Key West will soon ban sunscreens that hurt coral reefs. Here’s what you should look for in your products.

  • Last week, the Key West City Commission voted to ban the sale of sunscreens containing chemicals that are killing coral reefs and other marine life, the Washington Post reported.
  • The measure, which passed seven to zero, will ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, which kill coral by leaching out all its nutrients.
  • Florida is not the first state to do this: In July, Hawaii Gov.David Ige signed a bill that bans sunscreens containing these two chemicals.
  • About 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs each year, one study estimates – and it can even get into the ocean through your shower.

Last week, the Key West City Commission passed a measure that would ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, the Washington Post reported on Monday. The measure, which will receive a mandatory second vote on February 3, is an attempt to help save the coral reefs in Florida.

“This is to me something we need to do in this community to protect our economy. What if we don’t pass this and three to five years down the road we have no reef,” City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, who sponsored the measure, told the Washington Post.

“It’s not the major cause of the loss of our reef, but this is one reason we can do something about,” he added. “We can take a step to eliminate those chemicals going into our water.”

The chemicals in sunscreens suck the nutrients out of coral life

A 2015 study from the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found that two kinds of chemicals commonly found in sunscreen – oxybenzone and octinoxate – kill coral reefs by leaching out all their nutrients.

One of the chemicals, oxybenzone, can be found in at least 3,500 skin care products, according to HuffPost.

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“The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly,” researchers wrote in the 2015 study, which also reported that about 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion make its way into coral reefs around the world each year.

But even a tiny amount of sunscreen containing oxybenzone could be enough to cause harm to corals. The equivalent to a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools is enough to do damage, according to the Washington Post.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t the only way sunscreen spreads to the reefs.

Coral reef fish ocean sea
Hawaii is set to ban sunscreens containing chemicals that researchers say kill coral reefs and harm other ocean life. Getty Images

“The most direct evidence we have is from beaches with a large amount of people in the water,” John Fauth, co-author of the study, told The Post when it was published. “But another way is through the wastewater streams. People come inside and step into the shower. People forget it goes somewhere.”

Florida is following Hawaii, which banned these chemically-laden sunscreens in May

Florida is not the first state trying to save the reefs by banning certain sunscreen.

In July, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed a bill that prohibits the sale or distribution of over-the-counter sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The law, which will not include prescription sunscreens containing those chemicals, will go into effect January 2021.

Hawaii beach
About 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs each year. Getty Images

“Amazingly, this is a first-in-the-world law,” Hawaii state Sen. Mike Gabbard told the Honolulu Star Advertiser in May when the bill was first propose. “So, Hawaii is definitely on the cutting edge by banning these dangerous chemicals in sunscreens. When you think about it, our island paradise, surrounded by coral reefs, is the perfect place to set the gold standard for the world to follow. This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health.”

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Some initially criticised the ban, arguing that it might discourage people to wear sunscreen.

A ban on these sunscreens in Hawaii – the state with the highest daily UV index warnings and very high rates of skin cancer and melanoma – would be a public health disaster,” Doug Johnson, a dermatologist and spokesman for the Hawaii Dermatology Society, wrote in a column for the Honolulu Civil Beat.

Studies show, however, that losing our coral reefs would have devastating effects on sea life and the world economy and food supply.


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