Nanotechnology in Sunscreens: Cancer Risk

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Nanotechnology in Sunscreens, Noisturisers and Anti-Ageing Creams - a Cancer Risk

Recently, we looked at sunscreen factors (SPFs) and their possible health risks and in a previous article we looked at the use of nanotechnology in the cosmetics industry. Today, scientists from the CSIRO have shown, under laboratory conditions, that nano particles of metal oxides (as used in sunscreen lotions) can penetrate living cells and damage DNA, potentially leading to cancer.

Below is a transcript from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) reporting on the potential cancer risk resulting from the use of nanotechnology in sunscreen lotions.

Safety concerns over high-tech sunscreens

Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Broadcast: 17/12/2008

Reporter: Kirstin Murray

Nanotechnology has been a revolutionary science utilised to improve water supplies, screen for viruses and increase durability in food among its other uses. Nanoscience has also been used to produce products such as stain resistant clothing and is often found in cosmetic products such as anti-ageing creams and sunscreen. With this technology being so widely used, questions are being raised as to how safe nanotechnology is in products that are rubbed directly onto human skin.

HEATHER EWART, PRESENTER: The revolutionary science of nanotechnology, which engineers tiny particles the size of an atom, has transformed the world we live in. And within two years, it's expected to be a $1 trillion industry. Scientists have used the technology to improve water supplies, increase the durability of food, screen for viruses and create new forms of drug delivery. It's not surprising the cosmetics industry has seen the appeal, with nano particles now common ingredients of many anti-ageing creams, hair products and sunscreen.

But how safe is nanotechnology in products that are rubbed directly onto human skin? Kirstin Murray reports.

KIRSTIN MURRAY, REPORTER: Go to any beach in Australian this summer and you'll see the slip, slop, slap sun safety message in action. But for holiday makers trying to do the right thing by slopping on sunscreen, there's a warning.

GEORGIA MILLER, FRIENDS OF THE EARTH: There are sunscreens out there being sold right now that contain nano ingredients that could be causing quite serious toxicity problems.

TOM FAUNCE, MEDICINE & LAW, ANU: The big issue is to what extent do they get inside the cells through the dead skin on the outer surface of the body? To what extent do they accumulate? To what extent do they actually cause long-term injury? We really don't have this information.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Many sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide - great reflectors of the sun's rays. But they leave a thick, sticky, white layer on the skin. Making these ingredients nano-sized mean they rub on clear. But that's what's causing concern. These nano particles are around 200 times smaller than human blood cells.

TOM FAUNCE: A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. So we're talking about particles that are about 40 nanometres - very small, but they actually have a larger surface area at that size. So they still have the capacity - in fact an enhanced capacity in some cases - to reflect ultra-violet rays. The concern however is what happens once these particles get inside the human body.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Unable to convince the Government to remove the products from shelves, Friends of the Earth is taking on manufacturers, alerting consumers of the potential dangers of particular sunscreens.

GEORGIA MILLER: These are sunscreens that are now using things like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide - sun blockers - in nano form. What this means is the companies that are using them have ground down the size of these particles to make them extremely small.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: To date, Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration's been confident nano sunscreens don't penetrate healthy skin. But Dr Tom Faunce, who lectures in Medicine and Law at the ANU, says scientists can't be certain the sunscreens aren't absorbed by compromised skin and he fears the TGA was too quick to approve the lotions for sale.

TOM FAUNCE: They didn't look at nano particles getting into the skin where you put them over flexural creases, when people are flexing; when you put them over damaged or aged skin. My concern really is that I think the precautionary principle should have been applied in this case rather than letting these products go out onto the market. [The precautionary principle basically says: if in doubt, don’t]

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Scientists fear young skin could also be prone to absorbing the tiny metal oxide particles, but the Cancer Council says it wants proof nano sunscreens are dangerous before it will recommend against their use.

IAN OLVER, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, CANCER COUNCIL: These products have been in use now for quite some time without any report of an adverse event. And so, if you believe there could be, I think you've got to test for it. [Isn’t this the wrong way ‘round – test first, then use…?]

KIRSTIN MURRAY: The Cancer Council ceased stocking nano sunscreens last year, but its CEO says it was because of a change in supplier rather than any health concerns. Professor Ian Olver says the most immediate risk to people's health would be if they stopped using sunscreen altogether.

IAN OLVER: We have definite evidence that 1,600 Australians die of skin cancer. And I don't think you can talk about banning or restricting a product unless you actually have evidence that it's dangerous against the good that it does.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Scientists have established under laboratory conditions nano particles of metal oxides can penetrate cells and damage DNA. Now the CSIRO will test these sunscreens directly on humans to work out how much gets absorbed during outdoor use.

