Hawaiian Government Makes Progress Toward Oxybenzone-Free Oceans

| Caitlin Doermer

Hawaii’s thriving marine life is a source of education, travel, enjoyment, and income for many on the island and abroad. But for decades, a chemical compound found in most sunscreens has been taking a toll on the islands’ waters.

In recent years, the term “bleaching” has become more common around Hawaii. It’s used to describe the discoloration or death of coral due to extreme stress.

According to local legislators, something must be done to stop the damage. 

“In the past two years, Hawaii’s coral reefs have experienced two serious coral bleaching events, and with rising ocean temperatures, we can expect these events to become more commonplace,” said Hawaiian Senator Mazie Hirono.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agrees. The agency declared that a worldwide coral bleaching event will impact 95% of the coral reefs in the United States, including Hawaii.

It is already estimated that bleaching effected up to 92% of the coral colonies in North Kona

But legislators are moving swiftly to maintain the islands’ thriving marine ecosystem. On January 31, the Hawaiian House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection passed House Bill 600, which prohibits the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone.

What Is Oxybenzone? Why Is It Harmful?

Oxybenzone is a chemical compound found in most sunscreens, used for its ability to absorb UV radiation. While there is reason to believe it could be harmful to humans, the chemical compound is most visibly and immediately impacting our oceans.

The problem starts when sunscreen chemicals wash off swimmers, surfers, sunbathers, or other ocean users, releasing the chemical into the ocean

A recent study showed that one of those chemicals, oxybenzone, causes deformities in coral larvae, making it impossible for the larvae to swim, settle, and form new coral colonies.

It’s also the main cause of coral bleaching in Hawaii and around the world.

Coral bleaching effects algae, which lives in the coral’s tissues, providing food and nutrients essential to its survival. When released into our oceans, oxybenzone leads the coral to eject the algae, causing the coral to become white, or “bleached.”

If the oxybenzone isn’t removed from the environment, the algae won’t be reabsorbed, and the coral won’t thrive.

“It turns corals into zombies if it doesn’t kill them outright.  It makes them sterile and you do not get coral recruitment,” said Craig Downs, of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.

It only takes 1 drop of oxybenzone in an Olympic sized swimming pool to disrupt coral growth. But in some Hawaiian waters, researchers have found oxybenzone concentrations to be more than 30 times the level considered safe for marine life.

It’s an issue that threatens not only the life of coral, but also the 25% of marine species which call coral their home.

The Effects Are Felt on Land as Well

In Hawaii, unhealthy reefs and oceans mean an unhealthy economy, too.

According to legislators, coral reefs are worth $385 million per year to the local economy and have a net present value of $10 billion.

“Our reefs are an essential economic driver of our tourism industry, they sustain our fish populations for fishermen, and are home to many species found nowhere else in the world,” said Kona Representative Nicole Lowen.

Rep. Lowen introduced HB600 and succeeded in passing the bill, which would make the sale of products containing oxybenzone a petty misdemeanor. The committee also advanced a bill, HB818, that would allow for the sale of oxybenzone products, but instate new labeling requirements.

In order to be officially enacted into law, HB600 will have to pass on the Hawaiian House Floor and then to the Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection. However, The United States Consumer Healthcare Products Association says it will oppose a ban until they see more evidence.

Oxybenzone-Free Sunscreens Are Effective, Affordable and Readily Available

“Safe, effective, and affordable alternatives to oxybenzone are available already,” said Rep. Lowen. “How can we, in good conscience, continue to needlessly allow the use of this chemical that we know causes damage to coral?”

Oxybenzone-free sunscreens use power minerals like Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide to provide broad-spectrum protection from harmful sun damage. 

As lovers of travel and the outdoors, Sunology was one of the first sunscreen companies to consider the impact of mainstream sunscreen chemicals on our reefs as well as our bodies. We do our part to maintain our planet’s marine ecosystems by keeping our formulation avobenzone-free, oxybenzone-free and reef-friendly.

Sunology will do our best to keep you updated at HB600 makes its way through Hawaii’s legislation. Even if you don’t live in Hawaii, we encourage everyone to be mindful of their chemical footprint on our oceans and environment. To show support for the health of Hawaii’s marine life, you can visit Change.org to sign the petition to ban the use of oxybenzone, and take simple steps toward cleaning up the ocean environment by choosing oxybenzone-free sunscreen.

As always, we love hearing your thoughts and questions—just leave a comment in the section below!

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