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Your Sunscreen Is Toxic: How to Buy Sunscreen That’s Safe for You & the Environment

Spoiler alert: That “reef safe” label is misleading.

Health + Wellness
Credit: Cinzia Osele Bismarck / Ocean Image Bank

The temperatures are heating up, kids are getting out of school and airline data is telling us that everyone has vacation on the brain.1 If beach trips are part of your summer agenda, we hope you’re packing your sunscreen.

…But not just any sunscreen.

The temperatures are heating up, kids are getting out of school and airline data is telling us that everyone has vacation on the brain.1 If beach trips are part of your summer agenda, we hope you’re packing your sunscreen.

…But not just any sunscreen.

By now, you’ve likely heard that many sunscreens contain many chemicals that are toxic to oceanic ecosystems, especially coral reefs. Scientists have been sounding this alarm since 2008.2

And yet, we can’t just stop wearing sunscreen. We all know it’s critical to protect us from the sun’s harmful UV rays that can cause sunburns, skin cancer and other types of skin damage. But if the chemicals in certain sunscreens are hurting marine ecosystems, the question also begs to be asked: How safe is this sunscreen for humans?

EcoWatch spoke with the CEOs of two eco-conscious sunscreen companies certified safe by the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL) — Stream2Sea and Badger. They had alarming things to say about the sunscreen bottle you might have in your beach bag — yes, even that one that claims it’s “reef safe.” Let’s dive in.

Jump to: Understanding Labels | How Sunscreen Affects Ocean Health | How Sunscreen Affects Human Health | Sunscreen Buying Guide | Mineral Vs. Chemical Sunscreen | EcoWatch Sunscreen Picks

What do ‘Reef Safe’ and ‘Reef Friendly’ Labels Mean?

Summary: “Reef safe” and “reef friendly” language on sunscreen products may just be another example of greenwashing — a deceptive marketing tactic that brands use to come across as more eco-friendly.

The intended meaning of these labels is self-explanatory: “This product is not harmful to coral reefs.” The problem is that there’s no regulation when it comes to reef-safe labels.

“There’s no universally recognized definition of what is ‘reef safe.’ So what reef safe means to me versus what it might mean to a Fortune 500 company, or a marketing company, can be very different,” said Autumn Blum, formulator and CEO at Stream2Sea.

Often, what a sunscreen company is saying with a “reef safe” label is that the product doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate — two ingredients that have been recognized as harmful to both humans and marine life. But research shows those aren’t the only harmful chemicals found in sunscreens.

“Instead of using oxybenzone and octinoxate, they simply replaced it with avobenzone and octocrylene, which are now being shown to be equally or, in some cases, even more harmful than the initial,” said Blum. “The absence of two toxic chemicals does not make it ‘safe,’ right? But who is it to decide that?”

Sunscreen’s Negative Effect on Aquatic Ecosystems

Scientists found that many personal care products, like sunscreen, negatively impact marine systems back in 2008 after a coral bleaching event.3 Several places, including Hawaii and Key West, Florida, have banned certain reef-harming sunscreens, but new data shows that it’s still a very real concern.

For instance, more than 90% of the Great Barrier Reef — that’s 654 reefs — experienced some sort of bleaching during the 2021-2022 Australian summer. While bleaching isn’t solely due to harmful chemicals — climate change and ocean warming play the biggest roles — they can certainly worsen the issue. And researchers are actively studying more environmental impacts of sunscreen ingredients, with results expected to be released sometime in 2022.4

Coral reefs are a vital part of the ocean ecosystem and a huge draw for tourism, so it makes sense that “reef friendly” is the term sunscreen companies are going with. But corals aren’t the only species at risk. Sunscreen chemicals can also negatively affect dolphins, fish, green algae, mussels and sea urchins.5

Source: NOAA

While most scientists are researching the negative impact on marine life, more recent studies have also shown that active chemicals in sunscreen are also harming freshwater ecosystems like lakes and rivers.6

And aquatic species aren’t the only ones at risk.

“I think there is a real concern with human health as well,” said Rebecca Hamilton, Co-CEO of Badger, an organic skincare company.

How Sunscreen Can Be Toxic for Humans

Summary: Research shows that sunscreens contain toxic chemicals that have been linked to skin reactions as well as cancers and birth and reproductive defects.

Sunscreen is a double-edged sword. It’s full of ingredients proven to protect our skin from damaging UV rays, but at what cost? The table below outlines some of the human concerns for eight common sunscreen ingredients approved by the ​​U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Common Sunscreen IngredientFDA Classified as Safe and Effective?Potential Risks for Humans*
OxybenzoneNoAllergic skin reactions; breast cancer; hormonal disruptor; abnormal birth patterns; endometriosis
OctinoxateNoHormonal disruptor affecting the metabolic system, thyroid, androgen and progesterone signaling; allergic reactions 
HomosalateNoHormonal disruptor; produces toxic breakdown byproducts over time
OctisalateNoAllergic contact dermatitis; potential hormonal disruptor
OctocryleneNoHigh rates of skin allergies; often contaminated with carcinogen benzophenone
AvobenzoneNoHormonal disruptor; allergic reactions
Titanium dioxideYesPossibly carcinogenic if inhaled (spray and powder products should be avoided)
Zinc OxideYesPossibly carcinogenic if inhaled (spray and powder products should be avoided)

*Note: Although these findings have been supported by scientific studies, they are not a definite outcome of chemical exposure. Data: Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Sunscreen Chemicals Seep Into the Bloodstream

Studies as far back as 2008 have found traces of sunscreen ingredients in breast milk and urine samples.7,8 But a 2019 study published by the FDA revealed that sunscreen chemicals seep into our bloodstreams and can be detected on our skin and in our blood weeks after we apply it.9

When that 2019 study was published, the FDA only classified two sunscreen ingredients as “safe and effective” — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. As for the others, the administration said the presence of these ingredients in our blood is not necessarily a health hazard, but that it’s definitely a high enough amount to warrant “further testing.”10

As Blum points out, we’re still waiting on that research.

“[The FDA] declared that only titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are generally recognized as safe and effective for humans, which is a great start, right? So all of those other ingredients that we’re seeing that are still allowed in our sunscreens, the FDA says, ‘We’re not so sure about that, can you give us more data?’ And the [sunscreen] industry still has not given more data,” Blum told EcoWatch.

The FDA did propose further data and stricter regulations on sunscreen companies after that 2019 study was published. However, the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act reformed the way the FDA regulates certain over-the-counter products, including sunscreen, and essentially put those plans on hold.11

Cancer-Causing Chemicals Found in Sunscreen

A more recent study from 2021 found that the sunscreen ingredient octocrylene degrades into benzophenone, which is a compound suspected to cause cancer and interfere with the body’s hormones.12

That same year, we saw recalls for five Johnson & Johnson aerosol sunscreen products that contained the carcinogen benzene.13 The recalls included certain products from many top brands, including Coppertone, Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Aveeno.14

Sunscreen Concerns for Pregnant and Nursing Women

Meanwhile, oxybenzone products have been found to pose a risk specifically for pregnant and nursing mothers.

Studies have found this chemical in the urine and blood of pregnant women as well as in fetal and umbilical cord blood.15 And women with medium to high levels of oxybenzone in their urine showed a correlation to giving birth to babies with Hirschsprung’s Disease — a colon condition that makes it difficult for babies to pass stool.16

Sunscreen Product Guide: What to Look for and What to Avoid

Despite the numerous studies that have raised concerns about many of these chemicals, the majority of them are still FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients. And unfortunately, that means you’ll need to put in a little extra work to find products that are safe for both you and the environment.

“It really is up to the consumer to move beyond what’s on the front package and flip over the bottle and be informed,” Blum said. “You have to read those ingredients.”

