What to Know About Sunscreen Bans

Coral reef in Bonaire

By now, you've likely heard about the sunscreen bans sweeping popular travel destinations around the world. Studies from as early as 2015 found harsh chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate to harm coral reefs and other types of sea life. Now, some communities that rely on ocean-based tourism are fighting back.

When it comes to sun protection, consumers generally have their go-to brands—whether they’re responsible for protecting their families or just themselves. These trusted sources have stood the test of time on numerous vacations, beach days, and summer barbecues by the pool. Since most travelers have yet to ditch these damaging sunscreens and make the switch to more natural alternatives, destinations where the importance of healthy oceans is paramount have responded by enacting bans on sunscreens containing toxic ingredients.

In some scientific communities, the need for these bans remains up for debate. Some scientists have made it clear that since most coral bleaching is caused by climate change, changing sunscreen laws won’t be enough to counter the damage. Others worry that limiting sunscreen availability will cause more people to forgo it altogether, leading to a rise in skin cancer. The FDA announced a sunscreen safety proposal in Feb. 2019 concluding only two ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) to be considered safe and effective out of the 16 currently marketed in over-the-counter sunscreens. According to the FDA, 12 ingredients (including oxybenzone and octinoxate) do not have enough data to support a safety rating.

It’s not just the reefs that are suffering, either. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) advises that harmful chemicals found in sunscreen can impair algae, cause defects in young mollusk species, damage sea urchins, decrease fertility in fish, and accumulate in the tissues of dolphins. The research team led by NOAA found oxybenzone to be highly toxic to young coral and other types of ocean life in a 2016 study. According to the study, the chemical can induce coral bleaching, deform, or kill young coral and even damage coral DNA.

Vibrant coral reefs are a tourism highlight for many popular destinations, and the attraction of a healthy reef employs local communities and economic value—with total estimates ranging from $100,000 to $600,000 per square kilometer per year. Though coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the ocean, they support one-quarter of all marine life, including 4,000 different species of fish, as habitat and feeding areas. When coral reefs can perform their jobs as natural breakwaters, they minimize large wave impacts and provide added protection for coastal areas from natural storms.

So, you’re traveling to a place with a sunscreen ban and wondering what your options are. Luckily, there are plenty. Trending sunscreen bans have brought natural sunscreen brands into the spotlight, and there are more showing up every year. According to a majority of the research, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide win for the best sun-blocking ingredients that don’t harm ocean life. Buyers should look for sunscreen free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are currently included in more than 3,500 products.

Most importantly, explore options to supplement sun protection. Throw on a rash guard before snorkeling or surfing, and pack sunglasses, hats, sun shirts, and umbrellas before heading to the beach. Avoid aerosol sunscreens, which often end up spraying more microscopic chemical ingredients into the surrounding environment than onto skin. Also, remember that turning up in a sunscreen ban destination with your own sunscreen may add unexpected costs if local stores have hiked up prices.

Regardless of ongoing discussions debating the safety of sunscreen ingredients, travelers still need to be aware of the following destinations that have already passed sunscreen bans:

Hawaii

As the first in the United States to ban the sale of OTC sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, Hawaii has since served as an example to the rest of the country. The island chain of Hawaii is one of the most popular vacation destinations on earth with a monumental tourist industry, so the announcement was a pretty big deal.

While the legislation passed in May 2018, the ban itself won’t go into effect until Jan. 2021, giving local businesses a chance to clear their inventory and make room for the alternative options. The state isn’t wasting any time before then, however. Hawaiian Airlines has already begun passing out samples of reef-safe sunscreen on their Hawaii-bound flights, and some local snorkeling companies are offering eco-friendly sunscreens to guests.

Key West

Following close behind Hawaii, Key West in Florida has also pledged to ban the sale of sunscreens with reef-harming oxybenzone and octinoxate chemicals by Jan. 2021. Considering that the only living coral reef in North America exists about six miles off the coast of the Keys, residents of the area know just how important keeping the waters free of toxic chemicals are. The ban will be city-wide and affect every store on the island.

Parts of Mexico

High-tourist areas of Mexico, such as the organism-rich cenotes in the Riviera Maya, already require that visitors use only biodegradable, reef-safe sunscreen (not containing oxybenzone and octinoxate). If you’re traveling to the Riviera Maya, including Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, and natural reserves such as Xel Ha Park, Xcaret Park, Chankanaab Park, and Garrafon Natural Reef Park, biodegradable sunscreen is mandatory. Anywhere else in Mexico, including Puerto Vallarta, expect to be encouraged to use natural sunscreen. If you only come equipped with a sunscreen containing harmful ingredients, some spots might let you swap for a reef-safe alternative and return yours when you leave, but don’t count on this happening everywhere. Your best bet for a Mexico vacation is to pick up some oxybenzone-free sunscreen before you arrive, it will save some money and get you in good graces with the locals.

Bonaire

The Caribbean island of Bonaire is a popular diving spot that attracts ocean-lovers from all over the world. Just a few weeks after Hawaii passed its sunscreen ban, Bonaire's council unanimously voted to follow suit by banning the sale of oxybenzone and octinoxate by Jan. 2021. A 2017 study conducted by Wageningen University in the Netherlands (Bonaire is a municipality of the Netherlands) found that many of the island’s dive spots and coastal waters contained the damaging chemicals “at levels of serious environmental concern.”

Palau

The first country to vote in a sunscreen ban, Palau has a lot riding on measures to protect the ocean. As an island archipelago country, peaceful Palau in the South Pacific has already seen the effects of ocean warming. The ban in Palau came after a 2017 study conducted by the Coral Reef Research Foundation on the presence of sunscreen chemicals in Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lake showed high levels of sunscreen compounds in the water due to tourist use, but much higher in the tissues of the jellyfish who live there. The study recommended the promotion of eco-friendly sunscreens throughout the country. The sunscreen ban in Palau will go into full effect in 2020, and businesses will face hefty fines if caught selling sunscreens that are not biodegradable.

U.S. Virgin Islands

In June 2019, lawmakers in the U.S. Virgin Islands voted unanimously to ban the sale, distribution, and import of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban will also encourage locals and visitors to use non-nano mineral sunscreen, which contains mineral particles larger than 100 nanometers. Sunscreens of the non-nano mineral variety are believed to be more gentle on the skin and less harmful to the ocean environment, as the ingredients are not small enough to be absorbed. The ban is poised to go into full effect by March of 2020.

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