Choose Reef and Human Safe Sunscreen

January 21, 2020

safe sunscreen
One of my biggest pet peeves is being on a boat in Hawaii, about to jump in the beautiful ocean to swim with dolphins, when someone on the boat pulls out an aerosol container of chemical-laden sunscreen. As they spray their body, the wind predictably carries the chemicals in my direction as I inhale the ever familiar fragrance of sunscreen. It truly takes everything in me to not strongly share my opinion with this individual about their current life choice. To me, it’s equivalent to smoking a cigarette and blowing the second hand smoke directly in the face of everyone on the boat and then throwing the used cigarette butt overboard as chemical litter. Simply put, the negative effects of chemical sunscreen far outweighs any potential benefits.


Hawaii Bans Chemical Sunscreens

Fortunately, the State of Hawaii (pet peeve or not) agrees that this action is harmful and must be stopped to protect our oceans. The Hawaii State Legislature passed a bill last month banning the local sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate beginning January 1, 2021. These two chemicals are known to inhibit the growth and reproduction of coral reefs but it’s not great for our health either! There is significant amount of research supporting the negative health effects of chemical sunscreens for humans.


The Problem with Chemical Sunscreens

Did you know, the chemicals in sunscreen can be detected in breast milk, urine, and blood up to two days after only one application? These chemicals are so widespread that they can be detected in nearly every American. Many of the chemical sunscreens are considered endocrine disruptors, and can act similarly to estrogen in the body. Excess estrogen is not exactly ideal for maintaining a balanced endocrine system. Chemical sunscreens may contribute to infertility, and increase the risk of estrogen driven conditions like endometriosis and possibly increase the risk of estrogen sensitive cancers like breast, ovarian, and prostate. In a recent evaluation of CDC-collected exposure data for American children, researchers found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had significantly lower total testosterone levels (Scinicariello 2016).


Which Sunscreens Are Safe?

There are two different types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens work by soaking into your skin, needing 20 minutes to take effect. These are great at blocking the sun although need to be reapplied often. Chemical sunscreens are used up as the sun shines on them and can lose as much as 90% of their effectiveness within one hour. When chemical sunscreens are absorbed into your skin, they also spread through the rest of your body. Mineral sunscreens, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, work by sitting on the surface of your skin to block UV light.

The bill doesn’t mandate using reef safe sunscreen until 2021 but you don’t have to wait! Protect your health and our environment now and use caution when choosing sunscreens. Just like food labels, it can be incredibly confusing to find the best products with modern marketing and misleading labels.  Some sunscreens claim to be “reef-friendly” or “reef-safe” and are actually not ideal.


Active Ingredients:

Avoid: Oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and nanoparticles as active ingredients.

Choose: Mineral based sunscreens with active ingredients non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.


Inactive Ingredients:

Avoid: Methylisothiazolinone – this preservative is often used with chemical preservatives and may also be called methylchloroisothiazolinone. In 2013, The American Contact Dermatitis Society named this ingredient “allergen of the year” as it is a common cause of skin allergies even found in “hypoallergenic” products like baby wipes and cosmetics.

Choose: Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinol) – Vitamin A is an amazing nutrient, but studies suggest that it shouldn’t live in your sunscreen. Vitamin A with sunlight may increase the risk of skin cancer growth.


The Difference Between UVA and UVB Radiation

The goal of sunscreen is to block UV radiation. UV radiation suppresses the immune system and damages cellular DNA that causes mutation in the skin which can lead to skin cancer.  There are two types of UV radiation, UVA and UVB. It was once thought that only UVB radiation was of concern, but we keep learning more and more about the damage caused by UVA radiation.  Both UVA and UVB penetrate the atmosphere and play an important role in conditions such as premature skin aging, eye damage (including cataracts), and skin cancers.

UVB tends to damage the skin’s more superficial epidermal layers, and is the chief cause of sunburns. The most significant amount of UVB hits the earth between 10am and 4pm.

UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, and has been known to play a major part in skin aging and wrinkling. UVA causes mutations in skin cells that can lead to basal and squamous cell cancers. UVA is the dominant tanning ray and causes cumulative damage over time. The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun. Not surprisingly, people who use tanning salons are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. It is also believed that UV radiation may play a role in the development of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

A quick and simple way to remember the difference between the two is UVB burns and UVA accelerates aging.


How to Understand Your Sunscreen Ingredients

Now go grab your sunscreen. First, check to see if you have a mineral (physical) or chemical sunscreen. Next, I want you to note the active ingredients and find it on the FDA approved ingredient list below. The circles next to the ingredient indicates how well it blocks UVA or UVB radiation. The darker the circle, the better the protection.

You want your sunscreen to be broad-spectrum, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB radiation fully (indicated by two dark circles). Some sunscreens will combine ingredients, in order to be broad spectrum. Notice that Zinc Oxide is the only ingredient that covers both UVA and UVB radiation fully. This mineral or physical blocking agent is also better for you and better for our environment.

FDA Monograph Sunscreen Ingredients

The Environmental Working Group produces a fantastic Sunscreen Guide every year to help you navigate through the latest products. You can also use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database guide to receive a rating of how toxic your sunscreen is, as well as check other personal care products like makeup and lotion. Each ingredient will list any proven adverse health effects to help you navigate through confusing ingredient lists. They even have a Healthy Living App to scan barcodes while you are shopping to help pick out the healthiest products at the store.


What Else Can I Do?

C E Ferulic Antioxidant Serum

This product by SkinCeuticals is not cheap, but delivers 8x the skin’s natural protection against photoaging so you can decide if it’s worth the cost. According to the company it neutralizes free radicals (which are created by UV radiation and cause damage to our skin cells), builds collagen, and has been shown to reduce sunburn cells up to 96% in UV irradiated skin. Once absorbed, the serum cannot be washed or rubbed off remaining effective for a minimum of 72 hours which make it a great addition to sunscreen.



Astaxanthin: Astaxanthin is a carotenoid found in marine animals and vegetables which has been shown to protect human cells against UVA. This antioxidant works similarly to the topical antioxidant serum but internally by cleaning up free radicals created from UV radiation inside your body. Many people in Hawaii claim it prevents sunburns.

Vitamin D: While vitamin D is not a supplement that will protect you from the sun, it is created by the sun so I felt it should be addressed. Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin because it is manufactured when UVB rays interact with the skin. It can also be found in some food sources like the flesh of fatty fish and small amounts in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Most Americans are deficient in this vitamin despite regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is important for bone health, immune function, and cancer prevention. Talk to your doctor about testing your vitamin D levels to see if supplementation is right for you.



People underestimate the power of food and forget about how important a proper diet is for disease prevention, including skin cancer and protection from UV radiation. A case controlled study from the National Cancer Institute found that consumption of alcohol and hydrogenated vegetable oils increased the risk of melanoma, whereas vegetables, fish, fruit, and whole grains decreased the risk. Drinking both black and green tea have also been shown to lower the risk of skin cancers. Similarly to the topical and supplement antioxidant UV protection listed above, eating a diet high in antioxidants can also prevent the free radical damage caused by UV radiation plays an important role in preventing all cancer, including skin cancer.


Skin Protection Tips

The best protection from the sun is avoidance, but that limits fun. Here are some quick tips to keep your skin healthy from UV damage:

  • Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV- blocking sunglasses
  • Avoid sunburns, tanning, and tanning beds
  • Try to seek shade, especially during peak UV hours: 10am to 4pm
  • Examine your skin head-to-toe regularly for any changing or suspicious moles or spots
  • See your physician regularly for a professional skin exam

Please, please, please the next time you spray or lather sunscreen on yourself or your loved ones, check the active ingredients and minimize the impact of harmful chemicals on the body and our environment. There are plenty of better, safer options. First and second-hand chemical sunscreen use needs to be stopped for healthy hormone balance and healthy oceans!

Dolphins in Hawaii
Safe Sunscreen