Sunscreen Initiative Leads to Reduction of Oxybenzone in Kahaluʻu Bay

The results are in: oxybenzone levels have dropped dramatically at Hawai‘i Island’s Kahalu‘u Bay. 

Thanks to tens of thousands of visitors who responded positively to The Kohala Center’s ongoing “Reef-Friendly Sun Protection” campaign, oxybenzone levels have dropped 93 percent or more at water sampling sites in the bay between the start of the campaign in April 2018 and November 2019. 

Kahaluʻu Bay

Cindi Punihaole, director of The Kohala Center’s Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center, attributes this to the dedication and aloha with which program staff and community stewards, known as ReefTeachers, approach bay visitors to educate them about ways to protect the bay’s delicate ecosystem, including wearing protective clothing and using mineral-based sunscreens. 

“What these results show is that community stewardship works,” Punihaole said. “We are able to have meaningful conversations with hundreds of visitors every day to let them know about the damaging effects chemical sunscreens and physical contact with corals can have on our vulnerable reefs. We approach our guests as Aloha Ambassadors, asking for their help to care for Kahaluʻu’s marine ecosystem. A significant majority of our guests are unaware and want to do the right thing, they just need to be shown how.”

With County of Hawai‘i beach parks reopening this week, Kahalu‘u Bay’s fragile ecosystem becomes vulnerable once again to damage resulting from swimmers and snorkelers stepping and standing on coral reefs, as well as diminished water quality due to sunscreen chemicals and other pollutants. While Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center’s retail operations will remain closed indefinitely, program staff will be present on a daily basis beginning next week to provide on-site education about proper reef etiquette and the benefits of reef-friendly sun protection. 

“We are putting out a plea to visitors to the bay to please extend social distancing practices to our corals and marine life, too,” said Kathleen Clark, marine stewardship and education specialist at The Kohala Center. “We urge swimmers and snorkelers to always use reef-friendly sun protection, and to keep a safe distance from marine life, corals, and even rocks that provide juvenile coral and limu (seaweed) a place to grow. If you must stand, please stand on sand. We all have a role to play in helping Kahalu‘u Bay heal and caring for all of Hawai‘i’s marine ecosystems so that they will continue to care for us.” 

Oxybenzone levels declined from 93 to 100 percent at four of the five water sample collection sites. The northernmost sample site saw an increased presence of the chemical, which Punihaole attributed to visitors who do not access the bay from Kahalu‘u Beach Park and thus do not receive on-site education through the campaign. 

Laboratory tests confirm that oxybenzone, an active ingredient found in many common sunscreens, is contributing to coral decline. Oxybenzone and other chemicals affect coral growth and reproduction, and also harm fish and other marine life. While the effects of these chemicals on human health are not yet clear, studies have shown that these chemicals are absorbed through the skin into the body, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year to request safety data on 12 sunscreen active ingredients.

 Currently, the FDA designates only two active ingredients as “generally recognized as safe and effective”: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are naturally occurring compounds used in the mineral-based sunscreens the campaign recommends.

Punihaole noted that West Hawai‘i accommodations, businesses, and the local Chamber of Commerce have also been supportive of the campaign and have helped to magnify its message, with several hotels and tour operators distributing educational materials and retailers featuring reef-friendly sunscreen products prominently in their stores. Mineral-based sunscreen manufacturers have also provided the campaign with thousands of product samples to distribute to visitors to the bay. 

“Our guests have appreciated the assertive measures we are taking to try to save the health of our island’s coral reefs and marine life,” said Mendy Dant, executive vice president of Fair Wind Cruises and Kona Sunrise Charters. “They are often not familiar with what exactly reef-safe sunscreen is, but once they hear about the reasons to use it, they are all for it and want to support the best environmental behaviors. Wearing UV protective clothing and swimwear has also been very popular with our guests.” 

The campaign emphasizes that the most reef-friendly approach people can take to protect themselves from the sun is also the best for their own health: covering up. Clothing such as sunwear shirts and rash guards, hats, wraps, and board shorts reduce exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays while also keeping chemicals out of marine ecosystems.

Small amounts of mineral-based sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide listed as active ingredients are the next best option. Sunscreens containing oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and a host of other chemicals should be avoided.

Starting on January 1, 2021, Hawai‘i state law will prohibit the sale or distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. Scott Head, vice president of resort operations at Waikoloa Land Company, described how the campaign has aided them in providing education to their guests. 

