Engineered nanomaterials are widely used in sunscreens to make sun-blocking ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide rub on clear instead of white. These materials have been shown to exhibit different fundamental physical, biological, and chemical properties than their larger counterparts. The report indicates that very few nanomaterials have been adequately tested, though the limited data that is available shows that their small size makes them more able to enter the lungs, pass through cell membranes, and possibly penetrate damaged or sun-burnt skin.
“Nano-sunscreens are being promoted as safe sun protection, but the evidence of potential risk we’ve collected shows otherwise,” said Friends of the Earth’s Health and Environment Campaigner Ian Illuminato, one of the report’s authors. “Consumers must be aware that nanomaterials are being put into sunscreens with very little evidence about their safety and relative efficacy.”
In 2007 Consumer Reports (published by Consumers Union) tested sunscreens containing nanomaterials and found no correlation between their presence and sun protection. Consumer Reports testing found neither nanoscale zinc nor titanium oxides provide a clear and consistent performance advantage over other active ingredients.
“Adding nanoparticles to sunscreens means adding an unnecessary potential risk to our health and to the environment, with no significant gain. Why take the chance?” asked Michael Hansen, PhD, co-author of the report and senior scientist at Consumers Union.
Studies have raised red flags about the environmental impacts that may stem from the release of nanomaterials into broader ecosystems. Once released into the environment, many nanomaterials may persist and accumulate as pollutants in air, soil or water. A 2006 study demonstrated that some forms of titanium dioxide nanoparticles (popular ingredients in nano sunscreens) are toxic to algae and water fleas, especially after exposure to UV light. Algae and water fleas are a vital part of marine ecosystems.
“No labeling is required for any product that contains nanomaterials, including sunscreens,” said George Kimbrell, Staff Attorney at ICTA. “Nor are nano sunscreens assessed and approved before being allowed on markets. We need the government to regulate these novel products, including requiring labeling if they are approved so that consumers can make informed choices about what they place on their bodies and their families.”