As the sun comes out most of us reach for the nearest bottle of sunscreen to protect us from skin cancer, without realising that we may be doing a lot of harm as well as good.  20,000 tons of sunscreen are believed to be washed off into the Northern Mediterranean alone every year (Source: The Guardian 2021 Currently, sunscreens work in two different ways, giving either chemical or barrier protection.  Chemical screens are the most popular but, in 2008, evidence was found that common ingredients in sunscreen can bleach coral reefs which has led to some countries like Hawaii banning Oxybenzone and Octinoxate containing products but the US National Ocean Survey recommends that other chemicals like Butylparaben, Octocrylene, OD-POBA and Benzophenone-1 and -8 should also be avoided. Take a look at this article by for a more detailed look at how sunscreens affect aquatic life

There have also been concerns that human health is being compromised by these same chemicals. This is hotly debated and important topic although outside of our remit here, but this article is a good place to start

underwater photography of fish
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on

As a result, sunscreen manufacturers have been creating ‘reef safe’ sunscreens, using alternative UV filters like zinc oxide. However, recent research shows that these options may be no safer for the environment, especially if they contain nano-sized particles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemicals in both chemical and barrier  lotions can also be absorbed through the skin and have been detected in urine within 30 minutes of application, leading to water supplies being polluted too. Add in some non-sustainable palm oil and plastic tubes or bottles and sunscreen is a pretty un-environmentally friendly product.

It’s not just coral reefs that are in danger, other marine life may be affected, including phytoplankton, small crustaceans, molluscs, sea urchins and fish, which support food webs and impact all marine life.

Scientists are trying to develop truly eco-friendly sunscreen, for instance a team in Florida is experimenting with developing a sunscreen using shinorine – a UV-absorbing ingredient harvested from algae, (Source –

But in the meantime, what can we do until the perfect sunscreen is invented? The advice is

  • stay in the shade during the hottest parts of the day to avoid the most harmful ultraviolet rays and reduce sunscreen usage
  • wear UV protecting (UPF) swimwear; cover up with hats, sunglasses and light-coloured, light-weight loose clothing and only use sunscreen on the parts that can’t avoid sun exposure
  • use up our old products – they’re going to end up in the environment anyway
  • opt for lotions over sprays which are not only harmful to inhale but result in unnecessary waste
  • read labels carefully, avoid the three O’s – Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and Octocrylene – plus if you can, choose products that contain non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles

Some of the best, according to Ethical Consumer, are Neal’s Yard, Odylique, Green People, Ludy Bee, Badger, Pai and Shade.  Nivea and Eucerin have good palm oil policies and do not contain oxybenzone but some of their products do contain nano-particles.

Some to avoid, if possible, are Boot’s Soltan, Superdrug’s Solait and Piz Buin.

Ethical consumer has a useful article that compares each company’s environmental and ethical ratings

What do you think? Have you got any good sunscreen recommendations or any other useful tips? Let us know in the comments below.