The Impact of Oxybenzone and Chemical Sunscreens on Our Health and Environment
Sun exposure has a few benefits, like giving our well being and energy a boost and increasing our vitamin D production. Though, you fulfill your safe daily sun exposure within ten to twenty minutes. Beyond that, sun exposure can pose serious health risks, especially when it’s repeated consistently.
Sun rays include UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays accelerate skin aging and increase your risk of skin cancer. You’re exposed to UVA rays anytime you’re exposed to sunlight, either outside or through windows. UVB rays cause skin tanning and sunburn, and you’re only exposed to them when exposed to sunlight outdoors, as it does not cross through windows. Both UVA and UVB are a concern even on cloudy days.
Some health risks of frequent sun exposure are:
DNA damage to skin cells and beyond (this causes cell dysfunction, possible premature cell death and future abnormal/cancerous cells)
Premature aging (sun spots, thin skin, wrinkles, sagging)
Abnormal skin lesions and skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma)
Non-skin related: cataracts (wear sunglasses whenever you’re exposed to sunlight!)
There are many options to protect yourself from the sun. Avoiding the outdoors during peak sunlight hours is helpful as well as staying in the shade and wearing hats and protective clothing, but you’re still exposed through reflected light and windows. To be fully protected, it’s important to apply sunscreen to exposed skin daily, especially when outside or near windows for longer periods of time.
Your sunscreen options are physical/mineral based (like zinc), or chemical. Chemical based sunscreen options carry serious concerns for our health and their environmental impact, while mineral sunscreen options are considered safer.
Chemical Sunscreens: Oxybenzone
Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays (rather than block and reflect) and are desirable because they’re thinner and easier to apply, don’t leave a white residue behind and wash off easier. They come in convenient sprays and lotions. But like most things, convenience comes with a sacrifice. The sacrifice for chemical sunscreens is the risk to our health and their negative environmental impact.
Chemical sunscreens don’t appear to be as effective at blocking sun rays as physical/mineral sunscreens, and have been shown to breakdown with UV light exposure, which is counterproductive.
Despite having numerous studies showing the risks and negative effects of chemical UV filters, they’re still widely in use. I was disheartened and surprised to realize that my Aveeno spray sunscreen contains Oxybenzone, as do other health conscious brands.
Oxybenzone (and other closely related chemicals) is the active ingredient in many chemical based sunscreens, including sprays and lotions. It’s often linked to hormone disruption and skin irritation/allergies. Studies have shown it increases uterine size in rats. JAMA released this concluding that it’s difficult to reach enough product application in a lifetime to pose hormone imbalance or endocrine disruption. Though in general, studies don’t accurately show ingredient health risks (in skincare or food) because they’re evaluated in isolation, and lack real life controls (like exposure of an ingredient in combination with other commonly added chemicals).
Water Pollution and Contamination
The environmental concerns are well documented, and...concerning. Chemical sunscreens are causing reef bleaching and death, which has catastrophic consequences to oceanic ecosystems and beyond. This is why Hawaii has banned the use of any sunscreen that contains oxybenzone.
Something that hits a little closer to home though, is the effect that oxybenzone has on chlorinated pool water and our drinking water. We contaminate water with oxybenzone entering treatment plants by simply rinsing chemical sunscreens off in the shower. When oxybenzone is exposed to chlorine (used in pools and by water treatment plants to disinfect tap water), they bind to create new substances. These substances are referred to as DBP’s (disinfection byproducts), which includes chloroform, an established liver, kidney and neuro toxin. These DBP’s can be ingested, inhaled and/or exposed to our skin’s surface.
Recent reports have found chemical UV filters, including oxybenzone, in almost all tested water sources, affecting both wildlife and humans. Oxybenzone is difficult to effectively remove from our drinking water (even more difficult to do without creating DBP’s). DBPs are more genotoxic than oxybenzone, which means they cause DNA damage and mutations. This affects the health and function of cells throughout your body, premature cell death and dysfunction in future cells (if enough cells are affected, it can lead to inflammation, organ dysfunction and even cancer).
Physical & Mineral Based Sunscreens
Honestly, I was pretty alarmed while doing the research for this article. More alarmed at how accessible and abundant good research is on these ingredients, and how widely used these ingredients continue to be.
Mineral based sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered safer. They’re more effective at blocking and reflecting sun rays (both UVA and UVB), don’t break down when exposed to sunlight, don’t penetrate the skin and don’t pose health and environmental concerns like chemical UV filters do.
Safer and Effective Sunscreen Recommendations
For the last few years I’ve used Coppertone and Neutrogena zinc sunscreens. My issue with them is that they’re thick and sticky to apply, leave a white cast, leave white prints on clothes and things you touch and don’t wash off easily (great for sun blocking, not great for post pool or beach life). Definitely not the most convenient!
Over the last year I’ve been making some clean skin care upgrades (which lead me to partner with Beautycounter!) and I’ve been using their Countersun Mineral Sunscreen. It’s clean and zinc oxide based with some advantages over other (my previous) options. It spreads luxuriously and isn’t too thick (so a little goes a long way!), doesn’t leave a white residue after application and doesn’t leave white marks on clothing or things you come in contact with.
I’ve been using the Countersun Mineral Sunscreen primarily on my face so far. Normally, I experience bumps and blemishes from both zinc and chemical sunscreens (even for sensitive skin and non pore clogging types). This one actually made my skin feel glowy and soft and left no reaction afterwards. This was after going for a run and laying on the beach (so sweat, dirt and sand too). SPF 30 blocks 97% of sun rays, so it does the job, (SPF 50 only blocks 98%- 1% more of rays). I still recommend using basic sun protecting habits like avoiding peak hours, staying in the shade and limiting unprotected full sun exposure.
Chemical based sunscreens appear to pose some serious risks to our health an environment (which also affect our health) so it’s important to do a cleaner swap. Physical/mineral sunscreens appear to be safer and more effective, so choose sunscreens with the active ingredients of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. As the summer is just getting started, being mindful of your sun exposure and how you protect your skin can make a huge impact.
Resources I used for this article: