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What Is Avobenzone and Why Is It In My Sunscreen?

by Jamie Schneider

I was on my way to purchase one of Instagram’s cult-favorite beauty staples when a friend of mine said, “Doesn’t that stuff have Avobenzone? Aren’t you not supposed to put that on your skin?” Blown away by the fact that my trusty explore page could be so wrong, I decided to do a little digging on this ingredient and why it has made its way into many a millennial pink packaging. 

After catching up on my skincare homework, it came somewhat as a shock that the FDA recently released new regulations on safe sunscreens in February. In favor of recapping the entirety of the FDA news release, I’ll offer the SparkNotes version of these new regulations: only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (just two of the sixteen previously safe substances) are considered safe sunscreen ingredients. Everything else—  including Avobenzone— needs a second look. 

If you’re like me, and you’re curious (and a little nervous) to find out what’s so bad about this “Avobenzone” anyway, you’ll want to check out what I found about this ingredient and why it can become harmful. Plus, you’ll be able to understand one of the many hard-to-pronounce substances that make up your skincare labels, allowing you to finally tackle your products, one synthetic ingredient at a time. 

What Is Avobenzone?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, Avobenzone is an ultraviolet filter that helps protect against harmful UV rays by absorbing the rays and converting them into energy that’s less damaging to the skin. Avobenzone is also oil-soluble, which is why it’s been used in so many over-the-counter sunscreens, as it can easily combine with other active ingredients. 

However, Avobenzone degrades in the sun and has a shelf-life of around 30 minutes of protection. Seems a bit fishy for people who want to lay on the beach all day and tend to only reapply on the hour. To combat this short lifespan, a lot of companies add other formulas in order to stabilize the Avobenzone and allow it to last longer when exposed to UV rays (more on this later). Up until this year, the substance was thought to be perfectly fine in sunscreens, despite concerns about the toxicity of the chemical. 

Why Is It Bad?

Although Avobenzone has been around in sunscreens since it was approved by the FDA in 1992, recent research has shown that chemicals like Avobenzone may be absorbed into the skin, which could lead to irritation, hormonal disruption, and even skin cancer. The FDA admitted that more research needs to be done in order to confirm or deny this preliminary knowledge, but they did find in May that chemicals like Avobenzone do become absorbed into the skin at significantly higher levels than they previously thought. Whether this absorption is dangerous for us and our skin remains to be further contested and studied. 

This means that while Avobenzone successfully absorbs harmful UV rays from the sun— protecting us from burns— the ingredient is being absorbed into our skin as well, which may not be so safe. The effects of Avobenzone also haven’t been researched in children or pregnant women, so there may be harmful effects of absorbing this ingredient that we don’t even know exist for these specific populations.  

And because Avobenzone degrades in the sun after only 30 minutes, most companies pair it with other chemicals in order to prolong its effects. One of those chemicals is called Homosalate, which helps the sunscreen penetrate into the skin but can mess with your estrogen, androgen, and progesterone hormone levels. So, if you’re reading up on your skincare labels and you see Avobenzone paired with Homosalate, it may be best to steer clear for a while. 

Why Is It Everywhere?! 

As I mentioned before, Avobenzone was approved by the FDA in 1992, so for over 20 years the stuff has flown quietly under the radar. And because it’s oil-soluble, it’s an easy ingredient to pair with other substances when creating sunscreen. So before you berate your favorite beauty brands on the safety of their products, remember that until very recently this ingredient was thought to be A-okay. The fact that only a few months ago the FDA decided to take action to re-research their findings is groundbreaking and, honestly, a little nerve-wracking. 

It’ll be interesting to see how beauty brands use this new information to adapt their Avobenzone-filled sunscreen products. I suspect that some new formulations will be on the market soon enough, even before the big Avobenzone research is concluded by the FDA.  While you might think you’d be better off by ditching the sunscreen altogether in fear of all this chemical drama, applying sunscreen every single day is essential to keep your skin protected, no question. Natural, broad-spectrum sunscreens— such as ones with zinc oxide— are your best bet until this Avobenzone scandal becomes under control. The bottom line? Read your skincare labels and practice safe sun— not only for our reefs, but especially for your skin.

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