Hawaii Governor Signs Bill Banning Sunscreens With Chemicals That Harm Coral Reefs

by Kim Boateng Posted on July 4th, 2018

Honolulu, Hawaii, USA: Hawaii Governor David Ige (D) today signed into law the world’s first ban on the sale of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate considered harmful to coral reefs and other ocean life. Coral reefs are one of the state’s biggest attractions. The ban does not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2021.

The governor said that the legislation is a “first step” of among several efforts to protect the state’s shorelines and natural resources.

“We are blessed in Hawaii to be home of some of the most beautiful natural resources on the planet, but our natural environment is fragile and our own interaction with the earth can have everlasting impacts,” Ige said at the bill signing.

“This bill is a small first step worldwide to really caring about our corals and our reefs in a way that no one else anywhere in the world has done,” he added.

Hawaii lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year banning the sale and distribution of sunscreens made with oxybenzone and octinoxate. Prescription sunscreens are not included in the ban.

Hawaii welcomes about 9 million tourists a year. “Obviously we’re not going to have the beach police writing tickets” for sunscreen violations, says state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D) , who introduced the bill in the state Senate. But he is hopeful that people who visit will think more about the kinds  of sunscreen they are using and Hawaii’s natural resources.

State Rep. Mike Gabbard (D) touted the law as a “first-in-the-world” measure when it passed the state legislature in May.

“When you think about it, our island paradise, surrounded by coral reefs, is the perfect place to set the gold standard for the world to follow,” said Gabbard, whose daughter is U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D). “This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health.”

Hawaii’s tourism industry includng its airlines and tour guides are on board. They are already handing out samples of sunscreens that do not contain the banned ingredients.

Up to 70 percent of sunscreens on the U.S. market contain oxybenzone, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents sunscreen-makers. Up to 8 percent contain octinoxate, which often shows up on labels as octyl methoxycinnamate.

“We’re taking away a product, or products … that have been shown over the course of time to be safe and effective” against skin cancer and sun damage, says Jay Sirois, director of regulatory affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

“This irresponsible action will make it more difficult for families to protect themselves against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays……it is contrary to the many concerns expressed by Hawaii’s medical doctors, dermatologists, and public health experts” the Consumer Healthcare Products Association said in a statement.

Indeed, both chemicals have had the Food and Drug Administration’s OK for decades, but in recent years, some environmental research has suggested octinoxate can contribute to coral bleaching and that oxybenzone exposure leads to the death of baby coral.

Studies by Craig Downs, a biologist who runs the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Lab, and his colleagues inspired Hawaii lawmakers to propose the ban to protect the reefs. They point to Downs’ 2015 study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

He says the chemical acts as an endocrine disruptor to juvenile coral. “When they come across oxybenzone, they just encase themselves in their own skeleton, effectively killing them,” he says. They sink to the bottom of the ocean and die.

Oxybenzone pollution can come from other sources, such as wastewater discharge from ships. But sunscreen from beachgoers is a major contributor to pollution in concentrated areas, Downs argues.

“Sunscreen pollution doesn’t kill all the world’s coral reefs, it threatens coral reefs that are most important to people,” Downs says, like those close to shore where tourists like to snorkel. And if there are fewer attractions like beautiful and healthy coral reefs, the tourists are less likely to visit, he says.

Other tourist destinations are considering similar bans to protect their reefs, says Downs. The Caribbean island of Bonaire has already begun to follow suit.

The good news is that there are already thousands of sunscreen products that do not contain oyxbenzone or octinoxate, with more working their way onto the market.

In the U.S., there are two basic types of active ingredients in sunscreens: chemical blockers that work with skin to protect against harmful sun rays, and minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that reflect the rays away from skin. The first category contains some of the chemicals of concern to coral.

If you’re worried about the potential impact of your sunscreen routine on sea life, look for mineral sunscreens that don’t easily rinse off in the water, suggests Downs. Another choice is to wear swim clothes with sun-blocking fabric, though you should still apply sunscreen to any exposed skin.

Don’t forget the best advice for avoiding sun damage — cover up with hats and long sleeves, and avoid going out during the hottest part of the day.

If you are concerned about the possible harms to sea life, be aware that oxybenzone is found not only in sunscreens but also many other consumer products including cosmetics. The Hawaii sunscreen ban applies only to on-island sales of over-the-counter sunscreens. Cosmetics and prescription sunscreens containing these chemicals are exempt.

Some common sunscreen label terms

Spf: Short for sun protection factor, spf tells you how much protection a product provides against sunburn. Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen of at least spf 30 and reapplying every two hours.

Uvb rays: These generally contribute to sunburn and can cause cancer.

Uva rays: These can contribute to skin damage and aging and may lead to skin cancer.

Broad spectrum : For optimal protection, choose broad spectrum sunscreens, which protect against both uva and uvb rays.

Chemical blockers: These are the active ingredients such as oxybenzone or octyl methoxycinnamate that work with skin’s cells to protect against skin damage. Some leave an oily sheen while others disappear into the skin quickly.

Mineral blockers: Minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the surface of the skin and reflect the sun’s rays. They can leave a chalky, white cast on skin.

Nanoparticles: Some mineral sunscreens are formulated with extremely fine particles, which may make them appear less chalky on the skin. Others advertise they are free of nanoparticles, because of unproved health concerns. The fda has not offered clear guidance on nanoparticles in sunscreen.

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Kim Boateng

Kim Boateng

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