Oxybenzone

What Is It?

Oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3 or BP-3) is one of 16 sunscreen active ingredients (compounds that absorb, scatter or reflect ultraviolet (UV) radiation) approved in the U.S. Sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Oxybenzone provides broad-spectrum sun protection from the harmful effects of both UVA and UVB ultraviolet radiation. It was approved by FDA in 1978 and is one of the oldest sunscreen active ingredients in use today playing a vital role in helping consumers protect against skin cancer and premature skin aging.

Why is it used in cosmetics and personal care products?

FDA has approved the use of oxybenzone as an active ingredient in sunscreens as safe and effective in concentrations of up to 6%. When used as a sunscreen active ingredient, oxybenzone protects the skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays. Exposing unprotected skin to UV light can result in sunburn (primarily from UV-B rays) and can promote premature aging of the skin and skin cancer (primarily from UV-A rays).Because oxybenzone absorbs and dissipates UV radiation, it can also serve to protect cosmetics and personal care products from deterioration due to exposure to UV light.

Safety Information:

Oxybenzone (i.e., benzophenone-3) is a safe and effective active ingredient approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens.  This active ingredient is designed to protect skin against the damaging effects from ultraviolet light.  It 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 safe and effective sunscreen ingredient in Canada, Australia, the European Union and several ASEAN countries.Because benzophenone ingredients, which includes oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), absorb and dissipate UV radiation, they can also serve to protect cosmetics and personal care products from deterioration caused by exposure to UV light.

More safety Information:

CIR Safety Review:

The safety of benzophenones and related ingredients, including oxybenzone, was assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel in 1983.  The Expert Panel conducted a review of the currently available scientific literature and concluded that oxybenzone and related benzophenones -1, -4, -5, -9 and -11 were safe for their current and intended use in cosmetics and personal care products.

When undiluted, some benzophenones were slightly irritating to the skin and eyes. However, at the current concentrations used in cosmetics and personal care products, benzophenones were not found to irritate the skin or cause allergic skin reactions (i.e., skin sensitization). Oxybenzone specifically was non-sensitizing and did not cause any harmful effects when exposed to UV light (i.e., was not phototoxic). Benzophenones were non-mutagenic (i.e., did not cause harm to cells’ genetic material).

Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) Safety Review

Europe’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP; since renamed the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety [SCCS]) issued an opinion in 2008. The opinion concluded that the use of oxybenzone as a UV-filter in concentrations of up to 6% in cosmetic sunscreen products and up to 0.5% in all types of cosmetic products to protect the formulation does not pose a risk to the health of the consumer, apart from its contact allergenic and photo allergenic potential.

Myths and Facts

MYTH: Oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor.

FACT: Unsubstantiated concerns have been raised by some groups alleging that oxybenzone may be capable of altering/disrupting normal hormonal (endocrine) balance. Specifically, these groups claim that oxybenzone has estrogenic activity, which is the ability to exhibit properties similar to the hormone estrogen. No available and reliable scientific data to date indicate that oxybenzone has estrogenic effects that could potentially affect human health. Even in in vitro (test tube) cell lines or rats fed very high concentrations of oxybenzone (not relevant to human exposure) the data indicate oxybenzone has extremely weak estrogenic activity when compared to the natural estrogen found in the body (estradiol) that was also tested in the same experiments.

In fact, a 2011 study estimated that it would take up to 277 years of daily application of a sunscreen containing 6% oxybenzone to attain a comparable level of exposure in humans as used in the studies mentioned above.

Another study in 2004 reported that when oxybenzone was repeatedly applied to the entire body of human volunteers, no biologically significant alterations in reproductive hormones (testosterone, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, or estradiol) were detectable.

The European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers (SCCNFP) was also asked to consider if UV filters as used in sunscreen products have estrogenic effects which have the potential to affect human health. The SCCNFP concluded that UV filters used in sunscreen products allowed in the European market (including oxybenzone) have no estrogenic effects that could potentially affect human health.

MYTH: Oxybenzone Causes Cancer

FACT: This claim is entirely false and represents another myth with no credible or scientifically sound evidence to back it up. Numerous regulatory and scientific bodies support the conclusion that oxybenzone does not cause cancer when used in the concentrations currently found in cosmetics and personal care products. Most important to note, however, is that oxybenzone protects against the risk of skin cancer,

MYTH: Oxybenzone Causes Coral Bleaching.

