By Francesca Millena
You’re just about to walk out the door when you notice it’s a sunny day, you turn back and quickly dab on a bit of sunscreen. Better to be sun-safe right? But could your sunscreen be doing you more harm than good? According to Friends of the Earth, a Melbourne based activist group, your bottle of SPF30 could be serving you up a dose of lethal ingredients you hadn’t bargained for, or even heard of. Why?
Enter nanotechnology. If you haven’t heard about this $32 billion industry you’re not alone, but if you’ve ever painted a wall, had the tyres in your car replaced, worn odour-eating socks or used an anti-ageing moisturiser, you’ve been in contact with nanotech’s brightest star: nanoparticles.
Minute substances invisible to the naked eye, nanoparticles are big business and are opening up the type of exciting possibilities that would make a scene from Bladerunner seem passé. From creating molecule-sized robots that travel through the body to repair broken bones to vaccines that which can be delivered through a simple skin patch. So what does this have to do with sunscreen?
According to Friends of the Earth, most people don’t know that everyday products like sunscreen contain nanoparticle-sized ingredients, but it’s not the ingredients that really concern them although that is part of the equation. Due to their minute size, the organisation suggests that, due to their minute size, nano-ingredients have the ability to pass through the skin and enter the bloodstream.
Going a step further, the nanoparticles of sun-blocking agents such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, found in nearly all Australian sunscreens, have no place in the human bloodstream. This is the main reason it is calling on the Government to introduce labelling of sunscreens which contain nano-ingredients.
“We’re in a difficult position because products that contain nanoparticles don’t have proper labelling so consumers can’t make an informed decision. Although back in 2004, the UK Royal Society looked at the issue of nanoparticles and recommended that, like new chemicals, they should undergo standard safety assessments; this hasn’t occurred in Australia,” says Louise Sales, Nanotechnology Project Coordinator, Friends of the Earth.
“The TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) is arguing that there’s no toxicity associated with sunscreens because nanoparticles don’t penetrate the skin however, there are a number of recent studies which clearly disprove this. What this is means is that there are hundreds of consumer products in Australia that contain nano-materials that haven’t had safety testing,” says Ms Sales.
Scientists disagree. “The claims they’ve [Friends of the Earth] made are nonsense and the evidence downright silly,” says Professor Michael Cortie, Director of the UTS Institute for Nanoscale Technology, University of Technology Sydney. “Any study can be read in a number of ways. The fact is there has been no bad evidence associated with nanoparticles and that there hasn’t been an issue should be proof in favour of, rather than against, their safety.”
Unsurprisingly, policy makers such as such as the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) are taking the middle road.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place. The difficulty is that on the one hand we have the TGA saying there’s no evidence of nanoparticle penetration on the skin and yet clearly there’s a strong possibility this isn’t the case,” says Michael Moore, Chief Executive Officer, PHAA.
“The challenge for the PHAA is that we have strong evidence of the importance of sunscreen preventing skin cancer so we apply the precautionary principle to sunscreens [containing nanoparticles] and recommend that it’s monitored and checked.”
But in a country where two in three people will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they reach 70, health groups have come out fighting.
“For Friends of the Earth to think that the constant undermining of sunscreens won’t have a spill-over effect on consumer confidence is naïve,” says Terry Slevin, Chair, Occupational and Environmental Cancer Risk Committee, National Skin Cancer Committee.
“People don’t know enough about sunscreen to understand how it works; all they’ll hear is that there’s a safety issue with sunscreen. My concern is that it’s making the public lose confidence in using a product that’s been absolutely proven to be beneficial in reducing skin cancer.”
Nanoparticles aren’t all bad, Mr Slevin says. Since they were introduced into sunscreens, the war-paint heavy creams and lotions have given way to light, easily absorbed lotions and sunscreen use has risen. According to Terry Slevin, this is a success story in the fight against skin cancer as most Aussies don’t apply enough sunscreen to begin with, so anything that encourages wider use is a bonus.
If anything, the debate has been a positive for the consumer. All groups agree that consumers have the right to know what’s in their products and that ongoing monitoring and testing of nano-ingredients should be implemented.
As the jury is still out on whether sunscreens containing nano-ingredients are safe for long-term use, where does this leave you? If you’re worried about nano-tech, there are sunscreens that don’t incorporate nanoparticles.
“The thicker and more goop-like the sunscreen, the less likely it will be to contain nanoparticles,” says Terry Slevin. “More importantly, sunscreen shouldn’t be the first line of defence against sun protection but the last.”
“Stay out of direct sunlight during peak hours and if you do have to go outside in the heat of the day, don’t forget to cover up,” he adds.
It’s another sunny day outside and you’re about to walk out the door. Will you hesitate when you reach for your sunscreen? Why not plonk a hat on and some sunnies, throw on a long-sleeved shirt, and yes, dab on some sunscreen of the white stuff.
After all, life’s too short to worry about something you can’t even see but the sun out there, that’ll fry you, and that’s a fact.