When I think of sunscreen, I think about my childhood years, and my mother and sister slathering greasy handfuls of the stuff on my brother and I, as we anxiously waited to go swimming. Most American’s have shared that same experience since its earliest known use in the mid 1920s.
But some ninety years, give or take, later, we are finding ourselves in some hot water as a result of this widely used creation.
I had always assumed that sunscreen manufacturers cared about our planet, and us, and designed that magical stark-white liquid shield to be safe for the environment and our bodies; But then I learned the depressing reality about mine, and almost every American’s, summertime staple.
In 2016, on vacation with my family, I sat on the powder white beach in Destin Florida, and watched all the beach goers spray, slather and smooth on their sunscreen, and head for the water. I thought to myself every time I stepped into the ocean, “What is this doing to the marine life?” But hadn’t thought about it long enough to really research it.
We took a couple of trips to the local Walmart, as we always seem to do, on the Emerald Coast Parkway for the random forgotten object, but mostly for more sunscreen, as my skin is the same color as Anderson Cooper’s hair. As I passed the large shelf of sunscreens and tanning oils, I picked up bottle after bottle, spray can and face stick, and scanned the ingredients list. But I again assumed that it was all ok. Nothing to worry about.
Fast forward to May of 2018, the state of Hawaii passed legislation to ban all sunscreens with the chemicals Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, (which are UVA filters in most sunscreens) much to the dismay of major sunscreen companies, starting January 1st 2021. These chemicals have been shown to cause harm and severe decline in coral reefs and harm humans.
The 2017 documentary “Reefs At Risk,” focuses on the damaging effects of most sunscreens on the market, and the bill that was proposed to ban the aforementioned chemicals that are killing our ocean’s ecosystem.
“Sewage is the biggest source of sunscreen chemical pollutants anywhere.” Says Craig Downs, Ph.D. And Executive Director of Haereticus Environmental Lab. “Twenty minutes after you put a sunscreen lotion on your skin, we can detect it in your urine. When you flush the toilet, all of that goes straight into sewage, out into a river, and then out into the sea. Those chemicals then accumulate in aquatic organisms such as fish, clams, oysters, it will contaminate corral reefs, sea grass beds, kelp forests, what have you. Oxybenzone is a toxicant. It can cause harm to humans, it can cause harm to mammals, it causes harm to fish, at particular concentrations. Oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor, in that it is like estrogen. It can cause male fish to become feminized, meaning it will produce female gonads, even though it is supposedly a male. Mother dolphins are exposed all the time because its there, polluting the marine environment, and when the mother dolphins breastfeed, oxybenzone that’s contaminating the mother, passes onto the baby. Oxybenzone will also accumulate in your fat tissue, and can transfer from the mother, to the infant. Which who knows what kind of effect it will have on a child.”
I had spent many hours researching sites with very little information on “reef safe” sunscreens, and most that were marked as such, often were not sold near me, or had a hefty price tag to boot. When I went outdoors, I felt guilty for putting on sunscreen, because I knew exactly what it was doing. Every ounce that I slathered on my skin felt like I was just putting another nail in the earth’s coffin, and mine.
But I can rest a little easier now, knowing that if we use sunscreens with zinc oxide, its still convenient and a little better for the planet, and myself.
Sadly, we are a long way from completely banning oxybenzone, octinoxate and various other chemicals that may pose potential risks, as there hasn’t been enough research or pressure on this issue. To note, the European Union has banned 1,373 chemicals to date from being used in cosmetics, yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has only banned 11.
But, Hawaii took a big step, as did I, even if on a much smaller scale, to try and halt the damage done to our earth’s ecosystem. And so can you! Remember to check labels, and make sure that you read beyond the first ingredient, even if it says “zinc oxide”, as oxybenzone and octinoxate aren’t always the first on the label, and can appear further down the list.