The threat to 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 impacted by an increasing array of hazards and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that have contributed to global warming and ocean acidification. Ocean acidification and global warming are the major causes of coral bleaching (NOAA, 2011). Other cited causes of coral bleaching are over-fishing and factors that impact water quality, such as nutrient pollution from land (Hughes et al., 2007; Weidennmann et al., 2013).  However, a recent study published in Nature concluded that global warming continues to cause widespread coral bleaching even when other factors have been locally addressed (Hughes et al., 2017).

Despite a significant body of literature linking other factors to coral bleaching, two studies have attempted to break with scientific consensus and link coral bleaching to sunscreen ingredients, such as oxybenzone (Danovaro et al., 2008; Downs et al., 2015). Leading environmental scientists have highlighted a number of serious problems with the manner in which these studies were conducted and the conclusions they reached. Major concerns include:

  • Studies were conducted in laboratories under simulated environmental conditions that do not adequately reflect the complexities of the natural marine environment. For example, in the natural environment coral thrives as part of elaborate ecosystems. Removing coral from its natural habitat will have serious impacts on the animal’s health and its ability to survive. 
  • Serious questions have been raised over the validity of the analytical and toxicological findings in these studies, as well as the test systems that were used.
  • The oxybenzone levels reported by these laboratory studies have not been detected in the natural marine environment by other studies.
  • The findings of the studies have not been reproduced by other researchers – a key process when establishing scientific consensus.    

Our greatest concern is that misleading studies such as these, and several state legislative efforts to ban the use of sunscreens in beach areas of the U.S., may result in fewer people wearing sunscreens, which are a critical part of a safe sun program.  This is particularly concerning when we consider: 

  • Every year, there are more than 63,000 new cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, resulting in nearly 9,000 deaths;
  • Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, with 5 million people treated each year;
  • More than 1 out of every 3 Americans reports getting sunburned each year.  Sunburn is a clear sign of overexposure to the sun’s UV rays, a major cause of skin cancer – a single bad burn in childhood doubles the risk of developing melanoma later in life.

FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Surgeon General, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the Skin Cancer Foundation and health care professionals worldwide emphasize that using sunscreens is a critical part of a safe sun regimen.  According to the CDC, 19.4 out of 100,000 people develop or die from melanoma of the skin each year in Hawaii.

More information on benzophenones.

 

Resources:

American Academy of Dermatology – “American Academy of Dermatology: Is Sunscreen Safe?” (15 Nov 2015):

Skin Cancer Foundation – “Skin Cancer Foundation: All About Sunscreens” (July 15, 2015):

Cancer Council of Western Australia – “Cancer myth: Sunscreen, Vitamin D and Cancer”:

Studies examining stressors to coral reefs:

  • Hughes, T.P. et al. 2017. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543: 373-377.
  • Danovaro, R., Bongiorn, L., Corinaldesi, C., Giovannelli, D., Damiani E, Astolfi, P., Greci, L., Pusceddu, A. 2008. Sunscreens cause coral bleaching by promoting viral infections. Environmental Health Perspectives 116 (4): 441-447.
  • Hughes, T.P., Rodrigues, M.J., Bellwood, D.R., Ceccarelli, D., Hoegh-Guldberg, O., McCook, L., Moltschaniwskyj, N., Pratchett, M.S., Steneck, R.S., Willis, B. 2007. Phase Shifts, Herbivory, and the Resilience of Coral Reefs to Climate Change. Current Biology 17: 1-6.
  • Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R., Fauth, J., Knutson, S., Bronstein, O., Ciner, F.R., Jeger, R., Lichtenfeld, Y., Woodley, C.M., Pennington, P., Cadenas, K., Kushmaro, A., Loya, Y. 2016. Toxicopathological Effects of the sunscreen UV filter, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), on coral planulae and cultured primary cells and its environmental contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 70 (2): 265-288.
  • NOAA. 2011. Coral bleaching and ocean acidification are two climate-related impacts to coral reefs. http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/corals/climatethreat.html. Retrieved 4/4/17.
  • Wiedenmann J., D’Angelo, C., Smith, E.G., Hunt, A.N., Legiret, F.E., Postle, A.D., Achterberg, E.P. 2013. Nutrient enrichment can increase the susceptibility of reef corals to bleaching. Nature Climate Change 3: 160–164.