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Hawaii Sunscreen Ban: Environmentalists Push for More Green Products

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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The makers of chemical sunscreens are feeling some extraordinary heat these days. Last month Hawaii’s legislature passed a bill that would outlaw the sale of sunscreens that use oxybenzone or octinoxate – the two key ingredients that help products reduce UV exposure when they are applied to the skin.

That’s because according to clinical research, the two chemicals, while effective, also come with a host of environmental risks.

Studies conducted in Spain, Italy, Israel and Iran have found that the two additives are destructive to delicate marine ecology like coral reefs. A 2015 study published in a toxicology journal reported that exposure to the chemicals caused deformities in young coral and was responsible for the die-off of coral in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Other studies suggest similar results.

Research also suggest that the additives have health implications for humans, as well. Findings indicate oxybenzone may be an “endocrine disruptor” in humans as well and affect growth, development and immunological functions in children and adults.

In recent years, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has spearheaded efforts to educate consumers about the findings. It hosts a yearly survey of non-chemical, or mineral-based sunscreens and publishes the results on its website. It’s also been advocating for banning the use of oxybenzone and octinoxate and helped to lobby for the recent bill in Hawaii.

While Hawaii Gov. David Ige hasn’t said whether he will endorse the ban, the industry association, Personal Care Products Council isn’t taking the threat to the industry lightly. It’s called the bill unfair and said it’s based on “weak science.”

Alexandra Kowcz, PCPC’s chief scientist claims that oxybenzone is “one of the few Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ingredients that provides safe and effective broad-spectrum protection from UV radiation, and has been approved for use since 1978.”

In fact, there has been increasing pressure on the FDA in recent years to review and approve other alternative sunscreens that don’t use these two chemicals. In 2014, Congress passed the Sunscreen Innovation Act, which required the FDA to give consideration to sunscreens that don’t use the two chemicals. A year later, the federal agency reported that companies applying for approval had submitted inadequate information to warrant acceptance by the FDA and it had been unable to approve alternative products.

Still, it’s interesting that many of the sunscreens that aren’t labeled endocrine disruptors have been on the market in the EU and Canada for years. And some of them are now beginning to gain prominence in the U.S., in part at the recommendation of rheumatologists and other specialists that treat patients with sun sensitivity.

That’s because an increasing number of heart, arthritis and anti-depressive medications have been found to produce photosensitivity as a side affect. Diseases like Lupus and mixed connective tissue diseases are also increasing the call for “green” sunscreens that can be worn around the clock and don’t come with warnings of toxicity.

Hawaii’s ban: A growing movement to protect the environment


Hawaii’s bid as the first state in the country to ban chemical sunscreens in its stores isn’t really a global “first.” Several other regions that rely on environmental tourism reportedly have also banned sunscreens from their waters. The Great Barrier Reef and various tourist destinations in the Philippines, Mexico, and French Polynesia are among the growing number of locations that are attempting to encourage consumers to leave certain sunscreen products at home.

For the U.S. suncare industry, which had a market value of $185 bn in 2016 and whose biggest sellers were all chemical sunscreens, that’s a huge concern that may yield its own momentum to change. As Ken Cook, president of EWG, told Chemical Watch, “[The suncare] industry has not yet stepped up to the plate. “Now consumers are forcing change.”

Flickr image: Joe Shlabotnik

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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