Don’t wait till 2021, stop using harmful sunscreens now

After reading in West Hawaii Today that our state government finally passed a law this July banning two of the most common coral-damaging chemicals, I went shopping for “safe” sunscreen. I walked out of the store without making a purchase, just more confused than I was before.

My next stop was to visit Reef Teach at Kahaluu Bay, a community outreach program established by The Kohala Center. There I picked up an informational guide to reef-safe sunscreens. This guide lists only two safe “active ingredients” used in sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It lists seven that are unsafe.

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Also I learned that we can bring our old, coral-damaging sunscreen to them for safe disposal. (Great program! Check them out at http://kohalacenter.org/kbec/reef-friendly-sunscreen).

Back to the store with this information in hand, I searched again for a good sunscreen. Nearly all of the types and brands contained one or more of the harmful chemicals — the only exception in almost every brand was the sunscreen sold for use on babies. A few of the ones marketed for kids were also free of the harmful ingredients.

I purchased some baby-safe sunscreen, but also decided to check out other stores around town.

I went to a total of four stores: Two national chains and two Hawaii owned and based chains. There was very little difference in the products for sale in each of the four stores, although one store had added a “Reef Safe” sticker to products that do not contain the two chemicals (oxybenzone and octinoxate) banned by the new Hawaiian law.

Why, I wondered, are these coral-damaging sunscreens still being sold here in Hawaii? A little more information digging was required. So I checked the law signed in July by Gov. David Ige. This ban does not take effect until January 2021, meaning that retailers are free to sell these coral-damaging products for the next roughly two-and-a-half years!

West Hawaii Today ran an article in October 2015 titled “Study: Sunscreen devastating to coral.” Environmental groups worked to get the word out to the public — even made a special effort in 2016 to inform Ironman competitors about the damage being caused by these sunscreens. Our County Council sent a request later that year to the state Legislature requesting a ban. When the Legislature finally decided to act, they postponed enactment of this ban until 2021, more than five years after we learned that these sunscreens are killing the coral.

We citizens can choose where and how to spend our money. Buy sunscreens that only contain the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

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Businesses, nationally or state owned, are free to sell the bad products until January 2021. But I ask these businesses to do the right thing now: Remove all these products from your shelves and inventories voluntarily. Show us that you care about the health of our coral reefs, our ocean and our economy. Don’t wait until the law forces you to do so.

Ruth Savakinas is a resident of Kailua-Kona.