Hawaii Bans Sunscreen to Protect Coral Reefs

As of July 2018 it is illegal to sell sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate on the island of Hawaii due to their harmful effect on the coral reef ecosystem. Surfer, diver or just a weekend beach goer, read on to learn how to be more responsible toward our beloved oceans.

Beautiful, colorful and alive coral reef
Example of a healthy coral reef.

Coral reefs at risk

2018 has been deemed the ‘Year of the Reef’ in an effort to raise awareness and protect what’s left of our reef system before it is too late.  Coral reefs are found in the clear, shallow water of the tropics and subtropics where they can grow quickly. These large underwater structures are composed of calcium carbonate shells and skeletons of marine invertebrates and make up one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. 25% of all marine species rely on coral for food, shelter and breeding and in fact they supply the global economy $30 billion annually from fisheries and tourism. Corals provide other benefits in the form of storm protection, medicines, habitat creation and enjoyment to people everywhere.

But coral reefs are dying, 90% are expected to be lost by 2050 due to climate change and pollution. Corals get their color from the microscopic algae that live in their tissues and provide an important symbiotic relationship. The coral provides the algae with shelter and chemicals needed for photosynthesis and in return the algae provide oxygen and allow excretion from the corals. However, when corals are under stress they expel the algae and become bleached which is often lethal…The causes of this stress include: ocean acidification, pollution, temperature changes and presence of certain chemicals found in body care products such as sunscreens.

Bleached coral reef due to ocean acidification from pollution.
Bleached coral reef due to ocean acidification and pollution.

The bad guys – oxybenzone and octinoxate 

In 2015 a study conducted at the University of Florida found that oxybenzone, a common UV filtering compound, was linked to the death of coral species by causing DNA damage in the adult stage while also hindering larvae development. They also found that octinoxate, a chemical known to cause eczema like reaction in some people with sensitive skin, exacerbates coral bleaching leading to a poisonous dose when the two chemicals are combined.

These two chemicals are found in 70% of sunscreens on the US market and it is estimated 14,000 tonnes enters waters around reef systems every year. Therefore when toxicity occurs at as little as 62 parts per trillion it is clear the devastating effect our sunscreens are having on reef ecosystems. This is something to not only be aware of when snorkeling, surfing, or swimming in the ocean. Even when we shower, the sunscreen in our bodies more than likely ends up in the sea.

This ban has been a long time coming. Hawaii’s Governor, David Ige, signed the bill hopes it will lead the way for other deeply affected coastal areas around the world. For example, as of 2020, you will not be allowed to use sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in Florida’s Key West,  the US Virgin Islands, the island of Bonaire in the Caribbean, the archipelago nation of Palau, as well as in several touristic locations in Mexico. However, some health experts are worried this ban will limit sunscreen choices of beach users and lead to a reduction in use and increase in melanoma and cancer as a result of unprotected sun-bathing.

Before showing you a list of reef-friendly and mostly organic sunscreens, let’s learn more about sunscreens.


What is SPF? 

SPF is the acronym of Sun Protection Factor. For a simple explanation the SPF number tells you how long you can stay in the sun without getting burned while wearing that particular sunscreen. For example, imagine your skin usually gets burned after 10 minutes on the sun, if you apply an SPF 15 sunscreen it will allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes or, in other words, it will take 15 times longer for your skin to get burned if exposed to sunshine.

Another facts about SPF :

  • SPF measures sunscreen protection from UVB rays, the ones that cause sunburn and contribute to skin cancer. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays while SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays. SPF 50 only blocks one percent more than SPF 30.
  • SPF does not measure how well a sunscreen will protect you from UVA rays, which are also damaging and dangerous.
  • Dermatologists recommend using a SPF 15 or SPF 30 and apply a good amount every 2 hours. Higher SPFs do not protect more or much longer, it actually misleads people thinking they have more protection than they do.


What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays? 

Sun produces two kinds of rays – UVA and UVB rays – both are harmful to our skin health, they cause skin aging or skin cancer, good reasons to protect our skin from the sun.

UVA Rays: Ultraviolet A rays are everywhere and present all the time, even when it’s raining, cloudy or  during a storm. They are very powerful rays, some dermatologists will even advise you to put sunscreen everyday, all the time, because these rays can penetrate clothing or even glass.

