The challenge with Sunscreen

What now has proven to play a big role in stressing the ocean and corals in particular, is the sunscreen we put on our bodies. Some tourism destinations now even prohibit certain mainstream sunscreens since they directly have seen the damage it has done to nature. It’s that destructive! And if sunscreen stresses the corals so much what does it do to our health? And what action can we then take to protect both ourselves and the environment? What biodegradable sunscreen options do we have?

I’ve put my investigative hat on. Here is some sunscreen info followed by actions for you to consider.

Why bother?

“Where is the best snorkeling?” A frequently asked question by the curious underwater explorer, including myself. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing those colourful creatures, plants, caves, and life below the surface? It’s magic. Experiences like this make us feel alive. And keep us alive. We’re dependent on the ocean for our survival.

Where ‘best snorkeling’ meant colours, fish in abundance when I was a kid. ‘Best’ now means seeing a fish and not seeing bleached coral. The frame of reference for what is ‘best’ is shifting. Changing temperatures due to climate change, a change in PH (Ocean Acidification), plastic pollution, overfishing, and biodiversity change are not really helping to the quality of our snorkeling experiences. And it’s not just about us and the quality of adventures we want. It’s about sustaining life in the ocean, and accordingly our kids’ futures.

Reefs are the “rainforests of the sea,” and home to many living beings. Half of the shallow coral reefs globally are gone or in a serious state of decline. In the Caribbean, 80% of the reefs are already believed to be dead (1).


The effect of sunscreen on the ocean

The average sunscreen brands (including popular brands like Aveeno, Nivea, Banana Boat, Hawaiian Tropic, and Neutrogena) have ingredients affecting the health of the corals and ocean life in a negative way. Sunscreens cause bleaching (coral turning white) of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations (2). One of the UV protecting ingredient stressing the coral is called Oxybenzone. This chemical changes the DNA of coral cells and makes them unable to reproduce. It also starves younger corals. Oxybenzone makes the corals to absorb more heat so they are triggered to bleach quicker. The coral turns white and dies.

The average sunscreen shelve

A single drop of Oxybenzone in an area the size of six-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools (4.3 million gallons of water) is enough to kill coral. Some tourism destinations (for example Bonito in Brazil, Bonaire, Palau, Key West and Hawaii) now even prohibit sunscreen since they directly see the damage it has done and want to protect nature. It’s that destructive! With all us beach and ocean lovers combined Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the world’s oceans annually. Even if you go to the local lake far from the sea leftover sunscreen eventually end up in the ocean via our waterways, via showers and toilet. oxybenzone is detected in urine within 30 minutes of applying it to the skin (3).

If sunscreen is doing this to coral, what does it do to you?

The effects of sunscreen on your health

Before you grab that lovely smelling SPF 50 + sunscreen from the shelve think about what you are actually putting on your skin and accordingly in your blood. Ingredients in many chemical sunscreen brands have proven to be hormone disruptors. The biggest hormone disruptors are oxybenzone (estimated in two-thirds of all chemically based sunscreens sold in the US (4)), octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene (5). The Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives oxybenzone hazard score of “8” (out of 10) (6), backed up by studies showing a potential link between oxybenzone and lower testosterone levels young man, hormone changes, shorter pregnancies, and chemicals in breast milk.

So is sunscreen bad for you? There is more research that needs to be done to determine exactly what the dangers are when it comes to chemical ingredients in sunscreen for personal health, but with what we know now with what it does to the environment and our health, we better choose differently.

Too much sunshine is harmful. Now the sunscreen appears to be harmful too.

What to do? The good news! We got options.

Ways to protect yourself from the sun

  • Think about what our grandparents did before all these products were on the market. Sunscreen should be our last resort.
  • Go outdoors in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is less strong.
  • Check the UV Index on for example the global sunburnmap.
  • Cover up. Protect yourself from the sun with sunglasses, a cap and clothes.
  • Use the shade. It’s free. Or make it.
  • Eat primal. Tomatoes, Algeas, Green tea, Coconut oil, nuts, berries, and even wine has ingredients protecting you from UV damage. Read more about that here and here.
  • Do get a little bit of sun. Sun gives vitamin D and vitamin D protects us against the sun. Ironic, isn’t it? Research says vitamin D deficiency affects 1 billion people worldwide!
  • At last, apply a reef safe sunscreen instead of chemical-based sunscreen. Reef safe sunscreens are the mineral-based sunscreens. They reflect rays and work as a shield as opposed to the chemical sunscreens that our body absorbs. Preparation is key. Think about buying reef safe sunscreen before you go to a remote sunny place where there are only a few brands available.  What is the best natural sunscreen? I suggest some mineral-based sunscreens in different parts of the world further down.

