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Nanoparticles in Sunscreen - Helpful or Harmful?

Many sunscreens include titanium dioxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles because they effectively block ultraviolet light while—unlike the thick white creams of yore—allowing the sunscreen to be transparent when it’s rubbed onto the skin, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a public health and environmental advocacy organization. Testing of these products has focused on whether the nanomaterials can penetrate the skin, says Nigel Walker, deputy program director for science for the National Toxicology Program. As the saying goes, if there’s no exposure, there’s no risk, and several studies indicate that very little of the nanoparticles in sunscreen can penetrate the skin and enter the body—as long as the skin is healthy and intact.


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When it comes to sunscreens, Walker says, the research community is “pretty much comfortable that the amount of exposure for normal skin to nanoscale materials is extremely low, lower than many chemicals that we currently already use.” Even the EWG—which has petitioned the government to tighten regulation of nanomaterials in personal care products—concluded that the risk of ultraviolet radiation damage from not wearing sunscreen outweighs the risk of harm from nanoparticles.

Still, concerns persist, especially since the lack of a labeling requirement means people with skin abrasions or rashes, which are possible exposure pathways, could have trouble avoiding nanoparticle-containing sunscreens. And people, especially children, are prone to consuming small quantities of sunscreen accidentally when they rub it onto their faces and lips. A lot of sunscreen also washes off in natural water bodies or runs down the drain when people shower. Although more research is needed, initial studies have shown that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles can harm algae, water fleas, and frogs, and that they can travel up the aquatic food chain with unknown environmental consequences.


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Nanoparticles in Sunscreen - Helpful or Harmful?:  Created on June 1st, 2011.  Last Modified on July 21st, 2012


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About Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP)

Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) is published by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).  EHP's mission is to serve as a forum for the discussion of the interrelationships between the environment and human health by publishing in a balanced and objective manner the best peer-reviewed research and most current and credible news of the field. EHP ranks first among 132 environmental sciences journals and third among 90 public, environmental, and occupational health journals. EHP is read in over 190 countries.



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