Today, more than 70 percent of all sunscreens contain the critical ingredients oxybenzone or octinoxate for a good reason: they provide the vital broad-spectrum protection for high SPF sunscreens to block both UVA and UVB ultraviolet rays that can cause skin aging, skin damage and skin cancer. These medical ingredients are proven safe and effective, and are critical for skin cancer prevention.

But Hawaii legislators are currently considering a ban on these sunscreens. Why? Because they are either being dramatically misled by one questionable article that blames sunscreens for our damaged coral reefs or appear to avoid dealing with the real causes of reef damage. If only it was so simple that we could save our reefs by banning these sunscreen ingredients.

Non-melanoma skin cancer affects 3.5 million Americans every year. One million Americans have been diagnosed with melanoma, a potentially fatal skin cancer. Melanoma is now No. 7 in cancer-caused fatalities in the United States. Another 178,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma this year.

Beachgoers at Kahaluu Bay on the Big Island, where activists have been encouraging people to trade in their sunscreens containing oxybenzone for others that don’t Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Skin cancers have been directly related to previous sun exposure. The care of patients with skin cancer has cost the government and the health care industry billions of dollars. The more sun exposure the more skin cancer. Sunscreens help to minimize the risk of developing skin cancer.

It’s not just the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hawaii Department of Health, American Cancer Society, American Academy of Dermatology and the Hawaii Dermatological Society that understand the importance of sunscreens. Two out of three people in Hawaii say they use sunscreens, and four out of five Hawaii parents use sunscreens to protect their children, in addition to the over 9 million visitors who come to Hawaii from around the world each year.

The majority of sunscreen users never get close to the ocean. They go to work, school or for their daily outdoor exercise. Or they may be protecting themselves due to a medical condition worsened by sun exposure.

The very early, limited and questionable “science” that falsely accuses sunscreens of causing reef damage is dwarfed by volumes of local and international studies about the real threats to reefs: sewage, pollution, and the biggest offender, climate change. How is it that Midway island’s reef or the Great Barrier reef suffers the same damage as Oahu, but without the population and sunscreens?

There is no question that organic and inorganic compounds associated with sunscreens will reach coastal waters either directly from people who have applied sunscreens before entering the water and/or indirectly, from showering at the beach and from other sources. In fact, it would be surprising if they did not show up in nearshore water where lots of people swim.

Sunscreen components have been detected nearshore in Hawaii, but concentrations reported are variable, as would be expected depending on the number of people swimming, currents, water exchange rates and many other factors. Laboratory studies using coral fragments have shown impacts of sunscreens at the subcellular, cellular and organism level. However, there is a lack of evidence of widespread negative impacts at reef community and/or ecosystem level. The evidence that is available may not properly reflect conditions on most reefs, where pollutants are likely to rapidly disperse and be diluted.

The question remains, how harmful are the levels detected to our reefs? More sampling with controls is needed to determine the concentrations of different sunscreen components in the water column at different times and depths and we need to know more about the toxicity of these chemicals outside of the laboratory. Sites that are heavily visited and/or affected by coastal run-off need to be compared to those that are more remote, and the effects of sunscreen pollutants at reef community and ecosystem level needs to be investigated at the ecosystem level.

Clearly, other factors impact corals and other marine life at the ecosystem level, such as warming seawater temperatures and polluted runoff. Ingredients that are truly “reef safe” and those that pose a realistic threat to marine ecosystems also need to be identified. We don’t want to unknowingly substitute one sunscreen ingredient for another that may be just as harmful, or even more harmful.

A more important concern is the indisputable evidence that links the tragedy of sun exposure to the epidemic of skin cancer including melanoma, resulting in health care costs escalating and in some cases, death. A ban on these sunscreens in Hawaii — the state with the highest daily UV index warnings and very high rates of skin cancer and melanoma — would be a public health disaster. We need legislative action that solves problems, not causes them.

Plus, a ban on these ingredients may result in a stigma against all sunscreens as being environmentally unfriendly. This could result in the reduction in use because of concern for the environment by the public, a significant risk to the health of our citizens. Has anyone looked at the impact of this bill on tourism? What are potential visitors to think about visiting a destination that outlaws their favorite sunscreen?

Our Legislature must also consider the cost of implementation, impact on tourism and policing of this ban. A force to inspect retail outlets, hotels and incoming passengers to prevent the sale would be very costly and may put the public at risk for skin cancer.

There is no direct scientific evidence that our reefs have been damaged by sunscreen. There is scientific evidence that sun protection does reduce the risk of skin cancers. The damage to our reefs needs to be confirmed by other independent investigators before we make this mistake that will risk the health of our citizens and children.

I urge legislators to take time to weigh the legitimate scientific evidence on this issue. When it is confirmed that sunscreens do not harm the reef, the legislators that vote against this proposal will know they have made the right decision.

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