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?
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.
So, what now?
Look for a safer sunscreen that uses zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and mineral UV filters that are the safest for humans.
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 to look for before buying sunscreen?
Look for natural sunscreen brands, like Lani & Kai, that uses zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, mineral UV filters that are considered to be both reef safe and the safest for humans, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Lani & Kai also uses refillable packaging made with 60 percent less non-recyclable plastic than the average sunscreen bottle, meaning you can reduce your waste, too.
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.
How can you protect yourself from the sun without sunscreen?
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.
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 fibers.
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.
2. Cover up on land
If piling on extra clothes isn't your jam, plenty of conventional swimwear is designed using sustainable fabrics like Repreve, or Econyl, which is made with a mix of everything from fabric scraps and nylon fishing nets to industrial plastic and carpet flooring.
Just throw on a long-sleeve top, maxi skirt or cover-up between dips.
A useful tip when shopping for sun-protective clothing: check the Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating.
3. 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.
Hats made by hand, in small batches and with natural fibers, 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 micro plastic pollution by giving a second life to polyester and nylon fishing nets.
4. 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.
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.
5. 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.
6. Stay covered under 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.
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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