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Consumers' choice could help save Hawaii's coral reefs

POSTED June 12, 2018 4:29 a.m.
Families planning that dream trip to Hawaii this summer may want to reconsider the sunscreen they pack.

Hawaii has banned the future sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, found in at least 70 percent of sunscreens. Research has shown the two chemicals are contributing to the destruction of coral reefs around the Pacific islands.

The ban, which will take effect in 2021, doesn't bar visitors from bringing their own sunscreen. That means families and individuals still have the choice when traveling to Hawaii to see the coral reefs whether they will help save these valuable ecosystems or not.

Dallin Reber, a 22-year-old BYU student from St. George, has vacationed in Hawaii almost every year since he was little and plans to visit again in August. He has seen a deterioration in the coral and marine life at a reef near his grandparents' home on Oahu. He wants to use reef-safe sunscreen but he has to also weigh the economic cost of making change.

“Especially where I’m a college student, definitely price comes first,” he said.

Research shows Reber's thinking reflects the majority of consumers. They usually consider price and quality before they consider environmental impact when making purchasing decisions. However, if comparable options exist, consumers will likely switch to the reef-safe sunscreens.

But several groups who opposed the ban passed by the Hawaii Legislature in May, including the Hawaii Medical Association and Consumer Products Healthcare Association, worry there aren’t enough effective, safe options on the market for consumers to switch to.

Sunscreen and coral

The research on the effects of sunscreen chemicals on coral began in the 1990s, and the most recent study was in 2016 published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. It examined the effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate across seven coral species for concentrations down to parts per trillion — that's one drop in 6 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to a comparison in Popular Science.

One of the negative effects found across studies is coral bleaching. When coral become stressed, they expel the algae living within them. The algae provide coral with oxygen, food and a waste removal system. Coral bleaching doesn’t mean the end of life for coral; the algae can grow back. But prolonged or repeated bleaching does kill coral.

Anne Rillero, the community outreach and development manager for the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, said coral reefs have many bigger threats, including climate change, runoff and poor water quality. Some question how significant the sunscreen threat is but “we feel our reefs need all the help they can get. We’ve seen a decline of our coral reefs in just the past few decades. We’ve lost a quarter of the reefs around Maui.”

Water quality testing by the group that performed the 2016 study shows the ocean around Maui beaches can contain oxybenzone up to 10 times the level toxic to coral.

“We need to do everything we can to protect (our coral reefs.) You know, this is something that’s relatively easy. We can make a sunscreen switch,” Rillero said.

Protecting your skin

Sunscreen blocks harmful UV rays from the sun, helping to protect against skin cancer. While there are volumes of research showing that sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer, there’s no definitive research on the long-term effects the banned chemicals may have on humans.

It is known that oxybenzone and octinoxate are absorbed by the body. Oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor, so it acts like a hormone in the body and might affect the reproductive system. The two chemicals also cause allergic reactions more than any other active sunscreen ingredient, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer review group.

Proponents of the ban point out effective ways other than sunscreen to guard against harmful sun rays. The federal Food and Drug Administration recommends that people limit time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and to cover exposed skin with clothing when possible. That may seem difficult if you’re jumping in the water, but Rillero said when she and her friends go out on the water, they use rash guards or swim shirts.

Alternative sunscreens do exist. Two minerals approved by the FDA for sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Because the body doesn't absorb the minerals, baby and sensitive-skin sunscreens are often mineral-based. The FDA has also approved 12 other chemicals, and there are chemical-based sunscreens without oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Companies have tried to get more ingredients approved, but the FDA has been slow to respond. In 2014, Congress passed a Sunscreen Innovation Act to try to speed up the acceptance process, but so far the FDA has not approved new chemicals, saying companies need more research to prove their safety.

Sunscreens are regulated differently around the world and consumers should be cautious when buying sunscreens overseas. The European Union monitors sunscreen as a cosmetic, not a drug. They have a longer list of approved chemicals, some of which people believe are more effective than those in the United States.

When looking for a new sunscreen, verify labels by checking the ingredients. On the front, some sunscreens claim “mineral-based” or “reef-safe” but still contain the chemicals banned in Hawaii.

What drives change?

The list of complaints about mineral-based sunscreens is long. The sunscreen is thick and hard to apply. Once it’s on, it’s hard to scrub off. Zinc leaves a white sheen on your skin. One study found that when people use mineral sunscreen, they use less to avoid that white sheen, which lowers the amount of coverage on the skin and its effectiveness. Consumer Reports didn’t recommend a single mineral sunscreen in its 2018 Sunscreen Buying Guide, which tested for efficiency and sensory appeal.

In contrast, Environmental Working Group has its own sunscreen guide, and the products are mostly mineral-based, and tinted mineral sunscreens are becoming more common to fix the white sheen.

Rillero said she tells people to “wear it proudly” when you turn pasty white. It means you’re helping the coral.

