Everyday Enviro with Elise - Sunscreen and the environment

Everyday Enviro with Elise - Sunscreen and the environment

By Elise Catterall  November 4th, 2019

With temperatures on the rise around the country, Elise delves into the environmental impact of slopping on the wrong sunscreen.


With temperatures already hitting some pretty high figures, It is hard to ignore that summer is rapidly approaching, and with it, decisions to be made about sun exposure and sun protection.

As a child of the 80s, the ‘slip slop slap’ song is almost as familiar to me as the ‘happy birthday’ song. Launched in 1981 by the Cancer Council as part of the SunSmart campaign, its mantra – and message – has carried on to my own children. Which is wonderful. For a public health campaign, you can’t ask for better than that!

However, as a naturopath and a lover of the environment, I now understand that you can’t take the message entirely at face value. Some of that relates to health (for example, we need to ensure some sun exposure for Vitamin D sufficiency) but for the purposes of this piece, it’s the environmental impact of the ‘slop’ that I want to delve into.

Although the Environmental Working Group raised concerns about the impact of certain sunscreen ingredients over 10 years ago, it is the recent ban instituted by Hawaii and several other island destinations on their use that has made it clear that sunscreens aren’t all created equal when it comes to the environment.

The primary concern relates to the impact on both coral and marine life of two specific UV filters. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are active ingredients found in thousands of sunscreen products worldwide; specifically, the type of sunscreens referred to as ‘chemical’ sunscreens. There is now evidence that that these chemicals are highly toxic to coral and marine life, and specifically linked with coral bleaching (a sign that the coral is under serious stress), DNA damage and disruption of coral reproduction and reduced fertility and deformed offspring in fish, sea urchins, and mussels.

Obviously, sunscreen is not the only threat to coral and marine life – global warming and overfishing have a huge impact – but if this is one small change we can make that might make a difference, we should do it.

And there are alternatives – more ocean friendly, ‘barrier’ sunscreens (for example, zinc oxide) that are more effective and safer for the environment and safer for humans too (especially if you avoid the spray-on type – which is another story altogether) – and focusing on the other parts of the SunSmart message. Covering up our skin, wearing a hat, as well as seeking shade and wearing sunglasses (the two newest additions to the mantra) are so easy and effective. And remember the importance of a high antioxidant diet to protect against oxidative damage from the inside!

See you next time! - Elise

Subscribe to Positive Environment News
Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.


By Elise Catterall

Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

Stay up to date

Whether you're looking for positive inspiration at home, at work or in the community you’ll find something in our suite of e-newsletters.