Reef-Safe Sunscreen

With record-breaking heat waves sweeping across Canada, it has never been more important to protect your skin from the blazing sun. 80,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in Canada every year, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation is associated with 80%-90% of skin cancers. Using sunscreen to block UV radiation has been shown to reduce the incidence of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, and is recommended by both the Canadian Dermatology Association and the American Academy of Dermatology. Although skin cancers are far more prevalent in white individuals than people with darker skin, regular sunscreen use of SPF 30 or higher can be beneficial for all skin types. However, since the first commercial sunscreen’s development back in 1928, its potential harmful effects on both the environment and our health have come to light.

Recently, the online pharmacy and lab Valisure found traces of Benzene, a known carcinogen, in dozens of conventional sunscreens and after-sun products. The company is petitioning the FDA to recall these contaminated batches of products. Benzene is a colorless or light -yellow liquid chemical and is found naturally in volcanoes and forest fires, as well as crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. It is also used to make plastics, resins, lubricants, pesticides, detergents, and many other products. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies benzene as “carcinogenic to humans”, due to sufficient evidence linking it to acute myeloid leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Benzene was found in some of the most popular brands of sunscreen. Although it is not one of the ingredients in the sunscreens, it is believed to have contaminated certain batches through the manufacturing process.

Aside from Benzene contamination, a new study from the FDA found six common active ingredients in sunscreens that were absorbed into the body: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. These constitute the chemical compounds that filter out UV radiation from the sun and prevent biological damage. The levels of these chemicals were still higher than the FDA’s “threshold of concern” three weeks after the participants had stopped putting them on their skin. In addition, other studies have shown that oxybenzone may affect breast development, infant birth weight and sperm function. Animal studies have also observed disruptive effects of UV-filters in sunscreens on the endocrine system (hormone regulating system).

In addition to the impact on human health, when your sunscreen washes off into an ocean or lake, it enters our waterways, which then affects organisms in the oceans. Some chemical sunscreen ingredients can be detectable in water sources even after waste-water treatment processing. Even more concerning is their accumulation in fish species, and their contribution to the killing of coral reefs in the ocean. For example, oxybenzone can affect coral reef larvae. Consequently, on January 1, 2021, Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Coral reefs are one of the world’s most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems, and their preservation is of utmost importance. While further studies need to be done, the current consensus is that mineral-based sunscreens such as those with zinc oxide have acceptably low levels of toxicity to the environment, and do no penetrate the skin, which raises fewer health concerns.  Mineral-based or physical sunscreens create a physical barrier between your skin and the sun. However, if the particles are nanoparticles, or small enough to fit into your pores, your skin may absorb them as well. Opt for non-nanoparticle zinc sunscreens instead.

The next time you’re out shopping for some sunscreen, be mindful of the ingredients on the label. In particular, try to avoid sunscreens containing:

  • Oxybenzone, Octinoxate or Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA, Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate)
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium
    (opt for non-nano or micro-sized zinc sunscreens instead)
  • Micro-plastics, such as “exfoliating beads”

Some mineral sunscreens may leave a temporary white residue on the skin. Considering the harms, such as coral bleaching, from chemical sunscreens, this is a minor inconvenience. You can search online for the product that works best for you. Try to stick with lotions, and avoid spray or mist sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide, which can be harmful if inhaled. Try to also use products with biodegradable (like cardboard) or refillable/easily recyclable packaging (glass, metal) as opposed to single use plastic. Alternatively, you might want to make your own sunscreen. Some have used a combination of coconut, jojoba or olive oil, non-nano zinc oxide, beeswax and cacao powder through this recipe (please ensure you wear a mask and gloves when working with zinc oxide). CHF BC does not endorse any particular brand or formula for sunscreens.

Sunscreen is only one of the ways you can protect yourself from skin damage during this scorching summer season. Wearing wide-brimmed hats and UV protection sunglasses, seeking shade between 11 am to 3 pm, and donning thicker clothes are all excellent ways of reducing your exposure.

You can also share information and help raise awareness about the importance of reef-safe sunscreen and connect with your local stores to request they offer products that take the environment into account. You can also lobby for legislation to ban the sale and use of toxic sunscreens. Aside from Hawaii in the United States, island nations such as Palau, Bonaire and Aruba have done so already.

As humans, our individual actions impact the collective environment around us. Let us strive to make environmentally conscious decisions that take into account all who share the Earth with us.

Reef safe sunscreen lists:

Reef safe sunscreen recipe: