Skin Cosmetics Barre VT
Bellows Falls, VT
By James Keough
With the summer sun near its zenith, the need for sunscreen would never seem greater, especially with the steady rise in the prevalence of skin cancer. According to a report in 2005 from the World Health Organization, the annual incidence for melanoma has more than doubled in the last 30 years in the US. Yet in our rush to cover up, we may actually be choosing products that could do more harm than good. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is nanotechnology, the science of engineering materials at the sub-molecular level. It holds great promise in medicine and many other areas, but some say eager companies have rushed to use nano before they’ve thoroughly tested it—despite copious red flags about its potential for harm.
While it’s probably unfair to single out any one segment of industry, cosmetic companies have incorporated nanotechnology into their products with gusto, with anti-aging potions and sunscreens receiving the highest priority. The big push so far for nanotechnology in sunscreens stems from its ability to make two metal oxides—zinc and titanium—seemingly disappear. In bulk form (nano-speak for the way we’re used to seeing materials), these two ingredients block both UVA and UVB rays incredibly well. But they also scatter visible light rays and thus sit on the user’s skin like an unsightly white paste—a look that might be suitable for the lifeguard’s nose but is hardly en vogue for full body coverage. After all, who wants to look like Frosty the Snowman while catching some rays at the beach?
The jury’s still out
Nano-versions of these same metal oxides continue to block harmful rays, but they let visible light shine through—which means you can’t see them when you spread them on your skin. Dave Rejeski, director of The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and an advocate for more research into nano’s safety issues, sees this as a valid use of the new technology. “Here’s an example where there could be some really significant benefits, because [nano sunscreens] go on easy and they’re transparent, and so if you actually can get more people to use them, it could have a significant impact.”
And getting people to use sunscreen more often seems laudable, especially since only about a third of Americans bother to use sunscreens regularly. But not everyone shares this enthusiastic view of nano-ized sunscreens. Jim Thomas, a researcher with the ETC Group—an organization that has called for a moratorium on the introduction of nanoproducts until more is known about their safety—worries that the consumer faces an element of risk. “You have got some pretty good evidence that says when you introduce [metal oxide particles] into living cells, you get free-radical production, which disrupts the DNA of the cell.”
Peter Dobson, engineering professor at the University of Oxford, confirmed this fear on ABC Radio’s The Science Show in October 2005: “The free radicals that are produced will damage the skin, damage the molec...
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