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The Friends of the Earth Nano Lobby

May 19, 2010

It is not surprising that people don’t like the idea of nano particles after all we can’t see them without a microscope and they sound awfully man-made and ‘chemical’. Thank goodness for people like the Friends of the Earth helping save us from ourselves!

Now as I am sure you realize the Friends of the Earth nano lobby is not a really small group that you need a powerful microscope to see, it is a group of people ‘outing’  consumer brands who use nano particles without telling us.  This jolly bit of activism is all aimed at getting the government to regulate safety testing on nano materials which will be great as I am sure that you will all agree that our politicians are far more trustworthy than our sunscreen and anti-ageing manufacturers.

If all of this sounds a bit terse or worse still, completely tongue-in-cheek then you would be 1/2 right.  Let’s have a think about this:

My supportive half says that freedom of information is good, we should all be aware of what goes into the products that we buy and the ethics and safety testing protocol employed by the companies making them. Further we should be able to relax in the knowledge that we don’t have to have  a chemistry or environmental science degree to work out what’s what  – the risk assessment should be done for us to a great extent.

Standing back and looking at that perfectly reasonable ‘want’ I can tell you that at the top-level our government is involved in a global program to assess the safety of nanoparticles both from a health and environmental perspective.  Health wise little evidence  has emerged to suggest that nano zinc or titanium found in sunscreens poses any real health hazard. This is not to say that nano particles don’t get into the skin,  a small amount may do (depending on the formulation) but that could also be said for non-nano sun filters.  At an industry level sunscreens (which contain the majority of nano particles) are regulated by the TGA and have to go through rigorous safety testing before they can go to market.  Sunscreens are not required to list ‘nano particles’ on the label in Australia but the EU passed a rule last November (09) stating that nanoparticles should be listed on the label – a nanoparticle is one which is between 1-100nm small.

So health wise while it would be foolish to say that nano Zinc and/or Titanium are good for you to imply that they are  ‘toxic’ and  cause ‘free radicals’ is not helpful information as free radicals are not always bad and toxicity is always relative.  What is clear (pardon the pun) is that cosmetically acceptable sunscreen is one of the best tools we have to protect our skin from excessive amounts of UV and subsequent skin cancer.  Any tree-hugger (me included) that likes to feel the wind in their hair and the sun on their backs would probably appreciate that.

Environmentally speaking we still have much to learn and  though I am not really qualified to comment further on nanoparticles I feel that it is important to note that  every ingredient we use to wash, decorate and protect our bodies eventually makes its way into the waterways. Everything comes with an environmental impact and some ingredients are more persistent and damaging to our ecosystem than others.  While the cosmetic industry is not specifically required to choose to formulate with ingredients with a low-impact life cycle many do take this into account. Indeed, this area of reporting – the triple bottom line is only just starting to make sense for many brands who have lacked the ability, information, market impetus and resources to perform cradle-to-grave analysis until recently.   NICNAS, the chemical notification body in Australia does assess the environmental and public health impact of all chemicals that come into the country but for many this doesn’t go far enough.  Some want nano regulated separately and NICNAS is assessing the viability of this.

So just quickly what is it that I don’t like about the Friends of the Earth lobbying?  A couple of things really:

  1. Naming and shaming brands for not telling customers about nano when they don’t have to isn’t a crime or a ‘secret’.  I would like to bet that the Jurlique incident has more to do with mis-understanding that intentionally misleading but that may just be my good nature.
  2. To say that Friends of the Earth are leading the push for government-regulated safety tests is interesting. I am 100% sure that they are interested and active in pushing for testing but it would be nice if they could also tell the concerned public about the private companies and government bodies who are also ‘leading’ the push towards an informed and safe future.
  3. The survey said that 46/140 companies surveyed failed to give a straight answer on their use of nanoparticles. I am sure that that is true but I would like to see what was asked, to who and what these companies were told would happen to the information. As we all know there are many ways to ask a question.
  4. Nano or Micro particles.  How many of the products tested were found to contain particles of between 1-100nm Vs microparticles which are still clear but are lots bigger?
  5. Voluntary Reporting Schemes don’t work –  What scheme are they talking about and when didn’t it work?

Say yes to safe products.

Say yes to low-footprint ingredients and product life-cycle analysis.

Say yes to good and well-balanced information


Say no to scary bedtime stories.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul McCormick permalink
    December 10, 2013 6:19 pm

    I just saw your FOE and nano articles. You may be interested in my Cosmetics & Toiletries Nov 13 article on nano in sunscreens.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      December 10, 2013 6:39 pm

      Of course Paul, that sounds great!

      Thanks for that.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      December 11, 2013 10:51 am

      I read your article with interest and am also read the response from the FOE. The exchange was predictable and not entirely helpful as it has taken the usual science vs public approach – defending science and accusing ‘others’ as being hysterical. I do not believe that is the case, at least not at an intellectual level which is where this debate should be occurring.
      As one of the bodies in the 2010 trial I can attest to the fact that some zinc did penetrate the skin and was picked up in blood and urine samples. The level was small and was no larger for nano zinc as it was for the larger particulate zinc. Therefore I feel that it is important to consider that zinc can and does pass through the skin to a small degree. Further it would be logical to assume that the weaker the skin barrier, the higher the potential for penetration (possibly). That could be tested if there was enough money to run the trials.
      The form the zinc took when it was discovered in blood and urine isn’t known. I wonder why? Especially when blood and urine samples could have been analysed. It would be interesting to have this data especially given that some of those fluids are my own. I don’t know what happened there but I do know that this small trial was very expensive and the barrier to knowing more is money, not will.
      The points that you raise about the definition of a nanoparticle are interesting and valid. A case of a definition being required to enable a law (the cart before the horse maybe?) which is possibly not the smartest way to go about things – I am talking about the cosmetics regs now rather than the chemical industry.

      As for the concerns over Anatase Titanium Dioxide, these two are valid (FOE) but one would have to wonder why sunscreen manufacturers are using anatase when it is known for its photocatalytic properties. BASF manufacture a range of titanium sunscreens using the rutile form and I am sure many other large players do also. I have noticed the FOE writing about this on a few occasions and I do wonder how many sunscreen products use anatase titanium dioxide? How big is this issue? Colour cosmetics and other products using titanium dioxide for its whitening may be a different thing altogether and I agree with the idea of limiting the potential for our bodies becoming a chemical reaction factory.

      There were some more points to discuss but that is enough for now I think. My biggest frustration is that we can debate the theory until the cows come home, dress it up with facts (that are true but that may not necessarily be that valid when applied) and shout at those who take a different view but to KNOW is to do and I’d like to see more money put into the doing pot.
      After all what could be better than knowing the truth?

      Thanks Paul.


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