Who would’ve thought that sunscreen could become so controversial?
Well, due to ingredients like octisalate in chemical sunscreen, researchers and the general public alike have become concerned about what’s really in their sunscreen and wondering whether they should be using products with the ingredient or not.
Public Goods spoke to a dermatologist and a cosmetic chemist to get all the safety information we thought you should know.
What is Octisalate?
Octisalate, also known as ethylhexyl salicylate and octyl salicylate, is a chemical ingredient in sunscreen. You might recognize it as the yellow, oily liquid that sometimes accompanies the drugstore brand.
The main use for octisalate is as a chemical UVB ray blocker. This is because octisalate penetrates the skin and serves as a UV filter that can absorb harmful rays from the sun.
Octisalate serves other purposes in addition to UV absorption. Vanessa Thomas, a cosmetic chemist and founder of Freelance Formulations, told us that octisalate also gives sunscreen a smoothing, moisturizing property, which makes it easier to be applied. On top of that, it helps the product adhere to the skin, even after sweating or swimming.
Thomas tells us that octisalate is also found in other skincare products such as moisturizers, foundations, lip balms, body washes, and other cleansers and cosmetics.
What is Octisalate Used For?
Octisalate is mainly used for UV protection in sunscreen.
However, octisalate is able to block UVB rays from the sun, so by itself, it does not provide broad-spectrum protection. To be a broad-spectrum sunscreen, it must be able to absorb both UVA and UVB rays from the sun.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UVA rays are longer and associated with signs of aging of the skin, like wrinkles and dark spots. UVB rays are shorter and associated with sunburns. Both types of rays can cause skin cancer.
Since octisalate doesn’t protect you from UVA rays, sunscreen formulations need to include other ingredients that can act as UV filters and block those rays for the sunscreen to fully protect you.
Thomas said that it is not very common for octisalate to be found in other skin and beauty products. But when it is used in those aforementioned products, the main use is also for UV protection. So, for example, foundations or BB creams that have SPF protection may have octisalate in it.
That being said, if you are concerned about octisalate being in your skincare products, even if they don’t have SPF, you should read the ingredients list.
Is Octisalate Safe? The Jury is Still Out
According to Dr. Kaveri Karhade, a board-certified dermatologist who practices in the San Francisco Bay area, octisalate is a safe ingredient to use on a daily basis and in general.
Dr. Karhade told us that the main concern with chemicals in sunscreen, including octisalate, is that studies have shown that some chemical ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed into the bloodstream to a small extent. However, she said, this does not necessarily mean anything dangerous, and that more studies need to be done before any conclusions can be drawn.
“The skin cancer protection benefit of using any sunscreen outweighs the known risks at this time, so dermatologists do recommend regular sunscreen application,” Dr. Karhade said.
Thomas agreed that octisalate is generally safe to use until studies prove otherwise. She said there is no conclusive evidence that this ingredient is a danger, but an allergic reaction is always a possibility. She also said that concentrations of octisalate in products is very low – 2% to 5%, which can lessen risks. The FDA approves concentrations up to 5% in sunscreen.
The FDA has acknowledged the research that ingredients such as octisalate in sunscreen can be absorbed into the bloodstream, but they stated, “Absorption does NOT equal risk,” and urged people to continue to use sunscreen.
Despite these experts’ assurances, the Environmental Working Group categorizes octisalate as a moderate allergy risk and an environmental biohazard. Sunscreen containing octisalate is not reef safe.
Dr. Karhade acknowledged that this chemical, “may cause skin sensitivity or rash in those with sensitive skin,” which often includes infants and children.
How to Avoid Octisalate: Alternatives to Chemical Sunscreen
If you want to avoid using products that contain octisalate, make sure you always check the label. However, it’s not always so simple, since it might be listed under one of its other names on the ingredient list. You may also see it be referred to as ethylhexyl salicylate or octyl salicylate.
Making the switch from chemical sunscreen to physical or mineral sunscreen is the solution.
“Physical sunscreens are always a good choice for anyone concerned about chemical absorption, anyone with a known sensitivity to chemical ingredients, those with sensitive skin, pregnant women, and anyone looking to minimize exposure to chemicals,” Dr. Karhade said.
Look for labels that say “mineral sunscreen” or ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, since these are typically the main ingredients in mineral or physical sunscreens. Rather than absorb UV rays, physical sunscreens reflect UV light.
Brands that promote clean beauty and safe ingredients will likely sell physical sunscreen instead of chemical sunscreen. The benefits of physical sunscreen go beyond us humans. The majority of physical sunscreens are reef safe, which makes them safer for marine life—an important factor if you’re going to be swimming at the beach.
Overall, octisalate has not been proven to be harmful to humans, but why take the risk? Especially since it’s harmful to our planet’s elaborate, life-giving coral reef system, it only makes sense to opt for mineral-based sunscreen.
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