The All-In-One Guide on How to Choose Ocean-Safe Sunscreens



It’s great that you dutifully apply sunscreen on all your exposed parts every time you go out in the sun. Sunscreen is essential to reduce your risk of skin cancer. It also protects your skin from photodamage which increases the appearance of fine lines, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, bagging and sagging and all the icky signs of aging.

But there’s another side to this story which proves counter to the reason one of which is the sunscreen itself? Feeling curious? Well, in this article, we talk about the chemicals in sunscreen that is harmful both to you and the marine ecosystem. And how to choose the ocean- safe sunscreens that work best for you and the environment.

If you’re shopping for sunscreens watch out for these ingredients

Oxybenzone. It is an organic compound used in sunscreens, and it absorbs UVA and UVB rays. You should be concerned with this ingredient because some studies have shown that oxybenzone penetrates your skin. It increases the production of free radicals when exposed to light which could lead to cancer. Oxybenzone acts like the hormone estrogen and can trigger allergic reactions in your body. Studies link oxybenzone to endometriosis. The EWG gives this chemical a hard score of 8/10.

Octinoxate. It’s an organic compound and the most widely used UV blocking agent. This substance produces free radicals when exposed to UV light which could damage your skin. This damage could continue even when you’re out of the sun.

Retinyl Palmitate. Sunscreens which contain this product may quicken the development of malignant cells. They spread skin cancer quickly because they contain vitamin A and its derivatives, retinyl palmitate, and retinol.

Parabens. They are synthetic preservatives known to interfere with hormone production and release.

Phthalates. Phthalates are carcinogenic and link to low sperm counts, early breast development, congenital disability, liver, and kidney damage.

Synthetic musks. They are believed to cause hormone disruption. Synthetic musks accumulate in breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood and the environment.

Homosalate. Studies show that human breast cancer cell grew and multiplied 3.5 times more than normal when exposed to homosalate.

Octocrylene. It acts as a photosensitizer and raises the production of free radicals when you expose your skin to the sun.

Octisalate. It’s otherwise called the penetration enhancer. If there are any possible dangerous substances in your personal care products like the preservatives or fragrances, Octisalate paves the way for these ingredients much more deeply into your skin.

Avobenzone. On exposure to sunlight, it increases the number of free radicals in your skin. Avobenzone not only penetrates into your skin but sucks in other harmful chemicals that may be in your sunscreen.

Do Chemicals in Your Sunscreen Damage Fragile Coral Reefs?

For the past ten years, the Environmental Working Group has evaluated sunscreens based on how well they protect you against skin cancer. And whether they contain ingredients that could harm your health. Recently they have found that some of the sunscreen chemicals that are toxic to people may also endanger coral reefs in the oceans.

Corals are living creatures related to sea anemones. They are crucial irreplaceable homes for up to a quarter of all marine species. These corals are highly valuable to people because they provide food, shoreline protection, medicines and even tourism jobs which make them worth $30 billion to $170 billion a year.

Researchers at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia and Marche Polytechnic University in Italy found that oxybenzone which is an allergen and hormone disruptor in EWG’s latest sunscreen guide can cause juvenile coral to get fatally trapped in their skeletons. The Italian study also states that butylparaben, octinoxate and a chemical called 4MBC found in sunscreen as toxic to coral health.

Approximately 25 to 60 million bottles worth of sunscreen chemicals wash off into coral reefs each year. About 25 percent of sunscreen applied to your skin gets released into the water within 20 minutes of submersion. When you shower, these chemicals wash off from your skin and ends up in the ocean as well.

Chemical Substances That Damage Marine Ecosystem

Oxybenzone: It is a very common ingredient in FDA-approved sunscreens, classified as an irritant for eye contact and slightly dangerous for direct skin contact. According to Centre for Disease Control, 97 percent of Americans have this chemical circulating in their bodies. It causes coral bleaching.

Emerging research shows that oxybenzone concentrations on nearshore reefs around the world are generally between 100 parts per trillion and 100 parts per billion. These numbers are well within the range of being a significant environmental threat.

Oxybenzone is toxic not only to corals but also to algae, sea urchins, fish, and mammals. It inhibits embryonic development in sea urchins. It causes gender shifts in fish. It’s a potential mutagen for mammals and exhibits pro-carcinogenic activity.

Recent studies show that human couples whose urinary samples contained more of oxybenzone had a harder time getting pregnant, while men who had higher concentrations had higher levels of diseased sperm. Both human mothers and dolphins can transfer oxybenzone to their infants via breastmilk.

Formaldehyde: Many of the paraben replacements in your care products emit formaldehyde. The formaldehyde release includes Diazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin and Hydroxymethylglycinate. Formaldehyde is not only a human carcinogen but also an ecotoxin.

Cyclopentasiloxane / Cyclomethicone: These silicone-based ingredients are suspected to be reproductive toxins and endocrine disruptors in humans. They are also toxic to corals and bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms.

Nanoparticles: These are persistent biomaterials with a size of 1 to 100 nanometers. A recent research study has shown that zinc oxide nanoparticles even in extremely low concentrations cause significant developmental disorders in sea life.

Noncoated nanoparticles (less than 35 nanometers) of zinc oxide and titanium oxide are toxic to coral, fish and other reef organisms. Their toxicity is due to their minuscule size and their interaction with cells. They can also cause oxidative stress in sunlight. Non-nano sized (above 150 nanometers in diameter) coated titanium oxide, and zinc oxide doesn’t exhibit acute toxicities.

