Sunscreen has turned into a daily-use product in households across Hawaii. With rising concerns about skin cancer, it’s become a product you apply before you go outdoors, not just to the beach. The problem is the substance in sunscreen that blocks UV rays on humans isn’t so good for our ocean’s coral reefs. In fact, the issue is so pronounced the Hawaii bill SB 1150 aims to ban oxybenzone from sunscreen used at our beaches to protect the ocean and reefs. Caroline Duell, CEO and founder of All Good organic skincare, says this bill is great but is just the beginning of the awareness we need to protect our ocean. Her current visit to Maui is to kickstart a campaign on reef safe sunscreens and how important they are to our ecosystem.
“This trip is really about bringing the community together about understanding sunscreen and the damaging impacts on the reef and helping educate them,” says Duell. “This is really about getting a movement going to get people committed to stopping the use of chemical sunscreens so we can make an impact and also to let people know about the legislation. Essentially to launch our campaign about educating people about the importance of using and creating reef friendly sunscreen. I think it’s really important that this bill passes. In addition, we need to educate the public further on all of the additional issues beyond oxybenzone.”
Oxybenzone was found to be detrimental to reefs in a study released in 2015 but it’s still widely used in sunscreen. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Oxybenzone is a common UV filter in sunscreen. It is a hormone disruptor and allergen. Sampling by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has detected it in the urine of 97 percent of Americans. Despite emerging concerns, the sunscreen industry continues to rely heavily on oxybenzone as an active ingredient: it was in 70 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens we evaluated for this year’s guide.”
Duell says that though the bill is focused on oxybenzone, there are other damaging ingredients as well.
“They want to get something out there that can potentially pass,” says Duell. “Oxybenzone is by far the worst, most insidious offender. I think they wanted to start with just one because it is very known. It’s about tackling the issue one piece at a time. It’s a double-edged sword because we can’t have people thinking we passed this bill and now it’s all fine. There are many other ingredients that are just as damaging. Once we get this bill going I think the awareness will grow on the rest of the ingredients. It will kick off a really good movement. But this is the beginning of it, not the end.”
In fact, All Good identifies eight criteria for reef-safe recognition in their campaign.
“One of the steps that we took was to outline a whole series criteria on what is safe and what is not safe,” says Duell. “There are basically eight chemicals that have been determined to cause damage to reefs. It’s those damaging active ingredients and toxic additives that make it damaging. What is friendly to reefs is basically non-nano zinc oxides. The nanoparticles are just when you take the mineral which is powdered zinc and you literally crush it down to microscopic bits, basically so small that it’s measured in nanometers. The concern for the reef is that nanoparticles are so small they can be digested by the reef. The other problem is they can possibly pass into the skin. Those are the reasons to avoid them.”
Other sunscreen ingredients like Avobenzone, Homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate and octocrylene are of concern. The vitamin A additive retinyl palmitate has been found to cause cancer and EWG reports that it’s still used in 16 percent of the products it surveyed in 2016. All Good also says that additives like paragons, phthalate, triclosan and microbeads are harmful.
So how do we navigate the the compromise between skin protection and reef awareness? The EWG website publishes an annual sunscreen report that rounds up the latest research and concerns. You can find their list of sunscreen concerns, best rated sunscreens and moisturizers with sunscreen at Ewg.org/sunscreen. They also have a useful free app called “Healthy Living” and search base that can give you ratings and concerns on sunscreen that you already have or are planning to buy. It conveniently scans bar codes and gives you a breakdown of the ingredients and their safety ratings.
In great big letters on the EWG’s sunscreen site it says that “sunscreen should be your last resort.” It also recommends bringing your own shade source for time outdoors. A recent National Parks Service brochure about sunscreen also says to cover up with clothing, hats and sunglasses to protect yourself from sunburn. The bottom line for sunscreen is that mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide are recommended because they have not been proven to harm the reefs and ocean life. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe. The EWG says more research is needed on zinc and titanium dioxides.
Spray sunscreens are another concern. While they’re rising in popularity, they pose a risk in the user inhaling damaging chemicals–including reef-safe ingredients like zinc oxide. Scientists just don’t know what happens inside the lung tissue when breathing in those mists of sunscreen.
After taking numerous visits to many different stores to find a reef-safe sunscreen, I was disappointed to learn that there are confusing marketing messages about what exactly is safe. At Costco, the Alba Botanica brand’s Hawaiian Sunscreen packaging says it’s “Earth Friendly, Biodegradable, broad spectrum protection” and it also says it has no oxybenzone or octinoxate and didn’t undergo any animal testing. But reading the ingredients list reveals that it does contain avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene and octyl salicylate–all non-earth friendly ingredients. When you’re selecting sunscreen, read the fine print and make sure the ingredient list contain only safe products. At Target, I found just one brand that offered zinc oxide sunscreen after combing two end-caps of various sunscreen.
In fact, your best bet at finding zinc oxide-based sunscreens are local surf shops and health food stores. At Hawaiian Moons, I found a great selection of zinc-based sunscreens, and even a locally made sunscreen by Maui Natural Organics. Down to Earth is also a good place to check (they’re also hosting sunscreen talks with Caroline Duell). I also found zinc oxide based sunscreens that have been highly rated by EWG at Second Wind, High Tech and Adventure Sports Maui.
All Good will partner with the Hawaii Green Party at a Sunscreen Swap booth at the Haiku Flower Festival this Saturday, April 22 from 9am to 4pm. There, you can exchange your bad sunscreen for an All Good mineral-based sunscreen at no charge.
For more info and research on reef safe sunscreens:
National park service sunscreen guidelines.