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Seaside Sustainability's Reef-Safe Sunscreen Dispenser Program

By: Wishy Kane

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Spring break is over, and summer is racing toward us. From beauty influencers to dermatologists, everyone is stepping up to remind the public about the importance of prioritizing sunscreen use. Consistent sunscreen usage can be the difference between healthful, glowing skin versus premature aging, skin damage, and even skin cancer. According to the CDC, melanoma is the most common cancer in the United States, and the risk increases with age. However, to ensure consistent sun protection, choosing an environmentally responsible sunscreen option is often overlooked. We at Seaside Sustainability Inc. are dedicated to reintroducing this crucial information into the sunscreen conversation.

Choosing a sunscreen that is reef-safe and non-toxic is critical for both the human population and surrounding wildlife. Common sunscreen options found at most grab-and-go locations contain toxic chemicals but are often what most people think of first when considering sunscreen choices. Not only are most people unaware that these sunscreens often provide insufficient sun protection because of their inability to protect against the complete spectrum of UV rays, but they also can cause collateral damage to local waters and the ecosystems within them.

Researchers hold concerns about sunscreen’s effects on the environment, sounding the alarm on the current devastating levels of coral bleaching. Coral plays a crucial role in protecting coastlines, preventing detrimental erosion caused by waves and storms crashing against the shore. However, when beachgoers enter the water, sunscreen runoff enters the water and stays there. Common active ingredients, such as oxybenzone, can cause physical deformities, DNA damage, and even viral infections in coral species. Protecting coral remains one of the major concerns in changing the face of sunscreen to better the environment for the generations to come.

Alternate sunscreen options are becoming increasingly popular due to recent research that has highlighted the detrimental effects that current popular sunscreen options have on marine ecosystems. There are two main types of sunscreen formulations: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens seep into the skin and elicit an altered bodily response to sun rays, whereas mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier on top of the skin and prevent sun rays from making contact with it. These mineral sunscreens are also safer for marine ecosystems. Active ingredients, the component of sunscreen formulas which provide sun protection, are different between chemical and mineral sunscreens. Being proactive in choosing sunscreens with safer active ingredients is the major key to preventing harm. Chemical sunscreens are formulated to penetrate and alter organic material, such as human skin, which puts wildlife at risk. However, mineral sunscreens are specifically designed to sit on top of our skin, which allows marine life to remain unaffected.

That being said, a longtime issue consumers have found with mineral sunscreens is the tendency for the crucial barrier-forming compounds to leave a distinct white cast on the skin, which many consider physically unattractive enough to avoid mineral sunscreen products entirely. However, cutting-edge sunscreen manufacturers have started to reduce or eliminate this white cast by altering formulas or adding skin tone tints.

With the state’s unique mix of extensive tourism and marine life, the Hawai’i State Legislature is acutely aware of the concerning issues associated with chemical sunscreen. In 2018, Legislature passed an inspiring law banning the sale of any sunscreen containing any of two chemicals, avobenzone and octocrylene, within the state. Since its passing, the Legislature has also added prohibitive measures against sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in defense of the coral reefs and other endangered wildlife native to the region. As of 2019, none of the four active ingredients prohibited in Hawai’i have been designated as “safe and effective” by the FDA. These chemicals, which can cause anything from endocrine disruption to allergic reactions, have been found in alarming concentrations in everything from blood samples to human breast milk. This year, the Hawai’i Legislature is discussing further action on making safer sunscreen more accessible. Environmentalists are hopeful that the essential progress Hawai’i is making could inspire additional legislation in other states or even within the U.S. Congress.

For now, it is up to environmentally conscious organizations and the public to take steps toward changing and advocating for safer sunscreen choices. With the help of the Brace Cove Foundation, Seaside Sustainability is currently working with Raw Elements USA to make safer sunscreen more accessible this summer. By Memorial Day weekend, new free-use sunscreen dispensers will be installed by the Gloucester Department of Public Works in two locations on Gloucester, Massachusetts beaches. The program is slated to run through Labor Day weekend in 2023, with high hopes buzzing to expand and renew the program in upcoming years.

Seaside Sustainability, Inc. encourages everyone to make responsible choices in personal sunscreen use. Beyond that, you can ensure politicians take note of this critical issue by calling or writing to your local elected officials. This summer, we also ask that you educate your friends and family members about how to manage risk and choose marine-safe products like mineral sunscreen. Finally, keep an eye out for updates from environmental organizations and nonprofits dedicated to ensuring safer consumer choices so you can be prepared to make the best choices and help in the pursuit of educating to make a difference. To support this educational initiative directly, you can donate to support Seaside Sustainability, Inc. here.


Works Cited

CDC. (2023, April 18). Melanoma of the skin statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 29, 2023, from

Danovaro, R., et al. (2008). Sunscreens cause coral bleaching by promoting viral infections.

Environmental Health Perspectives. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from

Environmental Working Group. (n.d.). EWG’s guide to safer sunscreens. EWG.

Hall, D. (2022, September 8). The truth about corals and Sunscreen. The Truth About Corals and Sunscreen. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from

Hawai'i State Legislature. (2018). HB102. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

​​National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Review of Fate, Exposure, and Effects of Sunscreens in Aquatic Environments and Implications for Sunscreen Usage and Human Health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Geographic Society. (2022). Coral. Education. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from

NOAA. (2018, November 1). Sunscreen chemicals and coral reefs. Skincare Chemicals and Marine Life. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2022, August 9). Sunscreen. The Skin Cancer Foundation. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

Smith, L. (2022). Sunscreen for darker skin: How to avoid a white cast. WebMD. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

Timmons, J. (2022, February 3). Should you use physical or chemical sunscreen? Healthline. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

Venosa, A. (2021, June 9). Breaking down broad-spectrum protection: Why your sunscreen needs to have it. The Skin Cancer Foundation. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

Wells, K. (2020, April 13). Why Mineral Sunscreen is safer for us and the planet. Wellness Mama®. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from


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