Clean Beauty Protects Animals and their Habitats

What we put on our bodies can greatly impact animals and their habitats. It may not seem like it, but as it gets absorbed into our skin, it also gets washed off in the shower and down the drain, or if we swim, in that body of water.

Chemical Sunscreen Kills Coral Reefs

Snorkeling in Mexico
The area where we snorkeled in Marietas Islands.

About a year ago I visited Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and we embarked on a snorkeling trip to the Marietas Islands. These islands were so highly visited by tourists in previous years, that they were closed for several years to recover. They were now reopened with rules to protect the delicate ecosystem. One rule was to wear special sunscreen. Even as a conservation biologist, I never thought that what I, one person, put on my body could affect something as big as the ocean! But with tourists visiting every single day in literal boatloads it does. Regular chemical sunscreen kills coral reefs.

coral bleaching from sunscreen
Coral bleaching from sunscreen. Figure from Danovaro et al. 2008.

Chemical sunscreens contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients linked to coral bleaching. Unlike fish, corals are animals (yes animals!) that cannot swim away from areas where snorkelers go to look at them. These chemicals accumulate in the water and kill the corals even at low levels and are thought to do so by promoting a viral infection. This is why Mexico banned chemical sunscreen at the Marietas Islands.

Just like Mexico, Hawaii also decided to ban chemical sunscreen, but did it one step further making it an unprecedented, state-wide ban. This is one of the reasons I started selling Beautycounter. This company not only makes mineral sunscreen, but was instrumental in advocating for this ban due to their lobbying efforts. While we know now that chemical sunscreen kills coral reefs, what we don’t know is how it is affects other ocean life because research has not caught up to the impacts.

Fish and seagulls in Mexico
Anything you put on your body goes into the water and affects the animals living in it.

Washing Off Into Our Water

Even if you don’t go swimming in the ocean or lakes, washing off your chemical sunscreen, along with any other beauty products you use, goes down the drain, and into the enviroment. This became very apparent when researchers started finding the accumulation of the plastic micro-beads used in face and body scrubs in streams and fish. Given less attention, are the things you can’t see. And these things are also much harder to study and determine the effects of.

A few years ago, a study found no difference between regular and anti-bacterial soap in terms of getting you clean, but the latter had triclosan in it (also found in toothpaste, shampoo, and clothing). Triclosan is linked to higher allergy levels in children and may interfere with human muscle cell contraction. It also negatively impacts aquatic organisms, particularly green algae.  and has been found to accumulate in predatory animals like dolphins. This ingredient among some others, was in anti-bacterial products and was recently banned. As a conservation biologist, I like to stay ahead of industry standards and invest in products that are safer for me and safer for the environment. One of the things that I learned through my journey to clean beauty is the lack of regulation in the industry, which is now why I use Beautycounter.

Beautycounter sunscreen
Beautycounter’s sunscreen is safe for you and reef friendly.



Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 15 years of experience on mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.

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