EcoWatch has compiled the following list of what you should be avoiding, according to the EWG and HEL.15,16 Again, the FDA hasn’t explicitly said any of these sunscreen ingredients are unsafe, but none of them is classified as “safe and effective” by the administration.17

You can save this list of ingredients to avoid for easy access when browsing the sunscreen aisle, but Hamilton suggests an even easier approach: Just look for products with fewer, more natural ingredients altogether.

“The simpler the ingredients, the easier it is to tell,” she said. “Because it gets really complicated.”

Below are a few other products to look for and avoid.

Avoid: Sunscreen Sprays

We know spray sunscreens are popular for their ease and convenience, but you should avoid them. People using spray sunscreens have a much higher risk of sunburn, especially since most don’t rub the spray in (yes, you’re supposed to).18

But beyond that, aerosol sunscreens can be damaging to your lungs and to the ecosystems that are getting drenched by it.

“You’re using all of these chemical ingredients that have been shown to be harmful for the environment, and you’re just spraying them all over the place,” Blum said of aerosol sunscreens. “If you spray it on your body on a boat, I can smell it 100 yards away. That’s been proven.”

According to EWG, the FDA found that three of 14 tested sprays would not meet the administration’s proposed inhalation standard, but it did not reveal which three products failed the test, so it’s best to just avoid them altogether.19

Human and environmental hazards aside, Blum also points out that spray sunscreens are a boat owner’s worst nightmare, shown to stain and damage vinyl.

Avoid: Sunscreen Powders

Sunscreen powders, or brush-on sunscreens, have shown effectiveness at preventing UV rays from damaging our cells, but they pose an inhalation threat similar to that of spray sunscreens. Especially since the “safe” sunscreen ingredients (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) are dangerous in powder form.

“When titanium is inhaled in a fine powder, it behaves in your lungs similar to asbestos would. That’s bad news — you shouldn’t inhale these things,” Blum said.

Avoid: SPF Above 50+

If your sunscreen says it has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 100, it’s misleading.

The FDA tried to ban sunscreen companies from putting anything higher than “SPF 50+” on labels in 2011. Since then, the administration reportedly found evidence of clinical benefits of sunscreen products up to SPF 60 and currently recommends 60+ as the maximum labeled value.20

EWG still recommends you avoid products with an SPF label over 50+.

Source: Environmental Working Group

Look For: Mineral Sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens primarily use only organic ingredients as well as the only two sunscreen ingredients certified safe and effective by the FDA. So if you see a mineral sunscreen, you can save yourself the trouble of having to remember all of those long and confusing products that you should stay away from.

However, Blum says not all mineral sunscreens are created equal.

“I would only recommend using a sunscreen product that has non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide. Anything else that’s in there has not been proven safe,” she said.

Mineral sunscreens still have to earn FDA approval for UV effectiveness.

Mineral Vs. Chemical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

“I think people will just have to get familiarized with using a mineral-based sunscreen. It’s a different experience than the chemical sunscreens,” Hamilton told EcoWatch. “It requires people recognizing that, you know, to have sunscreen that’s safe for them and safe for the environment, it might be a little bit of a different user experience.”

So, what’s so different about mineral sunscreens?

Mineral Sunscreens Take Longer to Apply

Chemical sunscreens are easy to glob or spray on and rub all over our bodies within seconds, while mineral sunscreens require more time and strategy.

“The best way to apply mineral sunscreen is to take a very small amount, put it on your face, another small amount on your chest, another small amount, put it on your shoulders and keep on going,” Blum said. “It might take an extra minute, maybe even two to apply it properly. But it’s so well worth the extra effort [to use] the safer product for you and for the planet.”

Mineral Sunscreens May Leave a White Cast

Mineral sunscreen basically works by formulating chalky ingredients into lotion, and that can leave a white sheen or residue on the skin. But Blum and Hamilton both told EcoWatch that newer technology is improving this issue.

“It’s not quite like the old zinc lifeguard streak on your nose anymore, but it’s still a mineral powder dispersed into a lotion,” Blum said. “If you tried using a mineral sunscreen 20 years ago and you hated it, [know that] technology has come a long way.”

