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Is Sunscreen Harmful for the Environment?


In a recent review, published in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, researchers highlighted the environmental concerns of ultraviolent (UV) filters used in sunscreen while stressing the importance of sun protective behaviors to prevent skin cancer.

The review was published following Hawaiian legislation banning the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate due to research that suggested the UV filters contributed to coral bleaching.1

To determine the validity of these claims, the researchers assessed studies that examined the impact of sunscreen ingredients on the environment. These studies showed that UV filters, including oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate and ethylhexyl salicylate (ES), have been found in almost all water sources around the world and are not easily removed by common waste water treatment plant techniques.


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Additionally, oxybenzone has been implicated as a possible contributor to coral reef bleaching in laboratory studies and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate have been identified in various fish species, which has potential consequences for the food chain.


“While there is emerging evidence that chemical sunscreen ingredients could enter the water supply and affect marine life, including fish and coral reefs, more research will be necessary to draw any firm conclusions, and there have been no demonstrable harmful effects in humans,” said study author Henry W. Lim, MD, FAAD, chair emeritus of the dermatology department at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, MI. “As dermatologists, it is important for us to continue to emphasize the public health impact of excessive sun exposure, and to advise our patients about proper photoprotection practice, which consists of seeking shade, wearing photoprotective clothing including hats and sunglasses, and application of appropriate sunscreens.” 

Patients who are concerned about the potential environmental effects of UV chemicals used in sunscreens can use a physical sunscreen containing the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.


In addition, Suzanne M. Olbricht, MD, FAAD, president of the AAD, released a statement, saying. “All of the active ingredients in US sunscreens have been approved by the FDA as safe and effective for human use,” she said. “Claims that any of these ingredients are toxic or a hazard to human health have not been proven. In fact, scientific evidence supports the benefits of applying sunscreen to minimize short- and long-term damage to the skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.”2




1. Schneider SL, Lim HW. Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients [published July 5, 2018]. J Am Acad Dermatol. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2018.06.033.

2. New Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology paper highlights research into certain sunscreen ingredients [press release]. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of Dermatology, July 5, 2018. Accessed July 9, 2018.

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