Is Your Sunscreen Green?

June 8, 2009

As you are trotting out the door for a weekend of fun, ask yourself this: have you given any thought to sunscreen?   For decades now, we’ve been concerned about the ozone layer and global warming.  But what about your skin?  Is the sunscreen you’re wearing making the problem better or worse?  As you protect yourself from the sun, what are you doing to the planet?

Most of us know that everything we use, whether we’re speaking of laundry soap or lipstick, at some point winds up in the environment, where some of it has the potential to wreak havoc.  And that includes sunscreen.

Think about it: you put it on your face and run out the door.  Whether it is sweated off or simply floats away in the pool, it’s often “gone” by the time you come home at the end of the day.  And since we know “magic sunscreen elves” didn’t remove it, it had to go somewhere. 

What’s in that sunscreen you rub on your shoulders?  Most UV-protection creams sold in the United States contain some combination of as many as 17 FDA-approved active ingredients. Two of those, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are minerals; the rest are carbon-based chemicals such as octinoxate, oxybenzone and octisalate, each of which might go by a number of different names.

With these classes of ingredients, there are concerns over the minerals, including the increased usage of new nano-formulations of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Though studies suggest that these tiny particles are better at blocking UV rays than are their larger counterparts, and though a number of studies have shown that they don't penetrate healthy skin, many skeptics say not enough research has been done to substantiate safety claims. Certain chemical ingredients, on the other hand, may penetrate the skin and act as endocrine disrupters, affecting users' hormones and reproductive functions.

Human health and planetary health aren't the same thing, but they are related: Any mineral or chemical that might be harmful to humans could damage wildlife and destabilize ecosystems. Though the studies aren't exhaustive, researchers have found chemical UV filters in lakes, oceans and rivers around the world, with the highest concentrations found near wastewater treatment plants.

The accumulation of both kinds of UV filters in the water is troubling to some toxicologists because of their potential to build up inside the cells of fish and other marine life. A series of studies conducted in Switzerland found two of these commonly used chemicals inside fish living in rivers and lakes, though the reports didn't indicate that the animals' overall health was suffering.

Fewer data are available on the major UV filters used in the United States. Researchers at the University of California at Riverside did test the effects of one common ingredient, oxybenzone, on two fish species. They found that it diminished reproductive abilities, but only at concentrations much higher than those observed in suspected areas of contamination in California and New York.

In the wake of this science -- and, it seems, out of a general sense that minerals are more "natural" than chemicals -- many green-minded folks are switching from chemical sunscreens to the zinc or titanium varieties. But those haven't been proved 100 percent safe for our ecosystems, either.

There's also the production of sunscreen to worry about. The mining and processing of minerals is resource-intensive and environmentally taxing. Creating titanium dioxide can result in large amounts of iron sulfate waste or smaller amounts of the more hazardous iron chloride waste. Manufacturing the nano-size versions may require plenty of extra energy plus more purifying solvent, which generates significant amounts of waste that may be hazardous, depending on the solvent used.

It's hard to tell exactly how the chemicals stack up in terms of production, because manufacturers aren’t required to release their exact formulations. (As an industry, though, metal mining releases more than twice the amount of toxic chemicals as the chemicals industry, according to the EPA.)

Of course, there are other ways to protect your skin at the beach, such as hats, umbrellas, and maximum coverage clothing.  All of which would help you go green and at the same time, stay pale.


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