Oxybenzone is a UV inhibitor that is known to be dangerous for coral reefs, and unfortunately the majority of sunscreen products today contain this chemical. Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, conducted research that found contamination of the water by oxybenzone leads to coral bleaching, destruction, and less ability to fight climate change. He found that as little as a single drop of the chemical in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools can cause the adverse effects. “It’s pretty horrifying,” Downs said. Other studies have shown that oxybenzone may act as an endocrine disruptor to marine animals like clams, shrimp, and dolphins. Most tourists and beachgoers entering the water near coral do not realize the damage they could cause to some of the most productive and sensitive ecosystems on the planet.
Two types of sunscreen exist, ones that chemically block the sun and those that physically reflect the light almost like a mirror. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the two most common of these physical blockers. True to their names, they are derived from titanium and zinc. The particles are made small enough to go on the skin less noticeable while not being absorbed into the skin and causing health concerns. The natural origin of these ingredients make a biodegradable sunscreen with them much safer than a chemical-filled one with avobenzone, dioxybenzone, or ensulizole.
Economic studies conducted by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the early 2000s found that coral reefs and other coastal resources contribute $800 million in revenue to the state's economy each year. This number is likely even higher today. 14,000 tons of potentially damaging sunscreen ends up in the global coral reef system each year, and 3,500 of these sunscreen products include the dangerous oxybenzone. Researchers estimate that 15% of the world’s coral reefs are being impacted by sunscreen chemicals. The best solution for protecting skin while keeping the oceans clean is to switch to a mineral based, biodegradable sunscreen such as Mexitan.
State Senator Will Espero of Hawai’i spoke at the 13th Annual Coral Reef Symposium and proposed a bill that would ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate. Although some tourist destinations and shops have voluntarily stopped the sale of oxybenzone based sunscreens and switched entirely to reef-safe, biodegradable sunscreen, if passed this bill would be the first political move towards banning these chemicals. The ban would not only limit oxybenzone use near beaches. It would limit the sale of these sunscreens statewide, except for those with a prescription, even for those far away from the shore. This is because sewage water still with the chemical in it can easily make it’s way back to the ocean.
Some lawmakers are hesitant to support the bill in its current form until more studies are conducted. Espero disagrees with this sentiment, “Since there are eco-friendly sunscreens on the market now, a total ban hurts no one.” Some clothing options are to wear lightweight long sleeve shirts and rash protectors to block the sun’s rays. Regardless of the legislation, if everyone collectively decided to save the coral reef by using biodegradable sunscreen with ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide instead of chemical varieties it would make a major positive impact on these sensitive ecosystems.