Aesthetic Dermatology Update

The great sunscreen ingredient debate


In other previously published studies, oxybenzone, along with some other sunscreen active ingredients including octocrylene, have been found in human breast milk. In addition, oxybenzone has been detected in amniotic fluid, urine, and blood. Whether these findings have any clinical implications needs to be further assessed. Some studies in the literature have raised questions about the potential for oxybenzone to affect endocrine activity.

Another issue that has been raised is the potential impact of sunscreen on the environment, specifically, coral reefs. In July 2018, Hawaii Governor David Ige (D) signed a bill (SB 2571) that bans the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate beginning in 2021, making Hawaii the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing these two chemicals. Shortly afterward, the Republic of Palau and city of Key West, Fla., also took action to ban sunscreens containing chemicals potentially harmful to marine life. In Hawaii, what’s know as “reef safe” sunscreen is sold.

Dr. Lily Talakoub, McLean (Va.) Dermatology and Skin Care Center

Dr. Lily Talakoub

More research in this area is needed, but studies have linked these ingredients to harming coral by bleaching, disease, and damage to DNA, and also to decreasing fertility in fish, impairing algae growth, inducing defects in mussel and sea urchin young, and accumulating in the tissues of dolphins. According to NASA, as much as 27% of monitored reef formation have already been lost and over the following 32 years, 32% more are at risk. Reefs cover a mere 0.2% of the ocean’s floor, but it is estimated that reefs are home to and protect nearly 1 million species of fish, invertebrates, and algae.

In early May, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) introduced legislation known as the Oxybenzone and Octinoxate Impact Study Act of 2019 (H.R. 2588) to require the Environmental Protection Agency to study the impact of those two chemicals on human health and the environment and to provide findings to Congress and the public within 18 months.

The importance of sun protection and prevention of sunburns is paramount. We know that multiple sunburn events during childhood double a child’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life, and skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, with 5 million cases treated every year. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70 years.

As a Mohs and a cosmetic dermatologic surgeon, I appreciate the unquestionable protective effects of sunscreen products with regards to skin cancer, dyspigmentation, solar elastosis, and rhytids associated with photoaging. We can applaud the FDA for improving testing and regulation of OTC ingredients, including those in sunscreen. These types of studies are important and monumental in ensuring that we are utilizing the right type of ingredients to protect our patients, our oceans, and our reefs.

Dr. Wesley and Dr. Talakoub are co-contributors to this column. Dr. Wesley practices dermatology in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dr. Talakoub is in private practice in McLean, Va. This month’s column is by Dr. Wesley. Write to them at They had no relevant disclosures.

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