Planning a Hawaii vacation this year? You’ll definitely want sunscreen. But what kind? By now, you’ve probably heard the news about sunscreen’s effects on coral reefs and Hawaii’s new sunscreen legislation.
Hawaii’s coral reefs face many threats, like rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, and plastic pollution. Recently, sunscreen has been added to the list. It has been reported that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up on coral reefs every year!
There are essentially two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens work by soaking into the surface layers of your skin to absorb UV rays; physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and reflect UV rays.
Most chemical sunscreens on the market today feature two suspect ingredients: oxybenzone and octinoxate. Some studies have shown these may possibly act as endocrine disruptors, soaking into our skin and potentially altering the way our body produces and processes hormones.
While further evidence is needed to substantiate the effects of these chemicals on humans, there is substantial data to show that they have powerful effects on coral – specifically in the polyp stage.
Coral reefs form when coral larvae attach themselves to hard surfaces, like our lava-rock substrate. The coral larvae develop into polyps that secrete skeletons, and it’s these skeletons that compile over years to form the large reef structures you’ve seen SCUBA diving or snorkeling. When exposed to endocrine disruptors (like oxybenzone or octinoxate), the polyps mutate and are unable to settle and continue their growth cycle. Different species grow at different rates; the slowest growing ½ to 1” per year, the fastest growing up to 8” each year. Reefs take decades to form, and their ecosystems support thousands of species of wildlife – they’re like the rainforests of the ocean.
Millions of visitors slather up on the beach, and that oxybenzone winds up on the reef, killing the very ecosystem many have traveled so very far to see. If you are a SCUBA diver, snorkeler, or just enjoy spending time near the ocean, this should concern you!
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep your skin sun-safe without harming coral. The most reef-friendly choice? Cover up! Grab a loose-fit rashguard with UV protective fabric to keep you cool. Use wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses to protect your face. And for those times when it’s got to be sunscreen, choose a physical sunscreen with zinc or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient.
You may have heard that Hawaii state legislature recently passed a bill banning over-the-counter sales of products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate beginning in 2021, making Hawaii the first in the country to enact such a law. We’re optimistic that this will help bring more awareness to the health of the local reef ecosystems.