Oahu’s iconic Waikiki Beach is famous for its cityscape backdrop, endless patchwork of towels and umbrellas, turquoise-blue party waves full of surfers, and the signature scent of sunscreen, slathered in thick layers on thousands of sunbathers.

By 2021, Waikiki will also be famous for being one of the first beaches in the United States to ban the distribution of over 3,500 of those popular sunscreen products. The reason? Our SPF habits are killing Hawaii’s treasured coral.

The pale and white-edged corals here are in the process of bleaching, or dying. The difference between those and the vibrant, thriving corals is clear at a glance.
What to know about oxybenzone

The culprit isn’t actually sunscreen itself—it’s an active ingredient called oxybenzone (or BP-3). The FDA-approved, UVA and UVB ray-absorbing chemical has been commonly found in sunscreen and skincare products for over 40 years, so why the sudden alarm?

In 2015, a team of scientists studying seven types of coral in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel found that oxybenzone induces coral bleaching (which ends in certain death for the marine invertebrate), prevents coral from reproducing, and is a photo-toxicant: The chemical’s effects are intensified when it is coupled with sunlight. Oxybenzone is not just harmful to reefs—other studies have linked it to breast cancer and deformities in newborns.

The study, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, found that it only takes one drop of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen to damage an ocean area the size of six-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools; an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen enters the oceans each year on swimmers and snorkelers and through shower drains.

     

Coral reefs are among the world’s most diverse underwater ecosystems, housing 25 percent of the ocean’s life and providing a cumulative $3.4 billion in food, jobs, tourism, and shoreline protection annually just in the United States alone, according to NOAA. The fragile ecosystems have been up against a lot lately, and these recent grim findings might sound like the final nail in the coffin. But there is hope: The study also determined that oxybenzone damage is mostly concentrated in heavily-touristed areas, so by forgoing chemical sunscreens in favor of nontoxic mineral sunblocks, travelers could play a major role in helping to save the coral reefs.

How to pick your new sunscreen

When it comes to buying a new bottle of ocean-approved sunscreen at any supermarket or drugstore, Dr. John Fauth, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Central Florida and a researcher in the 2015 study, says to look for mineral sunblocks that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in non-nano form, which is considered safest for both coral and human. He also suggests buying sunscreens from your destination to help boost local economies and encourage the protection of local resources.

“Sunscreen also should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes limiting exposure to the sun’s harmful rays by staying in the shade and wearing loose-fitting, comfortable clothing on land (broad-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts and pants) and dive skins or rash guards while enjoying the water,” says Fauth. “People can look stylish and still enjoy and protect our natural wonders!”

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Because mineral sunblocks sit on top of your skin to protect it from harmful rays, they’re generally a little more viscous and leave a slight white luster (it’s a good thing—that’s how you know it’s working). But if you want to test a few brands before investing in a bottle, order a sampler box from Hawaii’s Safe Sunscreen Coalition, which is filled with samples from five different sunblock makers, including Manda, Florida-based Raw Elements USA, and Little Hands Hawaii.

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai in New York, also stresses the importance of wearing UV-reflecting sunblock not just at the beach but every day as well. Like Fauth, he says to look for labels that list zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients; he notes that a product solely containing zinc oxide, like Neutrogena’s Sheer Zinc Lotion SPF 30, might be better for daily use.

“While both are safe, some people may feel more comfortable using products that only contain zinc oxide, as zinc is a natural mineral found in the body,” Zeichner explains.

Where you’ll see changes now

Both Hawaii and Bonaire—which see 8.9 million and 150,000 annual visitors, respectively—have already announced plans to outlaw the sale of reef-damaging sunscreen ingredients by 2021, sparking a worldwide awareness movement and pressuring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to enact a nationwide ban on harmful SPF chemicals.

There is concern that, because sunscreens containing oxybenzone make up about 70 percent of the sunscreen market today, such a ban would cause beachgoers to stop protecting their skin. But members of the tourism industry around the globe—from small tour operators to hotels to airlines—are making moves to spread awareness and increase the availability of reef-safe alternatives. By installing pump dispensers, giving out sunscreen samples, and encouraging trade-ins, businesses are working to ensure that travelers don’t abandon their sunscreen rituals—or their tropical travel plans.

Earlier this year, snorkeling tour operator Daytripper Catamaran Charters in Placencia, Belize, installed pump dispensers filled with mineral sunblock from Raw Elements on its fleet after one of the boat captains noticed a sheen left behind on the water after snorkeling tours.

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“When [there were] a lot of people around the boat, you could see that the ripples of water behind the boat were slick—whatever was in those products was sitting there on top of the water,” says owner Jeff Scott. “We’re not seeing that anymore.”

Raw Elements’ pump dispensers are also already in place at many Aqua Aston Hospitality hotels in Hawaii, where guests receive complimentary eco-amenity kits with sunscreen samples from Little Hands Hawaii and an expanding number of other reef-safe brands like All Good and Stream 2 Sea. The Hyatt Centric Waikiki provides one-ounce samples of Little Hands’s seven-ingredient zinc oxide sunblock to guests upon check-in.

Little Hands is part of a sunscreen trade-in project spearheaded by Hawaii’s Safe Sunscreen Coalition: If you’re visiting the island and looking to swap out your Coppertone or Banana Boat, Little Hands will happily take it off your hands and offer you a discount on your new reef-safe purchase.

Little Hands Hawaii offers a discount on its sunscreens to customers who trade in chemical sunscreens.
“From our perspective, every trade-in we get, we are giving back to our oceans that give us life,” says Michael Koenigs, cofounder of Little Hands Hawaii. “It’s a great incentive for the customer to make the change from a toxic product to a product that is not only safe for our oceans, but for our [bodies] as well.”

Travelers to Mexico’s Maya Riviera will notice similar regulations and initiatives in place at Xel-Ha, an ecological water park near Playa del Carmen that features cenotes, lagoons, and a coral regrowth program. Guests are encouraged to come armed with their own zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sunscreens or to swap their sunscreen with a free sample of the park’s biodegradable sunscreen for the day.

Even major retailers are jumping onboard: REI promises that within the next two years, any sunscreen stocked on the shelves of one of the outdoor adventure brand’s 154 U.S. stores will be free of reef-harming chemicals.
Snorkelers tread water above coral off the Florida Keys.

Chemical sunscreen isn’t the only thing damaging coral reefs, but it is a cause that travelers—and the tourism industry—have the most power to change. Giving the reefs a greater chance of survival is as easy as reaching for a different bottle in the sunscreen section.

>>Next: How the UNESCO of Surf Is Saving the Planet—One Beach at a Time