Hawaii’s sunscreen ban protects reefs. Now what?

The Hawaii State Legislature has passed a law banning certain types of sunscreen in Hawaii.

The law intends to protect Hawaii’s fragile coral reefs. Coral reefs around the world are damaged by certain chemical compounds found in many common sunscreen products. It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreens end up on coral reefs around the world each year.

So, what does this mean for Hawaii visitors? A few things, actually.

First, the ban does not take effect until January 1, 2021. And it is not a ban on all sunscreens. It affects only those products that contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are found in many popular brands like Banana Boat and Coppertone. The National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Association says there are over 3500 skin care products containing one or both of the chemicals in question. There are also many products that do not contain the chemicals, like Sun Bum and Verta.

A shallow area of Sharks Cove.

This is the first such law enacted in the United States. According to State Representative Mike Gabbard, it’s the first in the world. Many scientists agree that this a feel-good measure, and that coral reefs face much graver dangers from other factors like pollution, climate change, and sea temperature rise. But all agree that even a small measure such as Hawaii’s new law is better than doing nothing at all.

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The bill was opposed by Hawaii’s major physicians’ organization, retailers, and manufacturers. Their major concerns were a lack of peer-reviewed evidence that the chemicals cause coral bleaching and that people may choose not to use any sunscreen at all. This would, of course increase the risk of melanoma (skin cancer).

Experts speculate that popular skin care products will not disappear from Hawaii retailers’ shelves. Instead, makers will adapt products by removing the offending chemicals as other jurisdictions take similar measures.

The news has made headlines around the world. Reactions have ranged from outrage at government over-reach to elation over a bold legislative measure to protect the environment.

It comes as no surprise that Hawaii is the first place in the world to ban sunscreen containing coral-killing chemicals. Tourism is the lifeblood of Hawaii’s economy. If there were only one reason to visit Hawaii, it would be the state’s pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters. The health of Hawaii’s coral reefs is vital to its coastlines above and below the surface.

As the science surrounding the offending chemicals’ negative impact on coral reefs has grown, many have opted to avoid them before the law was passed. Surfers, fishing enthusiasts, sunbathers, and all manner of outdoor athletes have committed to products that are safe for Hawaii’s reefs. It’s a simple act that could be a major factor in the preservation of Hawaii’s most vital resource.

So for visitors to Hawaii, nothing will change for more than a year and a half. Your favorite sunscreens and skin care products are still perfectly legal here. And by the time the law takes effect in 2021, there will certainly be an abundance of new oxybenzone- and octinoxate-free products on the market.

No worries!