“We take our responsibility as stewards of this land seriously, which includes the critical reefs that surround the island,” Head said. “We share this responsibility with the many visitors who love spending time here and prize our unique ecosystem. The Kohala Center has been a great partner in this, helping us raise awareness and shape behavior with beach signs that make a true difference in how our beaches are cared for by those who frequent it.” 

Since launching the campaign, the center has distributed more than 25,000 informational pamphlets and 10,500 samples of mineral-based sunscreens; swapped 144 containers of chemical sunscreen for full-size, mineral-based alternatives, and collected 436 pounds of chemical sunscreen for safe disposal. 

While the substantial decrease of oxybenzone in the bay is cause to celebrate, Punihaole cautions that the levels still exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s risk quotient by as much as seven times at the sampling point closest to shore, where most swimmers and snorkelers enter and exit the water and many of the bay’s resident honu (green sea turtles) congregate to feed. 

“The day we launched this campaign, the oxybenzone measurement nearest the shoreline was 736 times higher than the EPA risk quotient, so the fact it’s come down that much is huge,” Punihaole said. “But we’re determined to get the levels below what the EPA considers high risk, ideally down to zero. We have to continue our work. The bay is asking for our help. We need everyone’s kōkua to save this cultural and ecological treasure.” 

Dr. Craig Downs, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which facilitated the collection and analysis of both sets of water samples from Kahalu‘u Bay, agreed.

“Public education is an effective way of reducing actions that cause chemical pollution on our reefs,” Downs said. “Building relationships with more area businesses, particularly the retailers that sell or distribute sunscreens that threaten coral health, and encouraging them to switch to and promote reef-friendly alternatives instead would also have a major impact on water quality and ecosystem resilience.” 

The ReefTeach program at Kahalu‘u Bay was started in 2000 by area residents who were concerned about the increasing volume of people visiting the bay and the impact it was having on the bay’s vibrant but fragile ecosystem.

The Kohala Center assumed management of the program in 2008. ReefTeach volunteers have educated more than 700,000 beachgoers about “reef etiquette,” behaviors that include not kicking, standing on, or stepping on coral, feeding fish, and touching honu. In 2018, the program began to also focus on other stressors that impact water quality and ecosystem health, including pollutants such as sunscreen chemicals. 

To learn more about reef-friendly sun protection and reef etiquette, visit kohalacenter.org/kbec or contact Cindi Punihaole at cpunihaole@kohalacenter.org.

Informational Meeting On Hawaii Coral Reef Bleaching

Senator Will Espero, in cooperation with the Friends of Hanauma Bay, is co-hosting an informational meeting on Wednesday, June 21 in conference room 229 from 10:30 a.m. to noon on the eroding health of Hawai‘i’s coral reefs due to pollution from personal health products such as sunscreen.

During the meeting, Dr. Craig Downs, Executive Director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory will present his latest scientific findings on sunscreen pollution and its damaging impact on Hawai‘i’s coral reefs, including the creation of what researchers call “coral reef zombies.”“The health of our coral reefs is important not only for the protection and preservation of our oceans, but also to our state’s economy and tourism industry,” said Sen. Espero. “Efforts were made to mitigate the toxic effect of pollution from oxybenzone on our coral reefs through a number of bills introduced this past legislative session. Through meetings like this, we’ll continue to work collaboratively with scientists and stakeholders to address the protection of our reefs for future generations.”

  • WHO:  Sen. Will Espero, Friends of Hanauma Bay, Dr. Craig Downs
  • WHAT:  Informational Meeting
  • WHERE:  Conference Room 229, Hawai‘i State Capitol
  • WHEN:  Wednesday, June 21, 2017, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 noon

Bills to Ban Coral-Killing Sunscreens Move Forward

The House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection today passed House Bill 600, introduced by Representative Nicole Lowen (District 6, Kailua-Kona, Holualoa), which would prohibit the sale of sunscreens containing the chemical oxybenzone.

The bill was introduced in response to recent studies that have concluded that oxybenzone disrupts coral development and growth.

“Our reefs are an essential economic driver of our tourism industry, they sustain our fish populations for fishermen, and are home to many species found nowhere else in the world. Safe, effective, and affordable alternatives to oxybenzone are available already. How can we, in good conscience, continue to needlessly allow the use of this chemical that we know causes damage to coral?” said Rep. Lowen.

The committee also moved a bill forward that would allow continued sale of oxybenzone products, but impose new labelling requirements. HB 600 will next go to the House Floor and then to the Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection.