MAXINE MCCALL, CSIRO SCIENTIST: There's the concern that there could be free radical generation on the skin, potentially damage when the nano particles get into cells in the body if they don't dissolve. And, potentially, because they could interact with proteins in the cell or with DNA which codes - which has the genetic information - that, yes, the worst case scenario, I suspect, could be development of cancer. But we don't know. That's what we're trying to find out.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Dr Maxine McCall, who heads up the CSIRO's research into nano safety, says it'll be two to three years before they reach a conclusion on nano sunscreens.

MAXINE MCCALL: At the moment, we just don't have enough information to make informed decisions. There are a number of sunscreens available. People can choose which sunscreen they want.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: For consumers, selecting which sunscreens to buy proves difficult. At last count, the TGA estimated 30 per cent of sunscreens contained metal oxide nano particles. But in a recent survey conducted by Friends of the Earth, no manufacturer selling its product in Australia admitted to using nano versions. And for now, there's nothing forcing sunscreen makers to declare nano ingredients in labels.

GEORGIA MILLER: Despite growing evidence of problems and growing red warning flags, we're actually finding companies are less willing to talk now than they were a couple of years ago about their use of nano particles, and that's really concerning.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: A recent NSW parliamentary inquiry agreed there was, "... a strong case for labelling requirements," and also recommended, "... nano versions of existing chemicals be assessed as new chemicals". So far, the Government hasn't responded.

TOM FAUNCE: The regulators and the companies have been reluctant to call nano forms a new chemical entity because to do so under our existing regulatory system would require them to then start generating substantial amounts of new safety data, which is very expensive.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: There's one company in Australia recommending its workers avoid certain sunscreens - not because of any threat to human health, but because of the harm to its products. BlueScope Steel noticed hand and finger-shaped damage to the coating of their metal roofs and concluded nano sunscreen worn by installers had caused the equivalent of 15 years worth of weathering in only six weeks. Scientists say the mixture of sunscreen, sun and water caused the production of free radicals.

TOM FAUNCE: We're now starting to understand, for example, that the anatase form of titanium dioxide, which is one of the particles in sunscreens, has a photo catalytic effect in certain circumstances. And this is the problem that we're playing some catch-up with the science.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: The TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia) says it continues to actively monitor and assess scientific reports, but so far no unique nanotechnology specific health hazard has been identified. While the CSIRO says a lot more research needs to be done, it too advises people to continue using sunscreen.

MAXINE MCCALL: It's far better to not get burnt now than to worry about the long-term implications of the experiments we're doing. Wait until we find out what the information is and we'll be publishing it when we have the information.

HEATHER EWART: Kirstin Murray reporting.

So, what does it all mean?

Well, we know zinc cream is a great, safe sunscreen that’s been used by Australians for decades.

The problem is that it forms a white, sticky film on the surface of the skin and this is considered ‘unsightly’. So, the chemists went to work and figured out that by reducing the size of the SPFs (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) they still have the same function of reflecting and blocking harmful UV-rays from the sun, but do not form a white sticky film on the skin.

Here’s the problem, the skin, a natural barrier, will not readily absorb everything we put on it. The skin will however only absorb molecules that are small enough to penetrate through the dead skin layers – this is why the traditionally used zinc cream, which contains large molecules stays on the skin.

However, nano-particles do get absorbed into the skin and worse, according to the CSIRO, into the living cells. They have shown that the cell’s DNA is damaged as a results. What this translates into is that there is a real risk of developing cancer as a direct result of damage to the DNA.

In a nut-shell, what researchers have shown is that the reduced size of these sunscreens (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) have a potentially serious health effect on your skin.

What about your skin care products that contain SPFs?

So far we’ve looked at sunscreen lotions, but what about the skin care products that contain these sunscreens? Well, there’s no difference. If nano-particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used to provide the sun protection, then these are absorbed into the skin. What is worse, a moisturiser is designed to ‘transport’ molecules into the living layers of the skin and therefore the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are aided in their absorption.

Once again, science is showing that the ‘old ways’ of using a holistic, natural approach to skin and health care may be a better way to go and minimizes the risk of unwittingly doing harm.

Natural ingredients in skin and personal care products that are not derived, synthesised, or manipulated are simply the safest choice. That’s why Wildcrafted Herbal Products does not use any sunscreen factors in our products and relies on the effectiveness of antioxidants.

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