Earlier this year, I joined the team at TropicSport, a new eco-friendly, mineral sunscreen start-up to help them bring this product to market. I had previously worked for large consumer products companies in sales and marketing roles, but had always wanted to help a start-up build a brand from the ground up. It has been a lot of work and a lot of fun. I've learned a lot about the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen ingredients and the environmental impacts that many common chemical sunscreen ingredients can cause.
On May 1, 2018 Hawaiian legislators took the bold step to ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens with two chemical active ingredients: Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. Most people have never even tried to pronounce these words, let alone read any of the research that connects them directly to the death of corals. Humans have been making an impact on our planet for a long time and thankfully there are scientists that dedicate their lives to understanding the impacts we make on the world around us. It was scientists that helped create the fact based arguments to remove lead from gasoline and paint and to reduce trans fats in our diets. Recently, scientists also helped eliminate the use of micro-beads from personal care products based on their environmental impacts. These changes can be difficult and there are always stakeholders on both sides. However, the common thread in these actions are clear science, grassroots support, and responsible legislators.
Although the Hawaiian ban on the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate will not take effect until January 2021, the public education on their impact has been accelerated. One of the key international experts on coral bleaching from these ingredients is Dr. Craig Downs. He was the lead author of an international research study published in The Journal of Toxicology "Dermatological and environmental toxicological impact of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone/benzophenone‐3." Dr. Downs was originally brought in by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) to help them understand why coral was dying in some areas of the world. His research, in collaboration with many other scientists around the world, led to this definitive research which has played a key role in educating governments and stakeholders around the world.
In layman's terms, these active chemical ingredients, in minute quantities, cause the coral to die. In fact, his research shows that just one drop of oxybenzone in 6 Olympic sized swimming pools is enough to kill coral.
Even if you don't live near the ocean, these chemicals get washed off when you shower and go down the drain into the sewer system. More troubling is that they are absorbed into your body and show up in your urine, eventually getting flushed and into the sewer system where they can end back into oceans, lakes and rivers.
Other research is emerging that demonstrates the impact of many sunscreen chemicals on human health. I'll let you do your own google research but there is research demonstrating connections to breast cancer metastases, Hirschsprung disease, liver toxicity (when mixed with pool chemicals), and evidence that they can cross the placental barrier into an un born baby. Oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor which means it acts like a hormone. In fact, it can change the sex of some species of marine life from male to female. Pretty scary stuff!
As I said, I've learned a lot since joining the team at TropicSport. I'm proud that they have created a product that consumers will want to use, one that will protect them and their families from the damaging effects of the sun, and one that is safe for them and the environment,. I believe that in the not too distant future, we'll look back on chemical sunscreens the way we now look back at lead paint. "Why did we do that, and why did it take so long for us to make better choices." Not everyone cares about this kind of issue so that's why it's so great that the legislators have taken this bold step. A global first step in creating a more informed consumer and leadership on behalf of the environment. Corals have no voice to raise in their own defense, and if they did, it would be getting more silent each year.
There are a few reasons why consumers haven't historically favored mineral sunscreens, but TropicSport has addressed these in their product offerings. Mineral sunscreens have historically left users with a very visible white cast on their skin. TropicSport's formulation addressed this concern and it rubs in clear without leaving you look like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Many mineral sunscreens don't smell very good. TropicSport addressed that concern with its light vanilla coconut scent that users love. Other benefits from TropicSport include 4 hours (240 minutes) of water resistance, sizes from portable to large pump, and an commitment to only market eco-friendly formulas. Side note, TropicSport doesn't make an aerosol spray on purpose. Only about 20% of the spray actually hits your skin, and much of it ends up in your lungs, your nearby neighbors lungs or on the sand to be washed back into the ocean. The Cancer Society of New Zealand now recommends that consumers don't use aerosol sprays at all for sun protection.
In conclusion, educate yourself, make healthy choices, read the back label on your product and give thanks that legislators in Hawaii are putting the planet's interests first on this issue.