Florida Keys

What happens if Key West bans some sunscreens? Depends on where you stand

Key West spring breakers stop sunbathing long enough to greet a police horse at Smathers Beach.
Key West spring breakers stop sunbathing long enough to greet a police horse at Smathers Beach.

Key West city leaders on Tuesday will consider a proposal to ban the sale of certain sunscreens that contain two ingredients some scientists and activists say are harming the coral reef.

But the sunscreen industry and some doctors are fighting back, saying those two ingredients at issue, oxybenzone and octinoxate, prevent skin cancer and that without them skin cancer rates will rise dramatically. Banning them won’t save the reef, they say.

“Coral reefs have been disappearing for 50 years; these sunscreens have been around 25 years,” said Dr. Andy Weinstein, president of the Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgeons.

Weinstein, who sees about 8,000 cases of skin cancer at his small office in Boynton Beach, notes that those two ingredients are what make it possible to produce sunscreens with SPF percentages of 40 to 60.

“There’s no question that the skin cancer rates would increase in those who don’t have access to these sunscreens,” Weinstein said. “There will be fewer people using sunscreen in Key West. You’re going to have some finite increase in the rate of skin cancer.”

The Key West City Commission will take a first look and vote on the issue Tuesday during its 6 p.m. meeting at City Hall. A second vote at a future meeting is required to make it a law, punishable by a $100 fine.

If approved, the law wouldn’t go into effect for a year, giving retailers time to phase out the targeted sunscreens. After that, it will cost them $100 a sale if they deviate from the ordinance.

The issue could turn into an emotional fight Tuesday evening.

Reef Relief, a Keys environmental protection nonprofit group, has been rallying local people to show up in support of the sunscreen ban.

They believe Craig Downs, a scientist whose peer-reviewed study published in 2015 in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, showed oxybenzone was harmful to the reef. He helped inspire a similar ban by Hawaii, passed earlier this year.

Downs told the City Commission during a first discussion last month, “We’re not seeing new coral. Ninety-nine percent of Florida Keys coral coverage has disappeared in the last 50 years. You lose that last one percent, you’ve got nothing.”

One Florida dermatologist, who is also a Ph.D scientist, says he supports the ban on sunscreen containing the two ingredients. He said that sunscreen is only one layer of protection from the sun, along with clothing and sun shades.

“This proposed ordinance will not prevent people from being able to protect themselves,” said Dr. John Strasswimmer, a research professor of biochemistry and a clinical professor of dermatology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “If the ordinance goes into effect, people will still have a very good choice of environmentally friendly sunscreen available.”

Strasswimmer believes the chemical-based sunscreens with oxybenzone are harmful to the reef. As a scuba diver, he is concerned about the effects of sunscreen chemicals on the reef.

He prefers a mineral-based sunscreen, ones with zinc or titanium. The problem is, he sometimes travels to places where he doesn’t have an option.

“I always reach for a mineral sunscreen, that’s my personal preference,” Strasswimmer said. But often, when he takes flights, he can’t bring his own and sometimes has to settle for chemical-based sunscreens. “I use that when need be,” he said.

The pro-ban science is like going out on a limb, Weinstein said.

“Other researchers aren’t necessarily aligned with his perspective,” Weinstein said. “The last thing we want is a public health crisis being caused by bad environmental research. “

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Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.