Ditch the (Toxic, Chemical) Sunscreen

In recent years, states like Hawai’i and other island nations have banned chemical sunscreens. Does your lotion pass the reef test?

By Maria De La O


We recently found ourselves staring at a shelf full of sunscreens. Reef-safe? Reef-friendly? We certainly didn’t want to harm any reefs or sea life. Maybe just plain-old zinc oxide? Could we possible spread that over our entire bodies? Not sure the kid would stand for the Kabuki look. Sigh. Maybe just a full-body sunsuit.

Not quite prepared to return from a beach trip even paler than when we left, we turned to the Surfrider Foundation. The nonprofit, which aims to protect the world’s oceans and beaches, recently published a guide to help sort through the various marketing terms and chemical additives of sunscreens.

According to Surfrider:

The terms “reef friendly” and “reef safe” are not regulated, so you can’t always trust products with this description. It’s important to actually check the “active ingredients” label on the back of your sunscreen or personal care product to ensure that reef-harming chemicals are not included. The size of minerals can also have an impact. Be sure to use microsized (or non-nano) mineral sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles, as these smaller particles can be toxic in high concentrations.

Here’s Surfrider’s list of chemicals to be avoided: 

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium (if it doesn’t explicitly say “microsized” or “non-nano” and it can rub in, it’s probably nanosized)
  • Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads” (banned in the United States since 2015 because they can be mistaken for food by fish, and can eventually end up in the bodies of other animals—including humans)

Furthermore we found many sunscreens on the market aren’t fit for humans, much less delicate ocean ecosystems. The FDA, according to Surfrider, has even recommended removing all chemical sunscreen ingredients—including avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate and others—due to the potential danger to humans (and who knows what else) from its list of “safe and effective” components. The alternative to chemicals? Yup, good ol’ zinc oxide and other mineral-based sun protection. Fully mineral sunscreens meant for your whole body do tend to be more expensive than the chemical products, but we think it’s worth the extra money.

The good news is that coastal areas and island nations are beginning to wake up to the problem, banning toxic sunscreens. The bad news is that many of these places are allowing the Coppertones and Banana Boats of the world to escape the mandates for a period of years before the chemical sunscreens are outlawed altogether. For example, Hawai’i banned oxybenzone and octinoxate (endocrine disruptors that are also toxic to corals) in 2018, but these chemicals were allowed to be sold in the state until 2021. 

In the future, you may have even more options for sun protection. Researchers are currently looking to biotech for answers. One theoretical example? Fish DNA. “Zebra fish apparently have very good UVA and UVB filters on their scales,” said cosmetic chemist Jen Novakovich in a recent Allure magazine article. (No, mass numbers of zebra fish wouldn’t be harmed in this process. And you wouldn’t smell like a fish. The process would involve extracting the fish DNA, identifying the relevant snippets of code, and then growing these snippets in yeast.) 

For now, the best bets for both your own health and the health of Mother Earth is to 1) look for nano-size mineral-based sunscreens (usually available in small, local shops), 2) remember that the peak hours for sun damage are between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so if you’re out at other times you may be able to reduce or even forgo sunscreen altogether, and 3) wear a hat or use a beach umbrella. 

And remember, if all this has you more confused than ever about how to protect your family’s health and our fragile coral reefs and marine life, there’s always a sure thing: Get your full-body suit on.

Maria De La O – April 2022

ROAM Executive Editor   

Magazine editor. Documentary filmmaker. Copy expert. Mother. Traveler. Maria brings it all to the pages of ROAM.  

© ROAM Family Travel 2022 – All rights reserved

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