5 of the best: ecofriendly sunscreens

Could your sunscreen be harming the environment? This isn’t something I had given a lot of thought to myself until recent years, my primary concern having been to avoid UV damage and ultimately prevent the risk of melanoma, which kills around 14,000 Australians each year. Then came the reports that found oxybenzone, a synthetic ingredient used in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide, predisposes coral to bleaching. With an estimated 6,000-14,000 tonnes of sunscreen lotion emitted into coral reefs each year, that was not great news.

I just wasn’t feeling a flat-lay © Sarah Reid

Oxybenzone (which Hawaii is currently trying to ban), along with other common ingredients in synthetic sunscreens including butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (also known as avobenzone), homosalate, octocrylene octinoxate, octisalate, retinyl palmitate and paraben preservatives, have also be found to induce adverse effects on your skin and body, and in some cases also the environment. These studies have unfortunately led a lot of people to freak out about synthetic sunscreens. I say unfortunately as any dermatologist worth their multiple degrees will tell you that flaunting an unprotected body in the face of a known carcinogen (the sun) is far more harmful (to you, at least) than wearing no sunscreen at all.

On the flipside, the increased wariness of synthetics has also fuelled a revival of ‘natural’ sunscreens (I say ‘natural’ as the active ingredients are typically processed and refined before they are formulated into sunscreen), which rely on natural minerals (such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) to ‘block’ UV rays, rather than absorb them like synthetic sunscreens. These products, which have come a long way since the pore-clogging zinc sticks of the ‘90s, are great on many levels, but with recent reports indicating many mineral sunscreens do not provide the same level of defence as their synthetic cousins, it’s important to do your research before making the switch yourself to ensure you’re not putting yourself at risk.

After tracking down five of the best Australian sunscreens designed to minimise harm on the environment (and to you!) I lugged them all to sunny Samoa to test ’em out. Here’s my lowdown.

Use this: save sun bears! © Sarah Reid

Sun Bear Sunscreen

Price: AU$34.95 for 200g

I’m proud to admit that two old friends of mine are behind this incredible new product. Inspired by a trip to Myanmar during which a suitcase of sun bear paws were proffered for sale to my horrified mates, the clever couple have developed this ecofriendly, palm oil-free sunscreen that sees 80% of profits invested back into the protection of sun bears, which are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and wildlife trafficking. Feel-good buy, much?

Pros: The creators of Sun Bear Sunscreen have gone to great lengths to ensure that the product is safe for the environment from the first step of production (many consumers are oblivious to the fact that rainforests are routinely bulldozed to harvest ingredients for their favourite beauty products). With its sleek black packaging it’s the sexiest sunscreen I’ve ever seen, and the product applies easily, and doesn’t expire for three years. It also has a SPF50+ rating, the maximum protection level on the market.

Cons: At AU$34 for 200g, this product is a luxe buy. It also contains two synthetic UV absorbers: octocrylene, which produces oxygen radicals that can damage cells, and homosalate, which can disrupt hormones. Both ingredients, however, are added in quantities experts deem safe for use. I was disappointed that a recycling stamp wasn’t visible on the package, but the creators tell me this will be included on future product runs, which is great news.

I ate that coconut about three seconds after taking this picture © Sarah Reid

Little Urchin Natural Sunscreen

Price: AU$24.95 for 100g

Cleverly named for sea urchins, which create their own layer of sunscreen to protect their young from the sun’s harsh rays, this great little broad spectrum sunscreen will appeal to purists with its ingredients list void of synthetics. Don’t forget to shake it before use, or it will be quite thick.

Pros: It’s all there on the tube: Little Urchin is ‘natural’, reef safe, and is a member of 1% For The Planet, a collective of businesses that pledge 1% of their total sales for each year to approved nonprofit partners. Extra points for the ‘please recycle’ stamp on the packaging.

Cons: The product has an SPF 30 rating, which, while offering only marginally less protection than SPF 30+ (recommended by Cancer Council Australia when the UV Index is above three, which is most of the time Down Under), it’s still a wee drawback. At AU$24.95 for 100g, this is also definitely a luxury product.

All the feels for Feel Good Inc. Sunscreen © Sarah Reid

Feel Good Inc Sunscreen Lotion

Price: AU$24.95 for 200ml

I’ve focused on the original product in this review, but I’m also a big fan of Feel Good Inc‘s coconut sunscreen lotion, which smells like a holiday in a bottle. For an extra AU$3 you can also pick up the sensitive skin version created by the same surfer-doctor-builder trio behind the brand.

Pros: This lotion applies like a dream, which is a huge bonus. It’s also got an SPF 50+ rating, smells lovely, and you can find recycling instructions on the base of the bottle. On a purely superficial level, the magenta bottle is super cute.

Cons: This lotion is fragranced, but the details are not listed on the bottle. This may alienate consumers who experience reactions to artificial fragrances and don’t want to take the risk, but then you could just buy the sensitive skin (non-fragranced) version. Like Sun Bear Sunscreen, the product also contains octocrylene and homosalate. The biggest offending ingredient, however, is methoxydibenzoylmethane, which is lethal to coral. Stick to the pool when using this lotion, folks.

Yep, the coral was sharp © Sarah Reid

Wot Not Natural Sunscreen

Price: AU$28.99 for 150g

I tracked down Wot Not Sunscreen via Biome, which does the hard work for you to ensure the products it sells do not harm people or animals, and have a minimal impact on the planet. Win!

Pros: On top of containing certified organic ingredients, this sunscreen wins extra points for being free of chemical UV absorbers, sulphates, petrochemicals, PEGs, parabens, caustics, glycols and artificial fragrances and preservatives. Enriched with aloe vera and vitamin E, it’s great for people with sensitive skin, and gentle enough for babies.

Cons: Like Little Urchin, it also has an SPF 30 rating and needs to be used within 12 months. I also found it a little thick to my liking, though it rubs clear quite quickly. It would be great to see the recyclable details stamped onto the product.

Yes, that shell was in the palm tree when I found it © Sarah Reid

MooGoo Natural Sunscreen

Price: AU$19.90 for 200g

You might be pleased to know that the product doesn’t contain any part of a cow, the name having come about when the brand head discovered his mother was using a product designed for cows for her skin condition. The entire MooGoo range is based on ingredients its creators deem healthy for adults and children.

Pros: I love how much information MooGoo Natural Sunscreen provides on its label, including very thorough usage instructions. This is important given the ‘rubs on clear’ promise on the front of the product, which requires 30 seconds to warm to your body temperature until it goes clear. The price point on this lotion is also the most attractive of this loot, and doesn’t contain any synthetic UV filters, despite offering an impressive SPF 40 protection.

Cons: The product label points to the MooGoo website for a full list of ingredients, which at first seemed like a cheeky marketing ploy, but as the list is quite long, it does make sense (unlike most brands, it includes every single ingredient, not just the active ones). It would be great to see ‘reef-friendly’ and ‘recyclable’ stamped on the product.

The verdict

A someone who lives under a hole in the ozone layer and spends a lot of time outdoors, my key requirements for a sunscreen is that it’s reef-safe, and offers at least broad spectrum SPF 30+ protection, but I personally enjoyed using all of these products (all of which gave me adequate sun protection on my trip), and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them. Given I’m not a doctor, I also recommend speaking to one if you plan to switch to ‘natural’ sunscreen (or vice versa) in order to help you make the most informed decision.