Sunscreen lotion: why is it harmful and what are safe alternatives?

Sunscreen lotion: why is it harmful and what are safe alternatives ?

One of the most frequently heard warnings, which we hear as soon as the temperature outside soars beyond 25°C is the warning to make sure you apply enough sunscreen.

Whenever I read those warnings, I always shrug my shoulders and sometimes even get a little angry because most people have no idea how much lotion is actually needed to give proper protection, resulting in improper and expensive protection that is harmful to the environment while excessive use can even harm your own health.

To be honest, I never really liked the feeling of sunscreen lotion on my skin, and even when I was dutifully using it during holidays in sunny countries , I'd  simply forget to re-apply enough on time.
When it comes to what is enough: it is surprising how much you need to actually protect yourself from sunburn!
Experts advice to use as much as 30ml or a shot glass to cover the entire body and keep reapplying every two hours. When you spend a lot of time outdoors, the costs quickly add up!

Why is sunscreen bad for the environment?

We are warned to protect our skin from ultraviolet rays in order to prevent skin cancer. However, researchers recently concluded that chemicals found in all commercially available sunscreens, even reef-safe sunscreen, pose serious threats to the environment, particularly coral reefs, and marine organisms. This begs the question, are reef-safe sunscreen possible? 

In 2008, evidence was found that common ingredients in sunscreen can bleach coral reefs. Sunscreen manufacturers responded to this discovery by creating ‘reef safe’ sunscreens, using alternative UV filters like zinc oxide. However, recent research shows that these options are no safer for the environment.

During recreational activities and water sports in natural waters, sunscreen washes off people’s skin to disperse in the surrounding environment. Some chemicals in the lotion can be absorbed through the skin and detected in urine within 30 minutes of application.
Thus, they enter sewers or septic tanks when people flush the toilet or wash off sunscreen in the shower. In towns near bodies of water without sophisticated sewage treatment and water management systems, sunscreen pollution is inevitable.

There are two kinds of sunscreen available in stores. They work in different ways, but the active ingredients in both types harm the environment.

Chemical (organic): chemical sunscreens are the most commonly used sunscreen. They absorb and reduce UV rays’ ability to penetrate the skin.

Their most common active ingredients – oxybenzone, butylparaben, and octinoxate – were identified as environmentally harmful in a 2008 study. Researchers found that the chemicals can activate latent viral infections in the symbiotic microalgae that the corals rely on for nutrition. Studies that followed further demonstrated chemical sunscreen’s harmful impact on coral reefs and marine organisms.
According to a 2015 study, “we found that oxybenzone induces coral bleaching by lowering the temperature at which corals will bleach when exposed to prolonged heat stress. We also showed that oxybenzone is genotoxic, meaning that it damages coral DNA as well as induces severe and lethal deformities. Most alarmingly, we determined that oxybenzone also acts as an endocrine disruptor.”

Physical (mineral or inorganic): The second type, often marketed as ‘environmentally-friendly’ and ‘reef safe’, is still less popular than chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens block or reflect both UVA and UVB rays but leave a whitish tinge on people’s skin and are often oily and difficult to rub in.

The most common ingredients in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. A recently published study found that non-coated zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles (less than 35 nanometers in diameter), in other words, so-called reef-safe sunscreen, can be toxic to corals, fish, and other reef organisms.

Sunscreen overall: Aside from the primary, active ingredients, many other chemicals in sunscreen are potentially toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Methoxycinnamate and camphor are endocrine disruptors to humans and wildlife.

Plant-based oils can be toxic to reef organisms as well. Chrysanthemum oil contains Pyrethrins, which are highly toxic to marine species.

Neem, eucalyptus, and lavender oils are used as insect repellents or insecticides, suggesting they may also be toxic to invertebrates. Ultimately, organic ingredients are not necessarily safe.

Are there any environmentally and reef-safe sunscreens?

Despite numerous studies indicating that the primary active ingredients in chemical and physical sunscreens damage marine environments, some experts argue that further research is needed. They postulate that studies undertaken in lab environments may fail to capture conditions on the reef, where pollutants are quickly dispersed and diluted. However, while the concentrations of sunscreen ingredients used in some research may be higher than those in natural environments, the negative impact of these chemicals on aquatic organisms is unmistakable.

Considering this, consumers might feel discouraged in their effort to protect their skin and the environment simultaneously. Yet there is hope for the future; scientists in Florida are working on a sunscreen based on a UV-absorbing active ingredient from algae.

In the meantime, the following rules of thumb will help consumers choose the most environmentally and reef-safe sunscreen available.

