The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

I got poisoned by sunscreen; I know, it’s just bizarre, right? The very potion designed to protect me poisoned me brutally. Rudely.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

The Situation

It was summer, and I was teaching sailing class. I was on the last day of a seven-day stint teaching in small open boats, and it had been hot, humid, and very bright. There is no shade on our keelboats. So, I wear a hat or visor, and sometimes, a long sleeved shirt.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

My Outdoor Habits

I’m always so conscientious about applying sunscreen. I tend to apply nearly once an hour when I’m sweating a lot on the boat. I always feel like I’m sweating the sunscreen off my skin, and wiping the rest off when I swab at the sweat. So, I reapply often. I might be one of the few people who actually reapplies every 45 minutes as some sunscreens suggest.

My skin is fairly sensitive and tends to break out from using greasy sunscreens, so I’ve tried a lot of varieties of sun protection over the years.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

What It Felt Like

On the way home on the day of my last class, I could taste chemicals in my mouth. I realized I had been tasting it the day before as well, but now it was much more evident. I kept drinking water, and just thought maybe I had gotten some sunscreen in my mouth and could taste it.

Perhaps, I thought, there had been so much sunscreen on my skin, and the heat caused my pores to open wide. And maybe I had just absorbed a lot through my skin, and that was why I could taste it.

The next morning, I could barely drive! If you’ve ever had vertigo – it was like that. I was nauseous, my balance was shaky, and my eyes had trouble focusing. In retrospect, I should not have drove anywhere for a couple days. I could not walk a straight line, or completely control my body. With vertigo, you have all the loss of balance and accompanying weird feelings, even nausea. This was all those symptoms plus the eyesight / inability to focus clearly problem.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Going to the Doctor

My doctor at the Mayo Clinic also is a SCUBA diver and sailor. We have fun every annual checkup comparing sailing and diving notes. She and her husband regularly charter catamarans in the BVI for dive weeks with couple friends. Also, she has placed her children in our St. Augustine Yacht Club youth sailing program two years in a row. She’s familiar with boats, water, sunscreen, and is an advocate for wearing sunscreen and upf (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing.

So, in addition to being super smart, my doctor knows the water and sun.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

What She Said

She said I had been poisoned. She said all the symptoms I described pointed directly to sunscreen poisoning.

Wow, this was as bad as the time my Mom took too many vitamins at once without water, triggered that device in the back of the throat that causes you to pass out. She passed out and hit her head, resulting in a concussion.

Who ever thought vitamins could hurt you? Or sunscreen? I had been poisoned!

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Treatment

The doctor told me to rest and drink a lot of water, and don’t drive if I couldn’t focus. I wasn’t throwing up, so it appeared the worst was past. I noticed I continued to experience the symptoms for about three days, lessening each day as I apparently “flushed” the toxins out of my body. The taste diminished proportionally.

Reading articles online about sunscreen poisoning from ingestion, I saw the “drunken” feeling mentioned several times. I definitely felt I was weaving when I walked. The first day, I could barely keep walking in a straight line down a tiled hallway, even with using the tile lines as my guide. By the third day, I was able to make that same walk, with only slight swaying and meandering. By the fifth day, I was nearly back to normal.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

How Could That Happen?

My doctor said that when substances in a huge production plant are being processed and manufactured, there is a greater chance of contamination by overdose. She said it most likely was not the introduction of a foreign substance, but simply the part of the machine spitting out the active ingredient had released too much into that tube.

Another possibility was perhaps the production line did not advance, and my tube of sunscreen received double, triple, or even quadruple amount of the active ingredient.

My doctor said that 99% of the substance in my tube of sunscreen is actually the “lotion” or inert conveyance substance, and only a tiny amount of the actual volume of the bottle is active ingredient.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Doing My Research

Looking at the back of sunscreen bottles, I see she is correct. I see that some have .5% oxybenzone. That is such a small amount, so I imagine that doubling the amount could make you sick. Tripling or quadrupling it could make you violently ill.

Since the poisoning, I have learned a lot from reading reports. One eco-friendly sunscreen company, Stream2Sea, has an “Ingredients to Avoid” lists so you can conduct your own research, and you can check your own bottles.

A diving friend had given me a bottle of Stream2Sea right before a dive; she told me how harmful my sunscreen was – not just for me – but for the reef, the water, the fish and animals, and told me not to use it. She told me this was the only sunscreen entirely reef safe and human safe and proven, tested to be safe.

Even then, I had not connected my experience or her recommendation with any specific chemicals. I thought I had only been overdosed, but gave it no further thought. It wasn’t likely to happen again, I was doing the right thing continuing to wear sunscreen, and I didn’t realize just how harmful the active ingredients in sunscreen are.

