Choosing the Right Sunscreen

11 October 2013

New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

We need to protect ourselves from the sun, but recently there have been concerns raised about the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens.  

We have discovered that one of our sunscreens (Organic People) contains nanoparticles of titanium dioxide.  The effects of nanotechnology are unknown so there is uncertainty around the issue.  We have, therefore, decided to provide as much information as we can about the nanoparticles in sunscreens debate so you can make an informed decision on which sunscreen to use.

 sun ocean

The facts around sun damage and sunscreens

1. New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of melanoma in the world.  292 people died of melanoma in 2007.

2. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is the most important preventable risk factor for skin cancer.

3. All health authorities recommend the use of a sunscreen if you are going to be exposed to sunlight.

4. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide can provide protection from UVR. Only zinc oxide provides protection from long UVA rays.

5. Any natural sunscreen that is above SPF15 will contain a mineral – either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

And as far as we can see, everything else depends on who you believe, and whose research you trust.


Different experts with differing opinions

Green People are the manufacturers of the Organic People range.  This range was recommended by Dr Hauschka when they decided not to make sunscreen any more.  The sunscreens contain organic ingredients and nano-titanium dioxide.  They consider the use of titanium dioxide (micro-nised or nano) to be worthwhile as it offers effective protection against UVA rays, the type of radiation that penetrates the skin and which is a leading cause of skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma and melanoma.

The only other way of offering the same level of UVA protection would be to use synthetic chemical sun filters that have been shown to have harmful effects including the ability to mimic hormones in the body.

The concerns over titanium dioxide nanoparticles are two-fold: firstly that due to their greater surface area they have an increased ability to react with other molecules, particularly oxygen, and secondly that they may enter the body through the skin and thereby reach internal organs where they may cause damage due to their increased reactivity.  

To counter these two potential problems, the manufacturers of titanium dioxide UV filters in cosmetics treat the minerals during production by coating each particle with a very fine layer of silicates.  This treatment has the effect of shielding the titanium dioxide from contact with other materials, including oxygen.  This lack of contact prevents any potential reactions from taking place, and renders the mineral absolutely inert.  It is therefore incapable of causing oxidative damage, the first of the two concerns.

Secondly, when nano-particles are incorporated into a cream or lotion the clump together, forming aggregations.  These are held together by forces of molecular attraction that prevent the primary particles from becoming separated when applied to the skin.  Therefore, although the primary particle size of the minerals is in theory small enough to be absorbed through the skin, in practice the aggregations that are formed in creams and lotions are too large to cross through the skin-blood barrier.  Instead, they remain on the surface of the skin where they reflect and scatter UV light.




According to Dr Steve Humphries, the co-owner of Hebe Botanicals, the majority of scientific papers to date support the safe use of nanoparticles in sunscreens in that they do not significantly penetrate the skin barrier.  ”Nano-zinc oxide provides the best protection against UV rays . It is broad spectrum, stable in sunlight, and is not photoreactive so that it does not form potentially dangerous breakdown products.  No other sunscreen agent has all these desirable properties combined”.

Different views are expressed in an EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) 2007 report: “The SCCP considers it necessary to (carry out) a safety assessment of nanosized TiO2 (titanium dioxide), taking into account abnormal skin conditions and the possible impact of mechanical effects on skin penetration need to be undertaken.  And a simulation reported by Amanda Bernard in NatureNanotech, March 2010, revealed that “unless very small nanoparticles can be shown to be safe, there is no combination of particle size and concentration that will deliver optimal performance in terms of sun protection and aesthetics.”

In Australia Friends of the Earth have been running a very active campaign against nanoparticles in sunscreens.  They point out that the development and validation of nano-specific risk assessment processes may take years.  When it comes to sunscreens, a key component of risk assessment – determining likely exposure – is not yet possible because we do not yet understand what quantities of nanomaterials may be absorbed into the skin from sunscreens and in what circumstances.  Skin penetration studies to date have largely failed to look at important variables such as skin condition (including damage through sunburn, injury or eczema, or thin skin present in the young or elderly), skin flexing (eg through exercise) and the role of substances in sunscreens that can act as penetration enhancers by increasing skin permeability.

Do plant sourced sunscreens provide adequate protection against skin cancer?

Some of our sunscreens are entirely plant based.  These are SPF15 or not certified under the A/NZS2604: 1998 Standard.  The manufacturers argue that the difference in SPF protection is marginal – SPF 15 blocks 92% of UVB rays and SPF 30 blocks 97%.  

It is more important how often they are applied.  

The recommendation is every 2 – 3 hours or immediately after swimming.  And this may become an issue for mothers with wriggly babies.  Good coverage is very important for UV protection and if the sunscreen is difficult to apply, you or your child may not be sufficiently covered with sunscreen for it to be effective.


What does Commonsense recommend? 

We do not stock any sunscreen that contains chemicals we avoid in our other products.  It is your choice whether to go for the nanoparticle brand (Organic People) or another.  We hope more conclusive evidence can be presented soon.


Sensible precautions you can take to avoid sun damage 

  • Keep out of the sun during the middle of the day, but enjoy the sun in moderation
  • Cover up with clothing, hats and sunglasses
  • Avoid getting burned and don’t try to get sun-tanned
  • Use sunscreen with SPF15 or higher
  • Keep newborn babies out of the sun
  • Only use sunscreen on babies over 6 months old
  • Make sure you get enough direct sun – your body needs the vitamin D.  Life’s a paradox!


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