Hawaiian Sunscreen Ban?

Hawaiian Sunscreen Ban?!  Can that happen???  Well, a Hawaiian state senator, proposed a bill that would ban the sale of chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate across the islands. Prescriptions for the sunscreen would be allowed.  As nanny-state un-american as that may sound, it may turn out to be a good thing for the health of Hawaii’s coral reefs.


Sunscreen may be good for your skin, but some kinds are not necessarily the best for the environment

Last month, Will Espero, a Hawaiian state senator, proposed a bill that would ban the sale of chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate across the islands. Prescriptions for the sunscreen would be allowed.

Why? A ton of sunscreen winds up in the global coral reef system every year — 14,000 tons, to be exact — and research indicates that oxybenzone can lead to coral bleaching. Some studies suggest one drop is even enough to damage the reefs.

To those who know the underwater world well, this isn’t new news. Many divers are warned to steer clear of chemical sunscreens — when we swim, after all, lotion can bleed off onto the reefs.

According to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, “researchers have found oxybenzone concentrations in some Hawaiian waters at more than 30 times the level considered safe for corals.”

The beaches of Maui, specifically, have already suffered the consequences, reports Scientific American.

Of course, the bill isn’t a suggestion to skip SPF on the sunny beaches of Hawaii. After all, there are two kinds of sunblock: Chemical blockers use ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate to absorb UV radiation from the sun, preventing it from causing damage. But physical (or mineral) sunscreens, with ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, block UVA and UVB rays from ever reaching your skin; and the National Park Service says these have not been found to harm the reefs.

Even better: Dermatologists agree that physical blocks are gentler on your skin. Good for you, good for the environment, and no painful sunburns in sight? We’d say that’s a win-win(-win).


Sunscreen Lotion Damages Reefs

It’s a minefield trying to buy a sunscreen which doesn’t harm the sea life. Even those trumpeting their green credentials are not always free from harmful chemicals and components. You have to read the label very carefully. So what are the nasties of which scuba divers and snorkellers should be wary?


Nano particles are minute chemical substances, which are about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles are often used in sunscreens. They allow clear sunscreen which can be sprayed on. However, they produce significant amounts of hydrogen peroxide, a strong oxidizing agent that generates high levels of stress on reef-building corals and marine phytoplankton. They have also been shown to make sea urchin embryos more vulnerable to toxins.

You need to avoid nanoparticles if you are looking for a marine-friendly sunscreen.


A study by Dr Craig Downs published last year showed Oxybenzone (also known as Benzophenone-2 or BP-2) increased the rate of coral bleaching. Additionally, the chemical damages the coral’s dna, affecting their reproduction. If that wasn’t enough other effects are to make juvenile corals become grossly deformed and encase themselves with their own skeletons.

Octinoxate, Butylparaben, 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor

Another study, this time by Roberto Danovaro et al, named butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor as being harmful to reefs.

How Much of a Problem is it?

According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. This does not spread out rapidly or evenly over the entire ocean, but concentrates on popular tourist sites. It is estimated that 90% of snorkellers and scuba divers are concentrated on 10% of the world’s reefs.

So which sunscreens can you use?

Look for ones without the ingredients mentioned above. Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide are good as long as they are not in nano-format. A quick guide is whether the sunscreen is clear or not. If it is clear, or in a spray, it probably contains nano-particles.
If the ingredients state “uncoated” zinc oxide then these are larger particles (non-nano) and safe.

Some examples of sunscreens which less harmful to sea life are:
Badger Sunscreen Unscented
Lovea Natural Sunscreen Spray
Jason Sunbrellas
Bio Solis

Any others you’d recommend – let us know in the comments below.

References and Further Reading

Sunscreen nanoparticles harm sealife. SCUBA News 2015.

Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R. et al. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol (2016) 70: 265. doi:10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7

Danovaro, Roberto; Bongiorni, Lucia; Corinaldesi, Cinzia; Giovannelli, Donato; Damiani, Elisabetta; et al. Environmental Health Perspectives; Research Triangle Park116.4 (Apr 2008): 441-7.

The impacts of sunscreen on coral reefs. National Park Service.




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