Why We Need A Sunscreen Safety Patrol

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It’s not often that science policy and former Baywatch star David Hasselhoff come together in beautiful harmony, but this week, it happened.

Public health advocates staged an homage to the beach safety icon yesterday to coincide with the Hoff’s visit to Sydney, calling for new regulation for nanotechnology sunscreens.

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer internationally. Wearing sunscreen is now mandatory in most childcare centres and schools before children are allowed outside; in outdoor jobs many employers are required to provide it.

You would expect that sunscreen safety would be a high priority for the federal government. But there are early warning signs that some nanotechnology ingredients could actually accelerate sun damage to skin. And while Europe has passed new laws that will require most nano-ingredients in sunscreens and cosmetics to face new safety testing and mandatory labelling, the Australian government is plagued by inaction.

Nanotechnology — the science of the small — is now found in hundreds of everyday products. The national sunscreen regulator (the Therapeutic Goods Administration) has estimated that over 300 Australian sunscreens contain nano-ingredients.

Used in sunscreens for their novel properties (greater transparency), there are growing concerns that nano-ingredients could pose novel risks. Research has shown that nanoparticles can accelerate the production of free radicals. In 2008 the research leader of the CSIRO nano safety program warned that in a worst case scenario nano-sunscreens could increase the risk of cancer.

In the sunburnt country, where millions of us rely on sunscreens as part of our efforts to avoid skin cancer, the use of nanotechnology in sunscreens has been the focus of heated debate in recent years (see here, here and here).

New Matilda published an article on this issue in 2009. Since then, a chorus of voices including the Cancer Council, the Australian Education Union, the Australian Consumers Association (Choice), cosmetics and even sunscreen industry body ACCORD have all called for labelling of nanoparticles in sunscreens for informed choice and public safety.

At a national level, the Australian Education Union has called for new nano-specific regulations and recommended that teachers and staff at public schools use only nano-free sunscreens.

The 2008 NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Nanotechnology recommended mandatory labelling and nano-specific safety assessment for nano-ingredients used in sunscreens, cosmetics, foods and workplaces.

Yet as another summer rolls by, the federal government will not act on nano-sunscreens. It appears that the strong desire to build the fledgling nanotechnology industry has trumped concerns over public health.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information show the federal government is planning to reject calls for labelling of nano-sunscreens. Yet the draft federal response to the NSW government is that "labelling [of nano-products]for informed choice should not be supported".

The federal government’s plans to reject calls for nano-product labelling put it at odds with community opinion. Polling of almost 1300 people, commissioned by Friends of the Earth and carried out by The Australia Institute, found that 85 per cent want nano-ingredients in sunscreens to be labelled. Further, 92 per cent of people surveyed want nano-ingredients to face safety testing before use in sunscreens.

Yet the national sunscreens regulator has dismissed early evidence that nanoparticles could speed up sun damage to skin cells. It has claimed that there is no need for new safety standards or labelling because nanoparticles in sunscreens will stay on the outer layers of dead skin cells.

This claim has been called into question by research published in 2010 by researchers at the CSIRO and Macquarie University. The study showed zinc from sunscreens could be found in the blood and urine of human volunteers. Further research is now needed to determine whether the zinc was absorbed in nanoparticle or ionic form.

This recent study is not the first to suggest that skin uptake of nanoparticles is possible. In 2003 scientists at the United States National Institute of Occupational Health published research showing that particles up to 10 times larger than a nanoparticle could be taken up into skin when it was flexed repetitively. The researchers were particularly concerned about the implications for workers engaged in repetitive work.

Other studies have shown that nanoparticles are more likely to be taken up into skin that is compromised, either through sun burn, abrasion or the presence of so-called "penetration enhancers", found in many cosmetics and sunscreens.

Skin experts have suggested that very young children (whose skin is comparatively thin), people with damaged skin and people who use sunscreen daily may be at greater risk of nano-exposure. In a peer-reviewed article (pdf) published last year, Australian dermatologists recommended that people with compromised skin and those who wear sunscreen daily avoid using nano-sunscreen.

Nonetheless, without mandatory labelling, in the chemist or supermarket, making a choice to avoid using nano-sunscreens is very difficult.

Hundreds of nano-free, broad spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreens are sold in Australia. Leading brands, including products sold by the Cancer Council, avoid using nanoparticles in their sunscreens. The bottom line is that reliable non-nano sunscreens are readily available, but that labelling is required to make them accessible.

Each year, Friends of the Earth surveys companies regarding their use of nanoparticles, to produce our Safe Sunscreen Guide. However this is based on company provided data, where they choose to participate.

Australians deserve to have confidence in the safety of their sunscreen, and they deserve choice. It is time that the federal government introduced labelling and new safety standards for nano-sunscreens. After all, when it comes to beach safety, the Hoff can only be so vigilant.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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