Is your sunscreen hurting coral reefs?
It’s the middle of summer, and countless families are taking advantage of free time and warm weather to head out on vacation. Hawaii is a popular destination, with almost 800,000 visitors in May alone, according to state tourism data.
The state recently banned two sunscreen ingredients that researchers have found to be harmful to coral reefs. Here’s what that means for you.
What sunscreen ingredients are banned?
Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, Hawaii will ban the sale, offer of sale or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate without a prescription from a licensed health care provider. The chemicals might also be labeled as benzophenone-3 and octyl methoxycinnamate, respectively.
Why is Hawaii banning oxybenzone and octinoxate from sunscreens?
The two ingredients help protect skin from UV rays, but researchers have found that they also cause bleaching, deformities, DNA damage and ultimately death in coral when sunscreen washes off beachgoers or is discharged into wastewater treatment plants and deposited into bodies of water. Coral reefs are vital members of marine ecosystems that protect beaches from erosion and support biodiversity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Are these ingredients also dangerous to humans?
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are on the US Food and Drug Administration’s list of approved active ingredients for sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology Association’s official position is that “claims that sunscreen ingredients currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration are toxic to the environment or a hazard to human health have not been proven.” You can find a list of FDA-approved sunscreen active ingredients on the agency website.
The advocacy organization the Environmental Working Group claims that the banned ingredients may cause hormone disruptions and allergic skin reactions.
The two chemicals have also been found at toxic levels in fish, sea turtle eggs, algae, dolphins, oysters, crayfish, mussels, and even human and dolphin breast milk, according to Craig Downs, a forensic ecotoxicologist, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and the lead author of the study that propelled Hawaii to ban the ingredients.
Could sunscreen harm the environment even if I’m far from Hawaii?
It’s more of a local issue, according to a representative of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. Though government officials would encourage everyone to use “reef-safe” sunscreens as much as possible, the chances of water from, say, Montana harming the reefs in Hawaii are pretty slim.
Though Florida has not banned any sunscreen ingredients, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Coral Reef Conservation Program urges divers to avoid using sunscreens with oxybenzone in order to protect the Florida Reef Tract.
But Downs says that oxybenzone and octinoxate have been detected in waters all around the world, including Barrow, Alaska. Oxybenzone has a half-life of 2.4 years in seawater, so a sewage plume or water from a popular swimming area can go downstream and flow into coastal waters.
How else could I protect myself from the sun?
You can use sunscreens with ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which place a physical barrier between your skin and the sun and reflect its rays.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone older than 6 months wear a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 on exposed areas of the body every day. Doctors also suggest that you stay in the shade when outdoors and wear appropriate clothing, hats and sunglasses.