mineral sunscreens. These products contain various sunscreen ingredients that work to prevent UVA and UVB rays from damaging the skin. Sunscreen manufacturers incorporate UV-absorbing ingredient types to reduce UV rays' ability to penetrate the skin.
When we examine the need for sunscreen in various parts of the world, it’s no surprise that the sunscreen market is a big one. Many people wear sunscreen every day, from mineral or physical sunscreens to chemical sunscreens through the addition of sunscreen properties in our makeup and skincare.
According to research, the global sun care products market size was valued at USD 13.03 billion in 20194. Researchers expect this number to rise to USD 16.84 billion by 2027. With the high demand for sunscreens to prevent skin damage, increased awareness, and a warming climate, it’s no surprise that this number will keep growing. More usage naturally means more purchases. With more sunscreen needed comes the need to throw out previously used products for new ones.
Active ingredients such as Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, particularly in a chemical sunscreen, generate sunscreen pollution. This leads to how sunscreens affect marine environments. Scientific evidence reveals that 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into the ocean yearly2.
These sunscreen chemicals go on to affect marine life and cause coral bleaching, a problem that is gaining more attention. To understand the adverse effects of sunscreens, it’s also important to understand the types of sunscreen and the active ingredients that ensure our sunscreens work effectively.
Sunscreen ingredients largely vary depending on the type of sunscreen you purchase. Although we have a variety of sunscreens in today’s market, there are two main sunscreen types. These are mineral sunscreens and physical sunscreens.
Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen, has two main active ingredients, zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Each sunscreen ingredient acts as a barrier to the skin, thereby preventing sunlight damage on the skin. Since each ingredient comes in white color, mineral sunscreens tend to leave a white tint on the skin.
This also means that when using these types, you must blend them for a longer time to absorb them fully. In essence, physical sunscreens act as a shield on exposed skin. This sunscreen type is usually in a thick form. Since it acts as a physical barrier, it reflects sunlight away from your skin before your skin can absorb this light. People with sensitive skin will most likely opt for physical sunscreens since chemicals can affect them. On the other hand, some people, especially those with darker skin, tend to avoid this type due to the white cast.
Chemical sunscreens are widely used all around the world. These types are not as thick as the physical or mineral versions. Unlike its counterpart that acts as a physical barrier, chemical sunscreen absorbs UV light from the sun.
The chemicals found in these types absorb into the skin as a way to protect from UV light. Therefore, rather than allowing your skin to take in the rays, the ingredients take them in.
Unlike the physical type with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as its actives, this kind relies on oxybenzone, butylparaben, and octinoxate. Studies now reveal that these chemicals negatively affect coral reefs in the ocean and other marine life. Apart from the actives, various other substances in this sunscreen type are potentially toxic to aquatic organisms.
Before diving into the specific effects of sunscreen on aquatic life, let’s explore how these came to be. Although the cream we identify as sunscreen came to be in the 1970s, there’s a long history of attempts to prevent skin damage.
Before sunscreen ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and oxybenzone, people have used ointments to curb the sun’s harmful effects. The Egyptians utilized ingredients like rice bran, lupin, and jasmine as a way to seek shade from the sun.
Apart from the Egyptians, others like the Native Americans and Greeks had their ways to prevent damage. The Greeks used ingredients like olive oil, while Native American tribes used Tsuga canadensis. Although times have changed, you’ll still find some of these ingredients as sun screening agents today.
Modern sunscreen began to develop sometimes in the 1930s. During this time, a Swiss chemist called Franz Greiter attempted to invent an effective sun protection product after getting burnt climbing Mount Piz Buin; his efforts produced a Sun Protection Factor of only 2.
Later, a pharmacist and airman called Benjamin Green created a greasy substance which he named red vet pet. This was in 1944, and he and some soldiers used it as protection during World War II. Later, he included cocoa butter and coconut oil and advertised the product as a suntan lotion.
It wasn’t until the 70s that we began to see major changes in this sector. This was also the period when the Food and Drug Administration started monitoring the products for their SPF levels. Oxybenzone, which is a prominent ingredient, was introduced during this time. Years later, studies revealed the negative effects on corals, fish, and other reef organisms. Further research also suggests harmful effects on humans besides coral reef damage.
You may be wondering, “how is sunscreen bad for the planet?” There’s a growing need for people to understand the environmental impact of their product choices.
Sunscreen pollution affects marine organisms and coral reefs, thereby significantly affecting the natural order. You may be wondering how your product can end up in the ocean. Well, one of the most direct methods is through activities like swimming. People enjoy days at the beach, which often involve swimming in the water. This activity involves products washing away from your face and body, ending in water bodies.
