Take an early morning walk at any popular beach, Kalapaki, Poipu, Hanalei, Kealia, and they all have something in common. Yes, breathtaking beauty, but there is something else these beaches all share. People. And most of these people are doing the same thing: putting on sunscreen. They’re spraying it on their legs and arms and chest. They’re rubbing it on chests and stomachs. They’re covering their children in it, and they’re having partners apply sunscreen to their backs. They’re spraying and rubbing it on to protect their skin. The smell of sunscreen is so strong in some areas, it would almost be a little comical, if not for the seriousness of what this means.
Now, we don’t begrudge anyone using sunscreen. We all know about the dangers of ultraviolet rays from the sun, which is reported to be one of the leading causes of skin cancer. Being in the sun for hours without sunscreen, well, can mean nasty sunburns and premature wrinkles.
So yes, for protection, use sunscreen. But be aware of what’s in that sunscreen because when you cover yourself in that goopy stuff, then go swimming, it can be harmful to coral reefs.
Last year, a new study came out that found chemicals in even one drop of sunscreen are enough to damage coral reefs. The ingredient oxybenzone, a common UV-filtering compound, contributes to the bleaching crisis that Hawaii’s reefs are experiencing right now, the study said. Oxybenzone can also harm fish and other wildlife.
If you take the time to read the ingredients on the brand of sunscreen you’re using, it will say whether it has oxybenzone. If it doesn’t, they usually highlight this so it’s easy to find. You might think, what possible difference could it make if you, one person, use sunscreen and go swimming even if it has oxybenzone? Well, consider that Kauai sees more than a million visitors a year. That’s a lot of people covered in sunscreen jumping into the ocean. And that sunscreen washes off and as the study found, it’s not good for our precious coral reefs.
We should add not everyone agrees some ingredients in sunscreen are bad for coral. Companies that make and sell sunscreen do their best to be sure it’s safe and point out oxybenzone is a small percentage in their product.
Some people don’t use sunscreen because they don’t like putting the chemicals in it on their body. They would rather take their chances with the sun, so they wear long sleeve shirts for surfing or swimming, wide-brimmed hats and long shorts, and seek out shade.
We’re not offering advice on whether you should use sunscreen. We are saying please be aware of what’s in the brand you’re buying. By doing so, you could protect yourself and the very reefs that attracted you to Hawaii.