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Why Floridians are fighting over sunscreen bans

The Sunshine State is at odds over sunscreen.

Florida's state senate is expected to vote as soon as next week on a measure that would prevent cities in the state from prohibiting the sale of certain kinds of sunscreen containing chemicals that environmentalists say are harmful to the state's prized coral reefs.

Sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley, the bill would block Key West from enforcing an anti-sunscreen ordinance scheduled to take effect in January 2021.

The island city known for its coral reefs and as a destination for snorkeling last year chose to ban sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which studies have found can contribute to coral bleaching. 

As much as 70% of sunscreens sold in the U.S. contain oxybenzone — including some products from leading brands such as Coppertone and Neutrogena — while up to 8% contain octinoxate (often called octyl methoxycinnamate on labels), according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, or CHPA, which represents sunscreen makers. 

"Why wouldn't we allow a community to regulate that when their entire economy and way of life [is] based on the health of their coral reefs?" Holly Parker Curry, part of the Surfrider Foundation, told one Florida news outlet. The environmental group cited National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data in estimating that tourism around Florida's coral reef accounts for more than 70,000 full- and part-time jobs. 

State lawmaker Bradley, however, argues that sunscreens are critical in preventing skin cancer, calling the products the "first line of defense" against melanoma. "Because sun is such an important part of our daily life and the experiences of those who visit our state, one of the unfortunate and often tragic side effects of that way of life is that Florida ranks second in the nation when it comes to rates of new melanoma cases," he told local media outlets.

Under Bradley's bill, the state would block local regulations of all over-the-counter drugs and cosmetics, including sunscreens and makeup. An identical bill has been approved by two committees in the Florida House. It's not clear if Florida's governor would sign the measure. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill last year that would have barred local governments from banning plastic straws.

While Florida may or may not allow Key West to enact its ban, Hawaii, another state that treasures its coral reefs, has banned sunscreens containing the chemicals in question. It takes effect in 2021. 

Sunscreen facts and fictions: Breaking down the science of sun protection 02:53

"Banning oxybenzone and octinoxate – key ingredients in effective sunscreens on the market – will drastically and unnecessarily reduce the selection of safe and effective sunscreen products available to residents and visitors," the CHPA said in a statement after Hawaii passed the measure. 

In addition to potentially harming coral reefs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week said it was seeking more information about sunscreen ingredients after tests found four of the most common UV filters in chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the body.

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