Unintended consequences: Australians not using sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles?

Friends of the Earth (FoE) Australia has waged a campaign against the use of nanosunscreens. It seems to have been somewhat successful but in a way that I imagine is upsetting. From the Feb. 9, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

The Cancer Council of Australia reports that we have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with over 440,000 people receiving medical treatment for skin cancers each year, and over 1,700 people dying of all types of skin cancer annually.

The survey of public attitudes towards sunscreens with nanoparticles, commissioned by the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education and conducted last month, showed that about 17% of people in Australia were so worried about the issue, they would rather risk skin cancer by going without sunscreen than use a product containing nanoparticles. [emphasis mine] [please see correction at the end of this posting]

The survey along with three research papers were presented at the 2012 International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN) in Perth,Feb. 5-9.

One of the research studies indicates that claims of  ‘nano-free’ sunscreen products may be wrong, from the Feb. 9, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Scientists from Australia’s National Measurement Institute and overseas collaborators reported on a technique using the scattering of synchrotron light to determine the sizes of particles in sunscreens. They found that some commercial sunscreens that claim to be ‘nano-free’ do in fact contain nanostructured material. The findings highlight the need for clear definitions when describing nanomaterials.


The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration has released a statement on safety of sunscreens containing nanoparticles that concluded: “… the current weight of evidence suggests that TiO2 (titanium dioxide) and ZnO (zinc oxide) nanoparticles do not reach viable skin cells, rather, they remain on the surface of the skin and in the outer layer of the skin…”

You can get more information about the studies in either linked news item. The Australian government’s sunscreen use survey is available on this page; the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration review of the scientific literature on the safety of nanoscale (nanoparticulate) titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in sunscreens is available on this page; and the Cancer Council of Australia has information about sunscreens and nanoparticles on this page.

One can’t lay the blame for 17% of the population’s hesitance to use any sunscreens at one door but I hope that civil societies like FoEAustralia will give a little thought to the unintended consequences of their campaigns.

The campaign was against nanosunscreens not all sunscreens but presumably coupled with other influences, it seems to have upset a significant percentage of the population to the point that they refuse to use any sunscreens at all for fear of inadvertently being exposed to nanoparticles.

Feb. 10, 2012 update: It’s a very interesting response from FoEAustralia (from the Feb. 10, 2012 article by Simon Lauder for ABC  [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] News),

“We’ve decided to recall the safe sunscreen guides that we have produced this summer until we can revise them based on new information that comes in,” Elena McMaster, the nanotechnology campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said.

“What we see with this research is that in the absence of government regulation, the nanotech industry is able to more or less make up their own rules about what constitutes a nano material,” she said.

“We are obviously probably as shocked as people in the industry about the NMI research results.

“I can’t emphasise enough how urgent we think it is that the Government regulates.”

The best FoEAustralia can offer in the face of the rather shocking information that 17% of the adult population are avoiding sunscreens altogether is a plea for more government regulation of a product that doesn’t seem to be dangerous according to research.

Dexter Johnson in his Feb. 10, 2012 Nanoclast posting noted this about the study which found that sunscreens claiming ‘no nanomaterials/nanoparticles’ did contain some,

“What we see with this research is that in the absence of government regulation, the nanotech industry is able to more or less make up their own rules about what constitutes a nano material,” said Elena McMaster, a FoE spokesperson.

That’s one interpretation, I suppose. But it could also be that traditional sunscreens might contain nanoscale particles even though no attempt had been made to manufacture or add them to the mix. Unintentional nanoparticles, if you will, not unlike those created when the tires of your car drive over the pavement.

I wonder what kind of government regulations the FoE will request. Will each container of sunscreen have to be opened and its contents examined with a scattering of synchrotron light to determine particle size?

In fact, there’s some evidence that nanoparticles are all over the place, some of them created by nature, from the May 11, 2012 article New Evidence for Natural Synthesis of Silver Nanoparticles on Nanowiki,

“this creates the idea that there may be some sort of natural cycle returning some of the ions to nanoparticles.” [said Robert MacCuspie at NIST {US National Institute of Standards and Technology}] It also helps explain the discovery, over the past few years, of silver nanoparticles in locations like old mining regions that are not likely to have been exposed to man-made nanoparticles, but would have significant concentrations of silver ions. [emphasis mine]

My respect for FoEAustralia is seriously damaged by this stance they’ve taken. As far as I’m concerned they should admit they’ve made a mistake by using scare tactics to force some sort of confrontation over nanosunscreens and their strategy to force regulation of nanomaterials has backfired seriously.

Feb.21.12 correction: According to the information in the Feb. 20, 2012 posting on 2020 Science, the percentage of Australians likely to avoid using sunscreens is 13%,

This has just landed in my email in box from Craig Cormick at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in Australia, and I thought I would pass it on given the string of posts on nanoparticles in sunscreens on 2020 Science over the past few years:

“An online poll of 1,000 people, conducted in January this year, shows that one in three Australians had heard or read stories about the risks of using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them,” Dr Cormick said.

“Thirteen percent of this group were concerned or confused enough that they would be less likely to use any sunscreen, whether or not it contained nanoparticles, putting them selves at increased risk of developing potentially deadly skin cancers.

“The study also found that while one in five respondents stated they would go out of their way to avoid using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them, over three in five would need to know more information before deciding.”

4 thoughts on “Unintended consequences: Australians not using sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles?

  1. Pingback: Unintended consequences: Australians not using sunscreens to … - All about nano technology - NanoTechno.org

  2. Pingback: Caution and nanoscale zinc oxide in sunscreens « FrogHeart

  3. Pingback: FrogHeart at the 2012 S.NET conference, part 1: the Nanopants attack (protest); more on the Australian nanosunscreen shocker; Hegel; and thanks « FrogHeart

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