The Fight to Save Kahaluʻu Bay
Cindi Punihaole grew up on the Kona coast of Hawaiʻi Island. During her youth, Kahaluʻu Bay’s coral reef flourished with bright tropical fish, sea turtles, and luminous underwater worlds—a rich landscape that had sustained families for generations. She spent her childhood swimming, fishing, and learning practices of caring for the land from her elders.
As a native Hawaiian, Cindi holds a strong sense of place driven by unwritten social codes reinforced by her family and ancestors. She carries wisdom passed down through generations, including a profound understanding of her community’s connection with the ecosystem and respect for the land’s generous offerings. “It was important to know how to raise your own food and how to live off the land,” she remembers. “The land was such a big part of us, and we believed as a family and community that if you took care of place, it would take care of you.”
After spending years on the mainland, Cindi returned to her childhood home in 1998—and found a reef nearly unrecognizable from the one she’d always known. Millions of snorkelers, surfers, and tourists, flocking to the popular and accessible destination, had come close to destroying the ecosystem. The living, breathing coral that had sustained many families for centuries was bleached, suffering, and dying. While climate change and overdevelopment threatened the reefs on a large scale, they faced another unforeseen enemy: sunscreen. As visitors splashed and snorkeled, their sunscreen washed off into the reef in large quantities. The hormone-disrupting chemicals in conventional sunscreen—among them oxybenzone and octinoxate—had caused confusion in fish, skewed their reproductive cycles, and permanently harmed the reefs that Cindi had always held in her heart. But she didn’t despair. In the years since, Cindi has fought to restore, protect, and share the Kahaluʻu Bay coral reef story.
Why Does Mineral-Only Sunscreen Matter?
Cindi recognized that while the reef was up against some challenges too large for one person to face, some of its immediate threats could be tackled through activism, education, and legislation. So she became involved in founding the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center in 2011, with a mission to “promote reef-friendly practices to visitors in an effort to protect the bay’s fragile ecosystem.”
Mineral-only sunscreen is critical in protecting Kahaluʻu Bay from further damage. That’s why a key component of the Kahaluʻu Bay Center’s work is educating visitors on the impacts of conventional sunscreen and why mineral sunscreen matters. In 2018, the Center asked Dr. Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory to test levels of oxybenzone in the bay. The results showed that the average oxybenzone level in the bay was 262 times higher than levels considered high-risk by the U.S. EPA. In fact, they were the highest levels the Laboratory had ever measured in the world.
“Many chemicals in sunscreens can be highly toxic to the larvae of coral, fish, sea urchin, and limu (seaweed),” says Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and one of the world’s leading experts on sunscreen pollution. “These sunscreens can poison the next generation from recruiting into an area, especially an area previously degraded by an El Niño bleaching event. Removing these chemicals from an area gives a reef a chance to recover and will help to conserve the coral reef organisms already there and allow for the damaged reef to be restored.” To raise awareness and provide alternatives, the Center has installed two sunscreen dispensers at the entrance to the beach park, where visitors can access free mineral sunscreen to use instead of the conventional sunscreens they may have brought with them. They have also instituted a ReefTeach program where staff approach visitors to educate them about practices of reef etiquette. But there’s more work to be done—especially since sunscreen chemicals threaten reefs far beyond Kahaluʻu Bay.
Global Reefs at Stake
The issue is not unique to Hawaii. Around the world, between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers, scuba divers, and snorkelers into coral reef environments each year. And even in areas far from reefs, sunscreen can reach coastal areas via wastewater discharges. Today, up to 10% of the world’s coral reefs may be threatened by the chemicals found in most sunscreens.
Tropical coastal communities worldwide rely on healthy coral for tourism, fishing, ecosystem diversity, protection from storms, and more—and many of them are joining the fight for bans on reef-damaging sunscreens. Cindi was instrumental in helping Hawaii become the first place in the world to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The island nation of Palau in the Western Pacific passed a law restricting the sale and use of sunscreens and cosmetics containing ten ingredients of concern. And in 2019, Key West, Florida became the first place in the mainland U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreens containing the two reef-harming chemicals. One challenge is that the term ‘reef-friendly’ can be misleading. It isn’t regulated, meaning a product might be labeled with the phrase even if it contains reef-damaging ingredients. And even if a product contains zinc oxide or other natural ingredients, it still might contain inactive ingredients that harm coral. That’s where the GRASE classification comes in.
GRASE: Safer for People and Planet
It’s essential to understand the classifications that are used by governing bodies to regulate sunscreen safety. Sunscreen is classified as an over-the-counter drug, meaning it’s subject to drug classifications. One such classification, GRASE, stands for “generally recognized as safe and effective.” The FDA has proposed that only two sunscreen ingredients be classified as GRASE for use in sunscreens: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Look familiar? Zinc oxide is the active ingredient used in all Badger sunscreens, and in many of the reef-friendly mineral sunscreens on the market.
Coral reefs are delicate marine ecosystems vulnerable to many threats. Along with protecting human health, using only sunscreens containing ingredients classified as GRASE will help protect the health of our reefs. As a consumer, you can also seek out the Protect Land + Sea Certification created by the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, the very same organization that conducted testing in Kahaluʻu Bay. This certification ensures that a sunscreen does NOT contain any ingredients known to harm coral reefs or marine life.
How Can You Help?
The good news is that the movement to regulate sunscreen chemicals is already underway. Banning chemicals that are known to harm coral reefs is an attainable step that will make a big difference for places like Kahaluʻu Bay. Wherever you are in the world, you can support local conservation efforts and legislation on GRASE or mineral sunscreens. Stay tuned for more action steps next week!
Like the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center, you can also choose to make your own “sunscreen swap.” Swap out your chemical sunscreen for a mineral-based sunscreen containing the GRASE active ingredients, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, in a simple and natural ingredient base. Along with our own sunscreens, we proudly recommend options from the members of the Safe Sunscreen Council. Spread the word among your friends and family about the FDA GRASE classification and how chemical sunscreens may harm coral reefs.
And if you’re traveling anywhere near a coral reef, you can simply use proper etiquette to do your part in protecting the reefs. The Kahalu’u Bay Education Center has created a helpful set of guidelines to follow. Check them out here.
As for Kahaluʻu Bay, oxybenzone levels at testing sites have dropped over 93% since the start of the Center’s 2018 campaign. These measures work. Cindi and her colleagues at the Kahaluʻu Bay Education Center have shown that, even up against a powerful tide of overdevelopment, climate change, and cultural shifts, a community can come together to protect the land that supports them. “The land is your teacher,” Cindi says. “Listen carefully and it will show you what to do to help and heal it.”
Learn more about Cindi Punihaole and her work as the “Keeper of the Bay” in this beautiful piece by Dear Ocean.