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Sunscreen is an absolute must these days for anyone spending time outside, but did you know that the type of sunscreen you choose can have a significant impact on the health of our oceans, reefs and aquatic life? And while the market may be flooded with cheap sunscreens laden with toxic chemicals, there are still good options available that will safely shield you from UVA and UVB rays and also help to keep our oceans healthy.

Swimming in Sunscreen

Dr. Craig A. Downs., Ph.D., of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, has discovered that 85% of the Caribbean’s coral reefs, which died before 2000, actually died from pollution, not from global warming as previously believed. The source of this pollution: sunscreen.

Tourists, doused in commercial sunscreen, swim, surf and snorkel every day in popular spots, releasing a steady stream of toxic ingredients into the water. The chemicals eventually settle on the vulnerable reefs, killing them quickly. And rather than dissipating in the water, the sunscreen, and its damage, is staying concentrated where it enters the ocean, usually at the most popular tourist sites such as our national parks, where our most treasured reefs exist.

A recent report by Marine Life states that over 80,000 kinds of chemicals from personal care products have made their way into the world’s oceans, and over 14,000 tons of sunscreen has ended up on our coral reefs. Popular and widely-used chemicals such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, parabens – specifically methyl-paraben and butyl-paraben – as well as octocrylene, homosalate and octisalate have all been found to be toxic to ocean life.

Governments and advocacy groups are beginning to take action. Last May, Hawaii passed a law that bans the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and just this week Key West, FL took initial steps to pass a similar law. This is great news for the oceans and has set a precedent that others will hopefully soon follow, but it’s important to note that the two chemicals in these laws are just the tip of the iceberg. Much more research needs to be done on these other potentially harmful chemicals.

The two chemicals banned by Hawaii – oxybenzone and octinoxate – are the most commonly used UV blockers in the world because they’re excellent at absorbing the harmful rays and are inexpensive, but their effects are devastating to ocean life. They alter DNA, leading to cancer and developmental deformations in wildlife, and oxybenzone causes corals to bleach and die at much lower ocean temperatures, often causing irreparable damage with just hours of contact.

Fish and other wildlife have also been adversely affected. Some of these chemicals actually change the DNA in living things, and the strong, synthetic fragrance molecules make their way in the the fish we find on our tables, changing their flavor and aroma.

“Reef Safe” – is it enough?

When Hawaii passed its law last year, it helped to popularize the term, “Reef Safe,” which now appears as a claim on certain sunscreens. It sounds good, but what does “Reef Safe” actually mean?

The term “reef safe” isn’t a governmentally regulated claim, and has no agreed-upon definition in the scientific community. Currently, “reef safe” refers to the absence of oxybenzone and octinoxate, but it does not address the other chemicals present. So while this is a good thing and certainly a step in the right direction, it is also a somewhat misleading claim. Sunscreen manufacturers are not required to test their products for ocean safety yet.

Haereticus Lab has come up with their own certification program to determine a sunscreen’s level of safety. Their claim, “Protect Land + Sea Certified,” refers to products that have been independently laboratory tested using analytical-forensic techniques to verify that the product is free of the chemicals that are on the lab’s HEL LIST – chemicals that are proven, known pollutants in many different environments.

The HEL LIST includes:

  • Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.
  • Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Methyl Paraben
  • Ethyl Paraben
  • Propyl Paraben
  • Butyl Paraben
  • Benzyl Paraben
  • Triclosan

Nanoparticles and microbeads are molecules so small they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. When washed into the oceans, they are also absorbed by fish and other wildlife. These ingredients are highly controversial, and more research needs to be done to fully understand the impact they are having on our organs, our DNA, and our ecosystem. “Non-nano” is a term that refers to molecules large enough to stay on the surface of the skin rather than get absorbed, so they are far safer to use. Most ocean-friendly sunscreens contain either non-nano zinc oxide or non-nano titanium oxide.

