Traditionally, sunscreens were made from zinc oxide – a thick, pasty, white product typically seen on surfers and lifeguards. Others would simply cover up, or stick to the shade.
Now, however, we have nanoparticles. These particles, the smallest which human engineers can create, make our sunscreens clear and far more attractive to consumers. Nanoparticles are also unsed in pharmaceuticals, baby toys, packaging for food, sports equipment, electronics, and cosmetics, to name a few items. They can make products lighter, clearer, anti-microbial, or stain resistant. But are they safe?
Experts say that the answer is as-yet unknown. Nanoparticles, unlike larger particles, can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. Once in the blood, they can be toxic to human cells.
Scientists, unfortunately, do not yet know exactly how toxic these materials can be. Animal research has revealed that when inhaled, nanoparticals can penetrate the entire respiratory tract, as well as other internal organs, the central nervous system, and the immune system. Nanoparticals have also crossed the blood-brain barrier in animal testing, allowing them to penetrate brain tissue. While this ability could be useful if nanotechnology is used to deliver medicine directly to the brain, it could be extremely dangerous in other cases, even leading to brain injury.
Likewise, little is known about whether these products are dangerous to the environment. What happens, for example, when these particles enter the soil or groundwater? Scientists do not yet know – although some studies have already shown toxic effects. Each type of nanoparticle, in each type of product, is different, lending greater complexity to the study of their effects.
In the case of sunscreens, studies have not yet shown an ability by the type of nanoparticles used to penetrate the skin. Scientists are not yet sure, however, what happens when these nano-sunscreens are applied to broken skin, or are ingested (such as when a child eats using sunscreen-covered hands, or swallows pool water contaminated with others’ sunscreen). And some of the nanoparticles used in sunscreens have demonstrated an ability to produce free radicals when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Free radicals can themselves damage cell membranes. And studies have shown that the more effective and highly-rated the nano-sunscreen, the more free radicals it produces.
For concerned consumers, identifying sunscreens and other products which contain nanoparticles can be tricky. Labels often fail to identify zinc oxide which has been converted to nanoparticles, although the terms “ultrafine” and “micronized” are sometimes used. Typically, however, there is no way to identify sunscreens that use nanotechnology until after purchase – if a sunscreen has a white appearance when applied, it is usually nano-free. Consumers can also check online lists such as Mighty Nest to locate natural, nano-free sunscreens and other products.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago product liability lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.