Hawaii is set to ban sunscreens to protect coral reefs

  • A partially bleached cauliflower coral is pictured at Kua Bay. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ocean Potion sunscreen lotion that is oxybenzone free was being sold at Target in Hilo. A recent study has found that sunscreens containing oxybenzone are killing coral reefs at an alarming rate. HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

HONOLULU — Many sunscreen makers could soon be forced to change their formulas or be banned from selling the lotions in Hawaii.

Hawaii state lawmakers on Tuesday passed a measure that would ban the sale of sunscreens by 2021 containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in an effort to protect coral reefs. Scientists have found that the two substances commonly found in many sunscreens can be toxic to coral, which are a vital part of the ocean ecosystem and a draw for tourists in Hawaii.

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Consumers would only be allowed to buy sunscreen with the chemicals if prescribed by a health care provider, though the measure itself doesn’t ban online purchases or tourists from bringing their own.

If Gov. David Ige signs the bill, Hawaii would become the first state to enact such legislation. A similar bill failed to pass last year, after it pitted environmental scientists against businesses and trade groups that benefit from the giant market for sun care products in the U.S. — worth more than $2 billion a year, according to research firm Euromonitor.

The bill is “a huge step forward to protecting our unique coral reef ecosystem, one of the ecological treasures of the world,” said Hawaii state senator Stanley Chang, who supported the measure. “By switching to other, more effective, reef-safe active ingredients, I am confident that sunscreen manufacturers, retailers, and the public will be even better off in the future.”

“This is the first real chance that local reefs have to recover,” said Craig Downs, a scientist whose 2015 peer-reviewed study found oxybenzone was a threat to coral reefs. “Lots of things kill coral reefs, but we know oxybenzone prevents them from coming back.” It also affects sea urchins and kills algae, a source of food for sea turtles, he said.

Opponents, however, are skeptical of the science.

“What we’re really concerned with is that there aren’t very many independent studies out there that have gone for peer review,” said Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii. Yamaki said the ban might discourage people from buying sunscreen products from local brick-and-mortar stores. The American Chemistry Council also filed public comment opposing the bill, citing concerns over the dangers of sun exposure.

Edgewell Personal Care, which makes Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen lotions, said it makes products free of the two chemicals. The company “will continue to ensure we comply with all relevant regulations concerning oxybenzone and octinoxate.”

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Many manufacturers already sell “reef-friendly” sunscreens, and companies can deplete current inventory ahead of the ban in 2021, Downs said.

“We have so many problems with coral bleaching, and there is already so much contamination,” said Dr. Yuanan Lu, a professor and director of the environmental health laboratory at the University of Hawaii, who applauded the passage. “We have so many people who come to Hawaii, and some of the sunscreen ingredients can be toxic, harmful to marine systems.”

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