Octinoxate, also called Octyl methoxycinnamate or OMC, is a chemical commonly used in cosmetic and skin care products around the world. But does that mean it’s safe for you and your family? The answers are mixed.
So far, there’s not much evidence that this chemical causes serious harm in humans. However, it has been shown to be potentially harmful to animals and the environment.
While more intensive studies are currently in progress, long-term studies have yet to be completed on how octinoxate may affect the human body systemically. Here’s what we’ve uncovered about this controversial additive.
Octinoxate is in a class of chemicals made by mixing an organic acid with an alcohol. In this case, sulfuric acid and methanol combined make octinoxate.
This chemical was first produced in the 1950s to filter out UV-B rays from the sun. That means it can help shield your skin from sunburn and skin cancer.
Just as you would expect, since OMC is known to block UV-B rays, you’ll often find it in the ingredients list of over-the-counter sunscreens. Manufacturers also routinely use OMC in all kinds of cosmetic and personal care products to help keep their ingredients fresh and effective. It can also help your skin to better absorb other ingredients.
In addition to most mainstream sunscreens, you’ll find octinoxate in lots of conventional (nonorganic) skin and cosmetic products, including makeup foundation, hair dye, shampoo, lotion, nail polish, and lip balm.
According to the Household Products Database from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mainstream companies like Dove, L’Oréal, Olay, Aveeno, Avon, Clairol, Revlon, and many others, all use octinoxate in their products. Almost every conventional chemical sunscreen uses it as a main ingredient.
You might have to dig deep into an ingredients list to see if a product is made with octinoxate. It’s called by many names, so in addition to octinoxate and octyl methoxycinnamate, you’ll need to look for names like ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, escalol, or neo heliopan, among several other potential names.
Here’s where things get tricky. Although it’s currently approved for use in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricts the strength of the formula to a maximum of 7.5% octinoxate concentration.
Canada, Japan, and the European Union also place limits on how much OMC a product can contain. But are these restrictions enough to keep consumers safe from any potential harm OMC can cause?
Several studies suggest octinoxate can have harmful effects on animals, as well as the environment. But so far, in-depth research on humans has been limited.
Most human studies have focused on visible concerns like rashes and skin allergies, and haven’t proven serious harm to humans. However, continuing research shows there may be validity to the mounting health and safety concerns many people are raising.
Even though it’s often included in skin care products to make your complexion look better, some people say that octinoxate causes acne.
Some research has found that octinoxate can cause adverse skin reactions, like acne and contact dermatitis in humans. But this has only been shown to occur in a minority of people who have specific skin allergies.
Reproductive and developmental concerns
Several studies have concluded that octinoxate can cause reproductive problems, such as low sperm count in males, or changes in the size of the uterus in lab animals that were exposed to moderate or high doses of the chemical. However, these studies were conducted on animals, not humans. The animals were also exposed to higher levels of the chemical than are typically used outside of a lab setting.
Multiple studies with rats have found strong evidence that OMC can negatively affect internal systems. Octinoxate has, definitively, been found to be an “endocrine disruptor,” in animals, which means that it can alter the way hormones work.
Endocrine disruptors aren’t fully understood, but are thought to pose the greatest risk to developing systems, like a fetus or a newborn baby. Endocrine disruptors have been closely linked with adverse effects in thyroid function.
Other systemic concerns
One major concern is that OMC is absorbed quickly through the skin and into the bloodstream. OMC has been detected in human urine. It’s even been detected in human breast milk. This has caused the authors of one 2006 study to suggest that heightened exposure to chemicals like OMC through cosmetics might contribute to higher incidences of breast cancer in humans, although there are, as of yet, no human studies to prove that.
More research is definitely called for to determine potential long-term risks to humans. In the meantime, limited levels remain the widespread norm as allowable in thousands of hygienic products and cosmetics. Some regions, however, have instituted their own restrictions of OMC due to developing evidence of its environmental effect.
Harm to the environment
In May of 2018, for instance, lawmakers in Hawaii passed a bill to ban the use of sunscreens containing octinoxate. This new law came on the heels of a 2015 study showing that octinoxate contributes to “coral bleaching.” According to the study, the chemicals in sunscreen are part of the reason coral reefs around the world are dying.
A limited amount of octinoxate in beauty and personal care products is the controversial norm in most of the world. The FDA has determined that there’s not yet enough evidence that it’s harmful to humans to eliminate it from common use. Although studies have shown it to cause harm to rats and the environment.
Many scientists and consumers consider it a risky chemical in need of more research, particularly on humans. As of now, the choice whether or not to use products that contain octinoxate is left up to you.
If you want to avoid the potential risks of octinoxate and use personal care products that don’t contain this chemical, be prepared for a challenge. Health food stores, specialty stores, and internet shopping might make your search easier. However, don’t just assume that products labeled with terms like “natural” will automatically be free of OMC. Search through the ingredients list for all of this chemical’s various names.
Sunscreens are the most likely product you’ll need to replace. Octinoxate is one of the strongest chemical sun blocks available and a huge majority of brands still use it. However, natural mineral sunscreens are on the rise.
Where conventional sunscreens use chemicals like octinoxate to absorb and filter the sun’s harmful rays, mineral sunscreens work by deflecting the sun. Look for options that list titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient.
Brands like Goddess Garden, Badger, and Mandan Naturals produce what’s often called “reef-safe” sunscreen that works without using OMC. Depending on where you live, you may or may not find these specialty brands on the shelves of your local drugstore.
Online stores like Amazon have dozens of octinoxate-free sunscreens to choose from. Your dermatologist can also recommend or prescribe an octinoxate-free product that will work for you.