Common Ingredient in Sunscreen the "Asbestos of the Future?"

BlogHer Original Post

I recently read about a new Swiss study claiming that the ingredient titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles -- widely used as a white pigment in sunscreen, toothpaste and cosmetics -- provokes similar inflammatory effects on the lungs as asbestos. Yes, that asbestos. The stuff that can cause serious illnesses, "including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma (a formerly rare cancer strongly associated with exposure to amphibole asbestos), and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis)."

According to Jürg Tschopp, the lead researcher and professor of biochemistry at Lausanne University, "With titanium dioxide you accumulate, like asbestos, particles in the lung. You get chronic inflammation and this can last ten or 15 years and the next step is cancer." Tschopp is concerned that nanoparticles could be the "asbestos of the future." However, he also admitted in his findings that he would not immediately stop using sunscreen and toothpaste, but believes more caution and regulation are needed.

Sunscreen This begs the question: Do you take the risk of avoiding sunscreen and exposing your skin to cancer-causing ultraviolet rays or do you use the sunscreen and risk the exposure to chemicals that may give you cancer anyway?

Huma Khamis of the consumer association of western Switzerland calls the sunscreen dilemma "a big problem," but states "the immediate risks of not using cream [sunscreen] and sunbathing are greater than those of exposure to products containing titanium dioxide nanoparticles.”

Yet this isn't the first time an ingredient in sunscreen has been called into question. I wrote about the chemical oxybenzone nearly three years ago. Oxybenzone -- one of the commonly used ingredients in most sunscreens -- has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage. It is also a "penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin."

The primary sunscreen I've been using on my kids for the past several years -- California Baby -- does not contain oxybenzone and even tested quite well on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database. However when I rechecked the ingredients I noticed titanium dioxide was listed; although it did not specify whether the TiO2 was the suspect nanoparticles or not.

At first I freaked out thinking I've been putting something potentially cancer-causing on my kids, but after asking a few Twitter friends (@YourOrganicLife and @ErinEly) their opinion, I decided to contact the company directly. I received an automated response indicating that "California Baby utilizes coated micronized titanium dioxide (TiO2 for short) as the active ingredient for our sunscreens." I believe that means it is not nanoparticles, but I've asked for clarification from California Baby just to be sure (and will update here when I hear back from them).

I do my best to make informed choices regarding my kids' health and safety. However, I'm not a chemist or a physicist and I can't test every chemical out there. I have to rely upon others (the government?) to test for X, Y, and Z's chemical safety, but it seems all too often that chemicals are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise. I don't like to think of my kids (or anyone's children for that matter) being used as guinea pigs and I don't think it's too much to ask that products and chemicals are tested before they are available for mass consumption. Do you?

Where does this leave me? I'll stick to trying to limit our exposure to the sun during peak hours for starters. I already tend to do that, but this is a good reminder to continue. I may avoid sunscreen containing titanium dioxide all together and only purchase sunscreen in which zinc oxide is the active ingredient. (Badger makes a good one that I've used on my kids in the past.) Of course, we'll continue to wear our hats and sunglasses -- the kids' eye doctor just reminded me about how important that is -- as much as possible outdoors. Another thing I plan to do is buy some sun-protective swimwear for when summer rolls around again. The less exposed skin, the better.

Lastly, I will hope that testing will continue on the various chemicals in sunscreen, cosmetics and everything else we rely on both for ourselves and our children on a regular basis. I will sign petitions. I will blog. I will raise awareness.

Safe Sun Tips

  • Minimize sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the greatest amount of ultraviolet light exists.
  • Wear Hats. Each inch of hat brim can lower your lifetime risk of skin cancer by 10%. A hat brim of four inches or greater is recommended.
  • Wear UV-blocking clothing.
  • Wear protective eyewear. Sunglasses with UV-blocking filters are very important.

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Contributing editor Amy Gates also blogs at Crunchy Domestic Goddess and is on Twitter as @crunchygoddess.

Photo credit: Flickr Noodle93 | Original for BlogHer

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