Before you start packing for your next fun-in-the-sun vacation, you should double-check the labels on your sunscreen. Last month, State of Hawaii legislators passed a bill banning the sale and use of any sunscreen that contains oxybenzone and octinoxate—chemicals that are believed to contribute to coral reef damage. Soon after, the Caribbean island of Bonaire followed suit.
If you’re planning to travel to either of these tropical destinations soon, the new rules won’t go into effect until January 2021. However, that doesn’t mean you have to wait to switch your sunscreens to safer. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from the sun while also protecting the environment.
Under the Sea
Coral reefs are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems, supporting 25% of life under the sea. In 2015, a team of scientists studying coral in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands found that an active ingredient in sunscreen called oxybenzone prevents coral reproduction and causes coral bleaching—which induces starvation and oftentimes death. According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy and education organization, oxybenzone can be found in almost 80% of sunscreens and sun-protective skincare products currently on the market.
Furthermore, a study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found that it only takes one drop of sunscreen containing oxybenzone to damage an ocean area the size of six and a half Olympic swimming pools. And each year, an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the oceans via swimmers, snorkelers and shower drains.
Slather On This, Not That
Here’s where you, as a traveler, come in. The study also determined that oxybenzone damage is mostly concentrated in heavily-touristed areas. By switching out your chemical sunscreens in favor of non-toxic, mineral sunblocks you can play a role in helping to protect coral reefs.
Haven’t heard of mineral sunblock? Mineral sunblock typically contains the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. While both minerals are safe, you can also choose to use products that only contain non-nano zinc oxide, as it is considered safest for both coral and humans. Mineral sunblock sits on top of your skin to protect it from harmful rays. Unlike other sunscreens that absorb into your skin and disappear, mineral sunblocks will leave a white sheen on your skin—which is a good thing! It’s working for as long as you can see it.
Reef-safe mineral sunscreens are available from a variety of brands, including Raw Elements USA, Stream2Sea, Mama Kuleana, Little Hands Hawaii, Manda, Kokua Sun Care, Loving Naturals, Raw Love, and All Good. You can read more about mineral sunscreens and where to buy them on Hawaii’s Safe Sunscreen Coalition website.
Who’s Leading the Charge?
To date, Hawaii and Bonaire have announced bans on the sale of reef-damaging sunscreen ingredients starting in 2021. Sunscreens containing the two reef-damaging chemicals have also been banned in some parts of Mexico; Xel-Ha Park, Cozumel’s Marine Park, Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park and Xcaret Park have all banned any sunscreen that is not biodegradable.
In response to the ban, many Hawaiian resorts and hotels are readying their properties in environmentally-friendly ways. Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which operates more than three dozen hotels in Hawaii, has installed reef-safe sunscreen dispensers at three of their properties, with plans to expand that number in the near term. An additional 25 Aqua-Aston hotels have partnered with reef-safe sunscreen makers to distribute samples and sell full-sized bottles on-site. The Hyatt Centric Waikiki provides samples of Little Hands sunblock to guests upon check-in, and the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa has partnered with Raw Elements USA to install pump dispensers filled with their reef-safe sunscreen across the resort.
On Bonaire, your best bet is to buy local. That is, plan to purchase your eco-friendly sunscreen on-island. Doing so not only supports the local economy, it ensures you’re buying the safest products from islanders who love their reefs as much as you do.
All that’s left to do is pack (or plan to purchase) your reef-friendly sunscreen.
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