I think I lost track of the idea of the sunscreen harming humans, and was more worried about the water we were about to dive into, and the fish down there on the reef.  Now, with all the information about chemical versus mineral sunscreens, and endocrine disrupters, and oxybenzone and octinoxate bans; we’re waking up.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Which Brand, Which Ingredient Poisoned Me?

At the time of the “event,” I had used several brands of sunscreen over the seven-day period, so that makes it hard to pin down any particular brand. Sometimes I even use a different sunscreen on my face from what I apply to my body. And since we thought the poisoning was due to too much of the active ingredient; it didn’t seem likely to happen again.

From that time forward, I do notice that I can open a tube of sunscreen and smell it, and know immediately that I cannot tolerate it. I suppose once you get sunscreen poisoning, it’s like contracting ciguatera – an illness caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by a marine microalgae and supposedly renders you incapable of eating any fish ever again.

Until recently, it did not occur to me to try to isolate exactly which active ingredient might have been the cause of my poisoning. If I had given it much thought, I certainly would have created a spreadsheet full of columns of lists of brands and ingredients in an effort to determine what is the one common ingredient I cannot tolerate. I suppose it’s like some allergic reactions; nearly impossible to isolate the one and only culprit. Now I have more of an idea, and I know what to avoid.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

How Bad is Bad Sunscreen?

I learned that the equivalent of two drops of sunscreen with toxic ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate in water the volume of two swimming pools can kill all the coral. This is why places like Palau, Hawaii, Bonaire, and Key West, that depend on tourism and the lure of their beautiful reefs, have banned these ingredients!

Horrified, I gathered all the sunscreen scattered around my house. It’s good for you, right –  so, I have a bottle tucked in every backpack, every sailing bag, in my car, on the porch – everywhere. I collected all my “toxic” sunscreen. It was depressing and upsetting. I spend enough on sunscreen annually that I deduct it on my taxes as a business expense! I was looking at nearly $150 worth of worthless sunscreen. But even more important than that – I wondered what I had done to the environment.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Bottles of Poison?

How much damage had I done to the Earth? Had I poisoned myself? By not knowing how toxic some sunscreen ingredients are; had I unwittingly poisoned myself? What if I loaned my sunscreen to someone else, and poisoned them as well? Oh, no! All those deliveries to the Bahamas, all those race weeks, all those dive trips ran through my head.

This made me determined to learn more. I started by looking at my collection of sunscreen, and was appalled to see how many “friendly brands” actually contained the ingredients so toxic that the entire island country of Palau has banned them.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Which Sunscreens Are “Good” or Safe?

You’re going to have to look at the ingredients. Check the active and the inactive ingredients in sunscreens, and read all the way to the bottom. If you can’t see the writing – sometimes they are printed so small – look online for the ingredients list directly from the manufacturer.

Throwing the words “organic” or “mineral” in there is not a guarantee of safe ingredients. Mercury and lead are organic, but not good for you. “Chemical” does not always equal bad; starch and saline are chemicals.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate poison the microorganisms that thrive inside coral plants, causing coral bleaching. Coral bleaching happens when corals expel the algae in their tissues, and the coral turns white. It’s not dead. It can survive, but it’s under more stress and is subject to mortality. So, avoid those two ingredients for the harm they do. Another reason is that they are endocrine disruptors. That’s far beyond the scope of this article, but read up on this. It’s bad news, it’s bad stuff.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Other Ways to Avoid the Sun

When I was a child, we spent our summers cruising the Bahamas on our sailboat. I had a lot of time to read, and I consumed absolutely consumed books. Two or three books a week was not uncommon. I would tear through books – the entire Kenneth Roberts collection, all of Louisa May Alcott’s writing. When you are cruising, and living on very limited electrical supply; you read a lot and listen to the radio.  One summer, I tackled the entire Mark Twain series, and that was some hefty reading for a pre-teenager! I turned to something lighter to read the next summer.

Lucky for me, I next read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” I was particularly interested in the “lily white skin” quote and set out to spend the summer in the shade.

Our first stop was Nassau, and my allowance savings went to purchase a huge straw hat. I stayed under that hat and the boat’s canvas tops all summer. I emerged in September looking like I had been ill – at least, in the 70’s, that’s what it seemed when that deep brown tan was so popular.

Most likely, we now know, I probably was the healthiest person of all. Now we know – avoid the sun, wear spf/upf clothing, wear big hats, stay under umbrellas and parasols. Putting fewer chemicals in and on our body is probably better. But when you must – wear your sunscreen, but please make sure it is reef- and people-safe!

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

My Plan

From here, I’m not sure what my final goal is, but I’ve started taking steps to help the ocean.

