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Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Harm Than Good?

Lucky enough to call Hawaii my home for my entire life, I feel I have a personal responsibility to help protect the beautiful but fragile environment around me. As summer nears, more tourists will be visiting Hawaii in record numbers, which can potentially bring along a negative impact to Hawaii’s delicate ecosystems and environment. To combat and minimize these effects, education and action is key in making a difference in protecting the world around us.

A current issue in Hawaii is the use of sunscreen and the effect it has on the coral reefs. Did you know that your sunscreen may be doing more harm than good? Certain chemicals in some sunscreens can have harmful effects on your skin and the coral reefs. If soaking up the sun on a sandy beach, swimming with dolphins, or snorkeling with turtles in Hawaii or another tropical destination is in your travel plans this summer, you’ll want to take the precautions to protect your skin from the sun and the coral reefs with these safe sun protection tips.

Toxic Chemical Sunscreens

Not all sunscreens are created equal. Many sunscreens contain potentially toxic chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, homosalate, or nanoparticles. These chemicals seep into the skin and tissues and can potentially cause skin allergies, disrupt hormones, thyroid function, and other hormone processes in the body1. In particular, when oxybenzone is absorbed into the bloodstream and it can act like estrogen in the body, causing a variety of health problems including being linked to endometriosis in older women and lower birth weights in newborn girls.1 Plus, these sunscreens might not even work as effectively as advertised, allowing harmful UVA rays to reach the skin.

Chemical Sunscreens Cause Harm to Coral Reefs

Our coral reefs are in trouble - a fifth of the world’s coral is dead2 and more than half of the coral in Hawaii is bleached3. Not only can sunscreens be harmful to your skin, they can also damage coral reefs if you go to the beach and swim in the ocean. Chemicals, like oxybenzone found in many sunscreens, are contributing to coral decline by affecting coral growth and reproduction. Sunscreens can also harm fish and other marine life4.

While the biggest reason for the coral’s decline is rising water temperatures, no amount of sunscreen is good for the coral reefs. Coral can be damaged by oxybenzone at a concentration of just 62 parts per trillion. In Honolua Bay on Maui, Hawaii, oxybenzone was measured at nearly 2,000 parts per trillion5, an overwhelming amount. Sunscreens in our oceans are so pervasive that scientists estimate that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is entering the coral reefs each year.6 Warmer sea water temperatures contribute to coral bleaching, but oxybenzone causes the coral to bleach even in cooler temperatures and inhibits the corals ability to reproduce.  

Hawaii Is The First State To Ban Coral-Damaging Sunscreens

Hawaii environmental groups and lawmakers have been working on Senate Bill 2571 that would prohibit the sale of oxybenzone and octinate in the state of Hawaii without a prescription, starting in July 2019.8 As expected with a bill such as this, the cosmetic and dermatology industry has had some intense pushback, but despite the industry’s efforts, the bill was passed in May 2018 banning the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. Hawaii is the first state to ban sunscreens with hazardous chemicals.   

Local Hawaiian companies have committed to educating locals and visitors alike about switching to a reef-friendly sunscreen. For example, hotels and airlines have passed out free samples of mineral sunscreens to their customers and guests. On the Big Island, The Kohala Center has been educating beach goers at the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center for free about the harm that chemical sunscreens can do and what alternatives to use for sun protection.

What Can You Do?

There are several ways to help protect your skin from the sun without the need for use of chemical sunscreens. Topical sunscreen should be your last form of protection, after these other tips:

Wear protective clothing – Sunglasses, hats, sun wear shirts, rash guards, wraps, and board shorts can help shield your skin from the sun’s UV rays.

 Find shade, or make it – Use an umbrella or tent when spending time outdoors, or find a tree to hang out under. 

Plan around the sun – Avoid going out in the sun during peak hours. Enjoy the outdoors early the early morning or late afternoon.

Take astaxanthin as a supplement – A study found that 4mg of astaxanthin per day for two weeks increased the time it took for UV rays to redden the skin, demonstrating astaxanthin’s ability to support the structure of the skin during sun exposure.7 Astaxanthin is a safe and natural way to add another barrier of protection from the sun without any harm to the reef. We recommend the brand BioAstin® Hawaiian Astaxanthin® from Hawaii, along with using a reef-friendly sunscreen.

Choose a mineral sunscreen - The EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens containing the chemicals previously listed and instead, opt for a mineral sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.


While these efforts can’t undo the effects of climate change, every little bit helps. Before your next vacation to the beach or swim in the ocean, plan to protect you skin by taking astaxanthin, covering up in protective clothing, and checking the ingredients in your sunscreen. Even with a small change in the type of sun protection we use, we can all make a difference not only with our skin, but in our delicate ecosystem.  



1. The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens (2018). EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens. Retrieved on April 19, 2018 from

2. Why is so much of the world’s coral dying? (2018). The Economist. Retrieved on April 19, 2018 from

3. Is your sunscreen reef-friendly? (2018). The Kohala Center Kahalu’u Bay Education Center. Retrieved on April 19, 2018 from

4. Scientists: Half of Hawaii’s coral reefs bleached (2017). VOA News. Retrieved on April 19, 2018 from

5. Eagle, Nathan. (2016). Why you should check your sunscreen label right now. Honolulu Civil Beat. Retrieved on April 19, 2018 from

6. Downs, C.A., et al. (2015). “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Vol. 70, Issue 2, pp 265-288. (

7. Wood, C.K., et al. (2001). “Clinical evaluation of the potential of an antioxidant supplement to alter photobiological responsiveness in humans.” S01-0244. On file at Cyanotech Corporation, Kona, Hawaii, USA.

8. Gabbard, Kim, et al. (2018). Relating to Water Pollution. SB2571, SD2, HD2.