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Is This Controversial Ingredient In Your Sunscreen Doing More Harm Than Good?

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Photo: Shutterstock / paultarasenko

There's a serious debate going on in the sunscreen world right now. This spring, Hawaii banned the sale of chemical sunscreens (think: most spray-on kinds) that have two common ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate, after research revealed that the formulas were damaging coral reefs, polluting the ocean, and disrupting marine life.

Some companies, including REI, have followed suit, promising to ban oxybenzone from its stores by 2020.

So it's only natural to wonder: If something's bad for the environment, is it bad for your body too? Some research suggests oxybenzone can act as an endocrine and hormonal disruptor in animals, impacting both reproduction and fertility. And in humans, the ingredient is indeed absorbed into the body (and can be detected in both urine and breast milk). The ingredient is also linked to allergic skin reactions and irritation. (Related: 5 Weird Side Effects of Too Much Sun

But that's not necessarily enough reason to stop using it. Here's what you need to know before slathering up.

The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Blockers

Before we get into oxybenzone and how it works on the skin, it's important to understand that sunscreens come in two forms: chemical and physical blockers.

"Chemical sunscreens work like chemical sponges," says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., a New York–based dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology. "They take ultraviolet light radiation and convert and neutralize it into heat energy from the skin."

Mineral-based sunscreens use physical blockers (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) and act like a shield. "They sit on the skin's surface and reflect the sun's rays like a mirror would reflect light." That means they protect against both UVB (responsible for sunburns) and UVA rays (which penetrate deeper). In contrast, chemical blockers absorb the rays, which means those UVA rays are able to reach deeper layers of your skin and can do more damage. (More on the difference between the two here: Does Natural Sunscreen Hold Up Against Regular Sunscreen?

To make things slightly more confusing, it's common to find sunscreens with a combination of both physical and chemical blockers—making it even more important to know what ingredients to look out for.

Where the Research On Oxybenzone Stands

Oxybenzone is one of the most commonly used ingredients in chemical sunscreens. Check your sunscreen drawer and you'll find most of the bottles likely contain it.

Some of the stats on the stuff sound super scary at first glance. The report that initially fueled alarm about oxybenzone was a 2001 study that found rats fed oxybenzone (read: animals ate it) at a very high dose experienced a 23 percent increase in the size of their uterus. But not everything that happens in rats can be translated to humans—and more specifically, to absorb the amount of oxybenzone used in that rat study, you'd need to apply a 10 percent oxybenzone formula to every inch of your body every day for about 69 years. And FWIW, Dr. Levin notes that other research has found that even 100 percent oxybenzone topical treatments didn't lead to hormonal disruption when used.

So, in short, the hormonal disruption worries are a bit unfounded—at least as far as the research is concerned. "After over 40 years of oxybenzone use in sunscreen, no published study demonstrates a toxic effect of humans from the systemic absorption of oxybenzone," says Dr. Levin.

And although some ob-gyns still urge pregnant women to stay away from the ingredient because of the endocrine disruptor studies, the Food and Drug Administration deems the ingredient totally safe—and, to date, no human data suggests it can lead to hormonal changes. (Related: Yes, "Sunscreen Pills" Really Are a Terrible Idea

...But Oxybenzone *Can* Bother Your Skin

Ever put on sunscreen only to feel an itchy or burning sensation come on? That could be the oxybenzone in action. While not all chemical sunscreens are irritating, out of all the ingredients in sunscreens (16 are approved by the FDA), oxybenzone appears to be the most irritating, says Dr. Levin.

Check your label: "The three most common allergens in sunscreen are oxybenzone, DL-alpha-tocopherol, and a fragrance mix," says Dr. Levin. Those last two allergens are actually not UV filters, though, but instead present in the "base" of some chemical sunscreens—added in to help the formula spray out of a bottle or stick to your skin. Translation: Even if you opt for a sunscreen sans oxybenzone, you may still experience irritation from these other add-ins.

Luckily, non-irritating chemical sunscreens might not be too far in the future. European countries, Asia, and Canada have approved other non-irritating, even reef-friendly UV filters, notes Henry Lim, M.D., a Detroit-based dermatologist who has studied ingredients in chemical sunscreens. Some of those are still waiting for approval in thhe U.S. 

In the meantime, if you find yourself dealing with irritation from your chemical sunscreen, opt for physical blockers, since they "very rarely cause allergic reactions," making them a good option for those with sensitive skin. And before you go on thinking that zinc oxide means that white goop from your childhood, know that formulas can now be broken into very fine particles so that there's less of that white-all-over look (although…we're not judging!).

FWIW, there's also some research that suggests even nanoparticles that are micronized can harm the reefs—so if it's the environment you're concerned about, stick with the white stuff (and look for the Protect Land + Sea seal—a certification from Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a nonprofit third-party group that certifies reef-safe sunscreens).

How to Pick a Better Sunscreen

If you're concerned about the way chemical blockers impact the environment or your skin, choose a physical blocker with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has an easy tool on their site that lets you look through some of the safest, most effective sunscreens out there.

And remember, skin cancer rates are on the rise, and sunscreen—in all of its many forms—protects against both skin cancer and aging (read: wrinkles), says Dr. Levin. (Related: Heat Is Wreaking Havoc On Your Skin) So skipping it entirely is never, never, never the answer. Lotion up with these top picks:

  • Beyond Coastal: The brand is consistently ranked as one of the safest options on the market by EWG. All products are 100 percent oxybenzone-free, and many have skin-soothing antioxidants like aloe vera and shea butter.
  • Isdin Eryfotona Actinica Ultralight: Unlike some physical sunscreens, this one spreads easily and quickly. In addition to the SPF 50, it also has DNA repair enzymes (which work to repair the damage your body can't fix on its own, and antioxidants such as vitamin E to protect even further against environmental stress.
  • Elta MD UV Physical Broad Spectrum: Loved by derms and patients alike, this option has both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
  • Babo Botanicals Sheer Zinc Spray Sunscreen SPF: If you're a fan of sprays but don't want to worry about chemical irritation, try this version with pure zinc oxide.

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