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Published on July 25th, 2011 | by Terri Bly

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Nano Zinc Oxide: Should You Really Steer Clear?

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Is nano zinc oxide safe?

With summer in full swing (an understatement in much of the country), everyone is talking about sunscreen, as new research emerges putting into question the safety of a whole host of common sunscreen ingredients, including nano zinc oxide. And with good reason.

The rise in prevalence of nano sized particles across a wide range of products has been largely absent any sound research demonstrating their safety. Moreover, it’s largely accepted that these teeny weeny microscopic particles are small enough to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, which begs the question: To what extent do nano particles get into the body, and what do they do when they get there?

The answer to that question is, with regard to most nano particles, an unsatisfying, “We don’t know.”

One exception, however, is nano zinc oxide. According to Bob Root, Keys Care‘s lead formulator and the genius behind top-rated Solar Rx, there are over 400 published studies on the behavior of nano zinc oxide when used in creams and lotions (far less data exists on powders and sprays – i.e., the kind you can inhale). In fact, Root states the bigger problem with nano zinc oxide is making it adhere to the skin. “The spherical shape of nano zinc causes the skin to push it back out,” he explains. “Other nano particles that have more rugged shapes seem to penetrate better, but with nano zinc, the challenge is keeping it on the skin.”

nano zinc oxideConsidering Root and his wife, Wendy Steele, created Keys Care in response to Steele’s battle with melanoma, it is no surprise they are passionate (and extraordinarily knowledgeable) about sun protection. It is because of his determination to create the safest and most effective sunscreens that Root uses nano zinc oxide; he firmly believes it does a much better job protecting skin from the sun’s dangerous UVA rays. His rationale is pretty compelling; to explain the difference, he uses the anology of rocks vs. sand.

“If you spread rocks out on one piece of red carpet, and sand on another, on which piece would you see the most red?” In other words, not only does nano zinc fail to penetrate the skin and get into the blood stream, but the smaller particle size means fewer “holes” when you apply a layer of nano zinc oxide sunscreen on the skin (see his illustration on the left).

The Environmental Working Group would appear to concur with Root’s assessment, giving the green light in their 2011 Sunscreen Report to numerous sunscreens that use nano zinc oxide as their primary source of UVA and UVB protection. While the jury is still out on the environmental impact of these itty bitty minerals, it would seem we can all rest easy when it comes to breaking open a bottle of Keys Solar Rx, Vive Sana, Blue Lizard, or Soleil Organique. All use nano zinc oxide to provide excellent broad spectrum protection, and all made the EWG’s Best Sunscreens List of 2011.

Still not convinced? Well, good news: You can still find plenty of excellent sunscreens that claim not to use nano zinc oxide. Eco Logical and All Terrain (available at many local co-ops and health food stores) are two of my favorites, and neither leaves any hint of white when applied to all but the darkest skin tones. I would add, however, that Root firmly believes if the sunscreen goes on clear, no matter what the manufacturer claims, you are using nano sized zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.

If you would like to learn more, Root wrote an excellent, in-depth piece on the Keys Care Blog in 2009 on the topic of nano zinc oxide.  You can also hear my entire interview him here, or download it on iTunes. Finally, be sure to check out the EWG’s 2011 Sunscreen Report if you haven’t already, for a list of the best sunscreens, worst sunscreens, and the latest information on sun protection and ingredient safety.

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About the Author

Terri Bly is the founder of The Nature of Beauty, LTD, an all-eco website, shop, and spa. She is a freelance writer, currently residing in Minneapolis.



  • http://www.kabanaskincare.com Erik Kreider

    I’d like to see the data on the rocks vs. sand analogy, because I don’t buy it in practice:
    1. Sunscreens are rarely spread to one particle’s thickness.
    2. The SPF testing (per the 1999 OTC monograph) we’ve done has demonstrated no SPF benefit was achieved from using nano vs. non-nano particle sizes 10-20x that of the nano material.
    3. Chemical manufacturers leverage the ‘smaller is better’ mentality because it’s the ‘new’ stuff and commands a premium price based on this perception. It’s an intuitive theory, but based on our data, the benefit is non-existent practically.
    4. I don’t quite fathom the author reporting that ‘not enough is known about nano’ (true) with the interviewee’s claim that there are 400 papers? 400? Online publications vs. peer reviewed? I’d love to see that bibliography list and sources.
    5. Skin absorption is only one concern; environmental toxicity is another. How selfish are we?
    6. Roundness? The morphologies of nano materials are highly varied, and there have been very few electron micrographs shot of nano sunscreen oxides compared to the variety of production methods. Not to mention issues with quality control.
    7.Micronized materials, as in those that have been physically ground down to the micron range, are fractured and certainly rougher. Some manufacturers use non-nano, non-micronized (as in not physically ground into smaller sizes) particles that are still in the micron-sized range and are not inherently as ‘rough’ due to absence of fracturing. Fracturing also results in ‘fines’ (aka, nanoparticles, prior to the advent of the term) which often comprise a significant percentage of the total size distribution.
    8. Where does Keys SPF 30+ come from? That’s not FDA OTC marketing language for SPF… Rather hard to believe an ‘expert’ wouldn’t be following FDA OTC regulations???

  • http://www.natureofbeauty.com Terri Bly

    Thank you for the input, Erik. I have forwarded your comments to Mr. Root, who i am certain will have a reply. As soon as I hear back from him, I will post it.