Mineral Sunscreens Won’t Break You Out

Because they’re full of zinc oxide, mineral sunscreens are skin-calming and best for sensitive and acne-prone skin.

“With mainstream sunscreens, a lot of people will say, ‘I can’t wear sunscreen because it burns my eyes’ or ‘it causes me to break out.’ And typically those are the ingredients from the chemicals,” Blum said.

Final Thoughts: EcoWatch’s Favorite Mineral Sunscreens

We know we just overloaded you with more information about sunscreen than you’ve probably ever wanted. If you’re a little overwhelmed, here’s a short list of EcoWatch-recommended, human and environmentally safe sunscreen products that have been Protect Land and Sea Certified by the HEL:

  • Badger
  • Stream2Sea
  • Olen
  • Tropic
  • Odacité

You can read how these products fared in the HEL’s lab here.

Looking for a safe, non-mineral sunscreen? The EWG has a list of non-mineral sunscreens that still meet its environmental standards here.

Kristina Zagame is a journalist and content writer with expertise in solar and other energy-related topics. Before joining EcoWatch, Kristina was a TV news reporter and producer, covering a wide variety of topics including West Coast wildfires and hurricane relief efforts. Kristina’s reporting has taken her all over the U.S., as well as to Puerto Rico and Chile.

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Vanderbilt University

When most people think about a degree in climate studies, they often picture something in the STEM field. And rightfully so, as most universities offer climate science majors that typically lead to degrees in engineering or economics.

But Vanderbilt University is changing that starting in Fall 2022 with the launch of its new interdisciplinary climate and environmental studies major.

When most people think about a degree in climate studies, they often picture something in the STEM field. And rightfully so, as most universities offer climate science majors that typically lead to degrees in engineering or economics.

But Vanderbilt University is changing that starting in Fall 2022 with the launch of its new interdisciplinary climate and environmental studies major.

“Climate change is really something that’s not just a science topic, it’s something that invokes,” said Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences.

“Science can tell us what’s happening, but to understand what people can do, people need to be talking about values and ethics. People need to be talking about how society works and how the political process works. It’s really important to have all these different perspectives coming into it.”

The topic of climate change continues to be controversial. Some people doubt its severity, while even the loudest climate activists have different perspectives on how to address it —  including the Vanderbilt professors who will be teaching this course. But as Gilligan told EcoWatch, providing a space for conflicting perspectives is kind of the point of these classes.

“We’re really hoping that we expose students to a lot of different ideas and the students will be able to then decide which ones they find more persuasive. And also they’ll be able to develop their own ideas,” Gilligan said. “I think one of the things we’re hoping is that we teach them to argue with us better.”

Gilligan said while Vanderbilt isn’t the first university to study climate change with an interdisciplinary approach, this program is unique because the humanities are not just a part of the program — they are the program.

“Studying literature, studying values and ethics is just as important,” Gilligan said. “When we were designing this, we really didn’t find any other programs that had that integration of bringing together all three parts of what a traditional liberal arts college has.”

While climate studies will be available as a major, its classes will be open to any student. Gilligan said that includes many introductory courses available for people who may be interested in learning more about climate studies and how it could play into their desired career path.

“We thought this would be really useful to have a major that students can take or get a solid introduction into the way that people with different kinds of training think about this. How does somebody in religious studies think about climate change? How does somebody in the History of Art think about climate change? How does somebody in sociology or economics or political science think about it, as well as how do scientists and engineers think about it,” Gilligan said.

Students in the new climate studies major can still expect to take a climate science course, as well as courses on climate and environmental studies in the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. According to Vanderbilt News, students will also get to take courses like 3D imaging and virtual reality communications and technical writing. Plus, there will be opportunities for students to engage in a “living laboratory” within Nashville.

“Science can tell us what’s happening. But to understand what people can do, people need to be talking about values and ethics. People need to be talking about how society works and how the political process works. It’s really important to have all these different perspectives coming into it.”

