Hawaii passes ban on sunscreens harming coral reefs

Written by: 
Anuhea Chen

Popular sunscreen brands such as Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, and Banana Boat currently use sunscreen formulas that contain chemicals harmful to coral reefs and other marine life, says Hawaii legislators. On July 2, 2018, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed the bill to ban the sale of these harmful sunscreens effective Jan. 1, 2021.

“This is just one small step toward protecting and restoring the resiliency of Hawaii’s reefs,” Ige said in an AP news article. According to Hawaii State Senator Mike Gabbard, these have been banned to protect Hawaii’s shoreline.

Gabbard was the one who introduced Senate Bill No. 2571, which states “two chemicals contained in many sunscreens, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems, including coral reefs that protect Hawaii’s shoreline.”

With this ban, sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate may only be sold if it is prescribed by a physician.

Dr. Spencer Ingley, a BYU-Hawaii Biology professor, said, “This is something we can immediately reduce. We can immediately cut how much sunscreen we’re dumping, which is a shocking amount.

“One thing I try to hammer home in my classes when I talk about conservation issues is the idea of the tragedy of the commons. It is this idea often times people will use or pollute a common resource because they think their own impact is really minimal, but if everybody acts as if they’re the only one going out into the ocean wearing sunscreen, or taking a bucket of sand from the beach home, the effects get magnified.”

According to The New York Times, “An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to be deposited in oceans annually with the greatest damage found in popular reef areas in Hawaii and the Caribbean.

“In 2015, the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory … found an average of 412 pounds of sunscreen deposited daily on the reef at Hanauma Bay, a popular snorkeling destination in Oahu that draws an average of 2,600 swimmers each day.”

In response, graphic design senior, Audrey Acomb from Utah, said, “I think [the bill is] probably a good thing considering how many people go in the ocean every day.”

Section 1 of the Bill, says “sea turtles, marine mammals, and migratory birds may be exposed to oxybenzone and octinoxate contamination. The two chemicals have caused the death of coral, coral bleaching, and ‘genetic damage to coral and other marine organisms.’ These chemicals increase reproductive diseases in marine life, cause deformities, and ‘threaten the continuity of fish populations.’”

Acomb questioned, “If it’s harmful for the coral, is it harmful for us? And if it’s safer for the coral, is it safer for us?”

In “Fisher’s Contact Dermatitis” (6th ed.) by Robert L. Rietschel and Joseph F. Fowler, it says oxybenzone has replaced para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) derivatives as the most common allergen in sunscreens. However, oxybenzone has not been proven to be toxic to the human immune system.

Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved of the chemicals that Hawaii is seeking to ban, The New York Times said those who make traditional sunscreens are opposing this legislation because they are “vital to preventing skin cancer.”

To counter that, Ingley said, “There are lots of things that have been approved by the FDA that can kill you and lots of critters. Just because something’s been approved by the FDA, doesn’t mean it should have a blank check to be used in whatever context someone wants to use it in. The FDA doesn’t have jurisdiction over the environment as a whole.”

Ciara Sanchez, a senior from California studying peacebuilding, said, “I feel like they’re doing good things with the environment, but they probably won’t be able to stop people from bringing it when they travel.

“If anything, this will just be an inconvenience to people trying to buy sunscreen.”

But Ingley said, “We can have a very deliberate, positive impact on those ecosystems by doing something different.”

Section 2 of the Bill clarifies which sunscreens will be prohibited being sold to those that include oxybenzone or octinoxate, or both. This includes, but is not limited to “lotion, paste, balm, ointment, cream, solid stick applicator, brush applicator, roll-on applicator, aerosol spray, non-aerosol spray pump, and automated and manual mist spray.”

People are being encouraged to use mineral sunscreens with non-nano size zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Non-nano size is considered reef-safe because it will be less likely to be consumed by corals.

Ingley said in response to those who may feel like they don’t have to worry about coral reefs, “There’s this term called ecosystem services. An ecosystem service is something that an intact, healthy ecosystem provides to the human population without anything in return.

“These things include protection from coastal erosion, storm surge, and tsunamis. That’s a very direct benefit we get from this ecosystem being intact. They’re really important but also really easy to take for granted. It’s not until we damage the ecosystem that we realize how much money, time, and effort it would take to provide that same service the reef would.”

Popular brands like SunBum, Alba Botanica, La Roche-Posay, CeraVe, and Aveeno offer some products free of oxybenzone and octinoxate.


Date Published: 
Thursday, September 6, 2018
Last Edited: 
Thursday, September 6, 2018