According to the 2017 Environmental Working Group report, nearly 75% of sunscreens provide ineffective sun protection and/or contain harmful chemicals. In fact, half of the sunscreens sold in the US are not even allowed to be distributed in Europe due to stricter UVA protection regulations. Additionally, beyond the health consequences to humans, some sunscreens severely damage our ecosystems.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
The active ingredients in physical sunscreens fall into two categories:
- Mineral. Sits on the surface of the skin, deflecting UV rays like a mirror (i.e. zinc, titanium dioxide)
- Chemical. Converts absorbed UV rays into heat and releases it (i.e. oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate)
According to the EWG sunscreen safety guide, mineral based sunscreens are safest for humans and the environment. Oftentimes advertised as “organic,” these sunscreens are relatively gentle and the optimal choice for those with sensitive skin. However, many mineral sunscreens leave behind white streaks and residue on the skin, causing many consumers to avoid them for cosmetic reasons.
This unfortunately results in many consumers selecting chemical based sunscreens due to their transparent finish and thinner formulas. In addition to causing skin-irritation in people with sensitive skin, chemical sunscreens contain oxybenzone and octinoxate which can alter normal hormone levels.
Sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate should not only be avoided for personal health reasons but also for the sake of the environment. As sunscreens enter the ocean, these chemicals are destroying coral reefs around the world at alarming rates.
Sunscreens Are Destroying Coral Reefs
14,000 tons of sunscreen inundate coral reefs annually. Unfortunately, this influx of sunscreen is not a simple matter of grease pollution — certain types of sunscreens are actually destroying the world’s coral reefs.
Slingshot Health dermatologist, Dr. Snehal Amin from MDCS writes:
We now have enough evidence to say that oxybenzone is toxic to coral formations and coral larvae. Here is the very convincing study if you want to read it:https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00244-015-0227-7
However, Dr. Amin also caveats,
…we do not know if coral bleaching all over the world is caused by sunscreens. Most likely, temperature and pH changes are more important factors on a global basis. That being said, in a particular cove frequented by tourists liberally applying oxybenzone to their skin then snorkeling immediately afterward, the chemical probably plays a significant role in coral damage. It is important not to scapegoat a particular product or industry as the cause of environmental calamity. Most likely, it is the sum of human activity that is deleterious to the natural world.
Recently, there has been progress in the legislature department as coral destruction percentages reach dangerously high numbers. Due to extreme concerns in Hawaii, a bill has been passed, banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in an effort to restore the reefs. Following in Hawaii’s footsteps is Bonaire, an island in the Caribbean, which is adopting a similar bill to ban sunscreens containing these dangerous chemicals.
When we asked Dr. Amin for his thoughts on this bill, he wrote:
I think it is a smart move for the Hawaii legislature to ban the sale of noxious chemicals, but I don’t think this step will be enough to save coral formations. I have personally witnessed the loss of marine environments in Hawaii, Virgin Islands, Central America, and Thailand. I understand and sympathize with the local folks who want to protect their natural treasures. As a tourist, I think it would be common sense to use a sun-shirt with UPF 50 rather than pour a bottle of oxybenzone into the ocean.
Coral reefs are incredibly important to the marine biome, serving as a rich ecosystem that contributes to oceanic diversity. However, their beauty and colorful marine life also makes coral reefs very susceptible to tourists. At least 80% of the coral in the Caribbean has been lost, with that number being even higher in areas with high tourist traffic. It is our responsibility to practice safe sun habits in a way that doesn’t have long-term devastating consequences on our planet.
About Dr. Snehal Amin
Snehal P. Amin, MD is co-founder and surgical director of MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery Centers, located in Manhattan, Commack, Hampton Bays and Plainview, NY. Dr. Amin is a board certified dermatologic surgeon, board certified in skin cancer surgery and cosmetic dermatologic surgeries. He graduated from Harvard College (magna cum laude) with dual degrees in Biology and Sanskrit. He then graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine Alpha omega alpha medical honor society. He also served as Chief Resident in dermatology at Cornell’s New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Amin currently serves as Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Weill-Cornell Medical College. He is a fellow of both the American College of Mohs Surgery and the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery.
About Slingshot Health
Slingshot Health is a health tech startup that brings top healthcare providers and patients together. Patients bid on the cost of services and healthcare providers accept bids based on availability. Slingshot Health is unique in that it is a mutual marketplace putting both patients and providers back in control. Visit us at slingshothealth.com.