Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Viddhi Patel (Journalist)  on 15th Oct 2020

What is Oxybenzone in sunscreen? A friend or a foe in disguise

What is Oxybenzone in sunscreen

Recent developments spiked concerns among researchers and experts about the possible side effects of chemicals, especially Oxybenzone, present in sunscreen on human health. Further studies do not exist to support the concerns yet, but there is a sense of confusion among consumers.

It’s morning, and you are happy and eager to walk towards work, college, or wherever you plan to go. What bugs you is the pricking sensation that the sun is showering you with.

The sun has been the nemesis of our skin for a long time, and we tackled it with SPF. We have applied, reapplied, and then applied some more to protect ourselves from the ultraviolet (UV) rays, a major player in health conditions like skin cancer. But recent headlines mounted around sunscreens suggest that our sun protectors come with a truckload of personal issues.  

What’s the deal?  

A lot of worrisome reports recently are concerned with the effects of sunscreens on health. Chemical ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone, which protect us from harmful UV rays, may have a different kind of impact on our health and the environment.

Experts are concerned about chemicals penetrating the skin and causing skin irritation or even skin cancer.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology continues to recommend SPFs with oxybenzone. The evidence is not robust enough to support concerns about the effects of these chemicals on human health, and so consumers are required to protect themselves and use sunscreens.

There's one development that's hard to ignore. Chemicals are allegedly ending up in oceans- killing and harming corals. Hawaii has, as a result, banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

There is a safe ground for both the parties, which can be found in titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreen- safe, effective, ideal for children, and apt for sensitive skin.  

What is Oxybenzone?

The standard filter, oxybenzone, found in sunscreen, is an active ingredient that filters UVA and UVB radiation. These rays are major skin cancer contributors. Filters like these are optimally designed to protect us from potentially life-threatening skin cancers.

Also known as benzophenone-3, oxybenzone is present in most OTC sunscreens, personal care, and skincare products. Oxybenzone is also found in plastics, toys, and some flowering plants. It performs a chemical reaction, converting the UV rays into heat and releasing it from the skin.

This sunscreen agent absorbs UVB and UVA ll rays, resulting in a photochemical excitation and absorption of energy. After returning to the ground state, the energy emits more prolonged wavelength radiation and decreases the skin penetration of radiation. This process reduces the risk of DNA damage.  

Why is Oxybenzone controversial?

The results of an online search may make you feel less sunny about slathering your body with these lotions and creams and make you question whether sunscreen is a friend or a foe.

Called out for “potential hormone disruptor,” oxybenzone is allegedly said to interfere with the endocrine system, which regulates biological processes like metabolism, growth and development, reproduction and sexual function, thyroid function, and more.

However, the clinical significance of these allegations and concerns are non-existent. Dr. Dray has reinforced that the sunscreens available are harmless to human health, but if there are concerns, one may use mineral filters.  

The buzz around the absorption of oxybenzone 

The concerns are also mainly due to the large amount in which it is absorbed in the skin. Oxybenzone has reportedly caused high rates of allergic reactions in people.

Some researchers found detectable oxybenzone levels in human blood and breast milk; animal studies also form a base of concern. Based on the scientific animal studies, there’s concern that it could interfere with the normal function of several hormones, including estrogen. 

Kids and oxybenzone

Pediatricians are concerned about its effects on fetuses, infants, and children as their endocrine systems and other organ systems are rapidly developing. Though there is no research proving the adverse effects of oxybenzone on children, there is a mounting concern.  

Smell a rat?  

Some evidence suggests that it disrupts animals’ hormones, but the study is not directly comparable to humans for various reasons.

The concerns stemmed from a small body of research indicated that oxybenzone, the UVA blocker, may mimic the effects of estrogen in the human body and promote the growth of cancer cells.

In 2001, the study found that rats who ate oxybenzone- infused food had a 23 percent increase in uterine size. But it is argued that the topical application and consumption through the mouth is different. Also, the dosage given to rats is unrealistic, and it would take an average-size American woman to use sunscreen to every inch of her body every day for nearly 277 years, to get the same dose of the chemical as the rats did. And there are no studies to confirm the allegations of harmful effects in humans.  

