Nanoparticles, cosmetics and sunscreens – again!

by Andrew Maynard on May 3, 2012

Robin Erb has a good piece on cosmetics and safe ingredients in the Detroit Free Press this week – it tackles the very limited regulation over what goes into cosmetics, but balances this with a useful perspective on consumer choice and how this in turn can drive business decisions on what is used and how.  I mention it because the issue of nanoparticles in sunscreens comes up briefly, and I am quoted on the matter.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been fairly vocal about the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens.  I still contend that the weight of published evidence suggests that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant when the relevant products are developed and used responsibly – and that the benefits of using this technology over others may in fact outweigh any residual risk.  But I’m also aware that this isn’t a closed issue – there are niggling questions on the use of photoactive particles, on nanoparticle sunscreen applications on delicate or compromised skin, and on dermal penetration of chemicals within the nanoparticles, that all need further research.  So I was surprised to read that my mind is apparently made up here!

After talking with Robin about cosmetics, sunscreen and nanoparticles, she sent me draft of my comments to check for factual accuracy before the piece went to press.  The original text read:

“…Agreed Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health: “The industry seems reasonably well self-regulating.”

In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores – are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not.

“It was really surprising, to be honest,” he said.”

This was uncommonly generous of Robin by the way – many reporters will not do this (for good reason – they don’t want people interfering with the story), and in general I don’t expect it.

My response:

Hi Robin, and thanks for letting me see this – Scott’s comments are great here btw.

If you are able, could I just change one thing: instead of “In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores – are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not.”, is it possible to have something along the lines of “In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that protect the skin from the sun – are dangerous. His conclusion: Not if they’re used responsibly”

It’s not as black and white admittedly, but there are still niggling uncertainties associated with the use of nanoparticles that I am on record as highlighting (as there are with other sunscreen ingredients), and it would look odd if I was quoted as saying something that seemed to contradict my usual message.

I should note at this point that, under these circumstances, my policy is to treat the reporter’s work with respect, and refrain from editing the text unless there is a compelling reason to do so.  But in this case I was concerned about the overstatement of my position on nanoparticle safety, and I thought that the technical error on the purpose of the nanoparticles being to ease the lotion into the skin pores should be addressed (in sunscreen the particles coat the skin and protect against UV exposure.  In some cosmetics, nanoparticles are used to help penetrate through the outer dead layers of skin cells – there may have been some confusion between the two here).

Robin responded back:

“Thanks for the response. No problem on tweaking the wording. I want it correct, of course.

Let me just ask this though: What would be an “irresponsible” use of sunscreen? I’m not trying to be funny – I just want to make sure the qualifier “if used responsibly” really translates for consumers.”

To which I replied:

“Understand – “responsible” can be a bit of an irresponsible blanket term :-)

Here, I mean using nanoparticles after giving possible health and environmental impacts due consideration, and doing everything possible to ensure minimal impacts and significant benefits. A bit of a mouthful, but feel free to tweak the quote. I won’t be able to respond as I’m about to board a plane back to Michigan from Denmark (hence the delay with this response) – but am sure whatever you arrive at will be fine.”

I may have been a bit generous with that last statement, as what was published on Monday came out as:

“Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, agreed. “The industry seems to be reasonably well self-regulating.”

In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecule-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores — are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not.

“It was really surprising, to be honest,” he said.”

The adherence to the original text isn’t a particularly big deal, and to be fair I almost definitely didn’t express myself as clearly as I could have in the original phone interview.  But just in case you read this and thought that the book was closed on nano-sunscreens from my perspective – it’s not!

1 Michelle May 7, 2012 at 10:58 am

Your experience with this article for the Detroit Free Press speaks volumes about our society. Journalists know that the public generally responds better to simple black/white issues. So, that is what the public is given. This oversimplification of the issues drives our politics, responses to environmental issues, and reactions to health issues. Nuances shmooances.
What a great story to use as a teaching tool.

2 Maryse de la Giroday May 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Hi Andrew! I empathize with both you and the reporter. You clarifyng and adding nuance to an important issue and the reporter racing to get the story to press. I’ve been on both sides and, oddly (to my mind anyway), I develop a kind of amnesia when clarifying to a reporter/writer and I get caught up in trying to convey a nuance when all they really want is something short and, preferably, pithy that has the same number of words (if they’re copyfitting) as the sentence I want them to change. As a writer, I moan when my interview subject starts to ‘waffle’ and I loathe changes because they invariably ruin my prose. :) Cheers, Maryse

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 5 trackbacks }