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Is Your Sunscreen Poisoning the Ocean?

One of the perks of being a Californian is that Hawaii is a quick, often affordable getaway: Without the need to escape frosty weather, we’re free to visit during summer, when the surf lays down flat and the price of hotel rooms plummets.

So for three decades, I’ve returned, year after year, to Big Island, swimming at the same bare-bones beach, which locals identify only by the number on a nearby highway mile marker. I measure my life by those trips, as surely as watermarks measure the tide. In my 20s, obsessing over career moves and noncommittal men, I escaped there with a girlfriend. Later I honeymooned there with my husband. These days we travel with our teenager, who swims confidently away from us, out to sea.

Along the way, I’ve amassed a library of books on identifying the psychedelic-hued fish, eels, octopuses, rays, turtles, nurse sharks and coral that live beneath the waves, keeping lists of what I’d seen on each trip. Gradually, and especially in the last five years or so, the variety and numbers on those lists have contracted.

At first I thought it was my imagination, but this summer there was no denying it: I felt, abruptly, like I was snorkeling through an underwater desert. Most of the coral had turned white, a sign that it was in danger of dying. Entire species of fish had vanished, and those that remained — like Hawaii’s tongue-twisting state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a — were sparse, barely a classroom’s worth, let alone a school.

According to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources the fish population of what I have come to consider my reef had, depending on the areas surveyed, declined between 43 and 69 percent between the late 1970s and 2008. The state created a long-term “coral bleaching recovery plan” to prevent further damage and promote regrowth after specific events, like the spreading mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean in 2014 that came to be known as “the Blob,” or the high ocean temperatures that killed 50 percent of coral on some reefs off Big Island in 2015. But there is something in addition to climate change that may be damaging reefs, something more immediately and individually controllable: sunscreen.

Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the world’s reefs annually, according to a 2015 paper published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Most of it — including products by Aveeno, Banana Boat, Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic and Neutrogena — contains a chemical called oxybenzone to deflect UV rays.

Even in minute doses, the researchers found, oxybenzone rapidly bleaches coral and slows new growth: A single drop in 4.3 million gallons of water — about six and a half Olympic-size swimming pools — is enough to be deadly. In a 2008 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers applied the recommended amount of sunscreen to volunteers’ hands, then immersed them into plastic bags containing water and coral samples from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Red Sea; the samples were completely bleached within 96 hours.

Octinoxate, octocrylene and a few other alphabet stews common to chemical sunscreen have also been found to be toxic to coral. Nor do you have to put a BullFrog-slathered toe into the ocean to be part of that destruction. Those convenient aerosol dispensers, in addition to being a total rip-off, spew chemicals all across the sand, where the tide scoops them up. Even if you never buy a plane ticket, your morning shower rinses the oxybenzone from yesterday’s family picnic straight down the drain and, potentially, out to sea. Ditto flushing the toilet, since oxybenzone is detected in urine within 30 minutes of application.

In January, Will Espero, a state senator in Hawaii, introduced a bill to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone in the state, but it stalled at the end of the legislative session. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade group, opposes the effort as a matter of public health, pointing to other factors, primarily climate change, as the real culprits in reef decline.

True enough, in a sense — banning chemical sunscreen won’t address the effects of climate change, coastal runoff or overfishing. Still, it can make a difference: Bleaching has been more severe in heavily touristed areas — Hawaii, the Great Barrier Reef, the United States Virgin Islands among them — and the stress of background pollutants makes even remote reefs less resilient to larger threats.

It’s a cruel irony that protecting yourself and your kids from skin cancer has come at such a cost to the ocean. The good news is that there are alternatives. Mineral sunscreens — whose active ingredients are titanium dioxide or zinc oxide — are one option. Admittedly, they can be a little gloppier to apply and sometimes leave that telltale white cast on your skin. But that’s what selfie filters are for. You could also opt for those rad-looking, long-sleeve “rash guards” that surfers wear.

On our last day at the beach, as we rinsed our masks and fins by the parking lot, a young couple with an eager-looking little boy stopped us. “Is this the place that has the great snorkeling?” the woman asked. My husband and I looked at each other. We opened our mouths. We closed them. We half-shrugged. I’m sure they thought we were crazy, but we just didn’t know how to respond.

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