Dive Deeper Blog

Sunscreens and the FDA: Research and Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

April 22, 2019

Long before Hawaii, Palau and Key West banned sunscreen ingredients that have been proven to be lethal to coral, our founder Autumn Blum had questioned their use.

An award-winning cosmetic chemist and avid diver, Autumn was on a liveaboard diving trip in Palau – one of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. “I noticed an oil slick coming off a group of snorkelers and realized that it was sunscreen.  I grabbed the nearest bottle, and felt my heart sink as I read the ingredients. These were definitely not safe for us, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be safe for our beautiful reefs.”

Blum came home inspired to formulate products that didn’t harm the ecosystems she loves. It took more than a year of formulating and testing, but she created Stream2Sea, the only line of mineral based sunscreens and personal care products to be third-party tested for both aquatic and marine safety.

Three years later, she’s been more than proven correct. Ongoing research continues to document the damage caused by oxybenzone in marine ecosystems and its safety in humans has been called into question. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requesting additional information on the safety of sunscreen ingredients – including the oxybenzone used in 70% of sunscreens available in the U.S.

“More than 95% of Americans have oxybenzone in their bloodstream – but melanoma rates in the U.S. have more than doubled in the past 30 years,” she notes. “Clearly we need to rethink sunscreens.”

Oxybenzone – used in approximately 70% of the sunscreens sold in the U.S. – kills coral larva at concentrations as low as 62 parts per billion, or about one drop in six Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Only two ingredients – including the non-nano titanium dioxide in Stream2Sea — of the 18 ingredients currently allowed in U.S. sunscreens are still officially known to be “Generally Recognized As Safe and Effective” (GRASE). Two additional ingredients are definitely not GRASE and manufacturers have been asked to provide additional information to re-evaluate the safety of the other 12.

The FDA also has asked that manufacturers of sunscreens rated higher than SPF 15 match the SPF value for UVA rays to meet the current rating for UVB light. “UVB rays are what cause most sunburns, but UVA rays are 30 to 50 percent more prevalent, consistent all day long, and move through clouds, glass and the outer layer of skin – and are strongly implicated in aging and cellular damage,” Blum said.

Individual ingredients in chemical sunscreens absorb only a small part of the UV spectrum, so manufacturers typically use multiple chemicals to meet FDA standards. Non-nano mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, sit on the skin and reflect the sun’s rays, offering very clear advantages.  “The first, of course, is full-spectrum and effective coverage. But because the chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin where they absorb sunlight, they’re creating a cascade of free radicals that many, including myself believe, are likely to be involved in the increased skin cancer rates we are seeing today.”

And then you have the body’s reaction to the chemicals themselves. At least nine of the sunscreen ingredients being reviewed are known endocrine disruptors that produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife. Scientists are documenting a wide variety of impacts in humans, from infertility in men to endometriosis among women, and even an increased risk for potentially lethal birth defects. The increased use of chemical sunscreens may even help explain why unexplained infertility has become so prevalent.

And speaking of fertility, pregnant women are the most vulnerable population. Many UV absorbing chemicals easily penetrate human skin and enters the bloodstream where even unborn children are exposed to it. It has been linked to a potentially fatal birth defect among women who use it in their first trimester.

Over-exposing children to sunscreen that contains multiple endocrine disruptors can cause long-term problems in reproductive and developmental health. Sunscreens are readily absorbed into their skin, and the more often it is applied, the greater the exposure.  83% of sampled mother’s milk contained UV absorbing chemicals.

While Blum started Stream2Sea specifically to create products that were safe for humans and the aquatic environment, the issue expands far beyond her initial focus. Ongoing research shows that oxybenzone reacts with chlorine in swimming pools to create even more toxic agents, and it is not removed from most wastewater treatment plants.

“That means that someone in Minnesota who spends their afternoon in a pool will likely excrete oxybenzone in their urine that washes down the Mississippi River, potentially impacting the drinking water sources of hundreds of communities along the way – and then moving through the Gulf of Mexico and ending up in the coral reefs off the Florida Keys.”

Take the Safe Sunscreen Pledge!

Take the Safe Sunscreen Pledge and we’ll send you a digital 20-page resource that dives into ingredients to know, ingredients to avoid, what “organic” and “biodegradable” really mean, and what is truly “reef-safe.”

Thank you for being part of a global movement to protect marine and other ecosystems from unsafe ingredients! What we put on our bodies DOES make a difference, and your positive choices help protect the planet!