Hawaii lawmakers have introduced two bills to tackle the problem of oxybenzone killing coral reefs, and a new study will look at ways to educate the public about products that contain it — namely, sunscreen and cosmetics.

State senators introduced one measure, Senate Bill 260, to ban knowingly selling personal care products that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, another chemical that protects people from the sun but that’s toxic to coral organisms when it washes off of swimmers in the ocean or ends up going down the drain when taking a shower.

The other measure, Senate Bill 210, bans wearing sunscreen or cosmetics that contain oxybenzone while on a beach.

sunscreen, bottle, sunblock, oxybenzone
Experts are advising the public to check the ingredients on their sunscreen bottle, and to avoid buying ones with oxybenzone since it harms the reefs. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Sen. Will Espero vowed in June to introduce a bill to ban oxybenzone after learning that the chemical damages coral reefs.

“A ban is the right thing to do in order to protect our fragile marine eco-system,” he said in a statement at the time. “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.”

Past legislative efforts related to oxybenzone have failed. Last year, lawmakers killed a bill that would have required the University of Hawaii to conduct a study on the effects of sunscreen on Hawaii’s coral reefs.

The Napili Bay and Beach Foundation is set to embark on its own study to determine how effective a multi-pronged public relations campaign has been at promoting alternatives to sunscreens with oxybenzone, according to a House news release Friday.

“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,” Rep. Angus McKelvey said in a statement. “But there are many products that, along with sensible sun habits, can protect your skin and our reefs.”

Oxybenzone was a subject that experts took up last summer at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu. They called for an oxybenzone ban, but also urged people to voluntarily buy personal care products that don’t contain the chemical and to simply wear less sunscreen in general.

Groups have started ramping up campaigns to educate the public, service industries and government officials about the problem and what they can do about it.

Scientists believe coral is damaged when oxybenzone exceeds a concentration of 62 parts per trillion, which is roughly equivalent to one drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In Honolua Bay on Maui, oxybenzone was detected at nearly 2,000 parts per trillion.

Experts have said places like Hanauma Bay on Oahu and other popular tourist sites for snorkeling and swimming are also suffering.

Seawater testing discovered concentrations of oxybenzone — which is found in over 3,500 sunscreen products — were 12 times higher in Hawaii and the Caribbean. The oxybenzone causes the coral to bleach and inhibits its ability to reproduce.

Worldwide, scientists estimate 8,000 to 16,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reefs each year.

Using less sunscreen is crucial, experts have said. They suggest people wear long-sleeved clothing and rash guards to protect the bulk of their body from the sun and have recommended not using spray dispensers, which leave harmful residues.

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