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Chasing summer? Here’s advice on how to find sunscreen that's good for the environment - and for you

Not all "reef safe" sunscreens are good for the environment. Scientists and dermatologists share their favourites.

Not all "reef safe" sunscreens are good for the environment. Scientists and dermatologists share their favourites.

Published Jun 2, 2022

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By Natalie B. Compton

For customers taking a snorkelling expedition in Maui, PacWhale Eco-Adventures lists packing suggestions on its website. Among the essentials, there are hats, sunglasses, cameras and towels - but no mention of sunscreen.

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Hawaii bans some types of sunscreen, so the company instead details a policy that's more about what not to bring: "We support the statewide ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate."

Hawaii was the first state to enact such legislation, but it is not the only popular tourist destination to do so. If you're planning on a vacation with lots of time in the water, it may be time to re-evaluate your buying habits.

Key West, Aruba, Palau, Bonaire and national parks in Thailand are just some of the places to act since research has shown products containing the common sunscreen chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate can wash away from skin and damage coral reefs.

There are still plenty of sunscreens to keep your skin safe - and the water cleaner - on vacation.

Here are five tips from scientists and dermatologists on how to identify them.

Not all "reef safe" options are the real deal

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As you shop, it's important to scan the ingredients. (Warning, we're about to get into a bunch of chemical names that are easy to gloss over.) PacWhale Eco-Adventures recommends making sure the sunscreen is non-nano zinc oxide based and that does not contain the following ingredients of concern: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate.

If you're worried that any "reef safe" sunscreen is not effective, rest easy; there are good ones out there. "You're not deciding between your skin and the coral reefs," says Kenneth Howe, an associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital and dermatologist at UnionDerm. "It's a win-win for everybody."

Look for mineral (not chemical) sunscreens

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There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens absorb UVA and UVB light, while mineral sunscreens physically block them with active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

While you can find chemical sunscreens that don't have those environmentally-concerning ingredients, experts recommend choosing a mineral sunscreen instead.

"There is some conflicting evidence, but the best available information indicates that some of the mineral products like zinc oxide seem to be the least damaging to coral reefs."

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Craig Downs, executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), who's co-authored studies on sunscreen's impact on coral reefs, says mineral options are also the way to go as their main ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are the only sunscreen ingredients approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"And there are some really nice mineral sunscreen products out there that apply as a white cream, but as you rub it in, the white disappears, and it's translucent," Downs says in an email. "What is really fantastic about these 'disappearing' creams is that you can see what skin is being covered when you apply it and what isn't."

Ditch sunscreen sprays altogether

If it's not getting on your skin, it's getting into your surroundings. "This is a source of environmental contamination," Downs says. PEXELS

An easy rule of thumb for your sunscreen shopping: Avoid spray cans.

Downs says HEL recommends against aerosol or spray cans because they don't guarantee even or sufficient application, especially outside. "The wind can drive as much as 90% from the can to the surrounding environment," he says. "And that spray can travel at least a quarter of a mile away."

If it's not getting on your skin, it's getting into your surroundings. "This is a source of environmental contamination," Downs says.

There is also the concern of inhaling sunscreen spray. "That's both inhalation of the ingredients in the product as well as of small particles of sunscreen," Andrews says. "That's of concern, especially when (researchers) found that some products out there (were) releasing particles that could be inhaled deep into the lungs."

Seek shade and pack more cover-ups

While sunscreen can help travellers protect their skin from UV rays, it's not the only way.

"We recommend sunscreen alongside really the use of hats, clothing and seeking shade," Downs says.

Howe encourages people to find clothes with built-in UV protection. "I've worn a sun shirt for the past 20 years, and it doesn't take me nearly as long to put on sunscreen," he says. "I put it on the backs of my hands and everywhere that's exposed, from the neck up and my legs."

You can shop for specialised garments that have a tight weave or have their threads coated to absorb and reflect more ultraviolet light (check out companies such as Coolibar or BloqUV).

To test your own clothes for sun protection, Howe has a simple tip. "If you hold it up to the light, and you can see a lot of light streaming through, it's not going to work," he says.

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