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The Debate over Petrochemical Sunscreens

Over the last 40 years, sunscreens with seemingly ever-increasing UV filtering power have been developed for the US market. From tanning oils with no UV filters at all, to the higher SPF formulas of the early 2000’s and today, US per capita sunscreen use has quadrupled.

At the same time, skin cancer rates have grown at almost the same rate (1). Add to that the growing awareness of coral reef damage, which many scientists argue is exacerbated by petrochemical-based sunscreens, and you have a growing debate about what’s actually in our sunscreens, how safe they are, and what, if anything should be done to make them safer.

European safety standards are typically tougher than those in the US, which relies on the Food and Drug Administration to regulate sunscreen ingredients. In recent years, the FDA has concentrated on controlling marketing language used to sell sunscreens.

For instance, it has banned use of terms like “waterproof” in an effort to prevent misleading messages to consumers. But while it controls the active ingredients sunscreen manufacturers use to screen out harmful UV rays, it rarely disallows use of specific ingredients.

In May of 2018, the Hawaiian legislature voted to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients considered to be the biggest petrochemical offenders. In January of 2019, the Key West city council voted to do basically the same thing.

And just weeks after that, the FDA announced a sweeping new initiative aimed at studying the safety of all sunscreen petrochemicals, both from a user and environmental perspective. In short, governing bodies are starting to pay attention to the petrochemical sunscreen debate.

Petrochemicals in sunscreen are “bigger than climate change” in how much they affect coral reef health.
- Dr. Craig Downs, Executive Director Haereticus Environmental Laboratory

With these recent changes, awareness of sunscreen ingredients has suddenly started to tick up. And while most big sunscreen manufacturers are against any changes to the status quo, health advocates and environmental watch dogs welcome the new scrutiny, especially regarding marine habitats. From a recent article in the New York Times, Dr. Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory near Washington, DC said that petrochemicals in sunscreen are “bigger than climate change” in how much they affect coral reef health.

In 2015, Dr. Downs led a study on oxybenzone, prevalent in most common sunscreens. His team concluded that the petrochemical is toxic to algae within corals, stunting growth, muting color and causing ongoing stress to the living systems. As far back as 2008, a European study by Environmental Health Perspectives showed how such sunscreen chemicals can produce viral infections in coral, leading to bleaching and other long-term problems. In the study, they found that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen leaches into our oceans annually. That’s the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez oil spill every three years.

A single dose of petrochemical sunscreen eliminates the benefits of an entire year of eating organic foods.(2)
- Kari Kenner, Waxhead Sun Defense Co-founder

While the majority of sunscreen ingredient awareness has been driven by concerns for marine environments, skin cancer and other skin related health problems continue to reach epidemic levels among their HUMAN users.

Advocates for mineral based sunscreens, like Kari Kenner, founder of Waxhead Sun Defense, stress the importance of not only protecting marine life, but giving consumers healthier choices for themselves. “It isn’t just about coral reefs or just about oxybenzone and octinoxate.

All petrochemicals are bad, for both water habitats AND humans. These chemical derivatives simply aren’t matched to our biosystems and when applied to the skin, seep directly into the bloodstream where they do lots of harm. From a toxicity perspective, a single dose of petrochemical sunscreen eliminates the benefits of an entire year of eating organic foods.”

The solution, Kenner says, are mineral sunscreens, specifically those using non-nano zinc oxide as their sole active ingredient, since they don’t have any of these toxicity issues. The Environmental Working Group, a leading non-partisan non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, agrees.

EWG rates ingredients on a scale from 1 (extremely healthy) to 10 (extremely toxic) for sunscreens and various sorts of consumer products. They publish an annual safe sunscreen guide, where they rate products from both a consumer health and product efficacy perspective, and where they find that most sunscreens not only fail to deliver on their claims, they’re made with ingredients with significant toxicity.

The only sunscreens that pass the test are mineral based products with high levels of zinc oxide, which is in fact, the only ingredient FDA approved for use on babies. From its 2021 guide, “Two-thirds of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. And despite scant evidence, the government still allows most sunscreens to claim they help prevent skin cancer.”

It should be noted that this was written several months before the wave of recent legislation and renewed regulatory oversight began. And in the coming months, it will hopefully become clearer the steps lawmakers and regulators will eventually take in making our sunscreens not only healthier for us, but for the waters we all love.


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(1) Since 1975, both US skin cancer rates and per capita, inflation adjusted purchases of sunscreen products have increased an average of about 3-4% annually.

(2) Based on the relative exposure levels of human biochemistry contaminants: 1 oz (about 28g) of petrochemical sunscreen contains roughly 25-40% petrochemicals equaling 7-11g. Depending on the study, 30-80% is absorbed into the bloodstream, so between 2.1 and 8.8g (2,100,000-8,800,000 micrograms). Pesticide residues of non-organic foods are in the single digit microgram range. The average American consumes about 2,000 lbs of food annually. At 5 PPM, this equals about 4.5g of contaminants per year, compared to the 2.1-8.8g range from 1 oz of petrochemical sunscreen.

The Debate over Petrochemical Sunscreens

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