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The Sustainability Of Sunscreen: What To Look For

7 mins read. Published on 06 May 23, Updated on 01 Jun 23.
The Sustainability Of Sunscreen: What To Look For

Sunscreen has become a staple in our lives, especially during the summer months. We all know the importance of protecting our skin from harmful UV rays, but have you ever stopped to think about the sustainability of sunscreen?

Many sunscreen brands use harmful chemicals and come in non-recyclable plastic packaging. This can cause harm to both our environment and our skin. In this article, we will discuss what to look for when choosing a sustainable sunscreen that not only protects your skin but also supports the environment.

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What Is Sunscreen Made Of?

Sunscreen is made up of a combination of active and inactive ingredients. Sunscreen works by either absorbing or reflecting harmful UV radiation, thus protecting the skin from sunburn and other harmful effects. Active ingredients are the ones that do the actual work of blocking or reflecting UV rays, while inactive ingredients help to make the sunscreen spreadable, easy to apply, and moisturizing.

Active Ingredients in Sunscreen

The most common active ingredients in sunscreen include mineral and chemical compounds. Mineral sunscreens use minerals like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to create a physical barrier that reflects UV rays. Chemical sunscreens use organic compounds like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone, which absorb UV radiation and convert it into heat that keeps the skin cool.

Inactive Ingredients in Sunscreen

Inactive ingredients in sunscreen include emulsifiers, preservatives, and binding agents. Emulsifiers help to mix the active and inactive ingredients, preservatives prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in the product, and binding agents keep the sunscreen on the skin and improve its water-resistance.

When shopping for sunscreen, it's essential to consider the ingredients used and their sustainability. Look for mineral-based sunscreens that avoid harsh chemical compounds that can harm the environment, as well as packaging materials that are recyclable or compostable. By choosing sustainable sunscreen options and using them responsibly, you can enjoy the sun without jeopardizing the health of the planet.

Chemical Vs. Physical Sunscreen

There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and converting them into heat that is then released from the skin. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, create a physical barrier between the skin and UV rays by reflecting them.

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens usually contain a large number of ingredients that could be harmful to the environment. They can also cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in some people. Chemical sunscreens have also been linked to coral bleaching, which is causing significant damage to marine ecosystems.

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, use natural minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to form a physical barrier on the skin. These minerals are generally considered safe for both humans and the environment. Physical sunscreens are also less likely to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.

When choosing a sunscreen it's important to consider the impact it may have on the environment. Many eco-conscious brands are now producing sustainable sunscreen options that use natural, non-toxic ingredients and sustainable packaging materials.

The Impact Of Chemicals On The Environment

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are made up of several active chemical ingredients that absorb the sun's harmful UV rays. However, the chemicals used in these sunscreens can have a negative impact on the environment. When we swim or shower, these chemicals can wash off our skin and enter our waterways. Oxybenzone, one of the commonly used chemicals in chemical sunscreens, can bleach and damage coral reefs, which impacts the entire ocean ecosystem.

Mineral Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use natural minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to physically block UV rays from penetrating the skin. They are less likely to have negative impacts on the environment, as they are not absorbed into the skin and do not wash off easily. However, the production of these minerals can have some environmental impact, as it requires mining and refining.


The packaging of sunscreens can also have an impact on the environment. Products that are packaged in plastic can contribute to the growing plastic waste problem. Look for products that use recycled materials or come in environmentally friendly packaging, such as biodegradable or refillable options.


Aside from the active ingredients, it's important to also consider the other ingredients included in your sunscreen. Some ingredients, such as parabens and synthetic fragrances, can also have negative impacts on the environment. Look for products that use natural, organic, and sustainably sourced ingredients.

Overall, when shopping for sunscreen, it's important to consider both its effectiveness in protecting your skin and its impact on the environment. By choosing a sunscreen with natural and eco-friendly ingredients, and packaging, you can help to ensure the sustainability of our planet.

The Impact Of Physical Sunscreen On The Environment

Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen, is made with natural, physical UV blockers such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These minerals reflect harmful UV rays away from the skin, providing effective protection from the sun. However, the impact of physical sunscreen on the environment has become a growing concern.

Coral Reefs

Studies have shown that physical sunscreen can be harmful to coral reefs, which are already under threat due to climate change. When people swim in the ocean wearing sunscreen, the minerals in the sunscreen can wash off and accumulate in the water surrounding the coral reefs. This can cause the coral to bleach and ultimately die.


Physical sunscreen can also harm marine wildlife, such as fish and turtles. When physical sunscreen washes off in the water, it can be ingested by these animals. This can cause a variety of health issues, including reproductive problems and even death.

