Hawaii May Be The First State To Ban Reef-Killing Sunscreens

Studies show that chemicals in popular sunscreen brands are extremely harmful to coral reef.
Studies show that some chemicals in common sunscreen brands are extremely harmful to coral.
Studies show that some chemicals in common sunscreen brands are extremely harmful to coral.
Dahlquist Ron via Getty Images

Hawaii may soon be the first state in the U.S. to ban sunscreens with chemicals that harm nature.

State lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bill that bans the sale of sunscreens that have chemicals believed to damage coral reefs. The ban is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2021, once it is signed by Gov. David Ige (D).

The bill specifically prohibits the sale and distribution of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban will not affect medically-prescribed sunscreens containing those chemicals.

Years of studies have shown that many chemicals in some of the most common sunscreens have chemicals that damage — and sometimes kill — fragile coral reef systems.

Oxybenzone, which is found in more than 3,500 skin care products, is effective for protecting skin from damaging sun rays. However, a 2015 study revealed that the chemical is toxic to developing coral and increases the coral’s susceptibility to bleaching.

“The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly,” researchers wrote in the study of the chemical’s effect on reefs in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

And about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs worldwide, according to that study.

“Amazingly, this is a first-in-the-world law,” state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D), who introduced the bill, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “So, Hawaii is definitely on the cutting edge by banning these dangerous chemicals in sunscreens.”

“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,” added Gabbard, who posted a video on Facebook last weekend of himself singing a song in support of the bill. “This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health.”

Those who oppose the bill worry that the ban could discourage people from using sunscreen altogether, leading to more instances of skin cancer.

In a column for Honolulu Civil Beat, Doug Johnson, a dermatologist and spokesman for the Hawaii Dermatology Society, said that the “more important concern” is the “indisputable evidence that links the tragedy of sun exposure to the epidemic of skin cancer including melanoma.”

“A ban on these sunscreens in Hawaii — the state with the highest daily UV index warnings and very high rates of skin cancer and melanoma — would be a public health disaster,” Johnson said.

However, lawmakers who voted for the bill agree with researchers and environmental activists who believe the new law will protect one of Hawaii’s most important attractions: the colorful reefs.

“We have to be making in-roads to reduce the damage to all of these sources because our corals are under such stress. And if they go, our whole fishery, ecosystem and habitat go. So we need to protect them,” state Sen. Laura Thielen (D), told local news station KHON 2.

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