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What is Biodegradable Sunscreen?

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  • Written By: Jessica Reed
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Biodegradable sunscreen is an environmentally friendly sunscreen designed from materials which will decompose, or break down, without causing any harm to the planet. It is thought to be safer than regular sunscreen for both the environment and the people using it. To function as a sunscreen and properly block both UVA and UVB rays from the sun, it includes a metal oxide, such as zinc oxide, mixed with natural ingredients to turn it into a spreadable cream. Instead of absorbing the sun’s rays through chemical reactions, as regular, chemical sunscreens do, biodegradable sunscreen reflects the sun’s light back and away from the skin.

Many cities in Mexico ban any type of non-biodegradable sunscreen. Research has found that coral reefs and small organisms in the ocean are dying off, and possible causes point to the chemicals in regular sunscreen. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen wash into the ocean every year, according to a research team in Italy lead by Roberto Danovaro. Though chemical sunscreens are designed to withstand water, the chemicals inevitably wash off after a while and build up in the ocean.

Zinc oxide, the primary ingredient in many biodegradable sunscreens, dissolves into the ocean without causing harm to the organisms found there. By reflecting the sunlight instead of absorbing it, biodegradable sunscreen eliminates the need for harmful chemicals. These harmful chemicals can also cause reactions in people with sensitive skin, and may cause health issues if absorbed into the skin.

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When the chemicals from regular sunscreen wash off into the ocean, they ride the ocean's currents and interact with the marine creatures, including coral reef. The sunscreen chemicals cause the algae covering the reef to develop a virus, which kills the coral before spreading on to surrounding areas. For this reason, Mexico allows only biodegradable sunscreen in an effort to put a stop to the damage.

In choosing a sunscreen, it’s important for the user to check that it includes zinc or titanium oxide as the main active ingredient, and that the other ingredients are all natural. Researching how a biodegradable sunscreen is made is a good idea before making a purchase. Certain biodegradable sunscreens may contain ingredients that seem natural, but have actually been man-made instead of obtained organically.

Aside from the advantages to the environment and the lower risk of dangerous interactions, biodegradable sunscreens work well for users with sensitive skin and cause less irritation than regular sunscreen if it comes into contact with the eyes. It also does not pose a health risk if ingested the way a regular sunscreen does. Users should double-check that the sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays, otherwise it will not provide the necessary protection from the sun.

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