Friday, July 27, 2007

What's in that Sunscreen?

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

The above text has been falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (at a mythical MIT graduation address) and--I just found out through the good graces of Google--is one of those Internet hoaxes. It never had anything to do with Vonnegut, but probably originated in a 1997 newspaper column by Mary Schmich.

Whoever first came up with it, it certainly seems like good advice. Recently I read a major women's magazine article all about how to care for your skin and the first thing it said was to wear sun-blocking moisturizer, and if you're not going to do that, not to bother doing anything else. Made sense to me. I bought some the next day. Been using it ever since.

Only now I wonder...what exactly is in that sunscreen?

It turns out sunscreen is one of the most popular uses for nanotechnology. Apparently one of the great things about nanotechnology can make things really, really small. One of these things is zinc oxide particles, which spread on really well and are transparent, and are extraordinarily good at absorbing sunlight. All of which are highly desirable qualities in sunscreen.

The question is, do these nanoparticles operate differently from other particles? Research suggests they might. Nanoparticles can apparently enter the bloodstream if inhaled. There's no proof whether or not they can do the same by penetrating the skin, but it certainly seems like a possibility. What they do inside the body once they're there is another question, but some research suggests it might not be good for your body at all to have them roaming around.

So, should I fear my sunscreen? I just wish there were some group...maybe a government agency or something...that would investigate things like this and make sure products like sunscreen or blush or "lip paint" didn't contain tiny particles that might damage my cells and raise my risk of getting cancer. If such an agency actually existed it could investigate the use of nanotechnology and, at least until we know for sure what the health risks are or aren't, make sure products with nano-sized components were clearly labeled as such.

Of course, there is something called the Food and Drug Administration, and you'd think they'd be in the business of checking out these nanoparticles, but instead they're in the business of telling us not to worry about them.

The agency issued a report Wednesday saying it saw no need to worry about nanoparticles, or even label products that contain them. "At this point, we lack an ability to say that nanoscale alone raises safety concerns worthy of putting on the label," said Randall Lutter, the agency's deputy commissioner for policy.

In other words: What we don't know about can't hurt us.

Gee, I feel safer already. Don't you?

(Just in case you don't here's where to find an inventory of consumer products containing nano...)


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