  • http://www.natureofbeauty.com Terri Bly

    As I suspected, Mr. Root had a fairly comprehensive response to the comments made by Mr. Krieder in response to this article. I think I will likely post a more comprehensive version of his response on natureofbeautyblog.com, so please be on the look-out for that in the next couple days (I will have to do some editing and so forth to make it approachable to us without advanced degrees in chemistry. Here are Root’s replies to some of the questions raised in Krieder’s comments:

    2. The SPF testing (per the 1999 OTC monograph) we’ve done has demonstrated no SPF benefit was achieved from using nano vs. non-nano particle sizes 10-20x that of the nano material.

    Root: On the surface this is a correct statement. A thick coating of large opaque zinc oxide is as effective as a single thin layer of nano zinc oxide. The problem is that people do not want to look…white-faced… Cosmetic sunblocks are designed to wear alone or under makeup and not create a white or blueish cast. So, SPF value at the expense of transparency is not acceptable by women or men that want everyday protection. Transparency about the UV wavelength of 380 nanometers becomes a design criteria and is much more difficult to achieve as particle sizes get larger than 100 nanometers. Some people attempt to use minerals an metal oxides to cover the white cast, but these particles can and do interfere with UVA protection. The new FDA regulations deal with this and more.

    3. Chemical manufacturers leverage the ‘smaller is better’ mentality because it’s the ‘new’ stuff and commands a premium price based on this perception. It’s an intuitive theory, but based on our data, the benefit is non-existent practically.

    Root: We are not a chemical manufacturer. We purchase a pharmaceutical grade uncoated zinc oxide from the EU which costs three times as much as DOW Chemical ZinClear which I believe [your sunscreen manufacturing company) uses. Clearly at the early adopter phase of any technology is more expensive than when volume increases. We are paying half as much as we did four years ago and it is still 3X the price of ZinClear.

    4. I don’t quite fathom the author reporting that ‘not enough is known about nano’ (true) with the interviewee’s claim that there are 400 papers? 400? Online publications vs. peer reviewed? I’d love to see that bibliography list and sources.

    Root: Here is a presentation by Dr Nash from P&G at the Sun Protection Conference two years ago that has live hot links to a number of paper on the subject and a summary of the conclusions. http://www.keys-soap.com/ZnO_nano_studies.pdf. Further, the EWG put out a press release citing studies when they reversed their anti-nano position. This June, the new FDA Sunscreen regulations reaffirmed the safety of nano zinc oxide.

    5. Skin absorption is only one concern; environmental toxicity is another. How selfish are we?

    Root: First, your products use zinc oxide… I do believe that wearing any chemical or metal oxide swimming in the ocean is having a negative effect on the coral reefs et al. We do not make a water resistant sunscreen for this an many other reasons.

    6. Roundness? The morphologies of nano materials are highly varied, and there have been very few electron micrographs shot of nano sunscreen oxides compared to the variety of production methods. Not to mention issues with quality control.

    Root: The major reason we share a single EU supplier with a pharma company is consistent size, shape and quality of our nano zinc oxide. (the remainder of Root’s comments will be listed on the Nature of Beauty Blog and deals with the specifics of nano zinc used in Keys)

    8. Where does Keys SPF 30+ come from? That’s not FDA OTC marketing language for SPF… Rather hard to believe an ‘expert’ wouldn’t be following FDA OTC regulations???

    Root: The FDA has referred to SPF 30+ as the maximum designator for UVB protection under the old standards that were obsolteted on June 11, 2011 and take effect in 2012. The upper label limit of SPF 30+ has been in effect over 20 years and indicated that protection should not be overstated beyond the designation of SPF 30+. Over time, many companies violated this with extraordinary claims including SPF 100 with SPF 50 and SPF 50+ being more typical.

    The term is still in use and now listed as SPF 50+ by the new regulations. See http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm258416.htm . You will note the use of the term SPF 50+ as the new upper claim limit for labeling of broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection. Next year, you will see our labeling list SPF 50+. For now, SPF 30+ is the allowable maximum. We also include the Boots Star rating for the EU which covers both UVA and UVB. The current SPF rating does not cover UVA until 2012. Some people complain that the FDA using the same SPF nomenclature for the upcoming standards of broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection is confusing. We believe that the average public currently believes that SPF refers to total broad-spectrum protection, so the use of the term is directed to the manufacturers.

    Here is the direct cut and paste from the FDA document release June 11, 2011
    ________________________________________
    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to help protect consumers from skin damage caused by excessive sun exposure.
    The new measures include the following:
    • final regulations that establish standards for testing the effectiveness of sunscreen products and require labeling that accurately reflects test results
    • a proposed regulation that would limit the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labeling to “SPF 50+”
    • a data request for safety and effectiveness information for sunscreen products formulated in certain dosage forms (e.g., sprays)
    • a draft guidance for sunscreen manufacturers on how to test and label their products in light of these new measures.

    Finally, I would reframe from trying to create doubt in a person or company for the purpose of elevating one’s self, products or company. If you put your efforts to complying with the Compact for Safe Cosmetics and join in our efforts to help protect people you would find a very accepting marketplace where manufacturers market using features benefits and advantages to convince customers of their desire to serve while protecting them.

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