You probably know by now that you need to be wearing sunscreen; your mother told you, your doctor has told you, hell, even we at Men’s Health have told you (many times). According to the American Academy of Dermatology, wearing sunscreen is the best protection you can get against sun damage that can lead to skin cancer. But as you slather yourself in SPF (and reapply every two hours as directed, right?), you may not have thought about how what you choose to protect your body from the sun could also have a role in protecting, or deteriorating, the environment around you.
In 2015, a group of scientists including Dr. Craig Downs, PhD, Executive Director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, was tasked by the Federal Government to figure out why coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands were dying. After ruling out the usual suspects like “sewage, fuel, pesticides, and road runoff,” says Downs, they realized that there were high concentrations of chemicals found in sunscreens in the water of the highly popular tourist beaches. Their subsequent study found that there was over 14,000 tons of sunscreen in our oceans, which they have now been able to directly link to irreversible damage to coral and other marine life.
Following the growing amount of evidence that what sunscreens we put on our bodies can have a devastating effect on the environment around us, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2018, two known endocrine disrupting chemical ingredients that have been shown to drastically affect ocean life. Key West followed in 2019 and around the same time the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule to regulate common chemicals found in sunscreens, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, pending updated testing. (Though it should be noted that the FDA is more concerned with these chemicals’ effects on humans, rather than the environment).
As a result, you’ve probably noticed more sunscreens promoting themselves as “reef safe”. But what exactly does that mean and should you make the switch? It’s complicated.
How Exactly Can Sunscreen Harm The Environment?
Ultimately it comes down to what kind of sunscreen it is. “The issue is more with chemical sunscreens because those are the ones that have been shown to accumulate [in the water],” says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, whereas mineral-based sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide don’t, at least not in the same way. “[Chemicals] get absorbed by some of the marine life and cause damage and even death. Minerals sink to the bottom.” According to Downs, coral bleaching is the most visible effect of damage but it goes way beyond that. These chemicals can affect all aspects of an ocean ecosystem—from fertility issues in sea urchins and fish to killing off seaweed and other marine plant life. “Sunscreens are incredible herbicides, worse than commercial herbicides,” says Downs.
What’s The Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens?
“In the simplest terms, mineral [also called physical] sunscreens deflect UV rays and chemical sunscreens actually absorb them and use heat to break them apart,” says dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, MD. Physical sunscreens also tend to be natural, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, whereas chemical sunscreens are synthetic. The easiest way to think about it is to picture the old-school lifeguards or surfers with pure white zinc on their noses. These physical blockers actually sit on top of skin, which is why dermatologists like Dr. Bhanusali actually prefer them. “They do a better job of protecting us, but the biggest issue is that people don’t always like them because they leave a barrier,” he says. That’s why chemical sunscreens were developed—they sink into skin easier and don’t usually leave a white, chalky cast. These days, however, formulations of mineral sunscreens are getting better and grind the minerals down to a microscopic size called nanoparticles to ensure they disappear on skin quicker and more easily without leaving a film or chalky look.
But nanoparticles aren’t perfect, even those of natural substances like zinc or titanium dioxide. “They tend to accumulate god knows where,” says Dr. Bhanusali. As manufacturers began to micronize particles smaller and smaller, “they went too far,” says Robinson. “There are potentially harmful effects as they seep into the skin,” which can be bad news for humans as well as marine life. “Nanoparticles still pose an increased toxicological risk because, just like in humans, they can be absorbed into the blood stream [of marine life],” says Downs. The impact is still being studied and may not be as extreme in some cases as chemical sunscreens, but is still something scientists like Downs are concerned about. “It’s the dose that makes the poison, so if you had 6,000 people go into [the same water] with nanosized zinc oxide, yes, I think there would be an impact,” he says.
What Makes A Sunscreen Reef Safe?
Keep in mind that “reef safe” is not a standardized term – it’s something come up by marketers. “Calling something reef safe implies you’ve actually tested that product on reef organisms and most companies don’t do that toxicity testing,” says Downs. When you see the words reef safe on a bottle, it usually just means it’s free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, which is a start but not the be-all-end-all. To really hedge your bets, you should look at the ingredients list and see if it’s a purely mineral sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide (sometimes formulas will include other chemicals, like avobenzone) and whether it says the ingredients are nano or non-nano. To be as safe as possible, the sunscreen should contain only non-nano mineral sunscreens.
There are some independent agencies who have set up their own certification and testing processes to help identify sunscreens that don’t contain harmful ingredients. Protect Land & Sea, which Downs oversees, tests sunscreens for 11 potentially harmful chemicals as well as a slew of other things like parabens and other preservatives. The Environmental Working Group also has rigorous standards in what they consider safe to use. Look for their logos on packages to help easily identify products that they deem safe.
Can Using a Reef-Safe Sunscreen Really Make a Difference?
