The Sunscreen Conundrum

What’s an environmentally savvy, active, lover of the outdoors to do?

On the one hand, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns against exposing your skin to the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays. As little as 15 minutes of unprotected exposure can damage your skin, and the CDC notes that sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer, including melanoma. The CDC advocates, among other things, putting a thick layer of broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 on all parts of exposed skin before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days, and to reapply it after swimming.

On the other had, some scientists are warning that some of the active ingredients found in more than 3,500 of the most common sunscreens, including oxybenzone, might be responsible at least in part for the deterioration of coral reefs around the world. While you might think that the tiny amount of sunscreen you slather on couldn’t possibly have much of an effect on the great big ocean, consider this: a 2016 study published in the scholarly publication, Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, reported that up to 14,000 tons of sun lotion washes off the skin of swimmers and divers around the world’s coral reefs each year.

Hawaii recently became the first state to pass a ban on non-prescription sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, but the movement is gaining support with environmental groups around the globe, so it’s likely that other coastal states and other countries will follow suit.

It is important to note that researchers do not advocate that you avoid wearing sunscreen. Just that you consider the ingredients in the sunscreen before you buy it. Sunscreens with titanium oxide or zinc oxide have not been found to harm reefs, according to the National Park Service.