Type of Ingredient: Sunscreen agent (also known as benzophenone-3)
Main Uses and Benefits: Protects primarily from UVB rays and some UVA rays, which cause hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and dark spots.
Find It In: Sunscreens in a concentration of less than 6%. (LeCerre Skincare does not recommend the use of oxybenzone and uses mineral sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium oxide.) Besides sunscreen, products with oxybenzone include personal care products such as nail polish, lotions, and lipstick.
How Often Can You Use It: It can be used daily or as needed, but could trigger contact eczema and allergies.
What Is Oxybenzone and How Does It Work?
Oxybenzone, known as benzophenone-3, is part of the benzophenone family of chemical sunscreen ingredients. Benzophenone ingredients work by absorbing and dissipating UV radiation, thereby giving it the ability to deflect UVA and UVB rays.
The Benefits of Oxybenzone
1. As a Sunscreen
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%.
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.
2. As a Photostabilizer
Oxybenzone can also serve to protect cosmetics and personal care products from deterioration caused by exposure to UV light.
Oxybenzone Safety Concerns
Aside from the U.S., oxybenzone is also approved as a sunscreen ingredient in Canada, Australia, the European Union, and several ASEAN countries. However, there are many safety concerns and environmental impacts associated with oxybenzone, so individuals must evaluate the facts before using a product with it.
1. Environmental Concerns
Oxybenzone has been called out for the damage it allegedly causes to coral reefs, also known as “coral bleaching.” However, despite lab research showing how 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, which is believed to be responsible for the loss of coral reefs.
“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.” —PCPC
2. Oxybenzone and Hormones
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 that sunscreen-related skin allergies, which raises important questions about unintended human health consequences from frequent sunscreen application.
Oxybenzone is also 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 multi-day 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).
3. Is Oxybenzone for Children?
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.
Is Oxybenzone Safe to Use During Pregnancy or Nursing?
There are also some safety concerns regarding oxybenzone and pregnancy and nursing. 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.
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).
Does Oxybenzone Cause Cancer?
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.
So Is Oxybenzone Harmful?
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 over-the-counter 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