Hawaii Restricts Sunscreen Sales to Protect its Coral Reefs

Shaun Low on Unsplash

Swimsuit? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Environmentally-responsible sunscreen? Maybe you should look again.

Last month, Hawaii passed a bill that bans the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients contributing to coral reef bleaching and severe marine life disruption.

A 2015 study conducted by the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory identified sunscreen-slathered beachgoers as a direct source of water pollution near Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here, our main chemical culprits are washed off into the ocean where they leach nearby coral and deprive underwater ecosystems of essential life-sustaining nutrients. In addition, oxybenzone can cause genetic damage in certain shrimp and fish species, slowing or preventing the development of marine life and potentially destabilizing food chains that are crucial to marine resilience. Now, an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to hit ocean reefs worldwide each year, with popular tourist spots like Hawaii and the Caribbean bearing the brunt of the damage.

Hawaii’s move to prioritize reef conservation has sparked a much-needed conservation about corporate roles in coastal environmental stewardship. Taking effect in 2021, the sunscreen ban will prohibit the in-state distribution of more than 3,500 sunscreen products, pressuring leading brands like Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic to switch to reef-friendly formulas. While the bill has caused some controversy among major sunscreen producers, others like the Safe Sunscreen Council gladly welcome the prospect of a more sustainable sunscreen market.

But substantial change isn’t limited to sunscreen sellers. Many Hawaiian brands and personas, from non-profits to athletes, have already begun implementing their own regulations. The travel industry, heavily relying on coral reefs as a major tourist attraction, has been particularly active. Hawaiian Airlines recently announced its own commitment to reef conservation by providing chemical-free, non-GMO sunscreen samples and educational resources to its passengers.

“Hawaii’s reefs have been slowly dying over the past 20 years, and that death spiral has been accelerating with the impact of an El Niño-induced mass bleaching events and increased local pollution impacts from both tourism and development,” said Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. “Everyone has come together to support this legislation, from local nurses and doctors, to resorts and airlines, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of new sunscreen companies to supply reef-safer products.”

If you’re a business leader, here are the steps you can take to support our coral reefs.

Know what you’re selling. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are not just ingredients in sunscreen. They are also common in lotions, moisturizers, lip balms, fragrances, and other everyday cosmetic items. Read the ingredients of your products and promotional items to screen for reef-invaders. Need to ditch your providers? Check out Access Eco, a Green Business Network member that has specialized in eco-friendly promotional products for over 20 years.

Raise your business voice. Align your business values, strategy, and action with reef conservation. Integrate reef-friendly policies by throwing out any office amenities with harmful chemicals. Collaborate with other like-minded businesses or non-profits, and support policy efforts to ban these ingredients. Take the River to Reef Friendly pledge, a campaign organized by Green Business Network member All Good Products. Always look for ways that your business can be an advocate and take action.

If you’re a consumer, here’s how you can take action.

Know what you’re buying. Head to your bathroom cabinet and check for oxybenzone and octinoxate in your sunscreens, lotions, moisturizers, lip balms, and fragrances. It’s best to toss these chemicals out. While health impacts remain largely unknown, the Environmental Working Group has identified oxybenzone and octinoxate as UV filters with high toxicity concerns and recommends that consumers avoid chemical exposure to reduce risks of hormone disruption and allergic skin reactions. For future purchases, make a habit out of screening ingredients for these reef-invaders and support responsible local businesses that sell organic products. If you’re in need of reef-friendly products, check out our friends at All Good Products for your skincare needs.

Share this article and other educational resources on social media. Change begins with awareness. While the sunscreen ban affects in-state sales, Hawaii does not have control over what tourists bring to the beach or what’s in their bathroom cabinets. The passage of this bill represents a major step in the right direction, but all drains lead to the ocean. As consumers, we must understand the power of our purchases and make responsible purchases that help the planet.

By choosing reef-safe products and spreading awareness, we can all contribute to the progress of America’s green economy.

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