Is my sunscreen bad for the environment?

Published 04/04/2022

Sunscreen is extremely important to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun. Besides a slight sunburn, which does recover, it can also cause permanent damage such as pigment-related abnormalities. This causes either dark or light spots on your skin that can even grow when your skin gets more exposed. An even worse consequence of UV radiation on the skin is skin cancer. So I’m absolutely not going to tell you to stop using sunscreen. But unfortunately, most sunscreens aren’t that great for the environment, so I would like to advise you to be conscious about your choice of sunscreen.

Harmful ingredients in sunscreen

Sunscreen, like all cosmetics, is made up of different ingredients. Each cream has its own composition and there are several ingredients that can be harmful to the environment.

Microplastics in sunscreen

Microplastics are found in many cosmetics and unfortunately, sunscreens are no exception to this. The danger of microplastics is that they affect the ecosystem in the sea. In addition, marine animals can ingest the plastic pieces, causing their stomachs to slowly fill up with plastic. Because this is indigestible, it remains in the stomach until it’s so full that they can no longer eat and thus starve. Because it’s so hard to filter out of the water, it keeps floating around forever. They also end up in our drinking water and the water used for our crops. So chances are, your portion of vegetables from last night was served with a free load of microplastics. This isn’t healthy for us, either. Yet, it isn’t mandatory for cosmetic companies to disclose the fact that microplastics are in a product.

So, how do you know which products are more environmentally friendly? By paying attention to labels or by using apps that can scan and rate products. An example of such an app is Beat the microbead from Plastic soup foundation.

Sustainable labels

The labels that products without microplastics can have are:

  • The European ecolabel
  • Demeter label
  • Nordic Swan label
  • Cosmos organic
  • Natrue
  • Zero plastics inside

Doesn’t your desired product have a label? Then you could check to see if any of the ingredients listed below are in it. These are known microplastics. Are these ingredients in the sunscreen? Then you know for sure that it contains microplastics. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete guarantee that your sunscreen is plastic-free if it doesn’t contain these ingredients, but at least you know what you should definitely avoid. 

  • Dimethicone
  • Triacontanyl pvp 
  • Acrylates crosspolymer
  • Acrylates copolymer
  • VP/Hexadecene copolymer
  • Acrylates/c10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer 
  • Carbomer
  • Styrene copolymer

Personally, I’ve become a fan of sustainable sunscreen sticks. They are in a cotton wrapper making them light and small enough to put in your purse. And they are fully biodegradable. 

Harmful UV filters

Unfortunately enough, the UV filters that help protect our skin, is the most harmful ingredient in sunscreens. There are all sorts of regulations that ensure that the products aren’t toxic to humans, but unfortunately, little attention is paid to the environment. And this while sunscreen so easily ends up in the oceans. How often do you run into the sea after using sunscreen? Whether that was an hour ago or longer, the cream is designed to stay on the skin for a long time and therefore ends up in the ocean either way.

Which UV filters are harmful?

There are many types of filters and numerous opinions about what is good and bad. The disadvantage in this is that the criteria are mainly focused on what is bad for people, and not so much on what is bad for the environment. To limit the harmful impact of sunscreen on people, there are regulations that limit the percentage of ingredients allowed in the product. In this, chemical filters are the worst and only 3-10% of these are allowed to be added. For zinc and titanium oxide, a higher percentage is set, namely 25%. These filters are seen as a better alternative. Unfortunately, they are still harmful to the environment. Under the influence of the sun, they partly change into hydrogen peroxide, which is toxic to many plankton and fish. This is worse with the chemical filters, but they still aren’t ideal alternatives.

Which UV filters are environmentally friendly?

As I said, there are several ways to calculate the harmful influences. The only one that fully looks at the environmental impact of UV filters in sunscreen is the Nordic Swan Ecolabel. So do you want to be sure that the UV filter is environmentally friendly? Go for products with this label.

Can’t find any products with this label? Then check out the ingredients to make sure you’re making a good choice. Below are 3 lists of green ingredients (the least harmful, some of which are also approved by the Nordic Swan Ecolabel), orange ingredients (not great, but not too terrible) and red ingredients that you should avoid.

  • Benzofenon-5 / Benzophenone-5
  • Benzylideen kamfer sulfonzuur / Benzylidene camphor sulfonic acid
  • Bis-Ethylhexyloxyphenol Methoxyphenyl Triazine
  • Diethylamino Hydroxybenzoyl Hexyl Benzoate
  • Dinatriumfenyldibenzimidazol-tetrasulfonaat / Disodium phenyl dibenzimidazole tetrasulfonate
  • Peg-25 PABA / Polyethylene glycol (25) PABA
  • Fenylbenzimidazol sulfonzuur / Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
  • Polysilicon-15
  • Natriumfenylbenzimidazolsulfonaat / Sodium phenylbenzimidazole sulfonate
  • Titaandioxide (nano*) / Titanium dioxide
  • Tris-Bifenyl Triazine (nano*) / Tris-biphenyl triazine
  • Benzofenon-3 en -4 / Benzophenone-3 en -4
  • Kamfer Benzalkoniummethosulfaat / Camphor benzalkonium methosulfate
  • Diethylhexyl Butamido Triazone
  • Drometrizole Trisiloxane
  • Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate
  • Ethylhexyl Salicylaat / Ethylhexyl Salicylate
  • Ethylhexyl Triazone
  • Methyleenbis-benzotriazolyltetramethylbutylfenol (nano) / Methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol
  • Phenylene bis-diphenyltriazine
  • Terephthalylidene Dicamphor Sulfonic Acid
  • 4-Methylbenzylideen-kamfer / 4-methylbenzylidene camphor / 4-MBC
  • Butylmethoxydibenzoylmethaan / Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane
  • Ethylhexyl Dimethyl PABA / Ethylhexyl dimethyl para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Homosalaat / Homosalate
  • Isoamyl P-methoxycinnamaat / Isoamyl P-methoxycinnamate
  • Octocryleen / Octocrylene
  • Polyacrylamidomethyl-benzylideen-kamfer / Polyacrylamidomethyl Benzylidene Camphor