Debate over nano-materials in sunscreens grows

Friends of the Earth claims that two suppliers of sunscreen ingredients misled leading brands.
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01.Nano-free or not?


An environmental group wants the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to investigate alleged misleading conduct by two companies that supply ingredients used in sunscreen.

Friends of the Earth have alleged that ingredients claimed by Antaria and Ross Cosmetics to be not nano-sized have in fact been shown to be nano-materials. The group says testing by the National Measurement Institute shows that the ingredients are nano-materials. They claim this not only misled the companies whose sunscreen uses the ingredients, but also consumers who bought the sunscreens labelled ‘nano-free’.

Big concerns about very small things

Concerns have been raised that there is a lack of research to show that nano-ingredients in sunscreens are safe.

Friends of the Earth’s Dr Gregory Crocetti  says there are growing health concerns among scientists and skin specialists, including fears that nano-ingredients in sunscreens could lead to cancer.  “Alarmingly little research has been conducted into the health risks associated with nano-ingredients in sunscreen,” Crocetti says.

In 2009, the Therapeutic Goods Administration reviewed scientific research into nano-ingredients in sunscreens and concluded that the weight of evidence suggested the nano-ingredients used in sunscreens would not cause harm. 

However, CEO of Public Health Association of Australia, Michael Moore, has backed the Friends of the Earth complaint.

"There is increasing evidence that nanotechnology potentially poses significant health, safety and environmental hazards. The Federal Government urgently needs to develop a regulatory framework to address health and safety concerns and provide informed choice," he says.

Bigger concerns about a big problem

At the same time, Cancer Council Australia (which is one of the companies that sold a ‘nano-free’ sunscreen using the ingredients Friends of the Earth claims are nano-sized) fears that the concerns over nano-materials could discourage some people from using sunscreen. The Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Skin Cancer Committee, Terry Slevin, says this is a big concern given the known dangers of exposure to UV radiation.

“More than 1800 Australians die of skin cancer every year and the evidence is clear that in more than 85% of those cases the cause is exposure to UV radiation, mostly from the sun. The evidence is also clear that sunscreen helps protect against harmful UV radiation. By contrast, there is no evidence that nano materials in sunscreen are harmful,” Mr Slevin says.

What CHOICE wants

CHOICE has long called for mandatory labelling of nano-materials. While the debate over the scientific evidence for the safety of nano-materials rages, we feel that consumers at the very least deserve to be able to make an informed decision about products like sunscreen which they use on a daily basis. Truth in labelling is essential to informed decision making and we will monitor the ACCC’s treatment of the claim that sunscreen ingredient suppliers misled customers and consumers.

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