Colorful coral reef found near the surface of the ocean is common, but to find it at greater depths is rare. Colorful coral reef found near the surface of the ocean is common, but to find it at greater depths is rare. Colorful coral reef found near the surface of the ocean is common, but to find it at greater depths is rare. (Photo: Volodymyr Goinyk/Shutterstock)

Hawaii bans some sunscreen to protect coral reefs

The ban is the first in the U.S. and comes after extensive research on the effect of oxybenzone on the fragile reef ecosystem.

Using sunscreen, though safe for us humans, comes at too great a cost for the vast coral reef ecosystem below the surface of our waters. That was the conclusion of an unprecedented ban in Hawaii on the sale of sunscreens containing two chemicals – oxybenzone and octinoxate – that are known to harm coral reefs.

Climate change is posing a serious threat to the ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef. Clownfish swim through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: William West/AFP/Getty Images)

The Hawaii state legislature passed the ban earlier this month, making it the first U.S. state to do so. The European Union is working on passing similar legislation.

Conclusions leading to the ban are based on a large-scale study involving researchers from Israel and the United States.

"We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean," said Craig Downs, lead scientist of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia. "Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment."

The study is the work of an international team of marine scientists from many institutions including the U.S. National Aquarium, Tel Aviv University in Israel, the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

After studying samples from coral reefs off the coasts of Eilat, Israel, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the researchers discovered a toxic link between reef damage and oxybenzone. The chemical was found in the highest concentrations in coral reefs that were the most popular with tourists.

Tourists enjoy Makena Beach in a sunny day in Maui, Hawaii. Tourists enjoy Makena Beach on a sunny day in Maui, Hawaii. (Photo: Eddy Galeotti / Shutterstock)

There are a number of sunscreens available that have already dropped oxybenzone in favor of non-toxic, natural alternatives. You can check out our list of sun protection products that do not contain oxybenzone.

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Hawaii bans some sunscreen to protect coral reefs
The ban is the first in the U.S. and comes after extensive research on the effect of oxybenzone on the fragile reef ecosystem.