homepage logo

Is sunscreen smothering our reefs?

By Staff | Mar 2, 2017

A little over one million people are lucky enough to call Hawai’i home. A little under nine million people a year travel to our tropical archipelago to soak in Paradise for a moment. And with all of us comes hundreds of thousands of pounds of sunscreen. This is a problem.

Sunscreen is actually a miracle product. First produced in the 1930s by a South Australian chemist, the founder of global cosmetics giant L’Oreal improved and commercialized the invention in 1936. Soon after the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) was added to indicate a lotion’s strength and durability. In 1980, Coppertone capitalized on the inclusion of ingredients that screened out harmful ultraviolet (UVA/UVB) rays, and the sunscreen industry boomed.

As more people worldwide earn more money and become more attentive to skin care, the sun care industry continues on a bull run. It’s currently on track to grow into an $11 billion industry worldwide by 2020. The upside is that people will be able to enjoy nature, the ocean and the outdoors while protecting themselves from skin damage and skin cancer.

Unfortunately, there is a downside. One of the active UV-filtering ingredients in most commercial sunscreens is oxbyenzone. Scientist Craig Downs has conducted a number of studies on the East Coast and in Maui, and he has concluded that as sunscreen washes off humans and settles onto coral reef heads, it inhibits new coral growth and suffocates existing coral. Sadly then, the more of us who use sunscreen and snorkel, swim and play in the ocean, the more that the magnificent coral reefs that underpin our coastal ecosystems suffer.

Key people on Maui have responded to this. Snorkel Bob, a leading purveyor of snorkel gear on Maui, refuses to sell sunscreen at his shops. Some vigilante coastal defenders, including some motivated residents of Honolua Bay, constantly inform people not to use harmful sunscreen as they enjoy the reef. Certain activities companies carrying people to Molokini share this message with their guests and encourage visitors to act accordingly.

Fortunately, just as with polystyrene, alternative products already exist. Lotions based on zinc oxide, natural ingredients, and biodegradable materials also protect and preserve skin without destroying coral. Hats, rash guards and wetsuits all offer adequate protection.

The problem is that this multi-billion dollar industry is a slow-moving aircraft carrier, not a nimble destroyer, and it will shift slowly and under pressure. Key companies like L’Oreal have challenged Mr. Downs’ studies, claiming that more work needs to be done to prove oxybenzone is harmful. As Upton Sinclair said, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

For this reason, forward-thinking legislation that alters the standards for the industry could be a key way to efficiently create change. That is why it was so promising when a recent bill was moving through the Hawai’i State House to ban oxybenzone-based lotions in Hawaii. And that is why it was so deflating when the Hawai’i Senate, on the direction of Speaker of the House Joe Souki, buried the bill, ensuring it won’t be heard until next legislative session.

So, while the industry grows, the profits roll in, and politicians dither, millions of people in Hawai’i will slather themselves with sunscreen this year, splash into the water, and somewhere on Maui, a beautiful coral head will atrophy.

What can be done? Local, state, national and international momentum is gathering. Coral reefs cannot speak for themselves, so scientists and advocates must. Maui, the most beloved island in the world, needs the leaders it deserves to put this bill back on the agenda next legislative session, and set an essential policy precedent for our coral reefs, and the world’s.