STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, the governor of Hawaii is expected to sign the world's first ban on sunscreen sales. Research shows chemicals in some sunscreens may harm coral reefs. So the ban is good for coral, but what about people and their skin? Although the ban does not go into effect for another three years, people are asking about alternatives. NPR's April Fulton has more.
APRIL FULTON, BYLINE: The sunscreens Hawaii is banning include the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. And that's a big deal because 70 percent of sunscreens on the U.S. market contain oxybenzone. Jay Sirois is with the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents sunscreen makers.
JAY SIROIS: We're taking away a product that has been shown over the course of time to be safe and effective.
FULTON: But some studies have found that oxybenzone contributes to the death of baby coral.
CRAIG DOWNS: When they come across oxybenzone, they just encase themselves in their own skeleton, effectively killing them.
FULTON: That's biologist Craig Downs. He runs the Haereticus Environmental Lab in Clifford, Va. And it's his research that prompted Hawaii's ban.
DOWNS: Sunscreen pollution doesn't kill all the world's coral reefs. It threatens coral reefs that are most important to people.
FULTON: Hawaii welcomes about 9 million tourists a year. That's a lot of people wearing sunscreen. But Jay Sirois says the study only looked at coral in the lab. And in the ocean, there are lots of other factors contributing to coral death.
SIROIS: We feel there's a number of flaws in the study. We feel that there's a much bigger body of evidence out there that demonstrates that there are other more proximate causes.
LISA CHIPPS: This ban confuses consumers.
FULTON: That's dermatologist Lisa Chipps, who has a practice in Beverly Hills. She worries the ban may discourage people from wearing sunscreen when they're finally getting the message that the sun's rays are really damaging.
CHIPPS: The cumulative ultraviolet damage that our skin receives every single day damages the cells and predisposes us to skin cancers as well as aging.
FULTON: If your favorite sunscreen's on the list, there are other options. The FDA has approved 16 active ingredients for sunscreens. So check the label. They don't all contain banned chemicals. Or you could use a mineral-based sunscreen that protects skin by reflecting the sun's rays. Whatever you choose, here are the important things to consider.
CHIPPS: As a general rule, most patients should be wearing a sunscreen that is an SPF of 30 or higher and that is broad spectrum to protect against both UVA and UVB damage.
FULTON: But how much attention are people really paying to their sunscreen? I went to sunny Santa Monica Pier to find out.
Do you know what's in your sunscreen?
DEBBIE LAB: Absolutely not.
FULTON: Do you have it with you?
FULTON: Let's take a look - avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene. OK. You might actually be OK.
That's Debbie Lab from Denver. With that sunscreen, she'd passed the Hawaii test. But, really, the best thing you can do to protect your skin is cover up with hats and clothing and stay out of the sun between 10 and 2 when it's really strong. April Fulton, NPR News, Los Angeles.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.