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The Story Behind The Maui Community Leading Hawaii’s Sunscreen Ban


Kai Kanani Sailing’s Captain Anthony DellaFave, a steward of the ocean, says that for the past 10 years he was concerned seeing the sunscreen oil residue concentrated around Maui’s most beautiful snorkeling spots.

Every day, Captain Anthony and his team of talented Captains and Crew take passengers out to the small crescent shaped island of Molokini just off the South Shore of Maui to take in the ocean’s beauty above and below. People from all over the world come to experience Hawaii’s aquatic life of sea creatures living in the reef— spotted moray eels, octopus, red-pencil sea urchin, multi-colored parrot fish, yellow and black masked raccoon butterfly fish, our state fish humuhumunukunukuapua’a, and the beloved green sea turtles, just to name a few.

What many of these ocean enthusiasts don’t realize is that the small amount of sunscreen on their bodies collects in the reefs. To be specific 14,000 tons of sunscreen collect in the world’s reefs every year, according to a 2015 paper published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons end up caught in Hawaii’s coral reefs.

Most sunscreens contain chemicals called oxybenzone and octinoxate to reflect UV rays. The report found that these chemicals pose a significant hazard to Hawaiian coral reefs and reduce their resilience to climate change.

According to a recent study out of Tel Aviv University, toxicity occurs at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion. That’s the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool. Even small amounts of the chemicals make algae in the coral susceptible to viral infection. Algae live in symbiotic relationship with coral, conducting photosynthesis and providing coral with food. Chemical sunscreens also change the DNA in coral cells, causing the cells to starve and die. Coral can recover, but not if the reef continues to become stressed or if bleaching continues to kill off coral.


On July 3, 2018 the Kai Kanani staff cheered as Governor David Ige signed the sunscreen ban bill and made environmental conservation history. Hawaii became the first state to pass legislation banning the sale and distribution of sunscreen containing chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate that scientists have found contribute to coral bleaching when washed off into the ocean. The new rules will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

“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 Hawaii’s coral reefs,” said Gov. Ige.


Hannah Bernard, Executive Director of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, a non-profit wildlife conservation organization has been spearheading one of the leading grassroots organizations in preserving Hawaii’s coral reefs. Bernard confirms, “There’s no denying, we’re living in a time where our oceans are seriously degraded, and losing 50% of our reefs worldwide was something we didn’t expect to see happen, and it’s happening.”

The “El Nino” warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific in 1998 and 2014 caused two reef bleaching events according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2015, the strongest El Nino ever reported caused a massive global bleaching episode. During that event, half of the coral reefs around the world died. When coral reefs die, so do ecosystems that support fish habitats, and as a result shoreline protection and coastal economies are greatly affected.

Bernard said an “astounding awakening” happened after the announcement of the 2015 bleaching event.


 Bernard looks back, “After the data was published in the fall of 2015, the news became public which we learned about in this study and all of us in the scientific community in Hawaii and educators, we basically got alarmed and started talking to each other about what we were going to do. And at the same time, the scientist Craig Downs who did the study got engaged in helping us to organize the campaign. He helped us to get the legislation written and passed.”

That began the start of a massive grassroots effort in Maui with conservationists, scientists, industry leaders, dermatologist, and Kai Kanani’s partnership with Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Looking back at the start of the coral reef conservation movement, Captain Anthony recounts how it all came together  “Information started coming out about the use of sunscreens while we started working with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund,”

Bernard knew that Kai Kanani was not going to sit back in the face of this serious decline of the reef. “Kai Kanani took a stand before it was even law, a year and a half ago, teaching people how to take care of the reef through their Reef Safe sunscreen campaign. They did not even hesitate to set this program in motion. It was very quick to come to an agreement that we needed to address this.”

