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What’s The Future Of Sunscreen In Florida? Environmentalists And Doctors Burn In Disagreement

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After Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed $76 million in continued state funding for Visit Florida in February, the Senate proposed $50 million for the agency, but not without a catch — it can’t promote any community that bans certain sunscreens.

The announcement comes just eight months after Hawaii’s state legislature passed a sunscreen ban in an effort to preserve the state’s coral reef system, which will take effect in early 2021. The Key West City Commission quickly followed suit six months later, voting 6-1 to pass an ordinance banning any sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate Feb. 5.

Hawaii and Key West have banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, a chemical that can harm coral reefs. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

As a result, a handful of sunscreen-related bills have seen traction in this year’s legislative session.

A proposed ban on sunscreen restrictions that has seen movement is SB 588, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson R-St. Augustine. The bill, which initially preempted local governments from passing ordinances banning single-use plastic straws, was later amended to include “over-the-counter proprietary drugs or cosmetics” — including sunscreen.

“I don’t think local governments should limit anyone’s options for sun protection,” Hutson said in a direct statement to Fresh Take Florida.

Hutson’s bill is on the Community Affairs Committee April 2 agenda.

On the other side of the debate, Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, proposed SB708, which would prohibit the sale of sunscreen that could damage coral reefs.

While supported by environmental organizations, Stewart’s bill has raised concerns for Florida dermatologists, who advocate for proper sun protection.

The bill would require prescriptions for certain sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common chemicals found in the most popular sunscreen brands, including Coppertone and Neutrogena.

“We need to be less careless about the things that we use and their impact to Florida’s water, lakes, streams and oceans,” said Stewart, who sponsored the bill after being approached by environmental groups like the Surfrider Foundation. “We have to be very conscious of what chemicals we put in our water, or even in the ground.”

The bill was referred Feb. 15 to the Environment and Natural Resources and Commerce and Tourism committees and lacks a companion bill in the House, Stewart said.

With time running out in Florida’s 2019 legislative session, Stewart does not believe the bill will be heard, she said.

“There’s a lot of pros and cons coming in, but it’s getting short on time,” Stewart said. “But, it might need to be tweaked a bit more.”

Stewart is asking the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to collect data from different studies in an effort to highlight the chemicals’ harm on coral reef systems, she said. Stewart is also considering adding a grace period in a future bill, to allow sunscreen distributors time to phase out their product.

“Some of the larger industry people do not like it at all because their sunscreen contains that ingredient that has been removed from Hawaiian Tropic and other large distributors of sunscreen,” Stewart said.

Still, the future of sunscreen in Florida remains uncertain. The apparent lack of data on the chemicals’ impact on coral reefs deeply concerns some state dermatologists, who constantly advocate for consistent sun protection.

Andrew Weinstein, president of the Florida Society of Dermatology, expressed two main concerns with Stewart’s proposed bill. The first is the lack of any compelling university-based data on the chemicals’ impact, and the second is that his patients might be discouraged from wearing sunscreen in environments where they need it, he said.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are an important filter for proper sun protection, Weinstein said. Most sunscreens contain these chemicals because they work and because there has been no effective substitute, he added.

“If it were proven to harm the reefs, we would need to find a substitute for sunscreen,” Weinstein said. “But that isn’t the case. There’s as much evidence of spicy mustard causing coral bleaching as oxybenzone.”

Weinstein said that the resources currently being used to encourage a ban on these chemicals from sunscreen could be used for more important environmental issues like pollution and other causes for coral bleaching, he said.

“This is a community that is looking for a perpetrator of an unsolved murder, and they’ve got the wrong guy,” Weinstein said. “It’s dangerous because it takes away the resources needed for solving the bigger problem.”

Weinstein hopes the Florida Senate finds a way to pre-empt local municipalities from enacting their own bans. Key West and Hawaii acted too quickly and irresponsibly to consider any valuable data, he argues.

“I’m fighting a losing battle with people who already don’t wear sunscreen, Weinstein said. “I agree we need to do something, just not at the expense of my patients.”

About Max Chesnes

Max is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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