Save Your Skin — and Maui’s Sea Life

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Story by Savy Janssen

reef safe sunscreen info graphic

Clear blue water, white-sand beaches, delicate corals and a rainbow of fish — Maui’s waters offer a wealth of natural treasures. The ocean is free for all to enjoy, but it pays a high price when we humans disrupt its fragile ecosystem.

The National Park Service estimates that 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral-reef systems around the world each year, and common ingredients such as octinoxate, octocrylene and oxybenzone wreak havoc on marine life. During manufacturing, these chemicals are broken into nanoparticles that make the sunscreen easier to apply without coating the skin with a layer of white grease. But these nanoparticles also do the most damage. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fish, sea urchins, dolphins and other animals exposed to these chemicals experience reproductive issues, mutations, brain damage and other life-threatening problems. Coral polyps are animals, too, and nanoparticles that accumulate on their surfaces damage their DNA and exoskeleton, and inhibit their growth. The particles also react with sunlight, creating hydrogen peroxide, which then bleaches the coral and causes it to reject its symbiotic phytoplankton, the microscopic algae that live on the coral’s tissues and serve as a vital source of nutrition. Bleached coral is vulnerable to infection, and has a lower chance of recovery or survival. 

Coral reefs protect our coastline, breaking the impact of waves and helping prevent erosion while also allowing the intertidal animals and plants to survive. Fortunately, Hawai‘i is taking steps to protect these important ecosystems: In 2018, the state banned sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and beginning on October 1, 2022, a new ordinance will ban the sale, distribution and use of non-mineral sunscreens in Maui County waters.

Putting a ban in place will call attention to this sensitive issue, but we still have to do our part. First, beware of false claims: The terms “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” are not regulated, so read the list of ingredients carefully before purchasing a product. Second, avoid products containing dangerous chemicals, and purchase those with ingredients such as non-nano zinc oxide, non-nano titanium oxide and beeswax. Local brands like Kokua and Raw Love Sunscreen are great options, as are Raw Elements, Olita, 365 Everyday Value and Hawaiian Sol.

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