Biodegradable Sunscreen: The Definitive Guide

Everyone loves a sunny day at the beach on vacation. Imagine yourself laying out a beach blanket, grabbing a good book, and slathering on some sunscreen. Before too long you can be lounging on the beach enjoying the sounds of the ocean while you soak up the warmth of the sun's rays. Most people describe the beach experience as heavenly, and it is until you actually take a dip in the ocean and potentially poison thousands of coral in the process.

Believe it or not, one simple thing you use regularly on a summer day can contribute to the death of the Earth's coral reefs: sunscreen. Many common sunscreens contain the toxic chemical oxybenzone which may be safe for you (although there is debate about this among naturalists) but is deadly to the coral reef. This may not seem like a significant issue, after all how much sunscreen can you be contributing?

However, the numbers add up. It is estimated that over 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions end up in coral reefs annually. Skipping sunscreen is not a choice, as skin cancer is on the rise and shows no indication of slowing down. What you can do is choose to slather on biodegradable sunscreen in place of readily available commercial options. This way you can feel better about the chemicals on your skin and in the ocean. Before heading out to the store, take a minute to read about how the widespread adoption of sunscreen led to the destruction of coral reefs.

What is Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is designed to protect skin against the harmful UV rays of the sun. Repeated exposure to the sun can lead to skin cancer, which kills over two people every hour in the US according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Additionally, one out of five Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they reach 70, which means its highly likely someone in your family will suffer from skin cancer at some point in life.

Sunscreen can curb your risk of developing cancer by blocking the sun's rays (hence why it is also referred to as sunblock!) While it may be uncomfortable to spray on thick lotion or reach that spot in the middle of your back, it's a lot more comfortable than skin cancer.

The American Cancer Society found in their yearly studies that more people will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year than any other cancer. So, if you are headed out into the sun, it's time to slather on some greasy lotion and roll with it. Just make sure the lotion, spray, or gel you pack is coral friendly.

Why is Sunscreen Bad for Coral?

It's wonderful that people are starting to recognize the need for sunscreen, but now it's time to recognize the need for a coral safe sunscreen. One drop of sunscreen is enough to damage coral reef systems, and as mentioned above, 14,000 tonnes are ending up in coral reef systems.

The largest culprit is the chemical oxybenzone, which is a top ingredient in most of the leading drugstore sunscreen brands. If you have your sunscreen nearby, pull out the bottle and take a look. Unless you already purchase biodegradable sunscreen, there is a good chance this ingredient is near the top of the list.

Oxybenzone bleaches coral white by sucking the nutrients out of it. The result is eventually death. In addition, it has been known to interfere with the development of fish and other aquatic animals. However, it's important to know that while it's the most frequently used chemical in sunscreen, it's not the only one that can damage coral reefs. There are eight chemicals aptly titled the Awful 8 that you would be wise to avoid if you want to help save the coral reef systems.

The Awful 8

  • Avobenzone

  • Homosalate

  • Enzacamene

  • PABA (Aminobenzoic Acid)

  • Octinoxate

  • Octisalate

  • Octocrylene

  • Oxybenzone

As a side note, most of these chemicals are also tied to health problems in humans with prolonged exposure, so do yourself a favor and choose biodegradable sunscreen. This way you help save the coral and yourself, and that's not a bad deal.

What is Biodegradable Sunscreen?

Biodegradable sunscreen is pretty much what it sounds like: sunblock that can break down naturally making them eco-friendly. Biodegradable sunscreen is carefully made to minimize its impact on the environment so it causes little to no damage.

In short, a sunscreen is biodegradable if it does not contain any harmful chemicals. Be aware that some sunscreens that are labeled biodegradable still contain harmful chemicals, so its important to always be an informed consumer. As a bonus, you get to be that cool consumer standing in the aisle reading labels that other customers admire.

Does Biodegradable Sunscreen Work?

Like any other product, so long as you choose a reputable biodegradable sunscreen you will have no problems with the sun. Biodegradable sunscreen contains minerals that are highly effective at blocking the sun if you give them the proper ability to do so. Remember to reapply every two hours or more frequently if you are in the water and coat your body evenly. If you can handle these steps, you should be all set for your day in the sun.

What to Look for When Buying Sunscreen?

Unfortunately, it's not enough to just buy a sunscreen that is labeled "reef-safe." This rather ambiguous term is not regulated by the government which means that it can be slapped on a bottle without any testing or demonstration. While the sunscreen may be safe, it's also possible that at high concentrations it will be just as harmful to the coral reefs as another not labeled "reef-safe."

Therefore, if you want to truly make sure you buy a sunscreen that is going to protect you and the oceans, you need to do your due diligence. Buying the best biodegradable sunscreen is a simple task once you learn to read labels. Sunscreens should have the ingredients list printed on the side, so take your time and read through them. Read past the taglines like "biodegradable" and "reef-safe" and see for yourself what is inside of them.

The best way to ensure you aren't putting anything toxic into the ocean is by ensuring you aren't putting it onto your body first. If you see any of the alarming "Awful 8" chemicals, shelf the product and move onto one that is truly biodegradable.

In general, you want to look for a biodegradable sunscreen that utilizes titanium oxide or zinc oxide to protect your skin. Both of these are natural mineral ingredients that are far less damaging to the coral reefs than any of their chemical counterparts. You also may want to consider buying one of those wide-brimmed summer hats and living it up at the beach in style this summer.

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