Heading to the beach or running an errand in Orlando? Don't forget to lather up in sunscreen! But whether you're dipping yourself in the sea, pool, or even just your shower; sunscreen can be very destructive to marine ecosystems, unless you use the right kind.
Sunscreen and our health
One of the first sunscreens ever invented was in 1938 by chemist, Franz Greiter with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 2. Since then, we have advanced our sunscreen product with various levels of SPF that allows various amounts of the sun's photons to penetrate our skin. The sun is responsible for 90% of all non-melanoma skin cancers (3.5 million cases in the U.S.), and 65% of all melanomas (76,250 cases in the U.S.). Regardless of popular belief, sunscreen does not cause cancer. The study that was used to test this that found a link to melanoma was with sunscreen that contained a SPF of 6 and the Center for Disease Control recommends a minimum SPF of 15 for protection. Nor has there been any testing done to prove that the chemicals within the product lead to breast cancer.
It is recommended that anyone over 6 months old should wear sunscreen daily. About 15% of American men wear it regularly and 30% of American women. True, the sun does supply UVB rays which fuel the cholesterol in our bodies to create vitamin D, but 15-20 minutes of sun exposure is more than enough for our bodes to supply the proper amount of vitamin D and store the excess. Sunscreen also keeps our tattoos looking fresher longer and extends their life visually. However, as much as sunscreen is good for us, it can be extremely harmful to the marine environment.
The environmental problem with most sunscreens is that they contain chemicals such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and methyl paraben. These chemicals can be very toxic to the symbiotic algae found on delicate coral reefs that maintain the coral's health, as well as their colors, by giving them viral infections. Without the algae, the coral becomes exposed and bleached-looking and soon die off, just like they're already doing from global warming. Corals are home to a quarter of all marine beings and supply us several eco-services like water purification and oceanic biodiversity, as well as being a great economic source of tourism. But this sunscreen can come in contact in ways more than just swimming or surfing; it can happen when draining a swimming pool, playing in the sprinklers outside, or even taking a shower at the end of the day! In total, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited in the world's oceans every single year. Sunscreen does not have to contain these chemicals, however, or can be avoided altogether based on choice of attire.
Harmful ingredients to all beings of marine ecosystems include:
- Microplastic sphere or beads
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA0
- Methyl Paraben
- Ethyl Paraben
- Propyl Paraben
- Benzyl Paraben
The key is to use sunscreen that is biodegradable and avoids these harmful chemicals. Products that contain minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the new thing to protect corals. These can be supplied by All Good, Mexitan (aka Tropical Sands), or Alba Botanica. Another way for consumers to easily identify a sunscreen that is safe is if it contains the Protect Land + Sea Certified label.
One problem with products that contain minerals instead of chemicals, however, is that though they may be harmless to the vitally important algae living on coral reefs, the minerals can be harmful to other beings like zebrafish or rainbow trout. Furthermore, obtaining these minerals is done by mining which has its own effects on surrounding ecosystems when there's high concentrations of it draining into the surrounding environment. Plus, the manufacturing of titanium dioxide can result in large amounts of iron sulfate waste.
The absolute 100% best way to avoid sunscreen that can harm the environment is to not wear sunscreen at all but rather, wear UV protected clothing, rash guards, and hats with wide brims. Sun protection clothing from companies like Patagonia, Coolibar, and REI are rated with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), similar to sunscreen's SPF. This option might not show off your hard-worked washboard abs as much, but it will if you get it in white and you're all wet! *wink, wink*