Is Your Sunscreen Safe?
Author: Rachel Date Posted:4 January 2023
IS YOUR SUNSCREEN REEF SAFE?
Coral reefs are declining at unprecedented rates due to multiple human-caused traumas.
Global warming, pollution and over fishing are major factors. However, a new threat is looming…
An estimated 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen is being deposited in the world's oceans each year.
Recent studies are showing, common active chemical ingredients in sunscreens are likely contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs and localised coral decline in popular swimming areas with shallow waters.
As a result, many jurisdictions have banned the sale of sunscreen containing ingredients with the potential to harm to reefs and aquatic life, including U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Key West and Hawaii. Similar bans are being discussed in the EU and Brazil.
CHECK YOUR LABEL!
Check your sunscreen label for chemical UV-absorbers Oxybenzone and Octinoxate.
One notable study from 2016 showed that oxybenzone can cause deformities in both coral larvae and baby corals, damage to coral DNA, and abnormal skeletal growth.
But chemical sunscreens don’t just harm reefs. Research also shows Octinoxate degrades into a chemical called benzophenone, a known carcinogenic and hormone disruptor (EDC) in humans. These chemicals are absorbed into the body and can bioaccumulate and magnify.
According to Cancer Council Australia, around 1% of people also have adverse reactions to chemical sunscreens from ingredients like butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, oxybenzone and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC).
WHAT SUNSCREENS ARE BEST?
Look out for Reef Safe sunscreens, instead. They are usually labelled as such, and use a base of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are physical blockers. Though there is no legislated definition of ‘reef safe’ products, they are generally considered safer for use than chemical blockers.
These are also the type of sunscreens most frequently recommended for babies, young children and people with sensitive skin.
Consumers have traditionally shied away from these types of sunscreens because of the naturally white pigment it leaves on the skin. But modern iterations include softening agents that reduce this affect and make zinc-based sunscreen easier to apply.
But who cares! I’ll take the one with the whitish hue but without the potential for cancer and reef destruction, please!
WHAT ABOUT BENZENE?
In May last year (2022) Product Safety Australia recalled five popular sunscreens after benzene, a cancer-causing ingredient, was found – including the Cancer Council’s sensitive and Nivea sunscreens sold in hundreds of supermarkets, pharmacies and online stores across Australia.
It was sparked by a consumer petition in the USA the previous year that resulted in a study finding 27% of sunscreens tested, including Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena sunscreen and Aveeno sprays, contained benzene.
Look up benzene + sunscreen - this is more common than you might expect for a non-ingredient and gives sunscreen a bad rap. But how does it happen?
Benzene is a chemical compound that's naturally found in crude oil and gas. You’ll typically find it as a by-product in the manufacture of synthetic plastics, fibres, glue, detergents and pesticides. Chronic exposure to benzene affects your body's cells and immune system and causes anaemia, headaches, dizziness, vomiting and irregular heartbeat in the short-term, and cancer, leukaemia and other longer term health issues.
Unfortunately, because benzene is a by-product and not a direct ingredient, there is no way to know if your sunscreen has been contaminated with benzene. But as UV rays are also cancer-causing, not using sunscreen is not an option!
It’s tricky! The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates sunscreen products in Australia, and while they say benzene levels must be below 2 parts per million (ppm) in sunscreen products, the USA FDA says no amount of benzene is acceptable in sunscreens.
Our advice is stick with TGA approved reef safe sunscreens, with a zinc oxide (best option) or titanium dioxide base. To check, look for a reference on the product to say it compiles with standards AS/NZS 2604:2012
CAN SUNSCREEN EXPIRE?
By the way, sunscreen becomes less effective at blocking out UV rays as it ages or gets affected by heat. Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world, so if you’ve just found some old sunscreen that’s been languishing in the back of your car for a year, make sure you take additional sunsafe measures like wearing a hat and staying in the shade.
And make sure you check out our BLOG: 7 Things You Can Do With Expired Sunscreen
Exposure to UV rays can cause skin cancer, so we need sunscreen to protect ourselves. While ingredients in some sunscreen can pose its own risks to human as well as reef and acquatic health, sunscreens with a zinc oxide or titanium dioxide base are currently considered as two of the safest and most effective active ingredients. You should avoid sunscreen containing chemical UV-absorbers Oxybenzone and Octinoxate for both human health and reef health reasons.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Check out these links for more reading on sunscreens.
- CHOICE Consumer website: Sunscreen buying guide | https://www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/beauty-and-personal-care/skin-care-and-cosmetics/buying-guides/sunscreen
- The Smithsonian website: The effects of sunscreen and coral bleaching | https://ocean.si.edu/ecosystems/coral-reefs/truth-about-corals-and-sunscreen
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