Dive Deeper Blog

Sunscreen Bans: Just How Bad are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate?

April 15, 2019
Autumn Blum taking picture

I’m aware that I should wear sunscreen, my mom has been telling me for years. Covering up, wearing a hat, and avoiding midday sun is common knowledge for many of us. I work as a boat captain, so I’m outside a lot. I set out to learn more about sunscreen and protecting myself and the environment this year. Boy, have I learned a lot.

Maybe you’re not sure how bad oxybenzone and octinoxate are. The words themselves are barely pronounceable. Let me enlighten you…

A Really Scary Fact

February 21, 2019, the American Academy of Dermatology Association released a statement including the statistic that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. This truly surprised me–I thought it would be lung cancer, maybe. The prevalence of skin cancer is so high…what is the best way to protect yourself from the harmful rays?

Captain Dave wears a UPF shirt and hat all day long on the water.
Captain Dave wears a UPF shirt and hat all day long on the water.

The Sunscreen Bans

Sunscreen is usually everyone’s go-to defense against sunburn–but did you know that most sunscreens aren’t actually safe for you or the environment?

The world is finally waking up and stepping up for our planet: the sunscreen bans have begun! Hawaii was the first state in the US to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate; Hawaiian Airlines has helped publicize efforts by providing reef-safe sunscreen samples to travelers on their airplanes. Other locations that have banned these chemicals are: Palau, Bonaire, and now, even closer to home, right here in the continental US, the Southernmost Tip of the United States, the suntan and party town itself: Key West.

Many substances have been produced, thought to be helpful (like a lot of sunscreens), then later removed from production once it was determined how bad they are for us. Do you remember hearing about when arsenic was in vogue? Here’s a list of 35 FDA-Approved Prescription Drugs Later Pulled from the Market. I’m sure with some of them, you are going to remember the advertising campaigns clearly: Accutane… Darvon… Seldane… And even now, we find ingredients in the very product designed to protect us from the sun are poisoning our waterways, fish, and bodies.

Our sunscreen drawer at work at the marina.
Our sunscreen drawer at work at the marina. I’ll be checking those labels!

Here’s How Bad It Is

Annually, somewhere between 6,000 and 14,00 TONS of sunscreen washes off our bodies and into our coral reefs. This hastens coral reef bleaching, and is toxic to some species of reef fishes as well as coral larvae.

One drop of sunscreen with oxybenzone in the equivalent of six-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools has a toxic effect. I did a lot of research and reading to find that statistic – I found it in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. It was a tough read.

Here’s a link to the short version of the study. The title alone is: Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

One drop of sunscreen in this volume of water can kill coral larvae.
One drop of sunscreen in this volume of water can kill coral larvae.

Not Yet Convinced?

If you’re still not sure that the sunscreen sitting in your cabinet might be toxic to you and the environment, then conduct some research. Start with “Toxic Chemicals to Avoid During Pregnancy,” and progress to other research reports and studies. Here’s another pretty believable source; the AADA, and what they have to say about exposure to the sun.

American Academy of Dermatology Association Comments on FDA Proposed Sunscreen Rule

The AADA says, “Unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays is a major risk factor for skin cancer. The AADA recommends a comprehensive sun protection plan that includes seeking shade; wearing protective clothing, including a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses; and generously applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to exposed skin.”

Hey! That’s exactly what my Mom has been recommending for years! She resembles Mata Hari, the Dutch spy, when she goes outdoors; all wrapped up in a scarf and covered with a hat. Very stylish, like a movie star going incognito.

My sailing students Teri and Eva covering up in class.
My sailing students Teri and Eva covering up in class.

The AADA’s Commitment to Human-Safe Sunscreen Is Clear

They released this statement, “Because sunscreen is an important tool in the fight against skin cancer, the AADA supports any and all regulations to ensure that the public has access to safe and effective sunscreens.”

“We are encouraged that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is taking this action on the Sunscreen Innovation Act, and we look forward to working with the FDA as it develops and finalizes the proposed rule,” they said.

“As the proposed rule is finalized, we encourage the public to continue protecting themselves from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. If you are concerned about the safety of the ingredients in your sunscreen, talk to a board-certified dermatologist to develop a sun protection plan that works for you,” which is exactly what my mom recommended. Mom knows best!

Other Chemicals to Avoid

There are other chemicals to avoid, too. Take a photo of this list with your cellular telephone, and then save it to your “Favorites.” Then you can pull it up every time you are in a store, stocking up on anything that you are going to put on your body.

Check your shampoo, conditioner, and body care ingredients. Don’t pay a huge amount of attention to the words on the front of the bottle. A lot of really good-sounding flowery language is allowed there. Here’s a comprehensive list of Ingredients to Avoid in products for your body.

Showing Products details in a card - Stream2Sea
Wouldn’t you be drawn to a bottle that says, ““natural,” “made with,” “chemical free,” “green,” “pH balanced,” “hypoallergenic,” “helps,” “patented/unique/exclusive formula,” and “makes hair stronger” among other non-regulated, misleading words?

The language used on the bottles isn’t 100% true. For biodegradable sunscreens, cosmetics, or personal care products, there are no federal regulations defining the use of those words like “natural” or “green.” You’ve seen brands that put a teeny bit of something good in their formula in order to make a claim: “Includes wonderful ingredient”…yeah, how much of that wonderful ingredient? Just enough to make the claim.

