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The Truth About Common Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients

May 18, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 18 Comments

I don't want to pick on Coola Face SPF30 unfairly. What caught my eye is that it contains octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone, octisalate. These are chemical sunscreens that are fairly common, but always in the back of mind I am thinking: are they safe, didn't I read somewhere... even post something? Keeping it all straight is made even harder by the fact they have such interchangeable names. So finding four oxy-whatsits in one go gives me a good excuse to summarize what they do and whether they are safe.

Octocrylene (Maximum recommended by FDA: 3%)

Octocylene absorbs UVB and short-wave UVA. It's chemical name is 2-ethylhexyl 2-cyano-3, 3- diphenylacrylate.

Safety measures/side effects

Although there is evidence that octocrylene is responsible for reproductive toxicity, the trials used doses far higher than would be used in cosmetics. That doesn't mean to say that they aren't dangers, only that we don't really know.

Octocrylene can penetrate into the skin and act as a photosensitizer, resulting in an increased production of free radicals. Free radicals can induce indirect DNA damage and potentially contribute to the increased incidence of malignant melanoma in sunscreen-users compared to non-users. Although this might theoretically apply to other sunscreens, the study that made this conclusion refers only to octocrylene.

Another reason to reconsider octocrylene, is that it has been found in fish. According to a Swiss study, it is quick to biodegrade and then bioaccumulate. The few fish we have left on the planet should probably go as chemical free as possible.

Oxybenzone (Maximum recommended by the FDA: 6%)

Oxybenzone, a derivative of benzophenone, is often used in conjuction with other sunscreens because it helps stabilize them and also because its sun protection powers are too weak to be used alone.

Safety measures/side effects

As a photocarcinogen, it’s demonstrated an increase in the production of harmful free radicals and an ability to attack DNA cells; for this reason, it is believed to be a contributing factor in the recent rise of melanoma cases with sunscreen users. Some studies have shown it to behave similarly to the hormone estrogen, suggesting that it may cause breast cancer. It has also been linked to contact eczema.

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For many years, the dangers were ignored on the assumption that oxybenzone didn't get absorbed by the skin. A team of researchers in Australia, led by Cameron Hayden, demonstrated otherwise using commercially available sunscreen with a 6% concentration  of oxybenzone. Haydon's conclusion: the use of oxybenzone is inadvisable for large surface area application for extended and repeated periods.

Urine tests show that it sticks around. 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 oxybenzone.

On the other hand, a California study on fish, concluded that it did not have any adverse effects on reproduction.

Octisalate, octyl salicylate, or 2-ethylhexyl salicylate (Maximum recommended by FDA: 5%)

Octisalate or octyl salicylate is used to augment the UV-B protection in a sunscreen. Salicylates are weak UV-B absorbers, and they are generally used in combination with other UV filters because they are insufficient on their own. It typically undergoes some degradation when exposed to sunlight.

Safety Measures/Side Effects:

Octisalate's safety record seems to be fairly good although it has been linked to contact dermititus.

Octinoxate or octyl methoxycinnamate (Maximum recommended by FDA: 7.5%)

Octinoxate is the most widely used UVB blocking agent in the skin care industry. It does not filter UVA rays. Studies have also shown that Octinoxate can protect the skin against not only sunburn but also UV light-induced DNA alterations (Source).

However, it isn't very stable. When octinoxate is exposed to sunlight, it is converted into a less UV absorbent form (from E-octyl-p-methoxycinnamate into a Z-octyl-p-methoxycinnamate). Given that its job is to be exposed to sunlight, this seems to me to be a somewhat fundamental limitation. It is why you will usually find octinoxate combined with another sunscreen. Beware, though, that octinoxate combined with avobenzone degrades even faster (source).

