FL Senate votes to block cities from banning some sunscreens, while FDA casts doubt on ingredient safety

Lawmakers in Hawaii move to broaden their sunscreen ban

Sunscreens resist skin cancer but ones with certain ingredients are believed to harm Florida corals. The FDA isn't sure they're safe for humans either. Photo: Catherine Ledner

The Florida Senate has voted to block cities from banning certain sunscreens, claiming use of the products should be encouraged to help protect people from skin cancer, despite concerns about the products’ impact on coral reefs.

But in Hawaii, state lawmakers are moving to outlaw many sunscreens due to human health concerns raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to Hawaii’s state legislative website.

At issue is safety  — whether certain ingredients in sunscreens are safe for humans — as well as environmental problems: Ingredients in certain sunscreens are believed to harm coral reefs.

Florida Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican from north-central Florida and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sponsored the “Florida Drug and Cosmetic Act” chiefly to prevent Key West and any other city or county from banning certain sunscreens implicated in the decline of Florida’s coral reefs.

The Senate approved the legislation Wednesday evening on a 25-14 vote with no debate.

Last week, in the Senate Rules Committee, Bradley told senators, “Sunscreen is the first line of defense against skin cancer. I think it’s very important to encourage, not discourage, the use of sunscreen.”

Cheeca Rocks is one of the seven coral reefs under threat from disease and poor water quality that is targeted for rescue efforts. Credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, sponsored early legislation that would have banned only those sunscreens that contain chemicals harmful to corals, but her proposal was quashed as Bradley’s advanced. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cites multiple studies blaming certain ingredients for killing or deforming corals.

On Wednesday, she and 13 other senators opposed Bradley’s bill preempting the right of local governments to adopt sunscreen restrictions in their own jurisdictions.

“We need to protect our corals. They are in big trouble,” Stewart explained earlier this month.

Local authorities in Key West want to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, arguing that those chemicals pollute their waters and sicken corals. Hawaii voted last year to ban those types of sunscreens to protect their reefs. Other types of sunscreen are approved for use.

Similar bans followed in Palau, Aruba, Bonaire, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Marshall Islands.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are among six chemicals now being studied by the FDA for possible ill effects on humans.

This news from the FDA prompted a group of Hawaiian lawmakers to introduce bipartisan, bicameral legislation broadening the state’s sunscreen restrictions to ban all sunscreens no longer designated by the FDA as “safe and effective.” Two sunscreen ingredients, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, both widely available, are still categorized as safe and effective, and they are not suspected of harming corals.

On Jan. 21, FDA researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the six active ingredients most often used in sunscreens are “systemically absorbed” into human skin in concentrations that require the FDA to look into potential health risks.

All six, tested in four different forms on 48 people over the course of 21 days, “exceeded the threshold” set by the FDA to trigger toxicology studies of sunscreen products.

In fact, “this threshold was surpassed on day 1 after a single application for all active ingredients,” the report in JAMA says.

The six sunscreen ingredients now in question are avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate.

The FDA stressed that the necessity for further study of the six ingredients does not necessarily mean they are dangerous to human health, nor did the FDA recommend those sunscreens not be used in the interim. However, pending further study, the FDA also cannot say whether they are safe or harmful.

The Environmental Working Group, which periodically publishes a “Guide to Sunscreens,” concurs that the FDA should evaluate the safety of all sunscreen ingredients, including the two associated with coral-reef damage.

“Many sunscreen chemicals are absorbed into the body and can be measured in blood, breast milk and urine samples,” the EWG says on its website in a report titled “The Trouble with Ingredients in Sunscreens.”

“For these reasons, the Food and Drug Administration is now proposing significant changes in how sunscreen ingredients are evaluated for safety,” the report continues.

“FDA is proposing that all current and potential new ingredients be adequately tested for safety, including with studies to determine whether the ingredients penetrate the skin and can cause endocrine disruption, cancer or other health harms.”