Remember in the old days when slathering on sunscreen meant having to really rub it in to get to get the white to disappear? Enter nanotechnology which has enabled the sunscreen products titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to be manufactured into extremely small molecules so the cream absorbs more easily. Titanium and zinc based ingredients are formulated into particles smaller than 200 nanometers (smaller than viruses) enabling them to appear transparent on our skin.
Much has been written about whether nanoparticles, used in both sunscreens and cosmetics, are safe. A controversy exists between those who think nanoparticles have the potential to do harm and those who feel that the likelihood of absorption by the skin is so low the risk is not enough of a concern.
The biggest concern with nanotechnology used in skin products is that chemicals encased inside nanoparticles can behave differently once inside the body and potentially trigger harmful reactions.
In 2006, a citizen’s petition was made to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a greater role in regulating the use of nanoparticles in sunscreens. In general, the FDA does not regulate skin care products because they are topical and systemic effects are determined to be low.
In response, the FDA did convene a Nanotechnology task force that recommended the FDA work with other federal and private agencies to increase general scientific knowledge and facilitate assessment of information to set safety standards for sunscreens. An additional plan to provide more specific labeling for sunscreens has not yet been carried out by the FDA.
In 2009, an environmental health non-profit organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) started an investigation of their own on sunscreen. They stated that when they began, “our researchers thought we would ultimately recommend against micronized and nano-sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens. But many months and nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies later, we find ourselves drawing a different conclusion, and recommending some sunscreens that may contain nano-sized ingredients.”