by Jasmine Jafferali, MPH, ACE-CPT

Sunscreen is under scrutiny. Recently, The New York Times cited scientific studies that determined over 14,000 pounds of sunscreen are washed into the oceans each year and contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs, ruining the ocean's delicate eco-system. As of January 2021, Hawaii and Florida will be the first to ban the use of certain sunscreens due to the problematic chemicals being used in them. With knowledge of its grave impact on ocean life, what could it be doing to Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes?

Sunscreen ingredients have “environmental persistence,” meaning that the substance remains in nature for a long after application. According to US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers, America’s coral reefs are “dying at alarming rates." The sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone kills baby coral reefs. The other chemical, Octinoxate, awakens the coral viruses that causes the coral to expel their symbiotic algae, making them "sick" as a result. The only sunscreens rated “reef safe” are mineral options. When we look to the health of our animals, marine life, dune life and the future of our natural duneland, society must quit letting chemical sunscreens wash off your skin into our waterways. While studies are pointing towards ocean life, the Great Lakes are also vulnerable to this same sunscreen chemical pollution.

According to the EPA:

“Studies have linked Persistent Organic Pollutants exposures to declines, diseases, or abnormalities in a number of wildlife species, including certain kinds of fish, birds, and mammals. Wildlife also can act as sentinels for human health: abnormalities or declines detected in wildlife populations can sound an early warning bell for people. Behavioral abnormalities and birth defects in fish, birds, and mammals in and around the Great Lakes, for example, led scientists to investigate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) exposures in human populations (see below for more information on the Great Lakes).”

Many organizations are going through great lengths to bring more awareness to those who advocate for a green environment. The “Protect Land + Sea” Certification Seal, created by Haereticus Lab, means that the product has been laboratory‐tested using analytical‐forensic techniques to verify that the product is free of dangerous chemicals that impact a wide variety of environments (lakes, freshwater streams, rivers, ocean systems, and more) or the wildlife that thrive in these habitats. For a list of certified products and those that comply best for freshwater and saltwater species, as well as humans, click here. But let us get back to what we want to talk more about and that is doing our part to eliminate sunscreen pollution and learn a bit about the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens.

Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreens


  • Mineral sunscreen acts as a physical barrier to UVA and UVB rays. If you are in water or sweat, you would have to reapply sunscreen. If it’s washed away, there is no more protection. This is why so many mineral sunscreens are thicker and “greasy” to repel water.
  • Mineral powders are easier to reapply. If your sunscreen comes from a non-mineral source (anything other than zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), it is only effective for 2 hours. That's regardless of whether you are in the sun or not. If it is mineral sunscreen, it can be good for longer than 2 hours, but as it wears off, you are safest if you reapply.
  • Some sunscreens come with a water resistancy rating on minerals, including mineral powders. Some adhere better than others.


  • Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin which is why you have to wait for 15-minutes before you go outside. It absorbs the UVA and UVB rays then release them as heat.
  • If you have “hot” skin condition like psoriasis, rosecea or eczema, you may want to avoid chemical based sunscreens.
  • Many sunscreens contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, a chemical that helps filter out the ultraviolet rays. Many new substances, including oxybenzone, pass through wastewater plants unfiltered and end up in our rivers and oceans.


Buyer Beware

There are sunscreens that have nano-particles promoting their product to be a safer option. A “nano-particle” is a particle smaller than 100 nanometers, or 100 billionths of a meter. To give some perspective, a nanometer is 1000 times smaller than the thickness of one strand of hair. Though small, they still can potentially harm freshwater or saltwater organisms. Particularly, nanosized minerals can be ingested by corals. (sources: 1, 2, 3)

How to Find Safe and Protective Sunscreens:

Every year, the Environmental Working Group comes out with a safe sunscreen list.  They also have a free application you can download and have right at your fingertips. Always be sure to read the ingredients. If you are traveling to Hawaii and Florida, it is best to buy a sunscreen that is on the safe reef list.

An up and coming non-profit called MADE SAFE has their own in house certification.  MADE SAFE goes over and above any other product safety certifications. They don't "compromise" and follow the precautionary principle - if in doubt and there are not sufficient long-term safety studies, leave it out or the seal isn't awarded. This downloadable pdf is great to learn on tips for choosing a safer sunscreen.

Each year, I get asked for a recommended brand. Here are a few that I like:

  • Badger
  • Beauty Counter
  • Blue Lizzard
  • Kabana (formulated by a Standford-trained biochemist)
  • Primal Life Organics
  • Pure Haven (uses non-nanopartical zinc and no toxic chemicals)
  • Raw Elements
  • Think Baby




And if you want a spray one, here are my top three recommendations:

  • Sun Bum (though not reef approved)
  • Babo spray
  • MyChelle Dermaceuticals Sun Shield Clear Spray

Use caution if you have allergies or asthma! 

Remember, the sun is not entirely bad. If we spend 20-minutes exposing our face and arms in the summertime without any sunscreen, we can get our daily dose of Vitamin D. Studies have shown that using sunscreen actually decreases our ability to absorb Vitamin D from the sun and is linked to Vitamin D deficiency. Our diet also dictates our skin’s ability to burn. The more processed foods you eat, the less important nutrients such as Vitamins A, C, beta-carotene, omega 3’s to nourish your skin from within. Research shows that certain nutrients can provide you some modest protection from the sun. Foods that are high in beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and astaxanthin (watermelon, tomatoes, red peppers, and pink grapefruits) are very beneficial to the body. So eat up on those juicy summer fruits and vegetables to help support your skin and keep it healthy from the sunshine. We can have the best of both worlds by purchasing safer sunscreens and eating fresh produce from our local farmers’ markets. Both our bodies and the Northwest Indiana environment will thank you for it!


Oxybenzone toxicity in humans and environment life:

Environmentally-relevant concentrations of UVFs have recently been linked to toxicity in aquatic organisms:


Connect with Jasmine

IG: @healthyjasmine

Jasmine Jafferali, MPH, ACE-CPT, is a Whole Health Nutritionist & Holistic Lifestyle expert and seasoned wellness and fitness professional. Her mission is to empower people to make the right food, positive lifestyle choices, restore their health and embrace alternative health options for better healing. Her passion for health and wellbeing stems from her childhood and continuing wellness journey resulting in making many lifestyle changes throughout her life. Jasmine lives chronic Lyme and enjoys a healthy lifestyle. She fully believes it is what keeps her from being knocked down by it. Originally from Chicago, Jasmine and her family moved from downtown Chicago to embrace all that the Indiana Dunes has to offer.

Jasmine wants to empower you to achieve a better “well care” system for you and your family -- one that embraces exercise, fresh, quality foods, stress reduction, family time, sleep and spiritual health. When she is not working you can find her on the beach in the summertime soaking up the goodness nature has to offer and enjoying outdoor life.

 She speaks on a variety of health and alternative health topics and consults with individuals who want to make positive lifestyle changes and transform their lives. Jasmine is a published online author and has appeared on WGN, NBC5, ABC7 and The Living Healthy Chicago show.


Written by