What's in Your Sunscreen? Understanding Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

What's in Your Sunscreen? Understanding Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

This year, the state of Hawaii will officially ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect its coral reefs, providing countless goods and services to the people of Hawaii.

This new law wasn’t received well by manufacturers, and here is why: these chemicals are used in 97% of sunscreens and 70% of cosmetics on the market as UV-filters. In other words, most personal care products seating on your bathroom shelf may contain oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3) and/or octinoxate. So what lead Hawaii into making such a controversial ban?

You've probably heard something about how the sunscreens people wear are further killing the oceans, but do you know why? 

Probably not - and that's ok! You shouldn't have to be a chemist to understand what's in your sunscreen, and you don't have to be with ours - but more on that later. What we do want you to understand is just why these two particular chemicals, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, are so harmful to both you and the earth. 

Get a plain-language guide to what the chemicals are, what they do, and why you should avoid them below.  


Oxybenzone & Octinoxate

Two ingredients we often see in chemical sunscreens are Oxybenzone & Octinoxate, which are a category of UV-absorbers and part of the benzophenone family. These chemicals are used in 97% of sunscreens and 70% of cosmetics on the market as UV-filters. In other words, most products seating on your bathroom shelf may contain oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3) and/or octinoxate.

Their Effects on Humans 

Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor. Your endocrine system is a group of organs that control the hormone production and regulation in your body. Any imbalance of your hormones can lead to increased stress levels, a malfunctioning metabolism, and impact your reproductive health, including your fertility. In fact Oxybenzone is directly absorbed through the skin and can be detected in urine within 30 minutes of application [1,2]. Oxybenzone can also contaminate semen [3], placenta and breast milk of marine mammals and humans [4,5] and is even linked to Hirschsprung’s disease, a development abnormality in humans in cases of prenatal exposure to oxybenzone [6]. That explains why it is not recommended to use oxybenzone-based products during pregnancy, breast-feeding, or on children under the age of 2.

Octinoxate is also a common allergen - about one-tenth of people in a study showed allergic skin reactions to the chemical after it was exposed to sunlight. The most common pathological reaction to octinoxate is contact dermatitis and photo-allergic reactions [7-13]. When seating on the skin, it is degraded by sunlight into toxic by-product. Once in the body, octinoxate can cause toxicity to a number of different organ systems.It is a fat-soluble chemical, which means that some of it that is absorbed by the body will be metabolized and excreted in urine, but much of it will be stored either in fat tissue or lipid-rich tissue such as the placenta [14,15]. It, too, is a known endocrine disruptor in humans, and there's some evidence that shows it can disrupt hormone regulation in fish and animals as well. 

 Not only that, but it's been shown to increase inflammation of the liver, the uterus and to upset cholesterol, stomach mucus, and gene expression in experiments done on rats. 


a tube of suncream on a wooden pier

Their Effect on Aquatic Ecosystems

The problem with sunscreens (of all types) is that they come off your body - while swimming or taking a shower - and aquatic ecosystems. Tests have shown that Oxybenzone and octinoxate are ubiquitous environmental contaminants and are found in streams, rivers, and lakes and in marine environments from the Arctic Circle (Barrow, Alaska) to the beaches and coral reefs along the equator [1-7]. They can be found in swimming pools and hot tubs, and even in our drinking water (municipal treated and desalinated sources). Read more 


When Oxybenzone & Octinoxate enter the waters nearby coral reefs, it puts these vulnerable ecosystems at risk. The waters around classic vacation spots, like the Gold Coast and near the Great Barrier Reef, are especially at risk.

Laboratory testing showed that exposure to oxybenzone & octinoxate can inhibit and alter the growth of baby corals, is toxic to seven coral species and is likely to induce coral bleaching in the wild. Its bleaching effect is so strong that one experiment showed one drop of the substance in an amount of water equivalent to six and a half Olympic swimming pools is enough to harm a reef ecosystem.   

Effect of Oxybenzone and Octinoxate on coral polyps
Exposure to oxybenzone or octinoxate causes a healthy coral fragment (left) to bleach within 14 days (right) at concentrations starting from 1 part per billion (octinoxate) and 500 part per trillion (oxybenzone). Source: haereticus-lab.org

Be Part of the Solution, Buy Clean Sunscreen

Putting aside the environmental impacts, the personal health drawbacks of these ingredients should be enough to make you change to a healthier sunscreen. There are many healthy alternatives available, to efficiently protect your skin from the damages of UV-exposure.

