Mineral-Based Sunscreens: Better for the Environment, Human Health Consumers can help the environment and themselves with smarter sunscreen choices

It’s summertime in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when people flock to the pool, lake or beach by the thousands to soak up some sun. Families are loading up their cars and heading off for their summer vacations with the kids, which often involve spending as much time as possible outdoors walking around amusement parks or water parks.

Mineral-based sunscreens. Credit: Henri Bergius
Mineral-based sunscreens are better for the environment and our personal health, but can be harder to find and more expensive than their traditional counterparts.

And of course, many of these happy vacationers rely upon sunscreen to protect them from harmful UV rays. But how much protection are they truly getting? In many cases, the answer is not enough.

Not only that, some sunscreens contain the hormone-disrupting ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate, which the Hawaiian government has banned due to the environmental harm they cause to coral reefs. That leaves consumers with a conundrum: How do they protect themselves and their little ones from the sun’s harmful rays in an economical way that is kind to the environment? It’s a seemingly simple question, but the answer is quite complex.

The Environmental Impact of Sunscreen Use

There are two types of sunscreen: chemical-based and mineral-based. Chemical-based sunscreens often contain the ingredient oxybenzone, which is proven to disrupt hormones among marine life. Consequences of chemical-based sunscreens to the ecosystem include irreparable harm to coral reefs, as well as sea turtles and their eggs. There is evidence to support that oxybenzone even can cause hormonal changes in mammals, including human beings.

Obviously, moving away from chemical-based sunscreens is beneficial to the environment and even our personal health. The obvious solution is to move to mineral-based sunscreens. But this isn’t always economically feasible.

The True Cost of Sunscreen

A recent study by the National Institutes for Health found anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of people who wear sunscreen fail to use an adequate amount to ensure full coverage. Not only can this lead to painful sunburns, but it can also eventually lead to skin cancer.

But it isn’t entirely surprising people use less than the recommended amount, given the relatively high cost of sunscreens, particularly safer mineral-based sunscreens. Based on the costs provided on Livestrong’s list of the 31 safest sunscreens, the average price to protect a family of four for just two hours in the sun is $9.80 — which is more than $2 more than the federal minimum wage.

And bear in mind, the figure above is only enough sunscreen to protect a family of four for two hours in the sun. There are 15 weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. If that family spent only two hours per weekend outdoors during that time, that equates to $1,176 to protect themselves from the sun.

And few families with children spend that little time outdoors during the summer months. Besides the obvious beach vacations, there are barbecues and pool parties to attend. And with children out of school for the summer, many of them spend a good majority of time each day outdoors. The price to keep them adequately covered can quickly become more than the average middle-class family can afford, especially at a time where prices of commodities continue to rise while wages remain stagnant.

Why Do Americans Have So Few Choices?

Another factor complicating Americans’ search for adequate, affordable sun protection is the fact that, in America, sunscreen is an over-the-counter medication. This limits Americans’ choices when it comes to safe, effective sunscreen ingredients. Because the FDA classifies sunscreen as an over-the-counter medication, all ingredients must undergo rigorous testing before becoming available for public use. This testing is a good thing for the safety of consumers, but the classification is the problem. Could we not test the sunscreen the same without putting such a high classification on it?

In contrast, many European countries treat sunscreen as a cosmetic, not a medicine. There, governments have approved 27 ingredients as effective sunscreen, compared with only 16 in the US. One of the most promising, Mexoryl SX, remains unavailable here despite its proven safety. Make no mistake, these sunscreens undergo rigorous testing as well, but the simple classification is what makes the difference. As the goal of governmental regulations is protecting the safety of citizens, one can’t help but wonder if it would be better for public safety if the FDA declassified sunscreen as a drug.

How Can You Stay Sun-Safe and Protect the Environment?

Protecting your skin from sun damage is important, but so is preserving our environment. Assuming you’re on a strict budget like many Americans, what can you do?

Research and find the best environmentally friendly sunscreens. Use them during the times of day when the sun is highest — noon to 3 p.m., in most locations. There are many advantages of eco-friendly products that make using them worth the cost, but to try to save money, you can avoid going outdoors in the sun during peak hours whenever you can. Instead, go out in the early mornings or evenings when the sun is lower and the air cooler to boot.

Take a tip from folks in hot, sunny climes such as Arizona and rethink the use of your umbrella: You can use it to shield you from the sun, as well as the rain! Plus, using an umbrella is much easier than wearing long-sleeved clothing in hot weather. With a little creativity and innovation, hopefully you can keep your family safe from the sun, enjoy your summertime and be eco-friendly all in one.