Hawaiʻi made worldwide news in May of 2018 when it passed the nation’s first law banning the sale of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common sunscreen ingredients that have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment. Since the law went into effect January of 2021, you might be wondering what this means when you visit Maui and how hard it is to find reef safe sunscreen on island.
The good news is, there are plenty of reef safe sunscreens and we are going to help you identify the best ones and where to get them. However, there are a few that are labeled reef friendly that aren’t. Unfortunately the term “reef friendly” is not regulated, so you can’t always trust products with this description. Also many stores still carry products with banned ingredients. We’ll help you figure out how to easily make good choices.
But first, we’d like to share a little more about why reef safe products are important, so you can join our community in protecting the marine environment.
Helping corals and the marine environment
The Hawaiian islands are home to a very special network of deep coral reefs containing the most abundant collection of endemic species found in any region of the world. We need to ensure that these critical areas are protected from harmful chemicals.
Scientific testing shows that oxybenzone and octinoxate may stunt the growth of baby corals. Oxybenzone can also cause coral bleaching, a phenonmenon that happens when beneficial algae vacates a coral, leaving it a white color. If conditions don’t improve and the algae doesn’t return, the coral dies. Warming seas due to climate change are also a factor in coral bleaching.
When you apply sunscreen with these chemicals and then swim or snorkel, sunscreen washes off your body and contaminates the reef ecosystem. Sunscreen pollution is especially problematic in popular snorkeling locations, where sunscreen is washing off dozens or possibly hundreds of people each and every day.
Thousands of marine animals depend on coral reefs for survival, including sea turtles, fish, crabs, shrimp, jellyfish, sea birds, starfish, and more. Coral reefs provide shelter, spawning grounds, and protection from predators. They also support organisms at the base of ocean food chains. As reef ecosystems collapse, already at-risk species may face extinction.
How do I know if a sunscreen is “reef friendly”?
Unfortunately the term “reef friendly” is not regulated, so you can’t always trust products with this description. Here are three ways to ensure you protecting the reef.
Look for products already identified as reef safe. Here are two handy visual charts to guide you:
These are GOOD choices:
These are BAD choices with toxic ingredients
It’s always good to use products that cut back on single use plastic packaging, either by using containers that are reusable, have high recycled content or are made out of biodegradable plant-based materials like cardboard.
2. Read Labels
Another way to make sure you are getting reef safe sunscreen is to actually check the “active ingredients” label on the back of your sunscreen or personal care product to ensure that reef-harming chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate are not included. More toxic chemicals are on the chopping block too- Hawaii’s Senate passed a second bill in March 2021 that would add two additional petrochemicals, avobenzone and octocrylene, to the ban. If it becomes law, this new ban would go into effect on January 1, 2023.
In case you were wondering, these chemicals are not healthy for humans either, and are in many other products. Read the ingredients of your skin care collection. Moisturizers, face creams, lip balms and even some shampoos offering “SPF protection” probably contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. If you like to put leave in conditioner on your hair after diving or snorkeling, wait until you are done in the ocean.
The size of minerals can also have an impact. Be sure to use micro-sized (or non-nano) mineral sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles, as these smaller particles can be toxic in high concentrations. It’s also advised to stick with lotions and avoid spray or misting sunscreens, especially those that contain titanium dioxide as it can be harmful to your health if inhaled.
Reef safe zinc oxide and titanium dioxide physically block the sun, they work as soon as you apply them and are water resistant.
Helpful hint: Text on skin care labeling tend to be really small. Snap a pic of the ingredients label with your cell phone so you can zoom in and actually read what you are buying.
3. Wear protective clothing
Reduce your need for sunscreen by covering up with a hat, rash guard, beach umbrella and maybe even swim tights made with stretchy, quick dry fabric. Look for UPF labeled clothing designed to block UV rays and UPF 50+ sun protection.
You can further help protect Maui’s reefs by making a donation to Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. A $100 donation will land you a wonderful rash guard that also shows you care about protecting the ocean.
More companies are coming out with a full line of clothing to protect skin from sun. Coolibar is one that has a sporty UPF fashion line for the whole family. Sunprotective clothing is light and comfortable. Not only does covering up prevent use of potentially toxic skin care products, fabrics also help prevent skin cancer.
Where to buy reef safe sunscreen on Maui
Generally, a snorkel, dive or windsurfing shop (there are many on Maui) is a good place to start. These watersport businesses tend to be more environmentally aware. You can find some of the recommended reef safe sunscreens at big box stores on island such as Walmart and Target, but you will just have to sort through more unsafe versions. Organic grocers are another option- Whole Foods and Down to Earth are both in Kahului near the airport.
Help spread the word about sunscreen
Remember that even if you are miles away from the ocean, chemicals can harm ecosystems in nearby streams and lakes. Chemicals washed off your body in your shower or bath will eventually find their way to the sea. When you’re home, do a good turn for coral reefs everywhere by avoiding all body care products with oxybenzone and octinoxate.