Nanoparticles in Sunscreens: small science, BIG risk

Applying sunscreen is a way of ensuring that we protect ourselves from skin cancer and premature ageing. Such a simple act is now becoming dangerous, as many sunscreen manufacturers are including nanoparticles, smaller versions of the chemicals normally used, which have different properties and therefore react with our skin differently.

Since nanoparticles were first used in sunscreens, the scientific community at large is divided about whether or not these particles are safe. The only thing scientists seem to be able to agree upon is the current lack of evidence to prove or disprove this danger. So where does that leave the average consumer who does not care about the intricate scientific background, but would appreciate a definite yes or no as to whether or not nanoparticles are dangerous?

A recent article, published in Toxicology Letters, tested the effect that nano-zinc oxide, a manufactured nanoparticle used in sunscreens has on the DNA of skin cells. This is particularly important, given that damage to DNA can cause cancer. The study found that the nanoparticles were damaging the DNA, and that the more nanoparticles present, the more damage present. More importantly, the study investigated the way in which DNA was being damaged. The study was unable to conclude the exact cause, but it has opened the field for further research. Whilst it would be misleading to proclaim that nano-sunscreens cause cancer, this study (and many others) indicate that nano-sunscreens can cause cellular damage which has the potential to manifest as cancer.

With this in mind, the sole benefit of nano-cosmetics and sunscreens (the fact that it applies to the skin colourlessly) could never outweigh the numerous risks associated with it. When thinking of advances in science that have done more harm than good, one particularly devastating example comes to mind. Thalidomide, the drug prescribed in the late 1950’s to pregnant woman to alleviate morning sickness was soon found to causes severe birth defects in unborn children. Yet, now, remarkably, scientists know more about its chemical structure and it is even being used in the treatment of some cancers. At the time, scientists were unaware of the dangers, until it was too late. But for scientists working in nanotechnology, many are aware of the potential dangers. So why is nothing being done?

It is imperative that we learn from the mistakes of the past. For this reason, scientists, sunscreen manufacturers and governments should exercise more caution and not embrace this technology until they adequately understand and address the dangers. Maybe, like thalidomide, in the future, it could be used safely, but until then, a moratorium should be put in place. The scientific evidence (or in this case, a lack thereof) designates a severe public health risk. For this reason, the public must be made aware, or it could potentially escalate into catastrophic consequences.

Friends of the Earth Australia is organisation committed to stopping the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics and sunscreens. For further information, please visit their website.
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