  • Finish using the sunscreen already purchased. It will end up in the environment regardless, so throwing is wasteful and ineffective.
  • Be discerning. Most sunscreens that are marketed as environmentally friendly are not.
  • Read labels carefully. Avoid sunscreens with the following chemicals: Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, nano-Titanium dioxide, Methoxycinnamate, nano-Zinc oxide, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate.
  • Organic does not mean safe. Research plant-based oils and avoid those that are toxic to living organisms.
  • Do not use spray-on sunscreen. While spray-on sunscreens are popular for their easy application, they are one of the worst possible options. Much of the stream ends up in the environment without ever protecting anyone’s skin. It is also unhealthy to inhale.
  • Choose plastic-free packaging. At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and 80% of all marine waste is plastic. Marine organisms ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, causing injuries and death. Companies concerned about the environmental impact of their product typically choose to avoid plastic packaging and containers, opting for recyclable, non-plastic options.
  • Look for non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based physical sunscreens produced by transparent companies. Researchers found that non-nanotised (above 150 nanometers in diameter) coated zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do not readily exhibit acute toxicities.
  • Cover exposed skin with hats and long sleeves rather than wearing sunscreen. While this is the only truly environmentally friendly option, skin cancer is still a concern on the face, neck, and hands.
There are several non-nano zinc oxide-based physical sunscreens that satisfy most, if not all, of these guidelines available. The slightly oily consistency and slight white skin tint upon application may deter some consumers, while the short list of easily recognisable natural ingredients attracts others.

Can you replace sunscreen by clothes?

Researchers in the USA set out to test various types of clothing to find out how well they protect your skin from the sun. To do this, they measured the broad-spectrum UV protection offered by three different categories:

  • common clothing garments — t-shirts and jeans
  • UV sun-protective clothing — rash guards, athletic shirts, and swimsuits
  • commercially available sunscreens


Interestingly enough, all of the tested fabrics provided better broad-spectrum coverage than sunscreens, with the exception of one chemical sunscreen ingredient, avobenzone.

Which clothing provides the best sun protection?

Some types of clothing performed notably better than others. Nylon bathing suits, denim jeans, and dark-colored cotton shirts offered the highest amount of UV protection. All of the fabrics tested, except for white cotton shirts, provided greater than 50 UPF (ultraviolet protective factor), making them highly effective barriers to UV light.

Although wearing denim jeans is not always practical on hot summer days, especially when on the beach or out on a boat, wearing sun protective clothing is crucial to keeping your skin protected from the damaging effects of the sun. There are now many different clothing brands that specialize in UV protective clothing.

The most important advantage of wearing sun-protective clothing and head protection is that it is the simplest way to stay safe, since unlike sunscreen, you never need to reapply!

Antioxidant-rich foods can protect you against sun damage.

Consuming a healthy diet full of natural sun blocking antioxidants is a useful strategy to ensure your body has the best defense against skin cancer. Carotenoids are the compounds that give foods their vibrant color from the green leafy vegetables to the red beets, to the yellow and orange-colored fruits and vegetables.

These carotenoids act as natural sunscreens to the plants and offer us the same benefit. Not only do these nutrients offer us a level of natural sunscreen but they also have the antioxidant free radical scavenging activity that helps protect the cells from oxidative damage which may lead into cancer development.

Eat foods that provide UV protection, including:
  • Dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies: these are loaded with skin-protecting antioxidants and have been shown to be cancer-protective in general.
  • Red and orange fruits and veggies: oranges, red peppers, tomatoes, and carrots. Eat a variety of these for skin protecting lycopene and beta-carotene.
  • Drink green tea: green tea has been shown to help prevent non-melanoma skin cancer, and it’s full of polyphenols, which help inhibit cancer development.
  • Eat the right oils: consuming healthy oils, including coconut, olive, sesame, borage, evening primrose, and avocado helps keep your skin healthy and more resistant to sun damage. Incidentally, putting oils such as coconut and olive on your skin blocks about 20% of UV rays.
  • Apply Vitamin E: applying a natural form of vitamin E to your skin, such as alpha-tocopherol or tocotrienol, has been shown to protect skin from the sun and as an added bonus, to reduce the length and depth of wrinkles.
  • Soothe with Aloe Vera: aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin. It’s the perfect thing to apply if you’ve spent a bit too much time in the sun. Some people also use aloe vera on their skin regularly because it calms and relieves any irritation or redness.
  • Beta-carotene : sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, collard greens and most yellow/orange veggies
  • Lycopene: tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, pink guava, pink grapefruit, persimmons, red cabbage
  • Lutein :spinach, kale, peas, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, broccoli
  • Epi­gallocatechin gallate (ECGC)and polyphenols: green and black tea, rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, cocoa. Study found that people who drink one cup of tea per day have a lower incidence of melanoma.
  • Flavonoids : citrus, especially citrus peel
  • Proanthocyanadins : cacao, grape seeds
  • Cruciferous veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale
  • Vitamin C: citrus, strawberries, kiwi, peppers(capsicum). Vitamin C is great for helping kill off free radicals that your body produces in response to the cellular damaged caused by exposure to sunlight.
  • Astaxanthin: microalgae (Haematococcus pluvialis), wild salmon, krill and shellfish.

