is oxybenzone in sunscreen safe

Oxybenzone is probably the most controversial UV filter ever. It’s been accused of:

👉 Penetrating skin and getting into the bloodstream, where it could potentially cause all kinds of harm.

👉 Being an endocrine disruptor that interfere with the natural hormonal system.

👉 Killing coral reef, comprising beautiful ecosystems.

👉 Causing allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin.

Unlike most maligned skincare ingredients, Oxybenzone is guilty of almost every charge. Should you avoid it? The answer is not so clear cut. Here’s everything that science says about Oxybenzone and what you need to know so you can make an informed choice about using (or ditching) sunscreens with this UV filter.

What Is Oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone (a.k.a Benzophenone-3) is an organic compound that belongs to the benzophenone family. Mostly commonly used in sunscreens, you can also find it in hairsprays, fragrances, and nail polishes, where it acts as a photo stabiliser. As a sunscreen agent, Oxybenzone is approved the world over due to its ability to protect from all UVB and, partially, UVA rays. The maximum concentration of Oxybenzone that can be used in each country varies. In Europe, Australia, and most Asian countries, Oxybenzone can be used in concentrations up to 10%. In the US and Canada, up to 6%. And in Japan, only up to 5%.

Benefits Of Oxybenzone

Oxybenzone is primarily an UVB filter, but also protects from some (NOT all!) UVA rays. Oxybenzone is able to absorb harmful UVA and UVB rays,” says Gary Goldenberg, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Goldenberg Dermatology in New York City. “This prevents UV from reaching the skin cells, reducing the risk of skin damage.” Like every other UV filter out there, Oxybenzone works by absorbing ultraviolet radiation and transforming it into a less damaging from of energy (heat).

Unlike most other synthetic UV filters, it is very stable (meaning it doesn’t degrade and become useless quickly when exposed to sunlight), yet weak. You need to use it together with other UV filters to get adequate sun protection. Oxybenzone is also a photostabilizer. That’s a fancy way of saying it prevents your sunscreen (or moisturiser with SPF) from changing colour or degrading when exposed to sunlight.

Related: The Complete List Of UV Filters Used In Sunscreens

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Side Effects Of Oxybenzone

Oxybenzone has been accused of penetrating skin, disrupting the endocrine’s systems, killing coral reefs, and even cause allergies. Are all charges true? And if they are, is Oxybenzone as dangerous as critics make it out to be? Let’s find out:

Can Oxybenzone Penetrate Skin?

Oxybenzone penetrates skin. It’s a small, oil-soluble molecules that easily gets through the uppermost lipid layer of your skin and gets inside your body. Just because something is absorbed by your skin, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad for you. I know the media loves a scary story (fear mongering sells), but in real life, there are other variables to consider.

🤔 How much Oxybenzone penetrates skin?

🤔 Does it accumulate?

🤔 How does it behave inside your body?

Studies show that “Oxybenzone has not been demonstrated to accumulate in the plasma even after several days of topical application.” Instead, Oxybenzone has It’s also been found in urine, which suggests your body’s ability to get rid of it before it accumulates to harmful levels. If it can’t accumulate, it won’t cause any serious harm.

But, don’t take my word for it. Let’s take a look at what science says about all the other charges…

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Is Oxybenzone An Endocrine Disruptor?

An endocrine disruptor is a substance that can interfere with the body’s hormonal system and even cause issues with fertility and birth defects. Scary, right? So is Oxybenzone and endocrine disruptor and should be stay away from it?

Studies show that Oxybenzone has an estrogenic effect – but it’s WEAK and unlikely to cause any harm to humans, including pregnant women and their babies:

I totally get it that, if you’re pregnant, you may want to avoid it anyway – and more research is needed on Oxybenzone. However, this UV filter has been used for more than 40 years and there’s nothing in the literature that demonstrates acute toxic effects due to Oxybenzone use.

Does Oxybenzone Destroy Coral Reef?

You’re probably heard that Hawaii has banned Oxybenzone in sunscreen because it kills coral reef. But is that really true or just another case of misunderstood science? Some in-vitro (on a Petri dish) studies show that Oxybenzone causes coral bleaching.

When all is well, coral live in symbiosis with algae. These algae feed the coral and give it its beautiful colours. But when the coral is stressed, it expels the algae. It now looks pale and is literally starving. If the bleaching doesn’t stop soon, the coral dies. Does this happens when you go for a swim coated in sunscreen, too? In real life, things are a little different…

For starters, most people don’t wear enough sunscreen to protect themselves properly from the sun, so less Oxybenzone than estimated gets into the water. Plus, the ocean is huge and its currents spread oxybenzone far and wide, so that little is deposited on coral. It’s only in secluded bays and popular beaches that oxybenzone can accumulate enough to harm coral reef.

