More Bad News About Sunscreens: Nanoparticles

Andrew Schneider Senior Public Health Correspondent

(June 2,2010) -- As millions of us who play and work under the bright sun dutifully slather our bare skin with creams, oils and sprays, consumer safety activists continue to blast the government for failing to ensure the safety of these sunscreens.

The latest target of concern is the use by sunscreen manufacturers of nanosized particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. A new report based on several preliminary studies says these atom-sized additives have the potential to cause serious harm.

That follows last week's report that the Food and Drug Administration has known for a decade that almost half of the most popular sunscreens contain an ingredient that may actually accelerate the growth of skin cancer cells.
Woman applies sunscreen
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A new report from Friends of the Earth says that using nanoparticles in sunscreens provides a "risk without benefit." The group has urged manufacturers to stop using the tiny particles in the products.

France, Germany, the U.K. and the European Parliament have moved rapidly to require everything from safety testing and mandatory labeling of nanoparticles to even the outright ban of these engineered chemical creations in many sunscreen and cosmetic products. Nothing of the kind is happening in the United States, Friends of the Earth says in a report issued today. .

"Nanosunscreens have the potential to cause serious human and environmental harm, but there is nothing stopping companies from selling them," says the report by the international environmental and public health advocates.

And consumers are pretty much on their own when it comes to determining what's safe to slather on their skin. Labeling is often inadequate or inaccurate. And not even the Consumer Safety Protection Commission, which ensures the safety of the items that Americans buy, is stepping up for sunscreen shoppers.

"It's not our responsibility. Sunscreen safety is FDA's job," says Alexander Filip, deputy director of public affairs for the commission. But, he added: "Our chairman has publicly addressed industry groups warning them about use of nanomaterials without notifying us or their customers."

Studies Still Preliminary

Today's report calls the use of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide a "risk without benefit." It examines six studies on the health implications of manufactured nanomaterials used in sunscreens.

The studies, which raised some concerns in the public health community, are all peer-reviewed and have been published in international scientific journals. But the authors of almost all the work stress that their studies are preliminary and that more research is needed.

Friends of the Earth says the studies indicate that:
  "Consumers need to know that manufactured nanoscale zinc and titanium oxides are not the only choice and are not necessarily the most effective or safest choice for sun protection," the report cautions.

A nanometer is roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, and scientists assemble them by rearranging atoms. When it comes to sunscreen, manufacturers add nanomaterials ostensibly to make sun-blocking ingredients rub on "cosmetically clear" instead of white, the report says.

"These nanomaterials are being added without appropriate labeling or reliable safety information, so the public has no way of making informed purchasing choices," said Ian Illuminato, a senior health researcher for the group.

He said the group has written to all the major manufacturers of sunscreen to "voice concerns" about these potentially dangerous sunscreen ingredients. The group urged those using the nanoparticles to "refrain from doing so and consider our health, the health of workers at your firm, and the environment, all of which could be harmed by this risky practice."

Not Much From FDA Yet

There are few reliable U.S. government studies of the health effects of nanoparticles. As AOL News reported in March in an eight-part investigation of nanomaterials, health and government regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health lead the way in government research, especially with nanosized titanium dioxide.

NIOSH, the worker research arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chose titanium dioxide as the first nanoparticles on which it issued safety recommendations because of the large number of workers potentially exposed to it.

Yet the FDA, which has regulatory responsibility for the sunscreen products, still hasn't weighed in on nanochemicals in those heavily used products.

FDA told AOL News that "FDA components are conducting research that focuses on nanomaterials such as titanium dioxide in the nanoscale."

To determine the risk, the agency said it uses information from its own research, peer-reviewed published literature and other sources such as adverse event reports to identify safety concerns with products they regulate.

And then the FDA added this confusing statement that frustrates many public health experts: "If information were to indicate that additional safety evaluation or other regulatory action is warranted, we would work with all parties to take the steps appropriate to ensure the safety of marketed products."

FDA Still Awaiting Final Review

The agency was criticized in another sunscreen study issued last week by Environmental Working Group. It said that FDA scientists had conducted a study a decade ago which showed that a component in 41 percent of all sunscreens did far more harm than good.

The study, done at the FDA's major toxicology research laboratory, had determined that retinyl palmitate, a vitamin A derivative and common ingredient in sunscreen products, not only failed to protect the users from skin cancer, but actually increased the speed and growth in which cancer occurred, the Environmental Working Group said.

The FDA said it is awaiting a final review of the 10-year-old findings.

"It is premature to draw conclusions from the study at this time," Shelly L. Burgess, an FDA spokeswoman, told AOL News, adding, "FDA will always take the necessary action to ensure consumers have access only to safe and effective sun protection products."

In a subsequent letter to the government agencies involved in the studies, Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook urged haste in telling the public what the report found.

"The dramatically accelerated development of tumors and lesions in retinyl palmitate-treated animals, compared to untreated animals, has potentially significant implications for public health," he said, and he urged both the FDA and the National Toxicology Program to release and act upon the final version of the study.

Lack of Labeling

The nonprofit Consumers Union, which publishes Consumers Report, has been studying the sunscreen issue for years and worries about the lack of labeling and appropriate action by FDA.

The group said that its testing showed that 80 percent of the sunscreens that claimed not to contain nanoparticles actually did. This is just one of the reasons that it wants the FDA to become more involved.

"Three summers ago, a law was passed requiring the FDA to develop new sunscreen guidelines for safety and labeling. Here we are at the start of another summer season and still no word from the FDA, leaving consumers in the dark about the safety and efficacy of the sunscreens they use," said Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth says it's time to change the culture of "tanning is sexy."

"Healthy skin, even if less tan, is far sexier than fatal skin cancer," the report says.
Filed under: Nation, Health