What’s In That SPF?

Could be a world killer

The Mexican Tourism Board estimates that more than 1.8 million people vacation in Los Cabos each year, most of them relaxing on the beach and playing in the water. And what’s the one thing every tourist needs when they’re on the beach? No, not their cell phones. Sunscreen! There’s nothing worse than having your vacation ruined because you’re red as a lobster and too burnt to move.


But while sunscreen is vital for protecting your skin, it doesn’t have any benefits for all the things that live in the ocean you’re swimming in after slathering up. The “tourist trail,” as it’s been called, refers to the iridescent glow that skims the water after sunscreen residue has been rinsed off tourist after tourist. It’s a virtual oil slick, and something that takes its toll on the coral reef.

Studies from around the globe are turning up alarming results about the effects sunscreen has on coral, citing swimmer pollution as at least partially responsible for their ongoing degradation. According to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit that educates people on how they can protect their health and the environment, chemical sunscreens are made up of a combination of between two and six harmful ingredients, with more than 80% of products on the market containing the worst additive, oxybenzone. Geeze, you put that on your skin? It sounds like what’s in your cigarette lighter.

One study found that even the tiniest amount of oxybenzone, as in a single drop of sunscreen mixed with 4.3 million gallons of water, (about six and half Olympic-size swimming pools), has the potential to be deadly to the environment. The study concluded that oxybenzone promotes viral infection in the coral, contributes to bleaching, and actually damages its DNA, disrupting reproduction and growth, and causing fatal deformities. Could light up your cigarette, however.

With between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen settling on the reefs around the world each year, these are scary stats. So, what can we do to combat this problem? There is always the long-sleeve, wide-brim hat, sunglasses route, but that’s about as good advice as offering the suggestion to stay out of the sun entirely, and where’s the fun in that when you’re in paradise? Thankfully, there are some small and simple things that can help in big ways.

There are a number of mineral sunscreen options available as an alternative to chemical sunscreens. But beware of labeling; some sunscreen brands are simply adding mineral sunscreens to their juice, rather than reformulating their entire product. That means they still contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment. To steer clear of chemical sunscreen ingredients, look for oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone on ingredient lists. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are two ingredients that sound like chemicals, but they’re actually the main components in the environmentally-friendly mineral sunscreens. Geeze, we really need a program to sort the players.

Making your own sunscreen is another option that is safe for the wearer as well as the environment. Easy-to-find ingredients like almond, avocado, coconut, cottonseed, olive, peanut, sesame or soybean oils - all of which contain UV filters - are a perfect base for a homemade concoction. With an SPF of 7 to 10, they are a sort of OK alternative, but if you add just a bit of zinc oxide you’ll go from sun-screened to sun-blocked.

If you do choose to continue using a chemical sunscreen, you can help by waiting 30 minutes after applying your sunscreen before entering the water, so the lotion has been absorbed into your skin and won’t immediately wash off, leaving the tell-tell “tourist trail.”