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Biodegradable Sunscreen: Who Needs It?

Tips for Buying and Using Biodegradable Sunscreen

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Updated June 19, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If you have booked a cruise to Mexico for sand and surf fun this season, you have likely been given a recommended packing list by the cruise line. As you go over the list, you'll probably make a mental checklist of the things you have and the items you don't. Among the items you probably don't have is biodegradable sunscreen, a special type of sunscreen that is now required by some tourist destinations.

What is Biodegradable Sunscreen?

It is a common misconception that biodegradable sunscreen is regular sunscreen sold in a biodegradable bottle. This is untrue and has caused some tourists to miss out on their sea excursions. Biodegradable sunscreen is actually a type of sunscreen that is free from a majority of the chemical ingredients of regular sunscreen. It is considered to be eco-friendly in that it will not damage plant and animal life as it washes off during swimming and scuba diving. In some tourist sea excursions (mainly in scuba diving excursions in Mexico) biodegradable sunscreen is a requirement and non-biodegradable sunscreens are confiscated.

Ingredients in biodegradable sunscreens vary based on the manufacturer, but are free of the following chemical ingredients that are known to harm the eco-system when they degrade: PABA, octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene, camphor, and butylparaben.

Is It As Effective As Regular Sunscreen?

Yes, when used correctly biodegradable sunscreens are just as effective as regular sunscreens. Most brands offer several varieties of SPFs, just like regular sunscreen brands. The consistency and drying time may be different than what you are used to, so be sure to follow the manufacturer's directions for application/reapplication. Some people find them to be thicker or dry faster, but this certainly depends on the brand.

It's a fact that skin cancer is caused by exposure to the harmful UV rays of the sun. Applying sunscreen often and correctly greatly reduces your risk, regardless of its eco-friendly status. It is well worth the effort to find biodegradable sunscreen if you are going to an area that requires it to swim. Many people think they will just go sans sunscreen if they cannot find biodegradable sunscreen, but this may put them at risk for severe sunburns that require medical treatment. These tropical locations often have high UV indexes that result in sunburns in people who are not wearing sunscreen.

Are Biodegradable Sunscreens Recommended for Every Day Use by People with Sunscreen Allergies?

A dermatologist may recommend a biodegradable sunscreen for a person whose skin is allergic or sensitive to sunscreen, but this certainly isn't the only option for people with allergies. Many people have an allergy to PABA, an ingredient in most sunscreens, so choosing a PABA-free sunscreen may be sufficient for everyday use. Some people may find it helpful to have a skin patch test done with a dermatologist to determine what specific ingredient that have an allergy to.

Where to Buy Biodegradable Sunscreen

Unfortunately, most stores don't carry biodegradable sunscreen as readily as regular sunscreens. The internet and health food/organic specialty stores are probably going to be your best bet in finding biodegradable sunscreen. It may be sold at your travel destination, but may cost considerably more than if you purchased it online or in a store.

Look for labels that say "biodegradable." PABA-free products are not the same as biodegradable sunscreen as they may contain other chemicals that are not environmentally friendly. Popular brands of biodegradable sunscreen include:

  • Mexi-Tan
  • Caribbean Solutions
  • Nature's Gate
  • Kiss My Face
  • Hawaiian Tropical biodegradable lotions

Of course, these are not the only biodegradable sunscreen brands, but they are widely marketed and may be easier to find.

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