First, I decided to become an ambassador for Stream2Sea: It’s a small, young company headed by a female chemist / SCUBA diver. I like that! This gives me access to experts, information, and opportunities to spread the word to other cyclists, boaters, and divers about the effects of our environmental choices – not just sunscreen, but other products that end up in our water. I live in Florida, on the banks of the St. Johns River which leads to the Atlantic Ocean. I love sailing and diving, and I want to do my part to protect our Earth.

Next, I’m giving “Ingredients to Avoid” cards to everyone I know – personally and on social media. If I couldn’t make the connection between my sunscreen poisoning and that it was not the volume of the ingredient, but the inherent toxicity of the ingredient; neither might others.

Even though my diving friend put a better choice directly into my hands; somehow I thought it only mattered when I went diving and I actually was touching the water. My body gets washed, so anything on my body eventually goes into our aquifer. All the grey water on the boat goes directly overboard, there’s no denying that.

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Educating Consumers

Another of my personal efforts has been to educate. I write regularly about what goes into our water and sunscreen or personal hygiene ingredients topics. Whenever I don’t know the answer to something sunscreen-related, I research then write.

I even make videos to reach a wider audience who might not know about the toxic ingredients in products they put on their skin that ends up in our water.

Also, I’ll be thinking about how to bring more awareness to the complexity of the effect of sunscreen on coral reefs. One place I can start is to ask people to sign the Safe Sunscreen Pledge:

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

Safe Sunscreen Pledge

I promise to make EcoConscious, reef-friendly choices when purchasing and using sunscreen.

I will do my part to self-educate, and I will check the ingredients list every time I try a new sunscreen, even if the product was marketed as “safe.” I will NOT use any sunscreen containing ingredients that are proven to be unsafe for coral and other ocean life. I will order an ingredients to avoid card, and consult it whenever I make sunscreen choices.

I will educate others, and will speak up in defense of coral and other ocean life when I notice the use of sunscreen with unsafe ingredients, making sure that every adventure I’m a part of is respectful of all ecosystems.

I promise to do all I can to make choices with marine life in mind, educating my peers and myself about sunscreen ingredients and their impact.

From there, I’ll be writing more on environmental subjects and collaborating with others interested in protecting our oceans and reefs.

Already, I realized I needed to write the article “How to Properly Dispose of Your Toxic Sunscreen,” because I’m sitting here with a canvas tote bag full of sunscreen violations. So, read that next!

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

I Don’t Go Anywhere Without:

  • Stream2Sea Reef Safe SPF 20 or 30 mineral, regular or tinted sunscreen, mask defog, shampoo, conditioner, rash guards and more reef-safe supplies. Use my code “DeepWH” for 10% off.
  • Crisis Medicine Tactical Casualty Care Course knowledge so we can help ourselves. With code “DeepWH” you save 20% on the TC2 course
  • MyMedic Individual Bleeding Control Kits, this link and my code “DeepWH15” will save you 15% on your purchase. We take ours everywhere.
  • North American Rescue CAT tourniquets. Use code “MAY25” for 20% off through midnight on 5/31/20. This is a huge savings!
  • Airbnb, “Kimberly gave you up to $55 off your first trip.”
  • Airbnb says, “Deep gave you up to $415 off your first adventure.
  • Uber gives you $2 off your first three rides.
  • Travelex is our trip insurer – click for a free quote.
  • Girls That Scuba – members discount card for all things diving.
  • REI Co-op for great sports equipment and travel clothes.
  • Sailo for $100 off your next boat rental! Discount Code: “KimWa1”
  • PierShare to rent your dock out or rent a dock.
  • BoatUS for your boat towing insurance! Code: “HEWAF88”
  • RoadId for $5 off your cycling/running/kayaking/travel id.
  • Thank you for using my links – your price does not change, but they may gift me a small percentage of your sale in return for my mention, which allows me to continue to bring to you fun content.
  • AD: affiliate links used.

Additional Resources

List of non-hazardous chemicals: https://www.marshall.edu/safety/chemical-safety/non-hazardous-chemicals-list/

Information about the ingredients: https://wellnessmama.com/55366/sunscreen-is-harmful/

First Aid for sunscreen poisoning: https://www.dovemed.com/healthy-living/first-aid/first-aid-sunscreen-poisoning/

This article has some interesting information about side effects, however, is written about someone ingesting sunscreen, not topical.

Swallowing sunscreen: http://pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=117&pid=1&gid=002718

SPF and UPF https://www.sungrubbies.com/blogs/news-articles/90201091-spf-vs-upf-what-is-the-difference

Poison Toxic Sunscreen, The Summer I Got Poisoned by Chemical Sunscreen // Captain Kim Walther // Toxic Ingredients

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