Other foods that may offer protection against sun damage and reduces the risk of skin cancer are olive oil, omega 3 fatty acids and nuts and seeds due to their vitamin E.

Astaxanthin in more detail

Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant that helps prevent sun damage to the body by blocking free radical damage. This bright red molecule forms in certain algae, pink seafood, and yeast. Unlike beta-carotene, this carotenoid crosses the blood-brain barrier to help maintain healthy brain function. Astaxanthin helps the brain by promoting neurogenesis, the generation of new brain neurons. This nutrient also supports existing neurons by reducing oxidative stress. Scientists have found that astaxanthin can protect against cumulative sun damage to the eye. This nutrient may help reduce the risk of eye disease such as macular degeneration. It may also protect against cataracts and vision loss from glaucoma. In addition, related carotenoids called lutein and zeaxanthin block blue light and work synergistically with astaxanthin.

Astaxanthin also boosts the immune system, and has certain anti-cancer properties.

Why is sun damage a problem?

The sun releases both blue light and ultraviolet radiation. Since humans evolved on earth, why is sun damage a problem for us? We have some built-in mechanisms, but they are not quite enough.
Melanin in the skin increases on exposure to the sun. This dark pigment provides natural protection from UV light. The lighter your skin, the more susceptible you are to sun damage.

Melanin in the pupil helps protect the eye from sunlight. The darker the eye color, the more protection. Blue eyes and pink/red-looking albino eyes are most susceptible.

Some theorize that cataracts may be the body’s last-ditch attempt to protect the macula from free radical damage. Acting as internal sunglasses, cataracts grow slowly and provide sun protection. Unfortunately, cataracts also reduce clear vision, and can ultimately result in blindness unless treated when they get to a mature or ripened stage.

Why algae don’t get sunburned

Algae grow well in sunny waters, yet sun damage isn't a problem for algae. Algae contain the carotenoid astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant. It is 50 times more potent than vitamin E and 500 more potent than Vitamin C in neutralizing free radicals. Protected from ultraviolet radiation, algae get their energy directly from the sun through photosynthesis. They are at the bottom of the food chain, providing nourishment to many species.

Research on astaxanthin and free radical damage

We find astaxanthin in pink seafood such as salmon, krill, crab, shrimp, crayfish, lobster, and trout. They get astaxanthin from eating a microalgae, Haematococcus pluvialis. Farmed salmon may have much less astaxanthin than wild salmon.

Astaxanthin is credited with supporting macular degeneration, heart health, gastric ulcers, cancer, acid reflux, arthritis, and sunburn. As one of the most powerful antioxidants, this substance reduces inflammation and oxidative stress.

The blood-brain barrier protects the brain and other neural tissue from unwanted chemicals. Astaxanthin crosses the blood-brain barrier. The eye’s retina is neural tissue. Therefore, astaxanthin can reach the eye directly.

For such a small organ, the eye is nutrient-hungry. Its tiny structures are highly susceptible to free radical damage from the sun and other sources. Scientists are further researching the effects of astaxanthin on the brain, as well as on the eye diseases macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts.

Research on astaxanthin and the brain

One study gave seniors who had age-related memory loss 6mg to 12mg of astaxanthin per day for 12 weeks. People who took either amount of this antioxidant had significant improved reaction time.

Research on astaxanthin and the eyes

Astaxanthin appeared to reduce damage to the retina from elevated intraocular pressure. This study on rats may point to treatments for glaucoma.

Cataract formation may be inhibited by astaxanthin. A study verified that astaxanthin protects the lens from fat oxidation, which is triggered by UV exposure.

Macular degeneration is a retinal disease that damages central vision. Free radical damage to the center of the retina is suspected of playing a major role. Experimenting on retinal cells in the lab, researchers found that astaxanthin protected the cells from oxidative stress.

Two more special eye nutrients

Certain nutrients have an amplified effect when they are combined. Researchers have looked at several combinations of the carotenoids astaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin in eye studies.

Importance of sunlight for our health

With all of the negative press the sun is getting due to its harmful UV rays one would almost forget how important sunlight is for the formation of vitamin D in our skin.

A whopping 80 percent or more of the vitamin D we need could come from the sun if we let it. Sunscreen blocks about 97 percent of our body's vitamin D production. On average, a lighter skinned person needs about 20-30 minutes of casual sun exposure on bright days to meet the daily requirement of sunshine vitamin, while dark skinned individuals need as much as two hours.

In case you aren't convinced yet of how important sunlight is for our well-being, we encourage you to watch a lengthy in-depth discussion of its benefits by dr Seheult, who became famous because of his medical podcats during the COVID-pandemic.

Medcram:Light as medicin, optimize health and immunity. On light therapy and melatonin.