Octyl salicylate, also known as 2-ethylhexyl salicylate, is a common chemical found in sunscreen and certain types of makeup with sun-blocking properties. It protects against harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun's rays, which can cause skin cancer. Octyl salicylate absorbs UVB rays but not UVA. For sunscreen to work effectively, both inorganic and organic ingredients are combined to block the UVB and UVA rays. UVA rays are longer and penetrate deep into the skin while UVB rays are shorter and hit the top of the skin, causing sunburns.
The formation of octyl salicylate comes from combining salicylic acid and 2-ethylhexanol. It forms an organic compound, meaning simply that the molecules which make up the compound have carbon in them. Mixing salicylic acid and 2-ethylhexanol creates a thin, clear liquid. The salicylic acid is used for absorbing the sun's light while the 2-ethylhexanol portion helps make the liquid water-resistant. It doesn't wash away and become useless when sweating or swimming, though reapplication of sunscreen at periodic intervals is required for effective results.
UVB rays from the sun hit the top layer of the skin and can cause sunburn. UVA rays do just as much damage to the skin, but penetrate deeper below the surface. Thus, a person can have skin damage without ever getting a sunburn. Octyl salicylate and similar chemicals work to reflect and react with ultraviolet rays to prevent penetration of the skin.
Sunscreen acts as both a physical and chemical barrier. While organic ingredients reflect the sun's light away from the skin to prevent damage, inorganic ingredients react chemically with the UV rays to prevent them from penetrating the skin. Both processes occur at the same time and provide the best protection by working together to form physical and chemical lines of defense.
Over the years, safety concerns have arisen concerning octyl salicylate and other chemicals commonly used in sunscreens. The FDA approves of octyl salicylate in amounts no larger than 5%, but others worry the chemicals may break down and become absorbed into the skin. If the chemical did break down and soak into the skin through the pores, it could cause a rash or other skin reaction, or raise the risk of cancer. Currently, there is little evidence of this happening, and the chemicals are still widely approved and accepted for safe use in general sunscreens.