Oxybenzone has faced a ban 

Apart from the allegations about adverse effects on humans, the coral environment has been affected by oxybenzone and other chemical filters in sunscreen by the environmental working group (EWG).

It can damage sea urchins, cause reproductive issues in fish, and accumulate in the tissues of dolphins.

Following suit of Hawaii, Aruba, and many other places have banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone due to its possible ability to interfere with corals' natural reproduction and potentially kill them.  

Humans are good to go 

Oxybenzone tested on humans conclude that they do seem to absorb small levels via regular sunscreen use, but there was no proof that it set off hormonal changes or toxicity in the body. It sounds alarming that the chemical is absorbed in the skin, but this is a common occurrence with skincare products.

Conclusively, exposure to oxybenzone is safe through regular sunscreen use. And for people with reservations, sunscreens are also made without oxybenzone, though it may not be as effective in ultraviolet protection.  

Sunscreen is your savior 

Sunscreens protect you from potential skin hazards like rashes, sunburn, and even skin cancer. They come in various forms and differ according to the kinds of ingredients used.

Countering the recent bangarang, there is overwhelming evidence that sunscreen protects against skin cancer and other harmful effects of the sun. 

Fun fact: 

The margin of difference is minute between the higher number of SPFs. For instance, if SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, an SPF 50 sunscreen blocks about 98 percent UVB rays. It may seem like there is a huge difference between 30 and 50, but it is just one percent of the variance.
The bifurcation below is based on the ingredients, occurrence, and ways in which they work. 

Chemical sunscreens are like a sponge, absorbing harmful UV rays. They don’t leave any white residue and are easier to rub.

Oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate are active ingredients that chemical sunscreens contain.

Physical sunscreens are shield-like and sit on your skin’s surface, deflecting the sun’s rays. Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both are active ingredients present in physical sunscreens. Also known as mineral sunscreens, these are more optimal if you have sensitive skin.

You may not want to use sunscreens containing chemicals like oxybenzone and 12 others on infants and very young children due to rising concerns.

For you, mineral filters are safe, work just about fine, and don’t cause possible harm to the oceans. But since it deflects the rays instead of absorbing it, it is not as conveniently effective as chemical ones. 

The perfect sunscreen is...

Your sunscreen should be a good SPF 30 to SPF 50. It indicates how well it can protect against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays with broad-spectrum protection and water-resistant.

Also, look for UVA protection since it poses risks of its own. It should be UVA, broad-spectrum, or multi-spectrum protection.

Water-resistance helps the sunscreen stay for 40-80 minutes longer when sweat breaks or when you are underwater. They don’t claim to be waterproof and break down when you are wet.

Also, baby, sport, and waterproof sunscreens are mostly a sham. These are marketed to manipulate you into buying their products. There is no sunscreen as of now that is sweatproof or waterproof.

Apply your perfect sunscreen in every area that your clothes can’t cover.

It doesn’t end at sunscreen! 

Although you are lathered up with sunscreen and are perfectly cheery to go out in the sun, sunscreen alone cannot protect you entirely from vicious UV. There are several precautions you should take to protect your skin from the sun. As it won’t just kiss you, it will leave a mark and even age you.

Seek shade! Although the early sun is good for your skin, the rays turn deadly after 10:00 a.m. and should be avoided if possible.

Dress in a way that doesn’t allow the sun to reach your skin’s surface, long-sleeved thin t-shirts, pants, hat, and sunglasses to protect your eyes from future cataracts and possible vision loss due to sun rays.  

Minimalist’s Advice:

There exists no harm in oxybenzone that may affect human health as studies and lack of it suggest. So, it is not an excuse for you to avoid sunscreen. Any sunscreen is better than none at all, and you know this well.  

There may be many myths on the internet over something, but it's wise to read and decide what you want to believe in instead of getting entangled in a web of rumors.

People have made boastful claims about the harmful effects of oxybenzone. The lack of evidence has been ignored, reducing the usage of sunscreens among consumers.

But whatever you may opt for, be consistent, apply it every day of the season. UVA passes through glass too, so even if you are home or at your desk in the office, keep applying sunscreen, oxybenzone or not, every two hours.