Oxybenzone, also called BP-3 or Benzophenone-3, is found commonly in sunscreens and make-up with SPF protection. Kate Hall’s recent article ‘How Sunscreen Is Damaging Our Reefs – And What You Can Do About It’ gives a great summary on the issue. It can be confusing to know what look for in sunscreen products, especially since there is no consistent answer or ‘reef-safe’ standards.
*Remember that sunscreen is the last option for sun protection. The Cancer Council recommends avoiding the sun with clothing, hats and glasses.
Image from Mohamed Nohassi @Unsplash
Physical or chemical?
The whole purpose of sunscreen is to block harmful rays from the sun damaging the skin – long wave UVA (ultraviolet A) and short wave (ultraviolet B). Sunscreen works in one of two ways to prevent UVA or UVB rays from the sun damaging cells – physically as a barrier or chemically absorbed.
Chemical sunscreen contains ingredients with oxybenzone and various other chemicals that are absorbed under the skin. These chemicals then react with UVA and UVB rays, preventing them from causing damage. Chemical sunscreen has become a popular choice as it comes in a lightweight formula.
Physical (mineral) sunscreen works as a barrier on the skin against the sun, sitting on the surface. Physical sunscreen is made from titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Physical sunscreen is generally a bit thicker as it sits on the skin. As the popularity of physical sunscreen has increased, mineral sunscreen products have expanded from thick white paste to lightweight formulas.
Between the two, Zinc oxide is considered to be the safest and most natural UV reflector when micronized. There have been claims that nanoparticles from mineral sunscreen may not be safe, there is however no significant evidence. Until there is more research in Australia, look for sunscreen containing zinc oxide and fewer chemicals (avoiding oxybenzone) to avoid potential harm to reefs or wildlife.