Hawaii’s long-planned ban on a number of sunscreens deemed harmful to the state’s coral reefs became law with the start of the new year.
Passed in 2018, the legislation bans the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals harmful to marine life and the state’s fragile coral reefs.
The chemicals are in more than 3,500 of the world’s most popular sunscreen products.
A 2015 study of coral reefs in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel determined that oxybenzone leaches the coral of its nutrients and bleaches it while also disrupting the development of fish and other wildlife.
When Hawaii legislators passed the bill in 2018, it set January 1, 2021, as the implementation date to give manufacturers time to adjust. Many brands have reformulated their ingredients during that period, but most have not.
“In my lifetime, our planet has lost about half its coral reefs,” State Rep. Chris Lee told the Washington Post at the time of the passage. “We’ve got to take action to make sure we can protect the other half as best we can because we know that time is against us.”
Gov. David Ige expressed similar concerns in signing the legislation into law.
“Studies have documented the negative impact of these chemicals on corals and other marine life,” Ige said. “Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaii’s coral reefs.”
The Friends of Hanauma Bay, an organization the strives to protect one of the most spectacular coastal areas on Oahu, welcomed the new law.
Hanauma Bay had been closed to all visitors for eight months at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. When it reopened on a limited basis in early December, the organization noted how water clarity had improved and marine life, including the coral reefs, had grown and flourished. One reason stated then was the absence of swimmers and divers wearing sunscreen.
While Hawaii was the first to institute the ban, others have followed suit during the waiting period for the law to take effect. Similar bans have been passed in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Key West, and Palau.
The Personal Care Products Council, which represents the industry, acknowledged in 2018 the importance of protecting coral reefs but said fighting skin cancer is equally important. It argued that climate change, over-fishing, and sewer runoff play a bigger role in coral reef damage.
“These well-intentioned but misguided changes in policy may yield little to no environmental benefit to Hawaii, while at the same time restricting consumer choice, reducing access to cancer-protecting sunscreens, and likely increasing exposure to the devastation of skin cancer,” chief scientist Alex Kowcz said in a statement.
While the new law bans the sale in the state of sunscreens containing the two elements, it does not prevent visitors from bringing it into Hawaii and using it. Prescription sunscreens that contain the ingredients are also exempt from the ban.