Why are traditional sunscreens bad for the environment?

Traditional (generally big brand) sunscreens often contain chemicals, including Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, that can harm or kill coral and marine life when they enter our rivers and oceans.

Every time we bath or shower, wash our hands or swim outdoors having applied sunscreen, we risk introducing potentially toxic and harmful chemicals and microplastics into the water system.

Coral reefs are vitally important ecosystems and often referred to as the “rainforests of the oceans”. They help to store Carbon, to protect against costal erosion and to provide essential habitats for thousands of species. However, their future existence is threatened by factors including climate change, overfishing and other forms of pollution.

Sunscreens are typically manufactured by large companies that are generally not very environmentally-friendly on the whole. For example, Estée Lauder, Johnson & Johnson, Clarins, L’Oréal and Proctor and Gamble.

And of course, many come in heavyweight bottles, often made from virgin plastic, and include hard to recycle spray mechanisms.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) recommends using marine-safe sunscreen and has said: “Unfortunately sunscreens have been shown to have an impact on the marine environment – not just coral reefs but also other marine organisms. Oxybenzone and Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate (Octinoxate) are particularly harmful and the MCS recommends avoiding sunscreens with these ingredients.”

When choosing a sunscreen, aim for one that is both organic and cruelty free where possible.

What does SPF mean and how do sunscreens work?

Applied and used correctly, sunscreen can help to reduce the risk of sunburn, skin damage, ageing and skin cancer. It is important to remember that our bodies need sunlight and Vitamin D to remain healthy. Indeed, various studies have suggested that Vitamin D can help to reduce our risk of being as severely affected by communicable viruses and certain illnesses.

Sunscreens generally contain an emulsion (a cream, lotion, milk, oil, gel or foam), which works to carry an active ingredient (that either absorbs or reflects UV rays) designed to protect your skin.

SPF simply stands for ‘sun protection factor’ and is a measure of the ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) protection provided. SPFs are rated on a scale of between two and 50+, with the latter offering the greatest protection.

Sunscreens should also feature a star rating that indicates the level of ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) protection that is provided. In the UK, sunscreens are rated up to a maximum of five stars, with this offering the highest level of protection.

We have rightly been taught to aim for a high level of SPF protection when buying sunscreen, but many people do not realise that the difference between different factors is relatively small. For example, a sunscreen labelled SPF30 will protect your skin against 96.7% of the harmful UV rays it may be exposed to during hot and sunny weather. While an SPF50 sunscreen will protect against around 98% of the UV rays.

As a simple rule of thumb, if you multiply a sunscreen’s SPF factor by ten, this will indicate approximately how long the sunscreen may provide your skin with protection for. For example, a SPF30 sunscreen will safeguard your skin against sunburn for around 300 minutes, or up to five hours, compared to just 10-15 minutes if no sunscreen at all is applied.

In the UK, the NHS says: “Do not rely on sunscreen alone to protect yourself from the sun. Wear suitable clothing and spend time in the shade when the sun is at its hottest. When buying sunscreen, the label should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to protect against UVB and at least 4-star UVA protection. Make sure the sunscreen is not past its expiry date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of two to three years.”

Please note that one of the three sunscreens recommended below, from an environmental perspective, falls slightly short of the NHS’ recommendation on SPF protection.

Shade’s response to this is: “As SPF25 protects you from 96% of the sun’s harmful UVB rays which cause burning, we believe that users will not be as complacent as they would be about using a high SPF. Also, very high SPF is only achievable with chemical active ingredients, something we’re trying to avoid. We also believe some sun is good for your skin, triggering the synthesis of Vitamin D, which is vital for optimum health. We are inclined to agree with the USA’s Environmental Working Group about the pitfalls of high SPF products. You can read them here.”

Our Top Environmentally friendly sunscreens

SunscreenSPF ratingOcean/reef safeVegan/cruelty freePlastic free
Green People Sun Lotion30YesYesYes
Badger Company Sunscreen30YesYesNo
Shade All Natural Sunscreen25YesYesYes
Child’s Farm Sun Cream50YesYesNo
Lucy Bee SPF 30 Face Serum30YesYesNo
Wild Rose Moisturising SPF 3030YesYesNo

We haven’t listed prices for the sunscreens above as these will vary by size and depending on when and where you are purchasing these products. Please note that in some cases different versions are available for adults and children but otherwise don’t let any branding deter you – they are fine for children and adults alike.

You can find us on Facebook by searching for Plastic Free Home or at www.facebook.com/plasticfreehomeuk.

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