Abe Bakhsheshy, the University of Utah Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative director and professor of organizational behavior at the university's David Eccles School of Business, said the ban will influence the sunscreen market as consumers become more aware and educated about sunscreen. When people read what these chemicals do to coral, they won’t want to put it on their kids, he said.

“There are obviously people who will say this is nonsense,” he said. But the new generation has new patterns of behavior, like reading content labels. “They want to have an impact on the universe. I don’t buy that they’re lazy or uninformed. Millennials do educate themselves, they do research.”

With informed consumers making informed decisions, companies will adapt, Bakhsheshy said. “We are a very creative and innovative nation. When a company ends up losing market shares because of a particular concern of a consumer, we reinvent ourselves. A corporation ends up with an innovative and better product.”

Giana Eckhardt, a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-author of “The Myth of the Ethical Consumer,” believes the change will have to come from the companies first.

"There is a very high level of public awareness about skin cancer, and the public will not give up effectiveness for ocean-friendliness, in particular for children,” she said.

Based on her research, consumers won’t make the switch if the products continue to have problems like a higher price, white sheen or difficult application.

"That is, consumers never sacrifice product utility for sustainability concerns. The challenge for manufacturers is to make a sunscreen that adheres to the new laws but also provides the features that consumers are looking for. If they don't do that, consumers will continue to bring the unsafe sunscreen to Hawaii with them."

There are incentives for manufacturers to drive the change. "It is expensive to manufacture a different type of sunscreen for one state, so I suspect the products will change on a national scale," Eckhardt said. "This will also allow manufacturers to claim to be on the forefront of ocean sustainability in other states too. This will be a relevant message particularly in other states that are located on the coasts."

One example of how environmental and consumer concerns drive change in companies is Raw Elements.

Company founder Brian Guadagno was a lifeguard when he heard about the harmful chemicals in sunscreen 10 years ago. “I wanted to find something else to use and share. I started to try lots of sunscreens and was disappointed, whether aesthetically or by performance.”

Guadagno’s struggle turned him from conscious consumer to sunscreen connoisseur, and he turned his kitchen into a sunscreen lab. He found a formula he liked and started Raw Elements.

It wasn’t a perfect product. Guadagno said many consumers complained about the smell at first. So he and his team carefully selected their natural products to improve the smell. But beyond their innovation, Guadagno said consumers’ preferences have also changed their perception of his product.

“The consumer today has become more accustomed to seeking out a natural product, so they have come to expect a more natural smell versus fragrance,” he said.

Consumers’ reactions

Reber's grandparents own a house on Laie, and he remembers swimming out to the vibrant coral reef behind their house.

But things have changed over the years. "When I was little, I felt like we could go out to the reef behind my grandparents house, and there was always tons of fish. But now when I go out there, there’s not a lot of fish and it’s not a very good reef." Reber isn't sure why the reef may be struggling, but he believes the coral is worth protecting.

Reber had heard about the ban and the sunscreen problem. "I’ve always wondered about it. I’ve seen like the really, really pale people in my family that have to use lots of sunscreen, walk in the water and you can see the oils like, swirling around them."

When he hears a product is harmful to the environment, Reber said in general he will try to avoid that product. "Unless it’s more expensive. Then I’ll still go with the cheaper one," he said.

After price, he next considers the quality of a product. Currently, he prefers sunscreen sprays because he dislikes the stickiness of lotions.

Reber said he usually buys sunscreen in Hawaii when he visits, so the ban will definitely change what he buys once it takes effect. But Reber said he will also see what products are available now, outside Hawaii.

"I’m willing to look into it, like are there better sunscreens to be using in Utah? I want to keep the lakes here as healthy as possible for as long as possible," he said.

When asked if he thinks others will do the same, he said, "Knowing my family, they probably won’t care. They probably won’t even know. As far as my friends go, I feel like I have a lot more friends who would be willing to use different sunscreen."

When the ban passed, consumers shared their views on social media. Among the expressions of concern for the coral, there were also requests for recommendations for reef-safe sun protection and warnings to stay safe in the sun.

Lauren Weiss, a physical movement specialist who writes about health care, posted her internal struggle about sunscreen on her Instagram. She wanted to switch to a mineral sunscreen, but they caused her to break out and made her look like “a translucent jellyfish.”

While she’s found a sunscreen brand she’s happy with, she asked in her post, “What do you do.. use sunscreen? Go natural? or avoid all together?”

Carli Switzer, a wellness expert and YogaFit communications manager, said in a Facebook post, “In the 6 years I spent in Hawaii I literally watched the reef and fish populations in Hanauma Bay start disappearing because tourists would go in SLATHERED in sunscreen.” She recommends wearing UV-protective clothing and limiting sunscreen use.

May Star posted on Facebook what happened to her when she went without sunscreen in Hawaii.

“Literally went without sunscreen one day in Hawaii to protect the coral and I got the worst sunburn of my entire life. A whole layer of burned dark skin peeled off a week later and more tan and red was underneath!” she said. Having seen the dying coral, she also wears reef-safe sunscreen now.

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