Choosing an Eco-friendly Sunscreen
By Sarah Ferriss and Sarah Smith
Summer is here, finally, and we need to use sunscreen to protect our skin. However, there have been increasing reports of potential damage caused by sunscreen to marine life including damage to coral reefs. In addition, there is a bewildering array of sunscreens available, and as a consumer it can be very challenging to know which are the most environmentally friendly. We have undertaken extensive research on eco-friendly sunscreens when deciding what to stock at Green Blue You and are sharing some of our reflections in this blog.
Our starting point was that sunscreens play a key role in protecting our skin from harmful rays of the sun, and we needed to find sunscreens that offered good protection against UVA and UVB rays (at least SPF25 and conformed to EU standards on UVA) but that also avoided chemicals damaging to the environment, were packaged sustainably, and were affordable. With household members ourselves with sensitive skin and allergies the suitability of sunscreens for them was something we were also keen to look out for.
What types of sunscreen are there?
There are two types of sunscreen - mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens provide a physical barrier on your skin and reflect and scatter ultraviolet rays (typically using zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) whereas chemical sunscreens contain synthetic ingredients that absorb into your skin and act like a sponge to soak up the ultraviolet rays and release as heat.
Chemical sunscreens contain synthetic compounds such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, and homosalate. Some of these have been banned for use in places like Hawaii for environmental protection reasons, and the impact of others is poorly understood, with more data needed. We decided that we wanted to avoid all sunscreens that contained these ingredients and decided on balance, to choose sunscreens using a mineral block.
What ingredients in sunscreen should we look out for?
After our initial research, we wanted non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient, in non-plastic packaging (more on packaging later) and to avoid spray-on products. Shade came out on top for us. This brand is available in a non-plastic recyclable tin (making it really easy to apply), has only four ingredients, two of which are organic, and non-nano zinc oxide . We tried Shade ourselves and loved it as a product, especially for the face. However, it’s thicker consistency meant it was a little harder to apply liberally around the body and feedback we received from customers suggested that a lotion like sunscreen was needed for some situations (e.g. on the beach; with children). We decided it was important to offer this kind of choice, otherwise it was less likely that people would move away from the cheaper, more damaging sunscreens.
Green People caught our eye as a company that was highly rated by Ethical Consumer, whose products contained primarily organic ingredients, had strong environmental policies, and who responded in detail to our questions, in an open and transparent way. Their sunscreen does contain nano-titanium dioxide which was an initial concern, so we had extensive discussions with Green People on this as well as undertaking our own research. Green People informed us that the titanium dioxide is coated in silica rendering it inert and therefore unable to cause oxidation if it enters cells. In addition, many studies have produced no evidence that zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles can cross skin/blood barriers in significant amounts. When they are in a cream or lotion, the nano-particles clump together, forming aggregations, which are too large to cross such barriers. In addition our research on the environmental impact of nano titanium dioxide found the scientific literature was mixed and uncertain, with some low level impact in some studies, no impact in others, and nothing conclusive.
We decided that, given Green People’s commitment to ethical sourcing, this was preferable to using a sunscreen with chemicals that had demonstrated negative environmental impacts.
With so many advances in sustainable packaging across so many sectors, we were surprised at the lack of sustainable packaging in the sunscreen industry. Some plastic free brands, like Shade, use tins which are re-usable or recyclable. Cardboard tubes are another option but we felt these could be more difficult to apply when out and about.
In addition, most of the sunscreen lotions were in plastic and so our hunt for tubes made from recycled plastic began. The vast majority of sunscreens we came across were in non-recycled plastic tubes. Though Green People tubes are not made from recycled plastic they are made from bio plastic meaning they have a lower carbon footprint than petroleum based plastic, and are recyclable. In the end, we felt this was a compromise we would need to make. Ultimately our customer will now have a choice between a zero waste tin and what we consider the “next best thing” in terms of packaging in order to have a lotion for more liberal application.
What about price?
During this whole process we were very mindful that price is a key determinant of whether people will or can buy something, and we wanted to stock options that are accessible to people price-wise, especially given how important sunscreen is for the whole family. However, we did find that in general the widely available mainstream chemical sunscreens are cheaper than eco-friendly mineral sunscreens that contain the more expensive ingredients of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. We acknowledge that this remains a barrier for eco-friendly sunscreens and, though we hope that we have provided competitive options, we will continue to research products and will consider opportunities for product promotions and giveaways to help more people access these high quality eco-friendly sunscreens.
We are really pleased to have landed on Shade as non-nano barrier sunscreen in a recyclable or re-usable tin, which is complemented by our Green People sun lotion containing primarily organic ingredients with sustainable sourcing. We are using both ourselves and love them!
It has been a surprisingly fascinating journey to research our sunscreens. We feel there is still a lot more to do on this front, and will keep a close eye on new products and the research. Indeed the US National Academy of Sciences is currently undertaking a review on the state of science on use of sunscreen ingredients, their fate and effects in aquatic environments, and the potential public health implications. We are definitely watching this space.