Your Sunscreen May Be Killing You & Our Coral Reefs, But Here are 11+ Suncreens That Are Better
The calendar may say it’s not “officially” summer yet but with nearly half the country experiencing some seriously scorching weather, I think ol’ Mother Nature would beg to differ.
And warmer temps really only mean one thing in my book — spending more time outdoors…well, and drinking rose, but that’s kind of one in the same, amirite? And while I love the sunshine more than most things and most people, I do not love the skin cancer that sometimes comes along with hours spent outdoors.
And when I first started researching this post I would have thought we were probably all on the same page there but, unfortunately, skin cancer rates in the U.S. are steadily rising. More than 3 million Americans develop skin cancer each year. And, according to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s — going from just under 8 per 100,000 people in 1975 to just above 25 per 100,000 people in 2014.
So that being said, as the temperatures are heating up, I’ve been thinking a lot about sunscreen lately. There’s just one problem (and by one, I mean two, but that just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily). According to the the Environmental Working Group (or EWG) and their 11th Annual Sunscreen Report, our sunscreen 1) may not actually be protecting us from the sun’s rays, and 2) often contains worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone (a hormone disruptor) or retinyl palmitate (a form of Vitamin a that may actually harm skin).
To give you some really quick background information, there are two types of sunscreens — the ones that create a chemical barrier against the sun’s rays and the ones that create a physical barrier. The chemical barrier sunscreens don’t sit on the surface of the skin, rather they soak into it and can be absorbed into your bloodstream. They also often contain a lot of the potentially harmful ingredients — hello oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate.
A lot of which are endocrine disruptors, which can cause abnormal development of fetuses and growing children; early puberty and premature breast development in girls; small and undescnded testicles in boys; low sperm counts and infertility; and increased likelihood of breast and ovarian cancers in women and prostate cancer in men. These are also the most common sunscreens on the market today. Nice, right?
The physical barrier sunscreens (a.k.a. mineral sunscreens) sit on the surface of the skin and physically block the sun’s rays. They typically contain ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide that don’t penetrate the skin and tend to offer better protection against certain types of UV rays. Therefore, these types also tend to get higher safety ratings from the EWG. Unfortunately, manufacturers tend to use forms of these minerals that are coated with chemicals to reduce photoactivity — if they didn’t it could cause skin damage.
And I haven’t even gotten to the environmental impacts yet. The same filters (our chemical and physical/mineral friends from above) that are used to block out the sun’s radiation on us, well, unfortunately they tend to wash off of our skin while we’re participating in activities like swimming, surfing and just general merrymaking in water. It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash off into the world’s ocean every year.. The chemicals from our sunscreen can cause deformities in coral larvae, making them unable to swim, settle out and form new coral colonies. They also increase the rate at which coral bleaching occurs.
Oxybenzone isone of the biggest culprits of all. Research suggests that oxybenzone also has a dramatic effect on our ocean’s coral reefs. Researchers have measured oxybenzone in Hawaiian waters at concentrations that are 30 times higher than the level considered safe for corals, according to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. And in 2015, Mother Jones reported that just one drop of oxybenzone in a volume of water equivalent to 6.5 Olympic swimming pools could be harmful to the coral. Oxybenzone kills polyps by deforming their cells, which in turn damages their DNA and triggers the release of hormones that cause young corals to encase themselves in skeleton. The good news is that their research does say that sunscreens that use mineral blockers are a safe choice for the coral reefs.
Interested in learning more about the problems with a lot of the ingredients on sunscreen? Click here.
On the bright side, there are some sunscreens that are doing it better. I scoured my local CVS and found a few, your local natural grocer or pharmacy would probably have more, or you can easily purchase online. Check out EWG’s list of best sunscreens:
- 242 Beach & Sport Sunscreens Meet EWG’s Criteria
- 107 Moisturizers With SPF Meet EWG’s Criteria
- 42 Lip Balms With SPF Meet EWG’s Criteria
Below are a few I’ve seen readily available, you can also check out Well+Good’s list of The 11 Best Natural Sunscreens, Credo Beauty’s sunscreen offerings, Review.com’s list of the Best Sunscreens or B Corp’s list of better sunscreen companies.
- 1/4 cup diaper rash cream (for a paraben-free cream, check out Honest Diaper Rash Cream)
- 1 Tbsp coconut oil
- 1 Tbsp cocoa butter
- 1 Tbsp aloe vera gel
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp beeswax pastilles
- 10 drops lavender essential oil
Put all the ingredients into a glass bowl. Set the bowl on top of a pan of boiling water and melt all the ingredients together. Allow mixture to cool, then add your favorite essential oil, if desired. (Just make sure to avoid any of the CITRUS essential oils as they can actually cause skin burns in the sun.) Store in a cool, dry place or in the fridge.
You should also consider EWG’s advice that, “Sunscreen should be your last resort.” Use clothing, shade, sunglasses and stay out of the sun at peak times to reduce your risk to sun exposure.
Here are some other tips from the group:
- Check products against the group’s sunscreen database and avoid those with harmful additives.
- Avoid products with SPFs higher than 50+ (these are typically not any more effective).
- Avoid sprays, which don’t provide a thick, uniform coating on skin and pose inhalation concerns.
- Avoid vitamin A. Government studies link the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to skin tumors and lesions when applied to sun-exposed skin.
- Avoid oxybenzone, a UV-filtering chemical that’s a hormone disrupter and allergen.