The Dangers of Greenwashing in Sunscreen

Posted by James Marshall on

Recently I have noticed a lot of companies taking advantage of consumer's desire to purchase products that are better for the environment. Of course, it is fantastic that consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of their choices and seeking out products that do less harm. However, unfortunately some companies see an opportunity to make more money with misleading claims that aren't necessarily what they seem; a practice that has been commonly called greenwashing. This article is to help you identify some of those claims, and make a more informed decision in the future.

What is greenwashing?

Investopedia definition is as follows:

'Greenwashing is conveying a false impression that a company or its products are more environmentally sound than they really are. Greenwashing is a play on the term "whitewashing," which means using misleading information to gloss over bad behavior.'

Saying it is green, doesn't make it green...

How is greenwashing dangerous?

The short answer is it is deceitful. Greenwashing takes advantage of information asymmetry which is in the favour of the company, and comes at the expense (quite literally) of the consumer.

Increasingly, as consumers (I include myself here), we want to know that we are doing the 'right' thing when spending our money. In this case, the 'right' thing is buying products that are more environmentally friendly, or sustainable than the alternatives. So, if a company claims their product is better for the environment, we are likely to believe them as an expert on the topic - sadly however, we can't always trust the claims, and no-one seems to be policing it.

So, what does greenwashing look like in the sunscreen industry?

Sorry to tell you this, but it is particularly cruel for surfers. We spend so much of our time outdoors doing what we love, and (at least we like to think) we are just that little bit closer and more aware about the environment than the average joe. We know that it is in our interest to look after the environment it and take care of it so we can enjoy it for many years to come. 

But greenwashing takes advantage of your good intentions and turns it against you, all in the name of greed, profits, and at the expense of what you actually want. Think that sunscreen you purchased with a 'reef safe' label is actually better than the alternative? You may want to look closer to double check...

Buyer beware, but the regulators will act if they don't like what they see too...

Here are a few examples of the worst offenders which wind me up, and I suspect they might grind your gears too.

   - 'Reef-safe' or 'Ocean Friendly' claims; among the most commonly misleading examples of greenwashing by sunscreen companies. For example, one big brand I saw recently created a slick marketing campaign 'Skin Protect, Ocean Respect' to promote their supposedly ocean friendly products. In reality, they had removed one bad ingredient, but continued to use (or possibly added) other damaging ingredients. Literally within millimetres of the ocean friendly marketing, was the ingredient list including 'BUTYL METHOXYDIBENZOYLMETHANE' otherwise known as Avobenzone.

Dont always believe the hype...

 - Interchangeable and inaccurate use of 'Organic' & 'Mineral' ingredients; Organic formulas can have mineral ingredients. I know that the mineral sunscreen ingredients are Zinc Oxide, or Titanium dioxide which are both inorganic compounds. Yes, they are regarded as the safest active ingredients in sunscreen for reefs, and it may contain other organic ingredients, but it simply isn't possible to have a zinc oxide sunscreen that is 100% organic as it contains an inorganic compound.

So is it 100% organic, or just some organic ingredients?

 - Biodegradeable; this follows on from the above, but is slightly more complicated. In short, something that is biodegradable will be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Minerals and inorganic compounds (like Zinc) will not decompose like an organic compound (like say, beeswax). The 'biodegradable' formulas I have seen contain inorganic mineral active ingredients, so again, be mindful that this likely isn't accurate. Please note, that some chemical sunscreens may be biodegradable, but a sunscreen with a zinc or titanium dioxide active ingredient wont be. For more information, check out this article here.

 - Protecting reefs; This implies something very different to 'reef safe' and I have seen this a lot, and suspect that it probably simply boils down to lazy marketing and copywriting. The wording makes it sound as though the sunscreen will protect you, and protect the reef from damage also, however I am not aware of a sunscreen which will protect a reef. A 'reef safe' sunscreen may do less harm than chemical alternatives, but I am yet to see evidence of how it will protect a reef from...the sun?...something else?...Honestly, I'm just not sure what they are trying to say.

