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Liz Thompson
Liz Thompson

Is Sunscreen Bad for the Environment?


Creative Commons License Photo credit: the half-blood prince

Sunscreen has been touted over the past few decades as an essential component in keeping our skin healthy and cancer-free.  It is, of course, widely known now that prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays could be a common cause of skin cancer.  Not to mention the other benefits of sunscreen, like its role in preventing the signs of premature aging.  But scientists are now looking at sunscreen, rather some of its ingredients, as a potential threat to the environment.

Zinc oxide is a common and popular ingredient used in sunscreens to absorb or deflect damaging ultra violet (UV) rays.  The complaint by users in the past has been the ghostly white appearance it leaves behind.  The solution; make zinc oxide clear by shrinking it into tiny particles between one and 100 nanometers (a nanometer is roughly half the size of a strand of DNA).  No more chalky white skin, but at what price? 


Scientific America reported Tuesday that the use of these nanoparticles may pose risks to the environment by damaging beneficial microbes

A study by University of Toledo researchers discovered that nano-titanium dioxide used in personal care products reduced biological roles of bacteria after less than an hour of exposure. The findings suggest that these particles, which end up at municipal sewage treatment plants after being washed off in showers, could eliminate microbes that play vital roles in ecosystems and help treat wastewater.

These tiny microbes have big jobs; remove ammonia from wastewater, clean up toxic waste and reduce phosphorus in lakes.

The European Union has also been researching nanoparticles and the role they play in the disruption of the environment.  On Wednesday a majority of the the EU Parliament voted for new EU-wide rules regarding nanocosmetics that will take effect in 2012.  Clear labeling on products that contain nanoparticles is part of the new regulation, as well as special safety testing before a product’s release.

Nanotechnology has been noted as potentially beneficial in creating drugs that could cure cancer and radiation poisoning, exciting possibilities to be sure.

At this point, rather than discourage the use of nanoparticles all together, scientists see more research that needs to be done to recognize their true potential.

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