Biodegradable Sunscreens and the Reality of Sun Protection

For over 40 years, applying traditional sunscreens has been almost universally accepted as a safe and healthy habit towards protecting your skin against sunburns and more serious skin conditions.

However, upon closer inspection and greater attention to scientific detail, the chemical composition of typical sunblocks is coming under increased scrutiny for being relatively ineffective or even dangerous to use.

Even more alarmingly, the use of regular suntan lotions has proved to be in many instances deadly to certain species of marine life.

In response to these dangers, many protected marine areas, such as barrier reefs, have required the use of biodegradable sunscreen while diving. For instance, many popular barrier reefs and dive sites in Mexico require the use of chemical-free sunscreens to ensure the safety of its marine life.

The good news is that a handful of companies have taken to creating high-quality consumer organic sunscreens that protect your skin and do not harm marine life.

Even better, there are many natural alternatives to traditional sunblock that one can use to keep yourself protected, and avoid chemical side-effects.

Understanding How Traditional Sunscreen Works and the Harms to Marine Ecosystems

Traditional sunscreen, or typical mass-produced sunscreen widely available in major retailers, does not actually fortify your skin against harmful ultraviolet rays.

Rather, the majority of these sunblocks create a chemical layer on the surface of your skin, which is actually what helps to reflect and minimize the effects of the sun. Chemicals such as oxybenzone and various benzophenones are commonly used to create this protective layer.

The convenience of using these chemicals is that they can typically be easily washed off of the skin when protection is no longer needed. However, when these chemicals are washed off in our oceans, particularly around sensitive coral reef areas, they present a very tangible danger to those ecosystems.

In fact, U.S. Government sponsored studies and research have confirmed that the majority of sunscreens have a highly toxic effect on many coral reefs, and their cumulative use is very harmful.

NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science researchers and their partners have discovered that a sunscreen chemical commonly used in many soaps, cosmetics, and body fragrances is highly toxic to corals. The team's data show that even very low concentrations of benzophenone-2, or BP-2, can quickly kill juvenile corals. BP-2 is an additive used in personal-care products since the 1960s to protect against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light.

NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Original link: Sunscreen Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs.

Don't forget that coral reefs cannot move to protect themselves, and harmful chemicals that settle on the reefs can have a lasting and very damaging effect.

Apart from reefs, certain other species of fish and marine life can also be very sensitive to the cumulative effects of chemical sunscreen.

Taking the small step of investing in a natural sunscreen free of these harmful chemicals can go a long way in the long term towards protecting fragile marine ecosystems.

When diving, snorkeling, or simply swimming in the ocean, most sunscreens may wash off of the body and enter the water. When the chemicals from traditional sunscreen cause irreversible damage to marine life, using natural sunscreen or alternative suntan lotions lessens the effects on local marine life.

If that weren't enough reason to convince you to use only natural or organic sunscreen, we also came across stunning research that shows that the habits of using traditional sunscreens have resulted in a tremendous growth of some serious health problems over the past thirty years.

Chemical Sunscreens, and the Ineffectiveness of Traditional Sunscreen on Your Own Skin

Apart from concerns around the safety of common sunblock in regards to marine life, many are beginning to become more aware of the effects of sunblock on their own bodies.

The majority of the chemicals in traditional sunscreens not only harm marine life, but are also either harmful for the skin themselves, or rather shockingly ineffective against some of the concerns they are supposed to protect against, like skin cancer.

One conference in particular, the Doctors Symposium at the 2011 Cancer Control Society Convention in Los Angeles, revealed the stunning extent to which common sunscreen is contributing to higher incidences of melanoma and skin cancers.

In the 12 minute video, Dr. Elizabeth Plourde reveals some interesting statistics about the ingredients of common sunscreens and their effectiveness, or lack thereof, against various types of harmful rays.

Amongst facts presented in the video:

  • Even in low concentrations, harmful sunscreens can very quickly kill coral reefs.
  • Many commercial sunscreens have chemicals that act practically as hormones.
  • Sunblock can actually increase the incidences of skin cancers and melanomas, from a lack of UVA ray protection.
  • Sunscreens also do not protect against infrared rays, which make up a sizable percentage of harmful energy from the sun.

Dr Plourde also mentions that many sunscreens were originally created with zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays. However, they fell out of consumer use because of the pasty white nature of the sunscreens.

Today, many biodegradable sunscreen brands have reinvigorated use of zinc oxide based sunscreens, and present a healthier alternative to many sunblocks found in supermarkets.

However, we were unfamiliar with many of the brands before researching this article more closely. It's easy for suntan lotions to claim to include natural ingredients, but it does take a bit more work to find sunscreens that are entirely natural and/or exclude harmful chemicals.

Trustworthy Commerical Organic Sunscreens

As mentioned above, the harm of traditional sunscreens have ushered in a new awareness about using natural or biodegrabale sunscreen. These sunscreens are developed without the use of chemical additives.

We were able to review a number of commercially available chemical-free sunscreens that use natural ingredients safe for both your personal health and that of marine wildlife and coral reefs.

However, it's also a good idea to get into the habit of checking each label individually and looking up any unfamiliar ingredients to check for possible harmful chemical contents.

Having said that, our research revealed several commercially available brands that created certified organic sunscreens that also actually protected well against the sun.






Kiss My Face

2.0 oz

SPF 50

Zinc Oxide


Australian Gold

8.0 oz

SPF 30



SafeSea Lotion

4.0 oz

SPF 30

Titanium Dioxide



8.0 fl oz

SPF 30

Zinc, Titanium Oxides



4.0 oz

SPF 45

Titanium Dioxide


Soleo Organics

2.6 oz

SPF 30

Zinc Oxide



2.9 oz

SPF 30

Zinc Oxide


Tropical Sands

5.4 oz

SPF 50

Zinc, Titanium Oxides


Though on the more expensive side, we've found both the Badger, Tropical Sands and Soleo Organics brands to be completely natural and provide the best protection against the sun.

