Hawaii’s ban on selling sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate has encouraged the industry to change, substituting new ingredients and offering more mineral-based sunscreens.
But several months after the law went into effect, and as advocates push for the ban to include other chemicals, stores that violate the law appear to have little to fear — at least not yet. The bill doesn’t outline any penalties for breaking the law or designate an agency to enforce the ban.
“As we were going through the process the state agencies made it very clear that they didn’t want to be the beach police … and there’s no funding allocated to create new positions,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, who introduced Senate Bill 2571 in 2018.
If a law enforcement agency did get a report that a store was selling banned sunscreens, there’s confusion over what steps to take — one agency says it’s still trying to work out what the law says about which state department is in charge.
“As far as we can tell in our system, we haven’t received any complaints and I would think if we did, our officers wouldn’t even know what to do,” said Lt. Darren Rose of the Kauai County police department.
Rose said his department is going to sit down in the coming weeks to determine not only internal policy for addressing violations but also where to send the report.
“When we first researched the bill, if we got it correctly, we’re thinking it falls under water pollution, which would be the Department of Land and Natural Resources,” he said. “But when we’re researching this again it appears DLNR is not the administering agency but it’s the director of the Department of Health.”
In 2018 Gov. David Ige signed Senate Bill 2571 into law, making Hawaii the first place in the world to ban “the sale, offer of sale, and distribution of sunscreens that contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate” after many studies showed that those two chemicals cause genetic damage to marine life, including coral reefs.
“We’re very concerned about anything that adversely affects the ocean and the evidence seems to be that certain types of petrochemical sunscreens are harmful to the reefs and to other marine species,” said Ted Bohlen of the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition, who advocated strongly for the 2018 legislation.
But supporters of the bill had to make concessions, including a provision that delayed the effective date until January 1.
“The sellers wanted more time before the ban went into effect and they basically bargained for a very generous two and a half years,” Bohlen said.
Then there was the lack of an enforcement mechanism, which Gabbard and Bohlen said was a direct response to requests from state agencies.
“We talked to several agencies about this and they weren’t interested in enforcing this,” Bohlen said. “The opposition of the state agencies was going to make it hard to pass the bill … it’s one of many compromises you make in legislation.”
Dan Dennison, spokesman for DLNR, said via email that DLNR had not been involved in any enforcement actions around banned sunscreen but that the department would need to check with its Division of Aquatic Resources and the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement for clarity.
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Gabbard said that even though government enforcement was not spelled out, he was confident the law would lead to change because of grassroots passion.
“The last thing businesses want is a negative campaign against their store,” he said. “And if people do see these chemicals in the store: take a picture, share it with your legislator or with media or send a nice letter to the owner of the store asking them to address the violation.”
So far it appears bans, like those in Hawaii, Palau, Florida Keys and the Virgin Islands are moving the needle. CVS eliminated oxybenzone and octinoxate from its store-branded sunscreens in August 2020 and major brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat and Neutrogena also sell sprays without those two chemicals.
But environmentalists and health experts are worried about chemicals like avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate and octisalate that are being used instead of oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Sen. Gabbard and the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition’s Bohlen worked together this year on legislation that would ban the sale of sunscreens containing avobenzone and octocrylene in 2023. The measure passed the Senate in March, but died in the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the bill died in the Finance Committee.
“We’ll take a look at it again for this next session to possibly tweak it and see if the will is here to get that passed,” Gabbard said.
Bohlen is optimistic about the bill because the same scientists that proved oxybenzone and octinoxate were harming Hawaii’s ocean life have also published studies linking avobenzone and octocrylene to negative impacts.
It’s one of the reasons Bohlen said it’s important to read the active ingredients before purchasing a sunscreen. Many brands advertise their products as “reef safe” if they don’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, but they may still contain harmful chemicals.
“I think they’re in violation of truth-in-advertising laws and that’s something that we’re looking into, bringing a complaint with the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs,” he said. “This is something that’s not only harmful to our ocean but to humans as well.”
1. Mineral-based: The active ingredient should be zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Avoid sunscreen that has oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate or octinoxate.
2. Non-nano: This means the particles are large enough that they won’t be absorbed by the coral.
3. Pharmaceutical-grade: This means the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are as pure as possible, so they’re free of harmful heavy metals like lead, nickel, cobalt and aluminum.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently updating its list of ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective for users. It is studying the chemicals cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, padimate O, sulisobenzone, oxybenzone and avobenzone. The FDA is studying their absorption into the body as well as the long-term effects of absorption.
“Without further testing, the FDA does not know what levels of absorption can be considered safe,” the department said in a press release.
Right now, the only active ingredients in sunscreen the FDA fully considers safe and effective are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, two of the main chemicals in mineral-based sunscreen.
“It can be confusing with all the chemicals,” Bohlen said. “So focus on mineral sunscreens containing the appropriate level of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.”
Scientists generally consider mineral-based sunscreens to be less harmful than chemical sunscreens because they’re less likely to rub off a person’s skin in the water and the particles are too large to be absorbed by coral.
Bohlen said it’s even simpler to stay out of the sun between the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and cover up with rashguards, hats and clothes when in the sun.
Sunscreen is far from the only thing hurting Hawaii’s reefs. Higher ocean temperatures lead to coral bleaching and fertilizer and sediment runoff introduce harmful substances into marine environments that impair coral’s growth. But Gabbard said sunscreen bans are still important, pointing to estimates that 500 tons of sunscreen pollute Hawaii’s waters every year.
“The reality of the situation is that these chemicals still have an impact,” he said.
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