Is Sunscreen Killing Our Coral Reefs?

Hannah Vander Meulen


Coral reefs have been dying at an alarming rate the last few decades, could chemicals commonly used in sunscreens be accelerating this issue? The governor of Hawaii, David Ige, claims that the signing of bill SB 2571 is an important step in protecting the coral reefs around the Hawaiian Islands, attempting to secure the coral reefs as they play an important role in the environment around the Hawaiian Islands. This podcast analyzes this claim using Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitical framework to reveal aspects of the environment, human agency, and spatial scale, that are mentioned in the claim, as well as to reveal some important information that may have been excluded from this claim.



Hi, my name is Hannah Vander Meulen, and this is my Environmental Geo politics podcast, Is sunscreen killing our coral reefs?

According to the documentary Chasing Coral, we have lost 50% of our coral reefs in the past 30 years. Could common chemicals used in many sunscreens be accelerating this problem?

In this podcast I am analyzing the claim that “studies have documented the negative impact of these chemicals on corals and other marine life. Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the Earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawai‘i’s coral reefs” (Ige 2018) which Governor Ige announced in a news release in 2018 in response to the signing of bill sb2571, which bans the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals known to make coral more prone to bleaching and mortality, according to the Chemosphere Journal.

This is a claim about environmental security because it asserts that there is importance in protecting the coral reefs. When Governor Ige uses the word “protect” in his news release, he indicates the reefs are something that need to be secured, thus making the argument of environmental security. The issue of losing coral reefs is a security issue because it connects this issue to the well-being of the reefs and also indicates that inaction will increase the likelihood of continued damage if steps are not taken to prevent this from occurring, as stated in Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s book on Environmental Geopolitics.

I am going to analyze this claim using Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s environmental geopolitical framework. This framework uses three questions to analyze a claim.

How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified, what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world, and what is the spatial focus of this claim?

First, it is important to see how the role and meaning of the environment are described and specified in this claim. In the claim Governor Ige mentions that the environment is fragile and can be permanently damaged by certain interactions with it. Governor Ige’s claim also mentions the damage that can be done by these chemicals when they are used in sunscreens and seep into the ocean. This shows the environment in this claim is something used by everyone when it describes how these chemicals seep into marine life when people enter the ocean and beach showers wearing sunscreen that contains these two chemicals.

Governor Ige also mentions that he is specifically focusing on the coral reefs around Hawai’i, and does not mention protecting the other coral reefs around the world. This specifies what coral reefs are being focused on, showing that the environment is described locally by Governor Ige in this claim. This is important to recognize because it helps us understand how the reefs are valued and understood.

There are also important aspects about the environment that are not included in Governor Ige’s claim but important to mention, the first being the important role that coral reefs play in oceanic bio-diversity. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs can support more than 7,000 species of marine life. This is an important statistic because it shows the significant role coral reefs play in the bio-diversity of the ocean. Without the coral reefs around the Hawaiian Islands, thousands of species that rely on the reefs are put in great danger.

Another relevant aspect not mentioned by Governor Ige in this claim is how the coral reefs protect surrounding communities from natural disasters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs protect the coastlines of Hawai’i from erosion and storms. With the severity of natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, having coral reefs there to protect surrounding communities is especially important. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also mentions the economic importance of the coral reefs, which will be elaborated later in the podcast.

We will next examine some aspects of human activity that Governor Ige specifically mentions in his claim. This claim mentions the new law signed by Governor Ige, bill SB 2571. In signing this bill, Governor Ige used his political power to ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate from the Hawaiian Islands. Ige uses political power to control what is damaging the coral reefs by banning known harmful substances to coral reefs.

Governor Ige also mentions the lasting impacts human interactions have on the Earth, meaning that if we continue harming the Earth, there may be impacts that are irreversible. The human activity highlighted here is the humans wearing sunscreen containing these chemicals, which can have very harmful, potentially irreversible impacts on the reefs. Humans wearing sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate have caused negative impacts on the reefs, such as increased bleaching and mortality, according to the Chemosphere Journal, which is why Governor Ige signed a bill banning the use of these chemicals in sunscreens.

It’s also important to see how this claim is selectively portraying human activity. Let’s look at some aspects of human activity that are not included but relevant.

The first aspect of human activity not mentioned in the claim but important to note is the impact that tourism has on the Hawaiian Islands. According to an article from the International Journal of Tourism Research, Hawai’i depends on tourism for a lot of its revenue. This is important to note because tourism having a major impact on the Hawaiian economy means that there are large amounts of non-Hawaiian people affecting the Hawaiian Islands at any given point during the year. An example of this impact could be the sunscreens tourists bring having an impact on the Hawaiian coral reefs.

Tourists, while providing economic benefits to the islands, also negatively impact the environment in and around the Hawaiian Islands. The use of these sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate is not banned, only the sale and distribution, meaning these chemicals will continue to negatively impact the environment since tourists can bring them in, as mentioned in the news article from The Honolulu Star Advertiser.

The study from the Chemosphere Journal about sunscreen pollution in the Hanauma Bay mentions how higher rates of the chemicals that are harmful to the coral reefs are greatly increased while there are higher amounts of tourists visiting the Hawaiian Islands. This is important to mention because it shows that while Hawai’i relies heavily on the economic benefits of tourism, tourism also brings negative impacts to the Hawaiian Islands.

