“Suspicious”, thought Sherlock
It all began with observant and concerned citizens around the world noticing a thin translucent film floating on the water at several popular beaches.
As they looked closer and took a sniff, they realized that the floating miscreant was none other than good old sun cream! Putting two and two together, those same concerned citizens speculated that there could be a correlation between the destruction of coral reefs near these popular bathing spots (90% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean basin have disappeared since 1980) and the mysterious uninvited film.
It’s elementary, dear Watson!
With the “whodunnit” quickly solved, attention soon turned to the fact that the majority of ingredients in sun creams are harmful to coral. Further study revealed that it’s not only coral that suffers from our UV protection habits though, but also other sea creatures.
Scientists discovered that the most harmful chemical in sun cream is oxybenzone – one of the usual suspects in horror stories related to the disruption of the endocrine system in human beings. Only this time the victim was not only human beings, but also other mammals, fish, and even sea urchins.
The entire affair gained such momentum that coastal authorities in some areas (Mexico and Hawaii) even decided to ban cosmetic products containing oyxbenzone from their beaches.
The other suspects
The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which certifies cosmetic products that are not harmful to sea creatures, warns that we should be concerned not only about oxybenzone.
Below is a list of chemicals and elements that should not be present in sun cream or in any other cosmetic product that could end up in sea water (including shampoo, conditioner, hair products, creams):
- microplastic spheres or beads;
- nanoparticles like zinc oxide, which can be found in almost all cosmetic products, but most commonly in sun creams and sprays since they reflect UV rays;
- titanium dioxide (used in cosmetology and pharmacology as a whitener);
- octinoxate (endocrine disruptor);
- 4‑methylbenzylidene camphor (the Union for the Protection of the Environment and Nature in Germany characterizes this as an especially dangerous chemical due to its effect on hormones);
- octocrylene (can increase sensitivity to the sun and builds up in the body with regular usage);
- methyl paraben (intensifies the effect of solar rays on the skin);
- ethyl paraben (builds up in the body and, it seems, may have links to breast cancer);
- butyl paraben (disrupts the endocrine system and is capable of negatively affecting sperm);
- triclosan (can lead to mass cell death).
From theory to practice
The simpler, the better
It’s important to keep in mind that even seemingly natural ingredients can have a destructive effect on ocean ecosystems. For example, eucalyptus and lavender are potentially harmful to invertebrate organisms. And beeswax can indirectly lead to the breakdown of ecosystems since it can contain industrial insecticides.
Cream, not spray
As opposed to sprays, sun creams are harder to wipe off the skin and therefore don’t need to be reapplied as often. That makes them not only better for your bank balance, but also kinder to the environment.
White streaks — it’s a fashion thing!
Just take a look at surfers — white streaks can be fashionable. But seriously, they’re also practical because they allow you to see which spots you’ve missed. So if you’re using a sun cream that leaves white traces, as soon as you don’t see that familiar white paintbrush stroke on your skin you’ll wonder what happened, apply some sun cream and avoid sunburn!
Use common sense
It’s not necessary to apply suncream from head to toe. Instead you need to make sure you’re applying to those areas that will be exposed to sunlight: the neck, ears, face, hands, etc.
Clothing with UV protection is a goody buy for the body. Try a shirt with long sleeves, covering the back of the hand if possible, and with a crew neck. Once again, surf brands to the rescue: Patagonia, RipCurl, Roxy etc.
Don’t go into the sun between 11:00 and 14:00
This may be the most painfully obvious piece of advice you’ll receive, but that doesn’t make it any less effective!
OK, but where can I get the goods?
Before buying, you’ll need to take a quick look at what’s available and at how it will be delivered to you. Below are the most popular suncreams that are safe for both you and the environment (N.B. all links go to amazon.com):
- Stream2Sea — leaves white streaks on the skin like all eco-friendly suncreams, but they wash off easily with soap
- Raw Elements — suitable for sport in the sun, moisturizes skin
- Badger — very thick (read: tricky to apply) but exceptionally effective and friendly to the environment
- ThinkSport — pleasant smell and sufficiently soft feel, leaves behind white streaks, suitable for sport
If you’re searching for options on your own, make sure to use the keywords “coral reef safe”, “cruelty free”, “biodegradable”.