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

BUT

Say no to scary bedtime stories.