Ask a Derm: Why Is There Octinoxate in Your Favorite Sunscreens?

Two dermatologists weigh in on the popular ingredient.

Updated 11/20/19

Stocksy 

Drink water, don’t sleep in your makeup, and wear sunscreen—in beauty, there are no rules, but if there were, those would be the three commandments. And while most of us can get behind the first two, sunscreen has come into question in recent years, specifically the safety of the ingredients used in the formulas. Just as many of us were starting to make sunscreen application a daily habit, news of traditional chemical filters used in sunscreen, such as octinoxate, having less than positive effects on the environment and potentially even our own bodies has come into the light.

But before you swear off octinoxate completely, hear what skin experts have to say about this ingredient that’s commonly found in sunblock. We interviewed board-certified dermatologists Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group and Hadley King, MD, as well as chemists Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu of Chemist Confessions. Find out what they think you should know about octinoxate below. 

Type of ingredient: Chemical UV filter

Main benefits: Prevents sunburn, decreases the risk of skin cancer, doesn't leave a white cast.

Who should use it: Anyone over the age of six months looking for a chemical sunscreen to protect their skin from UVB rays, particularly if they do not like the consistency of physical mineral sunscreens.

How often can you use it: In general, it's safe to use on a daily basis.

Works well with: In order to get broad-spectrum protection, octinoxate will often be combined with avobenzone (a chemical UVA filter). To help stabilize the avobenzone, it typically will come with another filter, octocrylene.

Don't use with: Chemical peel ingredients like glycolic acid, as well as any ingredients with a significantly lower pH

What Is Octinoxate?

According to King, octinoxate is an ester formed from methoxycinnamic acid and 2-ethylhexanol. It's a liquid that is insoluble in water and can be found in all textures of sunscreens, such as lotions, creams, balms, and liquids. Octinoxate is an organic compound used in "chemical" sunscreen (formulas that rely on traditional chemicals rather than mineral ingredients) due to its protective ability against certain wavelengths of ultraviolet (UV) light. Nazarian says that it primarily blocks the UVB range, though it also offers minimal protection against UVA rays. Unlike mineral sunscreens, which reflect the UV rays, chemical sunscreens work to protect the skin from damage by absorbing the UV light and turning it into heat instead.

Benefits of Octinoxate for Skin

Octinoxate is a popular ingredient in traditional chemical sunscreens for its aesthetics, texture, and ability to protect the skin. See below for a further explanation of its benefits.

  • Protects skin from sunburns: As a UVB filter, octinoxate's primary function is to stop the sun from burning the top layers of the skin.
  • Decreases potential for skin cancer: Nazarian says by preventing sunburns, it also minimizes the risk of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
  • Prevents damage: Studies show that UV radiation can generate free radicals and cause DNA damage. Although octinoxate primarily protects against UVB rays, it also offers some protection against UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin and damage the skin cells.
  • Minimizes signs of photoaging: Nazarian adds that octinoxate can help minimize premature skin aging. UVA radiation from sun exposure can cause degradation of collagen and lead to wrinkles, dark spots, and loss of skin elasticity, and octinoxate provides some UVA protection.
  • Applies smoothly: Chemical sunscreens, in general, have a lighter texture than mineral sunscreens. Formulas containing octinoxate apply smoothly and evenly and are easy to layer under makeup.
  • Leaves no white cast: Sunscreens containing octinoxate have less of a chance leaving a white cast on skin compared to mineral sunscreens. "We typically recommend these for oily skin and darker skin tones that struggle with mineral sunscreen," Fu says.

Side Effects of Octinoxate

According to King, allergic reactions to octinoxate are uncommon, but although it has a solid safety record, there are concerns that it could be an endocrine disruptor

"Octinoxate was shown to have the potential for hormonal disruption and neurologic toxicity," Nazarian says. "However, the studies were done in settings that had oral ingestion and other extremely high doses, which are not 'relevant to human exposure.'" In other words, Nazarian says it’s safe when used normally and applied topically as a sunscreen. "As per the studies, at most, 0.002% of the topical amount is absorbed into the body—a minuscule amount," she adds.