Hawaii Representative Urges Community-Based Measures to Protect Coral Reefs

Napili Bay project to study oxybenzone-pollution prevention

State Representative Angus McKelvey reinforced his commitment to protecting Hawaii’s coral reefs by endorsing the Napili Bay and Beach Foundation’s upcoming study on strategies to manage oxybenzone pollution.

Oxybenzone is a chemical found in many sunscreens, and presents a serious threat to coastal coral reefs. Coral reefs are not just ecologically important; they are also highly valued by the tourism industry and residential communities. Evaluating the feasibility and effectiveness of community-based management strategies is therefore important to a variety of stakeholders.

“I am especially happy that the Napili Bay foundation has been selected to conduct this study. This shows that businesses, community groups, and others share in the concern for our coral reefs,” said McKelvey. “Currently, no reliable data regarding oxybenzone-pollution management strategies exists.

Thanks to the Napili Bay and Beach Foundation’s proactive efforts, this critical information will be available to make informed decisions about protecting not only Napili Bay’s coral reefs, but also elsewhere across the globe.”

The study will determine the effectiveness of a multi-pronged public relations campaign to promote alternatives to using sunscreens that contain oxybenzone. It will encompass an environmental and demographic assessment pre- and post-campaign launch. Toxicity assays will be measured against two control sites, where no campaign will occur.

“As one who burns early and often, and is a skin cancer survivor, I know how important it is to protect yourself from the sun,” McKelvey said, “but there are many products that, along with sensible sun habits, can protect your skin and our reefs.”

Hawaii Senator Calls for Ban on Sunscreen with Oxybenzone

Compound found in sunscreen and personal care products blamed for damaging coral reefs

Some sunscreens known to have Oxybenzone

Some sunscreens known to have Oxybenzone

As the 13th annual Coral Reef Symposium comes to end in Waikīkī, State Senator Will Espero (Dist. 19 – ‘Ewa Beach, Ocean Pointe, ‘Ewa by Gentry, Iroquois Point, portion of ‘Ewa Villages) has announced he will introduce legislation for Hawai‘i to ban sunscreen with oxybenzone beginning in 2018.

“A ban is the right thing to do in order to protect our fragile marine eco-system,” said Sen. Espero. “Since our ocean environment is key to our tourism industry and our economic lifeline, banning a chemical substance that harms our coral and other marine animals should be a top priority next year in the state legislature.”

Speakers and scientists at the Symposium shared the dangers of oxybenzone on our coral reef and other marine life. Scientists said testing has revealed high levels of oxybenzone in Hawai‘i waters. Oxybenzone is found in personal care products and is a component of many sunscreen lotions.  It has been found to kill coral and negatively affect other Marine organisms.

“At the very least, a serious discussion should be had on the value and need of oxybenzone in sunscreen and other products,” Sen. Espero noted.

New Scientific Study Finds Coral Reefs Under Attack From Chemical in Sunscreen as Global Bleaching Event Hits

A new study published today in a toxicology journal has found that a chemical widely used in personal care products such as sunscreen, poses an ecological threat to corals and coral reefs and threatens their existence.

Coral BleachingOxybenzone is found in over 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide, and pollutes coral reefs from swimmers wearing sunscreens and through wastewater discharges from municipal sewage outfalls and from coastal septic systems.

The study comes less than two weeks after NOAA declared the third ever global coral bleaching event and warned that locally produced threats to coral, such as pollution, stress the health of corals and decrease the likelihood that they will resist bleaching, or recover from it.

It demonstrates that exposure of coral planulae (baby coral) to oxybenzone, produces gross morphological deformities, damages their DNA, and, most alarmingly, acts as an endocrine disruptor. The latter causes the coral to encase itself in its own skeleton leading to death.

These effects were observed as low as 62 parts per trillion, the equivalent to a drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools

Measurements of oxybenzone in seawater within coral reefs in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands found concentrations ranging from 800 parts per trillion to 1.4 parts per million. This is over 12 times higher than the concentrations necessary to impact on coral.

A team of marine scientists from Virginia, Florida, Israel, the National Aquarium (US) and the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, undertook the study.  Lead author Dr. Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory Virginia, said, “The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue.  We have lost at least 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. 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.”

Between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion are emitted into coral reef areas each year, much of which contains between one and 10% oxybenzone.

Further information about the study can be found at http://www.haereticus-lab.org and marinesafe.org.