In this instance, the two primary suspects have names that most of us don’t know, and if we saw them on a label, we wouldn’t bother trying to pronounce them.
First is oxybenzone, which is also known as benzonephenone-3. It’s a bigger part of our lives than most of us realize, used in everything from nail polish to perfumes to hairspray.
Second is octinoxate, which is sometimes called octyl methoxycinnamate. It, too, shows up in a lot of places that most of us fail to notice, including lipstick, shampoo and hair coloring products.
The thing that’s most important for boaters to know about these chemical compounds is that they absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays and then dissipate them as heat. It’s a quality that, over the years, has made them popular in the formulas for sunscreen that sits waiting to be squeezed from bottles and tubes in the cockpits of countless boats — and that, an increasing body of research shows, is damaging coral reefs in places where sunscreen-slathered people like to swim and snorkel.
That harmful effect is why Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, just made Hawaii the first U.S. state to ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. He signed the legislation in July. The law gives store owners from Maui to Honolulu until January 1, 2021, to get the products off their shelves, even though the two chemicals have been approved for decades by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“Studies have documented the negative impact of these chemicals on corals and other marine life,” the governor stated in a press release. “Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaii’s coral reefs.”
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, the Democrat who introduced the legislation in Hawaii, said the ban was not just the first in the United States, but also the first of its kind in the world.
“Hawaii is definitely on the cutting edge by banning these dangerous chemicals in sunscreens,” Gabbard told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “When you think about it, our island paradise, surrounded by coral reefs, is the perfect place to set the gold standard for the world to follow.”
The southern Caribbean island of Bonaire appears poised to go second, following Hawaii’s lead. The Bonaire Island Council even set the same enactment date, January 1, 2021, for its ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate.
“It is hoped that other touristic island nations with sensitive coral reefs will continue this effort,” the website InfoBonaire.com reported. “Coral reefs around the world are dealing with many stressors, and this is one that can be eliminated.”
Sunscreens, generally speaking, come in one of two varieties. They’re either chemical-based, which means ingredients such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, or they’re mineral-based, which means ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
Chemical-based sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays to prevent ultraviolet light from penetrating the skin. Mineral-based sunscreens work differently, like a mirror that reflects the sun’s rays. Both types of sunscreen will prevent a sunburn, but people tend to prefer the chemical-based sunscreens because they rub into the skin easily and dry virtually clear. They also come in aerosols that can be sprayed instead of rubbed onto, say, the legs of squirming toddlers while a boat is rolling at anchor.
Mineral-based sunscreens, by contrast, feel thicker and leave a white film; think old-school lifeguards from the 1950s with white stripes down their noses.
As with any products, companies produce what consumers want, which is why oxybenzone is in about 70 percent of the sunscreens available on the U.S. market, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents sunscreen companies.
That group decried Hawaii’s decision, saying that lawmakers relied on weak science and “severely compromised” the health and safety of Hawaii’s residents and tourists by banning key ingredients that keep people safe from cancer-causing rays.
“This ban also avoids the real causes of coral decline according to scientists in Hawaii and around the world: global warming, agricultural runoff, sewage and overfishing,” the group stated in a press release. “This ban creates false hope that banning sunscreen will restore the health of coral reef around the Hawaiian Islands, but it will have little to no positive impact on the health of coral reefs. Rather, it has the potential to create a public health crisis.”
Others cheered the decision. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) had already called on the FDA to do additional research into sunscreen ingredients, in part because of numerous studies that have red-flagged oxybenzone. The group wants to see the federal government act not only for the sake of the world’s coral reefs, but also for the sake of human health.
Studies have shown that oxybenzone, in addition to having adverse effects on coral, can lower testosterone levels in boys and men and can affect birth weights in babies of both genders.
“EWG published its first Sunscreen Guide in 2007, and we have consistently highlighted that oxybenzone is an ingredient of concern,” Carla Burns, a research analyst with the group, told Soundings. “Despite EWG’s efforts to draw attention to the health hazards associated with this ingredient, oxybenzone remains widely used in chemical-based sunscreens; we found it in two-thirds of the non-mineral sunscreens we assessed. So, this year, we ramped up our efforts to rid the market of this ingredient and launched a campaign to urge companies and consumers to go oxybenzone-free by 2020.”
The problems that humans have with oxybenzone seem to be different from the problems that coral reefs have. Researchers have been sounding the alarm about oxybenzone’s effect on coral for at least a decade; a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2008 linked sunscreens and coral bleaching. It bluntly stated that “sunscreens cause the rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations.”
A different team of researchers, in a 2015 study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, offered some insight into why that bleaching takes place. This team’s research showed that oxybenzone not only damages the DNA of formed, adult coral, but also damages larval coral as it’s trying to grow.
The 2015 team of researchers collected coral samples in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Israel, and then exposed the samples at larval and adult stages to increasing concentrations of oxybenzone. They found that in the adult coral, oxybenzone damaged the samples’ DNA and caused bleaching — already a battle that reefs are regularly losing as they bathe in the warmer waters attributed to climate change. In the larval coral, researchers found deformities caused by the samples becoming trapped in their own skeletons, preventing them from moving with currents, the way coral usually does to create reefs.
Put another way, whatever damage climate change is doing to coral reefs, research suggests that the oxybenzone in chemical-based sunscreens is amplifying it.
“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” the 2015 research-team leader, Craig Downs, said when that research was published. “We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.”
For boaters, it’s not enough to avoid using the chemical-based sunscreens on days when snorkels are coming out of the lazarette for some fun along the reefs. Applying aerosol sunscreens on the beach, too, can affect coral reefs that are near-shore, as the tides pick up sand grains and suck them into the mix of seawater along the coastline.
Boaters who don’t like the look or feel of mineral-based sunscreens can also choose UV-protective clothing, which is available from several manufacturers and marketed as UPF 50+. (What SPF ratings are to sunscreens, UPF ratings are to clothing. A UPF rating of 50 blocks 98 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.)
There is also hope for other formulations of chemical sunscreens that do not include ingredients such as oxybenzone, according to the Environmental Working Group.
“Rather than banning additional ingredients,” Burns said, “EWG would like the FDA to focus on approving new sunscreen active ingredients that provide effective broad spectrum protection and are safe for people and the environment.”
She added that for boaters out on the water and in the sun all day, sunscreen should be just one part of the sun-protection plan.
“Whether on land or at sea, proper sun protection should be more than just applying sunscreen,” Burns said. “It is important to include additional measures such as wearing sunglasses, wearing a T-shirt and hat, staying in the shade and avoiding direct midday sun.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue.