Common ingredient in sunscreen the “asbestos of the future?”

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.

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.

Related links:

Photo credit: Flickr Noodle93

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

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22 thoughts on “Common ingredient in sunscreen the “asbestos of the future?””

  1. Great article Amy.

    Micoronized is not the same as nano. Micronized is bigger. Most companies that use titanium dioxide have to use coated because it is photo-sensitive. It breaks down in the sun causing DNA damage, which can cause cancer. So then we have the issue with the coatings on the titanium dioxide.

    I used to use California Baby too. But, I prefer not to take the risk. Especially on my daughter. I only use products with uncoated zinc oxide. Zinc has been safely used for hundreds of years.

    Our rule is we use sunscreen if we are going to be out in the sun for 2 hours or more, or when we are out for 1 hour or more during the hours when the sun is strongest (we are really fair skinned…other’s may be able to stay out longer without burning). Or we just wear protective clothing. The rest of the time we go without to make sure we are getting our Vitamin D from the sun.

    You may also be able to protect your skin by taking a high ORAC antioxidant. Many of our customers have found that when they are doing this, their skin burns less (likely because their skin cells are healthy) and if they do burn they heal much faster.

  2. eew, ICK. This ticks me off.

    I wonder, though–I mean, asbestos, something that whenever a ceiling tile gets disturbed or broken or removed, the particles are in the air and we breathe them. When the TiO2 is in a cream, is that happening? Is it problematic only when breathed, or when on the skin as well?(Not that the answer will make me feel all warm and fuzzy about it, I’m just curious…)

    Zinc oxide makes me break out. So I guess I’m just screwed, and should move to Great Britain or maybe Oregon.

    I’m going to be one of those old ladies at the beach with a giant sun hat and every inch of skin covered, I just know it. I mean, I’ll be that lady at 43.

    Sigh. Thank you for this post–I absolutely hope you keep us posted on what happens here!!!

  3. As long as you don’t burn wouldn’t be exposing yourself to the sun be better than using sunscreen?

    Although, what about people in NZ and Australia, they have a hole in their ozone layer so you can burn in literally 10 minutes without protection, would sunscreen be better in that instance? They have successfully had a campaign for kids to wear sunscreen, but now they have large portions of the population of rickets!

    I hardly ever wear the stuff, I tan quite well, and it takes a long time for me to burn in the sun, even direct sun on a beach.

  4. Did you read Badger’s information on the zinc oxide they use in their sunscreen? It can be found here:

    The summary is: they don’t think nanoparticles are dangerous and no studies support the idea that they’re dangerous. They use micronized zinc, which while generally larger, contains a range of particle sizes, some in the nano range.

    There is a lot more info in their article. Definitely interesting to read.

  5. Kimberly – I would think that as long as you aren’t in the sun for a long period of time, the sun exposure would be better (but I’m not an expert). 😉 And yes, we still need our vitamin D.

    Annie – I’ll check that out info about Badger. Thanks for sending it along. It’s hard to know who to trust.

  6. Hi Amy, we started using the Lands End rashguard swimwear and I won’t go back! They cover kids up well, are UPF 50, and the best part is they can take them on and off by themselves.

  7. I started using organic cold pressed coconut oil last summer. It was amazing and I didn’t need to worry about sunscreen unless we were going to be out all day. I’m really fair skinned, but would use it even in the pool…no burns.

  8. I really wrestle with the sunscreen / sun exposure conundrum. My solution is to use alternatives to sunscreen, and to only apply sunscreen when I feel it’s actually needed. If we’re going to the mostly-shaded park for half an hour, and my kids are wearing hats, we omit the sunscreen. But when we go to the beach, even with other measures, we do use it.

    And, like you, I try to make the best choice based on the information I have and advocate for better choices overall.

  9. Well we actually live in oregon, lol, and for most of the year I really don’t have to worry much about sunscreen. In fact, more worry comes from a lack of Vitamin D.

    I do worry about the nanoparticles and have had Oxybenzone off the list for years. I try to have a balance. No sunscreen on short exposures and the best researched sunscreen I can do on days when exposure would cause a burn. We also try to use protective clothing and shade as much as possible too.

    I am starting to think sunscreens benefits do not outweigh the risks for the most part.

  10. I’m a super pale redhead and I use enough sunscreen that I got curious and started reading up. Here’s what I know.

    Titanium dioxide has been classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Cancer Research, a part of the World Heath Organization.

    Studies so far have involved rats inhaling ultra fine TiO2, (particles in the nano-scale). The rats developed lung inflammation, lung cancer and respiratory tract cancer.

    Retrospective studies of humans who worked in production of TiO2 showed no link to lung cancer.

    There have been no studies about TiO2 as a pigment in paint or cosmetics (as it is used in sunscreen).

    That said, inhaling TiO2 nanoparticles on a regular basis seems much different from using it in sunscreen. Can the nanoparticles in sunscreen become airborne and then be inhaled? How far do they penetrate the skin? I don’t know, and I haven’t seen any research getting toward an answer.

    I like to be well informed, but I decided not to worry about this. We still have a lot to learn, and I’m not going to drive myself crazy.

    Lastly, as for the term ‘micronized’, it simply refers to the size of the TiO2 particles as being a few microns. One micron is 1000 times one nanometer, and a nanoparticle is 1 to 100 nanometers. A micron is still very small, but the idea is that a micron-sized particle is not as easily absorbed by the body.

  11. We don’t use sunscreen except in the event that we’ll be out in the sun all day, without reliable shade – i.e. at the beach or waiting in lines at Disney.

    Otherwise, I believe the risks from not getting ENOUGH UV exposure (things like Vitamin D deficiency – which can contribute to a supressed immune system), combined with the potential risks from the chemicals in sunscreen, FAR outweighs the potential risk of skin cancer.

    I do insist on sunglasses and/or hats and when we do wear sunscreen, we use Badger brand.

    Smart sun exposure is key. There’s just no reason to wear sunscreen all day every day as some recommend. You NEED the sun. You just don’t want to get burned.


  12. Greenpeace believes that all new nano-particles and chemicals should be
    fully tested for their all potential health effects before being allowed
    on the market. This also goes for all the substances already on the
    market which have yet to be full tested. In addition to the risks posed
    by chemicals in consumer products, the manufacture of these substances
    can also put large numbers of people at risk. For example, when
    chemical manufacturers such as DuPont make titanium dioxide (T2), they
    use huge amounts of chlorine gas. In the event of a catastrophic leak
    that gas could kill or injure thousands of people living up to14 miles
    away. Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) plans to introduce disaster prevention
    legislation very soon. If enacted it would ensure that the highest risk
    plants use safer available processes to eliminate these risks. Last year
    we inspected several high risk plants including a DuPont plant that
    makes T2. To see what we found and what you can do go to:

  13. Thanks for writing this. I was thinking of this same subject the other day, when I took some jerseys out of my soccer coaches bag and they smelled like sunscreen. I looked up our current sunscreen on EWG’s website and saw that ours was one of the worst ones out there. You get what you pay for I suppose. This year I am on the lookout for a good safe economical (okay cheap) sunscreen for my family. My husband has a family history of skin cancer so it is important to protect my family and not wearing sunscreen is not an option.

  14. I don’t actually know what will be the exact solution of this kind of particulars. But you can try different ways to solve it as well. But you should choose more authentic solution if there is not damage your valuable PC.

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