Reef-safe sunscreen in Hawaii and why it matters

Kealakekua-Bay-HI
Kealakekua Bay. Photo credit: dolphin discoveries.com

Ingredients in sunscreen having been doing damage to the coral reefs in Hawaii for years. These chemicals cause damage to the DNA of the coral, resulting in deformities, bleaching and sometimes even the death of the coral itself.

What's in the sunscreen that causes the damage?

Coral bleaching Hawaii
Kaneohe Bay – coral bleaching. Photo credit: Shreya Yadav/Madin Lab/Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

In January, 2021 SB2571 came into effect in the state of Hawaii. This bill banned the sale of any sunscreen that contained oxybenzone or octinoxate (unless prescribed by a healthcare provider). The Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources had banned the use of these sunscreens a year earlier in Kealakekua Bay. This specifically targeted the tour boats that operate in the bay every day.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are both FDA-approved compounds and are present in approximately 80% of all sunscreens. 

Kaneohe Bay – coral bleaching. Photo credit: Shreya Yadav/Madin Lab/Hawaii Institute of Marine Biolog

Sunscreens that also contain petrolatum, also known as mineral oil, often take years to biodegrade and are also harmful to marine life.

Titanium Oxide does not easily biodegrade either – in fact it reacts to warm water by forming hydrogen peroxide which causes damage to marine life. However, reef-safe sunscreen that contain low concerntrations of the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide are considered safe.

Environmental Impacts

Coral reefs in the Hawaiian Islands are flooded with 6,000 tonnes of sunscreen every year. 

It doesn’t take much to cause harm to the coral reef. Only a very small amount of oxybenzone (the equivalent of one drop of water into an area the size of 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools) can cause harm. Unfortunately, testing has revealed that some Hawaiian beaches show levels 10 times that amount.

Impact from sunscreen chemicals is only one factor among many causing ongoing damage to marine environments. Ocean acidification, water pollution and rising sea temperatures are all causing systemic problems to the ecosystem.

More changes ahead

In January 2023, a new law will ban the sale of sunscreen containing the ingredients avobenzone or octocrylene.

Maui has also passed a law which will come into effect October 1st, 2022 which will ban all non-mineral sunscreens.

What can you do to help?

Photo credit: Cindy Ellen Russel / Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Make a concerted effort to buy reef-safe sunscreen. Look for the label on all certified sunscreens. Alternatively, try to reduce your reliance on sunscreens:

  • Stay out of the sun between 10am – 2pm
  • Use an umbrella
  • Wear a sunhat
  • Wear UV-protected sunglasses
  • Wear sun shirts and other UV protecting clothes where possible

The following are a list of some of the available reef-safe sunscreens in Hawaii:

  • Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian
  • SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen
  • Mama Kuleana Waterproof SPF 30 Reef-safe Sunscreen
  • Little Hands Hawaii SPF 35+ All-natural and Organic Sunscreen
  • Manda Organic SPF 50 Sun Paste
  • Raw Love SPF 35 All-natural Mineral Sunscreen
  • Thinksport SPF 50 Sunscreen
  • All Good SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen Lotion
  • Babo Botanicals SPF 30 Clear Zinc Lotion
  • Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen
  • Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen Cream
  • Raw Elements SPF 30 Certified Natural Sunscreen
  • Stream2Sea SPF 30 Mineral Sunblock
  • Loving Naturals Clear Body SPF 30+ All-natural Sunscreen
  • Banana Boat Simply Protect SPF 50+ Sunscreen (spray, not lotion)
  • Olita Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

Make sure you buy reef-safe sunscreen and do your part to reducing the human impact on the fragile coral reefs and the larger Hawaiian marine ecosystem.  

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