Some Australians Prefer Skin Cancer to Sunscreens with Nanoparticles

In a survey conducted last month and commissioned by the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, 17 percent of respondents said they would rather risk skin cancer than use sunscreens containing nanoparticles.

This survey—along with three other papers on nanoparticles in sunscreens—was  presented this week at the 2012 International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN) in Perth, Australia.

Of the three other papers, two of them seem to indicate that the risks from using sunscreens containing nanoparticles are no greater than those of traditional sunscreens. The third paper demonstrates that some sunscreens that claim to be “nano-free” sometimes do contain nanoparticles.

Each year, 440,000 Australians receive medical treatment for skin cancers, and more than 1,700 people die from all types of skin cancer annually, according to the Cancer Council of Australia.

So, it’s clear that choosing to avoid sunscreen altogether just because it might contain nanoparticles could threaten your life. This seems an especially grave decision when two of the three reports at ICONN conference indicate that nanoparticle-based sunscreens don’t appear to be any more dangerous than the traditional variety.

Instead of stepping back and reassessing their position on this subject, the Friends of Earth (FoE) remain unconvinced by the mounting evidence that sunscreens containing nanoparticles are not dangerous to our health and have doubled down on their objections to nanoparticles in sunscreens.

The FoE have taken one of the three reports from the ICONN conference that showed that some so-called “nano-free” sunscreens actually contained nanoparticles and used that to call for a government intervention.

"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?

The result of all this has been confusion for the consumer. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of confusion that could mean people risking skin cancer so as to avoid another threat the science increasingly seems to be saying isn’t one.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
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