Safety Measures/Side Effects:

According to the EWG, Octinoxate is a moderate hazard, primarily because it can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity through enhanced skin absorption. It’s a penetration enhancer and is easily absorbed into the skin. It can produce estrogen-like effects and should not be used by pregnant women and children. However, the research is contradictory as to what concentrations are toxic. One Norwegian study in 2000 declared toxicity on mice at levels much lower that that used in sunscreen. Studies of percutaneous absorption indicate that 1 to 2% of the applied material may be absorbed through the skin. Most of the octyl methoxycinnamate appears to be trapped in the stratus corneum  in adults. However, concerns have been expressed about the use of this sunscreen ingredient in children where the stratus corneum is less likely to be protective.

Other studies, were the result of concentrations higher than any formulas in skin care products. Bottom line: More research is needed. Given that it isn't even very stable in sunlight, it's probably not worth the risk.

See also:

Sunscreen: Myths, Truths and Alternatives

Researchers Say That Avoiding Sunshine Can Double Your Risk of Death

How to Treat Sun-Damaged Skin

Sunscreens are Better with Antioxidants

Five Best Zinc Oxide Sunscreens

Five Best Mineral Sunscreens

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  • July 19, 2016

    by J.B.

    After 10 years of having melasma, I finally realized that using any product that contained any of the above "O's" caused a significant darkening of my melasma lesions within hours of using it, sun or no sun. Even to the point where on a couple occasions I have had sudden darkening and reviewed the ingredients of a new skin cream or foundation and, low and behold, the dreaded "O" was listed. I believe it has something to do with triggering estrogen receptors in the skin. I can't believe they are allowed to put this stuff in children's products! -Hope this helps someone else with melasma

  • June 27, 2016

    by gina

    use rawelementsusa.com you won't need to worry about all the issues that come with toxins, carcinogens, fragrances, hormone disruptors… and the havoc they wreak on kids, sea life, reefs…

  • July 31, 2013

    by bryan

    in my opinion, I wouldn't want to take anything that would block my skin from the sun except under very extreme conditions because I need the sun. Logically if we block the sun from us, we would block the many benefits of the sun. mainly the production of vitamin D. Lots of people are vitamin D deficient because of underexposure to the sun. Believe it or not, the sun does a lot of good to us individually. Plus the toxicity of possibly unsafe ingredients. Don't get me wrong, sunscreen does work, but as this page says, "it isn't worth the risk.

  • June 29, 2012

    by Hillary

    I use loving naturals clear on my kids, but it is so oily I'm kind of done with it. I'm going to try UV water from osmosis skincare.

  • September 26, 2011

    by Smashbox Photo Finish SPF15 with Dermaxyl | A Girl's Gotta Spa! (sm) Top beauty blog, spa, hair care, makeup, beauty trends, skin care

    [...] relatively safe) zinc oxide, but I wish it hadn’t opted for the toxin and estrogen mimicking, octinoxate (although researchers disagree on the concentrations needed before it becomes harmful). The other [...]

  • June 2, 2010

    by steve

    Hi,
    I had painful experience with sunscreen reaction when expose to the sun. There are ingredients that would react with skin when you expose to the sun light and would cuase sun burn and skin blister. I recent discover Octinoxate 7.5%, Octisalate 5%, Zinc Oxide 14.5%; a combination that DO NOT cause my skin to react. I tried Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple SPF 50, and so far it works. I've been outdoor playing tennis and swim in the pool and no skin reaction or sun burn. This goes with Lip Balm with spf 15 by Mission Skin Care, it contains Octinoxate 7.5%, Zinc Oxide 6.3% and it works fine for my lips. I use to get skin reaction when I use other Lip Balmer that contains othe Sun screen ingredients. My lip would get swollen and ichy.