Cynics among us may wonder if saving marine life could be as simple as switching their sunscreen. There are multiple factors to consider, according to Dr. Bhanusali, like climate change and pollution, which also contribute to the deterioration of coral reefs and nothing is black and white. “The only thing that’s non-negotiable,” he says, “is that you have to wear something because extended UV damage over time can lead to skin cancers.” And if you’re still unconvinced, consider this: physical sunscreens can actually protect you better from the sun’s rays. Mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are broad spectrum protectors, which means they protect from UVA and UVB rays (not all chemical sunscreens protect you from both). So switching to a reef safe sunscreen could do your body good as well as the ocean.
Basically, says Robinson, you have to make the decision for yourself. “If you’re going swimming in the ocean, I would choose a product that is reef safe,” he says. “If you’re going to the beach and laying out, it doesn’t matter as much.” But consider that, as Downs says, “the poison is in the dose.” The harmful chemicals in sunscreens compound over time, so even one person making the switch could make a difference.
How To Choose A Reef Safe Sunscreen
One of the biggest reasons people stay away from mineral sunscreens is how they look (chalky) and feel (filmy) on their skin. That may have been true for the old-school zinc, but now formulas are smoother and easier to rub in, though may still take some getting used to. “Buy a few different sunscreens and try them all to figure out which one your skin likes best because all skin is different,” says Bhanusali. “People may have reactions to certain ingredients, so you have to play around with it.” Always choose a sunscreen that is at least broad spectrum SPF 30, as advised by the American Academy of Dermatology, and look for versions that are water resistant. Be wary of any product that doesn’t list an SPF rating, since those are substantiated and regulated by the FDA, even if some of the ingredients are not. And if you can’t find a mineral sunscreen you like, but still want to be reef safe, consider UPF clothing which still protects your skin from UV rays.
Check out the 12 best reef-safe sunscreens. We’d be willing to bet you’ll find one you like so much, you won’t even miss your old chemical screen. The reefs will thank you.
Sun Bum Mineral Whipped Mousse SPF 30
This brilliant solve for gloopy, thick mineral sunscreen comes out of the can in a whipped cream consistency, which makes it easier to rub in and feel lighter on the skin. It still leaves a slight white cast at first, but is useful to see if you’ve missed a spot before it disappears.
COOLA Organic Mineral Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 Fragance-Free
This fragrance-free zinc sunscreen lotion is top rated by the EWG because of the 70% organic formula and high quality plant-derived ingredients. Since there’s no added fragrance, it’s gentle enough to use on sensitive or irritation-prone skin.
REN Clean Screen Mattifying Face Sunscreen SPF 30
Wearing mineral sunscreen on your body is one thing, but how it feels on your face is another. This clean-ingredient formula contains zinc to help protect your face from UV rays but is non-greasy and contains rice starch to help soak up excess oil.
Bare Republic Mineral Body Sunscreen Gel Lotion
This innovative clear gel completely does away with the white, chalky look of some other mineral sunscreens, but still has non-nano zinc oxide particles to give broad spectrum protection. It’s also chock-full of botanical oils to help moisturize skin as well as protect it.
Thinksport Sunscreen SPF 50 , 6 Ounce
Almost as close to pure zinc as you can get (while still sinking into skin quickly and without a greasy film), this mineral-based sunscreen is approved by the EWG and Whole Foods. It’s best suited when you’re being especially active, because of the 80-water resistant factor which applies to sweat, too.
Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Oxide Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF 30
“Neutrogena makes a lot of good zinc sunscreens and has good science behind it,” says Dr. Bhanusali. We’re partial to this zinc formula which goes on smooth and dries to a powdery finish that doesn’t leave you with a grey film or sticky feeling (there is also a version specifically for your face).
Supergoop! PLAY 100% Mineral Lotion SPF 50 Sunscreen
There are no chemical sunscreens in this formula, only a powerful combination of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It’s lightweight enough for your face, but protective enough to use on your body, too. It sinks in quickly without feeling heavy on your skin.
Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sport Sunscreen Stick SPF 30
This EWG-approved, non-nano mineral sunscreen formula also comes in a lotion, but we especially like the stick because it makes sunscreen easy to apply on areas most prone to sunburn like ears, noses, and even lips. Plus, it makes reapplying every two hours less of chore.
Badger Active Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Cream SPF 30
With only five ingredients in this Protect Land Sea certified formula, Badger sunscreen is as natural is you can find, but doesn’t sacrifice any sun protection. There’s a high concentration of zinc to protect from UV rays, but somehow still applies smoothly and doesn’t leave your limbs sticky.
Australian Gold Botanical Sunscreen SPF 50
As mineral sunscreens climb higher in SPF, some can start feeling heavier and stickier with greater sun protection. That’s not the case with this formula. It contains ingredients like squalane and red algae to help moisturize and protect skin, while also allowing it to spread easily and quickly.
Drunk Elephant Umbra™ Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30
On the luxe end of the spectrum, this Drunk Elephant mineral sunscreen costs a bit more than others, but is ideally suited for everyday wear on your face. It contains zinc to help protect your mug from UVA and UVB rays, as well as ingredients like soothing aloe and jojoba oil to keep it moisturized.
Coppertone Pure & Simple SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion
This new EWG-approved formula from Coppertone is made of zinc oxide and natural botanicals, like tea leaf and sea kelp extracts. It’s also hypoallergenic and suitable for even the most sensitive skin.
Garrett Munce writes about men’s style and grooming.
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