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Oxybenzone with Stuart Coleman

The verdict is in—sunscreen is damaging coral reefs

In 2016, Hawai‘i made history by hosting two world-class conferences in Honolulu: the International Coral Reef Symposium in June and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in September. Climate change and ocean acidification were major topics at both conferences, with scientists sounding the alarm about the decline of our coral reefs. “Everyone of us has a role to play,” celebrated primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall during one of her keynote addresses at the World Conservation Congress. “Here’s my challenge—think about the consequences of the little things you do every day.”


Sunscreen is one little thing that’s actually a big thing in Hawai‘i. Many sunscreens contain a toxic chemical called oxybenzone. After years of research, scientists have found that oxybenzone and derivatives like avobenzone are damaging coral reefs. The U.K.-based environmental group Marine Safe estimates that up to 16,000 tons of sunscreen are introduced into coral reef habitats around the world each year. On Maui, it’s no coincidence that more than 2.25 million visitors slathered in sunscreen visit Kä‘anapali Beach each year and there has been a 40 percent decline in coral cover in the last 15 years.


“A ban is the right thing to do in order to protect our fragile marine ecosystem,” says Hawai‘i State Senator Will Espero, who recently introduced a bill to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone.

“Since our ocean environment is key to our tourism industry and our economic lifeline, banning a chemical substance that harms our coral and other marine animals should be a top priority next year in the state legislature.”


The bill has been gathering support among environmental groups as well as local hotels and resorts that recognize coral reefs are the backbone of our coastal ecosystems and local economy. To promote community engagement, the Surfrider Foundation will be hosting a free workshop called “Civics is Sexy” at the State Capitol on Saturday, January 21. As Marine Biologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle said at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, “We should be caring for the natural world as if our lives depended on it—because our lives do depend on it.” —Stuart Coleman

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