You might ‘leave no trace’ on the banks when you go for a swim – but have you ever worried about what you are leaving behind in the water?
Global use of sunscreen is on the rise, and while the need to protect skin from the sun is a given, sunscreens are under increasing scrutiny for their potentially damaging effect on aquatic environments.
Last year, Hawaii announced it would ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing two common ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate. Florida’s Key West followed suit, with both laws due to come into effect in 2021. The Puerto Princesa underground river in the Philippines, one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, has signs prohibiting the use of sunscreen containing oxybenzone. And some holiday destinations, such as Mexico’s Riviera Maya, insist visitors use biodegradable sunscreen.
It’s estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen are released into coral reef areas each year, and it’s not just what you wear when you swim that matters: the ingredients in sunscreen enter the ecosystem when we wash them off in baths and showers.
This feature came out of a question asked on @theoutdoorswimmingsociety Instagram at the start of summer ’19. After a week of research, we have not reached a clear answer on what to buy – but are able to share some of the questions we’ll now ask as we look for products.
One easy win in terms of lowering potential damage to aquatic environments is to lower the amount of sunscreen you use overall, by protecting your skin in other ways: swimming in rash vets and long-arm swimming costumes, staying in the shade, wearing sun hats and covering up, and avoiding the sun during the hottest part of the day. Using creams rather than sprays may also help: spray sunscreens disperse lotion, leaving traces on sand, which ultimately ends up in the water. (Sprayed lotions are also more likely to be inhaled, with some cautious that the nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in the spray may damage lungs).
Some people are making their own sunscreen, with ingredients such as Red Raspberry Seed Oil and Carrot Seed Oil claiming to have some SPF protection – but accurately calculating how much sun protection it offers will be harder to do, and skin cancer is a very real health risk.
There are now many sunscreens marketed as reef-safe, marine-friendly, sea-safe, eco-friendly or similar. But all these terms are unregulated. There is only one term that is regulated – the Protect Land + Sea Certification (see below) – so unless you can find a sunscreen with that mark on it (we couldn’t in the UK) the only way to know what is in your sunscreen is to read the labels and do background research. “Reef-safe” sunscreens typically won’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, or any of the chemicals known, in reef terms, as the ‘awful eight’ (Octocrylene, PABA (Aminobenzoic Acid), Enzacamene, Octisalate, Homosalate and Avobenzone). Product claims can produce artificial eco-halo’s: biodegradable doesn’t mean good for the planet, environmentally damaging substances can biodegrade too.
Some of the best information for water users appears to be coming out of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), a non-profit scientific organisation based in Virginia, USA. The HEL group is “dedicated to increasing the scientific, social and economic knowledge of natural environmental habitats in order to better conserve and restore threatened environmental habitats and resources”. HEL has compiled the following list of pollutants that are hazardous to ecosystems, which they update as more research is done. This list forms the basis of their Protect Land + Sea Certification. Products showing this certification are free of the chemicals below:
For further information on each of these ingredients, see HEL.
Bad news: with no clear consumer certification, we still don’t know what to buy. Good news: a peer group-think on social media has suggested a list of products to investigate. Please look at the labels for further information on what they include:
Chemical sunscreens absorb light whereas mineral sunscreens, made using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, reflect it.
Zinc oxide sunscreens were traditionally thick and white, sitting on the skin rather than being absorbed. However, today’s lotions are often made with nanoparticles to give greater transparency, and some still contain chemicals on the HEL list. Nanoparticles in sunscreen are controversial as some studies have found that, in large doses, they can cause cellular damage. Sunscreens made with ‘non-nano’ particles are available and believed to be safer as these particles are too large to enter the bloodstream.