A family of Hawaiian Dascyllus Damselfish (Dascyllus albisella, āloʻiloʻi) gather around a stressed cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina) (Photo credit: Lindsey Kramer).
As many of you know, when entering the ocean, all of the things you’ve put onto your skin can wash off into the surrounding water! Much of our community here in Hawaiʻi is familiar with the recent studies showing harmful effects of non-mineral sunscreens on corals and other marine species. For corals, these chemicals can harm larvae, cause DNA damage, and can worsen coral bleaching in conjunction with elevated sea temperatures. Other studies have shown decreased fertility in fish, damaged reproductive function in sea urchins, and an accumulation of sunscreen chemicals in marine mammals, including dolphins, following heavy exposure to chemical sunscreens.
Recent changes in Hawaii’s rules
In response to this alarming research, two exciting new bills recently passed state county councils. For Maui County, Bill 135 passed in December 2021 and will prohibit the sale, distribution and use of non-mineral sunscreens beginning October 1, 2022 (TODAY!). A similar bill passed for Hawaiʻi County (Bill 167) in July 2022, and will prohibit the sale and distribution of non-mineral sunscreens in Hawaiʻi County after December 1, 2022. We are thrilled about these new measures to protect our corals!
How do I choose a reef-safe sunscreen?
While chemical sunscreens absorb into your skin, reef-safe sunscreens are comprised of minerals that physically block the sun’s rays. The list of potentially harmful chemicals is long and currently includes oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, nano-zinc oxide, and nano-titanium dioxide (*nano indicates that particles are very tiny). Less widely used chemicals that are potentially just as harmful include OD-PABA, benzophenone-1, benzophenone-8, 3-benzylidene camphor, and 4-methylbenzylidene.
The best reef-safe, mineral-based options are zinc-oxide or titanium-dioxide formulas. Sunscreen protects you from skin damage due to both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays deeply penetrate into the skin and can cause aging and wrinkles, while UVB rays are shorter and burn the surface of your skin, causing sunburn and in more intensive cases cause skin cancer. Non-nano zinc-oxide is one of the most effective sun blockers available, blocking out both short and long UVA rays and all UVB rays. Non-nano titanium-dioxide doesn’t provide as much protection from long-wave UVA rays, but is extremely effective at blocking short-wave UVA and UVB rays, making it a good choice for short-term sun exposure. Regardless of which sunscreen you choose, if you are in the sun frequently, be sure to check-in with your dermatologist at least once a year.
With the many sunscreen options out there, along with sometimes misleading labeling regarding whether a product is “reef-safe”, it can be overwhelming to choose a trustworthy sunscreen! Be sure to read labels and check out these great options below provided by our friends at Save the Reef (IG: @savethereef). Many reef-safe sunscreens are made locally with plastic-free packaging, making them an even greener choice, including Ao Organics, Coco Aloha Surf, Malama Kuleana, Little Hands Hawaii, Raw Love, and Hawaii Medicinal. Check out these and other local brands at your favorite surf or dive shop!
A selection of locally available, reef-safe (mineral-based) sunscreen options. Several companies also offer plastic-free packaging (Photo credit: Save the Reef).
The majority of sunscreens available are not reef-safe. Be sure to read labels to check for harmful chemicals when you select a sunscreen! (Photo credit: Save the Reef)
What else can I do to minimize harm to reefs from sunscreens?
- Besides selecting a reef-safe sunscreen, here are a few other tips for protecting yourself while minimizing your ocean impact:
- Stay in the shade during peak sun hours of the day from 10:00 to 2:00 (BYO umbrella!)
- Try to avoid sunscreen sprays – you have less control over where the sunscreen ends up and can pollute beach sand!
- Wear comfortable UV protective clothing.
- Remember that harmful chemicals aren’t just found in sunscreen. Be sure to check labels in your other skin and hair care products.
- Be sure to reapply sunscreen as directed to provide maximum protection from UVA and UVB rays!
To learn more about the latest on reef-safe sunscreens, check out:
Save the Reef sunscreen guide:
The latest on sunscreen impacts from the National Park Service:
More on the new rules in Hawaiʻi: