Because my family has tested over 120 natural sunscreens to find the very best ones, and I’m known as the “Wikipedia of sunscreen,” I tend to get a little passionate when sunscreen hits the news.
In this case, a very GOOD thing finally became reality that I believe may help more people embrace zinc oxide sunscreens (will they step away from the sprays?).
The beautiful state of Hawaii, following research from Dr. Craig Downs and Haereticus Labs in 2013 and 2015, began discussion about banning two ingredients toxic to coral reefs as far back as 2017.1, 2
Oxybenzone and octinoxate both cause coral bleaching and result in the death of coral reefs, predicted to decline by a whopping 70-90% by the year 2040.
Not all scientists agree on the root causes of coral bleaching and die-off, and certainly, it’s a combination of many factors including water temperature, natural disaster, and pollution, but Dr. Downs and his lab clearly proved that these two chemicals, prevalent in most conventional petrochemical sunscreens as active UVB blocking ingredients, have a devastating effect on coral.
Thankfully, Hawaiian lawmakers listened to the data, understood to consequences to coral reefs, and knew that there are other, safer options to use for human sun protection that wouldn’t harm the delicate ocean ecosystem.
To me, it’s an easy choice, a clear step in the right direction even though there are other factors to consider. Remove one killer at a time, but remove them as soon as possible!
However, when the bill was up for discussion, the opposition was fierce.
Logic and caution prevailed, and that bill became law on January 1, 2021, “prohibiting the sale, offer of sale, and distribution of sunscreens that contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate in Hawai‘i.”
Let’s dig into what this all means for Hawaii, the sunscreen industry, and the future of ocean-protecting legislation.
Why Ban Oxybenzone and Octinoxate in Sunscreens – Especially in Hawaii?
The effort is to save the coral reefs from the danger of oxybenzone and octinoxate, very popular active ingredients in many sunscreens and washes off swimmers’ bodies into the ocean. Both have been shown to be toxic to marine life and cause coral bleaching.
Levels of oxybenzone in Hawaii reach up to nearly 3,000 times the toxic limit, which experts say could completely kill reefs in 10-15 years.
I’ve been talking about this since 2017 when I got to interview a sunscreen guru and formulator who’s been in the business since the 1980s, back when the most popular sunscreen was SPF 4 and was intended to INCREASE your tan! My, how times have changed.
The bill was also mentioned here in a great video interview with a Harvard-trained dermatologist working on how we can protect our skin from the sun through what we eat, and I was asked to visit our local Fox Morning News to explain what was going on in 2018, just before Governor David Ige signed the bill into law on July 3 of that year:
Can’t see the video? Watch the interview here on YouTube.
I’m of the opinion that alllll chemical sunscreen ingredients should be banned everywhere, but I’ll take what I can get, and I’m so thrilled that nothing happened to kill this bill before it was signed into law and took effect.
Here’s why these two deserve to be ditched:
Conventional Sunscreen Ingredients Hurt People
- They’re endocrine disruptors, which means they affect our hormones.3 We hear statistics about things like sperm counts being 50% less over the last forty years, and many people are sure that endocrine disruptors in our environment are to blame. Oxybenzone in particular is pegged for lowering testosterone. If you are avoiding BPA or phthalates, you should be avoiding chemical sunscreen for sure.
- They release cancer-causing free radicals in your skin after 2 hours in the sun – which is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do to prevent skin cancer by not burning!
- Oxybenzone is found in the blood of 97% of Americans – this isn’t just Hawaii’s problem. See below for stats on this!!
- Octinoxate has an additional concern – that it may increase the permeability of our skin, which could further enhance the damage of any and all chemicals in the sunscreen you’re using!
- More on both of those points in this in-depth interview with a Stanford-trained biochemist who formulated a super-safe brand of sunscreen
Conventional Sunscreen Ingredients Hurt the Oceans
- 14,000 tons of sunscreen gets into coral reefs each year
- Hawaii and US Virgin Islands have some of the highest concentrations
- Half the Great Barrier Reef has died off in 2016-2018 alone #terrifying
- The coral bleaching is a massive concern to the ocean’s ecosystem – and so easily stopped, just by switching out our sunscreen! Read more about exactly HOW oxybenzone harms coral here.
No one is asking people to stop wearing sunscreen. No one is saying we should embrace skin cancer, sacrificing ourselves to save the oceans. Ludicrous. But some nay-sayers sure made it sound like that’s the only alternative to these two chemicals in sunscreens…
2021 Research: Sunscreen Chemicals Absorb Into Our Bloodstreams
This year, sunscreen has hit the news in a few ways, none of them good.
This research funded by the FDA and published in April, 2020 in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, found some alarming statistics.4, 5
The study looked at plasma (blood) concentration of four sunscreen ingredients after various amounts of application on human subjects. The FDA approved absorption amount for each is 0.5 ng/mL, and after just a single application of sunscreen in various forms (spray, cream, etc) the concentrations averaged as follows:
- Avobenzone 4.35 ng/mL
- Oxybenzone 219.1 ng/mL (no, I did not put a decimal in the wrong place on that figure)
- Octocrylene 7 ng/mL
- Homosalate 18.3 ng/mL
- Octisalate 5.16 ng/mL
- Octinoxate 6.55 ng/mL
Let’s keep in mind that the study was really looking at how much of these substances got into human blood over time, over multiple applications, and then BOOM. On the first application, look at those numbers!
I’ll reiterate that the “safe” level is 0.5 ng/mL, which means that these chemical ingredients, which are NEVER found alone in a sunscreen but usually 3-6 of them hanging out together, hit the bloodstream at 9-400+ times the acceptable level after just one hour at the pool.
Hawaii did a great thing banning two of these, but we all need to run far, far away from every single one! The study authors conclude that there is a safety issue here, but that “These findings do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen.”
True. But they sure DO indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of chemical sunscreen!
And if all that wasn’t enough, New Zealand was in the news recently because an American lab has been defrauding sunscreen companies for decades, giving SPF results but not testing the formulas. False lab reports may have caused an unknown number of people to think they were protected from the sun, only to be deceived, and possibly suffering from melanoma in spite of trying to do the right thing.6
Will Hawaii Start a Trend in Non-Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients?
I hope so!
There’s legislation already in Palau, Key West, and Bonaire, Venezuela that is following Hawaii’s lead. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of more movement on this issue for a while, which may be because the global consciousness is pretty focused on a virus. But the sun keeps shining, and the humans keep using sunscreen…
What’s good for the coral reefs is of course good for the entire ocean ecosystem, which means humans are served too. Think about all the jobs created in the ocean, the food we catch, and the balance of the ocean ecosystem and the land.
But it’s even more than that.
Because these chemicals (and others, keep reading) are also innately dangerous to humans, even to our reproduction as a species, this is not something to be taken lightly.
We must remove these ingredients from sunscreen, not only in Hawaii but everywhere. Not only in ocean locations with coral reefs, but even in the Midwest. Runoff from 37 US states heads straight into the Gulf of Mexico, so this isn’t just a coastal problem!
Anytime you have a chance to support legislation against toxic sunscreen ingredients, please support it, and spread the word person-to-person as well.
We can learn about what we need to do to eradicate these chemicals from the world if we look at how it went down in Hawaii.
Who was Against the Ban on Sunscreen Chemicals in Hawaii?
We hear about Big Pharma, Big Ag, etc, but what about Big Sunscreen?
It’s real. Big sunscreen brands of course were concerned that they would lose market share in Hawaii. There have been mineral-based alternatives available for years that are “reef safe,” and the big companies had to scramble to reformulate or at best only offer one of their current products instead of an endcap full of a dizzying array of choices. They chose to fight the legislation first before succumbing to reformulating.
The thing is, they act like they’re looking out for consumer health, blaming “weak science” for being behind the bill and throwing the risk of skin cancer in our faces. If it’s bad science, it’s hard to believe that half the Great Barrier Reef died off in just the past two years alone without human intervention.
In reality, there are options that protect our skin as well (or better than!) those with oxybenzone and octinoxate.
The best ones are those with one single active ingredient: zinc oxide. It’s the only FDA-approved active sunscreen ingredient that protects from both UVA and UVB rays without having to mix with something else – that’s why you see so many actives on most sunscreens because nothing but zinc can offer full broad-spectrum protection by itself. More on safe sunscreen and skin cancer dangers here.
Here is a (somewhat surprising?) partial list of others who initially opposed the bill:
- Hawaii Medical Association
- The Hawaii Food Industry Association
- Chamber of Commerce Hawaii
- The Personal Care Products Council
- Retail Merchants of Hawaii
My guess is that unwarranted concern over skin cancer risks (Hawaii Medical Association?) and money/economics are behind all of them. Bayer, the parent company to Coppertone, bemoans in the Washington Post that the bill will “restrict consumer choice.” Oh, poor us! I say, let’s let sunscreen brands that will keep us all safe make some money here!
Just because 70% of sunscreens on the market – 3500 different options – contain oxybenzone and octinoxate doesn’t mean it’s best for human bodies – and it’s clear to me that the “Consumer Healthcare Products Association,” which opposes the bill, is not in business for the good of the consumer, but the good of big brands.
One reason that we have found ourselves in this pickle is that the FDA hasn’t approved any new sunscreen active ingredients since the 1970s, and there wasn’t any sort of environmental toxicity testing done back then!
Hawaii’s Sunscreen Ban: The Official Details
Now that the bill is law and in full effect, here’s what it means:7, 8
- Sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate may not be sold in Hawaii.
- Sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate may not be given away in Hawaii.
- These two ingredients may be used in facial cosmetics, like a daily use SPF moisturizer, and prescription sunscreen. (Bah! Loophole! Conscientious consumers ought not to climb through this loophole in my opinion.)
- Tourists traveling to Hawaii may still bring toxic chemical sunscreen with them, sadly, but many places in Hawaii strongly request that tourists bring only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide-based sunscreens.
Unfortunately, other chemical ingredients may still be used, and although that may change again soon, for now, many of the big brands simply replaced oxybenzone and octinoxate with other petrochemical active ingredients like octisalate, avobenzone, and octocrylene, which likely have similar but still-to-be-proven deleterious effects on coral and humans.
What are the Best Reef Safe Sunscreens?
The law does make a difference though: tourists are often educated about the coral reef crisis and this simple solution via a documentary on their flights to Hawaii.
Raw Elements, one of my favorite brands, was instrumental in sponsoring this documentary and gave out thousands of free samples over the last few years.
Want Raw Elements at a discount? Use the code KS10 here for 10% off!
Kōkua Sun Care is another excellent zinc oxide-based brand, made in Hawaii and painstakingly following all the rigorous testing the big brands endure to be FDA compliant. I want to see Hawaii’s Chamber of Commerce get behind that “home field” option!
The code KS15 will get you 15% off your order of Kōkua here! We work to get the best deals for you on the best safe sunscreens!
I prefer zinc-oxide only formulas because although titanium dioxide is another mineral option, it’s not as good for these reasons:
- It has a less balanced broad-spectrum protection compared to zinc.
- It’s a heavy metal, and there are some concerns about human toxicity if it’s absorbed through the skin.
- It may react in warm seawater to form hydrogen peroxide which is harmful to ocean life.9
My big report on the best natural sunscreen out there is truly the most comprehensive resource on the web when it comes to actually buying reef-safe sunscreen. Any of these would be a safe bet to take to Hawaii or anywhere you need to protect coral reefs or human beings. (Spoiler: That’s everywhere, even in your own home as what goes on your skin runs off into the shower and often cannot be filtered out properly!)
Choose zinc every time. You’ll do yourself and the oceans a favor.
RELATED: How to Apply Mineral Sunscreen
But Won’t Mineral Sunscreen Make Me Look Like a Ghost?
