Is Nanotechnology In Sunscreens As Bad As They Say?

by Gio
is nanotechnology in sunscreen dangerous?

Should you stay away from nanotechnology in sunscreen?

Critics say that zinc oxide nanoparticles are so small, they’ll penetrate your skin and give you all kinds of nasty diseases.

The panic got so out of hand, the few brands that had started using this technology quickly backtracked. Now you’ll more easily find a needle in a haystack than a nano-based sunscreen at Sephora.

It’s a shame because science says they’re not as bad as they’re made out to be. Plus, they have a few properties that make these sunscreens more pleasant to use.

Here’s the truth about nanotechnology in sunscreen:

What Is Nanotechnology?

To cut a long story short, nanotechnology takes one large particle, like zinc oxide, and makes it super small.

Nano is short for nanometre. That’s one billionth of a metre or, in lay terms, about one thousandth of the thickness of hair. That’s how small these particles are.

No wonder people are scared these molecules can get through the skin, infiltrate the blood stream, and make you sick!

Why Is Nanotechnology Used In Sunscreen?

Ever wondered why so many sunscreens are so thick and greasy?

Blame it on Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. These white minerals protect you from both UVA and UVB rays without irritating your skin.

But their unpleasant texture leave a greasy sheen all over your skin…. and a white cast that makes you look like Caspar The Ghost. Ugh.

Enter nanotechnology.

By making Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide much smaller, they literally become invisible. You know what that means? No more white cast! Yay!

Plus, their textures aren’t greasy anymore. You can pile on the layers without feeling like your skin is being suffocated.

Related: Is Zinc Oxide The Best UV Filter Ever?


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Is Nanotechnology In Sunscreen Dangerous?

Nanotechnology in sunscreen sounds awesome, right?

Not according to its critics. Here’s the deal: we know that normal-sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are too big to penetrate the skin. They just sit on its surface, where they can’t cause any serious (think like cancer) side effects.

But, these much smaller sizes? Are they as harmless?

Well, some studies have found something worrying: these nanoparticles can produce free radicals, the molecules that damage DNA cells. Scary, right?

But, there’s a catch. They do this only when they penetrate past the outer dead layers of the skin and into the living cells. 

This would also make them useless as sunscreens. UV filters must stay on top of the skin to work. How else could they stop those pesky UV rays from getting in and damaging your skin?

Can Nanoparticles Penetrate Skin?

Short answer: nope.

Current research is clear: nanoparticles remain on the surface of the skin and can’t reach the living cells.

But, if you’re really worried about free radicals, just use your sunscreen together with an antioxidant serum. That’ll destroy those free radicals before they can do any real harm.

Related: What Are The Best Antioxidant Serums?

The Real Problem With Nanoparticles In Sunscreen

Topical application of nonaparticles is safe. Inhalation is another matter entirely.

Studies done on rats show that, when inhaled, nanoparticles can damage animal lungs. I couldn’t find any studies on humans but, just to be on the safe side, don’t breathe this stuff in.

To recap: nano cream sunscreens = yay! Nano spray sunscreens = no way!

The Bottom Line

Nanoparticles in sunscreens are safe. Just avoid the spray kind.

Have you ever used sunscreens with nanoparticles? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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7 comments

Dao August 17, 2009 - 2:43 pm

I went to a seminar during my first year in grad school and a guy gave a speech about nanoparticles and fishes. Apparently, some fishes get tumors when exposed to man-made nanoparticles in the water. The sunscreen I use still has a white cast and it’s a lifesaver to me since chemical sunscreens give me big breakouts.

Danielle August 17, 2009 - 2:57 pm

Even if antioxidants are added to reverse the oxidizing properties of sunscreen, wouldn’t the exposure to sunlight immediately break down any antioxidants, assuming that they are stable in the first place?

H January 10, 2016 - 3:06 am

Danielle, totally an great question! They do break down. They do, however help to offset the damage. At least they don’t break down as fast as they would if you didn’t have sunscreen. This is one reason why you should wear an antioxidant serum underneath your sunscreen. To put it in a nutshell; antioxidant in sunscreen simply aren’t enough!

Anastasia August 17, 2009 - 7:49 pm

My flippant reaction is that nanotechnology sounds awesome and reminds me of nanites from Stargate. Of course, the nanites were actually pretty bad.

If they can create free radicals, it seems a wee bit daft to me, considering that the sun is one of the primary causes of free radicals and thus one of the reasons why we use sunscreen.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind having a white cast. I’m already milk-colour, I welcome pale.

jojoba August 17, 2009 - 8:22 pm

nano techonology is so popular in the far east here. everything with nano suddently seems to be better. personally, i am very wary about it. i’d rather have a white cast instead.
.-= jojoba´s last blog ..Revew/Swatch/FOTD: T. LeClerc Sunflower Pressed Powder =-.

prettybeautiful August 18, 2009 - 2:43 am

gio this is so enlightening. all the while i thought everything with nano technology has to be better in terms of penetrating deeper into skin and repair or protect. in tht case i agree with jojoba, i wouldn’t mind a white cast on my face then.
.-= prettybeautiful´s last blog ..Nail Monday =-.

beautifulwithbrains August 18, 2009 - 11:02 am

Dao: I read a study about that too. Apparently fishes exposed to nanoparticles developed brain tumors. I don’t think it was Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide, though. So far, these have been proved to be safe when applied topically on healthy skin, but ingestion and inhalation is dangerous. But like you, I prefer physical sunscreens and don’t really care about the white cast, my skin is white (litterally) anyway.

Danielle: that’s a good point. Antioxidants degrade when exposed to sunlight, not sure if that happens immediately but very rapidly, yes. Since sunscreens are supposed to be reapplied frequently anyway I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Nanoparticles can’t penetrate the skin so even if antioxidants weren’t added I doubt they would generate free radicals.

Anastasia: lol, I had to google that, I’m not a Stargate fan unlike my mom. She has never missed an episode. But they sound pretty nasty.
I know, it sounds silly to me but since nanoparticles can’t penetrate skin, I don’t think that would be a problem. I’m more concerned about chemical sunscreens that are said to generate free radicals too and that’s why I tend to avoid them. I stick to Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide as they are the best sunscreen ingredients available at the moment and I don’t mind the white cast either. Kinda matches my skin anyway.

Jojoba: I agree with you. Although topical application is supposed to be safe, and is definitely safer that not wearing sunscreen or using one that doesn’t offer broad spectrum protection, these particles haven’t been studied much and some concern about their safety (esp regarding inhalation) remain. Based on current research, I wouldn’t avoid sunscreens with nanoparticles, but I’d still I’d rather stick to physical sunscreen that don’t contain them as they are a better option.

prettybeautiful: that is a very common misconception. But actually these particles can’t penetrate skin (most ingredients used in beauty products can’t, doesn’t matter what marketing says) and in any case, you wouldn’t want them too. In order to protect the skin from the sun rays, these ingredients have to remain on the surface. I don’t mind the white cast either, being properly protected is more important.

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