People4Ocean sunscreens use a safe alternative to oxybenzone and octinoxate. Our sunscreens exclusively contain zinc oxide, a TGA and FDA-approved mineral  UV-blockers, to protect your skin from harming UVA & UVB rays. Furthermore, we are committed to never using chemicals that could harm you, your family, or the health of our oceans. In fact, we love people and oceans so much; we have named our brand after them! 

Get started on your journey to cleaner sun protection. Shop our range of chemical-free sunscreens.

More about this topic: 

Sun of a screen

How can we give a break to coral reefs this summer

Look out you are purchasing sunscreen


1. Meeker, J.D., et al., Distribution, variability, and predictors of urinary concentrations of phenols and parabens among pregnant women in Puerto Rico.Environmental science & technology, 2013. 47(7): p. 3439-3447.

2. Gonzalez, G., A. Farbrot, and O. Larkö, Percutaneous absorption of benzophenone3, a common component of topical sunscreens.Clinical and experimental dermatology, 2002. 27(8): p. 691-694.

3. Zhang, T., et al., Benzophenone-type UV filters in urine and blood from children, adults, and pregnant women in China: partitioning between blood and urine as well as maternal and fetal cord blood.Science of the Total Environment, 2013. 461: p. 49-55.

4. Rodríguez-Gómez, R., et al., Determination of benzophenone-UV filters in human milk samples using ultrasound-assisted extraction and clean-up with dispersive sorbents followed by UHPLC–MS/MS analysis.Talanta, 2015. 134: p. 657-664.

5. Hines, E.P., et al., Concentrations of environmental phenols and parabens in milk, urine and serum of lactating North Carolina women.Reproductive Toxicology, 2015. 54: p. 120-128.

6. Huo, W., et al., The relationship between prenatal exposure to BP-3 and Hirschsprung's disease.Chemosphere, 2016. 144: p. 1091-1097.

7. Collaris, E.J. and J. Frank, Photoallergic contact dermatitis caused by ultraviolet filters in different sunscreens.International journal of dermatology, 2008. 47: p. 35-37.

8. Schmidt, T., J. Ring, and D. Abeck, Photoallergic contact dermatitis due to combined UVB (4-methylbenzylidene camphor/octyl methoxycinnamate) and UVA (benzophenone-3/butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane) absorber sensitization.Dermatology, 1998. 196(3): p. 354-357.

9. Rodríguez, E., et al., Causal agents of photoallergic contact dermatitis diagnosed in the national institute of dermatology of Colombia.Photodermatology, photoimmunology & photomedicine, 2006. 22(4): p. 189-192.

10. Ang, P., S.K. Ng, and C.L. Goh, Sunscreen allergy in Singapore.American Journal of Contact Dermatitis, 1998. 9(1): p. 42-44.

11. Schauder, S. and H. Ippen, Contact and photocontact sensitivity to sunscreens: Review of a 15year experience and of the literature.Contact dermatitis, 1997. 37(5): p. 221-232.

12. Cook, N. and S. Freeman, Report of 19 cases of photoallergic contact dermatitis to sunscreens seen at the Skin and Cancer Foundation.Australasian journal of dermatology, 2001. 42(4): p. 257-259.

13. Warshaw, E.M., et al., Patch test reactions associated with sunscreen products and the importance of testing to an expanded series: retrospective analysis of North American Contact Dermatitis Group data, 2001 to 2010.Dermatitis, 2013. 24(4): p. 176-182.

14. Schlumpf, M., et al., Exposure patterns of UV filters, fragrances, parabens, phthalates, organochlor pesticides, PBDEs, and PCBs in human milk: correlation of UV filters with use of cosmetics.Chemosphere, 2010. 81(10): p. 1171-1183.

15. Alonso, M.B., et al., Toxic heritage: Maternal transfer of pyrethroid insecticides and sunscreen agents in dolphins from Brazil.Environmental pollution, 2015. 207: p. 391-402.

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