Avobenzone is a colorless crystalline solid comprised of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Since the 1970s, avobenzone has been widely used in skin care products. On some product labels, avobenzone is listed by one of its two alternate names: butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane and Parsol 1789.
The molecular properties of avobenzone make the ingredient capable of absorbing the full range of ultraviolet A or UVA rays. This powerful electromagnetic energy is found in sunlight, but invisible to the naked eye. UVA rays produce large amounts of radiation, which has the potential to damage substances, including the cells of the human body.
When the skin is exposed to UVA rays for prolonged periods of time, the body begins to produce excess amounts of the skin pigment melanin in the epidermis (outermost layer of skin) in order to protect the tissue from damage. This increased amount of melanin causes the skin to darken or tan. If the exposure to the radiation from UVA rays continues, the radiation begins to affect the dermis (middle layer of skin) and the body increases its immune system response. As a result, the skin becomes red and irritated. The longer the skin remains in the sun, the worse this irritation becomes. Pain and inflammation from UVA rays can last for days and is commonly referred to as sunburn.
When avobenzone is applied to the skin, it absorbs the UVA rays before they can reach the skin cells. As a result, the immune system response that eventually leads to sunburn does not begin. Skin care products that contain avobenzone and are used solely to protect the skin during periods of sun exposure are known as sunscreens. All sunscreens are labeled with a sun protective factor or SPF, which indicates how much of the ultraviolet rays of the sun are absorbed by the product. Typically, formulations with higher SPFs contain higher concentrations of avobenzone and in turn, offer more protection from the sun.
The first patent for avobenzone was issued in 1973, and by 1978, the ingredient had been approved for use in sunscreens sold in Europe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not extend approval for avobenzone sunscreens until 1988. Presently, avobenzone is an approved sun protective ingredient throughout the world, and in Australia, Canada and Europe, avobenzone is the most commonly used active ingredient in sunscreens.
The regular use of an avobenzone sunscreen can have long-term benefits for the skin tissue and for a person's overall health. Repeated damage from UVA rays can eventually lead to permanent deformities in the skin tissue cells that are responsible for producing collagen, the structural protein that helps the skin resist wrinkling. Damage from UVA radiation can also cause skin cells to mutate and form some types of skin cancers, including the most fatal form of the disease, melanoma. Applying avobenzone sunscreens regularly before sun exposure and reapplying them consistently while outdoors helps reduce the risk for both premature aging and sun-related skin cancers.
In addition to sunscreens, avobenzone is used in moisturizers, powders, foundations and concealers that offer sun protection. Just as avobenzone can protect the skin from sun damage, the ingredient also protects skin care products from UVA rays. As a result, avobenzone is often added to skin care products and cosmetics that come in clear packaging in order to help them retain their potency and color.
In recent years, avobenzone has received a lot of negative press; however, many of the statements made about avobenzone are completely incorrect or only partially accurate. Some critics say that avobenzone begins to break down in the presence of sunlight, making it less useful than other sunscreen active ingredients, such as zinc oxide. In actuality, all sunscreens break down in the presence of sunlight, which is why they must be reapplied during sun exposure.
Another criticism of avobenzone that has recently surfaced is that the ingredient becomes absorbed into the skin tissue and can have a negative impact on the endocrine system. Studies performed by the FDA have found that the skin absorption of avobenzone is minimal, and additional clinical research suggests that avobenzone's potential to act on the endocrine system is very minimal. In fact, acetaminophen pain relievers, which are widely regarded as safe, have more of an impact on the endocrine system that avobenzone.
One important thing to keep in mind when selecting sunscreens is that avobenzone is not a broad-spectrum ingredient, meaning that it only absorbs UVA rays and cannot protect the skin from exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB). While UVA rays are the most dangerous form of ultraviolet energy, UVB rays can also cause cellular damage with prolonged exposure.