Florida considers ban on certain sunscreens to protect coral reefs

Scientists say some sunscreen chemicals harm marine life

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Weeks after city commissioners in Key West voted to ban the sale of certain sunscreens in hopes of protecting nearby coral reefs, state Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) filed a bill that would expand that sunscreen ban statewide.

The proposed legislation seeks to prohibit the sale of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which scientists have concluded are harmful to coral reefs and marine life.

If approved by the state lawmakers and the governor, the proposed ban would take effect July 1.

In 2018, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to ban sunscreens containing those chemicals.

Last month, city officials in Key West approved a similar ban.

"To me it boils right down to the fact that there are thousands of sunscreens out there and we have one reef.  And we have an opportunity to do one small thing to protect that," Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said. "I believe it's our obligation."

Prior to Key West commissioners approving the ban, representatives with the Consumer Healthcare Products Association argued that the science linking the chemicals to coral reef damage is inconclusive.

"For CHPA, this issue is about public health," the industry trade group said in a statement. "The stakes are far too high to rush into this product ban, especially when there are no proven benefits to coral reef if you go forward with the ban."

The sales ban in Key West and Hawaii goes into effect in 2021.

University of Central Florida Associate Professor John Fauth took part in a 2015 study that concluded oxybenzone contributed to coral bleaching, damaged DNA in adult coral and deformed coral larvae DNA.

"In the areas where you've got a lot of these chemical sunscreens going into the water, those corals aren't going to come back," Fauth told CNN.

Many sunscreen manufacturers produce lotions and sprays that do not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, including Orlando-based Caribbean Sol.

"Our dad dreamed up Caribbean Sol after working on pool decks and beaches selling brand-name sunscreen," said Brooke Strasser, a company sales and marketing representative.  "He noticed what the sunscreen was doing, not only to the marine life, but to the boats and his skin."

Sean Shanks, the founder's son, who serves as Caribbean Sol's director of business development, told News 6 that even waterproof sunscreens can quickly come in contact with coral and marine life.

"You know the rainbow film (on the surface of water) that gasoline creates?  There's a haze film around where you just jumped in with those (sunscreen) chemicals washing off of your skin," said Shanks, who claims his company's mineral-based sunscreen creates fewer maintenance issues for swimming pools.

Caribbean Sol sunscreen is distributed to employees and guests at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove who swim with the marine life there because the theme park operator believes the sunscreen is safe for their animals.

"We've grown up preaching (about natural sunscreen).  It's the only products we've ever used when we go to the beach," said Strasser.  "It's crazy to think that something we've known about our whole life, the public is just now figuring out.  And they're listening now."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.