Most sunscreens may soon be banned in Hawaii because coral reefs are dying

Ashley May
Beach-goers apply sunscreen
Getty Images

Hawaii could become the first state to ban sunscreens with chemicals that may harm the environment. So maybe pack a sunhat and long sleeves for that trip to Waikiki.

State lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday banning sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals believed to cause harm to marine life and coral reefs. Those are active ingredients in a host of popular sunscreens, including top-rated brands.

The bill, introduced by Democratic Sen. Mike Gabbard, would prohibit the sale and distribution of sunscreen with those chemicals on the island "without prescription from a licensed healthcare provider."

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"Amazingly, this is a first-in-the-world law," Gabbard, who introduced the bill, 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. This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health."

The bill would go into effect January 1, 2021 if signed by Democratic Gov. David Ige.

Critics of the bill question studies linking the chemicals to coral reef decay and say banning sunscreen could discourage people from wearing skin protection altogether, increasing skin cancer cases. Henry Lim, immediate past-president of the American Academy of Dermatology Association, told USA TODAY this could "create significant confusion" about why wearing sunscreen is important. Plus, there aren't many effective sunscreen options on the market without these chemicals,he said.

"It is quite difficult to make good sunscreens that do not contain these chemicals based on the currently approved sunscreen active ingredients list in the U.S.," Lim said.

At least one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their life, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

The only way to know if a sunscreen doesn't contain oxybenzone and octinoxate is to check the label. The non-profit Environmental Working Group, which ranks sunscreen brands based on effectiveness and chemical composition, reports zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens are usually most environmentally friendly. There are also some organic options.

The bill comes at a time when coral reefs are struggling to thrive worldwide. Acidic oceans — caused by climate change — will severely harm coral reef growth over the next few decades if carbon dioxide emissions continue unchecked, according to a report published in Nature. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science earlier this year showed the frequency of severe coral bleaching events has increased nearly fivefold in the past four decades, from once every 25 to 30 years in the early 1980s to once every six years in 2016.