Your sunscreen probably kills baby corals. Hawaii is about to do something about it

Got oxybenzone?
Got oxybenzone?
Image: AP Photo/John Amis
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It’s become clear that sunscreen is yet another modern invention that benefits humans while simultaneously wreaking havoc on the delicate balance of a part of the natural world. In this case, the casualty is coral reefs.

Oxybenzone is the main active ingredient in most sunscreens, and it is lethal to baby coral. Now Hawaii, the tropical US state that has a lot of both coral and sunscreen-slathered tourists, is taking the unprecedented step of banning the chemical, along with octinoxate, another common sunscreen ingredient. The legislative move would outlaw the over-the-counter sale of more than 3,500 sun blocking products currently available in stores.

The state legislature passed the ban in May, and David Ige, the governor of Hawaii, is expected to sign it into law this week. The ban won’t take effect until January 1, 2021. After that, Hawaii residents and visitors would only be able to buy sunscreen with oxybenzone or octinoxate with a prescription from their doctor.

There are plenty of sunscreens that don’t contain either oxybenzone or octinoxate—but not this one.
There are plenty of sunscreens that don’t contain either oxybenzone or octinoxate—but not this one.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Roughly one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs died off in the past three years. As Vox points out, climate change is still the main reason coral reefs are dying off at such an alarming pace. But water pollution—including the roughly 14,000 tons of sunscreen that slip off swimmers’ skin and onto coral reef areas each year—is pushing coral’s already-weakened systems over the edge.

In 2015, a team of scientists found that the oxybenzone acted like a hormone disruptor to baby coral, and damaged their DNA. “It causes weird deformities in soft tissue and also causes the coral larvae to encase itself in its own skeleton, in its own coffin,” Craig Downs, the director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and one of the authors of the 2015 study, told the Guardian at the time.

While sunscreen industry groups have voiced their contempt for Hawaii’s bill, there are other ways to prevent sun damage and skin cancer. A range of mineral-based (titanium dioxide or zinc oxide), US Food and Drug Administration-approved sunscreens are widely available. Plus, there are plenty of chemical sunscreens that don’t contain either oxybenzone or octinoxate.