Reef Safe Sunscreen Law in Effect, But Advocates Say More Yet to be Done

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Photo from Palmyra Atoll. PC: Kydd Pollock/Nature Conservancy

While some sunscreen products are banned in Hawai‘i as of Jan. 1 due to their chemical consistencies that possess proven destructive potential to the health of coral reefs, environmental advocates say there is more legislative work to be done.

The State Legislature passed Act 104 (2018) thirty months ago, which went into effect on the first day of 2021. The law bans the sale of sunscreens containing two common chemicals — oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are both harmful to coral reefs.

The passage of the law garnered worldwide attention as to the damaging effects of sunscreen chemicals to people and coral reefs. Since then, sunscreen companies began replacing those two ingredients with other chemical ultraviolet (UV) light filters, while printing the unregulated term “Reef Safe” on their bottles, according to a press release from the Safe Sunscreen Coalition.


Coral and ocean protection groups have publicly stated that the ban enacted by Hawai‘i does not go far enough.

“Other sunscreen chemical UV filters, including avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate, may harm human health as well as marine life,” said Dr. Craig Downs, toxicologist with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. “These chemicals are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and some may remain there for at least three weeks. Some may disrupt our hormones, which can effect thyroid function, development, fertility, and more.”

“Many sunscreen chemicals act like herbicides, killing Limu, increasing the susceptibility to coral bleaching, and driving away many reef organisms,” Downs continued. “Fish and urchin larvae are incredibly susceptible to the toxicity of these sunscreen chemicals.”


Since 2018, several studies have confirmed that chemical UV filters approved for use in the US can have negative impacts on people and marine life. The FDA recognized only two remaining active sunscreen ingredients as “generally safe and effective.” Those are the mineral UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

“Marine life in (Hanauma) Bay has enjoyed respite and rejuvenation during the COVID shutdown. Water quality has improved by as much as 64%. The decades-long sunscreen haze blanketing the water in Hanauma Bay has disappeared. There are greater numbers of fish. Visitors have not been walking on the reef damaging or destroying corals. And coral settlement is increasing in sections of the inner reef sacrificed to visitors before the pandemic,” said Lisa Bishop, President of the Friends of Hanauma Bay. “However, with the return of many visitors, Hanauma Bay’s coral reefs and water quality are likely to degrade without a strict cap on daily visitors and a ban on use of all chemical sunscreens.”

All of these groups emphasize that ideally everyone should protect themselves from skin damage and potential skin cancers by seeking out shade or wearing hats and UV protective clothing in strong sunlight. Those who choose to wear sunscreen are advised not to simply believe all claims of “reef safe” at face value just because they are printed on products. Instead, people should flip the bottle and check out the ingredients, using only mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.


For more information, go online.

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