 - Anything without an SPF rating; I am not sure if this is greenwashing or just careless, but some companies pride themselves on having a homemade formula that 'protects from the external environment' but does not call itself sunscreen or have an SPF or water resistance rating. Why? Most likely not because they have a different or better product, but rather they haven't completed (or haven't passed) the required testing to make claims about sun protection, water resistance and ultimately be marketed as sunscreen. It could be better, or it could be far worse, but the truth is we don't know, and additionally the appropriate testing hasn't been completed on stability, longevity and deterioration rates etc.

 - Claiming to work 100% of the time; This is extremely dangerous and misleading. NO sun protection can offer 100% protection all of the time - staying out of the sun, is the only way to guarantee you wont be damaged by the sun. There are numerous skin cancer foundations the world over with access to tonnes of research and data and I am sure they would never endorse this. Check out our Sun Protection Guide for a reminder on how to stay safe.

If you read between the lines; not properly tested or proven (company name removed)

So how do I know if a claim is true or not?

If you're worried about environmental damage, there are 10 ingredients which have been banned by several bodies from the State of Hawaii and the nation of Palau, to the Cenotes in Mexico to look out for.  

So, stay away from:

  • Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3)
  • Ethyl paraben
  • Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate)
  • Homosalate
  • Avobenzone (Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane)
  • Octisalate
  • Butyl paraben
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (Enzacamene)
  • Benzyl paraben
  • Triclosan
  • Methyl paraben
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Nano-particles (including Zinc Oxide in nano form)

Importantly, this list is no longer just the 'Awful 8' active sunscreen ingredients, but also others like preservatives which are among the most toxic to human health. Similarly, parabens are believed to disrupt human hormone function (they mimic oestrogen), and the EU bans five of them which are allowed in other markets. They are also a by-product of the production of oil and petroleum. 

For more information, check out Haereticus Environmental laboratory.

How else can you know what is going on? Simply Ask.

Send an email, give the company a call or email and ask for more information than just a slick marketing claim. I have been shocked to see that some friends of mine have asked companies for more information and not even received a response. If a company is worth giving your hard earned cash to, the least they can do is answer your queries.

Google is your friend too. Want to know more about an ingredient in any product? Google it. Just the name, nothing else like 'good' or 'bad' or 'health', just the name and you will get the scientific results (make sure you're using 'Incognito mode' too so the results aren't swayed at all by your previous searches). If it is particularly bad, then the most common and accurate search results available should reflect that.

And remember, the European Working Group have great resources like this one which looks at risks to human health, summarises research and more.

How does SETT stack up?

To be clear, none of the ingredients listed above are in SETT's products and that is something to be proud of because it isn't easy (or cheap) to achieve that. However, I prefer to let the product do the talking, some call this underselling and over delivering. I stand behind all of the claims SETT makes on our 'Why SETT' page, and encourage questions from inquisitive customers, or industry experts. 

Why SETT Sunscreen

Having said that, in the interest of openness and transparency, here is a selection of SETT's imperfections which I am aware of and wouldn't ever try to claim otherwise.

 - We use plastic packaging which is only partially recyclable; the reason for this is it helps ensure the integrity of the sunscreen so it will last and always keep you safe which is the number one priority. Of course, I would love to improve on this in the future when possible.

 - Sustainability audit of SETT; I am still working on SETT by myself, in my spare time so a full end to end supply chain audit is not something I have the resources to do, but would love to in the future. If this is something you could help with, please feel free to reach out.

 - Science is always learning; There is every chance that some of the things we are currently doing could be proven to be the 'wrong choice' in the future. We just need to stay on top of the latest information and act accordingly

We aren't perfect, and if you think there is something we are doing that isnt 100%, please let us know - improvement is a continuous journey, not a destination. 

 Want to know more about Natural Sunscreen for Surfers and Sensitive Skin? Check out SETT's full guide here.

Want to check out SETT's selection of natural sunscreen? Check out our shop here.

See you out there,

James (Mammoth) Marshall

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