Gilligan will be teaching courses for the new major alongside sociology Professor David J. Hess (director of the new program) and art history Professor Betsey A. Robinson. To create the climate studies major, Gilligan said all three professors sought opinions from students and faculty members to “make sure that all the different academic perspectives were properly represented.”

“We did a lot of listening, a lot of talking among ourselves. And we produced something that really got accepted and embraced by the college and by the students in the faculty without any real pushback. And we’re very happy that we were able to do that,” Gilligan said.

According to Gilligan, there’s a lot of interest and excitement from students about the new major, which isn’t much of a surprise considering how much youth climate activism has taken off in recent years.

“Students are really interested in this for very practical reasons. Climate change is going to affect their lives and ‘snowball effect’ their children and future generations. A lot of people want to know, ‘What can I do about this?” Gilligan said.

While many are ready to take action, research also shows that many young people suffer from climate anxiety and feel “powerless” about climate change. A recent survey of 10,000 young adults came back with 60% reporting feeling “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change.”

Gilligan said he hopes this new program can teach the next generation they are far from powerless. Actually, he thinks quite the opposite.

“I really think that for young people to find their own voices and learn their own ways to talk about climate change and why it matters is powerful. Probably the most powerful source of change that we have,” Gilligan said.

“It’s one of the things that really saves me from despair, when I read about so much bad news, and I get discouraged, I feel that young people are my greatest source of hope right now. And I think that young people really should learn that they can make a big difference.”

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Between classes, clubs, jobs, internships and trying to keep up a social life, you’ve got a million things on your mind as a college student. So unless you’re extremely passionate about living a sustainable lifestyle, it’s probably not your top priority.

But honestly, being an eco-friendly college student is just as easy as syllabus week. With a few small lifestyle changes, you can make a big impact on slowing the effects of climate change. Plus, going green can actually save you a ton of green — and we know most college students are interested in saving money.

Between classes, clubs, jobs, internships and trying to keep up a social life, you’ve got a million things on your mind as a college student. So unless you’re extremely passionate about living a sustainable lifestyle, it’s probably not your top priority.

But honestly, being an eco-friendly college student is just as easy as syllabus week. With a few small lifestyle changes, you can make a big impact on slowing the effects of climate change. Plus, going green can actually save you a ton of green — and we know most college students are interested in saving money.

Here are seven easy tips to get you started on making student life more sustainable. 

1. Walk or Bike to Class

We know what you’re thinking — “Duh!” But did you know that even occasionally swapping your car for your own two feet (or two wheels) could save an estimated six to 14 million tons of CO2 a year?1 That’s a big enough difference to justify the extra cardio.

Using your car less frequently also means you’ll be using fewer harmful pollutants, like gasoline and antifreeze. Not to mention you’ll save a ton of money on gas and student parking passes. (Seriously, shouldn’t parking be included with tuition?)

2. Ditch Single-Use Plastics

You’ll need to start drinking more water with all that walking and biking, so let’s start with plastic water bottles. Putting our environmentalist hat aside for a second: Did you know that Americans spent more than $36 million on bottled water in 2020?2 Drinking water costs next to nothing and yet we’re wasting millions of dollars on it.3

Environmentalist hat back on: There are currently an estimated 2 million tons of discarded plastic bottles in U.S. landfills. And for the 1,000 years it takes a single plastic bottle to decompose, it’ll be leaking harmful chemicals into the environment.4 Need we say more? It’s time to recycle all of your plastic bottles and stop buying them for good.

If you don’t want to drink tap water, consider buying a filter or take advantage of those free water fill-up stations on campus. We know it’s not Voss, but it’s free to you, and Mother Nature will thank you.

If you’re looking for a good reusable water bottle, check out One Green Bottle, which is partly composed of recycled ocean plastics and reasonably priced compared to many of the top brands.

