On May 3, legislators in the State of Hawaii made history when it passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate—chemicals believed to contribute to coral-reef damage. The ban—which restricts the distribution but not the use of offending sunscreens—affects close to 80 percent of sun-protection products on the market, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy and education organzation. The new rules won’t go into effect until January 2021, but that’s not stopping makers of toxin-free alternatives to mainstream sunscreens—and beachfront hotels eager to partner with them—from basking in the feel-good moment.
On Monday, the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa on Kaanapali Beach announced a partnership with Miami-based Raw Elements USA that will see the resort-wide installation of pump dispensers filled with reef-safe sunscreen. Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which operates some three dozen hotels in Hawaii, already uses the dispensers at three properties, with four more hotels getting them soon. And some 25 Aqua-Aston hotels, working with a growing roster of reef-safe sunscreen makers—including Stream 2 Sea, Little Hands Hawaii, and All Good—are distributing samples and selling (or including as amenities for fancier rooms) full-sized bottles.
At least one major resort, Maui’s Kaanapali Beach Hotel, has banned aerosol spray-on sunscreens, which pose inhalation risks and environmental contamination that starts well before you hop into the water. And back in April, Hawaiian Airlines debuted on inbound flights a mini-documentary called Reefs at Risk, and distributed to passengers samples of Raw Elements sunscreen and offered purchase discounts on full-size bottles.
“Oxybenzone has toxic effects on young coral that causes endocrine disruption, DNA damage, and death,” says Barbara Roll, the senior marketing VP for Derma E, another maker of natural skin care products. “Swimmers who have been told to protect their skin in the oceans with sunscreen are often unaware that these chemicals run off into the waters and may lead to this damage.”
And ditching sunscreens that contain the banned chemicals—a list that includes popular products from Panama Jack, Neutrogena, and Banana Boat, among others—may have benefits beyond the beach. Oxybenzone has been linked to early puberty in girls, male infertility, and hormone-related cancers in men and women. It also heightens the risk of serious skin reactions. (The American Contact Dermatitis Society named it the Allergen of the Year in 2014.)
But despite the danger associated with using the wrong sunscreen, the danger of avoiding sunscreen is significant. Cancer experts are concerned that a ban on mainstream products will thwart sun-seekers from applying any sort of sun protection, which may lead to a jump in skin-cancer cases.
Saving the reefs is great; being around to enjoy them is even better.