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Why Is Hawai’i Banning Sunscreen?

Recent research shows that oxybenzone and octinoxate are detrimental to coral growth and increase the rate of coral bleaching.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #285

Should you go without sunscreen?

So how does my putting on a little sunscreen lead to the destruction of an entire ecosystem? It may not seem like much, for a layer of lotion to rinse off your skin and into the ocean, but an estimated 4 kilograms of mineral nanoparticles are washed into the ocean each day at a single popular tourist spot when added up over all of the visitors.

I remember resisting when my mother insisted on giving me a white nose back in the 90s for extra sun protection. Who knew she was helping protect coral reefs while also embarrassing her children?

So should we skip the sunscreen? According to a report by National Public Radio, oxybenzone and octinoxate are found in more than 3500 of the most popular sunscreen products. That’s between 40 and 70% of the products available for purchase for us beachgoers. But the Hawai’i legistlation, if signed by the governor, does not take effect January 1, 2021, leaving plenty of time for companies to come up with greener alternatives.

Plants, for example, produce their own natural form of sunscreen without the need for these harmful synthetic chemicals. Shinorine is one such natural sunscreen that is produced by cyanobacteria to protect themselves from solar radiation. Shinorine is also already a key active ingredient found in cosmetics that promise SPF protection.

Before more of these biodegradable sunscreens are available, there are some mineral sunscreens, like those with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, that are still safe to use. These sunscreens act more like a physical barrier rather than a chemical one, deflecting UV rays away from your skin instead of absorbing them. These sunscreens tend to be less popular because they leave a white layer on the skin. I remember resisting when my mother insisted on giving me a white nose back in the 90s for extra sun protection. Who knew she was helping protect coral reefs while also embarrassing her children?

Of course, sunscreens are not the only thing threatening coral reefs. Global warming (which warms and acidifies the oceans), overfishing, and pollution like runoff from storm water, agricultural runoff, and untreated sewage also pose huge problems for coral reefs and thus the entire marine ecosystem. But sunscreen usage is something that you and I as individuals can easily manage with our daily choices.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.