The Environment

In addition to harming coral reefs and marine wildlife, physical sunscreen can also harm the broader environment. The minerals in the sunscreen can accumulate in the water, soil, and air, potentially contaminating the environment.

Eco-friendly Sunscreen Ingredients

When shopping for sunscreen, it is important to consider the impact that the ingredients may have on the environment. Here are some eco-friendly sunscreen ingredients to look for:

Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide is a mineral-based sunscreen ingredient that provides excellent protection against UV rays. It is also biodegradable and does not harm marine life.

Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is another mineral-based sunscreen ingredient that is often paired with zinc oxide. It is also biodegradable and does not harm marine life.

Non-Nano Particles

Non-nano particles are larger particles that do not penetrate the skin, making them safer for the environment. Nano-sized particles can be harmful to aquatic life and can enter the food chain through small organisms.

Reef-Safe Ingredients

Reef-safe ingredients are those that do not harm coral reefs. Chemical sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate have been shown to damage coral reefs and contribute to coral bleaching. Look for sunscreens that are labeled as "reef-safe."

By choosing sunscreens that contain eco-friendly ingredients, we can help protect the environment and ensure that our personal care products are sustainable.

How To Choose A Sustainable Sunscreen

Choosing a sustainable sunscreen involves examining the ingredients, manufacturing process, packaging, and the company's overall impact on the environment. Here are some tips to help you select a sunscreen that aligns with your eco-conscious values:

Look For Mineral-Based Sunscreens

Mineral-based sunscreens use ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block UV rays. These ingredients are less harmful to marine life and the environment than chemical sunscreens, which can contain chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate that can damage coral reefs and harm marine ecosystems.

Check the Packaging

Choose a sunscreen that comes in a recyclable container or in minimal packaging. Avoid aerosol sprays, which are difficult to recycle and harmful to the environment. Opt for sunscreens in tube packaging or non-aerosol pump bottles.

Choose a Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Look for sunscreens labeled as "reef safe," which indicates the product does not contain chemicals that harm coral reefs. Make sure you check the label to ensure it does not contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, or other harmful chemicals.

Research the Company's Environmental Impact

Consider researching the company's overall environmental impact to ensure the sunscreen aligns with your values. Look for certifications such as the Leaping Bunny or the USDA Organic seal, which indicate the company undergoes rigorous testing and does not use harmful chemicals or animal testing in the production process.

DIY Options For Sustainable Sunscreen

For those who are interested in sustainable living, making your own sunscreen can be a great option. By doing so, you can control the ingredients that go into your sunscreen and ensure that they are eco-friendly. Here are a few ingredients commonly used in DIY sunscreen:

Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide is a popular ingredient in natural sunscreens as it provides broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays. It is a common ingredient in DIY sunscreen for the same reason. However, it is important to note that zinc oxide can be harmful to marine life if not disposed of properly.


Beeswax is often used in DIY sunscreens to help the sunscreen stay on the skin. It is a natural and eco-friendly alternative to synthetic waxes often used in commercial sunscreens. Just make sure to source your beeswax from a reputable supplier who practices sustainable beekeeping.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a common ingredient in many natural skincare products, including sunscreen. It is a great moisturizer and can also help provide a natural SPF. It is important to note that using coconut oil alone as a sunscreen is not recommended as it only provides minimal protection.

While DIY sunscreen can be a fun and eco-friendly alternative to commercial products, it is important to do your research and ensure the ingredients you use are safe for your skin and the environment.

The Importance Of Sunscreen For Overall Health And Wellness

Sunscreen is an essential component of any skincare routine, and its importance goes beyond the prevention of sunburns. Exposure to the sun's harmful UV rays can lead to skin cancer, premature aging, and a weakened immune system. Hence, it is critical to protect your skin from the sun's damaging effects, not only for cosmetic reasons but also for your overall health and wellness.

Prevents Skin Cancer

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in every five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. Exposure to UV radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer. However, applying sunscreen with a high SPF can help reduce the risk of skin cancer, making it an essential item in your skincare arsenal.

Slows Down Skin Aging

The sun's UV rays break down collagen and elastin in the skin, leading to wrinkles, fine lines, and other signs of aging. Sunscreens not only protect the skin from burning but also prevent photoaging by blocking UV rays. This means that incorporating sunscreen into your skincare routine can help keep your skin youthful and glowing for longer.

Boosts Immunity

Recent studies have shown that UV exposure can suppress the immune system. Overexposure to the sun can lead to an increase in the number of cancerous and pre-cancerous skin cells, leading to a suppressed immune system. However, using sunscreen can help counteract this effect, ensuring that your immune system remains strong and healthy.

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