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June 26th, 2010
Tiny particles in sunscreens could be toxic to cells in the gut if they are accidentally eaten, researchers have shown. They say that nano-particles of zinc oxide may be more likely to cause harm than conventional zinc oxide.
Nano-particles, very tiny particles barely 1/50,000 the breadth of a human hair, are used in many products including cosmetics and sunscreens. But there has been concern about how safe they are, because they can act differently to larger particles of the same substance.
Zinc oxide is a common ingredient of sunscreens because it can block the sun's rays. But traditional zinc-based creams tend to leave white residue on the skin, which some people find unsightly. Nano-particles of zinc oxide don't leave a residue, so creams containing nano-particles have become a popular alternative.
The question is whether the tiny particles can cause any harm. Zinc is known to cause damage to the lungs if it's inhaled as dust. Some doctors worry about what could happen if children accidentally eat sunscreens containing nano-particles of zinc.
New research has looked to see what happens to cells from the human gut if they come into contact with zinc oxide nano-particles. The research was carried out using cells grown in the laboratory, so it's not a direct test of what might happen if the substance is eaten.
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