7 Eco-Friendly Ways to Stay Safe in the Sun

Sunscreens protect our skin, but not necessarily the planet. Here’s how to choose, plus how to think outside the bottle, from biodegradable sunglasses to hats made with recycled fish nets.
Posted on
July 8, 2021
7 Eco-Friendly Ways to Stay Safe in the Sun

Summer and sunscreen go hand-in-hand.

But here’s the rub: While we need sun protection to shield our skin from harmful UV rays, sunscreen, like everything else, has an environmental impact.

Why is sunscreen bad for the environment?

For starters, the disposable packaging that sunscreen often comes in isn’t great for the planet, especially considering how much plastic ends up in landfills and oceans.

A girl at the beach putting on sunscreen to protect her skin from the su

Then there’s oxybenzone and octinoxate, common sunscreen ingredients known as chemical UV filters. While these ingredients are great at protecting your skin, they’re known for affecting marine life and can cause coral reef bleaching, leading vacation destinations like Hawaii and Key West to ban the sale of sunscreens that use them.

And if those ingredients aren’t good for the oceans, they’re not good for lakes, rivers and ponds either.

Read more: How are microplastics polluting our oceans? 

So, what now?

Look for a safer sunscreen that uses zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and mineral UV filters that are the safest for humans.

Well, definitely don’t toss your sunscreen or make your own, especially since skin cancers like melanoma are on the rise. Instead, choose a safer, natural sunscreen alternative.

What is natural sunscreen?

Natural sunscreen is sunscreen that is made with ingredients you can find in nature. These sunscreens are often less irritating to the skin, reef-safe and generally better for the environment.

What should you look out for when buying sunscreen?

Look for natural sunscreen brands, like Canadian body care company Attitude. Their plastic-free, mineral-based sunscreen is made with non-nano zinc oxide, which protects against both UVA and UVB. It uses zinc oxide, which is considered to be safe for both reefs and humans, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Attitude also uses plastic-free and biodegradable packaging, so you can have fun in the sun, safe in the knowledge that your sunscreen isn't contributing to harmful microplastics. It's also hypoallergenic, vegan, and cruelty-free to boot!

More eco-friendly ways to protect yourself from the sun

Now that you’ve got a reef-safe sunscreen, here are a few more low-waste, planet-friendly ways to protect your skin and reduce your plastic carbon footprint.

1. Dress wisely in the water

All fabric protects our skin from the sun to some extent, and putting on a cover-up or wrapping yourself with a scarf or towel can be a useful way to block UV rays. This goes for when you’re in the water, too. 

Sun-protective clothing is an ideal way to prevent burns when you’re out on long swims or going in and out of the water.

In general, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, you’ll get more protection from darker, denser and looser fabrics. You can also look for clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating, ideally one of 50 or higher.

A girl surfing with a shirt on

2. Find eco-friendly swimwear

Brands like Seea and Ansea make swimwear with earth-friendly fabrics like Repreve (a.k.a. upcycled plastic bottles), and use plant-based Yulex for wetsuits, rather than neoprene. There’s also Outerknown, which was founded by champion surfer Kelly Slater and offers swim trunks that are made entirely of recycled fibres.

When you shop online, plastic wrap is often a given, but Loop Swim won’t ship your items in poly bags, plus you can send your old swimsuit back to them to be upcycled.

The brand also uses heat transfer printing rather than vat dyeing or screen-printing to dress up its swimwear. This process uses much less energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Cover up on land

Just throw on a long-sleeve top, maxi skirt or cover-up between dips. 

Look for items made from recycled or natural materials, such as brands like Solbari, which features shirts and poncho-style tops made with cotton and natural bamboo.

A useful tip when shopping for sun-protective clothing: check the Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating.

4. Be a hat person

Hats are a go-to sun-protection accessory, which is why dermatologists have long preached about the importance of wearing one.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests a wide-brimmed version that covers the ears, head and neck. 

A guy wearing sunglasses to protect his eyes from the sun

Hats made by hand, in small batches and with natural fibres, like the ones by Greenpacha, abound, but there’s a caveat: The tightness of the weave matters. In other words, if it has holes or you can see through it, the UV rays can, too.

Other eco-friendly alternatives include baseball caps and bucket hats made with natural fibers like hemp or recycled materials, rather than virgin fabrics. For instance, brands like Patagonia and Tentree reduce microplastic pollution by giving a second life to polyester and nylon fishing nets.

Read more: How Patagonia is leading the way for sustainable fashion

5. Go for climate-friendly sunglasses

Until recently, eco-friendly eyewear wasn’t really a thing, with plastic sunglasses being the only option. This waste adds up, especially considering how often people lose their shades. (Just ask the Walt Disney Company—hundreds of pairs turn up in its theme parks’ lost and found bins daily.) 

You can find sunglasses with frames made from sustainable materials like cork and bamboo, recycled plastics, and even repurposed skateboard decks.
Eco-friendly sunglasses made of recycled wood

Now you can find sunglasses with frames made from sustainable materials like cork and bamboo, recycled plastics, and even repurposed skateboard decks.

Football fans looking for sustainable shades can take a page from Tom Brady’s playbook. The star quarterback partnered with Danish brand Christopher Cloos on a line of sunglasses made with a bioplastic that biodegrades. Pela, known for its eco-friendly phone accessories, also offers sunglasses with 100 percent biodegradable frames.

And California-based Sunski skips the excess accessories like bags and magnetic storage boxes, and instead performs origami-inspired magic on its recycled packaging to create a tape- and glue-free folded box.

Also, just as you can recycle prescription eyeglasses, some companies feature recycling programs for their sunglasses, so your shades can take another trip around the sun.

6. Dry off with a plastic-free towel

Like so many of our clothes, towels are often made with synthetic materials that contain microplastics. Which means every time we wash them, more of those microplastics get released, moving from our laundry machines into the ecosystem.

The good news? There are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives, such as towels made from organic cotton, linen and bamboo.

Hilana uses textiles that would otherwise end up in a landfill to make its upcycled cotton towels, while Sand Cloud sends a portion of its profits to marine conservation initiatives when you buy one of its organic cotton creations. And the eye-catching art on the all-cotton towels by Plunge makes for a great conversation starter and supports emerging American artists.

Read more: 12 ways to reduce plastic waste

7. Stay covered under an umbrella

A family on the beach being protected from the UV rays with an umbrella

You know the umbrella you carry in your bag or briefcase for surprise downpours? It was originally invented to protect you from the sun, and over time has evolved into something that is considered rain gear rather than sun protection—at least in North America. 

Consider revisiting the concept of using a handheld umbrella as a way to block the sun’s rays.

But consider revisiting the concept of using a handheld umbrella as a way to block the sun’s rays. Brands like Brelli may spark a comeback by making fashion-forward versions—with UV protection—that biodegrade “as twigs and leaves do,” as the company puts it.

For the sand, instead of a flimsy plastic beach umbrella that only lasts a season or two, consider something sturdier made with sustainable materials. Brands like Land and Sand use cotton and recycled plastic bottles for the canopy, and a rust-resistant aluminum pole.

Stay safe and have fun in the sun

When it comes to sun protection, there are lots of eco-friendly options for keeping our skin safe while maximizing our fun outside and doing our part for the planet.

But don’t forget to enjoy one of the most natural sunscreen options of them all: relaxing in the shade of a very large tree! 

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Sarah Daniel
Written By
Sarah Daniel

Sarah Daniel is a Toronto-based writer and aspiring audio producer. Her version of small talk is telling you the climate change podcasts you should be listening to.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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