How do you know if it’s reef safe sunscreen?

Check the ingredients of sunscreen (as well as your other cosmetics). Every brand can claim to be ‘Reef safe sunscreen’, or ‘organic sunscreen’ or ‘ natural sunscreen’ or ‘Biodegradable sunscreen’. Is it really? Check 1: can you pronounce the ingredients?

Eight ingredients recommended to avoid when buying sunscreen (2):

  1. Oxybenzone: used in over 3,500 different sunscreens worldwide
  2. Octinoxate / Octylmethoxycinnamate used in ‘long lasting’ suncremes.
  3. Octocrylene
  4. 4-mehtylbenzylidene: 4MBC. This is banned in the U.S., but not in Canada and parts of Europe
  5. Octisalate
  6. Homosalate
  7. Avobenzone
  8. ethylhexl methoxycinnamate.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are working ingredients that are the more ocean and human-friendly sunscreen alternative. The Environmental Working Group recommends Zinc Oxide as the best sun protecting ingredient (7). It provides strong sun protection with few health concerns and doesn’t break down in the sun.

Recommended ocean-friendly biodegradable sunscreens

Preparation is key. Think about buying reef safe sunscreen before you go to a remote sunny place where there are only a few brands available. Chances are there’s an entrepreneur near you making a simple mineral-based sunscreen. Finding a reef safe sunscreen that does not come in plastic is the biggest challenge. Or make your own.

What are the best natural sunscreens?

There are thousands of sunscreens on the market. More and more mineral based sunscreens pop up. In my opinion, the fewer ingredients, the better. Though often for those little brands it’s hard to go on the mainstream market because of all sorts of regulations and substances needed for preservation. Have a look at Etsy for small homemade natural sunscreens near you.

I also have investigated far and wide and the following brands stood out. Most, not all, also packaged in a ocean minded way

Best Reef Safe Sunscreens in the USA

Of the above, I’m the biggest fan of the Stream 2 Sea sunscreen. After listening to a Podcast with the founder Autumn Blum on Ocean’s Allison’s podcast (recommended!), I was pleased to learn about the commitment, purity and professionalism of this brand. I reached out to them to team up and have a discount code for you on any of the Stream2sea products.


Best reefSafe Sunscreens in the UK

Best Reef Safe Sunscreens in Australia / NZ

I connected with Rose of the Ramaproject via our mutual ocean friends Marjo & Edwin of Changemakers. life. They began making their sunscreen for their little boy Kai when he was 6 months old as they wanted a safe, natural alternative to chemical sunscreen. It’s made from 100% natural ingredients and only unrefined oils. 100% Reef Safe. Because of all the enthusiasm around, the sunscreen Solstice is now on the market, created with love form the sunshine coast in OZ.  You can learn more on their website and follow them on Instagram @ramaprojectafloat
I can’t wait to personally try this sunscreen and once I have, I’ll let you know how it is.  Ozzie friends, check out the Solstice sunscreen for a reef safe sunscreen in your land. Use code OCEANLOVE for a little discount.

Beste milieu vriendelijke Zonnebrand in Nederland

Of these, I’ve only personally tested the sunscreen of the Ohm collection and I LOVE it. It’s easy to put on the skin, it’s loaded with natural good oils and it reflects the sun really well. Only the packing is not so ocean friendly (yet).

Mejor protectores solares ecológicos en España

DIY How to make your own natural sunscreen?

I’ve just made one and I LOVE it. Learn more about how to make your own natural sunscreen here.

DIY sunscreen tools

What is your favourite biodegradable sunscreen brand? Have they gone plastic free yet? Let me know in the comments!

As always, opinions are my own. No organisation or brand is paying me to write this or mention them. Sometimes links to ocean-friendly items contain affiliate links. If you’re looking to purchase something, huge thanks if you purchase it via this website (but try to find it locally first). At no extra cost to you, orders and bookings through this website give me a tiny piece of the pie that help me keep investigating, exploring and creating content about ocean action and solutions! Here are more ways to support ocean awareness and action. Splashthanks!