With Its New Sunscreen Law, Hawaii Aims to Set a Gold Standard for the World to Follow

On the heels of the longest coral bleaching event on record, Hawaii hopes that banning a chemical culprit in sunscreen will help save its reefs.

Hawaii's Hanauma Bay on the island of Oahu

Credit: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Gabbard doesn’t often field calls from Glamour magazine. But that’s what happens when you introduce a state bill that could affect sand- and sun-worshippers from around the globe.

In May, Hawaii became the first state in the nation, and the most prominent tourist destination in the world, to pass legislation banning sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which destroy coral reefs. The bill, which was signed into law on July 3, was the result of more than a decade of scientific studies looking at the impacts of these personal care products on the delicate marine habitats.

Gabbard, a Democratic state senator for Hawaii’s 20th District, has declared Hawaii’s move to abandon these dangerous lotions and sprays a “cutting edge” decision. “Our island paradise is surrounded by coral reefs, and it’s the perfect place to set the gold standard for the world to follow,” he says.

Gabbard participated in an ad hoc group of policymakers, environmentalists, and scientists called the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition. The group looked at studies showing that 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs were exposed to the heat stress that caused widespread algae loss during the whiteout from 2014 to 2016. And while studies have also shown that reef ecosystems can be resilient and do sometimes recover their algae, localized pollution—things like sewage, pesticide runoff, and of course sunscreen—poses a double threat to climate-stressed reefs.

“Our local department of land and natural resources reported that 55 gallons of sunscreen are going into nearshore waters every single day in Maui,” Gabbard notes. The U.S. National Park Service is studying this problem as well and has said that as many as 6,000 tons of these products end up polluting reef areas each year—with a significant impact in Hawaii. “With that kind of volume of chemical sunscreens pouring into our oceans at various places around the state, our reefs would have no chance at recovery,” Gabbard adds. He notes that the ban comes with benefits for human health, too, as evidence has shown that the chemicals it targets can disrupt our endocrine systems.

Advocates of the ban on reef-harming sunscreens faced pushback from multinational manufacturers like Bayer, maker of Coppertone, and the companies’ trade association, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. The group said that the bill would compromise “the health, safety, and welfare of millions of Hawaii residents and tourists.”

But many other sunscreens considered “reef safe”—those formulated with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—are already on the market. And for the past few years, these so-called mineral or physical sunscreens, which physically block the sun’s rays to shield skin from UV damage, have been taking up more shelving in local businesses and big box stores across the Hawaiian Islands. (Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing, rather than blocking, the sun’s rays.)

Kiki Pu Chung, founder of Hawaii Medicinal, a line of plant-based oils, salves, and balms, has long been aware of the problem with oxybenzone and octinoxate. “The studies go back to the 1990s,” she says, “but the issue really came up in the past few years, and there was a movement growing to ban the chemicals. That’s partly why we started making the reef-safe sunscreen.”

Chung founded Hawaii Medicinal with her partner, Timothy Clark, in 2016. The couple work and live on the windward side of Oahu and are regular vendors at farmers markets in their small town of Kailua. Their buyers come from all around the world, and it’s easy to see how the crowds of tourists flowing through the Kaka’ako Market and other shops selling their products could help spread Hawaii’s mission to beach areas elsewhere.

Though big sunscreen manufacturers likely won’t want to lose their market shares, they’ve yet to announce plans to radically change their products’ formulas, though some brands have made slight changes to their chemical ingredients. These companies also have some leeway in complying with the ban, as lawmakers added exceptions for facial cosmetics and prescription sunscreens, as well as a delay of implementation: The law will not go into effect until 2021. Because the legislation bans only oxybenzone and octinoxate, some manufacturers are replacing these two chemicals with nearly identical alternatives that could have similar effects on reefs.

“It’s a little frustrating—they say ‘reef safe’ because they took out oxybenzone and octinoxate, but they still have avobenzone, octisalate, and all of the chemical cousins,” Chung says. “Plant-based ingredients, mineral-based sunblocks, are the only ones that are going to be truly reef safe.”

Lawmakers are hopeful that the new ban will push manufacturers—and consumers—away from chemical-based sunscreens altogether. The public relations campaign has already begun: On a recent Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu, following a video geared to help travelers forget about the long flight and focus on the best places to eat and shop and take in Hawaiian culture, a new PSA featured Alison Teal (“the female Indiana Jones,” per Time magazine) giving friendly encouragement to look for coral-safe sunscreens. The airline also has teamed up with Raw Elements, Inc., maker of a zinc oxide‒based formula, to provide passengers with a free sample.

Gabbard says travelers can expect to see more of these public awareness efforts. After speaking with George Szigeti, CEO of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, Gabbard is excited about the agency’s plan to air a short video about sunscreens on televisions in hotels throughout the state. He also hopes that as the ban gets more publicity, other governments will follow Hawaii’s lead. “Already there is a ripple effect going on,” Gabbard says. He mentions Bonaire, a popular tourist destination off the coast of Venezuela. “Their island council voted unanimously on May 15 to follow Hawaii’s lead with banning oxybenzone and octinoxate,” he says.

Even within the Aloha State, this isn’t the first unprecedented legislation passed to protect the environment and public health. Governor David Ige signed a bill on June 13 that bans the use of chlorpyrifos—a pesticide linked to learning disabilities—in the state, despite a move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reverse a proposed nationwide ban on chlorpyrifos last year. The action came just weeks after the chemical sunscreen bill entered the spotlight, prompting Gabbard to say, “It’ll be the beginning of something exciting.” Seems like he was right.

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