It's holiday time, but is that marine-friendly SPFs really protecting your skin as well as the oceans?
There’s always one that lets the side down. That mate who refuses to participate in fancy dress. The toffee penny in a tin of Quality Street. Your chemical-laden sun lotion...
Yep, before you do a double take, we're talking about your SPF. Because while prep for that annual long weekender in Ibiza now involves biodegradable glitter, vegan make-up and sustainably sourced outfits to boot, it’s a cruel irony that every time you slather your skin with SPF in a bid to protect it, a dip in the ocean will inevitably wash it off.
Even worse, that sun cream can cause real harm to marine life worldwide. It’s why sun care has become beauty’s latest battleground, and the legacy it’s set to leave behind is far from pretty.
The growing commitment we’re all showing to protecting our body’s largest organ from the sun (and props for that, because so you should) has resulted in SPF becoming big business. Transparency Market Research predicts that the global sun care market will be worth a colossal £19.6 billion by 2024.
You’re likely educated in seeking out products that provide UVA and UVB protection, easy application and a lightweight texture – plus the all-important holiday-esque scent – but it’s only recently that consumers have started giving a second thought to the ingredients of their sun lotions.
[pullquote align='left']The global sun care market will be worth a colossal £19.6 billion by 2024[/pullquote]
And it turns out that the labels of some of the biggest brands reveal some of the most toxic ingredients used in sun care that cause serious disruption to the ocean’s ecosystem, which has already been compromised, thanks to climate change.
The main culprits? The three Os: oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene. All three are used in SPF products, as they’re able to absorb harmful UV rays before they can penetrate the skin and cause damage.
Once rubbed in, they cause a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, which is then released by the skin. Good for warding off sun damage, not so great for marine life.
‘Studies show that all three have hormone-mimicking effects, and recent studies in America and Scandinavia have shown that their anti-androgenic effects reduce maleness and affect sperm production in fish,’ says Ian Taylor, research manager at natural beauty brand Green People.
Last year, another study, by Hong Kong Baptist University, found that oxybenzone in particular increases the mortality rate of zebra fish embryos. Environmentalists have singled out oxybenzone as the main villain, as it has the most damning research against it.
A study published in 2008 in Environmental Health Perspectives found that oxybenzone encourages a viral infection in coral reefs, which can lead to bleaching.
Scientists applied recommended amounts of sunscreen to participants’ hands, then submerged them in containers of water and coral samples from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Red Sea. The result? Every one of the samples was completely bleached within 96 hours.
While bleaching doesn’t outright kill the coral, it puts the reef under a huge amount of stress, making it less resilient to climate change. The departure of algae, which is the cause of the bleaching, has a huge knock-on effect for the millions of fish that feed on it. What’s more, oxybenzone is potent.
A study published in the Archives Of Environmental Contamination And Toxicology in 2016 found that its effect is so severe that a single drop in 4.3 million gallons of water – we’re talking nearly seven Olympic swimming pools – is enough to be deadly to the algae on the coral.
Areas of Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as the entire state of Hawaii, are so worried that they’ve banned the use of SPFs containing oxybenzone and octinoxate on their beaches.
‘An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen, some containing as much as 10% oxybenzone, is transferred from human skin into the ocean every year, and the concentration of snorkelling and diving in some areas means that 40% of coastal reefs are at risk of coral bleaching,’ explains Dr Mark Fitzsimons, associate professor of organic geochemistry at the University of Plymouth.
It’s not just during your annual two-week beachside jolly that you need to worry, either. Showering away your SPF post-run or at the end of a day spent in a pub garden – or at the end of any day, for that matter – sends oxybenzone straight down the drain and, potentially, out to sea.
Same goes for flushing the toilet, since oxybenzone can be found in urine within 30 minutes of application, and trace amounts will linger in your system for up to three days.
The obvious solution would be to swap chemical sun protection for formulas that use physical filters, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These create a barrier on your skin and act like little mirrors, deflecting UV rays away from skin rather than absorbing them. However, particles used in some of these formulas can damage marine life, too.
A study by the University of California found that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide can be toxic to phytoplankton, crucial to the ocean’s food chain. You’d be hard-pressed to find any skincare expert willing to recommend forgoing SPF completely, but, if both chemical and physical sunscreen damage the environment, what’s the solution?
A new tide
‘Thanks to the David Attenborough effect, consumers are increasingly aware of the damage their lifestyles cause the planet and are demanding solutions from the beauty industry,’ explains Lisa Payne, senior beauty editor at trend intelligence company Stylus.
Sun care brands are now looking into alternative ingredients. Leading the way is Aethic Sôvée, whose range, which launched this summer, contains a patented eco-friendly formula. Working with marine biologists, the brand tested all its ingredients to ensure they didn’t damage coral or fish.
Instead of using physical factors, such as zinc and titanium dioxide, Sôvée uses its trademarked Photamin ingredient, which is found in seaweed and is proven to absorb UVA and UVB rays.
French skincare brand Caudalíe has selected four ocean-safe filters and formulated its products at the lowest possible dosage, while still providing maximum sun protection. The process took seven years and resulted in the Milky Sun range for face and body.
Avène’s new sun care range is free from oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene, as well as silicone, which isn’t very biodegradable.
Though the industry as a whole seems to be cleaning up its act, take care not to take every label at face value. Terms such as ‘ocean-friendly’ aren’t regulated. ‘There’s still confusion around what ingredients are actually safe,’ says Autumn Blum, cosmetic scientist and founder of skincare brand Stream2Sea.
‘Many companies are simply replacing oxybenzone and octinoxate with avobenzone and octocrylene, and slapping ‘reef-safe’ on the packaging, but these aren’t much better when it comes to ocean damage.’
Indeed, while there isn’t much research on octocrylene, a study released by the American Chemical Society in January revealed that high levels of the chemical can be toxic to marine organisms.
So, are there other nasties you should look out for? ‘Avoid benzophenones, parabens, DEAs, MEAs and sodium lauryl and laureth sulphate,’ says Blum. These are baddies in all skin products, so police your SPF as you do the rest of your facial skincare regime.
The bigger picture
If you seriously want to cut back on the amount of SPF you’re using, look into UV protective clothing. Swapping your usual bikini top for a long-sleeve UV protective option will help. For chic options, look to brands such as Solbari and Mott50.
Want to start with baby steps? Switch from a spray to a lotion. Spritzing means some of the formula falls on to the sand, lacing it with chemicals that eventually end up in the sea.
Admittedly, SPF chemicals aren’t the only issue. Rising sea temperatures have played a huge role in the rise of coral bleaching. Being truly ‘eco-friendly’ means more than just looking at the formulations of your sun care.
‘At least 70% of waste from the beauty industry, which often ends up in our oceans, is from packaging,’ says Marcia Kilgore, founder of Soaper Duper, a brand that only uses recycled and recyclable plastic bottles.
While a lot of beauty brands have ignored calls for cleaner sun creams, change will come. ‘Social media and digital technology have democratised beauty,’ says Payne. ‘We’re in a unique space where the younger generations, who have grown up with this ingrained understanding of environmental devastation, are rising up and using social media to get their voices heard.’
While it may seem like reef-friendly sun care is just a drop in the ocean in terms of helping to save the planet, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. This is one beauty trend worth getting on board with.
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