The Scoop on Sunscreen
State of Hawaiʻi to implement legislative ban on sunscreen chemicals in 2021
Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser
Photographs courtesy of Elizabeth Lough and Mirei Sugita
“Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaiʻi’s coral reefs." Governor David Ige “There is an ugly irony when we have all these visitors coming to Hawaiʻi to see the reefs, yet they’re wearing a sun protectant that contains chemicals known to be harmful to the marine ecosystems.” Dr. John Burns
Between eight and nine million people visit Hawaiʻi each year, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority. Most visitors come to the islands seeking an idyllic vision of lounging on white sand under a tropical sun, and they anticipate swimming, snorkeling, surfing, diving, and everything else that the surrounding ocean has to offer. But between dips in the Pacific, tourists and locals alike lather on a creamy concoction of chemicals that recent research has shown is devastating to the very environment they’re enjoying.
This past July, State of Hawaiʻi Governor David Ige signed SB 2571 into law, which will ban the commercial sale of certain sunscreens beginning Jan. 2021. More commonly called Act 104, the new legislative bill prohibits the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals found to be detrimental to the health of coral reefs. The bill is the first of its kind in the U.S.
“Studies have documented the negative impact of these chemicals on corals and other marine life," Ige stated in a news release. “Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step towards protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaiʻi’s coral reefs."
Research, including studies conducted by the University of Hawaiʻi, has shown that exposure to oxybenzone and octinoxate significantly reduces corals’ ability to reproduce. According to the film “Reefs at Risk,” directed and produced by Malina Fagan and Lynn Pelletier, approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter into the waters around coral reefs each year. Chemical compounds like oxybenzone and octinoxate are lethal to coral larvae and appear to interrupt the annual spawning cycles of adult polyps, which have negative long-term effects on colony populations.
“Corals are animals,” explains Dr. John Burns of UH Hilo’s Marine Science Department. “They actually have a basic immune system that is a lot like humans, and they react when they’re being stressed out. It’s a lot like us when we’re sick; we’re pale and not as healthy, and that’s what’s happening to the coral.”
“The focus on sunscreen products made sense because it would be very difficult to attack every cosmetic product that people wear,” says Burns. “But the sad reality is that you can’t look at the ban on sunscreens as the ultimate solution. We’ve only attacked one aspect of it, but it’s real and very relevant in the sense that there is an ugly irony when we have all these visitors coming to Hawaiʻi to see the reefs, yet they’re wearing a sun protectant that contains chemicals known to be harmful to the marine ecosystems.”
“To be fair,” Burns continues, “there are other stressors that would rank much higher on threats to reef health,” citing runoff from wastewater treatment centers, urban contaminants, and other forms of pollutants as undoubtedly affecting the vitality of offshore coral colonies.
So will reducing the amount of oxybenzone and octinoxate make enough of an impact to help protect marine ecosystems? According to Dr. Burns, it can’t hurt, especially as coral reefs are increasingly threatened by bleaching and other effects of human-caused climate change. Any improvement to reef health will help buffer marine ecosystems from larger existential threats.
“I’ve worked for the last decade on coral health and disease,” Burns tells Ke Kalahea. “I never thought in my lifetime that I’d see reefs completely wiped out by bleaching. The level of alarm I have now is higher than I ever thought it would be. When we take away the reef, we take away the habitat that’s housing thousands of organisms. We’re talking about an ecosystem that makes up a small percentage of the globe, yet it’s rivalling rainforests in the amount of oxygen its producing and carbon its fixing.”
Even though coral reefs cover less than one percent of the entire ocean floor, colonies act as organic oases for aquatic life, supporting nearly 25 percent of all marine organisms. Seemingly tiny disturbances are liable to upset the fragile, interconnected relationships that underwater ecosystems are built on. For instance, minute changes in water temperatures trigger corals to expel the algae they depend on for survival from their tissues. This reaction, known as coral bleaching, is occurring in tropical waters worldwide because of human-induced global warming.
While banning harmful chemicals in sunscreen is a small step towards helping to conserve and protect the planet’s ocean, the State of Hawaiʻi’s decision to implement Act 104 proposes a local solution for a global issue. And ideally, the new piece of legislature is intended to set an example to pay attention to what products are being put out into the environment.