is oxybenzone in sunscreen safe

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

  • Penetrating skin
  • Being an endocrine disruptor
  • Killing coral reef
  • Causing allergic reactions

Unlike most maligned skincare ingredients, Oxybenzone is guilty of almost every charge. Should you avoid it?

What Is Oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone also goes by the name Benzophenone-3. It’s a sunscreen agent that belongs to the benzophenone family.

In Europe, Oxybenzone can be used in concentration up to 6%. In the US, 10%.

What Does Oxybenzone Do In Skincare Products?

Oxybenzone is primarily an UVB filter. But it also protects from some (NOT all!) UVA rays.

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

How effective is your sunscreen? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Sunscreen Audit” Worksheet and find out if your sunscreen is really up to the job:

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.

This is a problem – and not just for the reason you think. UV filters work only IF they stay on top of your skin. How can they stop UV rays from harming it if they’re not there anymore?

That’s another reason why Oxybenzone is never used alone. But effectiveness aside, is using something that gets absorbed by the body really safe?

Related: Does Your Skin Really Absorb 60% Of What You Put On It?

Is Oxybenzone Safe In Sunscreen?

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.

Like, how much gets through? Does it accumulate? How does it behave inside your body?

For example, we know that in vitro (in a Petri dish), Oxybenzone has estrogenic activity. But using sunscreen with Ozybenzone hasn’t.

A 2004 study examined the estrogenic effect of sunscreens when applied on the whole body and found that, even though traces of Oxybenzone were found in urine, “the endogenous levels of reproductive hormones were unaffected“.

This is the biggest risk with Oxybnezone. If in the small concentrations used in skincare, it doesn’t disrupt your estrogenic activity, there’s no reason to suggest it causes any other serious disease.

You know what’s been proven to cause all kinds of problems, including cancer? NOT wearing sunscreen. Just saying…

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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.

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

Should You Use Sunscreens With Oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone isn’t my fave UV filter, but it’s not as dangerous as people make it out to be. If you find a sunscreen you love that happens to have Oxybenzone, use it without fear.

What are your thoughts on Oxybenzone in sunscreen? Let me know in the comments below.