While you’re at it, go ahead and forgo plastic bags for tote bags and plastic food containers for Tupperware. And keep an eco-conscious mind at the grocery store by staying away from unnecessary plastic packaging (pre-peeled oranges, we’re looking at you).

3. Recycle Those Beer Cans

…Or soda/energy drink cans. Whatever your beverage of choice, make sure you’re recycling those containers properly. Trillions of beer and soda cans — about 17.5 million tons — have been trashed rather than recycled in the past five decades.5 This is extra shameful because aluminum is infinitely recyclable and the carbon footprint of producing a recycled aluminum can is much lower than that of a new one.

Also, don’t forget that you can make some quick cash by taking your cans to a recycling center in some states. Sure, it’s not much, but 5 to 10 cents adds up when you’re recycling every PBR case from last weekend’s beer Olympics.

4. Get Thrifty

Need new furniture for your dorm or apartment? Skip Ikea and Amazon and instead check the Habitat for Humanity Restore or Facebook Marketplace. Need an outfit for a themed party? Hit up a thrift or clothing consignment store like Goodwill, Buffalo Exchange or Plato’s Closet. Or organize a clothing swap on campus.

For an idea of how much thrift shopping can help, listen to this: It’s estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global CO2 emissions — that’s more than all international flights and shipping combined.6 Plus, textiles account for about 17 million tons of annual waste.7 Gross.

So go on, get thrifty with it. And then, when you’re moving or ready for a cleanout, you can sell your items back. Take that, fast fashion.

That brings us to our next point:

5. Say No To Free T-Shirts (and Other Items)

…Unless you’re actually going to use them. College towns are full of marketers and campus groups handing out freebies. But if you’re not going to wear those T-shirts or use those plastic cups, you’re just helping the never-ending cycle of waste. We know freebies are tempting, but if you aren’t gonna use them, refuse them.

6. Utilize Solar Power

If you’re a college student reading this, we’re at least 90% certain you’re not a homeowner who can afford to install rooftop solar panels for thousands of dollars. (If we’re wrong, good for you, go for it!) But you can still reap the benefits of solar energy on campus or as a renter. Here are a few examples:

  • A plug-in mini solar system for your home that generates enough electricity to power electronics and lamps.
  • A window solar charger to power up your phone or wireless headphones.
  • Solar-powered string lights for your balcony or backyard.
  • A solar portable charger for those long days on campus.

There are also plenty of ways you can be a solar advocate and get involved in renewable energy solutions while being a broke college student. Which is a great segue into our final tip:

7. Start or Get Involved With a Green Organization

If you attend a bigger school with hundreds of student organizations, chances are you can find at least one club dedicated to green living or climate activism. Here are some ideas to try:

  • If you just moved into a residence hall, see if there’s a “green living” community. If there isn’t, start one. 
  • Go to the student activities fair or check out the student activities page on your school’s website to find clubs dedicated to sustainability. 
  • If you’re feeling extra passionate, consider running for a student government position and advocate for more sustainable solutions on campus. 
  • Many schools have so-called “Green Funds” available to advance campus sustainability initiatives, or you and your newfound group can apply for one. You can head to The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) for those resources.

Final Thoughts

These seven tips may be simple guidelines to get you started (and maybe help you save some money). But, don’t discredit them. Your small steps toward sustainability can make a big difference and influence others to do the same.

As one Vanderbilt University professor told EcoWatch, young people may have the greatest influence on the older generations when it comes to slowing climate change.

“When people see young people being active [and] hear young people expressing their concerns, that affects the way people think about themselves,” Jonathan Gilligan, assoc. professor of earth environmental sciences, said. “If they see young people doing things to protect the climate, it makes other people including older people, more likely to do something.”

Kristina Zagame is a journalist and content writer with expertise in solar and other energy-related topics. Before joining EcoWatch, Kristina was a TV news reporter and producer, covering a wide variety of topics including West Coast wildfires and hurricane relief efforts. Kristina’s reporting has taken her all over the U.S., as well as to Puerto Rico and Chile.

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