Do you have to look a bit alabaster, or worse, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, to protect yourself from skin cancer on your next Hawaiian vacation? Some media outlets think that’s the trade-off:
A Live Science blog article said “mineral sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block the sun’s rays are still allowed. These sunscreens have fallen out of favor because they often leave a white sheen on the skin, but marine biologists say it’s worth looking a little goofy to save reefs.” (quoted in the LA Times)
My family and I have personally tested over 120 different kinds of sunscreen, focusing only on those withOUT nanosized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in the active ingredients. Some of them do make you white, but our highest-rated sunscreens rub in well. Read the reviews to see how they rate.
Here’s a quick overview of all the reasons why you should switch to non-toxic sunscreen!
Can’t see the video? Watch here on YouTube!
Hawaii Continues to Move in the Right Direction With MORE Sunscreen Toxic Ingredients On the Ban List
This is a huge victory, but since there are still other toxic chemical sunscreen active ingredients out there, Hawaiian lawmakers aren’t finished with their good work.
Senate bill 132 is currently in discussion, although it passed the Senate and one House committee unanimously. This bill would ban two more ingredients, avobenzone and octocrylene, on similar grounds as the current ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Now that the FDA has removed the “generally recognized as safe and effective” GRASE status from all sunscreen active ingredients except zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, SB2278 and HB2248 both are working to follow suit, banning all sunscreen actives except those mineral ingredients with GRASE status from the FDA.10
If either of these bills is passed into law, it will again open the doors for other states and countries to follow suit, and we’re further along our path to a better environment. We know they’ll again receive strong opposition from big market lobbyists, but I hope the Hawaiian legislations hold strong!
Bottom Line: Saving the Reefs and the Humans is the Same Thing
I can’t say it enough: ditch the conventional chemical sunscreen, especially sprays, and switch ASAP to zinc-oxide-only formulas. I’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t! 😉
Avoiding ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and more is vital to protect our coral reefs, our human fertility, and reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Hawaii’s new law is a huge step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done, banning more ingredients in many more locations.
Now that the FDA has removed GRASE status from every sunscreen active ingredient except zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, this should be easier than ever.
The earth needs your support! Choose zinc!
- Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Fauth, J.E. et al. (2014). Toxicological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, benzophenone-2, on planulae and in vitro cells of the coral, Stylophora pistillata. Ecotoxicology 23, 175–191. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-013-1161-y
- Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R. et al. (2016). Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 70, 265–288. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7
- Wang, J., Pan, L., Wu, S., Lu, L., Xu, Y., Zhu, Y., Guo, M., & Zhuang, S. (2016). Recent Advances on Endocrine Disrupting Effects of UV Filters. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(8), 782. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13080782
- Spaulding Clinical Research LLC. (2020, April 21). Assessment of the Human Systemic Absorption of Sunscreen Ingredients. Retrieved from https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03582215
- Matta, M.K., Florian, J., Zusterzeel, R., et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2020;323(3):256–267. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.20747
- Foxcroft, D. (2021, May 11). Owner of sunscreen testing lab used by NZ companies admits $63m fraud. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/125090812/owner-of-sunscreen-testing-lab-used-by-nz-companies-admits-63m-fraud
- Gibson, D. (2018, July). With Its New Sunscreen Law, Hawaii Aims to Set a Gold Standard for the World to Follow .Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/its-new-sunscreen-law-hawaii-aims-set-gold-standard-world-follow
- Wu, N. (2020, December 31). Hawaii’s new sunscreen law to protect coral reefs begins in 2021. Retrieved from https://www.staradvertiser.com/2020/12/31/breaking-news/hawaiis-new-sunscreen-law-to-protect-coral-reefs-begins-in-2021/
- Rose, K. (n.d.). Your Reef Safe Sunscreen Guide – 15 Sunscreens That Are Reef Safe. Retrieved from https://www.hawaii.com/blog/reef-safe-sunscreen/
- Wu, N. (2020, January 30). Hawaii bills would ban more sunscreens in the isles. Retrieved from https://www.staradvertiser.com/2020/01/30/breaking-news/hawaii-bills-would-limit-more-than-a-dozen-chemicals-in-sunscreens/
Too much to look through right now?
I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!
The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:
- Which brand rubs in the clearest?
- What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
- How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
- What looks good on ladies’ faces?
- Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?
I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!