Why Has Hawaii Banned Suntan Lotion?

Waikiki and Diamond Head
Photo by yuruphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Elisha Atkinson, The Telegraph, July 13, 2018

In a landmark move expected to ripple across an increasingly eco-conscious world, Hawaii has become the first state in the US to ban certain suntan lotions in an effort to protect its coral reefs from further chemical damage.

The legislative bill, signed by Hawaii Governor David Ige last week, prohibits the sale of sun cream that contains chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, thought to cover as many as 80 per cent of brands. Tourists heading out to the sunny Pacific archipelago in the near future are advised to shop responsibly, but the law isn’t due to take effect until January 1, 2021.

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“We are blessed in Hawaii to be home to some of the most beautiful resources on the planet,” Ige said at the signing of the bill. “But our environment is fragile and our own interaction with the earth can have everlasting impacts. This bill is a small first step worldwise to really caring about out corals and our reefs in a way that no one else anywhere in the world has done.”

How do the chemicals damage coral?

About 25 per cent cent of sun screen is washed off a human’s skin within 20 minutes of being in the water. According to the US National Park Service, this amounts to 6,000 tonnes of sunscreen poured into the coral reefs around the world each year - with Hawaiian reefs hit particularly hard.  

Research has found that just one drop of oxybenzone in six-and-a-half swimming pools of water is potent enough to cause bleaching, starvation, DNA damage and reproductive problems in coral reefs. The UV-resistant chemical found in around 3,500 sun creams infects zooxanthellae (one of two algae central to the reef’s survival) and thwarts the development of baby coral.

“Oxybenzone is really toxic to the juvenile form of corals and consistent with the dogma of toxicology that juveniles are usually a thousand time more sensitive to the toxic effects of a chemical than a parent,” said Craig Downs, a forensic toxicologist and author of Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, to CNN.

Octinoxate, the other chemical banned under Hawaii’s new legislation, is the most common UVB absorbing agent found in skincare products. Although not as toxic as oxybenzone, it is still a primary cause of coral reef bleaching.

The battle to protect reefs against chemicals in sun tan lotion is just one part of the conservation struggle. In April scientists said that the Great Barrier Reef has suffered irreversible damage, following a “catastrophic die-off” of coral in 2016 due to a marine heatwave. One study has suggested that 90 per cent of the world’s coral could be dead by 2050.

Coral Reefs play an important role not only as habitats for marine life, but also as a source of nutrients for marine organisms. They also protect coastlines from storms and consequently enable scientists to retrieve study data from climatic events that have occured over millions of years.

Hawaii coral reef | Top five species spots 

Could the ban lead to a rise in skin cancer?

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association has argued that the products are safe and that the ban poses a public health risk.

The American Academy of Dermatology association explained restrictions could lead to an increase in melanoma, a type of skin cancer which is already 30 per cent higher in Hawaii than the national average.

Dr. Henry Lim, a dermatologist, told the broadcaster: “I think it is a challenging aspect for us dermatologists, as it can potentially create confusion among the public and among patients who need photo-protection.

Health | Advice on sun exposure

“The limited number of FDA-approved UV filters makes finding suitable sunscreen options a challenge, but there are alternative ingredients with different mechanisms of sun protection, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide”

Dr. Lim suggested staying in the shade when outdoors, wearing appropriate clothing such as hats and sunglasses, and wearing sun cream only on exposed areas of the body.

Will a ban ever come into force in Europe?

In 2015 a group of MEPs proposed a similar ban across the EU but the legislation stalled and dissipated. A relative absence of coral reefs in Europe perhaps make the issue less pressing, but the Hawaiian law could help it resurface.


This article was written by Elisha Atkinson from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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