Sustainable sunscreen guide - what you need to know to protect yourself and the oceans

The sun is finally out again, so it’s time to start wearing sunscreen. Over-exposure of the skin to the sun increases the risk of skin cancer and causes your skin to age faster. It’s important to apply sunscreen every day, even on cloudy ones! Afraid that you won’t get a tan if you often apply sunblock? Fortunately, this is not the case: sunscreens ensure that UV radiation is less harmful, but you’ll still tan. You just don’t burn and you will get a nicer and longer-lasting tan!

But which product should you use? Is sunblock as good for you (and the environment) as you think? In this article, we look at the harmful ingredients in conventional sunscreens and their sustainable alternatives.

How does sunscreen work?

Sunlight contains ultraviolet radiation. This UV radiation penetrates our skin and causes damage. A sunscreen must therefore prevent UV radiation from entering the skin and that’s why it contains UV filters that absorb or reflect UV radiation. There are two types of filters. Chemical filters that absorb UV radiation and convert it into heat and less harmful radiation, and mineral filters that reflect the sunlight and make sure that the radiation does not reach your skin.

Why is conventional sunscreen harmful?

Bad for you...

Many conventional sunscreens contain chemicals, which doesn’t sound great. Recent studies show that the body absorbs these chemicals in much larger quantities than expected. Detectable amounts have been found in human urine and breast milk. There are concerns that these chemicals can affect hormones, but at the moment it is unclear whether the chemicals actually pose a risk to our health. Still, it’s not a nice thought and if you don't want to take a risk, these are the ingredients to watch out for:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Avobenzone
  • Nanoparticles

…and bad for coral

If the fact that oxybenzone and other chemicals might be bad for your health is not enough reason for you to make the switch, this should be: oxybenzone is harmful to coral. When you swim in the ocean with sunscreen on your body, chemicals get into the water and are absorbed by the coral. Oxybenzone, even in very low concentrations, disrupts the reproduction and growth cycle of the coral, which leads to coral bleaching (the deterioration of the coral's immune system, leaving a white 'coral skeleton').

Coral reefs around the world are threatened by pollution, with the most popular destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef and the coast of Hawaii being the most vulnerable. These impressive ecosystems, with their beautiful colours and many species that make the coral their home, attract visitors from all over the world. Coral reefs are crucial for biodiversity and the protection of coastlines, and they absorb carbon dioxide. Finally, coral reefs are an important livelihood for fishermen and economies that depend on tourism.

However, research by UNEP, among others, shows that coral reefs are resilient and can recover if we protect the marine environment and create the right circumstances. Humans are responsible for damaging coral reefs, but they can also be the solution. One of the steps we can take to help restore the beautiful coral reefs is to use sunscreens that are kind to them.

An alternative: mineral sunscreens

Although researchers are still trying to find out whether sunscreen is harmful to our health, they are certain that the sun is. Thus we need an alternative to chemical sunscreens, and luckily there is! The minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide protect your skin by physically blocking and reflecting UV radiation. Mineral filters are therefore also called physical sunscreens. Titanium and zinc are natural minerals that are safe for humans and the environment as long as it does not involve nanoparticles.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are small particles that sit on your skin and reflect the sun. This can cause a white cast on the skin. To prevent this, very tiny particles have been used since the 1990s, sometimes 1000 times smaller than a human hair. We call them nanoparticles. As the particles are so small, they can be absorbed by the skin, just like the chemicals. For these nanoparticles we’re also not sure yet whether it affects our health, but even for these natural ingredients, research shows more and more that they are harmful to the coral.

This means that not all sunscreens without chemical filters that are labelled with ‘natural’, ‘mineral filter’ or ‘coral friendly’, are actually all of that. It is up to us not to be fooled by misleading labels and to look carefully at the ingredients ourselves. Take the list we mentioned above with you to the store and make sure your sunscreen does not contain those ingredients. Essentially, if the protective ingredient in your sunscreen is anything other than non-nano titanium dioxide or non-nano zinc oxide, keep on looking!

The best mineral sunscreen

Fortunately, there are more and more sustainable mineral sunscreens on the market. The search for a natural sunscreen that suits you is very personal. It is not unusual to have to try several creams before you find one that suits you.

We are huge fans of the brand Odyskin. As far as we are concerned, it is the best non-nano mineral sunscreen that won’t leave a white cast. Odyskin sunscreen is available in SPF 30 and SPF 50, contains no harmful ingredients, smells great and applies easily. Also, the sunscreen is COSMOS-certified, vegan, cruelty-free, palm oil-free, and packaged in a recyclable aluminium tube. All other sun creams on our website are also free from chemicals and nanoparticles!

Pro-tip: do not expose your natural sunscreen directly to the sun, this will turn it into a liquid.

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