HAWAI‘I — Sale of sunscreens containing certain reef-harming chemicals is now prohibited in Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i passed a law, Act 104 (2018), 30 months ago, for effect on January 1, 2021. The law bans the sale of sunscreens containing two common chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, that are harmful to coral reefs.
The passage of the law brought worldwide attention regarding the damaging effects of sunscreen chemicals to people and coral reefs. Many consumers across the globe have reconsidered their sunscreen purchases and looked for safer sunscreen options. Sunscreen companies began replacing those two ingredients with other chemical ultraviolet (UV) light filters, and printed the unregulated term “Reef Safe” on their bottles.
But coral and ocean protection groups warn that the ban does not go far enough. Dr. Craig Downs, Toxicologist with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, stated that: “Other sunscreen chemical UV filters, including avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate, may harm human health as well as marine life. These chemicals are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and some may remain there for at least three weeks. Some may disrupt our hormones, which can effect thyroid function, development, fertility, and more.”
Dr. Downs also warned that for marine life: “Many sunscreen chemicals act like herbicides, killing Limu, increasing the susceptibility to coral bleaching, and driving away many reef organisms. Fish and urchin larvae are incredibly susceptible to the toxicity of these sunscreen chemicals.”
Since 2018, many more studies have confirmed that chemical UV filters approved for use in the US can have negative impacts on people and marine life. The FDA recognized only two remaining active sunscreen ingredients as “generally safe and effective,” the “mineral UV filters” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Ted Bohlen of the Hawai‘i Reef and Ocean Coalition said that: “Healthy coral reefs are fundamental to Hawaiian heritage and essential to preserving our shorelines and marine ecosystems in Hawai‘i. Eliminating harmful sunscreen chemicals is one easy step we can all take to help protect our coral reefs and other marine life.”
Lisa Bishop, President of the Friends of Hanauma Bay, noted that: “Marine life in the Bay has enjoyed respite and rejuvenation during the COVID shutdown. Water quality has improved by as much as 64%. The decades-long sunscreen haze blanketing the water in Hanauma Bay has disappeared. There are greater numbers of fish. Visitors have not been walking on the reef damaging or destroying corals. And coral settlement is increasing in sections of the inner reef sacrificed to visitors before the pandemic. However, with the return of many visitors, Hanauma Bay’s coral reefs and water quality are likely to degrade without a strict cap on daily visitors and a ban on use of all chemical sunscreens in Hanauma Bay.”
Wilkie McClaren of the groups Ban Toxic Sunscreens and the Safe Sunscreen Coalition said: “Consumers should not believe all claims that sunscreens are ‘reef safe.’ District attorneys in California have brought suit successfully against a brand that could not substantiate its “reef safe” claim. Consumers have the ultimate responsibility to flip the bottle, read the ingredients, and only use mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.”
All of these groups emphasize that ideally everyone should protect themselves from skin damage and potential skin cancers by seeking out shade or wearing hats and UV protective clothing in strong sunlight.