When Nano sunscreens wash off from your body, they can harm the aquatic environment. If you’re using a mineral sunscreen zinc or titanium, just make sure it is the non-nano grade.

Oxtinoxate / Octyl methoxycinnamate: it is an FDA approved UV filter that is a direct cause of coral bleaching.

Sodium Lauryl and Laureth Sulfate (SLS/SLES): Although SLS is derived from coconuts the resulting molecule is very different from any coconut that we’ve seen. These compounds are toxic to aquatic life.

Zinc oxide: you should be extremely cautious when using zinc-based sunscreens that get promoted as clear or transparent. Some of them have dispersions that can offer transparent zinc without having to use nanoparticles.

But if you check the MSDS sheet of these materials, even the all-natural versions of these products are all listed as marine pollutants. They have a component listed as highly toxic to aquatic organisms.

How to Choose a Safe Sunscreen


Avoid spray sunscreens: When you spray, the toxic sunscreen particles are released into the air making them easy to breathe in with unknown side effects. They may also contain flammable ingredients, which increases the risk of you getting burnt when you come across the open flame.

Avoid super-high SPF’s: It gives a false sense of hope that you’re better protected, encouraging you to stay longer in the sun. Studies show people using higher SPF’s gets the same level of protection to UV rays as those using lower SPF products.

Avoid chemicals that harm the environment: Go in for sunscreens that do not contain the toxic chemicals harmful to you and the environment. Instead of using hormone disrupting and skin penetrating chemicals like oxybenzone, the safe sunscreens use non-nano particle sized titanium and zinc-based mineral ingredients which block sun’s race without penetrating your skin.

Avoid sunscreen towelettes or powders: Though they offer excellent sun protection, the powder poses a risk of lung irritation if you inhale it.

Why You Should Use Sunscreen When Necessary

If you’re planning a trip to an outdoor theme park, or work all day outdoors, it’s wise to use a safe sunscreen. Applying sunscreen every time you’re out in the sun will block your body’s ability to produce vitamin D. Optimizing the vitamin D levels naturally may reduce your risk of lung, pancreatic, breast, ovarian, prostate and skin cancers

Some studies point that melanoma mortality decreases after sun exposure. It’s beneficial to spend some quality time under the sun because it enhances your pain killing properties and increases the level of subcutaneous fat metabolism. Solar cycles directly affect the human genome thereby influencing lifespan. Your daytime sun exposure improves evening alertness and gets converted to metabolic energy.

How to Enjoy the Sun in Moderation

It is always wise to balance the health benefits that the sun offers with the risk of overexposure. Give your body a chance to produce  D vitamin naturally from the sun. Expose large amounts of skin at least 40 percent daily for shorter periods. If you have light colored skin stay out just enough so that your skin turns the very lightest shade of pink.

If you continue the UV exposure beyond the required minimal dose to produce skin redness, it won’t increase the production of vitamin D in your skin. So, if you have Caucasian skin, you need 20 minutes of sun exposure. It can take 3 to 6 times longer for the darkly pigmented skin to attain the required equilibrium concentration of skin vitamin D. Be sure to apply a safe sunscreen after you’ve optimized your vitamin D levels.

If you are out in the sun for more extended periods, wear a cap that puts a shade over your eyes and nose because the skin on your face is fragile and is hugely sensitive to the photoaging effects of UVA. Use an umbrella and cover up with clothing.

You can take astaxanthin regularly because it acts as an internal sunscreen.  Astaxanthin is produced from marine algae in response to protect against UV light. You can also use it topically as it is a potent antioxidant.

Consume a diet full of healthy antioxidants. Raw, fresh, unprocessed foods deliver the nutrients that your body needs to maintain a healthy balance of omega 3 and omega 6 oils in your skin. These oils are your first line of defense against sunburn. Fresh raw vegetables provide your body with an abundance of antioxidants that fight free radicals, skin burns, and cancer.

Know Your Ocean-Safe Sunscreen Labels

Listed here are some of the ocean safe sunscreens recommended by the Environmental Working Group. Click here to get the complete guide to make a smart and safe sunscreen purchase.

  • Alba Botanica Facial Mineral Sunscreen, Fragrance-Free, SPF 20
  • Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
  • Mercola Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • Beyond Coastal Active Sunscreen, SPF 34
  • Block Island Organics Natural Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • All Good Coconut Sunstick, SPF 30
  • Badger Sunscreen Cream, Lavender, SPF 30
  • Marie Veronique Everyday Coverage Tinted Sunscreen, Medium, SPF 30
  • SkinMedica Essential Defense Mineral Shield, SPF 35
  • Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 50


There is no single conclusive solution to the problem of sunscreen pollution. Sun protection is a significant public health issue. Sunscreens play a significant role in the management of this risk. One major approach to reducing sunscreen pollution is to ban the use of sunscreens which contain dangerous substances that threaten the ocean environment.

We can educate the public about ocean-safe sunscreens and the environmental impact of sunscreen pollution.  We can convince people to reduce the amount of sunscreen they use. Applying sunscreen to only the neck, face, feet and back of hands reduces sunscreen loads into the water by 90 percent. We must encourage consumers to buy products from environmentally conscious companies. The customer demands influence more environmentally sustainable products. Your motto should be “Protect Yourself-Protect the oceans” while purchasing your next bottle of sunscreen.

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