Does your sunscreen contain microplastic? There’s a high chance it does. Here’s what to look out for, and the brands to trust, as well as actions you can take to help make all sunscreen microplastic-free.
Of all the things that contain microplastic, surely a lotion that you rub on your skin should be microplastic-free? You would think so.
Sadly, it turns out that the majority of sunscreen products available in the UK contain microplastic. This microplastic is, in turn, washed into our waterways when we bathe or shower, or cool off in summer in the sea, causing untold damage to marine life, and the wider environment.
Don’t worry if this is new information for you. I’ve written before on the subject of eco-friendly sunscreen and on ethical sunscreen products but did not know until recently that sunscreen contained microplastic. Every day is certainly a school day!
What Is Microplastic?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5 mm long. Microplastics are found in the soil, in the sea, in our drinking water, inside fish and other animals we eat, and even in humans. When microplastics are in the food we eat and the water we drink, this means we are ingesting plastic. The long-term effects of this are currently unknown.
Microplastic comes from a variety of sources. It can derive from larger plastic debris that has degraded into smaller and smaller pieces. It can also come from other sources, such as the products we use that contain microplastics, such as sunscreen, which eventually find their way into our waterways.
Why Do You Find Microplastics in Sunscreen Products?
Although you can’t see the microplastic in your sunscreen, in most cases it’s there. Microplastics are added to sunscreen formulas by manufacturers for a variety of reasons – let’s call them the three Ps. Some reasons are more insidious. Other reasons are for more practical concerns:
- Practicality. Microplastics bind together the product ingredients so that the cream doesn’t split or separate in the tube.
- Protection. The use of microplastics helps to add waterproof properties to your sunscreen, giving you added sun protection in the water, or when you are doing sweat-inducing activities in the sun.
- Profit. Microplastics are often much cheaper alternatives to use, compared to more expensive ingredients that would do the job without the use of plastic.
However, microplastics aren’t necessary ingredients in sunscreens. Some ethical manufacturers have found ways to formulate their sunscreen without the use of plastic, leaving us to wonder why other manufacturers haven’t followed suit.
Aren’t Microplastics In Cosmetics Banned?
Yes and no. In June 2018, microbeads in rinse-off products were banned in Scotland and England. The keywords here are “rinse-off products”. Rinse-off products are those that are designed to be immediately washed off after using them. Think products such as toothpaste, shower gels, face scrubs, and soap that you apply, and then immediately rinse off down the drain.
These microbeads were a type of microplastic that manufacturers added to cleansing products to boost their exfoliation properties. Although small, microbeads are larger than the microplastics found in sunscreen and cosmetics.
The ban on microbeads was a great first step, but it’s not enough. This is because for products that are designed to be applied and left on the skin, such as sunscreen, then the UK ban surrounding microplastics simply doesn’t cover them. This is despite the fact quite often we apply sunscreen and then go in the sea, or then shower off after a hot day in the sun. The microplastic in sunscreen gets washed off in the sea, or washed off down the drain, harming our environment.
It’s not just a UK issue. In October 2015, Cosmetics Europe, the European trade association for the cosmetics and personal care industry, whose members include cosmetics and personal care manufacturers, asked its members to stop using microbeads. Like the UK Government, they advised that this action should be limited to rinse-off products only.
It’s clear that the regulations around microplastics don’t go far enough.
The Ingredients to Look For When Buying Sunscreen
Microplastics aren’t simply listed on the ingredients list of your sunscreen as “microplastic”. Instead, you have to be a full-on chemist to know what you are looking for. According to Beat The Microbead, a microplastic campaign from The Plastic Soup Foundation, here are nine common names that microplastics can be listed as on a bottle of sunscreen:
- Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer
- Acrylates/C12-22 Alkyl Methacrylate Copolymer
- Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer
- Triacontanyl PVP
- VP/Eicosene Copolymer
- VP/Hexadecene Copolymer
Don’t exactly roll off the tongue, do they? Looking at this list makes me feel that we shouldn’t be expected to be super consumers, and meticulously scan each sunscreen label looking for all the names that plastic might be listed as.
If sunscreen brands were required to list on their packaging in plain English that their products contained microplastics, then you can bet that these brands would quickly phase out the use of microplastics.
Sunscreen Brands That Don’t Contain Microplastics
Rather than listing the sunscreen brands that do contain microplastic, I’m simply going to list the sunscreen brands that don’t contain microplastics. This is because, according to Ban The Bead, up to 75% of sunscreen brands contain microplastic. These include popular sunscreen brands such as Nivea, Cien (Lidl’s own brand), Garnier, and Hawaiian Tropic.
Instead, here are the more sustainable sunscreen brands free of microplastics.
Beauty Kitchen Daily Primer
Beauty Kitchen’s SPF 30 Invisible Mineral Shield (£14.99 for 50 ml) offers both UVA and UVB protection.
It is designed as a facial primer, to be worn under your moisturiser or makeup. As such, as a full-body product, it’s not the most suitable, nor most economical. However, if you are looking for a daily microplastic-free sunscreen for your face, then this could be a good choice for you.
The Beauty Kitchen range is made in the UK and all their packaging is made from sustainable materials.
What’s more, you can return almost all empty Beauty Kitchen products back to them to be reused – either direct to Beauty Kitchen by post or via any Holland & Barrett store in the UK.
Green People Microplastic Free Sunscreen
Green People’s entire sunscreen range (from £7.50) is microplastic-free and offers a wide variety of sun protection.
Select from kids’ formulations to scent-free formulations for those with sensitive skin, to sunscreen specifically for your face. Whilst not all Green People sunscreens are vegan-friendly, they do sell a specific vegan sunscreen.
