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Hawaii to Become First in the World to Ban Sunscreens Harmful to the Environment

Renae Reints

Hawaii is set to become the first location worldwide to ban certain sunscreens in an attempt to protect the environment from harmful chemicals. While the legislation was approved in May, Governor David Ige is expected to sign the bill this week.

“When you think about it, our island paradise, surrounded by coral reefs, is the perfect place to set the gold standard for the world to follow,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, who introduced the bill. “This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health.”

The bill targets two chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are common ingredients in sunscreens but are harmful to the sensitive coral reefs that surround the islands.

“The legislature finds that two chemicals contained in many sunscreens, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems, including coral reefs that protect Hawaii’s shoreline,” the bill reads. “Oxybenzone and octinoxate cause mortality in developing coral; increase coral bleaching that indicates extreme stress, even at temperatures below 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit; and cause genetic damage to coral and other marine organisms.”

The bill bans skin care companies from selling products containing these two chemicals anywhere on the island, effective 2021 (but individuals with a prescription from a licensed health care provider will still have access to the products).

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), which represents sunscreen manufacturers, released a statement in May that warns of the health concerns associated with limiting access to sunscreen.

“Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that excess sun exposure without effective sunscreen increases the risk of developing skin cancer in both adults and children,” CHPA said. “Oxybenzone and octinoxate, found in the majority of sunscreens, are safe and effective over-the-counter (OTC) active ingredients recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as important aides in decreasing the risk of developing skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S.”

Furthermore, they argue the removal of these chemicals “avoids the real causes of coral decline according to scientists in Hawaii and around the world: global warming, agricultural runoff, sewage, and overfishing.”

But a 2015 study found that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the ocean every year, causing harm. Coral reefs are a major part of island economies—the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History estimates coral reefs provide $30 billion to $172 billion worth of food, shoreline protection, tourism jobs, and medicines each year.

While oxybenzone and octinoxate are in the majority of sunscreens, there are chemical-free options. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide are natural alternatives some sunscreens use, still able to block the sun’s harmful UV rays.