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Hanauma Bay photo by Bruce Warrington

Apr 22, 2019

Earth Day: Don’t Torch the Reef

It’s a beautiful morning at O‘ahu’s popular snorkel and dive locale, Hanauma Bay. The sun is out, the trade winds are light, and billowy white clouds dissipate before they reach the coastline. People from all over the world have staked out towel-sized rectangles on the sand and are enjoying one of O‘ahu’s most scenic stretches of coastline. Most of the beachgoers are appropriately wearing a coat of sunscreen to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays. And while those wearing a common type of sunscreen are indeed shielding themselves from the UV, they’re also inadvertently contributing to an environmentally devastating activity known as coral bleaching.  

It’s estimated that nearly 2,600 people visit Hanauma Bay daily, most layered in a coat of  sunscreen of that sunscreen washes off and dissipates into the water, leaving high concentrations of dangerous chemicals that have been scientifically found to be harmful to coral reefs and the fish that live in our fragile marine ecosystems. Overall, it’s estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen enters the world’s marine waters every year. 

Hanauma Bay photo by Michael Olsen

The good news is that wouldn’t be a big deal if sunscreens contained non-toxic ingredients; however, most sunscreens on the market today contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, among many others like PABA and parabens. These chemicals help filter UV rays to protect your skin, but in high concentrations have been proven to be toxic to certain types of coral. In fact, studies have shown that in coral reef ecosystem, oxybenzone and octinoxate disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae, damaging coral DNA, and causing coral bleaching. From a holistic level, coral reefs act as a nursery and feeding ground for hundreds of marine species and coral bleaching prevents the reef from playing this critical role, leading to the slow decline of nearshore marine ecosystems. 

With 1,052 miles of coastline and over nine million visitors each year taking to Hawai‘i’s beaches, the cumulative effects of these chemicals seem to play out as visible as coral bleaching proves more widespread than ever. To stop this alarming trend, the Governor of Hawai‘i signed a bill in 2018 banning the sale or distribution of over-the-counter sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate—the first of its kind in the world. The law is set to take effect January 1, 2021.  

Hawai‘i’s sunscreen ban has been applauded by local communities and environmental group, and has been adopted by other island regions like Key West, Florida, and Aruba. There is even a proposed federal ban on harmful sunscreens in all U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries containing coral reefs.  

Hanauma Bay photo by Channey

So, what sunscreens are safe for coral reefs and you? Look for non-toxic, mineral-based sunscreens containing natural elements like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that offer different mechanisms of sun protection. At Salvage Public, located in South Shore Market, you’ll find that they’ve taken a progressive approach to supporting the planet and saving the reef. “We’ve been working on being a more sustainable brand in the textiles that we products that we carry like reef-safe sunscreens,” says Joe Serrao, one of the brand’s founders. “Being avid ocean-goers, we want to ensure that we’re taking action towards protecting the reefs we love so much.”  

Find reef-friendly sunscreen at these Ward Village shops: 

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