Screencare Products on the Table
Charterers and guests leave sunscreen on our boats often. I have always offered whatever is in the drawer to my sailing school students. What if I poisoned them?

More You Can Do To Protect the Oceans

Last year, I really liked reading Jack Johnson’s list of things anyone can do to have less of a carbon footprint, and be less damaging environmentally. One suggestion was to bring your own takeaway containers when eating out. My dive partner Bill and I enthusiastically began doing just that; showing up to dinners out with our own containers for leftovers.

We never got on the no-straw bandwagon because we never used them anyway. At work, we both use stainless or silver flatware. Also, I keep a fork in my boat backpack for sailing days. I felt like I was making progress; using cloth napkins, bringing my own bags to the grocery every time…

Somehow, until last year, I thought I only needed to use my reef-safe sunscreen when I was on the boat. Now I know; I need to use it all the time. Because every time I bathe, that wastewater finds its way to our environment along with whatever toxins were on my body.

All Product Image - Stream2Sea
I dumped out all my travel samples, and started researching – which have toxins?

Here’s an Easy Place to Start

We all need a new tube of sunscreen every year anyway. Start fresh. This year, treat yourself to one that doesn’t harm you or the environment. I’m happy with mine from Stream2Sea. Stream2Sea products are packaged in eco-friendly (seriously – this one is not one of those misleading words!) sugarcane resin tubes and recycled milk jugs.

It’s time to start avoiding ingredients that are harmful to your body, and harmful to the environment. Take one easy, accomplishable step today. Take one easy, accomplishable step today. Invest in a quality sunscreen.  Every time you pull that tube of sunscreen out of your bag, you’ll know you’re one of us, a Wavemaker–blazing the path toward a cleaner planet.

Product Sunscreen - Stream2Sea

Stream2Sea IS Reef-Safe and Human-Safe Sunscreen in Eco-Friendly Packaging

Here’s the link to eco-friendly Stream2Sea sunscreen. It comes in SPF 20 and SPF 30, tinted and non-tinted, and I can’t say enough about the company, their commitment to reducing our damage to coral reefs, and the quality of their products. There are other sunscreens nearly as good, but not quite, and not packaged consciously. If you have any questions, they probably are answered here on their Frequently Asked Questions page. It’s very interesting reading!

Stream2Sea has generously given me a discount code “KimW” for you to use at the checkout at checkout to save 10%. Using my link does not increase your price. You actually get a discount, and I receive a small portion of the sale. This allows me to buy more sunscreen for myself and my sailing crew.

Thank you for your support! I really appreciate it!

About Us: What We Do at St. Augustine Sailing to Give Back to Our Community

Anytime we can get out on the water, support a local charity, and raise awareness and appreciation of the outdoors…that’s a great day!

Our Sailboat Race

Our St. Augustine Sailing Sisters‘ Spring Forward Race benefits the Betty Griffin Center Shelter for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in St. Augustine, and is sponsored by the St. Augustine Yacht Club and others.

A Group Of People taking photo

Stream2Sea has generously donated 32 ounces of spf 30 Mineral Sunscreen for the race crews, and 32 ounces of Leave-In Conditioner so we arrive at the post-race party looking refreshed. A three ounce tube lasts a family of four about eight days, so this is about 341 applications; enough to cover all the crews all day long. Stream2Sea was formulated by a Florida female chemist and diver, Autumn Blum, which makes their support all the more special to us.

They also donated a Sun and Sting Relief Gel just in case anyone gets a bit too much sun, suffers a bug sting, or comes into contact with something itchy. Thank you again, Stream2Sea,  for your generous support of our sailors and the Betty Griffin Center in St. Augustine!

Displaying Stream2Sea Products on Shelf
Stream2Sea display at Key Largo Diving Quiescence in the Florida Keys on  Key Largo

St. Augustine Sailing is donating the use of two boats, our 36′ Hunter “Stimulus,” and a Jeanneau 349 “French Kiss,” along with captains and accompanying race fees. I’m racing with an all-female crew on “Stimulus,” and our company owner, RoseAnn, is racing “French Kiss.” One of our goals has been to introduce more women to sailing in our WOW – Women on the Water Program. This is a race near and dear to us and our female sailors.

A Beautiful Boat displaying word French Kiss

This year, I’m awarding sunscreen Reef Sentinel Kits placed in Stream2Sea Dry Bags to the first, second, and third place winners in both the “All-Womens” and “Mixed Crew” categories to spread the word about reef-safe sunscreen and personal products.

Teri, Stephanie, RoseAnn, Kim and crew at last year's post race party

Teri, Stephanie, RoseAnn, Kim and crew at last year’s post race party. We’ll be defending our second-place win last year, and hoping to keep our “Most Women On Board” trophy!

You can see my Stream2Sea unboxing video here!

What to read next: Learn why your cheap gear really costs you more in the long run: Vanderkitten Cycling Kits – Cost Per Wear – Review

Thanks for reading, and if you have any funny sunscreen stories – leave your comments below! I’d love to hear from you!

Autumn Blum along with four other people taking a picture


About the Author

Kim Walther is a travel and lifestyle blogger, writer, photographer, and lover of anything outdoors. She’s a certified SCUBA diver, runner, cyclist, and teaches ASA sailing courses for St. Augustine Sailing. Follow her blog, Deep Water Happy to learn more about her adventures and discover tips and tricks you can use on your adventures.

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!