San Diegans crowd Ocean Beach on a summer morning. Photo by Chris Stone

When you’re spending time outdoors, sunscreen is a must — it protects your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays that can cause aging and skin cancer. But lately, some sunscreen ingredients are under fire for not being environmentally safe.

This has some dermatologists (myself included) concerned about a decline in sunscreen usage and a rise in skin cancer rates. More than 3 million Americans develop skin cancer every year, and many people don’t realize that one person dies every hour in our country from melanoma. But if you protect your skin, it’s one of the most preventable cancers.

New Sunscreen Rules Coming Soon

Currently in question are two ingredients: oxybenzone and octinoxate. Starting next year, Hawaii will be banning any sunscreen containing these ingredients. Recent research indicates these chemicals are bleaching ocean coral reefs and causing irreparable damage, including the elimination of nutrients that sustain local marine life. Beginning in 2021, Key West, FL, and the Island of Palau will also ban these chemicals in sunscreen for the same reason.

What Does This Mean for San Diego?

Whether the sunscreen ban will catch on in California remains to be seen. San Diego attracts a high volume of visitors who come here for our 70 miles of beautiful coastline. And when tourists hit the water, the sunscreen they wear washes off into the ocean.

One study estimates that 14,000 tons of sunscreen enters the world’s oceans every year. And while San Diego’s ocean reefs are different that those found in Hawaii or the Mediterranean, they’re just as full of life. The West Coast is also home to kelp beds that make up a complex ecosystem supporting countless species.

Choose Mineral-Based Sunscreen

When shopping for a sunscreen that’s safe for the environment, read the label and look for sunscreens that contain only zinc or titanium. These natural ingredients act as a barrier to deflect harmful UV rays away from your skin. They are generally safer and provide broad-spectrum protection against skin cancer and aging.

Avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. If you have a hard time spelling or pronouncing it — similar to food ingredients — you probably should choose an alternative. You may have to make a switch, but there are many environmentally friendly choices that are reef- and marine-safe.

Other Ways to Protect Your Skin

While most people are aware of the benefits that sunscreen provides, there are other options to protect your skin if you have environmental concerns. For example, you can wear protective clothing with UV protection, or slip on a lightweight long-sleeve shirt. Hats and sunglasses are great, as well as avoiding being in the sun during the hottest part of the day, usually between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Dr. Mona Mofid is a board-certified dermatologist with Sharp Community Medical Group and is affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

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