MIND & BODY | The Truth About Sunscreens

Why it’s important to choose a sunscreen that will save your skin and the planet

By Erica Cirino


All-natural Avasol Sunscreen – found at The Zero Shop in Capitola Village – is as safe for you as it is for the environment.

With its endless sunshine and beautiful shoreline, Santa Cruz is the perfect city for dedicating lots of time to the beach and outdoors. If you’re spending all day in the sun, it’s a good time to remember to slather on sunscreen. Or, is it?

Most health professionals recommend people wear sunscreen to protect themselves from the sun’s powerful rays, which can trigger skin cancer and other health problems in some people. Yet, as a body of research on sunscreen safety grows, it calls into question the effects of commonly sold sunscreens on human and environmental health. Santa Cruz Waves searched through some of the latest research to bring you the truth about sunscreen ingredients and how to make healthy sun-smart choices.

What you need to know

Most sunscreens sold on today’s market contain chemicals called “filters” that help block some of the sun’s rays from hitting your skin directly. Protecting your skin from the sun can prevent skin cancer, premature aging and other types of damage. Yet there is some evidence that these chemicals may be causing some damage, too.

Sunscreen chemicals remain in the environment for a long time before degrading into harmless components. They are so pervasive in nature that it’s now possible to detect sunscreen chemicals in the blood, breast milk and urine of most people.

Research on male animals such as fish and rats show that at least one sunscreen chemical—oxybenzone—can cause feminization and other signs of hormone disruption. Eighty percent of all chemical sunscreens on the market contain oxybenzone, according to the Environmental Working Group.

American health experts have found that 96% of Americans have oxybenzone in their blood. Yet scientists are not yet sure whether or not oxybenzone could cause endocrine disruption in people.

Sunscreen chemicals and coral reefs

Prominent coral scientists, such as Craig Downs, William Precht and the late Ruth Gates, have done extensive research into the effects of sunscreen chemicals on reefs. They’ve found that when you jump in the water to surf or swim, or rinse off at the beach, sunscreen comes off your skin and runs into the sea. From there, it can harm corals in several ways.

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Healthy corals are coated with colorful algae. Coral helps the algae survive by giving it a protected environment and nutrients; and algae helps coral survive by producing oxygen and removing waste. If the coral and algae become stressed, the algae leave the coral bare (bleached), and vulnerable to further stress.

Research suggests that sunscreen chemicals make corals more susceptible to stressors—like climate change and sediment deposition—that cause bleaching and disease.

What’s more, oxybenzone causes a lethal genetic mutation in young corals that causes their skeletons to grow outside their bodies. The stress and mutations caused by oxybenzone also appear to cause corals to reproduce less effectively and reduce baby corals’ chances of survival.

What to look for

The sunscreen chemical oxybenzone has been found to be so dangerous to coral reefs that it’s now banned in Hawaii; Key West, Florida; and the island nation of Palau. Yet all of the following sunscreen chemicals are also considered possible concerns. Check your labels for:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Ethylhexyl methoxy cinnamate
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate

Look, instead, for sunscreen without chemicals that has a mineral filter called zinc oxide. Zinc oxide sunscreens have been around a long time but fell out of favor because they tend not to rub in easily. But today’s zinc oxide sunscreens have come a long way and most blend in very well. Ultraviolet-protective clothing, such as rash guards, hats and athletic wear can be a good alternative to applying sunscreen to your skin. Be sure to check clothing labels for UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor. Like with SPF, the higher the UPF, the more protective a piece of clothing will be from the sun.

Buying local

BurnOut Suncare’s line of zinc-oxide sunscreens is free of chemicals and therefore safe for both you and the reefs. The company was born in Santa Cruz after environmental scientist, surfer and UC Santa Cruz alumnus Kevin Dunn decided the world needed more effective and environmentally sensitive sun-care products at an affordable price. You can find his company’s products online at burnoutsun.com and in shops throughout Santa Cruz, including O’Neill Surf Shop, New Leaf Community Markets, Whole Foods, Shopper’s Corner, Staff of Life and The Herb Room.

How to be a smart sunscreen user

  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or above, or an SPF of at least 30 if you have fair skin
  • When applying sunscreen, lather an even amount over all your exposed skin about 30 minutes prior to when you first go into the sun
  • Reapply your sunscreen every few hours or more often if you are active and sweating, if you go into the water or if your skin burns easily and you need more protection


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