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When people apply sunscreen or any other type of body care lotion, they seldom consider how the chemical ingredients used in formulating the product might adversely affect their body, as the substances are absorbed in through the skin. Most people are also unaware that the use of these chemical concoctions may adversely effect the natural environment. Researchers have recently found that chemicals in common sunscreens pose a threat to marine life. Certain substances  wash off bathers into lakes, rivers and oceans, and they contribute to water pollution.

As of two years ago, 12 sunscreen ingredients lacked sufficient safety data to assure they were “generally recognized as safe and effective,” a designation termed GRASE by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Only two sunscreen ingredients have received GRASE staus. Safety studies for all the other ingredients are non-existent. In fact, safety studies are lacking for many ingredients used in formulating a whole range of personal care products.

In 1992, the non-profit activist group, Environmental Working Group (EWG) was formed to conduct research, education and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants and corporate accountability. EWG has published a series of guides to help consumers learn about the hidden health dangers in food, water and everyday products, so consumers can make well-informed purchasing decisions. These resources are available online at

In March of this year, 2021, the Hawaii Senate passed a bill banning sunscreens containing two harmful petrochemicals – avobenzone and octocrylene. This bill followed a 2018 law banning sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Studies show that all four of these petrochemical sunscreens are toxic to human health, coral reefs and marine species.

In other states, where such legislation is not yet in effect, citizens can start to take action by voting with the dollars they spend at retail. While consumer purchases are largely influenced by advertising, price and mass market availability, it’s important to be aware of the fine print and take time to read the ingredients label.

Case in point, the #1 sunscreen listed in Goodhousekeeping magazine for 2021 is Hawaiian Tropic brand sunscreen. The active ingredients in Hawaiian Tropic are listed as “Avobenzone 2%, Octocrylene 5%, Oxybenzone 3%.” When it comes to promotion, magazines give the brands of their paying advertisers top priority. Top-selling national magazines  rely on their corporate advertisers to sustain them.

Corporate labs conduct tests for the feel of the product (non-oily, non-sticky, non-stingy), the smell of the product (because nobody wants to wear a lotion that smells bad) and the sunblocking effectiveness of the product. Copywriters use these findings to create ads and write article that will build sales and market share. Among all the corporate lab research conducted, however, there is no testing for toxicity.

Avobenzone, octocryleneoxybenzone and octinoxate are banned by Hawaii, because they accumulate in the tissue of the coral, causing coral bleaching and damaging DNA Corals are keystone species, meaning they provide an essential function to other species within their marine ecosystems. Fish and invertebrates live, seek protection, and spawn within coral structures.

In New England, sunscreen chemicals have been found to decrease fertility and reproduction in fish and induce defects in young mussels. They inhibit embryonic development and damage immune systems in sea urchins. Other research shows that these chemicals can prove fatal to organisms living in freshwater ecosystems. These chemicals enter our waterways when we swim in our local waters, and they can also enter waterways when we take a shower, rinse our hands, or use the toilet.

Going deeper down this rabbit hole, these chemicals decrease immunity and reduce fertility in mammals, including humans. Recent studies indicate human couples whose urine contained higher concentrations of benzophenones had a harder time getting pregnant. And, human mothers can transfer oxybenzone to their infants via breastmilk. Sunscreen is but one example of many personal care products that are made with harmful petrochemicals, including parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrances, which are linked to chronic illnesses.

The good news, however, is that health and eco-conscious companies are emerging to bring safer products to the market. These companies are working with Nature, instead of against her. They are finding safe and effective ingredients produced by the Earth and using these to formulate a variety of non-toxic products. Shoppers can begin to support these efforts by seeking out sunscreens formulated with non-nanoparticle titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

Learn more about toxic-free personal care products on the Story Walking Radio Hour July 2021 episode Non-Toxic Personal Care Choices for Cleaner Water, with host Wendy Nadherny Fachon and guest Beth Newberry, Consultant for Pure Haven. 

Wendy Fachon is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings Magazine and Sustainable Living News and host of the Story Walking Radio Hour on the Dreamvisions 7 Radio Network. Visit and search out her podcasts on sustainable living.

Non-toxic Personal Care Choices for Clean Water

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