Islands like Hawaii and Palau rely on their oceans – and have introduced a ban on sunscreens that harm marine life. We ask sustainable tourism experts which products are safe to buy
Each year an estimated 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen end up in our oceans, and 82,000 chemicals from sunscreen and other skincare products make their way into the sea. Showering after hitting the beach means sunscreen that rinses away down the drain may eventually find its way into our oceans – and even going for a dip with sunscreen on can cause chemicals to seep into the water, disrupting coral reefs and marine life. In the last 50 years, a combination of global warming, coastal development and pollution means that we’ve lost almost 80% of corals in the Caribbean.
Some destinations are already taking steps to ban toxic sunscreens, such as Hawaii. Its government passed a bill in May 2018 banning the sale of sunscreens containing the most damaging chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate. In November of the same year, the small island nation of Palau – home to one of the planet’s largest marine reserves – announced it would ban the sale or use of sunscreens containing ingredients that could harm coral reefs. But it’s not just government legislation that makes a difference. We can all make changes to the way we use sunscreen to prevent these harmful ingredients from ending up in our oceans.
Which sunscreen ingredients are harmful?
“Sunscreens with the two O’s, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, are harmful to our coral reefs,” says industry expert Dayana Brooke, owner of The Sustainable Traveller. “Other toxic chemicals that are harmful to our skin and should be avoided are parabens, titanium, and preservatives. When choosing a sunscreen, I always look for one that is locally made, has natural ingredients such as aloe vera and vitamin E, is not tested on animals and is free of harmful chemicals, making it ‘reef friendly’ and preservative free.”
Other things to avoid are sunscreens with added glitter or micro plastics, or those sold in aerosol cans or sprays. Not only are they difficult to recycle, they can also spread particles across the sand which are then washed out to sea by the tide.
Physical or chemical sunscreen – which is best for your skin, and the planet?
Most pharmacies don’t advertise this, but there are two main types of sunscreen: physical (mineral) and chemical. Chemical sunscreen contains synthetic ingredients designed to absorb UV light before it damages your skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, act like a physical barrier on your skin, bouncing the sun’s rays away from your body. As a general rule, they’re better for the environment (and your health) as their active ingredients are natural minerals – but they tend to be more expensive and difficult to find. The cheapest sunscreens are likely to be laden with harmful chemicals.
“There are 10 polluting ingredients that appear in lots of sunscreens, but if you’re going to memorise just one to avoid, make it the UV filter oxybenzone (benzophenone-3),” says Catherine Roberts from Responsible Travel, an activist travel company committed to providing authentic and sustainable holidays. “Once it enters the water, it’s really toxic to most marine life, including coral, urchins, fish, and mammals. Scientific studies show that it can make coral more vulnerable to bleaching and cause developmental defects in animals that absorb the compound through their skin.
“Parabens and triclosan are the next most serious offenders. They can interfere with hormones, kill off algae, and pollute feeding grounds. Parabens aren’t just in sunscreen, either – they’re in many moisturisers, soaps, shampoo, and conditioners.”
Choosing a non-toxic sunscreen
We now know what ingredients to avoid, but what sunscreen products get the ethical seal of approval? UK charity the Marine Conservation Society recommends Green People for its excellent range of non-toxic sun lotions, including organic, vegan, hand-luggage friendly, child-friendly, perfume-free and tinted options.
Holidaymakers can also check the Skin Deep product database, produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It breaks down the ingredient concerns (like toxicity and animal testing policies) of over 900 sunscreen products.
While it’s easy to get overwhelmed by environmental concerns, sunscreen is one area where a relatively simple choice can make a big difference – and one that doesn’t rely on the action of governments to put into practise. Officials in Hawaii and Palau are making waves to protect their countries’ marine life. But as a tourist, you can lead the way too, by choosing to actively protect the environments that you visit.