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Why Hawaii Just Banned Some Sunscreens

May 03, 2018
4 min read
sunbathing hawaii beach
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On Tuesday, Hawaii passed a first-of-its-kind law to ban the sale of certain over-the-counter sunscreens deemed harmful to coral reefs.

Senate Bill 2571, which received almost unanimous support across the House and the Senate this week, will prohibit the sale and distribution of sunblock containing chemicals found to be especially toxic (specifically, oxybenzone and octinoxate) to marine ecology.

According to Senator Mike Gabbard’s floor comments, the legislation was heavily influenced by the scientific findings of experts like Dr. Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., a forensic eco-toxicologist and executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Lab.

“Scientific evidence,” Senator Gabbard said, “indicates that these chemicals induce coral bleaching, harm and kill coral larvae by creating gross deformities and act as an endocrine disrupter.”

The Toxic Effects of Sunscreen

“We’ve been doing the science since before 2008,” Downs told The Points Guy. Originally studying Virgin Islands National Park, on St. John, Downs and his forensic team were searching for the invisible force that had decimated Trunk Bay.

A local suggested they visit the beach at the end of the day, after the flood of tourists dissipated. What they saw were waters shimmering with rainbows like an oil slick — and what they found were extremely high concentrations of oxybenzone.

Later, when Downs and his team sampled the waters around Maui in 2015, they were “stunned by the levels of oxybenzone.”

Based off a 2015 average of merely 2,600 swimmers per day, the report determined that Hanauma Bay was subjected to 370 pounds of oxybenzone per month — a conservative estimate when you consider that this popular Oahu destination can now see more than 6,500 visitors in a day. “It’s no wonder we saw the highest levels of oxybenzone [here],” said Downs. “And we went on an off day.”

Meanwhile, at Maui’s Ahihi Kinau Bay, which averaged 1,200 swimmers per day in 2017, Downs and his team estimate that the waters were polluted with nearly 61,000 pounds of sunscreen product last year.

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The results of the exhaustive studies found significant traces of oxybenzone in beach sand, sea turtle eggs, coral larvae, fish and other marine creatures.

How the Tourism Industry Is Involved

Hawaii may be the first to pass a law of this kind, but it’s not the only destination to take steps toward regulating the presence of these chemicals. Senator Gabbard noted that Mexico has taken “administrative action” to ban these products from their nature preserves.

As the tourism industry has a particularly high stake in preserving natural resources, travelers may notice these aggressive efforts to regulate these chemicals while visiting Mexico, Belize and the Caribbean.

Certain snorkel and dive operations in Mexico, Downs noted by way of example, will forbid you from bringing your own sunscreen and instead supply reef-friendly products.

Though Hawaii’s bill does not go into effect until January 1, 2021, limiting the reefs’ exposure to these nefarious toxins has been a top priority for hospitality groups in Hawaii.

“It’s encouraging to know that our tourist industry is stepping up,” Gabbard said. “Companies such as Hawaiian Airlines, Aqua-Aston, Sheraton, Outrigger, Kaanapali Resort and Napili Resorts are all doing their part to provide reef-friendly sunscreens to guests."

At Aqua-Aston properties, for example, of which there are more than 40 across the Aloha State, reef-safe sunscreen dispensers have been installed at multiple locations, and these environmentally-friendly products have been introduced to on-site spas and shops.

What Travelers Need to Know

First, you’ll want to empty your medicine cabinet of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone, nanosized titanium dioxide, and octinoxate.

In addition to damaging delicate marine ecosystems, studies have shown that sunscreen products using these chemicals may actually be less effective than their reef-friendly counterparts.

Shop instead for ecologically-kinder products using zinc oxide and non-nanosized titanium dioxide. Downs says these sunscreens are better at protecting against UVA and UVB radiation, and are better for the environment.

Downs also suggests stocking up on UPF clothing. “One of the best methods of protecting the reef, and yourself, against radiation is wearing sunwear clothing. It’s the biggest conservation tool we have.” Simply wearing a sun shirt can cut sunscreen usage by 50 percent.

“Imagine that, on a daily basis, with 3,000 swimmers on the beach. That [would be] a major victory.”

Travelers should also be conscientious about using products that contain parabens. “Parabens are probably going to be the next emerging chemical of public awareness in the next five years,” Downs told The Points Guy. “It’s pernicious, and it’s everywhere.”

To start, swap your shampoo, conditioner and — you guessed it — sunscreen with paraben-free versions (including Raw Elements, All Good, and Hawaiian-made Little Hands Hawaii).

Featured image by (Photo by Hrvoje Grubisic on Unsplash)