EltaMD is a popular sun care and skin care brand that offers over-the-counter products that are backed and recommended by dermatologists. One of their best selling sunscreens is the UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46 which uses a combination of chemical and physical sunscreen agents. However, neither of these active ingredients, zinc oxide and octinoxate, is sustainable. In addition to the ingredients, the airless pump bottle the sunscreen is packaged in also gets zero points for sustainability. The plastic bottle is difficult to recycle so very few of them are kept out of landfills. The sunscreen is manufactured by Swiss-American CDMO, but they lack transparency about their manufacturing process and lack accurate information about the environmental impacts of their products. EltaMD is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, a global company that has made a similar unmet promise to making products that are environmentally safe. Overall I am wholly unimpressed by EltaMD. They continue to use toxic ingredients in their products and try to cover it up with greenwashing. While their dedication to sun protection is compelling, their approach to doing so is unsustainable and there are many other companies that create sun protection products in a much more conscious way.
The UV Clear Broad-Spectrum sunscreen contains two active ingredients: 9.0% Zinc oxide and 7.5% Octinoxate. Zinc Oxide is a natural mineral compound that works as a sunscreen agent by reflecting and scattering UVA and UVB radiation. Zinc oxide is an ingredient commonly used in mineral sunscreen, although this sunscreen is a chemical one, and has been generally considered to be safe and environmentally friendly in the media. However according to research published in 2018 by Corinaldesi et. al. zinc oxide contributes to severe coral bleaching and damage to their symbiotic algae. It is the nanoparticles in particular that are very harmful for marine organisms. Manufacturers have reduced the size of the mineral to nanoparticles to help the sunscreen apply smoother and more transparent on the skin (rather than leave a white film on the skin). The nanoparticles can be ingested by marine animals (including coral!), causing internal damage to them. Octinoxate is also an ingredient that is toxic to coral reefs, similar to oxybenzone. Additionally the chemical is considered a hormone disruptor and there is concern about its effects on men and women’s reproduction.
Other ingredients listed include niacinamide, sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid), and tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E) have low toxicity, safe for use on humans, and very minimal effect on the environment.
The product is packaged in a 1.7 oz plastic airless pump bottle that is not easily recyclable. Pump bottles are often made of a few different types of plastic, a metal spring, and sometimes glass and rubber. Because these pumps are made of several different materials, every pump would need to be disassembled and each recyclable material would need to be sorted by type. As you can imagine, this disassembly does not happen the majority of the time, meaning most of these personal care pumps end up in the landfill.
EltaMD products are manufactured by the Swiss-American CDMO (contract development and manufacturing organization). Bill Kling created Swiss-American to manufacture and distribute Eutra Creme, a product made for cow udders that people began to craze over as a skin lotion. The company launched their own in-house R&D and manufacturing. Not soon after, Eutra Creme became “Elta Creme” which then evolved into EltaMD, launched in 2007. Since 2018 EltaMD is under the ownership of Colgate-Palmolive, but their products are still manufactured in Swiss-American’s facility in Dallas, Texas.
Their website claims that their manufacturing facilities consists of a process that is “precise and lean, running some of the industry’s most advanced machinery and equipment.” They also claim to understand how their products work and how they “interact with the body and with the environment.” This statement does not seem truthful, however, since they manufacture this EltaMD sunscreen and many other chemical sunscreens with ingredients that are harmful to the environment. Additionally, Swiss-American nor EltaMD have released any statement about sustainability-related actions or goals which makes it clear to me that this is not a priority for either of them.
In 2018 EltaMD was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive. As a global brand they have made important commitments to sustainability that have earned them various awards and recognitions. Similar to the statements made by Swiss American, I noticed greenwashing and ambiguity on Colgate’s website. In terms of “ingredient safety” Colgate-Palmolive says they are committed to only making safe products that are “environmentally sensitive and effective”. They are proud to say that their ingredients meet strict safety standards and all applicable government regulations. Though Hawaii is the only state in the United States to ban the OTC sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, the chemicals have been scientifically confirmed as being extremely harmful for marine ecosystems. Yes, they adhere to government regulations in all places where their products are sold, but they they lack the commitment to producing safe products with sustainable ingredients as they promise.
EltaMD’s website shares additional information about their advocacy efforts, arguably the most positive aspect of their brand. Their mission includes a commitment to worldwide skin protection. They partner with several different organizations across the country to make sun safety awareness more accessible. Though Sun Bus Mobile Skin Cancer Screening and Sun Safety Education Tour, EltaMD partners with dermatologists and research organizations to provide free skin cancer screenings and sun safety education across the state of Colorado. EltaMD also works with burn camps and nonprofit organizations to help those who have experienced burn trauma.