UVA rays are the ones mostly responsible for skin aging as they can penetrate much deeper into the surface of the skin, damaging the skin cells beneath. Therefore when you think you look healthier and younger with a tan skin, your skin is actually getting damaged irreversibly. In 20 years you will start seeing wrinkles or dark spots, signs that your skin has been harmed.

UVB Rays: Unlike the UVA rays, the Ultraviolet B rays are not strong all year long. They are stronger in the Summer, or during the dry season in Indonesia. Still, UVB rays can reflect off of water and snow and still cause sunburn even in the Winter. It is still important to protect yourself all year long, in any weather. Only at night you are truly safe.

Even though UVA rays can contribute to skin cancer, the ones to blame are the UVB rays.

You might have already heard “Stay out of the sun from midday till 4pm!”  Well it’s the UVB rays you were trying to avoid. That’s why during those times dermatologists suggest to protect yourself with clothing such as long sleeves, a wide brimmed hat and of course, sunscreen. Or sunblock?

Kelly Slater, 11 times world surf champion, is using reef-friendly sunblock.
Kelly Slater, 11 times surf world champion. Being an environmental responsible surfer, Kelly is definitely using a reef-friendly sunblock.

What is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock? 

Sunscreen is the more commonly used and sold type of sun protection, usually applicable on the whole body. They filter the sun’s UVA and UVB rays and keep most rays out but a very small amount still penetrates your skin causing the tanning effect. Sunscreens are usually made of many chemical ingredients, including oxybenzone or octinoxate, those causing the coral reef  bleaching.

Sunblock will not allow any rays to penetrate your skin, blocking and reflecting all UV rays to come in. The main active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which result in a thicker and more opaque consistency. That’s why sunblocks are mostly used to protect the face as it is harder to spread it all over the body. Many sunblocks are produced using natural ingredients.

It’s important to know that sunblocks and sunscreens are important for protecting your skin, if well applied of course. They should state “broad-spectrum” on the label to justify that they protect you from both – the UVA and UVB rays.


List of reef-safe sunscreens and sunblocks

Below you find a list of the 10 most environmentally-friendly sunblocks and sunscreens. Most of them contain zinc oxide as an active ingredient, the safest, broad-spectrum sun protection ingredient available. They are all mostly based on natural even organic ingredients such as chocolate, coffee or vanilla, beeswax, coconut, sunflower, almond or hemp seed oil, cocoa or mango butter and Vitamin E. The first five items can be found in Bali.

1.The Natural Alternative produced by Surf Yogis (sunblock)

The Natural Alternative, reef-safe sunblock produced by Surf Yogis.

2. Zinc sunblock produced by IslandZ (sunblock)

Natural. Reef Safe. Zinc sunscreen produced in Bali from Islandz.

3. Face + Body Lotion produced by Raw Elements (sunblock)

Face and Body reef-safe and natural sunblock produced by Raw Elements.

4. Sun time produced by Bali Soap (sunblock)

Sun Time. Reef safe sunblock, zinc based, produced in Bali by Bali Soap.

5. Coconut & Lavender Sun Lotion produced by Thank Me Later (sunscreen) 

Reef-safe sunscreen produced in Bali by Thank Me Later.

6. Organic Sun Paste produced by MANDA (sunblock)

Organic Sun Paste made with Thanaka produced by Manda

7. Natural Mineral Sunscreen Cream produced by Badger (sunscreen) 

Natural Mineral Sunscreen cream, environmental friendly, organic ingredients produced by Badger.

8. Clear Zinc Sunscreen produced by Babo Botanicals (sunscreen) 

Clear Zinc Sunscreen produced by Babo Botanicals.

9. Natural Zinc produced by Surf Mud (sunscreen) 

Natural Zinc sunscreen, coral reef friendly produced by Surf Mud.

10. Sport Sunscreen Butter Stick produced by All Good (sunscreen) 

Sport Sunscreen Butter Stick, coral reef friendly, organic ingredients produced by All Good.

11. Bali Bloc Surfscreen produced by Kabana Organic Skin Care (sunscreen) 

Bali Bloc surfscreen, zinc oxide based, reef-safe produced by Kabana Organic Skin Care.


At Green-Books.org it is our mission to educate Indonesian children on the natural systems that make life on earth possible and inspire them to live sustainably. It is important to help future generations understand how their actions can harm the environment and through teaching them about reef systems and other natural environments we hope they will want to protect them. Help us achieve our goal by sharing online and making a donation here

Author: Holly McElroy