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In short, NO. Avobenzone isn't safe for humans, and it isn't reef safe.
Currently one of the most popular active ingredients used in sunscreens, avobenzone was developed in 1973 and approved by the FDA in 1988 for its ability to absorb UVA rays. But not all sunscreen ingredients are created equal, and avobenzone is simply one of several petrochemicals that can be produced cheaply for use in common sunscreens. At best, any petrochemical is bad for long term health and trades UV damage for chemical damage.
One issue with avobenzone is it only offers about 30 minutes of sun protection because it chemically breaks down in sunshine. But it is one of the few chemical active ingredients that cover the UVA spectrum (the rays that affect deeper skin tissues), so shortsighted sunscreen companies need to add more chemicals (like octocrylene, homosalate, or octisalate) to help extend avobenzone’s limited effectiveness.
In essence, avobenzone is the common sunscreen industry's replacement for oxybenzone (another UVA absorber), which has become an industry bad guy and given up as the sacrificial lamb to regulators and the public, to try to maintain an aura of safety within the common, petrochemical market. Such common sunscreen manufacturers have now switched to the “less infamous" avobenzone.
But like all other petrochemicals, avobenzone is clearly mismatched to human biochemistries, and although sellers of avobenzone products tend to claim it is safe for humans and reefs, the molecular structures of oxyBENZONE and avoBENZONE are extremely similar, and both do bad things to users and waterways, especially over the long term.
Oceanographers have found petrochemicals are damaging marine and reef environments because they increase the rate of coral bleaching. Various coastal areas around the world (Hawaii is the first US jurisdiction to do so) have begun to ban two chemicals found in common sunscreens (oxybenzone and octinoxate), but it’s important to remember ALL petrochemicals, including avobenzone, are harmful. And not just to marine life but humans.
Roughly 15,000 tons of sunscreen petrochemicals wash into the oceans each year (that’s the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez oil spill every 3 years or less), and research shows many of these damage coral and marine life.
The trouble is, avobenzone’s health effects haven't been studied nearly as much as for oxybenzone, and it's little surprise that what we know so far isn't good. Just like oxybenzone, avobenzone degrades in the sun, lowering its ability to screen UVA rays, releases free radicals that increase cancer risk, accelerates skin aging and contributes to development of a myriad of allergies. Recent studies also show avobenzone can become toxic to our liver and kidneys when it comes into contact with chlorine, a common ingredient in swimming pool and tap water.
Once avobenzone is more fully studied, we may know it’s as bad or worse than other petrochemicals or that it’s relatively less dangerous. But even at this early stage, it’s clear avobenzone presents significant health risks, just like its petrochemical cousins.
Big skincare lobbyists prefer to argue such petrochemicals ARE safe and that they make sunscreens more affordable to a mass market, but they also tend to ignore the hidden long term costs, not only to the environment, but to their customers, as over the last 45 years (since avobenzone was first approved), skin cancer rates have grown an average of 4% per year, more or less the same rate as inflation-adjusted, per capita spending on sunscreens.
And though in that same time, Americans 65 and older have increased by 1.5% per year, this leaves a significant amount of skin cancer growth that is reasonably accounted for by the proliferation of petrochemical sunscreens that do a decent job at the skin's surface, but that mask deeper damage that shows up in the dermatologist office years later.
We'll end our avobenzone review with a simple fact. One typical dose of common petrochemical sunscreen delivers to the bloodstream an amount of toxins that counteracts ONE ENTIRE YEAR's worth of clean, organic eating. Not convinced? Just email us, and we'll be glad to send you the calculations.
1. Know your ingredients — Flip over your sunscreen and read the ingredients. We want everyone to know what good ingredients are, regardless of whether they use our products or not. Your health is worth it.
2. Buy safe sunscreen — Waxhead is dedicated to using only the healthiest, safest, most effective ingredients in our sunscreens. Shop Safe Sunscreen here.
3. Teach a friend — If you know someone who might still be buying sunscreen with questionable ingredients, please share this post with him/her.
We built Waxhead’s four modern, sun-safety strategies on traditional methods used for thousands of years.