Sun rises on new sunscreen era
Law banning sunscreens with certain chemicals went into effect Jan. 1
For eco-friendly sunscreen makers like Maui’s Jenna Davis, Hawaii’s new law banning sunscreens with coral-harming chemicals couldn’t have come at a better time — and the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse moment.
“I started the company before the bill was introduced, however we definitely saw a peak in sales and growth after the bill due to more media being shared about the importance of this topic,” said Davis, who created Raw Love Sunscreen in 2014. “COVID has really put a halt on sales but I am confident with time that will change.”
In 2018, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to ban the sale and distribution of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common sunscreen ingredients that are known to be harmful to Hawaii’s marine environment and human health. The law went into effect on Jan. 1.
Residents and businesses were already taking the initiative to switch to reef-safe products and are now turning their attention to education — especially since many people may still have old sunscreen in their cabinets and travelers can still carry them into the islands.
“This law is very important in a place like Hawaii where we have more than a million people entering the ocean every year, and millions of others who don’t use the ocean, but still use sunscreen,” said Hannah Bernard, executive director of Hawaii Wildlife Fund. “All of us can take responsibility for helping to stop the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ that we are inflicting on the reef ecosystem.”
About 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas each year worldwide, Bernard said Tuesday. Prior to COVID-19, that was equivalent to a 55-gallon barrel of sunscreen entering Maui waters every day.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are two ingredients linked to coral bleaching, killing limu and harming fish, according to the nonprofit Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition. These chemicals can reach the ocean via swimmers and beachgoers every day, as well as through the wastewater system after people shower off at home.
Dr. Craig Downs, a toxicologist with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, said that other sunscreen chemicals used to filter UV rays, including avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate and octisalate may harm human health as well.
“These chemicals are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and some may remain there for at least three weeks,” Downs said in a news release Monday. “Some may disrupt our hormones, which can affect thyroid function, development, fertility and more.”
The Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Maui County Council, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, local business owners and scientists helped to create the ban in the years leading up to the bill’s proposal.
Bernard said that some tour boat companies like Kai Kanani Sailing and Trilogy have been offering free zinc or titanium-based sunscreens on board for passengers.
“Our reefs are stressed by many things, including warming temperatures of the world’s ocean, overfishing and land-based pollution,” she said. “To be able to stop a significant human-contributed pollution from our use of chemicals on our bodies is one of many powerful ways we can begin to help to immediately reduce the stressors.”
Because this is a sale and distribution ban — not a possession ban — the law remains unclear how sunscreen use will be regulated among travelers who might bring their own from the Mainland or residents who order those online that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.
The law also does not specify how enforcement will be managed for businesses.
“We understand vendors started complying months ago and the law has raised awareness of the environmental concerns,” a spokeswoman at the Governor’s Office said. “Future enforcement are likely to be complaint-driven and prioritized among other environmental investigations.”
Anne Rillero of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council said Tuesday that the best approach is to continue educating and spreading awareness of the new law through public service announcements.
“We are very happy to see this statewide law in effect. We think that it’s a great step to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate products because they are known to have adverse effects on corals,” Rillero said. “They’re endocrine disruptors, they affect a coral’s ability to reproduce, they can lead to bleaching.”
The resource council had already printed cards and flyers, made magazine inserts and targeted social media posts, posted signage at 39 beach sites, and hung window displays at Kahului Airport for arriving visitors, explaining the impacts of harmful chemicals on Maui’s coral reefs.
There are ways collectively and individually the community can protect the marine ecosystem, she said, such as working to reduce sediment runoff, managing wastewater treatment and reading the ingredients on sunscreen bottles, or reducing the need for sunscreen products altogether by covering up with rash guards and hats, or sitting under umbrellas and in the shade.
“Coral reefs are suffering worldwide,” Rillero said. “Our corals need all the help they can get.”
Although the resource council’s water quality testing program doesn’t test for oxybenzone and octinoxate, she said that the toxic chemicals are most prominently found in coastlines with higher populations of people.
“It only takes a few drops of oxybenzone or octinoxate for it to have an impact on coral, so this law is valuable because we do have beautiful reef areas we want to protect that are also really popular with snorkelers, swimmers, surfers,” she added. “By paying attention to all the sunscreen we’re using, we can make a difference.”
Some companies have encouraged customers to use reef-safe sunscreen or offered products during tours. Boss Frog’s Snorkel, Bike & Beach Rentals said on its website that it’s taken action to educate about the banned chemicals, as well as advertising to customers about avoiding other active ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and nanoparticles that are not currently banned but have some research to show they can be harmful.
At Maui Dive Shop, if a customer books an activity, reef-safe sunscreen is included in the price.
Other companies are continuing to make alternative products. Raw Love Sunscreen is made with ingredients like raw shea butter, beeswax, different oils and zinc oxide — one of the 17 active ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in sunscreens.
Davis, who has a background in marine biology, ocean conservation and chemistry, said that the Maui community generally “really cares about our ocean,” but she will remain committed to education and raising awareness about supporting local, clean and green products.
“I believe in being the change we wish to see,” she said. “I have dedicated my life to helping the ocean thrive, so if I can make small choices that can have a larger impact, then I will.”
Some popular sunscreen brands still contain the banned ingredients, though others are trying to create less toxic sunscreens, like Banana Boat’s Simply Protect.
Other products advertised as reef-safe include Mama Kuleana, Thinksport, Kokua Sun Care, Neutrogena’s pure and liquid sunscreen, Promise Organic, Stream2Sea Mineral Sunblock, All Good Sport Sunscreen and more.
Banning oxybenzone and octinoxate is just a start, however, as the FDA continues to study the impacts of 12 other active sunscreen ingredients.
The news release on Monday from researchers and ocean advocates said that Hawaii’s sunscreen ban does not go far enough and called for greater protections and regulations of what is actually considered “reef safe.” Last session the state Legislature proposed a pair of bills that would have allowed only the sale of sunscreen products containing active ingredients classified by the FDA as generally safe and effective, but the measures died.
“Healthy coral reefs are fundamental to Hawaiian heritage and essential to preserving our shorelines and marine ecosystems in Hawaii,” Ted Bohlen of the Hawai Reef and Ocean Coalition said in the news release. “Eliminating harmful sunscreen chemicals is one easy step we can all take to help protect our coral reefs and other marine life.”
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.