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Hawaii's Sunscreen Ban

The bill which was passed by state lawmakers in May 2018, came into effect on January 1st 2021, making Hawaii the first US state to ban sunscreens containing chemicals that can be harmful to the coral reefs. The sale or distribution of nonprescription sunscreens comprising of oxybenzone and octinoxate, which help filter UV rays, is now banned. It is estimated that 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen is deposited into the world’s oceans every year. Coral reefs are among the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world, representing hot spots of marine biodiversity, and directly sustaining half a billion people over time.

With Hawaii’s millions of visitors, voluminous amounts of sunscreen end up in the coral reefs. Forensic ecotoxicologists from the Haereticus Environmental laboratory have found that these chemicals cause bleaching, deformities, DNA damage and eventually, death in the coral reefs ruining the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae when deposited into the sea water. The bays of Hawaii, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the US Virgin Islands and the areas around Israel are particularly vulnerable. Needless to say, it is a dire situation for the environment.

Production and consumption of personal care and cosmetic sun products are increasing worldwide, reaching unexpected levels, with potentially important consequences on environmental contamination. The release of these products is also linked with the rapid expansion of tourism in marine coastal areas. At the same time, we need to consider the fact that sunscreens are vital to help prevent skin damage from ultraviolet radiations that can cause melanoma and other skin cancers. They act as an absorber, while filtering, scattering and stopping the rays from reaching deeper layers of the skin.

Keeping this in mind, alternatives need to be provided. One such safe substitute to oxybenzone and octinoxate is non-nano titanium dioxide. It is a common alternative as an active ingredient in sunscreens to the chemicals of known concern listed above. Nanoparticles in sunscreen have been found to cause severe damage to DNA, disrupt the function of our cells, and lead to cell death.

While protecting us from UV rays, sunscreens with harmful ingredients also prove to give severe damage to skin cells. Such chemicals are not only a threat to coral reefs, but also to humans be it directly or indirectly. The degradation of coral reefs resulting from coral bleaching is just one of the issues coming marine life’s way. Climate change, coral mining, digging of canals and countless more human activities are leading to the demise of marine life. Tourists and locals can only contribute to the welfare of the oceans by taking small steps, like the banning of sunscreens. Multiple measures have been taken by locals, resorts and hotels such as offering free reef-friendly sunscreen in “eco kits” and via dispensers in the hotels’ public areas.

Not just Hawaii, but the small island nation of Palau has also banned the production and sale of sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral reefs. Just as much as humans are responsible for this contamination, we’re also capable of helping heal these fragile underwater ecosystems.

~ Risika Singh

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