If you’ve never heard of oxybenzone, BP-3 or benzophenone-3, you’re not alone! Until recently, it’s been one of those hard-to-pronounce, but common ingredients in many sunscreens, lotions and cosmetics.
Lately however, researchers have discovered it has two nasty side effects. Firstly, it could affect your risk of getting cancer. Secondly, it’s wrecking our once-magnificent coral reefs.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the good, the bad and the ugly of BP-3.
What is BP-3 and where does it come from?
Benzophenone-3 commonly occurs in certain flowering plants. It is excellent at absorbing UV rays —especially UVB and UVA II rays. That’s what makes it so popular as an ingredient for sunscreen.
What’s Good about BP-3?
There are two types of sunscreen filters—organic filters such as BP-3 (oxybenzone) absorb sunlight and convert it into safer radiation whereas physical/inorganic sunscreen filters such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide reflect and scatter UV radiation.
Scientifically speaking, BP-3 in sunscreens absorbs harmful UV rays resulting in a heightened energy state called photochemical excitation. In returning from this heightened state to its ground energy state, BP-3 emits energy in the form of longer wavelength radiation which is less harmful that the UV rays. This process reduces the amount of harmful UV radiation penetrating the skin. In short, the radiation received from the sun through the BP-3 barrier is safer and the risk of DNA damage is reduced. BP-3 therefore goes a long way toward keeping your skin free from cancer, sunspots, blemishes and wrinkles.
What about the bad side of BP-3?
When applied to the skin as an ingredient in sunscreens, cosmetics and/or lotions, BP-3 is absorbed into the body where it disrupts the endocrine levels leading to health issues.
In fact, a recent study found that BP-3 may increase your risk of breast cancer. In this study, entitled: Benzophenone-3 promotion of mammary tumorigenesis is diet-dependent, researchers investigated the effects of oxybenzone exposure, and whether there was a difference between a high-fat and low-fat diet in a mouse model. They found that although diet influenced the types of tumours formed, exposure to oxybenzone was a risk factor for cancer development independent of diet.
Co-corresponding author of the study, Professor Richard Schwartz, from the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University, said ‘In balance, these results suggest that there are enough bad effects from BP-3 overall that we believe it calls for the precautionary principle.’
‘When there are alternatives, stay away from BP-3,’ advised Professor Schwartz.
The same researchers previously reported that a high-fat diet increased the risk of getting breast cancer, as did oestrogen exposure.
In other studies, benzophenone-3 has been shown to affect the birth weight of newborn babies, and high benzophenone concentrations in males may reduce their fertility by 30%.
How does BP-3 effect coral reefs?
Benzophenone-3 is a major contributor to coral bleaching in many regions of the world, particularly those with a large tourism industry.
While applying sunscreen to helps protect people from skin cancer, when these well-meaning individuals enter the ocean for a swim, all that sunscreen washes off, polluting the coral reefs.
The few millilitres of sunscreen you apply might seem like a drop in the ocean, but it’s been estimated that over 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen find their way into the oceans globally each year.
The truth is that, even if you don’t swim after applying sunscreen, you’ll probably wash it off in the bath or shower, releasing BP-3 and a host of other chemicals into the environment.
Pollution from substances such as oxybenzone is significant with over 82,000 chemicals from personal-care products estimated to be affecting our oceans worldwide.
In the last 50 years, about 80 percent of corals in the Caribbean have been lost to pollution, coastal development and increasing water temperatures. From 1994 to 2006, a much as one quarter of the coral for reef surrounding Maui in Hawaii was lost due to the environmental impact of humans. As a result, locales such as Hawaii have since banned the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone can accumulate in coral leading to bleaching, impairment of young coral, damage to DNA and even death of the coral. It also impairs the growth and ongoing photosynthetic processes of green algae.
BP-3 has been linked to decreased fertility and function in fish species and causes male fish to take on female characteristics. It also induces defects in young mussels and causes damage to the immune and reproductive systems of sea urchins, deforming their young. Likewise, it accumulates in the bodily tissues of dolphins and can be transferred to their young.
How do you reduce your cancer risks without harming the environment?
Here are a few tips to stay safe in the sun, reduce your cancer risk associated with BP-3, and help reduce the impact of this chemical on the environment.
Slip on sun-protective clothing and slap on a hat
Wear clothing instead of sunscreen to protect your skin. For example, consider wearing rash shirts, sunsuits, long-sleeved swimsuits, boardshorts, shirts, sunglasses or tinted goggles and hats.
Slop on some eco-friendly sunscreen
Look for reef-safe sunscreens that include ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide rather than oxybenzone, BP-3 or benzophenone. Safer sunscreen options are generally referred to as ‘physical’ or ‘mineral’ sunscreens and contain no nano-sized particles.
Be aware of and avoid products containing other chemicals that are harmful to the environment, such as benzophenone-1, benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-benzylidene camphor, nano-titanium dioxide, nano-zinc oxide, octinoxate or octocrylene.
Check for certified reef-safe sunscreen products before making a purchase. For example, Haereticus Environmental Laboratory add a ‘Protect Land + Sea’ certification seal to products that do not contain substances found on their pollutant list (aka HEL List) that includes:
If you’re travelling, ask your hotel for ‘eco kits’. These consist of environmentally safe products you can use while on holiday.
Only go outside in the sun before 10am in the morning and after 2pm in the afternoon; seek shelter between 10am to 2pm. When you are outside in the sun, set up a beach umbrella or cabana rather than just relying on sunscreen.
Need help managing your chemicals? Talk to Chemwatch
Many chemicals are not safe to be inhaled, consumed or applied to skin. To avoid accidental consumption, mishandling and misidentification, chemicals should be accurately labelled, tracked and stored. For assistance with this, and chemical and hazardous material handling, SDS, labels and large quantities of chemicals, contact Chemwatch on (03) 9573 3100.