Apart from this direct impact, these products affect marine species through wastewater treatment plants. Through this indirect route, after consumers wash off the products at home, chemicals flow into these plants and end up in the ocean. To fully understand the impact of these chemicals, let’s explore three main ways these ingredients and products affect the environment:
A 2008 study explored how sunscreens affect coral reefs5. Researchers confirmed that certain ingredients lead to coral bleaching, serving as a call for reef-safe products and ingredients. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two main culprits of coral reef damage.
Oxybenzone damages coral DNA when it comes in contact with coral reef areas. This chemical disrupts the skeletal endocrine of each planula, and the damage eventually kills these coral offspring.
Apart from affecting the offspring, the chemicals also affect the adult corals. Oxybenzone makes the water around coral reefs toxic. This causes stress to the symbiotic partners - algae - that give corals their bright colors. As a result, viral infections form in the algae, thereby affecting the relationship between the corals and algae. As corals repel the algae, they become white. This initiates the bleaching process.
Besides affecting their aesthetic value, the bleaching of coral reefs also affects their functioning. Coral reefs then become susceptible to various diseases, ultimately leading to death.
Apart from the focus on Oxybenzone, research also reveals that zinc oxide nanoparticles cause coral bleaching1. This raises concerns around products labeled as reef-friendly.
If you’re unfamiliar with the importance of coral reefs, they serve multiple purposes. Corals protect coastlines from storms, waves, and erosion. This prevents loss of lives and damage to properties.
Apart from this, corals are also complex ecosystems that provide habitats for fish and other aquatic organisms. They provide food to millions of people, job opportunities, and new medicines.
Apart from this pollution, factors like climate change also affect coral reefs. As a result, coral reefs require protection, prompting the need for reef-friendly products.
Besides affecting corals, chemicals also damage fish, sea urchins, and other aquatic organisms. In addition to the coral damage, this has also prompted places like Hawaii to ban products with Oxybenzone.
High concentrations of sunscreen chemicals in the bodies of aquatic animals pose damaging effects. These chemicals affect fish embryos and larvae. When the reefs die due to bleaching, the marine populations that inhabit these areas start to decline. In the long run, this disrupts ecosystems and affects the natural order of things in the environment.
There’s also the need to zoom in on plastic packaging in the sunscreen industry. Many products come in plastic tubes that constitute a nuisance in the environment. When consumers regularly purchase products that come in plastic packaging, it raises pollution concerns.
Right from production, plastic has intensive effects. During the end of their life cycles, these items often end up in landfills or water bodies. With the knowledge that plastic takes years to break down, it’s no surprise that it's terrible for the environment. Thankfully, many conscious companies are now switching to eco-friendly packaging alternatives like aluminum tins. There are also biodegradable package options such as tubes and cardboard containers.
Several studies keep popping up regarding the effects of sunscreen ingredients on aquatic life. Although most sunscreens labeled reef-safe is, in fact, better for tropical reefs and our oceans, new studies are examining the intricacies.
For instance, apart from the well-known effects of Oxybenzone, research also reveals the possible effects of nano titanium dioxide and nano zinc oxide on reefs3. Below are some ways to make more environmentally-friendly choices:
Choosing sun-protective clothing is one of the ways you can protect your skin. Various brands now design and sell these types of clothing to help reduce the effects of chemicals on the environment. These clothes minimize the amount of sunscreen needed. However, you should still apply products to exposed parts of your skin.
Pay attention to products free from nanoparticles, as studies show that these can damage algae. Also, pay attention to cosmetics and skin products that don’t contain mineral oil and petroleum. These take years to break down and are toxic to marine life. It’s already evident at this point to avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate ingredients.
Packaging waste is also a big thing. Choose zero waste products that come in recyclable and biodegradable packaging materials.
Sun protective measures are important. However, it’s also important to address the environmental effects. When choosing the products to buy, this places the responsibility to select those that are not damaging to coral reefs and the environment. It also serves as a call for brands and manufacturers to switch to more eco-friendly options.
Corinaldesi, C., Marcellini, F., Nepote, E., Damiani, E., & Danovaro, R. (2018). Impact of inorganic UV filters contained in sunscreen products on tropical stony corals (Acropora spp.). Science of The Total Environment, 637, 1279-1285.
|Schneider SL, Lim HW. Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019 Jan;80(1):266-271. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2018.06.033. Epub 2018 Nov 14. Review. PubMed PMID: 29981751.|
Sánchez-Quiles, D., & Tovar-Sánchez, A. (2014). Sunscreens as a source of hydrogen peroxide production in coastal waters. Environmental science & technology, 48(16), 9037-9042.
Fortune Business Insights. (2020). Sun care products market size, share and COVID 19 impact analysis
Brown, S. Sunscreen wipes out corals. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.537
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.