Another important aspect of human agency not mentioned in this claim is what Governor David Ige has done with his time in office. This is an important thing to look at because it shows us how much focus Governor Ige put into the environment during his time in office. This is an important piece of human agency to look at because it helps us show how serious Governor Ige was about protecting coral reefs and environment around the Hawaiian Islands. Ige has the ability to use his political power to influence what happens around the reefs, and it is important to see how he is doing this.

There is a list of bills that Governor Ige has signed that is linked on the Office of the Governor website. According to this website, Governor Ige has passed many different bills relating to decreasing impacts of climate change. There are various bills signed by Ige in 2022 alone relating to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, a bill banning the use of plastic microbeads, and many more trying to improve different aspects of the environment around the Hawaiian Islands.

Finally, we will examine the spatial focus of this claim. As Governor Ige mentions directly in his claim, this story focuses on the coral reefs around Hawai’i, and does not include the rest of the coral reefs in oceans throughout the world. This helps us understand the area and volume of the reefs that are mentioned in this claim, an important spatial factor Dr. O’Lear mentions in the first chapter of the Environmental Geopolitics book.

It’s important to recognize that this claim focuses on a local scale because it helps to recognize the interaction between people in Hawai’i and their relationship with the reefs that surround them. In Dr. O’Lear’s book, the Introduction to Environmental Geopolitics mentions the importance of recognizing the connections between the coral reefs and the people around these reefs. The connections are mentioned in this claim when Governor Ige specifically mentions the Hawaiian reefs, which also encompasses Hawaiian people and their interactions with the reefs.

There are a few other spatial aspects that are not mentioned by Governor Ige in his claim but are important to examine. One important aspect to mention is that this law is spatially uneven.

While the sale and distribution of oxybenzone and octinoxate are banned on the Hawaiian Islands, it’s not banned all over the world. This means that sunscreens containing these chemicals can be purchased in other places and brought in by people, and the chemicals will still harm the coral reefs. It’s not illegal for visitors to bring in sunscreen with these chemicals and use them, it’s only illegal to sell and distribute them in the state of Hawaii, as mentioned in the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

This is an issue of spatial scale because it shows how different areas can impact other places because of inequitable enforcement mechanisms. This shows that while we can observe that Governor Ige does use his political power to protect the environment, one can speculate that the inequitable enforcement mechanisms on a spatial scale may show that promoting a certain identity for Hawai’i could be more important than saving the reefs to Governor Ige.

Another important aspect of spatial scale not mentioned in Governor Ige’s claim is how Hawai’i has chosen to enforce this law on the islands. The Honolulu Star Advertiser mentions that there is a fine of up to $1,000 to violators of this law. This is important to the spatial scale of this claim because it describes how the law will be enforced around the Hawaiian Islands, showing how the state will control it in the area specified. This law does not have any influence if there is not a way of enforcement, even though it is still spatially uneven using this form of enforcement.

The investigation of Governor Ige’s claim has shown the importance of using the environmental geopolitical framework when examining claims about the environment. Claims often exclude important pieces of information, and the three environmental geopolitical questions help us to analyze claims in a critical way.

Examining this statement by Governor Ige brings up some more questions in regard to this claim. How has this claim impacted the oceans? Being that this is such a recent law, there’s not much information on if this has made an impact on the reefs, so I am curious to learn more about that as the years progress. Another question that comes up after this analysis is how could this law be implemented in a more spatially even way. This law has also influenced other places to implement similar laws, an example being the U.S. Virgin Islands, as stated in the Chemosphere Journal. While this claim may overlook some important details to this story, it has also paved the way for other places to implement stricter sunscreen laws, something that could benefit our rapidly dying coral reefs.

Thank you for listening, this has been, Is sunscreen killing our coral reefs?

Music and sound effects from the following site, Freesound: “Waves of Hawaii” by florianreichelt is in the Public Domain, CC0.



“Waves of Hawaii” by florianreichelt is in the Public Domain, CC0


Downs, C.A., Elizabeth Bishop, M. Silvia Diaz-Cruz, S. Abbas Haghshenas, Didier Stien, Alice M.S. Rodrigues, Cheryl M. Woodley, et al. 2022. “Oxybenzone Contamination from Sunscreen Pollution and Its Ecological Threat to Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, U.S.A.” Chemosphere 291. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.132880.

Governor of the State of Hawai’i David Y. Ige. 2018. “Office of the Governor – News Release – Governor David Ige Signs Bill Making Hawaii first in the World to Ban Certain Sunscreens”.  Accessed October 12, 2022.

Hawaii State Legislature. “Bills signed by the Governor”. November 13, 2022.,SB&title=Bil s%20signed%20by%20the%20Governor.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2019. “Coral reef ecosystems.” October 30th, 2022.,food%2C%20income%2C%20and%20protection.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Orlowski, Jeff, dir.  2017. Chasing Coral. Exposure Labs. 2017.

Spencer, Daniel M. “Trouble in Paradise: the 2007-2009 Global and Economic Recession and Hawai’i’s Visitor Industry.” International Journal of Tourism Research 15: 535-553.

Wu, Nina. “Hawaii County joins Maui with passage of law banning nonmineral sunscreens.” Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI),  August 8, 2022. NewsBank: Access World News” Historical and Current.


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Is Sunscreen Killing Our Coral Reefs? Copyright © 2022 by Hannah Vander Meulen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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