The island nation in the western Pacific wants to protect its coral reefs from toxic sunscreen runoff.
Palau is the first country to ban "reef-toxic" sunscreens. It passed a law this week banning sunscreens that contain any one of ten chemicals, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are the same chemicals targeted in Hawaii's chemical sunscreen ban earlier this year. (Full list of Palau's banned chemicals here.)
Palau, which is home to 500 islands and over 21,000 people in the Micronesia region of the Pacific Ocean, is drawing ever greater numbers of tourists, but with this has come environmental degradation. Palau's president, Tommy Remengesau, Jr., issued a statement, saying that citizens must not relinquish their responsibility for their islands:
"We must meet our duty, at every opportunity, to educate international visitors about how Palau has lasted in this uniquely untouched natural state for so long, and about how we can keep it this way."
Part of this education plan is to ban the sale of chemical sunscreens as of January 2020. Retailers must stop importing the products immediately, but have until that date to sell off remaining inventory. After that, anyone caught breaking the ban will face a fan of up to $1,000. (Interestingly, the new law also says that tour operators must provide reusable food containers, water bottles, and straws to all customers.)
Evidence is mounting for the damaging effects of sunscreen chemicals on sensitive coral reefs. I wrote at the time of Hawaii's ban:
"Oxybenzone and octinoxate leach nutrients from coral, bleach it white, and reduce its resiliency in the face of climate change. NPR writes that 'even a small drop is enough to damage delicate corals.' The chemicals are known endocrine disrupters, causing feminization of male fish, reproductive diseases, and embryonic deformation. Haereticus Environmental Laboratory says that oxybenzone is harmful to all mammals."
A spokesman for the president told NPR that "a big impetus for this legislation's passing was a 2017 report from the Coral Reef Research Foundation which found widespread sunscreen toxins in Jellyfish Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site and highly popular tourist attraction."
An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers' skin and end up in coral reefs every year, so it is a lifestyle habit that needs to be seriously rethought. Fortunately there are more and more non-chemical sunscreens available that use physical blocks, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, rather than chemical ones; so it's still possible to slather up without hurting the environment as much – that is, as long as the sunscreen doesn't come in plastic bottles!
Other research has shown that plastic waste is also devastating to coral reefs, as it blocks the flow of oxygen and light to the organism, pierces its surface, and acts as a vector for disease, which infects entire colonies. So if places like Palau and Hawaii are serious about protecting their coral reefs, they should also look at mandating plastic-free packaging for natural sunscreens, and yes, these do exist. Check out Raw Elements' metal tins, Avasol's cardboard tubes, and Butterbean Organics' metal tins and cardboard tubes!
Palau's decision is a sign of how a forward-looking government understands that environmental stewardship not only saves on cleanup costs, but also makes their nation a more desirable destination to live in and visit. Hopefully this is just the start of a global movement away from chemical sunscreens.