Kai Kanani Sailing hired Bernard to educate staff, speak twice a week to passengers and develop the Reef Safe campaign. The campaign informs customers about reef safe sunscreen from the moment they make a reservation for a boat trip. The company’s reservation confirmation page states that the company will not allow any chemical sunscreens to be used and will provide reef safe sunscreen at no cost to passengers. The next reef safe explainer for passengers happens at the safety lesson prior to boarding the boat. On the boat, the sailing staff offers everyone an opportunity to grab as much as they need of the company’s reef safe sunscreen.

Bernard says with admiration, “This company is so committed to conservation and their commitment is deep. They bring me out twice a week and they’ve been supporting our sea turtle conservation for the last 18 years. They were leaders in getting these sunscreen chemicals banned because they offered an alternative and helped raise awareness. That’s absolutely empowering the community to take action locally to help support the race globally.”

“It’s a massive contribution. Companies like Kai Kanani that are willing to put their money where their mouth is even before it’s mandatory law, they’re seeing an opportunity here to teach people how to better take care of the reefs. These are the heroes, and it makes me proud of our partnership.”


Captain Anthony points out, “There are natural stressors, and then there are man-made stressors like sunscreen. If we can do our part to not put that in the water, why wouldn’t you?”

He said thoughtfully, “People coming to Maui are more educated now. Tourists are doing more research [and want to know what they can do to help]. If you show them it’s the simple things that can make big shifts, they can be part of the solution. It gives the power to them to make a change.”

“The great thing about a place like Maui, it’s big but it’s really not that big so if you want you can actually affect pretty significant change.”

Bernard sees that Maui has the ability to be an environmental leader. “Maui is quite often the leader. We were the ones to get the plastic bag ban started. It became state-wide after the ban passed on Maui. Maui also took the poly-styrofoam ban and ran with it. What happens is in Maui, we start locally, and then the state follows suit. So that same thing happened with the sunscreen, then it started on Maui, and the rest of the state joined in very quickly.”

Bernard says it starts with passion. It’s a combination of activists, conservationists, scientific Hawaiian community, business owners like Kai Kanani and the visitors who love the natural beauty and are willing to take a stand for it. Captain Anthony says it’s about being informed and making the choice.


What sunscreens are allowed in Hawaii? The law does not go into effect to ban chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate until January 2021, but Captain Anthony and the Kai Kanani staff encourage people to wear reef safe mineral-based sunscreen and non-nano zinc-oxides.

Nano-particles are minerals crushed into microscopic bits. The danger with nano-particles is they can be so small and ingested by the reef and possibly absorbed in through the skin. The crew also dissuade the use of spray-on sunscreens. Besides inhaling harmful chemicals, the wind blows the sunscreen mist onto the boat, the food, and into the ocean.

Captain Anthony said even better sun protection is to wear a hat and clothing with SPF (sun protection factor). “My dermatologist told me years ago never to use the chemical stuff because you can trace it into your bloodstream in less than 20 minutes.”


Bernard talks about chemical sunscreens being studied as harmful not only to fish, but also to the food chain and possibly harmful to humans, “But the research is not fully complete, [showing] that it was an endocrine disruptor, that it was going to affect people’s immune systems and possibly reproductive organs. It was close to being called a carcinogen.”

“This causes us to really look at what we do, what are we putting on our skin? What are we putting in our mouths? You know, it’s just an astounding awakening. I think that’s what’s happened for everybody to look at what’s on the label, that oxybenzone is bad for humans.”

Bernard and Captain Anthony both have the same advice— consider making choices that enable you to enjoy the ocean year after year and generations to come to do the same.

Bernard reflects, “This is a story of the community of people who love the ocean, seeing a way that we can help in our small way, to begin to help be a part of the solution. Instead of feeling like we’re the problem, we’re beginning to see our own role in the degradation of the ocean. And then that just taps into that human goodness, the side of us that’s wanting to have a brighter future for the next generation.”


Want to know more about Reef-Safe Sunscreen? Check out more information from Maui Nui Marine Resource Council here.

Written by Angeline Longshore