Type of Ingredient: Sunscreen agent (also known as benzophenone-3)
Main Benefits: Protects primarily from UVB rays and some UVA rays.
Who Should Use It: For those interested in sunscreen, it is available in sunscreens in a concentration of less than 6%. Although LeCerre Skincare recommends avoiding use of oxybenzone and recommends mineral sunscreen zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
Ideal For These Concerns: Hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and dark spots
How Often Can You Use It: It can be used daily or as needed, but it has some health concerns and may trigger contact eczema and allergies.
What is oxybenzone?
Oxybenzone, know as benzophenone-3, is part of the benzophenone family of chemical sunscreen ingredients. Benzophenone ingredients absorb and dissipate UV radiation, thereby giving it the ability to deflect UVA and UVB rays. They can also serve to protect cosmetics and personal care products from deterioration caused by exposure to UV light. Oxybenzone is one of the few sunscreen ingredients available in the U.S. that provide broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays. When used as a sunscreen ingredient in the U.S., oxybenzone may be included at concentrations up to 6%. Oxybenzone is also approved as a sunscreen ingredient in Canada, Australia, the European Union, and several ASEAN countries. There are many safety concerns and environmental impacts with oxybenzone so individuals must evaluate the facts before using it.
The Benefits of Oxybenzone
Oxybenzone primarily functions as a photo stabilizer and sunscreen. Among the vast selection of sunscreen active ingredients, oxybenzone is classified as a "chemical" sunscreen agent. Inadequate when used alone, it is most often used in conjunction with other sunscreen agents. Besides sunscreen, it can be found in a variety of personal care products such as nail polish, lotions, and lipstick.
Oxybenzone is many safety concerns as documented below. It is also called out as a sunscreen active that is damaging to undersea coral reefs causing “coral bleaching”. The primary theory for “coral bleaching” is human ocean activity puts oxybenzone into the water from human activity in the oceans. However, despite lab research showing oxybenzone negatively impacts coral components in vitro, many organizations including the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) claims that there doesn’t seem to be conclusive causation in a marine environment, especially given the numerous other factors, including climate change, believed to be responsible for the loss of coral reefs.
The PCPC concluded, “Degradation of the world’s coral reefs is a serious concern. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program, coral reefs are threatened by an increasing array of impacts – primarily from global climate change, unsustainable fishing and other factors. There is no scientific evidence that under naturally-occurring conditions, sunscreen ingredients, which have been safely used around the world for decades, are contributing to this issue.”
FDA raised concerns about the substantial skin absorption of oxybenzone, its potential to affect hormone levels and the increased absorption susceptibility of children (FDA 2019). Lab studies show that some chemical UV filters may mimic hormones and physicians have reported sunscreen-related skin allergies, which raises important questions about unintended human health consequences from frequent sunscreen application.
First, many studies have shown the human body’s percutaneous absorption of oxybenzone. In one study, individuals applied a sunscreen with 4% oxybenzone and submitted urine samples 5 days after topical application. All the subjects’ urine secretions were found to contain oxybenzone, suggesting the body’s ability to store the substance. In 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention conducted a similar experiment on a national scale and found the chemical compound to be present in 96.8% of the human urine samples surveyed. As a result, it is recommended that parents keep their small children from using products containing the ingredient. This is based on the assertion that children under the age of 2 have not fully developed the enzymes that are required to break down derivatives of oxybenzone.
Additionally, Margaret Schlumpf of the University of Zurich detected four other sunscreen filters along with oxybenzone in Swiss women’s breast milk, which suggests that the developing fetus and newborns may be exposed to these substances (Schlumpf 2008, Schlumpf 2010). She detected at least one sunscreen chemical in 85 percent of milk samples.
In addition to penetrating the skin, oxybenzone has been shown in lab tests to be a photocarcinogen. Oxybenzone increases the production of harmful free radicals and can attack DNA cells, both of which are believed to be contributing factors in the recent rise of melanoma cases with sunscreen users. Some studies such as that from Dr. Joseph Jerry, Professor of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research, have shown oxybenzone to behave similarly to the hormone estrogen, suggesting that it may cause breast cancer.
Other studies reported statistically significant associations between oxybenzone exposure during pregnancy and birth outcomes. In lab studies, oxybenzone is a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012, Ghazipura 2017). One reported shorter pregnancies in women carrying male fetuses; two reported higher birth weights in baby boys, and one found lower birth weights in baby girls (Ghazipura 2017).
Oxybenzone is suspected to impact the reproductive organs and testosterone levels. In an evaluation of CDC-collected exposure data for American children, researchers found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had significantly lower total testosterone levels (Scinicariello 2016). The researchers cautioned that their results offer a single-day snapshot; they are not a controlled study of the effect of multiday exposures. In addition to the relationship between oxybenzone and testosterone levels in adolescents, preliminary investigations at the National Institutes of Health and the State University of New York, Albany, suggest a link between higher concentrations of benzophenones and poorer reproductive success in men seeking assistance at a fertility clinic. Men with greater exposures to benzophenone-2 and/or 4-hydroxyoxybenzone had poorer sperm quality (Louis 2015) and reported that it took longer for their partners to conceive (Buck-Louis 2014). Meanwhile, female exposures to oxybenzone and related chemicals have been linked to increased risk of endometriosis (Kunisue 2012).
Although a fair amount of scientific evidence points to the adverse effects of oxybenzone, many dermatologists insist that, because dermal absorption of oxybenzone appears to be low, this ingredient should not be ruled out entirely as it effectively protects against UV rays. According to the latest FDA sunscreens monograph, the agency needs further data to determine the GRASE status of oxybenzone. Given the pervasiveness of oxybenzone exposures, the FDA states it needs further study to clarify oxybenzone’s association with hormone disruption in children and adults. However, The FDA has approved the use of Oxybenzone as a safe and effective OTC sunscreen ingredient, but only in concentrations up to 6%. The EU Cosmetics Directive has also assessed the sunscreen ingredient as safe at up to concentrations of 10%, and requires products that contain more than .5% of the ingredient to be labeled "contains Oxybenzone." Sweden has banned the use of this ingredient. A ban in Hawaii will take effect in 2021.
Contrary to the FDA, EWG recommends consumers avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone.
Archives of Environmental Containment and Toxicology, February 2016, pages 265-288
Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, 2011, pages 58-67
Archives of Dermatology, July 2011 pages 865-866
European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Consumers. Opinion on Benzophenone-3. [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2015 July]. Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_sccp/docs/sccp_o_159.pdf