Time to Plan Summer Activities for the Family: Waterparks Edition

Time to Plan Summer Activities for the Family: Waterparks Edition

Jul 27, 2022

Jul 27, 2022

It's peak summer and we're all trying to stay cool (hello, global heatwave). When it comes to having fun in the sun and not melting, staying close to bodies of water can be a great way to cool down. Enter: waterparks. Before we all get up in arms about the masses of people and sometimes oddly warm water, waterparks are the perfect intersection of amusement park and pool. Not to mention that in more landlocked places where swimming holes may be few and far between, waterparks make taking a dip just a little more accessible. So, what do we need to know about waterparks, the stuff we haul with us to have a good time, and the ways to keep it all a little bit more sustainable?

Here's our round-up of helpful hints:

#1 Waterparks can be a more sustainable option when it comes to fun in the sun

#2 Wear sunscreen - especially one that doesn't contain oxybenzone and/or octinoxate

#3 Opt for a 100% organic cotton, dye-free towel to dry off

#1 Waterparks can be a more sustainable option when it comes to fun in the sun.

Ahhh... waterparks. The modern American oasis. Some are small, offering just a waterslide or lazy river, and some are huge, including acres and acres of slides, wave pools, and an interconnected system of rivers. Pre-COVID, publicly-funded (i.e. city-owned) waterparks were the fastest growing sector in the waterpark industry. One waterpark in 2020 (peak COVID) noted that its revenues fell 38%, with a 21% drop in attendance. But, as vaccination rates increase and many folks explore communal areas again, waterparks are on the rise.

When considering the environmental impact of waterparks, water use might be the first thing that comes to mind. And, that's fair, but it depends on how much of the water is recycled (used again) and where the waterpark is located. A Texas waterpark implemented filtration systems that prevented up to 90% of water waste and resulted in 50% less energy consumption (hello, water-energy nexus). There are also energy-saving initiatives - like swapping out traditional lighting units for energy-saving lights with sensors that turn off when they don't sense movement.

When a waterpark is located in an area of drought, however, these savings don't fully balance the impact of the overall water usage. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 26 states are affected by some measure of drought, from moderate to extreme levels. One study found that 8 indoor waterparks are currently operating in these drought-stricken states, with 43 proposed new indoor waterparks in the pipeline... yikes.

Outside of water use, waterparks can have an impact on local biodiversity when covered in artificial or monocrop turf grass. Some waterparks have opted to switch out turf for native seed mixes, which have positive impacts on local pollinators and can save on water costs because they require less irrigation. And, these native plants are more resilient than their turf counterparts, and in turn, often don't require pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides. We're out on neonicotinoids and in on native plants. Booyah!

Waterparks can also have some very cool positive impacts on communities. One study of waterparks in rural Kentucky found that waterparks can increase revenue for a region. In fact, the estimated impact can range from $485,000 to over $3 million - in Kentucky, the impact was over $23.2 million. This same study investigated the possible barriers to attending waterparks, and found very few associated with showing up and having some waterpark fun! (We'd like to note here that the study did not look at accessibility for folks with limited mobility or other disabilities that could make it more difficult - or impossible - to slip n' slide without specific accessibility accommodations.)

#2 Wear sunscreen - especially one that doesn't contain oxybenzone and/or octinoxate

Let's talk sunscreen. We don't want anyone - and we mean anyone - hitting the slides without a good lather of sunscreen. Don't forget re-application, too. Let's get that mayo-like lotion all over ourselves to protect against horrible sunburns, dehydration, and the possibility of cancer.

But, what sunscreen to choose? Regardless of the summertime activity, that sunscreen on our skin likely gets washed into a water source or down the drain, and most likely ends up in the ocean. As it turns out, this is not so good. Even in low concentrations, chemicals found in sunscreen can harm reefs and marine life. And in high concentrations, they can have devastating effects.

So, when looking for a sunscreen that is less harmful to ecosystems, try to avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are the most commonly studied UV blockers, but they're not the only sunscreen ingredients that may be harmful to marine life. There are several other chemicals that may be damaging to oceanic ecosystems when they accumulate in the water. So, when shopping for sunscreen, we recommend avoiding any form of microplastic beads, nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, 4-methyl benzylidene camphor, octocrylene, PABA, or any kind of paraben, and triclosan. As a side note, non-nano zinc oxide is a-okay! Lather away!

Instead, look for sunscreens with the Protect Land + Sea Certification if you can. At the very least, look for products free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, since we know that those chemicals are particularly harmful. When you go to the waterpark, consider staying in the shade and wearing as much clothing as you're comfortable with so that you can wear less sunscreen while still protecting your skin. Studies show that a white cotton shirt will provide you with about 67% of the protection that a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) shirt will, so you can probably protect yourself with clothes that you already own.

Don't want to do the sleuthing yourself? Check out our favorite sunscreens on our Top Products page.

#3 Opt for a 100% organic cotton, un-dyed towel to dry off

Wrapping up in a nice, fluffy towel after hours of hitting the slides is just unparalleled. So, when considering what towel to use, we have to think about the textile industry, too.

When buying towels, it's all about softness and absorbency, and the devil is in the details...or materials. Our favorite is 100% organic cotton. Conventional cotton is one of the dirtiest crops on Earth. Doesn't really sound like a good fit for a clean towel, does it? Organic cotton ensures that the crop is grown without the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water exposed to fewer contaminants. It also produces around 46% less carbon dioxide compared to conventional cotton. Speaking of contaminants, opt for un-dyed (or dyed with non-synthetic dyes) towels. Textile dyes, like those that make your towel really pop, can pose some serious environmental harm. When dyes get into bodies of water (during production or when washing after use), they can impair photosynthesis, inhibit plant growth, and promote carcinogenicity. Yikes. Unfortunately, towels without synthetic dyes are hard to come by. When all else fails, check for the OEKO-TEX certification instead, which ensures that there are no harmful chemicals in the towel.

Once you get the right towel, it's important to make sure you take care of it so that it lasts as long as possible. Wash your towel after around four uses, and make sure it's hung up after towel time. If it stays bunched up, the moisture will not be able to fully dry and bacteria will start breeding. Ew. You'll know when to replace them - tell-tale signs are if they become less absorbent or still smell like the pool (or dirty socks?) after being washed.

Check out our favorite beach towels on our Top Products page.

Disclaimer: While waterparks can be a great leisure activity for families and friends alike, there are some health concerns to be aware of. The CDC found that 58% of public pools tested positive for E. coli - an indicator of fecal contamination (yes, there could be traces of poop in the pool). We also want to mention that, with the current outbreak of Monkeypox, the CDC cautions against sharing equipment, like boogie boards, towels, and slides, when dipping and diving. Making the choice to attend a waterpark is one you have to make for yourself - we're just here to give you the facts.