JUL 16, 2018 4:46 AM PDT

Do you know what your sunscreen is doing to coral reefs?

Hawaii Governor David Ige has signed into law a ban on the sale, offer, or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. That means that come January 1, 2021, Hawaii will be hopefully be free of these chemical-touting sunscreens (unless you’ve got your doctor)! Sometimes labeled as benzophenone-3 and octyl methoxycinnamate, these chemicals have been shown to cause environmental harm – particularly for coral reefs. Given Hawaii’s desire to protect its reefs, Governor Ige’s move seems like a smart one.

The ban was prompted from research from a study by Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a nonprofit scientific organization. The results of this study determined that oxybenzone and octinoxate, when washed off into the water from our sunscreen-ed bodies, cause bleaching, deformities, DNA damage and death in coral.

"Oxybenzone is really toxic to the juvenile form of corals," said Craig Downs, who is a forensic ecotoxicologist and the executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. "And that's consistent with the dogma of toxicology that juveniles are usually a thousand times more sensitive to the toxic effects of a chemical than a parent."

Although oxybenzone and octinoxate are on the US Food and Drug Administration's list of approved active ingredients for sunscreen, studies have shown toxic levels of the chemicals in fish, sea turtle eggs, algae, dolphins, oysters, crayfish, mussels, and even human and dolphin breast milk, says to Downs. In addition, CNN reports that the Environmental Working Group has also asserted that the chemicals may cause hormone disruptions and allergic skin reactions.

Downs explains that the problem with these chemicals is that they disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae. “The coral larva encases itself in its own skeleton, where it falls to the bottom of the sea and dies,” reports CNN. This threatens the resiliency of coral reefs, which, considering that they’re already up against climate change, El Niño, and overfishing, is just too much. And switching over from oxybenzone and octinoxate to zinc oxide or titanium dioxide-based sunscreens is an easy solve.

Aerosol sunscreens are the worst offender because the chemicals travel fast. Photo: Badger Balm

Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources reports that the sunscreen issue is more of a local matter (i.e. there’s not much concern of your beach day oils in Maine getting all the way to Hawaii’s corals), though Downs says that oxybenzone and octinoxate have been detected in waters all around the world. And because oxybenzone has a half-life of 2.4 years in seawater, as CNN explains, a sewage plume or water from a popular swimming area has the ability to go downstream and drain into coastal waters. Another consequence to remember is that all coastal regions have important marine life that the chemicals might be affecting, even if coral reefs aren’t common in your area. So, the main take-away point from this study: switch to zinc oxide!

Sources: CNN (1) (2), Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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