Hawaii just banned select sunscreens from its seas

The US state says two common ingredients found in suntan lotion are killing its coral reefs

22 July 2018 - 00:00 By Elizabeth Sleith
6,000 tons of sunscreen are washed off people's skin into the oceans every year.
6,000 tons of sunscreen are washed off people's skin into the oceans every year.
Image: 123RF/creativefamily

A new law passed in the US will likely mean two new dirty words for the travel industry: oxybenzone and octinoxate.

That is, eco-conscious travellers may soon be looking for those words - along with the word "NO" - when they go shopping for sunscreen. Both chemicals have come into sharp focus after Hawaii became the first US state to ban sunscreens that contain them from being sold there.

The move, signed by Hawaii Governor David Ige this month, is part of efforts to protect the island's fragile coral reefs.

According to the US National Park Service, about 6,000 tons of sunscreen are washed off people's skin into the oceans every year - with some of these chemicals having dire consequences for sea life, particularly fragile coral reefs.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are both commonly used in chemical sunscreens to help other ingredients penetrate the skin. Both, however, are believed to contribute to coral bleaching, deformation and death. Some scientists have also argued for years that they cause hormone disruptions and allergic skin reactions in humans too.

Though the ban comes into effect only in January 2021, it is likely that the negative attention will spur manufacturers to change their formulae - and shoppers to change their habits.

An immediate alternative - supported by park service officials in Hawaii - is mineral sunscreens. Unlike chemical sunscreens, they don't get absorbed into the body but form a barrier between the skin and the sun's rays. They generally contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both biodegradable.


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