woman in sun hat and bathing suit squirting sunscreen into her hand

The Environmental Impact of Sunscreen

Week 22

This week, my husband and I are headed to Seychelles, an island chain just north of Madagascar, for our delayed honeymoon. The primary reason we chose this destination was for its abundant marine life, so obviously, we'll be spending the majority of our time on the beach and in the water. With our fair complexions, this means we'll basically be bathing in sunscreen.

Even when we aren't going on vacation, I apply sunscreen to my face every morning to avoid sun damage. And if I know I'll be outside for extended period of time, I lather my shoulders so as not to burn. Now it's time to find sunscreen that can protect my skin without harming the environment.

Why is sunscreen a problem?

Though I started this week simply looking for plastic-free sunscreens, I learned that the ingredients in popular sunscreen are extremely harmful to aquatic life. Between 6,000 - 10,000 tonnes of sunscreen lotion wind up in coral reef areas every year. The majority of sunscreen brands contain oxybenzone, a UV filtering compound, that is fatal to baby reefs and damaging to adult reefs, which host more than a quarter of all marine fish species. Other sunscreen ingredients, including oxybenzone, have been proven to stunt growth and damage an array of marine life. They are also responsible for decreased fertility and reproduction in fish.

Damaged aquatic life may not feel like a huge deal to us land dwellers, however, oceanic plankton is responsible for producing 50-80% of the oxygen on earth and stores 50% more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere. On top of that, coral reefs are estimated to directly support over 500 million people worldwide.

Another concern is that sunscreen comes in plastic bottles. Plastics are problematic because they are made from non-renewable resources, have limited recyclability, and take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down. Sunscreen bottles, like all plastics, are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, which is harmful for two reasons: manufacturing generates significant pollution and the product is not biodegradable. As Sciencing.com put it, "they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced". Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into tiny micro-plastics that litter our soil, our waterways, and even our air.

Are plastic sunscreen bottles recyclable?

Some are and some aren't. You'll have to check the individual bottle. Note that the recycling symbol does not automatically mean an item is recyclable. That symbol and the number inside of it merely classifies the type of plastic it is made of. Check to see exactly which materials your curbside recyclying accepts before tossing anything in those bins to avoid wishful recycling.

If sunscreen bottles cannot be recycled in your town, you can print out a free shipping label and send them to Terracycle via a program sponsored by Garnier. Or, you can drop them off for recycling at participating Nordstrom stores.

What about metal sunscreen spray bottles?

Aerosol cans are either made of aluminum or steel, both of which are infinitely recyclable. The bottle should be completely empty and the plastic cap removed before throwing it in the bin, but do not attempt to puncture the can, as it will explode. Make sure your local recycling program accepts aerosol cans before throwing it in your recycling bin.

How can I be more sustainable?

One big way to help the environment is to use less sunscreen. I don't mean you shouldn't apply any when you'll be in the sun, I mean wearing hats and clothes that will help protect you skin so that you only need to apply sunscreen to exposed areas. Check back on Wednesday too see how I made a Beach Coverup from an old sheet.

Look for "reef safe" sunscreen that is made without oxybenzone and/or octinoxate and pt for metal tins or glass bottles over plastic. Read my next post for a list of 10 Sustainable Sunscreen Options to help you narrow down your search.

In addition to making small changes at home, consider writing a letter to your favorite sunscreen brand asking for a plastic-free option.

10 Sustainable Sunscreen Options →