How to choose a reef-friendly sunscreen that also protects skin

Honolulu Star Advertiser - July 1, 2018
Mindy Pennybacker

Our flight from Los Angeles was four hours late, and, as the lights of Honolulu came into view, my husband and I weren’t interested in the free mai tais, but did welcome something new.

“Reef-friendly sunscreen?” asked the smiling flight attendant, handing out samples.

“Reef safe,” Don read from the label. “Water-resistant 80 minutes — good idea!”

You don’t have to be a brain coral to know that sunscreen washes off. On any sunny day you can see it glistening in the waters of Waikiki and Hanauma Bay, and even in the wilder waves of Makapuu you can smell and taste the stuff.

The in-flight giveaway of Raw Elements sunscreen samples by Hawaiian Airlines took place in April as part of a public education campaign by the visitor industry, environmental nonprofits and other supporters of then-pending state legislation, SB 2571, seeking to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and/or octinoxate, chemicals that “have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment … including coral reefs that protect Hawaii’s shoreline.”

Most reef-friendly sunscreens, like Raw Elements, use the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide instead.

The state Legislature passed the bill on May 1 and it becomes law this month, taking effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

Already, “SB 2571 is having an impact worldwide,” state Sen. Mike Gabbard, who introduced the bill, said in an email June 20. On May 21, the Caribbean island of Bonaire passed a legislative resolution banning the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone/octinoxate in its marine reserves, and other governments around the world are considering similar laws, he said.

But while a groundbreaking first step, SB 2571 doesn’t guarantee Hawaii’s reefs will be protected, the senator added. The law covers only in-state sales — consumers will be able to bring in sunscreens purchased on the mainland as well as purchase them from out-of-state vendors online.

These sunscreens are free of the chemicals oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) and/or octinoxate, which will be banned from in-state sales as of Jan. 1, 2021. Most claim water-resistance for 80 minutes.
Active ingredient(s) are noted in parentheses:
>> Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+ (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide);
>> California Kids #Supersensitive Broad Spectrum, SPF 30+ Sunscreen and California Baby Calendula Sunscreen, SPF 30+ (titanium dioxide);
>> Goddess Garden Organics Everyday Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30 (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide);
>> Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 50 (zinc oxide);
>> Raw Elements Face + Body Broad Spectrum, SPF 30 (zinc oxide);

These products contain avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene, which have low or moderate toxicity concerns. Another low-toxicity chemical, Mexoryl SX, is used in European sunscreens but is pending FDA approval for use in the U.S.
>> Walgreens Sunscreen Moisturizing Lotion SPF 50;
>> Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50; (Note: The spray version contains oxybenzone.)


>> Read labels, as mainstream brands sell other sunscreens with oxybenzone and/or octinoxate.
>> Spray sunscreens are not recommended by the Environmental Working Group, due to a risk of inhalation and difficulty ensuring an adequately thick and even layer on skin.

“The key is going to be education,” Gabbard said. “Once more, educating our local residents on the dangers will be very important once SB 2571 takes effect.”

Opponents of the bill, including the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which lobbies on behalf of over-the-counter drug manufacturers (because of its sun protection factor, or SPF, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies sunscreen as a drug) insist the chemicals are not harmful to coral reefs.

Supporters, meanwhile, are urging consumers to switch to reef-safer alternatives now, without waiting until 2021. The situation is urgent, warns Craig Downs, an environmental toxicologist who has published studies showing that oxybenzone is an endocrine system disrupter and highly toxic to coral larvae. For years, he’s also been measuring levels of the chemical in the water at popular Hawaii snorkeling sites where extensive coral death has occurred.

“We’re getting to a tipping point,” Downs said by phone from Virginia, where he directs the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. “At Hanauma Bay, the nearshore half of the reef is dead. If you fix the pollution now, baby coral can be introduced, but if the pollution’s still there they’ll die before they can settle.” In five to eight years, he warned, the reef skeleton could be destroyed by waves and erosion, leaving no structure for new corals to inhabit.

To help you decide what products to choose, here is a summary of the arguments for and against SB 2571:


>> Against: Oxybenzone/octinoxate-based sunscreens are readily absorbed into skin and transparent, whereas mineral-based sunscreens are opaque and difficult to apply, so consumers may stop using sunscreen altogether, resulting in a rise in skin cancers, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and Dr. Doug Johnson, a Honolulu dermatologist who authored an April 8 op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

>> For: New mineral sunscreens go on smoothly and blend in well. After applying our old product at the beach, my husband used to ask, “Is my face all white?” Now I won’t have to lie anymore (for reef-friendly products we’ve tested, see “Things We Love” above).

