Bleached: Coral Death and Hawaii’s Fight to Stop It

Written by Lila Jones

Imagine stepping off the plane into the beautiful islands of Hawaii. You’re immediately hit with the smell of warm tropical air, the gentle tradewind breeze, and the bright and beautiful sun. Even though you just landed, you remember that there are some things that you need to pick up from the store. Most importantly, you will need sunscreen to protect you from the harmful rays of our often intense sun.

Most people purchase a popular brand of sunscreen without much thought besides the SPF rating.  After all, the beach is calling! But did you know how much of an impact your sunscreen has on our fragile environment here in Hawaii? It’s true. Scientists have worried about the effects of sunscreen for years, but now its official: some sunscreens are destroying our environment.

Dr. Craig Downs, Executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, has been doing research on the effects of sunscreens, and he has found some disturbing truths. Sunscreens containing the active ingredient oxybenzone, also known as phenylbenzone-3 (or PB-3), have been linked to significant coral bleaching right here in Hawaii.

It turns out that coral’s stress response to this chemical is enough to push them to eject the symbiotic bacteria living in their bodies. This bacteria is incredibly important to their survival as it harvests the suns energy and provides the coral its food. It’s also what gives coral their beautiful  colors.

In the summer of 2015, we began to notice a major bleaching event out here in the islands. We had some of the hottest water temperatures ever recorded, and when combined with the addition of toxic sunscreen, we had an accelerated coral bleaching event.  To get an idea of how dangerous it is to our reefs, Dr. Downs found that it only takes one drop of oxybenzone in a body of water the size of 6.5 Olympic swimming pools to cause a stress response to our corals. Even just a handful of people using these lethal chemicals is dangerous for our corals. With nearly 9 million people visiting our islands and unknowingly applying sunscreens that have this chemical, our coral reefs are in serious danger.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Dr. Downs noticed that not only does oxybenzone cause already established colonies enough stress to bleach, this dangerous chemical also prevents new colonies from forming. When exposed to oxybenzone juvenile corals become deformed and encase themselves in their calcium carbonate skeleton, ultimately killing themselves. Oxybenzone has even been shown to affect the reproductive systems in corals and fish.

It doesn’t stop with corals. It also affects us. We are rubbing this all over our skin, and new research is now warning that pregnant or nursing mothers should avoid using oxyenzone-based sunscreens because the chemicals can be found in the tissues of the developing baby or mothers breast milk. Yikes!

So now that you know why Oxybenzone is bad, let’s talk about the current legislation that Hawaii has introduced to try and protect our corals. Hawaii currently has a bill in danger of being shot down by a few Senators and State Representatives who don’t want to hear the bill.

It seems like a no-brainer since not all sunscreens use oxybenzone. There are plenty of alternatives including mineral based zinc-oxide sunscreens that don’t cause damage to coral reefs. These are great alternatives that cause no damage to our corals, and making the switch wouldn’t cost the companies much more than changing a single ingredient.

While we may not be able to control all the factors that lead to coral bleaching, this is something we can control. And yet, efforts to to this are currently in danger because of a few short-sighted politicians. All the while even parts of Mexico have banned the sale and use of oxybenzone-based sunscreens in an attempt to help their reefs recover.

If you are blown away by our shortsighted politicians, like many are, now is your chance. Simply write, or better yet, call your representatives and Senators to let them know that you want them to support bill SB1150, SD1, “RELATING TO PRESERVING CORAL REEFS – Prohibit the use or application of sunscreen, sunblock, or cosmetic containing oxybenzone while on a beach or in the ocean.”

If you’re not sure what to say once you have them on the phone, Dr. Downs has drafted these talking points to make it even easier for you:

  1. The evidence is strong that this chemical is polluting Hawaii’s reefs – contaminating coral, fish, and most likely sea turtles and marine mammals.
  2. Oxybenzone increases the sensitivity of corals to undergo bleaching, especially as it relates to climate change.
  3. Oxybenzone can kill coral and other marine life, especially juveniles (The FDA requires that labeling of products containing oxybenzone should state “that it must not be used on children less than 6 months old).
  4. Oxybenzone can PREVENT the restoration of Hawaii’s already devastated reefs from this last mass bleaching event.
  5. Every major cosmetic company (L’Oreal, Banana Boat, Coppertone, Avene, etc) has sunscreen and moisturizer product lines that do NOT contain oxybenzone. There would be no market loss for these companies; they just change out their product lines.

Please ask your friends and family to send their email to and all of the Hawaii House Leadership:

I also would like to encourage you to  submit a written testimony about your support of SB 1150 SD1, which you can do here,

Our coral reefs are the basis of our ocean ecosystem and one of our main attractions of our islands. They are also a source of food, research, and enjoyment. But they areat risk of being completely wiped out by a chemical that can easily be replaced. With all of the difficult problems in the world, this is not one of them. It’s time we make a simple choice, to protect our corals. Please take a moment to call or write your representatives. It’s time we end this!


“Feature image above by Tanel Teemusk. Used under a Creative Commons license.”

  1. Keith Mansur

    Great article! The public has no idea what is happening, and this was very helpful.

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