Mexitan and Jason are both reliable brands, but are harder to find because they are typically not found in your average grocery store. However, these brands are not as expensive as other organic sunscreen lotions on the market.

If you are someone who struggles with sensitive skin and tends to get a burn very easily from sun exposure, ​we have found Badger and Mexitan to be the best organic sunscreens for that job.

If you are unable to order online, brands like Kiss My Face, Australian Gold and Mexitan are more readily available in common drug stores across the U.S.

SafeSea Lotion is one of the more interesting biodegradable sunscreen brands available, and particularly appeals to divers as it claims to also repeal jellyfish. We're not positive how effective that claim proves to be, but it may be a worthy investment if you are planning to dive in an area with a lot of jellyfish.

All of these natural sunscreens will prove to be better alternatives to the traditional sunscreen, but it's up to you to find the best biodegradable sunscreen for you. If you are looking to save money, then go for a less expensive alternative. If you are going diving in a hot spot that is sure to be ridden with lots of jellyfish, then go for the natural sunscreen that says to help repel jellyfish.

In addition to listing biodegradable sunscreen brands, we were also able find a beneficial online tool to help you calculate how much sunscreen you need, especially if you are going on a trip and need to pack lightly.

The Australian-based SunSmart initiative has even developed a sunscreen calculator to give you an idea of how often you need to apply sunscreen in order to maintain protection throughout the time you are in the sun.

But don't forget, as the video above mentioned, there is no such thing as a perfect suggestion. Even though applying these sunscreens can provide exceptional protection, in order to best protect your skin against sun exposure, you should also consider even more protection, like extra clothing, in addition to sunscreen.

Alternatives to Sunscreen

Using mass-produced sunscreen is often easy because of it's convenience, but chances are it's not the most practical way to protect your skin. While most consumers look at sunscreen spf and whether or not the product is water resistant in hopes of finding one that provides lots of protection, it is important to be aware of the side effects traditional sunscreen has on marine life and your body.

Indeed, strategies such as simply covering yourself up when out of the water can reduce the chances of getting a sunburn more than being out in the sun and wearing sun lotion.

  • Covering up your body when outside, particularly with select sun-shielding clothes, finding shade, or reducing the amount of time that you are directly exposed to the sun.
  • Educating yourself about the UV index, and taking extra precautions outside when the index is high.
  • Read labels of sunscreens and understand what goes onto your body and/or into your body.
  • Also be aware of ingredients in other body lotions, medicines or cosmetics, particularly those that may increase susceptibility to UV rays.
  • Increase intake of antioxidants as a habit.
  • Understand surfaces that reflect and intensify sun radiation, such as water and sand, and be extra careful to increase protection when around these surfaces.

Or, you could use other creams and oils, that are not traditionally used as sunscreens, but have positive effects for your skin. For example, aloe vera is often used to soothe sunburns, and is great for keeping your skin hydrated in the sun.

Another great example would be to use creams and oils that reduce body heat and prevent inflammation. For example, calendula and pepperment oils are great in this regard.

Additionally, you could try out other ingredients like avocado oil or lavander oils, which help to heal damaged skin. The possibilities are really endless.

Quick Starter Guide: Your Own Natural Sunscreen Recipe

If you don't like the idea of purchasing a biodegradable sunscreen, it is surprisingly simple to create one on your own.

Many already existing natural oils can be combined with zinc oxide to create a simple organic and eco-friendly sunscreen that will be easily absorbed by your skin and provide you with an additional protection against the sun and ultimately skin cancer.

To get started with an easy natural sunscreen recipe, you can follow the steps below. First, collect the following items:

  • 0.1 ounce of Vitamin E oil
  • 1 ounce shea butter
  • 1 ounce coconut oil
  • 1 ounce sesame oil
  • Zinc oxide powder
  • Eucalpytus and peppermint oils
  1. Begin by filling a small pot with around 8 ounces of water. Then, combine the shea butter, coconut oil, and sesame oil into a non-plastic measuring cup. Then place the cup into the pot, and bring the water gently up to a boil.

  2. Once the shea butter begins to melt, remove the measuring cup from the boiler, and allow the mix to cool down.

  3. Determine your zinc oxide measurements (see below), and mix into the lotion. Then add the vitamin E oil, 15 drops of peppermint oil, and 15 drops of eucalyptus oil. Stir well, and then refrigerate.

Deciding How Much Zinc Oxide To Add

The major component to creating a natural sunscreen that is actually resistant to the sun's rays is the percentage of zinc oxide that you add to your lotion.

You can add up to 20% of your solution's volume as zinc oxide. Many will feature as little as 5%, depending on the degree of protection, or SPF, that you prefer. Higher percentages are indicative of more protection.

Or, for a quicker and easier natural sunscreen recipe, you can simple combine zinc oxide with:

  • Sunflower or sesame oils
  • Virgin coconut, avocado and/or olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Vitamin E oil
  • Other antioxidant based oils

For another helpful recipe that creates a similar sunscreen, you can check out Treehugger's guide.


We hope that this guide can empower you to better learn about sun rays, suntan lotions and how you can properly protect your body, regardless of what may be publicized in popular products.

If you are still unsure of which brand of sunscreen to use, then be sure to read the biodegradable sunscreen reviews on the product you are looking at purchasing before making a decision.

If you have any suggestions for home-made biodegradable sunscreen recipes, have any recommendations into great brands that we may have missed, please let us know in the comments below.

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