Are there Any True ‘Blue’ Sunscreens?

Mar 12, 2021 | Clean Beauty, Cruelty-Free, Ethical Production, Ocean Health, Wellness

By Dotty Liao.

From sun spots to skin cancer, slathering on sunscreen is a necessary protocol to prevent the damaging effects of the sun.  

 As increasing advances in science lead to more sophisticated skin care solutions, consumers are demanding cleaner beauty products and cosmetics that are made with the environment in mind. This has spurred a new trend called blue beauty, which focuses on protecting the ocean.

The coral reef covers about 0.2% of the ocean floor, yet it is home to over 25% of aquatic wildlife.

An estimated 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash off into the oceans every year, and these concentrations are known to settle on reefs due to the popularity of activities like snorkeling and scuba diving in these tourist-dense locations.

In 2016, a study found that oxybenzone and octinoxate, two UV-filtering chemicals widely found in sunscreen products, acted as harmful contaminants in marine environments. Craig Downs and his research team discovered that oxybenzone, a skeletal endocrine disruptor, may be partially to blame for the bleaching of coral species through induced ossification, which is a process that occurs when coral planulae encase themselves in their own skeleton.  

 Ossification, along with global warming, force symbiotic algae (the organisms responsible for giving coral its color through photosynthesis) out from coral tissues due to uninhabitable conditions. 


Downs believes that sunscreen residue, which comes off while showering and swimming, has even more impact on the health of coral reef systems than global climate change.  

 Hawaii and Florida’s recent bans on the sale and distribution of oxybenzone and octinoxate in non-prescribed sunscreen products, which go into effect in 2021, have led to the emergence of new “reef-safe” sunscreens that promise a reef-friendly ingredient list.  

 But how much “safer” are they truly – especially when there are no federal regulations in place to monitor such claims? 

Many sunscreens using UV-deflecting minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are purported to be better alternatives to the UV-absorbing oxybenzone. 

 However, recent data reveals that size matters. 

Marine researcher Cinzia Corinaldesi recently released a study in 2018 with her colleagues that concluded zinc oxide nanoparticles to be “harmful for marine organisms, whereas titanium dioxide with surface coatings and metal doping, have a much lower impact.”  

These findings conflict with the notion of zinc oxide being a safer ingredient for the ocean.

The good news is that non-nano zinc oxide products are available and have tested as less harmful than their nano-sized counterparts. 

 So where’s the rub?

Some of you may recall ancient times when a thick, white triangle of paste on the nose was a look many sported at the beach or on fishing expeditions. The unsightly, ghost-like mask that non-nano UV filters leave behind can be attributed to its larger size, which inhibits our skin’s inability to effectively absorb it. 

Consumers wanted something that offered a smoother application with as little visibility as possible – thus, began the rise of chemical actives replacing physical UV filters.  

 If you’re considering forgoing your daily sunscreen completely, think again – the Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that by the age of 70, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer. UV protection greatly reduces that risk.

The debate on whether or not there are any “blue” sunscreens that protect your skin while preserving the integrity of the ocean and the biodiverse marine community living within it remains unresolved. After all, most of the studies were conducted in controlled labs that don’t necessarily replicate aquatic environments in real life.  

 For now, here are some steps you can take in protecting yourself:

  • Wear clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) during extended periods in the sun, and especially when swimming. Studies have found that physical or inorganic UV blockers are highly effective in preventing sun damage. Even a t-shirt provides substantial protection, though you’ll still need to apply sunscreen to areas of exposed skin (the amount will be staggeringly less with a t-shirt on than if you were to wear a bikini alone)
  • Look for mineral sunscreens rather than chemical sunscreens. These types of sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays, remain effective for longer and contain fewer ingredients known to be harmful in aquatic environments.
  • Say, ‘No!’ to nanoparticles. Nano-particles are more easily absorbed by coral reef and our skin, so look for non-nano alternatives, as these are less harmful to marine wildlife. 

Interested in diving deeper into the world of clean beauty? Download the GoodHuman app to discover what lies beyond the surface.

If you’re interested in some products to use for a guilt-free glow, you can check those out here. How about some clean beauty powered by superfoods for beauty from the inside out? You can learn more about those here