Biodegradable Sunscreen

If you're going somewhere sunny—or going anywhere at all, really—you'll want to pack sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. But not all sunscreens are created equal. You might want to look into getting biodegradable sunscreen, a special type of sunscreen that is now required at some tourist destinations.

Read on to find out more about this product and where to get it.

Man putting sun screen on woman
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What Is It?

It is a common misconception that biodegradable sunscreen is regular sunscreen that's sold in a biodegradable bottle. Biodegradable sunscreen is a type of sunscreen that is free from most of the chemical ingredients that are often found in regular sunscreen. It is considered to be eco-friendly in that it will not damage plant and animal life as it washes off during water-based activities, such as swimming, surfing, and scuba diving.

For some sea excursions, such as scuba diving, biodegradable sunscreen is a requirement and nonbiodegradable sunscreens are confiscated.

Ingredients in biodegradable sunscreens vary based on the manufacturer, but they are free of the following chemical ingredients that are known to harm the ecosystem when they degrade:

  • PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)
  • Octinoxate
  • Oxybenzone
  • 4-methyl benzylidene
  • Camphor
  • Butylparaben

Ingredients that are safer for the environment include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

Effectiveness

When they're used correctly, biodegradable sunscreens are just as effective as regular sunscreens. Most biodegradable sunscreen brands offer several varieties of SPF (sun protection factor, like 15, 30, or 50), just like regular sunscreen brands.

The consistency and drying time of the sunscreen may be different from what you are used to, though, so be sure to follow the manufacturer's directions for application and reapplication. Some people find that biodegradable sunscreen is thicker or dries faster than regular sunscreen, but this depends on the brand.

Should People With Sunscreen Allergies Consider It?

A dermatologist may recommend biodegradable sunscreen for a person whose skin is allergic or sensitive to regular sunscreen, but this certainly isn't the only option for people who have allergies.

Many people have a specific allergy to PABA, an ingredient that's found in most sunscreens. So, choosing a PABA-free sunscreen may be sufficient for everyday use even if it's not biodegradable. Some people may find it helpful to have a skin patch test done by a dermatologist (medical doctor specializing in conditions of the skin, hair, and nails) to determine what specific ingredient they are allergic to.

Where to Buy

Unfortunately, it's not always as easy to find biodegradable sunscreen as it is regular sunscreen. At the drug store, look for mineral (not chemical) formulations, then examine the ingredients according to the guidelines described above. For convenience and selection, however, the Internet and health food or organic specialty stores are generally your best bet when looking for biodegradable sunscreen. It may be sold at your travel destination, but remember that it may cost considerably more there than if you purchased it online or in a store near your home.

Look for labels that include the word "biodegradable." PABA-free sunscreen is not always the same as biodegradable sunscreen because it may contain other chemicals that are not environmentally friendly. Popular brands of biodegradable sunscreen include:

  • Mexi-Tan
  • Caribbean Solutions
  • Nature's Gate
  • Kiss My Face
  • Hawaiian Tropical biodegradable lotions

Of course, these are not the only biodegradable sunscreen brands, but the ones listed above are widely marketed and may be easier to find.

Summary

While regular sunscreen might protect you from harmful UV rays, chemicals in the sunscreen can harm the environment. When these chemicals wash off in the ocean and break down, they can be harmful to marine life and coral, destroying the environment.

Biodegradable sunscreen, on the other hand, does not contain these harmful chemicals, and so it's safe for marine life. To be sure your sunscreen is safe, look at labels for the word "biodegradable," and use sunscreens that only contain ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is biodegradable sunscreen the same as reef-safe?

    Yes, it is. Both terms refer to sunscreens that don't have chemicals in them that degrade naturally and don't contain ingredients or chemicals that can harm marine life or coral reefs.

  • Is zinc oxide sunscreen biodegradable?

    Yes, it is. It is a common ingredient in biodegradable sunscreens.

  • Is biodegradable sunscreen allergy-friendly?

    Generally, yes. Many people who have allergies to sunscreen are allergic to the synthetic ingredients in it. Biodegradable sunscreen contains minerals that are often gentler on the skin. Talk to your dermatologist before using any biodegradable sunscreen to double-check ingredients.

  • How do you know if sunscreen is biodegradable?

    It will often say it on the label, but if not, check the ingredients. If it has the chemical ingredients listed in this article in it, it is not biodegradable.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Oceanic Society. Reef safe sunscreen: Our guide to ocean-friendly sun protection.

  4. Yoo J, Kim H, Chang H, Park W, Hahn SK, Kwon W. Biocompatible organosilica nanoparticles with self-encapsulated phenyl motifs for effective UV protection. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. 2020;12:9062-9069. doi: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.9b21990

Originally written by Lisa Fayed