Hawaii’s crystal-clear but fragile reefs and ocean life are one of the great attractions of the Aloha state, and a resource the state wants to protect for both tourists and locals alike. It’s for this reason governor David Ige signed a sunscreen ban into law on July 3, 2018—a law that doesn’t actually ban all sunscreen, only sunblock products containing certain chemicals.
Why the Sunscreen Ban?
A reef is only as healthy as its coral, and across the world, coral is under threat. Warmer waters and pollution have caused widespread coral bleaching events, during which the symbiotic algae living inside coral abandons its host. Unless the algae return, the coral whitens and dies.
A study by the nonprofit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory determined two chemicals often found in sunscreen—oxybenzone and octinoxate—can cause coral to bleach, as well as causing DNA damage, deformities, and coral death. With an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen winding up in the ocean every year, the chemicals represent a threat to reef health.
Once the ban comes into effect in 2021, over-the-counter sunscreen in Hawaii will need to be reef-safe, which will require companies to change their product formulations.
How Will the Sunscreen Ban Affect You?
If you’re planning on taking a Hawaiian vacation after 2021, or if you want to make sure your sunscreen isn’t damaging the reef, look for sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that are “non-nano.” Non-nano means the sunscreen doesn’t contain ingredients small enough for the tiny coral polyps to eat.
Popular tourist sites such as Oahu’s Hanauma Bay are already recommending using reef-safe sunscreen, which is increasingly easy to find in-state (if you can’t find reef-safe sunscreen anywhere else, snorkel and dive shops typically stock it).
Hawaii is the first U.S. state to ban reef-damaging sunscreen, and it’s likely other states—and other nations reliant on their reef life—will follow suit in the future. Faced with such bans and consumer demand, sunscreen companies will have to switch to safer ingredients. It’s a small step, but worth it to keep Hawaii’s reefs (and the critters that live on them) as healthy as possible.