In a word, no, I don’t believe that oxybenzone in sunscreen is dangerous. That said, there are skincare websites (even reputable ones) who try to make it seem like anything you can’t pronounce has to be super dangerous for you, and oxybenzone (phonetically: ˌäk-sē-ˈben-ˌzōn) doesn’t quite make the cut in that regard. But I personally stand by the belief that oxybenzone is safe. Here’s why.
Chemicals in Sunscreen and Long Term Health Effects
People who believe oxybenzone is bad for you often cite a study performed by the United States FDA that shows that sunscreen is absorbed directly into the bloodstream at a higher concentration than previously thought. In the study, there were four active ingredients tested: oxybenzone, octocrylene, avobenzone, and ecamsule. Oxybenzone was found to be absorbed quickly and to remain in the bloodstream of participants at high concentrations for up to seven days after sunscreen application.
Now, this sounds scary. But what does this mean exactly?
In the immediate aftermath, there is no consensus. The authors of the study were quick to point out that absorption into the bloodstream does not necessarily mean that the chemicals are doing any harm. Lots of nutrients and chemicals are absorbed through the skin and remain in the bloodstream for days at a time, but it is not only the chemical, but the route of exposure, the total dose and the time course of exposure, and the individual’s metabolism, excretion, and storage rates that help to determine whether or not a given chemical is toxic. As a result, the study leaves the door open for additional research to be done on the potential long term health effects of oxybenzone and other active sunscreen ingredients.
The four ingredients mentioned above have all been used in sunscreen for many years. While the FDA has stated that further research is necessary, it should be noted that no negative health effects have yet been linked to usage of sunscreen with these chemicals.
Environmental Impact of Oxybenzone Usage
In July of 2018, Hawaii became the first US state to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreen. Although it’s oft-cited as being related to health issues, the ban was not put into place for health risks at all; rather, it was to protect the native coral reefs. Research has suggested that the same properties which keep our skin safe may cause coral reefs to react differently to sunlight.
According to the National Ocean Service, coral existed in three basic states: healthy, stressed, or bleached. Healthy coral is fully colored with a healthy amount of algae living on and around coral reefs. Stressed coral results from algae beginning to migrate away from the corals surface due to an unhealthy host. When algae has left the coral completely, this results in a bleached coral reef.
An estimated 6,000 tons of sunscreen makes its way into Hawaiian coral reefs each year. Oxybenzone and octinoxate have been shown to cause coral bleaching at very low concentrations. To make matters worse, concentrations of oxybenzone are about ten times higher at popular Hawaiian destinations near the state’s largest coral reefs.
However, medical and skin cancer specialists have warned of the public health risks of a ban on widely used sunscreens, describing the prohibition as risky and unjustified.
The studies often used in legislation experimentally “are not representative of real world conditions”. In fact, the environmental concerns over sunscreens on coral reefs are centered mostly on just two studies that expose corals to sunscreen chemicals that typically use far higher concentrations than have ever been measured on an actual reef. A recent review of the amount of benzophenone-3 in reef waters found that, typically, concentrations are barely detectable – usually, a few parts per trillion. Another much higher report of 1.4 parts per million, in the US Virgin Islands, is based on a single water sample.
So until more research is done, particularly research that focuses on realistic, typical concentrations of sunscreen byproducts on an actual reef, I’m not avoiding oxybenzone in the name of the environment. Sorry, not sorry.
Oxybenzone is an active ingredient in many sunscreens which actively absorbs harmful UVA and UVB light. An estimated 56 percent of sunscreens on the market contain oxybenzone. Brands which use oxybenzone include Banana Boat, Coppertone, Coppertone Sport, Neutrogena, and Aveeno, amongst others. The chemical has been approved for topical usage in the United States since 1978. Oxybenzone is rare in that it offers both broad spectrum UV protection and its safety.
In 40 plus years of use, oxybenzone has been proven to be a safe active ingredient. With new reports about bloodstream absorption, the decidedly unnatural sounding name, and with the FDA demanding more stringent product labelling, the public has understandably demanded more information about what we are putting on our skin.
Some articles will cite endocrine disruption as a health concern from overuse of oxybenzone products. However, research into this topic has shown that even high concentrations of oxybenzone do not result in a substantial impact on the endocrine system.
So… Are Chemical Sunscreen Benefits Worth the Risk?
There is a lot of scary information (and misinformation) floating around regarding the safety of sunscreen. Even this article may scare some people away from using sunscreen to protect themselves and their families. It is important to understand that there are many types of sunscreens available. Just because a certain type of sunscreen might not align with your individual needs does not mean that sunscreen usage should be abandoned altogether.
The American Academy of Dermatology says it best: “Yes, sunscreen is safe to use. Dermatologists recommend it. Scientific studies support wearing it on a regular basis to protect against skin cancer. The FDA continues to tell Americans that they should apply sunscreen.”
Sunscreen can help users avoid serious health issues such as skin cancer, sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and much more. This is in addition to the cosmetic benefits of protecting skin from the aging effects of UV rays. Sunscreen formulas have evolved, but remained fairly similar for decades.
I personally like to use a chemical sunscreen under a physical sunscreen, and have done so for decades. The physical sunscreen ensures a minimal amount of rays pass through to my skin; the chemical sunscreen transforms most of what does pass through to a different form of energy, like non-UV light or heat.
I use Neutrogena Ultra Sheer SPF 100 under a zinc and titanium oxide blend, and I still get carded often at 34 years old. I’m also a skincare influencer, so let’s be honest, I need to protect my skin and keep it in as good of shape as possible. That said, I won’t be giving up oxybenzone anytime soon — unless more typical research emerges encouraging me to do so.