It should also be noted that aerosol spray sunscreens should never be used – their chemical ingredients are microscopic and are inhaled in the lungs, dispersed airborne into the environment, with only about half of the product ever reaching your skin. Avoid aerosols completely.

The Good Ingredients to Look For

Although there is no sunscreen that is 100% safe for oceans, looking at the ingredient list and comparing it to the HEL LIST will tell you a lot about the product. Looking for the “Protect Land & Sea Certified” or “Reef Safe” claims is another indicator, but remember that not all sunscreens will be listed yet, and some products labeled “Reef Safe” can still contain harmful chemicals like octocrylene or parabens. The best bet is to read the ingredients and seek out all natural ingredients. Here are some things to look for:

Mineral-based Formula

Look for either zinc or titanium oxide as the active ingredient. These two minerals are both effective UV blockers and pose no threat to the environment.

Non-nano Ingredients

Make sure the label specifies “non-nano” – that means the particles are large enough to be safe for human life and the environment.

All Natural Ingredients

Inactive ingredients like natural oils, essential oils, teas, beeswax, cocoa butter, and shea butter are all safe for the environment.

UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum

Make sure the formula covers the full spectrum of UVA/UVB rays.

Water-resistant Formula

If you use a water-resistant sunscreen, it doesn’t sweat off, shower off or more importantly, will wash off into the ocean. The chemicals stay where they are supposed to stay – on your body – and you need to reapply less often.

SPF Labels and What They Really Mean

For decades, consumers have been led to believe that Sun Protection Factors correspond with their level of protection – a 50 SPF offering twice as much protection as 25 SPF, for example. But that’s not how it actually works. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 provides coverage for 97% of UVB rays, and an SPF rating of 100 only offers 2% more coverage. Not only is SPF labeling misleading, but it has caused the unnecessary use of much higher levels of UV blocking chemicals than is necessary. Most experts agree that an SPF of 30, when applied correctly, offers enough protection.

Correct Application is Essential

Always apply sunscreen before you’re in the sun, apply enough, and re-apply diligently, on time. Sunscreen should be applied 15 minutes before sun exposure, not after you get to the beach and spend 30 minutes setting up. Make sure to apply enough product, at least 1 oz for a typical adult. Don’t forget the ears, between the toes and any other exposed areas. And lastly, but maybe most importantly, make sure to re-apply the sunscreen when needed: immediately if you towel off (you’re wiping your sunscreen off too), or at least every 80 minutes (check the label for your particular sunscreen and follow the directions).

Additional Protection – Sunwear and Sun Accessories

You can drastically cut down the amount of sunscreen you need by wearing sun protective clothing. UPF-rated fabric acts as a UV barrier, like a permanent sunscreen UPF refers to “ultraviolet protection factor,” like the term, SPF. Tanks, T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, shorts and leggings are all options. You’ll still need to apply sunscreen to your exposed areas, including face, hands, ears and tops of the feet – but you’ll use a lot less. Consumer Reports has also done some testing with regular T-shirts and found them to offer excellent protection as well.

Covering the head and shielding the face is also a good idea if you’re spending time in the sun. They also protect the top of your head from sun and heat exposure, which can be magnified when out on the water or at the beach.

And don’t forget sunglasses, with UV coated lenses.

Good Sunscreen Brands to Look For

At PSC, we carry the following brands in our shop. All three use only natural ingredients.


Available in solid stick or lotion, Avasol offers high quality, natural ingredients using the finest raw ingredients, natural oils, waxes and minerals.

Sea & Summit Sunscreen

Sea & Summit uses non-nano zinc oxide in their cruelty free formula.

Raw Elements

Raw Element’s sunscreen is available in a tube, pump, tin, stick, or a lip balm.

Raw Love Sunscreen

Made with love & Aloha in Hawaii

Stay Informed and Get Involved!

Learn more at Haereticus Lab.

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