Why is Hawaii banning sunscreens? A guide to ocean-safe sun protection

Hawaii is the first state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate—chemicals that harm coral reefs. Pending approval by governor David Ige, the law will go into effect January 1, 2021.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are found in almost every mainstream sunscreen product, from Banana Boat to Coppertone. These ingredients, along with others like octisalate and homosalate, are called chemical absorbers. They work by converting UV rays from the sun into heat, which then dissipates from the skin.

Chemical absorbers are a popular ingredient in most commercial sunscreens because they tend to feel lighter and look more transparent on the skin than physical sunscreens, which use minerals to reflect UV rays away from the skin.


Many commercial sunscreens contain chemical absorbers that are toxic to corals, like the banned compounds oxybenzone and octinoxate. Photo by Ellen Johnson.

Chemical sunscreens wash off swimmers and beachgoers into the water, contaminating coral reefs. According to the bill passed in Hawaii, chemical sunscreens are pervasive throughout popular beaches and reef areas, including Hanauma Bay and Waikiki Beach in Oahu and Honolua Bay in Maui.

Waikiki aerial

Waikiki Beach, like many of Hawaii’s popular beaches, is contaminated with chemicals from sunscreen. Photo by Edmund Garman.

Research has shown that chemical sunscreens are harmful to corals even in small amounts. A 2015 study showed that oxybenzone is toxic to corals at levels as low as 62 parts per trillion – which amounts to one drop of oxybenzone in six-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools of water.

A 2008 study found that sunscreens cause coral bleaching by promoting viral infections in the corals’ symbiotic algae. The authors concluded that sunscreens may play an important role in coral bleaching in areas with high recreational use.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that oxybenzone causes DNA damage, deformities, hormone disruption, and greater risk of coral bleaching in baby corals.

Of course, sunscreens are far from the only threat to coral reefs—corals are declining globally due to ocean warming, ocean acidification, pollution from agriculture, and overfishing, just to name a few. But fortunately, sunscreen is one pollutant that we as individual visitors to beaches and coral reefs can control. Toxic sunscreens are already prohibited in several marine parks and resorts in Mexico, including Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park in Los Cabos and Xel-Há on the Riviera Maya.

Reducing the use of chemical sunscreens will help protect corals from their toxic effects and enhance the resiliency of coral reefs to bleaching and climate change.

So what should you use instead of chemical sunscreens? If scuba diving, snorkeling, or surfing, consider skipping sunscreen altogether and covering up with a wetsuit or rash guard instead. On the beach, wear a cover-up, hat, and sunglasses. The more skin you can shade from the sun, the less sunscreen you need to use.

When choosing sunscreen, look for the words “mineral” or “reef-safe.” Mineral sunscreens, also known as physical blockers, contain the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which form a protective barrier on top of the skin that reflects UV rays. Check the label to be sure the active ingredients are the physical blockers titanium dioxide and zinc oxide instead of chemical absorbers, especially oxybenzone and octinoxate. Here are some natural and cruelty-free options for the face:

(Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning CurrentSea will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase, at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting CurrentSea!)

And body:

Don’t forget your lips!

Since mineral sunscreens sit on top of the skin instead of being absorbed, they are less likely to clog pores and irritate skin, so they are ideal for sensitive and acne-prone skin types. However, one downside of physical sunscreens is that the high mineral content means they tend to be thicker and leave a slight white cast, which may not work for people with medium to dark skin tones. If you don’t like the look of regular mineral sunscreen on your skin, try tinted or translucent formulas, like these, for the face:

And body:

Mineral sunscreens may take some getting used to if you are switching from chemical sunscreens, but it’s worth it to save coral reefs!

Do you plan on making the switch? If you already use mineral sunscreen, which is your favorite?


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