Visitors and residents of Maui County should check the back of their sunscreen bottles. Starting Saturday, a new law goes into effect that bans non-mineral sunscreens across Maui, Lanai and Molokai.
It will be illegal to use, sell or distribute any sunscreen that isn’t mineral-based unless you have a prescription from a licensed health care provider. Only mineral sunscreens made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide will be allowed, which are the only two ingredients that the US Food and Drug Administration, the agency that regulates sunscreens, recently proposed to be considered “safe and effective.”
When people swim in the ocean – and even shower at beach parks – chemicals from sunscreens can wash into the ocean. Lab research has found that, in high enough amounts, some of those chemicals hurt marine life like algae and coral.
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“This ordinance is one important step to protect our coral reefs, which provide the first defense against erosion from sea-level rise and are critically important for biodiversity, recreation, food sources and our tourism industry,” Maui County Council member Kelly King said in a statement.
King, the South Maui representative who spearheaded the legislation, said Maui’s policy is the first county law of its kind. Hawaii County, which followed Maui’s lead, is enacting a similar one Dec. 1. The counties’ laws are more sweeping than the current state law that prohibits two types of chemicals: oxybenzone and octinoxate.
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Maui County says its new law is a step toward protecting Hawaii’s coral reefs, which are home to marine life found nowhere else on Earth. Reefs are a critical part of delicate marine ecosystems that have in recent years faced mounting threats from climate change and runoff. Maui’s reefs also protect coastal homes by buffering against waves and flooding, preventing damage to beaches and other stretches of coastline, according to the county.
Although the focus has been sharpest in Hawaii, the safety of sunscreen for both humans and the environment has been a hot topic across the US in recent years. Even though sunscreens have been used for decades, the FDA doesn’t recognize many chemicals commonly used in them as “safe and effective” because there hasn’t been enough safety data to show one way or another.
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Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – the ingredients allowed under the Maui County policy – are the only exceptions that the FDA has so far proposed as “safe and effective” for humans to use. Mineral sunscreens can also offer greater protection than chemical sunscreens because they act as physical blockers on the skin, reflecting UV light, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the leading treatment centers in the US
But because of the shortage of data on many sunscreen ingredients, some in the scientific and medical community have cautioned against discouraging the use of certain kinds because doctors are trying to get people to use more sunscreen, not less, at a time when skin cancer rates are rising. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, said there’s a lack of conclusive data on sunscreen, in general, and urged scientists to conduct more research to understand their effect on marine life.
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What was clear is that sunscreens marketed as “reef-safe” don’t guarantee that a sunscreen is, in fact, safe for marine life, said Dr. Kevin Cassel of the Hawaii Skin Cancer Coalition, who was a member of the committee that wrote the recent report. He cautioned consumers against relying on the label because the mix of ingredients in them isn’t regulated or standardized.
“We want to fight to actually be able to classify truly reef safe sunscreens that are effective and can prevent overexposure to ultraviolet radiation,” Cassel said. “We want the best of both, and it will take some work to do it, but I think we can get there.”
The report released in August came as the FDA is working on updating its list of safe sunscreen ingredients and has requested more data on chemical-based sunscreens. Maui County’s new sunscreen law recognizes that the FDA is in the middle of that process. When the federal government finalizes its findings, the county could also look to update its list of allowed sunscreens.
“Let’s just go with the ones that we know are safe,” said Meredith Beeson, project and research coordinator at Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, a nonprofit that works to protect the health of Maui’s ocean, reefs and native fish.
“I think that speaks higher volumes than saying, ‘We can’t declare if these are good or bad,’” she said.
Right now, Beeson and other researchers are in the midst of studying how Maui’s new sunscreen law will affect the ocean. Earlier this month, they collected water samples at five different beaches and next year plan to collect samples at the same spots to compare if there are fewer chemicals present in the water.
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Tourists need to ‘do their research’
Although many Maui residents are aware of potential harms of chemical sunscreens and have long opted for mineral-based ones, visitors who don’t know about the county or state law can still bring in banned sunscreens by plane. Based on what researchers find next year, Beeson said they’ll be able to gauge whether they need to ramp up outreach to educate both residents and visitors.
Since the start of this year, Maui County staffers have been reaching out directly to businesses ranging from water sport outfitters to mom-and-pop shops to big box stores about the new law. On its website, the county also has an extensive FAQ about the new law, including tips on finding mineral-based sunscreens that don’t feel heavy or leave a white residue. And, in hopes of raising awareness among visitors, the county is also working with the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau to install 20 mineral sunscreen dispensers at popular tourism hubs.
“It’s really important for people who are coming to visit to do their research,” Beeson said. “And it’s on us to inform them.”
This story was published in partnership with Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit newsroom doing investigative and watchdog journalism relating to the state of Hawaii.