Additionally, Lu says there currently isn't any evidence that suggests octinoxate is an endocrine disrupter when applied topically. "We know that there is ongoing research being done to further look into these ingredients and see if any of these truly are endocrine disruptors, but for now, there’s no concrete validity."

woman applying sunscreen looking over her shoulder
 Stocksy

In general, octinoxate is recommended for most people. However, those with melasma or sensitive skin might have better luck with a mineral formula. "Melasma is a condition that requires protection against the entire UVA and UVB spectrum and even visible light," Nazarian says. "Iron-based sunscreens have done a superior job in people with melasma, so I would not recommend sunscreens with only octinoxate for this population. I would also recommend those with sensitive skin to consider a physical or mineral sunscreen rather than a chemical blocker such as octinoxate to minimize risk of irritation."

Is Octinoxate Reef-Safe?

A major recent concern about octinoxate is its effect on the coral reef, following Hawaii's ban on the sale of sunscreens containing the ingredient. "In a lab setting, they have seen both [octinoxate and oxybenzone] cause dose-dependent bleaching and have harmful effects on coral larval (think: baby coral), but there’s still a lot of questions on how this translates to our oceans," Fu says. "The ocean habitat is much more complex, and sunscreens may only play a small part amongst poor wastewater management and global warming." While we wait for more research to come out, Fu recommends using mineral sunscreen when snorkeling around the reefs. In these instances, look for formulas designated as ‘reef safe,' or when in doubt, go with a zinc oxide-based formula.

How to Use It

Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 should be applied to dry skin 30 minutes before sun exposure and should be reapplied every two hours and after swimming or sweating, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Nazarian stresses the importance of application order when it comes to sunscreen and says to apply it to clean, dry skin before you apply your moisturizer or makeup. And when using it on your entire body, use one ounce of the formula to make sure your skin is sufficiently covered.

The Best Products With Octinoxate

Revision Skincare Intellishade Original SPF 45
Revision Skincare Intellishade Original SPF 45 $75
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Loved by both King and Nazarian for its multitasking capabilities, this tinted formula, which contains octinoxate, is a great everyday option. "Easiest way to streamline your routine," Nazarian says, "It contains sun-protective ingredients to shield skin from UV light, but it also has anti-aging ingredients such as peptides and antioxidants and comes in a tinted form for subtle coverage."

Elta MD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46 Facial Sunscreen
EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 Facial Sunscreen $35
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For those with acne-prone skin, King and Nazarian recommend this lightweight, octinoxate-based sunscreen, which also has the approval of the Skin Cancer Foundation. "This is a classic favorite because it is non-comedogenic, so it doesn’t cause breakouts or acne and contains niacinamide to calm sensitive skin," Nazarian says. Although it applies clear with no visible residue, it also comes in a tinted version.

La Prairie Cellular Swiss UV Protection Veil Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50
La Prairie Cellular Swiss UV Protection Veil Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 $200
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Nazarian compares the application of this sunscreen formula to the smoothness of silk, which might help explain the hefty price tag. "This is a splurge product, but it does a great job protecting against UVA and UVB," Nazarian says. "It’s smooth and lightweight—a cosmetically elegant product."

Philosophy renewed hope in a jar spf 30
Philosophy Renewed Hope in A Jar SPF 30 Moisturizer $39
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This lightweight moisturizer has the added bonus of SPF 30 sun protection, thanks to the octinoxate it contains along with other chemical filters avobenzone and octocrylene. For that reason, this protective moisturizer is one of Nazarian's top picks for daily use.

SkinMedica Total Defense + Repair SPF 34
SkinMedica Total Defense + Repair SPF 34 $68
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This formula is a Byrdie favorite for its ability to not only block the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays with a combination of both chemical and physical blockers, but it also protects against infrared radiation and free radical damage with antioxidants.

Dr. Barbara Sturm Sun Drops SPF 50
Dr. Barbara Sturm Sun Drops SPF 50 $145
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Quite possibly the most versatile product on this list, these Byrdie-approved sun drops make protecting your skin as easy as one-two-three. First, use the dropper to add a generous amount of the sun drops into the palm of your hand. Then, mix it into your regular moisturizer, serum, or liquid foundation. For the last step, apply the mixture onto your face until the entire area is covered. See? Easy.

Renee Rouleau Weightless Protection SPF 30
Renée Rouleau Weightless Protection SPF 30 $58
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The zinc oxide in this part physical, part chemical sunscreen makes it safe for those with acne-prone skin, while the octinoxate allows the formula to be lightweight and easy to layer under other daily skincare products. It's easy to see why this formula is a Byrdie-editor favorite.

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