Many thanks to Hattie Webb for her help researching this post. Go and check out her Instagram for more on sustainability! Post contains some affiliate links, which are the only way I monetise my blog. These do not impact which products are chosen for this piece.
As we move into summer, it becomes more and more important to take care of our skin. While up to 20 minutes in the sun without protection is great for achieving our recommended vitamin D levels, too much time in the sun can wreak havoc on our skin, both immediately (burns, sun spots) and long term (elevated risk of skin cancer, breakdown of elasticity, wrinkles etc).
Many people recommend we wear suncream year round, even on cloudy days (as up to 80% of UV radiation can pass through cloud cover), but with around 25% of the ingredients in the suncream we apply ending up in our waterways, what’s the environmental impact of this?
First off, how do suncreams work?
Sunscreens have one of two “modes of action”. Chemical sunscreens absorb ultraviolet radiation like a sponge, while mineral sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide reflect it back from the surface of the skin like a mirror.
Which is better?
Either can work well, but the latter is better for the environment. Dermatologist Dr Catherine Borysiewicz says:
“Mineral sunscreens with a high sun protection factor, UVA and UVB protection (the former penetrates the skin more deeply but the latter is more intense and the chief cause of sunburn) are as effective as chemical sunscreens, great for people with sensitive skin or inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, and kinder to marine life,” she says. “They went out of fashion because they tended to leave a chalky white layer on the skin, but they are slowly becoming more popular again.”
What are the problematic ingredients?
Certain chemicals, found in many mainstream suncreams, have been found to be damaging to waterways and marine ecosystems. Octinoxate and Oxybenzone have been linked to coral bleaching, actively decreasing our fragile corals’ defences against climate change, and reducing their ability to reproduce and propagate.
Research suggests that coral reefs in Hawaii are exposed to 6,000 – 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion every year, leading the island to ban suncreams containing Octinoxate or Oxybenzone, due to come into effect on 1st Jan 2021. These ingredients aren’t just harmful for corals though – they have also been linked to endocrine disruption in humans, as they can move through the skin and mimic hormones in the body, damaging sperm and reproductive hormones.
So what can we do?
Understanding why certain ingredients are harmful and choosing to avoid them is the best thing we can do to limit the impact our suncream has. Avoid aerosols too, as most of this doesn’t actually make it to the skin, instead coating everything around, including your lungs. Choosing to wear protective clothing to limit the amount of suncream you use not only saves money but will also help protect the environment.
Haereticus Environmental Laboratory also publishes a list each year of what sunscreens are safe for the environment, and the Environmental Working Group rates products with SPF values – including around 650 sunscreens and 250 moisturisers – on their environmental impact.
These are my three favourite brands and products that I try to buy whenever I’m in need of suncream. We may not be heading on holiday any time soon, but the sun is the same sun all around the world, so don’t think that it’s any weaker just because it’s cooler in the UK than your usual holiday destinations! So stock up and let me know your thoughts on these faves.
This is the suncream I use on my face every morning if I’m spending time outside. It’s one of the few I’ve found that is truly mattifying (I like dewy, but there is a limit!), and REN really take their environmental credentials seriously. The bottle is made with recycled plastic and is fully recyclable, and the product is vegan and cruelty free, without any ingredients that are harmful to the environment. I cannot recommend this more as your go-to face suncream!
Tropic’s entire range is certified reef-safe, vegan, cruelty free and has incentives for returning packaging too, to increase circularity. The brand is carbon neutral and sends very little (if any) waste to landfill), although I couldn’t see whether their packaging was recycled or not. Having used their other products before (though not this one), I can thoroughly recommend!
Green People use plant-based, carbon neutral packaging that is fully recyclable, and 30p from each of their sales goes to the Marine Conservation Society, a UK charity protecting our oceans and wildlife. This suncream is obviously certified reef safe too. Its texture takes a bit of getting used to, especially if the suncream is cold, and if you’re used to nicely scented suncreams this may be a bit strange, as it has no perfumes in. However it does the job – I’ve never burned with this suncream and love their aftersun and daily protection (SPF 15) too!