Translation: if you’re on a crowded beach in Hawaii, it makes sense to avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone. But for the most part, the risk of oxybenzone harming coral reef is miniscule. Don’t take my word for it. Professor Terry Hughes, the director of the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies says that, on a list of things that harm coral reef, he “would place sunscreen at number 200“.

Why? The worst coral beaches happen in areas where tourists DON’T go. What’s happening in those areas? Higher water temperature due to climate change. It’s climate change, together with increased pollutants from farming and oil spills, that are really killing coral reef. And no one is doing anything about that!

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Does Oxybenzone Cause Allergies?

Yes, Oxybenzone causes both allergies and irritations. If you ever experienced a negative reaction to sunscreen, this is likely to have been the culprit. If you have sensitive skin, avoid Oxybenzone. Instead, opt for zinc oxide-based sunscreens. They’re thicker, but gentler on the skin. So gentle, that even babies can use them.

However, allergies and irritations to Oxybenzone are NOT as common as people think. “Our data indicate that sunscreen products formulated with 1–6% oxybenzone do not possess a significant sensitization or irritation potential for the general public. Furthermore, these data suggest that the incidence rate implied in the published literature overestimates the actual incidence of sensitization/irritation due to oxybenzone-containing sunscreen products in the general population.”

Translation: most people can use Oxybenzone without developing an allergy or irritation. Phew!

Related: What Can You Do If You’re Allergic To Sunscreen?

Is Oxybenzone Safe During Pregnancy?

This is where it gets complicated. Studies done on pregnant women using sunscreens containing 6% oxybenzone show that this UV filter can penetrate the skin and even cross the placental barrier. But, just because your baby can be exposed to oxybenzone, it doesn’t mean it’ll do any harm. Up until now, no study has proven that Oxybenzone causes any kind of birth defect. Phew! Still, as we have plenty of other UV filters to choose from, I recommend you stay away from sunscreen with Oxyebenzone during pregnancy and use a mineral alternative instead.

How To Use It

Sunscreens with Oxybenzone should be used like any other sunscreen. Apply it generously first thing in the morning, right after moisturiser and wait 20 minutes before putting on makeup.

How Often Should You Use It?

As a rule, sunscreen (whether it contains Oxybenzone or not) should be reapplied every two hours – or right after swimming and sweating.

Who Should Use It?

Unless you’re allergic to Oxybenzone or are pregnant, anyone can use sunscreens with Oxybenzone. There are better alternatives though.

What Ingredients Does It Work Well With?

Oxybenzone alone can’t provide protection from the entire UV range. For this reason, it works better when used with other UV filters – AND antioxidants. These little molecules have been shown time and time again to boost the effectiveness of your sunscreen.

What Are The Best Sunscreens With Oxybenzone?

  • Kiehl’s Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+ ($46.00): A lightweight chemical sunscreen that provides excellent protection from UV rays. Suitable for all skin types, it’d dries to a matte finish. Available at Blue Mercury, Boots, Kiehl’s, Selfridges, and Ulta.
  • Murad Essential-C Day Moisture Broad Spectrum SPF 30 / PA+++ ($68.00): This lightweight chemical formula is enriched with antioxidants to prevent premature wrinkles. Available at Murad, SpaceNK, and Ulta.
  • Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 70 ($15.99): A high, broad spectrum sunscreen with a lightweight texture to keep you safe even during torrid days at the beach. Available at iHerb, Neutrogena, and Ulta.

What Are The Best Oxybenzone-Free Sunscreens?

If you don’t want to use sunscreens with Oxybenzone, here are some great alternatives for you:

  • La Roche Posay Anthelios Mineral Ultra-Light Face Sunscreen Fluid SPF 50 ($37.99): A lightweight, mineral sunscreen that provides high broad-spectrum protection. Ideal for torrid summer days. Available at Dermstore and Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense Lightly Tinted SPF30 ($37.00): Ideal for oily skin, this lightweight, tinted mineral sunscreen is enriched with antioxidants to provide broad spectrum protection and prevent wrinkles without leaving a white, greasy messy all over your face. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Paula’s Choice, and Sephora.
  • Ultrasun Ultra Sensitive Very High SPF50+ Extreme Formula (£30.00): This lightweight formula uses the latest generation of UV filters (not approved in the US yet) to provide broad spectrum protection even on the hottest summer days – without the irritations. Available at Boots, Sephora, and SpaceNK.

Should You Use Sunscreens With Oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone isn’t my fave UV filter, but it’s not as dangerous as critics make it out to be. Yes, it can penetrate your body, but it doesn’t accumulate in high enough doses to do any harm – even to pregnant women. If you find a sunscreen you love that happens to have Oxybenzone and you’re not allergic to it, use it without fear. Having said that, with some many alternatives around, it’s so easy to avoid it if you prefer to do so.