In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Sunscreens containing these chemicals have been shown to damage coral reefs and may even affect human health. I am extremely proud of my state for enacting this law, and think it’s important for everyone to understand how certain sunscreens can harm our marine ecosystem. In honor of this ban becoming effective as of January 1, 2021, I’m using this post as an opportunity to explain what you need to know about this landmark legislation.
How do sunscreens harm reefs?
According to National Geographic, 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into our oceans each year. Once in the ocean, two active ingredients found in most chemical sunscreens—oxybenzone and octinoxate—are responsible for damaging coral reefs in the following ways:
- They kill developing coral.
- They increase coral bleaching, which leaves coral vulnerable to infection and starves it of nutrients.
- They cause genetic damage to coral and other marine life.
- They reduce corals’ ability to adjust to extreme temperature changes.
Just a single drop of oxybenzone in an area the size of 6.5 Olympic swimming pools can induce coral stress. Now consider that at Trunk Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a popular tourist destination, up to 2,000 people can swim and snorkel near an offshore coral reef each day.
What are oxybenzone and octinoxate?
Both oxybenzone and octinoxate are active ingredients in most chemical sunscreens. These chemicals protect skin by absorbing ultraviolet (UV) radiation; however, they also begin to break down once they’re exposed to the sun, leaving them free to wash off in the ocean.
Are chemical sunscreens harmful to my health?
In addition to harming reefs, chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate may also be dangerous for humans. Consider the following facts:
- According to a 2008 study published in CHIMIA International Journal for Chemistry and a 2010 study in Chemosphere, oxybenzone may disrupt hormone function. The study’s researchers found traces of the chemical in human breast milk. Additional studies have found oxybenzone in human urine and blood.
- A Journal of Investigative Dermatology article found that oxybenzone and octinoxate may disrupt the human endocrine system.
- Many OTC chemical sunscreens also contain trace amounts of benzene, a known human carcinogen.
Why are reefs so important?
Hawaii is home to over 410,000 acres of living reefs. Coral reefs are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, providing food and protection to billions of fish and other marine life. Reefs also protect coastlines from erosion and create the beautiful white sand beaches found along Hawaii.
In addition to environmental benefits, reefs provide significant economic benefits to Hawaii, including job creation, recreational opportunities, tourism revenue, and food production.
In sum, reefs provide many important benefits for everyone living in and visiting our state.
Are any other states banning reef-damaging sunscreens?
The U.S. Virgin Islands also banned the sale of OTC sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2020. Both the City of Key West and California tried to pass similar bans over the last couple of years, but those bills have been unsuccessful thus far.
Outside of the U.S., the island territories of Aruba, Palau, and Bonaire have also banned the sale of reef-damaging sunscreens.
Are there any reef-safe sunscreens I can use to protect my skin?
Opponents of Hawaii’s new law—which include the Hawaii Medical Association, the Hawaii Skin Cancer Coalition, and the Hawaii Food and Industry Association, to name a few—argue that the state’s residents and visitors won’t have affordable and accessible sunscreen options. I disagree.
Chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone, octinoxate, and other potentially harmful ingredients aren’t necessary for full sun protection. Although most chemical sunscreens are broad-spectrum, meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB rays, physical sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are also broad-spectrum and, according to the organization Save the Reef, are considered to be reef-safe. Physical sunscreens also tend to be less irritating, don’t clog pores, and start working immediately.
Opponents of Hawaii’s new law argue that the state’s residents and visitors won’t have affordable and accessible sunscreen options. I disagree.
I know that many people choose chemical sunscreens over physical sunscreens because the latter can leave a white cast, but you can usually avoid this by rubbing your physical sunscreen together in your hands before applying it to your face and body. Also, try “patting” your sunscreen on rather than smearing it to help avoid streaking.
My favorite reef-safe sunscreens
For all of the above reasons, I prefer physical sunscreens, and recommend them to my patients. Some of my favorite physical reef-safe sunscreens include All Good’s SPF 30 Sport Mineral Sunscreen, Badger’s SPF 35 Sport Mineral Sunscreen, and Mama KULEANA’s SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen. These brands have all been verified by Save the Reef and are well-priced for their quality and safety.
Helpful tips to protect your skin from sun exposure
I couldn’t conclude a post about sunscreen without providing a few tips for minimizing your risk of sun damage. These suggestions don’t just apply to summer, either; make sure you follow them year-round:
- Use a broad-spectrum reef-safe sunscreen with a high SPF. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays that can cause skin cancer, premature skin aging, and sunburn.
- Re-apply your sunscreen every two hours, especially if you’re swimming.
- Cover up using long layers, a wide-brim hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses whenever possible.
- Minimize your time in the sun. SPF refers to the amount of time you can spend in the sun without burning, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to spend excessive time in direct sunlight.
Want to look your best in Hawaii? Visit Honolulu Plastic Surgeon Dr. Schlesinger
Whether you live in Hawaii or simply love visiting our wonderful state, I invite you to join me for a personal consultation at my practice, the Breast Implant Center of Hawaii. As a board-certified plastic surgeon with more than 30 years of experience specializing in breast augmentation, mommy makeovers, and gynecomastia surgery, I have helped countless men and women optimize their appearance. Contact my office online or call (808) 597-8835 to schedule your appointment.