  • May 24, 2010

    by marta

    Hi Bianca

    The safest natural sunscreen seems to be zinc oxide (although best to avoid nano or "micronized" versions as they might be absorbed by the skin). We rounded up some products with it here: truthinaging.com/uncategorized/five-best-zinc-oxide-sunscreens

  • May 24, 2010

    by Bianca LaPorte

    I am reading about Octinoxate/Oxybenzone. I am still undergoing treatment for my breast cancer and the Radiation Oncologist instructed me to use lots of sunscreen especially at the radiated areas of chest/arm etc. .I have HER2 positive and estrogen positive cancer, and still receiving Herceptin. These sunscreen ingredients have estrogen producing powers (I'm gathering) therefore I probably should not use them. What natural product can I use?

  • November 6, 2009

    by marta

    John, given the chemical sunscreens and preservatives in the Neutrogena I would be concerned about a rosacea flare up. Speaking personally, I wouldn't be able to go near it. If you are looking for a moisturizer with a sunscreen you could look at <a href="http://www.truthinaging.com/face/silk-could-be-a-sunscreen-safety-breakthrough" rel="nofollow">Chella</a> (http://www.truthinaging.com/face/silk-could-be-a-sunscreen-safety-breakthrough). It has something called silasoma, a silk protein that encapsulates UVA and UVB filters so that they never touch the skin. The silk protein forms a protective barrier between sensitive skin and the potentially irritating UV filters. Clever stuff. We have it in the <a href="http://truthinaging.theopenskyproject.com/chella-anti-aging-formula-spf-25-uva-and-uvb.html" rel="nofollow">TIA store</a> (http://truthinaging.theopenskyproject.com/chella-anti-aging-formula-spf-25-uva-and-uvb.html).

  • November 5, 2009

    by John Arend

    Neutrogena (SPF)is advertised as an oil-free facial moisturizer with UVA/UVB sun protection. It contains 7.5 % Octinoxate, 5% Octisalate, 3% Oxybenzone in addition to 4 different parabens and 2 stearates.

    Would you reccommend it for a daily facial moisturizer in sunny Southern California? Also would it have any effect on rosacia?

  • October 8, 2009

    by Jeff Hicks

    Sometimes a molecule is used sacrificially, that is probably what is going on with the octinoxate. It is degraded by UVB thereby absorbing that energy from the sun that would normally damage your skin. What I'm saying is the fact that it is unstable is part of the mechanism by which it works. Not certain, but pretty sure.

  • September 19, 2009

    by Elizabeth

    Recently I heard that both Zinc oxide and Titanium Dioxide both are safer sunscreen products than those products discussed above.
    There is an issue with their nanoparticles which you want to take into consideration.
    A company named Juice Beauty has a Green Apple SPF 20 which I ordered. Haven't used yet, but will let you know.

  • August 1, 2009

    by Bobbi Chess

    Recently used Olay anti-wrinkle daily spf 15 lotion and developed a painful burning (almost as if I had been in the sun), red blotches, burning sensation, and some peeling on my face. I am going to the skin doctor next week so I can get something to relieve this. Be careful w/this product.

  • July 22, 2009

    by Patricia Lloyd

    For the past two years, whenever I have used Octioxate or/and Oxybenzone, I have had severe skin irritation. Including, blisters, oozing puss, swollen eyes, itchy skin. My doctor said 'Don't use that sunscreen anymore.' I did not. But I went to the spa recently, got a manicure/pedicure and broke out in my face and arms. Turns out the cream used on my arm and legs contained the stuff. Then I casually touched my face and BAM!
    This is horrible stuff and should be taken off the market.

  • May 27, 2009

    by stacey losa

    There is also a product called natural tone,marketed to remove discolorations. The active ingredients are listed as Avobenzone and Octinoxate. It seems that these 2 ingredients listed as sunscreen/sunblocking agents, would have nothing to do with reversing discolorations. Does anyone have suggestions?

  • May 24, 2009

    by Rose

    what about foundations with the added bonus of sunscreen. Is it likely that any of these products will promote acne?

  • May 21, 2009

    by marta

    Matina

    Come back next week - we'll be making some recommendations

  • May 21, 2009

    by Matina

    Are there any safe sunscreens out there? With summer coming up I'd love some recommendations!

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