Sunscreen cancer risk

Helen Wellings
Today Tonight

Research shows the use of nano technology in makeup and sunscreens may cause big problems, and increase the risk of skin cancer.

So which sunscreens are the safest to buy?

The wonders of beauty science means our skin is made to look younger, smoother, and more translucent as the technology penetrates more deeply into the cells. But the very technology that achieves these marvels could actually be dangerous for our health.

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70 per cent of sunscreens on the market, as well as 300 lotions and creams, contain tiny microscopic metallic ingredients - finely ground aluminium, zinc, titanium and silica. They're called nano-particles and they’re 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Many makeup products also contain nano-particles, but leading scientists and health groups are now warning they pose serious safety risks.

“The smaller we make these particles, the more likelihood there is it will penetrate our skin, where they can do further damage,” said Dr Gregory Crocetti, from the Friends of the Earth Nanotechnology Project.

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Sunscreens are very effective in protecting you from the sun, but the cruel irony is that products with nano-ingredients could actually increase the risk of skin cancer, and may even lead to birth defects.

“With nano-particles, rather than reflecting the ultraviolet light, they actually absorb it, and from absorbing that ultraviolet light, they produce free radicals on the surface of the nano-particle. These free radicals are extremely reactive compounds that can, were they to be active around strands of genetic material, cause mutations within that genetic material, by which skin cancer could be produced,” dermatologist Dr Robert Salmon said.

Dr Salmon says the worry is that nano-particles are so minute, it's very difficult to study the effects.

“The whole question here is whether these nano-particles do penetrate to the level of live cells. Some of the studies suggest that they may penetrate to the level of live cells under certain circumstances, whereas other studies contradict those studies.”

Dr Crocetti says that “there has been very little research into nano-sunscreens using human subjects, but early research has shown that zinc from zinc oxide nano-formulation was able to penetrate through human skin, and turned up in their blood and their urine.”

Studies have shown nano-particles cause inflammation of mice lungs, and can cross the placenta of pregnant mice, causing behaviour changes.

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“The main reason companies use nano-particles in their sunscreens is for that transparency effect so it rubs on clearer and possibly feels a little less greasy,” Dr Crocetti said.

Certain people are more at risk when wearing nano-sunscreens.

“Anyone that has a decreased barrier function in the skin, nano-particles penetrate further. They'll be people such as those that develop eczema, patients that are on certain treatments for acne, including the oral rhetinoids,” Dr Salmon warned.

Also more vulnerable are outdoor workers and young children who wear nano-sunscreen every day.

“Some of the studies show that with lots of reflection and movement around the joints, these nano-particles may penetrate further,” he said.

Health and industry groups are calling on the Government's Therapeutic Goods Administration to introduce mandatory labelling to let people know if nano-particles are in sunscreens.

“With 85 per cent of Australians wanting labelling, why is the Government sitting on its hands and doing nothing?” asked Dr Crocetti.

“The European Union is taking bold steps to introduce labelling laws to protect people. Here in Australia we're getting no protection.”

Nano-free sunscreen brands include:

  • Invisible Zinc
  • The Wiggles
  • Chemmart
  • Face of Australia
  • Le Tan
  • Natio
  • Woolworths Select
  • Coles
  • Jurlique
  • Auscreen
  • Amcal
  • Some Banana Boat
  • Terry White Chemists
  • Cancer Council
  • Zinke by Key Sun

Cancer Council sunscreens are all nano free and zinc-based, with no titanium dioxide in the ingredients; says CEO Dr Andrew Penman.

“They are simply not necessary for sunscreen effect. They don’t add to the sunscreen quality. The Cancer Council range are, in your terms, a sure bet,” Dr Penman said.

It's still very important to keep wearing sunscreens every day, but you do have a choice to buy the nano-free products.

The Friends of the Earth pamphlet lists the nano-free ones available on the market.

Download the Safe Sunscreen Guide pdf

Download the ACCORD nano-labelling proposal

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