The technology that has allowed zinc oxide to transcend the dreaded “white face” effect is a new source of concern for some consumers: Nanoparticles, manipulated to become tens of thousands of times smaller than a strand of hair, have raised questions about skin absorption and long-term health risks.

Now used for everything from food and supplements to packaging and personal care, the sun care industry tapped nanotechnology to improve the consistency and UV-protective qualities of mineral sunscreens—which the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks as the safest options for their ability to block UVB and UVA rays, while leaving potentially toxic chemical ingredients like oxybenzone out of the formulations. And research continues to support the EWG’s stance that nanoparticles are safe in these mineral sunscreen lotions. “Our general recommendation is that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles are two of the most effective sunscreen ingredients and safest options in sunscreens,” says EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, PhD.

Despite the absence of conclusive negative science, new research shows consumers are still putting pressure on the nanotechnology industry. “Before, it was cool to use nanotechnology,” says Guy Langer, founder of personal care consulting company Qumulus Group, Inc. “Now, there’s uncertainty, which is prompting companies to deemphasize particle size and use other strategies, whether using different coatings or dispersion to make it more aesthetic and give more protection.”



Consumers still confused: What is nanotechnology and is it safe in sun care?


Nanotechnology concerns are similar to those over GMOs, according a new study from the Food Standards Agency, which concluded that in both instances, a lack of knowledge and transparency fuels consumer confusion. For nano, this starts with the definition: Particles are less than 100 nanometers, a cutoff not based on health risks, says Andrews. And one that appears to be somewhat arbitrary, according to Langer, who points out that any nanometer-sized particle—five or 500—is a nanoparticle, which would mean that nearly every mineral sunscreen technically contains nanoparticles. Consumers might also see “micronized” on labels, which indicates only that particles were made smaller—either nano-sized, or simply smaller than they once were.

Also troublesome to consumers is long-term health risks—which early research of new industries like nanotechnology and GMO can’t yet determine—along with a lack of an enforced labeling system, says Mia Davis, organizing director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “We're calling on cosmetics manufacturers to label all nanomaterial ingredients so that consumers can make more informed decisions about their purchases.”

These labeling and ingredient issues may reflect more systemic cosmetic industry problems, according to Andrews. “Consumer skepticism is a reflection of lack of premarket safety testing that cosmetic ingredients are subject to and the lack of finalized FDA regulations on sunscreen, something that has been in the works since 1978,” he says. “This allows companies to make products claims such as all-day protection, waterproof, and chemical free, which build skepticism that carries over to concerns about the safety of the ingredient used.”



Sun care manufacturers reformulate


For some companies, transparency and even labeling isn’t enough. “We did extensive research and felt that there weren’t risks with the micronized size we used, and we still don’t have any concerns,” says Rebecca Hamilton, director of product development for Badger. “But we have gotten a lot of customer concerns and questions, and our stance as a company is the stay on the absolutely safe side, using ingredients that have no controversy.”

Consumers voicing their concerns prompted the company, best known for kids’ sunscreens, to switch manufacturers and take on an advanced mixing method that allows its new non-nano zinc oxide sunscreens to achieve nano zinc oxide’s same UV protection and apply with a similar consistency.

Elemental Herbs also launched a new SKU for this summer, its non-nano Zinc Sunstick that applies close to clear thanks to an oil dispersion process that spreads zinc oxide well and, again, provides the same UV protection, according to the company. Both manufacturers earned high safety rankings on the EWG’s Cosmetics Safety Database prior to the reformulations, but wanted to eliminate any consumer doubt regarding potential risks of nanotechnology.



New sunscreen ingredients or … new marketing?


Because providing consumers with non-nano, sheer mineral sunscreen is a recent priority (and challenge) for some natural mineral sunscreen manufacturers, new ingredients and processes are emerging to meet the demand. ZinClear, a porous, micron-sized (at least 1,000 nanometers) zinc oxide ingredient hit the market several years ago and is starting to appear in mineral sun care formulas. Originally patented as a 30-nanometer zinc particle, proprietors encased the zinc particle in an organic substrate to make the large non-nano particle, which is clear because the zinc particle itself remains nano-sized, according to Andrews. Such innovations, which, like nano, have been manipulated into a new form, warrant more research, says Hamilton, who is currently researching sheer non-nano alternatives for product developments. If no safety concerns arise, she may consider using this option in 2012.

Dispersion and mixing methods will continue to evolve, too. But perhaps the biggest changes to come from recent nanotech backlash won’t be in reformulations or new ingredients, says Langer. “The promotion of the raw material zinc oxide and the marketing of the final product have moved away from the nanotech story,” he says. “There will continue to be nano particles used, but they won’t be promoted as such.”