How To Avoid Skin Cancer Without Harming Marine Species - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Ted Bohlen

Ted Bohlen leads the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition and is a former deputy attorney general for Hawaii.

Lisa Bishop

Lisa Bishop is president of NGO Friends of Hanauma Bay. 

Cindi Punihaole

Cindi Punihaole is the director of The Kohala Center’s Kahaluu Bay Education Center and received the Kona Kohala Chamber of Commerce Pualu Award for outstanding work in environmental awareness.

Sunscreens have been much in the news recently. Numerous scientific studies have shown that some sunscreens are harmful to corals, other marine species, and even human health.

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In response, in 2018 Hawaii passed the world’s first law banning sale of two sunscreen active ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate. This year, Maui and Hawaii counties have also banned sales of sunscreens containing 12 other active ingredients in what are called “chemical sunscreens,” derived from petroleum chemicals.

Some dermatologists speculate that banning chemical sunscreens will lead to less sunscreen use and more skin cancers. But, there are no data proving that chemical sunscreens do anything other than stop sunburn, which has relatively nothing to do with skin cancers — squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, or melanoma.

What should we do to avoid skin cancer without harming marine species?

The answer is actually pretty clear: you should limit your skin’s exposure to the midday sun. If you are going to be in the sun, wear a hat and covering clothing.

Sunscreen should not be your only protection, but if you are going to be in the sun without covering clothing, you should at least wear a sunscreen that has an active ingredient of 20-25% zinc oxide, without tiny “nano” particles. (There are also blends of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.)

These are called “mineral sunscreens.” They stay on your skin surface, whereas chemical sunscreens permeate into the blood and tissue. Mineral sunscreens absorb much of the ultraviolet radiation that penetrates deep into the skin and causes cell damage and even skin cancer.

The only sunscreen active that has any science demonstrating that it might significantly reduce squamous cell carcinoma and/or other skin cancers is zinc oxide (and possibly blended with titanium dioxide). These two mineral actives are the only ones which the federal Food and Drug Administration says are safe and effective for human use based on current information.

In contrast to these mineral sunscreens, studies show that chemical sunscreens can harm both human health and marine species. There are three main problems with chemical sunscreens:

  • Chemical sunscreens protect against sunburn by absorbing UVB radiation, but don’t prevent most penetration by the UVA radiation that causes skin cancer. The problem is that people tend to spend more time in the sun if they are protected from sunburn, leading to more deep skin damage. While some chemical sunscreens contain some protection from UVA, they are not as protective against UVA as mineral sunscreens are. Some chemical sunscreens have no protection against UVA.
  • Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the body’s organs through the skin and can remain in the body for extended periods. They can disrupt hormones and cause reproductive cancers. They can even reach brain cells and the fetuses of pregnant women.
  • Chemical sunscreens wash off in water and can damage corals and other marine species. Don’t be misled by those claiming to be “reef safe” or “reef friendly,” where they contain petrochemicals, just not oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Regarding human health, the assumption that chemical sunscreens prevent skin cancers is all based on subjective theory, not scientific facts. The World Health Organization published in 2000 that increasing your exposure to ultraviolet radiation (which is what sunscreens do if you stay longer because of sunburn protection) increases your risk for skin cancer — period!  Skin cancer deaths have increased by 54% in the US since 1975 (when we started promoting sunscreen use), with about 450,000 American skin cancer deaths since then!

There are at least 400 scientific papers that have been published demonstrating that most — if not all — of these chemical sunscreen actives are endocrine disruptors and can have developmental and reproductive toxicological effects not only to aquatic life, but also humans.

Additionally, the FDA has told industry that they will need to conduct developmental and reproductive toxicological, carcinogenicity, and other toxicology studies, in addition to other studies, to demonstrate that these chemicals do not cause cancer or damage our children. Industry has not done such testing to show its products are safe during the past fifty years that it has sold these products.

Recently a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, with a majority of members closely allied to the personal care products industry, called for additional study by the EPA. This is plainly a delaying tactic, similar to what the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have used to forestall regulation of their harmful products. Testing for either drug and cosmetic product safety, or impact on marine species, is not the EPA’s responsibility.

