There is a lot of (misinformed) hype around mineral sunscreens, especially when it comes to particle sizes of ingredients and what absorbs into the human body. The title non-nano is often claimed by companies looking to differentiate themselves in the market, claiming that they are better for the environment and our health but in reality, what is non-nano sunscreen and what does this even mean?
Read on as we cut through the buzzwords and help you get to know your nanos from your non-nanos. We’ll tell you what to look out for, helping you to choose the right sunscreen for you and your family
What does nano mean?
OK so this is going to get a little technical but stick with us. Products containing nanoparticles (sometimes referred to as micronized particles) are based on the measurement of nanometers. The nanometre is a unit of length in the metric system, equal to one billionth of a metre. To give you an idea of how tiny a nanometer is, the average human hair is 80,000 - 100,000 nanometers wide.
The Consumer Products Inventory has listed over 1600 cosmetics products available today containing nanoparticles including toothpastes, moisturisers and shampoos. Up to now, however, it is mostly the sunscreen industry that has given focus to the use of ‘non-nano’ in its formulas and marketing.
What is non-nano sunscreen?
To be classed as non-nano sunscreen, the particles of the active ingredients in the formula must be larger than 100 nanometers, about the length your fingernail grows in 100 seconds.
To reflect the harmful UVA/UVB rays of the sun, mineral sunscreens contain particles from two active ingredients (also known as filters) - Zinc Oxide and Titanium dioxide.
It has been found that smaller particles provide better protection against UVB radiation, whilst bigger particles provide better protection against UVA. So, finding the right balance is key whilst formulating the perfect sunscreen.
Until fairly recently mineral formulas have had a bad reputation for being chalky and appearing white on the skin (often known as a white cast), made famous by surfers and cricketers with their white or neon-coloured noses and lips. This was because of large (non-nano) particles of zinc oxide and although it provided effective protection it was not a suitable or appealing choice for general sun protection.
Nano vs non-nano
Nano sunscreens were developed In the 80s when manufacturers began to innovate and develop more refined sunscreen filters by breaking them down into very fine (nano) particles. They also began to coat the particles to make them less reactive (more stable) and mix well with other ingredients. Over time these processes have produced lighter, more invisible formulas.
Some believe that particles less than 100 nanometers (nanoparticles) have a higher absorption rate into the skin, and in large quantities pose a health risk to humans. However, in the case of zinc oxide and titanium oxide, there is little evidence to support this.
There are concerns that if inhaled in large doses, nanoparticles in powder form can cause lung damage, prompting the European Safety Agency to disallow products containing nanoparticle zinc oxide and titanium oxide. This is why mineral sunscreens cannot be sold as aerosol sprays.
Using the term non-nano is another way for sunscreen companies to differentiate themselves from the competition, this doesn’t mean, however, that the alternative (nano) is bad. In fact, at this time if you buy sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide filters you can assume that the formula likely contains nanoparticles unless stated otherwise.
So are nano sunscreens bad?
In short, no. Nano sunscreens are not bad. The non-profit organisation Environmental Working Group (EWG) stated that companies who claim to sell non-nano sunscreens are misleading as “nearly all would be considered nanomaterials under a broad definition of the term”. For this reason, Palm & Pine will never claim to be a non-nano sunscreen as this term is not regulated and at best is a marketing statement when used.
Several studies have also shown that nanoparticle zinc oxide and titanium oxide do not penetrate the skin, even if skin is damaged and when used in a sunscreen products do not pose a health risk to humans.
Current research shows the use of both nano and non-nano mineral sunscreen filters are perfectly safe and have proven to provide the highest standard of UVA/UVB sun protection whilst posing fewer safety concerns than organic (chemical-based) sunscreen filters currently available.
Which sunscreen should you choose?
With sunscreens, the rule is always, something is better than nothing. We recommend where possible, to choose a mineral sunscreen over the traditional sunscreens you see in the supermarket.
Mineral sunscreen formulas have vastly improved in recent years and continue to do so. So whether they state that they are non-nano or not, using nano mineral filters will not cause harm to your body and they have been proven to be better than their chemical counterparts for the skin.
Pick a formula that suits your daily needs whether that is a leisurely walk through your city, a day at the beach, or catching some waves. When choosing a sunscreen, think about the ingredients but also the packaging. What will happen when it’s finished? Can it be recycled? Will you recycle it? We have a responsibility now to consider not only what we put onto our skin but what we put into the environment, too. Where possible choose plastic-free and think about protecting your skin and your world.