County Bill Bans Non-Mineral Sunscreens

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

The sale, distribution and use of non-mineral sunscreens could soon be prohibited on Molokai, Maui and Lanai as part of Bill 135, which was recently passed unanimously by the Maui County Council. 

Introduced by County Councilmember Kelly Takaya King, chair of the Council’s Climate Action, Resilience, and Environment Committee, Bill 135 recognizes that many non-mineral sunscreens have been shown to pose a direct threat to the health of coastal waters, coral reefs and other marine species.

Non-mineral sunscreens include chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are known as “mineral sunscreens,” and of the 16 active ingredients currently used as UV filters in sunscreen products, only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are generally recognized as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Molokai’s south shore boasts the longest continuous fringing reef in the U.S., according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which has led extensive studies on Molokai’s reef. Scientists at UH’s Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program have also shown that Molokai has sites with the best coral coverage in the main Hawaiian Islands. While sedimentation has been identified as the biggest threat to Molokai’s south shore reef, and chemical toxicity levels aren’t known for Molokai’s waters, chemical sunscreens have been found to be toxic at extremely low levels — only 62 parts per trillion, or the equivalent to one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic swimming pools. 

Once signed into law, Bill 135 will take effect on Oct. 1, 2022. According to the bill, administration of the new prohibitions is the responsibility of the County Department of Environmental Management. The sale, distribution, or use of prohibited non-mineral sunscreens would be considered a violation of the Maui County Code, subject to penalties and enforcement procedures. Fines will be deposited into the County Environmental Protection and Sustainability Fund. 

In 2018, Hawaii passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, making Hawaii the first state to pass such a measure, which went into effect in January of this year. But the Honolulu Civil Beat reported that the law isn’t being enforced, and sunscreens containing the chemicals are still being sold in many places. 

The County bill takes the state law a step further by banning all non-mineral sunscreens. 

“Non-mineral sunscreens are an aggressive pollutant,” said King. “Our coral reefs are our first defense against erosion from sea level rise and, in addition to the threats of climate change and ocean warming, runoff from storms and development, and seepage from wastewater injection wells, chemical sunscreens cause extensive harm to our reef systems and marine life. Bill 135 is one important step toward protecting the health and resilience of our reef and marine life by removing a significant ecological stressor.” 

The county says Bill 135 was supported by researchers, environmental organizations, local youth, the County Administration and the Department of Land and Natural Resources. 

Dr. Craig Downs, an expert in the field whose groundbreaking research connected the use of non-mineral sunscreens to coral reef decline, recognized the historic nature of the bill.

“Maui’s Bill 135 is the first regulation in the U.S. that protects its natural resources from all the potential environmentally harmful petrochemical sunscreen ingredients, and only allows for mineral sunscreens,” said Downs. “This audacious measure should inspire governments the world over that wise conservation measures can help mold tourism to be ecologically sustainable and profitable, while ensuring the conservation of one of its most treasured natural resources.”

Bill 135 now heads to the mayor for his signature.


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