As noted, the agency charged with protecting human health from harmful products, the FDA, recognizes as safe and effective only two active ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not EPA, has primary jurisdiction over marine species. NOAA has concluded that sunscreens harm green algae, coral, sea urchins, mussels, fish and dolphins.

(Search “NOAA and Sunscreens” or use this link to go to NOAA’s infographic

Given all these problems with chemical sunscreens, it is appropriate that the state of Hawaii has banned the sale of two of them and now Maui and Hawaii counties have banned the sale of all non-mineral (chemical) sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens should be banned as a precaution unless and until the industry shows it has developed products that are safe and effective for both human health and marine species.

Editor’s note: Toxicologist Joseph DiNardo, Denis Dudley, an M.D. in maternal fetal medicine/reproductive endocrinology, and Sharyn Laughlin, an M.D. in photobiology/dermatology, contributed to this Community Voice.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Authors

Ted Bohlen

Ted Bohlen leads the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition and is a former deputy attorney general for Hawaii.

Lisa Bishop

Lisa Bishop is president of NGO Friends of Hanauma Bay. 

Cindi Punihaole

Cindi Punihaole is the director of The Kohala Center’s Kahaluu Bay Education Center and received the Kona Kohala Chamber of Commerce Pualu Award for outstanding work in environmental awareness.

Latest Comments (0)

First, Full disclosure: I am a member of Friends of Hanauma Bay and I agree with the state ban on sunscreens. Unfortunately, groups like Friends of Hanauma Bay want you to believe this is settled science. It is not. There is much research to be done before we can say that chemical sunscreens are harmful to coral REEFS. Lisa Bishop’s op ed cleverly avoids the claim of damage to reefs, only to corals. Why does she word her statement this way? Because to date all the significant research regarding coral damage has been done in a lab and none of it "in situ" . Lisa Bishop’s: 1. Lab experiments have shown that coral can be damaged by certain chemicals, 2. Hanauma Bay has bleaching, 3. oxybenzone can be found in the Bay, ergo, 4. Oxybenzone is damaging the reef. Everyone should recognize the flaw in this logic. Until someone figures out how to do an experiment "in situ" , we should all be able to agree with this statement: "There is no strong evidence to state sunscreens threaten coral reefs." We have enough data to conclude that sunscreens MAY be harmful to reefs, but there is not enough data to conclude that sunscreens ARE harmful to reefs.

mtf1953 · 4 months ago

Alerting us to the potential human and marine toxicity of certain sunscreen components is commendable. However, such strident opposition to almost all "chemical" (read, organic), in favor of "mineral" (inorganic) based sunscreens, I believe is premature, and may actually pose a greater risk to marine ecosystems in the longer term. In our zeal to do the right thing we may be substituting one bad actor for another. FDA designation of TiO2 and ZnO as GRASE for topical applications does not convey aquatic safety. Regrettably, such sunscreens are being peddled as reef-safe without qualification from an independent authority. They are heavy metals that do not decompose, but they will bioaccumulate. In particular, ZnO is a category 1 acute aquatic hazard. The primary recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences is that the EPA should promptly undertake an environmental risk assessment on all currently marketed UV filters. I respectfully disagree with the authors that the NAS recommendation is a delaying tactic on behalf of special interest groups, nor under the purview of the EPA. On the contrary, I consider it the most prudent course of action to protect our oceans. Without delay.

paul.davies · 4 months ago

What rubbish "science" all around. FDA regulates all chemical sunscreens for efficacy, and the studies that claim that they harm coral reefs is so tenuous. The dose makes the poison, as they say, and the in vitro studies cannot be claimed to be replicated in the oceans. Do you know what's ACTUALLY threatening coral reefs? Climate change, ocean acidification, temperature rise due to greenhouse gas emissions. All of those are what caused the mass coral bleaching events in 2015---those are what we need to be concentrated on preventing. Focus on that, fellow environmentalists. Yes, I'm an environmentalist who thinks this false bogeyman of "chemical" sunscreens causing harm to marine life, a claim that has little merit, is absolutely ridiculous. ("chemicals": what a fear-mongering misnomer, by the way; zinc oxide and titanium dioxides are inorganic chemicals, too. And they have "studies" proving they harm coral reefs too.)

wilson.aliado · 4 months ago

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