Reef-safe research

LIHUE — Sunscreens containing oxybenzone were banned from sale in Hawaii as a step toward protecting coral reefs, and a recent study maintains the chemical could be harmful for humans.

It’s one of several papers that have looked at the potential for oxybenzone to cause hormone disruption in humans, and was published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology in March.

The chemical is an ingredient in shampoos and fragrances, mascaras and soaps, insect repellents and sunsreens, and also in toddler pacifiers, teethers and single-use plastic packaging.

This study looked at a potential connection between oxybenzone and Hirshsprung’s disease, a birth defect that develops in the first trimester of pregnancy.

“Oxybenzone may increase the risk for having the birth defect Hirschsprung’s disease,” author Craig Downs said in a release about the study.

Makers and users of oxybenzone have long maintained it is safe to use and point out it is “one of the few Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ingredients that provides safe and effective broad-spectrum protection from UV radiation, and has been approved for use since 1978.”

Also, studies showed “no link between oxybenzone in sunscreen and hormonal alterations or any other significant health issues in humans,” said Alexandra Kowcz, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, in a 2018 report at ChemicalWatch.com.

In 2018, Hawaii passed a law that banned the sale of products containing oxybenzone. The same law banned the chemical benzophenone-2 as well — a similar compound used mostly in skincare products, versus sunscreens.

That law was based on a 2013 study by Downs and other authors and on a 2016 international study that pointed to the chemicals as culprits for causing reef DNA damage, abnormal skeleton growth and deformities in baby coral, and leading to bleaching.

Other studies have looked at oxybenzone’s impacts on humans, one of the first being a 2001 study that reported potential for biological effects in immature rats.

A 2011 study questioned whether humans absorbed enough of the chemical to cause endocrine or hormone disruption. That study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that oxybenzone didn’t demonstrate significant endocrine disruption.

“Our results indicate that both the application regimens and time periods required to obtain systemic levels of oxybenzone equivalent per unit of body mass are essentially unattainable,” authors wrote in the study, “Safety of Oxybenzone: Putting Numbers Into Perspective.”

Dozens of oxybenzone-free products have hit the shelves since Hawaii passed the oxybenzone ban.

Officials also recommend wearing hats and UPF-rated clothing, or clothes tailored to protect against the sun.

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Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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