Consumer attitudes to sunscreen have changed significantly in the past forty years. Sitting in the midday sun, slathered in tanning oil has been replaced by high SPFs and shade for most people. So it’s little surprise that the sun care industry’s value will surpass $24 billion by the end of the decade. 

However, it’s no longer enough for sunscreen brands to just focus on creating products that protect people. We’ve already woken up to the harmful impact of sun exposure on human skin; now we’re waking up to the impact of chemical sunscreens on the natural environment. And brands need to align with consumers’ environmental values to secure their loyalty in a competitive market. 

One of the most significant trends in recent years has been the development of reef-safe and marine life friendly sun protection. Mineral-based sun creams are gaining popularity as an effective, eco-conscious solution with a lower environmental impact. But with no legal framework in place for regulating reef-safe claims, brands need to do their own educational work to show consumers that their products protect coral and other ocean life.

Why are chemical sunscreens so damaging to the environment? 

Understandably, the main focus of product development in the sunscreen category has been creating a formula that protects human skin from sun damage. And many sunscreen brands have achieved this using chemicals that block out UV-light such as oxybenzone and octinoxate. 

Chemical-based sunscreens are popular because they can be easily absorbed into the skin and don’t leave streaky application marks. However, they can be easily absorbed elsewhere too – and this is why their environmental impact is so concerning. 

14,000 tons of sunscreen washes into the ocean every year. The chemicals in this sunscreen are absorbed by vulnerable sea life such as coral reefs, fish and dolphins. Sunscreen chemicals disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth capabilities, and oxybenzone has also been linked to coral bleaching – a scenario where coral expels the algae living within its tissue and turns white, leaving it more susceptible to disease. 

Environmental damage has been a silent by-product of sunscreen use for several decades. A recent scientific paper on the decline of coral reefs cited the chemicals in topical sunscreens as a major threat to coral health. Around 80% of corals in the Caribbean have already been lost as a result of development, global warming and water pollution. 

However, campaigning by groups such as Greenpeace and Save The Reef has increased awareness of the issue, and it’s leading consumers to seek out eco-friendlier alternatives to chemical sunscreen. 

Are some sunscreens better for the environment than others? 

Thankfully, chemicals aren’t the only way to protect skin from sun damage. Sunscreen manufacturers also use minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to create physical UVA and UVB barriers that stop the sun’s rays from being absorbed into the skin. 

Mineral sunscreen is nothing new, but the way that CPG brands are marketing eco-safe formulations has changed in recent years. An increasing number of brands are including product claims such as ‘reef-safe’ or ‘marine life friendly’ on their packaging, as consumers look for everyday ways to protect the environment. 

Nivea is one of the biggest brands leading the reef-safe sunscreen movement. All Nivea’s sun protection products are free from oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene and microplastics. They are also water resistant and biodegradable to stop foreign substances lingering in delicate marine environments. 

Additionally, challenger sunscreen brands are gaining popularity as marine-friendly alternatives to chemical sunscreens. These include:

  • Bare Republic – a clean ingredient sunscreen brand that markets itself as ‘adventure-proof’ for people with active lifestyles
  • Blue Lizard – an Australian brand that has specific formulations for children and people with sensitive skin
  • Hello Bello – a US babycare brand that produces a range of kids’ mineral sun lotions, sprays and sunscreen sticks
  • REN – a zero waste clean skincare company that has created a mineral SPF 30 mattifying face sunscreen
  • Stream2Sea – a Protect Land + Sea certified sunscreen brand that has scientifically proven its products are safe for coral larvae and fish
  • Supergoop – a cruelty-free, reef-friendly sunscreen brand that has diversified into skincare and cosmetics with SPF protection 

Could the industry be doing more to promote reef-safe sunscreen? 

One of the major challenges that eco-friendly sunscreen brands face is a lack of industry regulation around reef-safe labelling. 

There is currently no major international framework for phasing out chemical sunscreens, and the terms reef-safe, reef-friendly and marine life friendly are not officially defined or regulated. This puts the onus on consumers to check labels before they purchase sun protection products to make sure no harmful chemicals are listed. 

Some regional legislation has been put in place to phase out chemical sunscreen: Hawaii recently approved the final reading of a bill banning the sale of any non-mineral sunscreen on the island. The Pacific Island of Palau and the Caribbean Islands of Aruba and Bonaire have passed similar legislation. And the Florida Keys also prohibits the sale of sunscreen containing octinoxate and oxybenzone in the Key West area. But these initiatives are focussed on preventing sales, rather than helping to standardise reef-safe terminology. 

How can reef-safe sunscreen brands support clearer legislation? 

As more sunscreen brands invest in mineral-based formulas, the need for clearly defined and validated marine-friendly claims will grow. Until then, it’s up to reef-safe product pioneers to educate consumers on the benefits of non-chemical sunscreen, and how to check they’re using environmentally neutral products. 

Sunscreen brands can drive this educational process by creating campaigns that explain exactly what the terms reef-safe and marine life friendly mean. Transparent product claims will build customer trust and prevent greenwashing – a major criticism of the beauty and personal care industry in recent years. 

Techniques such as connected packaging, using QR codes to link to landing pages explaining the benefits of reef-safe sunscreen, are an easy-to-implement way of improving consumer awareness. And they also mean that sunscreen brands don’t have to fit long explanations on their product label. 

Of course, the ultimate way to raise environmental standards in the sunscreen industry is to create a clear regulatory framework. And brands at the forefront of the reef-safe friendly sunscreen movement can lobby for change. 

Combining company pressure with consumer appetite for eco-friendly products and the global push towards sustainable living will create a compelling case for industry bodies to formalise the definition of reef-safe sunscreen. Ushering in an era where people are protecting their skin at the same time as supporting marine life protection. 

Hooley Brown is not just a food compliance agency; we also support cosmetics and personal care brands with their product development and product, packaging and labelling compliance. This includes validating product claims such as reef-safe and marine life friendly sunscreen. 

To find out more get in touch via our contact page or email our Director, Clare Daley: clare@hooleybrown.com.

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