Green People’s certified organic formulations are cruelty-free and made without Parabens, alcohol, Lanolin, phthalates, artificial perfumes, petrochemicals, and colourants. What’s more, they also work in partnership with the Marine Conservation Society. So far Grene People have raised over £90,000 to support the Society’s work.
Lovea SPF30 sunscreen (from £15.99 at Big Green Smile) is an Ecocert-certified organic sunscreen that provides high UVA & UVB protection.
The microplastic-free formula is water-resistant, non-greasy, and applies without leaving a white trace.
Lovea’s vegan-friendly sun care products are made in France, and all their formulas are paraben-free and sulfate-free. What’s more, Lovea does not use genetically modified ingredients, silicone, colourants, nano-particles, or any synthetic scents in its formulations.
Naif Sunscreen Without Microplastic
Naif Sunscreen offers SPF 30 UVA and UVB protection for all ages, including newborns.
It offers natural, mineral UV filters based on zinc oxide. Meanwhile, the cream is easy to apply and doesn’t leave a white layer on the skin thanks to the natural oils in the product.
For extra peace of mind, Naif is B Corp Certified. This is an independent verification that Naïf is committed to a better world when it comes to social impact, responsibility, transparency, and sustainability.
What’s more, all of their products are natural, sustainable and vegan, and do not contain mineral oils, chemical preservatives or harsh chemicals.
Shade All Natural SPF 25 Sunscreen (£9.75 for 100 ml at Ethical Superstore) is a good choice if you are looking for a microplastic-free sunscreen that doesn’t come in plastic packaging.
Made with only four ingredients, this made in the UK sunscreen is free from alcohol, petrochemicals, triclosan, and many other commonly found chemicals. It’s also palm oil free and hasn’t been tested on animals.
It does contain beeswax though, so if you are vegan then this perhaps isn’t the sunscreen for you.
Weleda Edelweiss Sunscreen
Finally, Weleda’s Edelweiss SPF 30 Sunscreen (£22.95 for 150 ml at Content Beauty) offers UVA and UVB sun protection.
This light, lasting and waterproof vegan sun lotion is blended with organic sunflower oil and non-nano mineral UV filters.
Non-nano means that the sunscreen particles are larger than 100nm and therefore won’t penetrate your skin.
Put simply, this means that the sunscreen acts as a physical barrier. Here it sits on top of your skin and scattering, reflecting or absorbing harmful UVA and UVB rays, rather than absorbing chemicals into your bloodstream.
What Else Can I Do About Microplastic In Sunscreen?
If you can afford it, then switching to a microplastic-free sunscreen, such as one of the ones listed above, is a good first step.
If you can’t afford to switch to a microplastic-free sunscreen, then keep using whatever sunscreen is within your budget.
Sunburn increases your risk of skin cancer. Using sunscreen as well as seeking shade and covering up in the sun are the most effective measures you can take to reduce the risk. These alternative sunscreens are more expensive than more accessible sunscreen brands such as Cien and are out of reach to many people. Therefore, don’t feel guilty if you can’t make the switch – it’s not the only action you can take.
Put Pressure on The Government
More important than buying microplastic-free products, we need public pressure on the Government to amend the microbead ban to include non-rinse-off products, such as sunscreen This will make plastic-free sunscreen accessible to everyone who uses sunscreen, not just those who can afford the pricier alternatives.
Emailing your local MP through the Write To Them website is a good step.
A sample text might look like
Dear [insert name of your MP here], I am writing to you as a constituent of [insert your constituency here] because I am concerned about microplastics.
The Government banned microbeads in rinse-off products in 2018 to help protect sea creatures, but I’m concerned that the ban does not go far enough. Microplastics are still used in products such as sunscreen, with as many as 75% of sunscreen brands containing microplastics.
Given that after applying sunscreen, many of us swim in our seas, or wash it off in the shower or bath, then this is concerning that these microplastics are polluting our waterways.
On behalf of everyone in [insert your constituency here], will you champion policies in parliament that ensure that the microbead ban goes further, and removes all microplastics from cosmetics and skincare products, such as sunscreen?
I look forward to hearing from you.
On behalf of [insert local organisation(s) if relevant]
Sign The Microplastic Petition
I have also created a petition on the UK Government & Parliament website, asking the Government to expand the ban on microbeads on rinse-off products to cover other products that contain microplastic, such as sunscreen.
You can sign the petition here. At 10,000 signatures, petitions on the site get a response from the Government. And at 100,000 signatures a petition on the site will be considered for a debate in Parliament, so please sign the petition and spread the word far and wide to help reach these targets.
Put Pressure On Sunscreen Brands
We also need to put pressure on sunscreen brands to remove microplastic from their products. Public pressure led to teabag manufacturers removing plastic from their teabags. We can do the same with sunscreen. Tweeting brands, emailing brands, and commenting on brands’ Facebook posts are good ways to put pressure on brands.
A sample tweet or Facebook comment might look like:
@[insert brand name] Is there microplastic in your sunscreen? If so, do you have any plans to remove microplastics from your products?
You can then link to this post, or to a post from a charity supporting microplastic bans.
This approach would also work in an email.
Support Microplastic Charities
Organisations such as Ban The Bead tirelessly fight against the microplastics found in cosmetics and personal care products, by educating consumers and by engaging with cosmetic brands and governing institutions. Donating to them allows them to continue this vital work.
The Marine Conservation Society also carries out vital work around microplastics. The Marine Conservation Society is currently lobbying to get the ban on microbeads extended to encompass the microplastics in sunscreen and other products, such as cleaning products. You can donate to them here to allow them to continue this important work.