Every since I was a kid, putting sunscreen on was considered a ‘healthy’ thing to do. I was always slathered in it at the beach, surfing, or sailing.
In 2007, scientific studies began to surface about a common sunscreen ingredient—oxybenzone—being linked to the death of coral reefs. I started to get curious about what was in my sunscreen, and uncovered synthetic chemicals and penetration enhancers, along with nanoparticles. Oxybenzone is a synthetic, colorless crystal used in sunscreen to absorb UVA II and UVB rays. In the years to follow, numerous highly accredited studies have confirmed that oxybenzone is gravely harmful to at least seven different types of coral, and that even one drop of sunscreen can contaminate the amount of water in six Olympic swimming pools!? Because reef ecosystems support the majority of Hawai’i fisheries, and attract a huge amount of tourism revenue to the islands each year, Hawai’i is attempting to pass a law banning products that use this chemical. You can learn more about the adverse effects of Oxybenzone in Hawaii in Reefs At Risk.
It’s getting easier to find sunscreens without oxybenzone, but it’s not the only ingredient to be wary of. Sunscreen ingredients are confusing and with sly marketing strategies and conflicting information out there, finding an effective, truly-natural sunscreen is tricky. Chris Wilkinson of Avasol Suncare is passionate about creating suncare products that don’t compromise human health or the environment, and helped me break down the sunscreen puzzle like this:
Sunscreens basically fall into two categories: Mineral and Chemical.
Mineral sunscreens work by sitting on top of the skin, providing a physical barrier between your body and harmful UV rays. Zinc is the primary active ingredient in most mineral sunscreens, and is the safest, most effective sun protection out there. Zinc in its natural form poses no known health or environmental risks. But because people want a sunscreen that rubs on clear, scientists have engineered tiny molecules of zinc and titanium in ‘nano-particle’ form. So when you see a sunscreen labeled ‘mineral’ that rubs on clear, it’s likely to use nano-particle minerals as the main UV-blocking component. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Chemical sunscreens contain synthetic ingredients that are designed to absorb into the skin, allowing them to rub on clear. These make up the bulk of common sunscreens like Coppertone, Sun Bum, Neutrogena, etc. The penetration enhancers in these sunscreens help the product adhere to skin, and as a result, many sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the body and can be measured in blood, breast milk and urine samples.
Not only dangerous to reefs, the EWG states that oxybenzone “acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals, associated with endometriosis in women.” Chemical sunscreens usually use a combination of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, and alumina. Other chemicals to be cautious of include: Mexoryl SX, Mexoryle XL, tinosorb. Many of these ingredients have been studied individually, but information is lacking about how the ingredients react in combination with each other, or with skin penetrators. Here’s more from Chris and the EWG about these common sunscreen ingredients:
So… Opt for mineral sunscreens. They provide effective sun protection that’s better for your health and better for the environment. But not all mineral sunscreens are created equal! Here’s where nanoparticles come in…
What is a nanoparticle? It’s a chemically-manufactured substance that is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Although technically composed of the same element, nanoparticles exhibit different physical and chemical properties than their larger counterparts and pose potential health risks to humans and to the environment.
Photo: NatGeo Australia
Although Zinc-oxide is the safest and most effective active ingredient in sun protection, the downside is that it leaves an opaque white tint on the skin when applied. To solve for the white tint that zinc leaves, manufacturers have begun to chemically alter zinc-oxide down to the nano scale to make it rub on clear. Nanoparticle zinc or ‘Clear zinc’ sounds great in theory, but it’s the side effects remain unclear. Nanoparticulate zinc and titanium oxides have since become common in mineral sunscreens – even the ‘organic’ ones. But the tiny particles have been engineered to be so small, that they can enter into your body’s circulatory system. The long-term health risks of nanoparticle use in humans remain poorly understood. In a scientific review, Adv Drug Delivery Rev., Dr. Kreilgaard researched the effect of human exposure to the chemical titanium dioxide, noting that, “very small titanium dioxide particles penetrate into the skin and interact with the immune system.” Research also shows that the release of these ultra-small particles into the environment accumulates as toxic pollutants in air, soil or water, and has adverse effects on plankton and embryonic stages of sea urchins, raising more questions as to whether we know enough about them to risk using them.
Unfortunately, nanoparticles are currently not regulated by the FDA as they are in other countries, so it is not likely we as consumers in the US will be able to find adequate information about them on product labels. Sunscreen companies are aware of these studies and as a result, manufacturers have begun clumping up a bunch of nanoparticles together, and calling the formulation ‘non-nano.’ These claims are a misleading guise to the true nature of a product. They key is to find products that contain solid-particle, non-nano zinc oxide.
It all eventually flows to the ocean, so using reef and body safe sunscreen benefits you and the ocean and waterways no matter where you live. At the beach or lake or river, we cool off by taking a dip and our sunscreen washes off into the water, inadvertently leaving behind chemicals or nano-particles. Even taking a shower at home means pipes eventually carry these pollutants back into our ecosystems.
So, in conclusion, if your sunscreen rubs on clear, it’s probably not safe. A non-toxic, non-nano-based sunscreen will always come in the form of a visible, ‘physical barrier.’
My mini sea sisters, Heimiti, Vahine, & Kohai doing their pre-surf
Avasol rituals to protect their skin and love their reefs at the same time!!
Any time you see a formula that rubs on clear, it is going to either contain UV-absorbing actives like Oxybenzone, a chemical known to interact with human bodily processes and damage coral reefs, or if it’s a mineral formula, will contain nanoparticles, the side-effects of which are murky.
I’ve decided that the mild appearance of a physical sunscreen (the tan color on my skin) and the slight additional cost of all-natural, 100% bio-based, mineral ingredients far outweigh the risk in buying a cheap, corner-cutting sunscreen with unknown long-term risks.
For those of us dedicated to making healthy decisions for our bodies, families, and the environment, I encourage you to protect yourself from the sun with shirts and hats when possible, and ask questions and do your research when choosing a sunscreen. It has been such a pleasure for me to get to know Chris and Lisa of Avasol Suncare over the last few years. It’s so rare to meet people so dedicated to sustainability, accountability, and responsible business. Every ingredient is researched carefully, sourced responsibly, tested extensively, and combined with love to make sunscreens that actually make my skin feel happy when I put them on! Avasol ticks all my boxes for personal and environmental safety, plus the packaging is 90% less plastic than most brands. The epic face stick they make comes in plastic-free, bio-based recycled paper tube that’s waxed for water resistance! In this world where the consumer constantly feels like they have to be on-guard, I feel so lucky to know that there are people like the Wilkinson’s, trying to do the right thing for the right reasons.
My sea sisters and I from Changing Tides Foundation pictured with Chris and Lisa of Avasol
You can pick up Avasol from their website or purchase with purpose from the Changing Tides Foundation's Adventure Consciously web-shop with 100% proceeds directly benefitting the organization and its initiatives!