When looking for a sunscreen, the first thing I usually do is check whether it is reef-safe, meaning that it doesn’t include chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs and other marine life. Unfortunately, this product is neither reef-safe or safe for humans. It uses many chemicals that are toxic to ocean life and can also be toxic to us in higher concentrations. Additionally, Neutrogena is not a cruelty-free brand. I also struggled to find the suppliers of the ingredients and packaging for this product, as Neutrogena is not transparent about this at all. However, I do think Neutrogena has made some moves to be more sustainable, such as installing a solar power system at their corporate headquarters. The main reason I gave this product a 0.6 rating, rather than a 0, is because of how much I liked Neutrogena’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson. Currently, they are making headlines for their COVID vaccine, but they have many other great sustainability efforts such as their SDG goals.
Recently, awareness has been raised around reef-safe sunscreens, focusing on one main toxic ingredient: oxybenzone. Due to this, many skincare companies removed oxybenzone from their formulas, but the replacement ingredients were often just as bad. Neutrogena and this sunscreen are no exception—the product was recently reformulated without oxybenzone. Instead, the active ingredients in this product are now: Avobenzone (3%), Homosalate (10%), Octisalate (5%), and Octocrylene (10%). Unfortunately, these ingredients are still not reef-safe. Avobenzone, homosalate, and octocrylene have been shown to damage coral by causing coral bleaching and damaging coral DNA, which impedes its ability to reproduce. This is identical to the damage oxybenzone causes. Sadly, these reef-unsafe chemicals don’t just hurt coral. They can impair the growth of green algae, which is an important part of the ocean food chain and also helps absorb CO2. When these chemicals accumulate in the ocean, they can make their way into the tissues of marine life and become toxic to these animals as well as their offspring. In addition to being unsafe for ocean creatures, these chemicals are also unsafe for us. Avobenzone is a chemical that can break down easily without added stabilizers. The breakdown of this chemical can cause allergic reactions and disrupt the endocrine system. Homosalate is even more problematic, as it easily penetrates the skin. It can disrupt hormones and becomes toxic as it breaks down over time. While the FDA—which is known for having less regulations than non-U.S. countries—allows homosalate to be used in concentrations up to 15%, the European Commission has declared it unsafe in concentrations above 10% and has set the maximum concentration for 1.4%. This product uses it in a concentration of 10%. Neutrogena proudly advertises on this bottle of sunscreen that it is oxybenzone-free. This is great, but misleading, as the ingredients they used to replace oxybenzone are just as bad.
Neutrogena’s animal testing policy claims that they don’t use animal testing “except in the rare instance where governments require it.” China, for example, still requires animal testing on products like sunscreen, so Neutrogena is using animal testing to sell in such countries. This policy actually comes from their parent company, Johnson and Johnson, but I’ll talk more about them in the next section. I could find no indication on Neutrogena’s website that they are planning to replace chemicals like avobenzone and homosalate with reef-safe ingredients. Many of their other sunscreens, most worryingly their kids’ sunscreen, still contain oxybenzone and have even higher levels of homosalate than this product. Additionally, Neutrogena recently recalled some of their aerosol sunscreens because they contained low levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. While I could not find exactly where they make this product, Neutrogena generally manufactures in Germany, U.S.A., and the UK. They get their plastic tubes from a supplier called TUPACK. This supplier aims to have 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. They are also powered by 100% renewable energy, which is pretty impressive. I’m not sure if Neutrogena gets all of their plastic packaging from this supplier, but it seems to be a relatively sustainable choice, at least compared to other plastic manufacturing companies. I hope that in the future, Neutrogena can switch completely to post-consumer or recycled plastic—preferably getting rid of plastic packaging altogether.
Neutrogena is based in Los Angeles, California. In 2001, along with the LA Department of Water and Power, they installed a major solar power system on their corporate headquarters. Neutrogena has initiatives regarding ingredient transparency and reducing plastic use. I think they have succeeded at this first goal; with just a quick look at their website, it was very easy for me to find a full list of ingredients for each product as well as the concentrations of each active ingredient. Additionally, Neutrogena recently released a line of products with 30% Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) packaging as well as a new compostable wipe. They also provide information on how to recycle PCR. Other than this, Neutrogena only makes vague promises aiming to use ingredients that are “safe for your skin and the planet.” Unfortunately, this product does not fulfill either of these.
Looking at the bigger picture, Neutrogena’s parent company is Johnson & Johnson. Regarding their animal testing policy, J&J is working to train professionals in non-animal testing methods of cosmetics manufacturing. Outside of animal testing, J&J has an impressively long list of sustainability efforts. They are working with the FDA for cosmetics reform because they want cosmetics to be safer for our skin, which impressed me as it’s rare to see a corporation working towards more regulation. J&J is a member of the RSPO, or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, but is still “working towards” using 100% RSPO certified palm oil. My favorite part of the J&J sustainability site, though, was the page dedicated to their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies. It covers a variety of issues including biodiversity, climate change, and human rights. What most stood out to me most here was their policy regarding antimicrobial resistance, since this problem is not even considered by most corporations. J&J has a well-outlined plan to combat antimicrobial resistance as well as a timeline outlining their efforts up to 2020. However, the main reason I gave this category a 1.8 is J&J’s SDG goals statement. J&J made a 5-year SDG commitment in 2016 with specific goals that they have listed out on their website. Now, in 2021, they have provided a report detailing the extent to which they met their goals. For example, they met their environmental health goal 100%. They were not as successful in women’s and children’s health, but they were very transparent about this, clearly showing how they only met 85% of this goal. I think transparency is the most important thing with big corporations like J&J and I love how honest they are with their SDGs. Overall, I wish they were this clear and open about other parts of their sustainability efforts, such as animal testing, and made the sustainability reports of their subsidiaries (Neutrogena!) easily accessible to the public.
J&J SDG Goals: https://www.jnj.com/sustainable-development-goals/sdg-dashboard