Bill requiring prescription for most sunscreens called 'terrible' idea by experts

A Florida state senator is proposing a new bill that would require people to get a physician’s prescription for chemical sunscreen. (Photo: Getty Images)
A Florida state senator is proposing a new bill that would require people to get a physician’s prescription for chemical sunscreen. (Photo: Getty Images)

Most sunscreens in Florida will only be available by prescription if a state senator gets her way.

Florida senator Linda Stewart is proposing a new bill that would require people in the state to get a physician’s prescription for sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate — two popular ingredients that have already been banned in Hawaii (and will soon be followed by Key West, Fla., in 2021) “due to their harmful effect on the coral reefs,” according to a 2018 study. Another found that the ingredients can possibly lead to “coral reef bleaching,” potentially shortening their lifespan, and when found in fish, may affect the food chain.

“It really is for the survival of our coral reefs and fishery,” Stewart told Fox35. If the bill passes, it would go into effect in July 2020.

But not everyone is happy about the proposed bill, with some dermatologists arguing that making it harder to access sunscreen can have negative consequences. “We know that these ingredients that she’s trying to ban are in like 70 to 80 percent of all commercially available sunscreens,” J. Matthew Knight, MD, the president of the Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, told Fox35. “It’s way too soon on something like this. We feel like it’s a terrible idea.”

Knight added that restricting access to sunscreen would “increase the melanoma epidemic in our state.”

Jeremy Fenton, MD, a dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, agrees: “Making some types of sunscreens by prescription only may reduce the use of sunscreen overall, leading to an increase in skin cancer,” Fenton tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Sunscreens are the most important tool in preventing skin cancer, which can be deadly. Anything that restricts or places a barrier to access could have a negative impact on the health of many patients.”

Fenton continues: “Requiring people to go to their doctor to get a prescription for sunscreen could also increase cost in the healthcare system and restrict access to sunscreen if people have limited or costly healthcare.”

However, Fenton also acknowledges the potential harm in using these chemicals. “There are some ingredients in sunscreen that are possibly harmful to the coral reefs, and we must balance the availability of these products along with protecting our environment,” he says. “These include two common ingredients that are targeted in this bill: oxybenzone and octinoxate. The data, however, is controversial, and the American Academy of Dermatology’s official statement is that the environmental risks have not been proven.”

Susan Massick, MD, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the proposed legislation is “misguided.” “There is no doubt that coral reefs around the world are dying, and efforts must be made to save them and to protect the environment,” says Massick, who adds that we need additional research on the potential relationship between chemical sunscreens and coral reefs to establish a true cause and effect. “However, requiring prescriptions for certain sunscreens will not necessarily provide greater protection for coral reefs and may, in fact, create a greater health impact.”

Massick explains that one of the most effective ways to prevent skin cancer is to avoid sunburns and excessive sun exposure. “Sun protection, such as the use of sunscreens, can have a true impact for skin cancer prevention, especially those related to ultraviolet sun exposure, like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, and the potentially more aggressive form of skin cancer, melanoma. Restricting use of these products by prescription only may lead people to forego use of sunscreen completely over the use of alternative products.”

In a statement provided to Yahoo Lifestyle, the Florida senator, Stewart, said: “My proposal does not discourage the use of sunscreen — I agree with doctors about the short- and long-term benefits of wearing sunscreen and encourage everyone to do so. My bill would simply require sunscreen available over-the-counter in Florida to be free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals which research has shown contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs, lead[s] to deformities in fish and other aquatic life, and threaten[s] the general health of our oceans.”

Stewart added: “Some companies have already re-formulated their sunscreens, and many ‘Reef Safe’ sunscreens are already widely-available without these chemicals. However, some companies would rather ignore the environmental impacts to protect their bottom line, and I won't stand for it.”

In the meantime, for those looking for alternatives, there are a few — namely, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens. “These sunscreens not only present a much lower risk of harm to the environment, but also provide some of the best broad spectrum sun protection,” says Fenton. “Although the best sunscreen is the one that you are going to use regularly, I always recommend my patients choose a zinc oxide sunscreen for a number of reasons. Zinc oxide provides excellent full spectrum UVA and UVB protection, does not degrade with sun exposure, and is less likely to irritate the skin or induce an allergic reaction.”

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