Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” sunscreen, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
If you’re anything like us, your New Year’s resolution for the past ten-or-so years has been to wear more sunscreen. No matter how frequently you’re wearing it, sunscreen is a huge market that’s projected to reach $10.7 billion by 2024. And while sunscreen can be effective at protecting our skin, it can also be harmful to ecosystems, so it’s important to consider what goes into our sunscreen and how we use it.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
Sunscreen’s harmful impacts on our oceans run deep (literally). It’s estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into the oceans each year, which is equivalent to the weight of over 1,100 school buses. Horrifying, we know. Some ingredients in sunscreen can also impair the growth and photosynthesis of green algae and cause damage to the immune and reproductive systems of countless aquatic species. Look out for trusted certifications to avoid the most harmful chemicals, and opt for creams over sprays to reduce the negative impacts of aerosol packaging.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Oxybenzone & Octinoxate
Sunscreens contain a few chemicals that are particularly problematic, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, two of the most commonly used UV blockers. Researchers all over the world have determined that these two infamous chemicals are harmful to marine life, in part because they are made of nanoparticles. When these nanoparticles get washed off of our skin and into the water, they are absorbed by coral, upon which they have devastating effects. These chemicals impair the DNA of coral so that it becomes sterile and unable to reproduce. They also cause coral to trap heat. When coral reaches a certain temperature, it expels the algae that grows on it and provides it with protection and nutrients. When the algae leaves, the coral turns white (hence “coral bleaching”), and usually dies. Hawaii banned the sale of products with oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2021, but even if you’re not surrounded by coral reefs, we still strongly suggest avoiding any sunscreen with these ingredients.
Non-Nano Zinc Oxide
Zinc oxide is a white powder derived from the mineral zincite that is used as a skin protectant and sunscreen by reflecting and scattering UV radiation. It can come in different particle sizes: nano zinc oxide (nZnO) and non-nano zinc oxide (ZnO). Many of our recommended top products are made with ZnO because its particles are bigger in size (at least 5x bigger) than those of nanoparticles, which gives them broad UVA protection properties and decreases their ability to be absorbed by our skin, plants, and other organisms in the environment.
While nZnO sunscreen is still super effective at blocking the sun’s rays and its small particles mean it can be more easily rubbed into a transparent layer on the skin, these particles are so small that they can also be absorbed by organisms in the environment, our skin, and even cell walls. While we have little understanding of the potential environmental and biological impacts of nZnO, we do know that these particles have proven to be more toxic towards algae than ZnO. Most of our recommended products do not include nZnO, but ultimately, you should choose what you’re most comfortable with.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on sunscreen.
Protect Land + Sea
Protect Land + Sea independently tests sunscreen products to ensure that they contain none of the following ingredients that may be harmful to ocean and land ecosystems: microplastic beads, nanoparticles, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, octocrylene, PABA, any kind of paraben, triclosan, and of course, oxybenzone and octinoxate. These standards are updated every other year to keep up with the most recent scientific findings in ecotoxicity.
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any of the ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.
PETA Cruelty-Free Certified
PETA’s Cruelty-Free offers a searchable database of companies and denotes whether they conduct, commission, or test their products on animals. It’s a great tool to use when vetting face washes and other personal care products.
As a rule, choose sunscreen lotion or cream over sprays whenever possible. Aside from being less efficient at coverage than creams, sprays are typically packaged in aerosol cans, which are usually made from aluminum or steel. Producing just 1 kilogram of either material can emit the equivalent of driving 30 miles in your car. Plus, to get their misting effect, aerosol cans require hydrocarbons or compressed gases that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are prevalent in asthma-inducing smog. While some recycling programs accept empty aerosol cans (that also have their plastic caps removed!), many still don’t due to the dangers of pressurized cans exploding in the sorting facility. Sadly, this means that plenty end up in landfills, where aluminum and steel can take centuries to decompose. To give yourself better protection and to limit the waste and emissions associated with aerosols, opt for lotions and creams instead.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
Wearing sunscreen is still a helpful way to protect your body against the cancer-causing effects of sun exposure, but with each use, you could be slathering chemicals all over your body that are bad for yourself and the environment. When you’re shopping for sunscreen, look for the Protect Land + Sea Certification, and at the very least, look for products free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, since we know that those chemicals are particularly harmful. Studies show that a white cotton shirt will provide you with about 67% of the protection that a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) shirt will, so you can probably protect yourself with clothes that you already own while cutting down on sunscreen use.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of sunscreen is the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” sunscreen because it will always end up in our waterways and have adverse environmental impacts, we came up with this list of more sustainable sunscreens based on what they’re made of.
“How can you tell if sunscreen is reef-friendly?”
Unfortunately, “reef safe” claims do not have a federally agreed-upon or regulated definition, so sunscreen manufacturers are not required to test and demonstrate that “reef safe” products won’t harm marine life. The best bet is to look out for the Protect Land + Sea Certification, as that is the only certification that ensures all potentially harmful chemicals are not included in the product.
“Is there a natural sunscreen?”
If we’re defining “natural” as not made or caused by people, then no. That said, individual ingredients or materials might be natural, but that does not mean they’re synonymous with being more “sustainable”. Many sunscreens today, including several that we recommend, are labeled as “natural”, but the natural component that they’re referring to is zinc oxide. It’s a white powder that occurs naturally in the mineral zincite, but the ingredient itself is synthetic. It’s also important to remember that not all zinc oxide is created equal. Check to see if the sunscreen is made with non-nano zinc oxide (nZnO) if it’s labeled as “natural”.