Soon, beachgoers won’t be able to buy certain top-selling sunscreens along parts of the Florida Keys.
The Key West City Commission has voted to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals shown to damage coral reefs. Beginning in January 2021, Key West will ban such sunscreens from sale within city limits — taking a cue from Hawaii, which became the first state to pass a similar ban.
“To me, this is a pretty black-and-white issue,” Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said before the vote.
“There are thousands of sunscreens out there, and we have one reef,” she added. “And we have an opportunity to do one small thing to protect that. I believe it’s our obligation.”
Though sunscreen brands such as Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic sell some products without oxybenzone and octinoxate, there are still many containing those chemicals on drugstore shelves.
For years, oxybenzone and octinoxate have been used to protect people’s skin from UV radiation, but some research has shown that skin care products containing these chemicals can wash off the skin while swimming or bathing and seep into the water, causing damage to coral reefs.
Johnston said that the Great Florida Reef, which is the largest reef in the continental United States, is vital to the tourist town both environmentally and economically and that banning the sunscreens containing those toxins was simply “the right thing to do.”
She added that it seemed to her there were adequate nontoxic sunscreens that would protect people’s skin as well as marine life.
While the city can’t keep visitors from bringing banned sunscreens to its beaches, it can discourage them, she added.
An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually, according to the National Park Service. Researchers testing effects of sunscreen on corals explain that chemicals in sunscreen can awaken coral viruses. The coral then becomes sick and expel their life-giving algae. Without these algae, the coral “bleaches” and often dies.
Last summer, Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige signed a bill that banned skin-care companies from selling and distributing sunscreens on the islands that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. The bill was opposed by various companies and businesses and even some dermatologists who worried it might discourage people from wearing sunscreen.
The U.S. Geological Survey has called America’s coral reefs “imperiled national treasures,” stating that the limestone structures under the sea are “dying at alarming rates.”
That’s a problem for both marine animals and humans because, in addition to protecting sea creatures, coral reefs provide food, medication and tourism jobs for people, which has been valued at $30 billion to $172 billion per year, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“Unfortunately, people also pose the greatest threat to coral reefs,” according to the Smithsonian.
“Overfishing and destructive fishing, pollution, warming, changing ocean chemistry and invasive species are all taking a huge toll. In some places, reefs have been entirely destroyed, and in many places reefs today are a pale shadow of what they once were.”