From a human health standpoint, in its 2018 annual sunscreen guide, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization, advises avoiding products containing oxybenzone, which it gives its highest toxicity rating (8) for active ingredients in sunscreens, followed by octinoxate (6).


>> Against: People won’t be able to find alternatives because up to 70 percent of sunscreens contain oxybenzone, so they’ll stop using sunscreen altogether, according to Johnson and a CHPA statement dated June 21.

>> For: Mineral sunscreens with SPFs of 15 and above are sold in local watersports and health food stores, online and in several Hawaii hotels and marine parks. The National Park Service recommends mineral-only sunscreens in its “Protect Yourself/Protect the Reef” campaign, and the gift shop at Hanauma Bay sells only mineral sunscreen. Since 2007, EWG reports, it has found the availability of mineral-only sunscreens has more than doubled, from 17 percent of products to 41 percent in 2018. In April, the outdoor recreation retail company REI announced it will stop selling sunscreens containing oxybenzone by 2020.


>> Against: The chemicals aren’t a threat to coral reefs. “Recent independent studies of Oahu coastal waters have shown the levels of oxybenzone to be in the range of 1 to 2 parts per trillion, far below the levels that the laboratory study showed causing reef damage,” Johnson’s op-ed stated.

>> For: The language of the bill itself makes its most powerful case, stating, “scientific studies show that both chemicals can increase reproductive diseases” in such marine species as sea urchins, fish and mammals, as well as “induce embryonic deformities.”

Asked about the research he referenced in his op-ed, Johnson said he had not actually seen the studies, but heard them described by representatives of CHPA in a Honolulu meeting before the passage of SB 2571. Contacted by phone at CHPA’s offices in Washington, D.C., Carlos Gutierrez, the association’s vice president for state and local governmental affairs, said he recalled studies being mentioned in the meeting but he could not discuss them, as they were not yet published.

Carys Mitchelmore, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, confirmed in an email she had tested oxybenzone in Hawaii waters, finding it “in the low parts per trillion with our maximum concentration seen in the nearshore sites at Waikiki Beach.” She would not provide the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with a copy of her study because, she said, it hasn’t been published.

Toxicologist Craig Downs’ study, conducted by a team including marine scientists from the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was published in the October 2015 issue of Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. It reported much higher levels of the chemicals in nearshore waters: “In Hawaii, concentrations (of oxybenzone) ranged between 800 parts per trillion and 19 parts per billion.” Regarding Johnson’s op-ed, Downs said his toxicity tests were done in a controlled laboratory setting using varying levels of chemicals, not in the ocean, “which would be illegal.”


>> Against: There are more threats to coral than sunscreen chemicals, notably land-based source pollution, overfishing, invasive species and climate change.

>> For: Yes, but wearing reef-safer sunscreens, which is encouraged by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, removes at least one of the many threats that need to be contained.


>> Against: Not everybody who wears sunscreen goes in the ocean.

>> For: When we shower, sunscreen chemicals go down the drain, and they are not removed by sewage treatment plants, according to information outlined in SB 2571.


>> Against: Oxybenzone and octinoxate screen UV rays better.

>> For: Many oxybenzone/octinoxate sunscreens may provide better UVB protection and SPF duration, but that doesn’t mean mineral sunscreens don’t protect you. Consumer Reports’ 2018 sunscreen ratings, which tested full-spectrum products (covering both UVB and UVA), gave many mineral sunscreens poor scores for screening UVB, the sunburn-causing rays, but top scores for screening UVA, the principal cancer-causing rays, which aren’t covered by SPF. Learn more at

At the same time, mineral sunscreens received top ratings from the Environmental Working Group. “Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from UVA and UVB and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives” such as paraben preservatives, EWG’s 2018 sunscreen guide says. See ratings at


Try different reef-safer sunscreens and see what works best for you. In addition to mineral-based products, there are chemical sunscreens without oxybenzone/octinoxate; read labels for active ingredients.

Apply sunscreen liberally to exposed skin and reapply frequently. Protect eyes and face with sunglasses and hats, and wear long-sleeve clothing in and out of the water. Stay out of the sun during peak UVB hours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s a win-win scenario: Protect the reef, protect your health.