Key West Bans Certain Sunscreens to Protect Coral Reefs

It’s difficult to imagine a tropical paradise without its thriving marine life.

Exotic species, blue water, and colorful coral reefs are the mainstays of any idyllic beach setting, though as obstacles such as climate change and pollution wreak havoc on nature, these marvels are becoming few and far between.

Recently, though, cities and states on the frontlines of this crisis have been fighting back. Key West, Florida, voted to ban the sale of certain sunscreens linked to coral reef bleaching at a February City Commission meeting. By a margin of 6-1, the Commission banned the sale of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

A growing body of evidence finds that these chemicals will leach the coral of its nutrients and bleach it white, causing disruption to ocean life development. Just six miles off the Keys, the only living coral reef in North America exists, and the stark reality of its extinction has prompted action.

“We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that,” said Mayor Teri Johnson prior to the vote. “It’s our obligation.”

Over one hour of public testimony on the issue preceded the final decision, with both scientists and business sector lobbyists attempting to push the vote in different directions. Forensic ecotoxicologist, Craig Downs, restated the findings of his 2015 peer-reviewed study as to how oxybenzone is destroying coral life, and chief science and research officer at Florida Keys Community College, Patrick Rice, discussed the ways oil properties from these chemicals float to the surface of the water and therefore contaminate it.

Unsurprisingly, the billion-dollar sunscreen industry fought against the ban and found company in industry lobbyists and some dermatologists, claiming that it would discourage sunscreen use altogether. Despite releasing statements to “urge Key West City citizens and Commissioners to halt the proposal for a sunscreen ban, and encourage the city to conduct more research,” these tactics ultimately failed.

The National Park Service reports that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off into reef areas annually, and recommends swimmers use sunscreens containing titanium oxide or zinc oxide, ingredients not found to be harmful to coral reefs.

Key West’s adoption of this ban on harmful chemicals aligns them with other regions fighting wildlife destruction. In spring 2018, Hawaiian lawmakers passed a bill to also prohibit the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens containing both  oxybenzone and octinoxate. At the time, it was a “first-in-the-world law,” and campaigns raising awareness of coral destruction even prompted the development of all-natural sunblock products.

Though the decision to ban these sunscreens might temporarily inconvenience storeowners and beachgoers, the move is undoubtedly one that will help preserve and extend the life of one of the ocean’s most beautiful life forms.