When you go to Hawaii, you’d better check your sunscreen because it could soon be illegal.
On May 1, the state legislature in Hawaii passed a bill banning sunscreens that contain a certain chemical that damages coral reefs. While these regulations will not go into effect until January 1, 2021, if you love the beauty of the ocean life in Hawaii you’ll want to make the switch much sooner. Don’t worry, we’re going to explain everything about this development and what you can do to make the switch.
So, what does sunscreen have to do with destroying ocean life?
A study from 2015 found that a chemical known as oxybenzone can harm the entire ecology of the ocean. You might wonder how, with more than 260 billion gallons of water estimated to be in all of Earth’s oceans, sloughed off sunscreen could have any affect at all.
It’s a fair question, but the answer may shock you. The 2015 study found that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs around the world each year. The high concentration occurs since people tend to swim mostly near shallow water that reefs thrive in.
Oxybenzone is seriously dangerous to these coral reefs that we not only love, but are crucial to the economy and ecology of Hawaii. This chemical will bleach the coral white. It also leeches nutrients from it, leaving it unable to sustain its life or the lives of the creatures that depend on it.
Furthermore, it also can cause the coral to mutate and grow erratically. In all, it’s terrible for these creatures and, therefore, it’s not that good for us either. Knowing what we know, phasing out these sunscreens will benefit everyone!
It’s pretty, but what’s so important about coral?
When most people think about coral, they think of coral reefs and the spongy stone that makes it. However, corals are actually living creatures whose remains, over time, build the beautiful reefs we love snorkeling to see up close.
They are small invertebrates who live in large colonies. Each one contains what is, genetically speaking, a clone of the individual polyps who make up the larger colony. They reproduce both sexually and asexually, and usually produce their food via a photosynthetic process in their tissue. Some corals also consume small fish and other creatures.
Of course, they also secrete calcium carbonate which is what builds the reefs. These reefs develop very slowly, with each coral adding less than a centimeter of calcium carbonate in a year.
Coral colonies support other forms of life as well. They have symbiotic relationships with algae, that help the coral to survive and grow. The reefs they inhabit are also large repositories of ocean life. Clams and other mollusks live near these reefs, along with small crustaceans and thousands of species of fish.
For example, the Great Barrier Reef off of the coast of Queensland, Australia is a system of more than 2,900 individual reefs believed to be some two million years old. The ecosystem that depends on it includes more than 5,000 species of mollusks, 125 species of rays and sharks, hundreds of birds, and thousands of other species of marine animals.
Do we have to choose between getting sunburned or destroying coral?
The vast majority of sunscreens do include oxybenzone, the chemical that damages coral. However, not all sunscreens contain this chemical and manufacturers are developing new blends. The sunscreen that is safe for reef systems typically are branded as “organic” or “natural” sunscreens, but definitely check the ingredients to be sure. If you see that it has oxybenzone, don’t use it.
Instead look for sunscreen brands that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, natural mineral substitutes for the chemical. Ensure that the minerals in the sunscreen are what is known as “non-nano” when it comes to their size. If the minerals are below 100 nanometers in size, this means they are small enough to be damaging to corals. While these other chemicals aren’t as dangerous as oxybenzone, they can still be very damaging.
It’s a real problem but one we can easily fix, just by being diligent about what sunscreen we use.
So, while you have until 2021 until it becomes illegal, many business owners and other locals in Hawaii, and elsewhere, already urge customers to switch sunscreens. It may be a little inconvenient, but it’s a small price to pay for the ability to get up close to these amazing natural wonders.
You can read the rest of The New York Times report on it here. Otherwise, let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Have you already made the switch?
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