Taking a closer look at sunscreen

 While you can’t dispute the importance of protecting your skin from UV damage by wearing sunscreen daily, a closer look indicates that some sunscreens could cause serious environmental damage and negatively impact your own health.

Sunscreen's Impact on Coral Reefs

Reef Coral reefs are an extremely important part of our environment; they contain biodiversity unlike any other ecosystem in the world. The millions of unusual animal and plant species living in coral reefs would not be able to survive without their coral habitats. And, as the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration explains, coral reefs are our “medicine cabinet of the 21 st century,” as they will likely yield important new discoveries and help cure diseases. If you’re still in doubt about the importance of coral, reefs protect coastal areas from storms and erosion, and even remove and recycle excess carbon.

But, these amazing ecosystems are increasingly threatened. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives found that by promoting viral infection, sunscreens potentially play an important role in coral bleaching. It is estimated that up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen is released annually by tourists in reef areas, and because sunscreens are often petroleum based, they don’t biodegrade.

When chemicals in sunscreen come in contact with reefs, the coral becomes stressed, pushing out the algae living inside and leaving behind a vulnerable skeletal structure. As coral reefs lose their biological inhabitants due to toxins, pollution and increased temperatures due to global warming, they also lose their pigments, becoming “bleached.”

Possible Health Impacts

Sunscreen You may be surprised to learn that many sunscreens still lack the UVA protection needed to fully protect you from the sun, and some sunscreens contain chemicals that may even pose health risks.

Here are sunscreen culprits you should watch for:



Sunbathers should beware of sunscreens that could contain potentially harmful nanomaterials . Because technology often outpaces regulation, the FDA has not yet been able to fully evaluate the possible health impacts of nanoparticles, which are often added to many sunscreens to make them appear clear after drying.

But EarthShare member groups like Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council have urged that nanotechnology can pose health risks. In NRDC’s report to the FDA, they explain that “occupational exposure to nano-zinc oxide at legal workplace limits caused adverse health effects in workers…and inhalation of nano-titanium dioxide led to lung inflammation in rodents.”

And, as also explained by NRDC, nanoparticles are even harmful to the environment because they “are highly chemically reactive, are long-lasting, and have the capacity to linger in the environment.” They also damage potentially beneficial natural microbes in the environment, according to an article by Scientific American.

Until the health and environmental risks of nanotechnology are fully evaluated, you should educate yourself about this potential threat by reading FOE’s full report, and NRDC’s comments on nanoparticles in sunscreens and cosmetics.


A 2008 study from the Center for Disease Control found that 97% of Americans had traces of a potentially harmful chemical, oxybenzane, which has been linked to babies with low birth weight, hormone disruption, cellular damage and even allergies. Oxybenzane is used in many cosmetics to encourage absorption, but it is most commonly found in sunscreen.
The Environmental Working Group releases an annual study of sunscreens sold in the U.S.; oxybenzone is the most common active ingredient found in 60 percent of the 500 beach and sport sunscreens in EWG’s 2011 database.


Make sure your sunscreen is safe and effective
So, what can a health conscious individual do if they still want to protect themselves from sun damage? First, make sure to always bring along other sun protection like sunglasses, hats and umbrellas when you know you’re going to be outside during the midday hours. Second, read about the potential risks of sunscreen (start with the guides below), and then use your consumer savvy and responsible purchasing power to find a sunscreen that protects your health and that of the environment. Look for sunscreens that are free of petrochemical active ingredients and nanoparticles. By all accounts, old fashioned zinc-oxide is as safe as ever!

Consumer Guides and Reports

Environmental Working Group: EWG Sun Safety Campaign
Friends of the Earth: Sunscreen Guide
National Geographic’s The Green Guide: Sunscreen Buying Guide
Friends of the Earth: Full Sunscreen Report
Natural Resources Defense Council: Comments to the FDA

Learn more about coral reefs

National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, article
Oceana, Ocean Acidification & Coral Reefs