Are you wearing the wrong sunscreen?

Sunscreen should be a critical part of everyone's day — but for most of us, it isn't. Here's what you need to know about this skin-saving product.

Are you wearing the wrong sunscreen?

Sunscreen should be a critical part of everyone's day — but for most of us, it isn't. Here's what you need to know about this skin-saving product.
Sunscreen Long Shot 2019

Subscribe to The Bullet to get our deep dives into trending news topics straight to your inbox.


Sun’s out, Bullet readers. It’s time to slap on the SPF. But you might want to think twice before you reach for last year’s tube of the white stuff. For one, it’s probably expired. Secondly, is it reef-safe?

That’s right, you’ve got yet another factor to consider when shopping for sunscreen. If you haven’t seen the term reef-safe yet, that changes now.


Sadly, yes. While sunscreen has been doing a great job at protecting us from skin cancer (v. important since Canadians are more susceptible), it hasn’t been so kind to the environment.

Over the last few years research has been mounting and it’s now impossible to ignore. To put it simply: some ingredients in sunscreens are essentially toxic to our marine ecosystems. Yikes.

As if the eight million metric tons of plastic in our oceans wasn’t enough, each year approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the oceans, too. It’s washing off of surfers and swimmers, and it’s especially concentrated in areas near coral reefs that are popular among tourists.

Why does this matter?

Well, researchers have discovered that some of the ingredients used in sunscreen (specifically, chemical sunscreen) can kill developing coral, cause coral bleaching, and damage its DNA.

In the last three years, roughly one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs have died off.


The two main culprits are oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are also two of the most commonly used ingredients in chemical sunscreens. In fact, they’re in more than 3,500 sun protection products, mostly because they’re so effective at absorbing UV rays before they have a chance to harm our skin.

Last summer, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Since then, the Pacific nation of Palau announced a ban on “reef-toxic” sunscreen. Once the law goes into effect in 2020, it bans the sale and use of sunscreen that contains any of 10 banned ingredients, including oxybenzone.

And, most recently, Key West, Florida passed its own ban, which will come into effect by 2021 (the same time as Hawaii’s ban).


Not only has sunscreen shown adverse environmental effects, but several common ingredients can also be toxic for humans. 

Sunscreens typically incorporate ingredients that act as “penetration enhancers” to help the product adhere to the skin. As such, many of the chemicals in sunscreen can be absorbed into the body.

Enter: the chemical vs. physical sunscreen debate.

Chemical sunscreens are those that contain chemicals (duh), including the ones listed above (like octylcrylen, avobenzone and octinoxate). Physical/mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use natural agents like zinc and titanium oxide. These minerals sit on top of the skin and reflect UV rays away. 

New research has revealed that the chemicals commonly found in sunscreen can act as endocrine disruptors, and can interfere with the body’s natural hormone levels. 

There are arguments for and against both types of sunscreen, but generally speaking, physical/mineral sunscreens are widely regarded as the safer option. There is insufficient data and significant research gaps when it comes to many of the common ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, while the typical ingredients in physical sunscreens are generally recognized as safe and effective.

But what is most important is ensuring broad spectrum protection (from both UVA and UVB rays) and using whatever sunscreen you choose properly. 


Let’s start with what the SPF number actually means.

SPF stands for sun protection factor, and it refers to the level of protection a particular sunscreen offers. The higher the SPF number, the more protection you get, but the smaller the difference becomes. For instance, SPF 15 sunscreens filter out 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 filters out 97%. SPF 50 filters out 98% and SPF 100 filters 99%. So really, the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 100 is not as vast as one might think. In other words, the higher the number, the safer it is — but not by much.

There are a few key bullets to keep in mind when choosing a sunscreen. 

  • Broad spectrum protection: Sunscreens with this label indicate protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Sun protective factor (SPF): Make sure whatever you choose has an SPF of 30 or higher. (SPF 15 only protects against sunburns, not skin cancer or aging.)
  • Water resistant does not mean waterproof: There is no such thing as waterproof or sweat-proof sunscreen. Water resistant products may only protect for a short amount of time. Best rule of thumb: reapply every two hours.
Ava Isa Pure SPF 45, $52 at The Detox Market

UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing is another option growing in popularity.

Xcel Heathered VentX Honu Long Sleeve Top – Women’s, $55 at MEC.

You know how your sunscreen is rated on an SPF scale? Well, clothing is rated on a UPF scale

An average T-shirt has a protection factor of about five or six — not much. Specific UPF clothing, on the other hand, will come with a rating on its tag, typically a UPF of 50 or higher. The fabric isn’t chemically treated or anything like that, it’s simply fabric that’s been woven tight enough that light can’t shine through.

And, of course, don’t forget your hat.

Subscribe to The Bullet to get our deep dives into trending news topics straight to your inbox.