BY RACHEL NUSSBAUM
Sunscreen is the best it's ever been. It's lightweight, fast-absorbing, beautifully fragranced, and at long last a pleasure to use. There's just one problem: Despite 2014's Sunscreen Innovation Act, the FDA hasn't OK'd any new sunscreen ingredients in 10 years. And now researchers are finding evidence that some commonly used chemicals pose a huge threat to our marine environments and may have unintended consequences on human health. This month Hawaii became the first place in the U.S. to turn these findings into something concrete, a first-of-its-kind legislation to outlaw the sale of sunscreens that contain the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate starting in 2021. For context, those two actives are in more than 3,500 sunscreens on the market.
Talking to scientists and lawmakers about these two chemicals, it becomes clear that this may be a somewhat dire situation for the environment. Some background on sunscreen: It's technically a drug, so the FDA has full control over which ingredients we get to use. That'd be fine, except of the 17 sunscreen ingredients on the market, almost all of them were approved back in the seventies. And according to Craig Downs, Ph.D. and executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of natural habitats, almost no toxicity testing was done back then, and there certainly weren't the stringent standards in place that there are today. So oxybenzone and octinoxate, among other chemicals, have been grandfathered in since then.
That doesn't sound good, but it wouldn't necessarily be cause for concern. Yet the legislation is happening now because over the past two years numerous studies have found evidence that these two chemicals (but especially oxybenzone) may be doing harm to marine life and possibly people. They're what researchers call "endocrine disruptors." So when we slather on sunscreen, the chemicals can then make their way into our bloodstream. There, according to recent studies, they may mess with our hormones in various ways. Downs says that several studies have found that oxybenzone in particular can significantly decrease testosterone levels.
Hawaiian state Senator Mike Gabbard (D), who introduced the bill, along with five other Democratic state senators, recounts a laundry list of evidence-supported consequences. In the ocean it causes deformed coral larvae; in people he says the chemicals may be associated with breast cancer becoming more aggressive, polluted breast milk, deformities in newborns, women's uterine diseases, threatened male sexual health, and damaged DNA.
David Andrews, Ph.D. and a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, says that in the water off the beaches of Hawaii, where tourists flock and sunscreen flows, the coral reefs are unable to recover from bleaching events, which are like a hit to the reefs' ecosystem. And oxybenzone is everywhere: Downs describes the chemicals as similar to a virus, with oxybenzone showing up everywhere from the drinking water in Honolulu, to Alaska, to inside the fish we eat. And according to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.
This is big news, and it's been a long time coming. "It really points to what’s become a failure of both the sunscreen industry and the FDA to bring new, safer, and more effective ingredients to the market," Andrews says. While new sunscreen formulas have been available for over a decade in other countries, Andrews says that the FDA has left the public with a catch-22. Even outside of oxybenzone and octinoxate, Downs says there's no firm data to prove whether or not other sunscreen ingredients, like avobenzone, are safe.
“If the toxicity requirements by the FDA were applied now to the 17 chemicals, only nonnanosized zinc oxide and nonnanosized titanium dioxide would be left standing,” Downs says. Knowing how much sunscreen people now expose themselves to, the FDA needs detailed safety information to approve new formulas, but because there's nothing to stop companies from doing so, Downs says that most have continued to use the same old ingredients, in the same old ways.
On the plus side, the FDA has recently initiated a study testing absorption of ingredients in sunscreens currently on the U.S. market. A spokesperson told Glamour that the study will “measure and evaluate the levels of active ingredients found in the blood of human subjects after exposure when applied under maximal use conditions.” For now, Andrew Alexis, M.D., the chair of dermatology at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City, warns against jumping to conclusions. While studies using extremely high doses of oxybenzone show some hormonal side effects, Alexis says we don’t typically encounter those levels in the everyday world.
To put the doses into perspective, he explains that using a sunscreen containing 6 percent oxybenzone, it would take 277 years of daily application to reach exposure comparable to what the rats in the studies get. So while oxybenzone can be detected in the blood and urine of sunscreen users and the population at large, Alexis says that doesn’t necessarily mean oxybenzone is causing negative, systemic health effects.
Speaking to the ban, the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the global cosmetic and personal care products industry, released a statement acknowledging the importance of combating coral reef degradation, but arguing that fighting the prevalence of skin cancer is as important. And with the sunscreen ban waiting for Hawaii's governor to sign it into law, enforced change is at best in the distant future. According to lawmakers, the bill will only take effect in 2021, so at least legally nothing has to happen until then—and even after 2021, there will be no legal way to keep sunscreens with the chemicals from coming into Hawaii.
Nicole Lowen, vice chair of Hawaii's House Committee on Energy and Environment, says that's fine. While they're giving the sunscreen industry the next few years to come up with formulas that comply (and Gabbard says tons of sunscreens out there already do), a major aim of the legislation was raising public awareness about these toxic chemicals, and sending a message to companies and the FDA that, yes, change is something people care about, and we want it now.
In that respect, women in Hawaii agree that the bill is making them think twice about their sunscreen. Since the legislation came into the spotlight, Hawaii resident Emma Wo says that she’s gone through her medicine cabinet and tossed the sunscreens with controversial ingredients. Longtime Oahu resident Kathy Croman says she used to not be choosy about the sunscreen she used, but “when you grow up here and see the actual damage it’s causing, you become more aware.” It’s likewise struck Oahu newcomer Kait Hanson: “Before I moved to Hawaii, I used sunscreens with [oxybenzone and octinoxate] a lot. That was mostly due to being misinformed, unaware or trusting the labels of products.” After the conversation started around the ingredients, she says she switched to reef-safe sunscreens like Stream2Sea and Badger. (Stream2Sea relies on nonnanosized titanium dioxide, and Badger on nonnanosized zinc oxide. Both are confirmed eco-friendly ingredients.)
Marine conservationist Lauren Kitayama seconds it: Once you know the effect of these ingredients, you steer clear. “Most of our cosmetics do end up in the ocean, and they wreak havoc. If making small changes in my daily routine can protect the oceans and animals in them, I do what I can,” she says. To that end, Wo’s not waiting for 2021. “Even before the sunscreen ban goes into full effect, I think it's a matter of social responsibility. One of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou applies here: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better,’” Wo says. According to Lowen, it’s going to take more of the same attitude to fuel change.
"We have to create a consumer demand for safer products. We’re obviously facing many environmental crises with climate change, so there's a lot coming that we’re going to have to deal with. And it’s all true—all those things weigh in," Lowen says. "But my job’s not to get elected, be in office and say, 'We give up. There's no point doing anything, it’s too late.' We’ve got to try our best.'"