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Environment

Pacific beachgoers face sunscreen bans for coral conservation

Hawaii and Palau enact prohibitions, though some question the harm

 Oxybenzone and octinoxate found in some sunscreens are said by some to harm coral.   © Kyodo

SYDNEY -- Tourists visiting tropical coral reefs are getting burned by restrictions against sunscreens.

Starting in 2021, the U.S. state of Hawaii will bar the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are thought to be harmful to coral reefs. More than 3,500 types of sunscreens sold by major producers contain those chemicals, meaning the law will have a far-reaching impact on travelers.

"This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaii's coral reefs," Hawaii Gov. David Ige said during a signing ceremony for the bill last summer.

The Pacific republic of Palau will be the first nation to prohibit the substances when their ban comes into force next year.

Palau's ban promises to be strict. Not only will the sale of sunscreens containing 10 named chemicals deemed harmful to coral reefs be forbidden, but beachgoers will not be allowed to carry lotion on their persons under threat of confiscation. Those who sell the black market sunscreen face up to a $1,000 fine.

In the U.S. state of Florida, the resort city of Key West voted to outlaw oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens starting in 2021. Further south, the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this year passed a bill banning the sale of certain sunblocks. In Mexico, there are no laws against such sunscreen but tourist spots such as Riviera Maya and the Xel-Ha Park resort advise visitors not to use off-the-shelf sunscreens.

These restrictions can be traced to a 2015 report from Craig Downs of U.S.-based Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. The paper estimates that every year between 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunblock reach coral reefs via ocean currents, and that oxybenzone harms their growth.

However, some question those conclusions. Australia for one does not restrict the use of sunscreens at the Great Barrier Reef. The vast majority of research has been carried out indoors and relies on single-cell samples or small pieces of coral, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. There is therefore only limited proof that sunblock has a negative impact on coral reefs, the agency said.

In February, cosmetics maker L'Oreal struck back by publishing its own research findings conducted jointly with the Monaco Scientific Center. Titled "Do the UV Filters in Cosmetics Have Any Effect on Corals," the report concluded that five chemicals common in sunscreens "did not negatively affect the photosynthesis of the symbiotic algae."

Shiseido, a Japanese cosmetics company, said the research on the effect of sunscreens on coral reefs is inconclusive. "It is still being evaluated by research facilities at home and abroad," said a Shiseido representative. "If we deem it necessary, we will switch to alternative material."

A spokesperson at Kao, another Japanese cosmetics maker, said the company "will take necessary measures in regions where sales are restricted."

The sunscreen market will be worth $24.9 billion in 2024, according to data from Transparency Market Research, up from $14.8 billion in 2015. Growth will be especially pronounced in North America due to widespread skin cancer awareness.

Although a new market for alternative sunscreens could potentially be created, the debate over the necessity of the prohibitions will likely continue for the time being. Heather Walker, skin cancer committee chair at the non-profit Cancer Council Australia, says there is no convincing evidence that sunscreen is harmful to marine life. It is certain, however, that sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer, she said.

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