A Burning Question

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Just in time for summer, the state of Hawaii is trying to eliminate some forms of sunscreen lotion. Two common chemicals in sunscreen products, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been shown to kill marine life, particularly coral. Last week, Hawaii’s state legislature voted to ban the sale of the two chemicals starting in 2021; as of this writing, the bill is waiting for the governor’s signature.

As this article notes, the chemicals leach nutrients from the coral, causing it to break down, and also disrupt the development of fish and other aquatic organisms. We leave an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen each year in the oceans, most of it around popular tourist beaches. “The damaging effects of sunscreen can occur in concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion, which is equivalent to one drop of oxybenzone in six Olympic-sized swimming pools,” according to the article.

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Why is Hawaii’s ban significant? When one state bans something, others sometimes follow, and if these actions make a big enough dent in a company’s sales of a particular product, that can be enough to spur the company to change the formula, since it’s usually not cost-effective to manufacture something in different ways for sale in different places. Individual state bans sometimes lead to a nationwide ban as well, as happened a few years ago with plastic microbeads in personal care products like toothpastes and cleansers.

It’s worth noting that there are other options for sunscreens besides the chemical-based products in question. Mineral-based sunscreens, which use “physical blockers” like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, reflect UV radiation. They are currently used in a minority of products on the market, about 30%. Chemical-based sunscreens, in contrast, absorb and dissipate UV radiation. They account for 70% or more of products; some say they’re more effective at blocking UVA and UVB rays, but others argue that they can cause skin irritation or hormone disruption. (This article, however, argues that chemical-based sunscreens are less effective than mineral-based ones at blocking UVA rays—meaning they’ll protect you against sunburn in the short term but can still allow long-term damage to occur. Research is ongoing.) 

Some environmental groups are watching to see what Australia will do; the country has great incentives—environmental and economic—to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which has already lost more than half its corals to a variety of environmental stressors. Australia is also known as the world’s skin-cancer capital. SW_bug_web

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