Hawaii’s Efforts To Protect Reefs With Safer Sunscreen: Will It Make A Difference?

July 1, 2022

It may be a frustrating fact to consider, but those of us who love to explore the ocean may be poisoning it with our choice of sunscreen. Research shows that some of the main chemicals found in sunscreen “cause the rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations.” Considering that our oceans have already lost about 50% of coral reefs (important ecosystems that support 25% of ocean life) the concern is more than valid.

Hawaii has taken bold action to protect its coral ecosystems from harmful chemicals in sunscreen and other products. In January 2021, a new law banned products containing oxybenzone or octinoxate “without a prescription issued by a licensed healthcare provider.” While issues with enforcement prevent the law from being fully realized, it’s important to note that as the first state to make this step, Hawaii is taking strong measures to protect our ocean resources. 

The Hawaiian Islands (one of the most isolated archipelagos on Earth) have more than 400,000 acres of living reefs in the main islands alone. These coral reef ecosystems are home to over 1,250 unique species of marine life and contribute over $800 million to the economy each year. Coral reefs also play a critical role in Hawaiian history and culture. Marine preserves such as Hanauma Bay help protect these ecosystems from human pressure such as fishing. However, other threats including climate change and chemicals from sunscreen, as well as other products, do not respect boundaries. 

In addition to the state-wide ban, the County of Maui passed an ordinance that bans all non-mineral sunscreens without a prescription beginning on October 1, 2022. Hawaiʻi Island County is currently considering stricter legislation that would do the same. Their bill would include a fine of up to $1,000 per incident that would go to the county’s solid waste fund. Despite these ongoing restrictions, some people are hesitant that blanket terminology and misunderstood science might make the situation worse.

If you’re interested in making your beach routine more eco-friendly, multiple online resources provide guidance on reef-safe sunscreens. Besides the two aforementioned chemicals banned in Hawaii, most sunscreens contain plenty of other dangerous chemicals such as petrolatum and Titanium Dioxide, neither of which biodegrade and therefore accumulate in reef ecosystems and the marine life that inhabit them. 

Focusing our purchasing power on reef-safe sunscreen can also benefit Hawaii’s local economy since many Hawaiian companies have been making reef-safe sunscreen for years. For example, Kōkua Sun Care uses “Hawaiʻi-grown ingredients like Hawaiian coffee fruit extract, macadamia nut oil, kukui nut oil, noni fruit juice, plumeria extract, noni honey and spirulina.” Mama Kuleana makes reef-safe sunscreen that is also free from microplastics and stored in biodegradable packaging.

The National Park Services provides guidance on selecting the most reef-friendly sunscreen products while still protecting yourself from harmful UV rays. This includes a long list of chemicals to avoid as well as advice on how to best protect your skin. Tourists and ocean-goers are encouraged to opt for mineral-based sunscreens made of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. An additional perk of applying reef-safe sunscreen? These products tend to go without other harmful ingredients like parabens, phthalates, and synthetic fragrances. There are also options available if you wish to use vegan, cruelty-free and low waste sunscreens.

Hawaii may be the first state in the United States to ban these chemicals, but other countries and regions around the world are taking similar measures including Key West, Aruba, Palau, Bonaire, and parts of Thailand. We can only hope to see more legislation and efforts around the globe to protect corals and other ocean species from harmful chemicals. Protecting our ocean’s coral reef ecosystems is critical if we are going to fight climate change, preserve biodiversity, and maintain sustainable ecotourism efforts that promote global appreciation for our planet’s natural wonders.

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Photo: Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash

Jamie Zaccaria
Jamie Zaccaria works for an ocean exploration nonprofit and regularly writes both fiction and non-fiction for other publications as well. She has a MS in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy and is passionate about merging science and communications to make real change in the world. Jamie is a vegan and an animal lover and currently lives in New Jersey with her girlfriend.

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