ACCC fails to tackle misleading conduct in sunscreen industry

Louise Sales

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

a year after Friends of the Earth Australia submitted complaints to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) accusing the sunscreen ingredient manufacturers Antaria and Ross Cosmetics of misleading conduct, the Commission has confirmed that it intends to take no action. This is despite clear evidence that the companies misled both major sunscreen brands and consumers. Both companies had data that confirmed their products were nanomaterials, yet they claimed they were 'non-nano' or 'nanoparticle-free' in marketing materials and in statements to sunscreen brands and the public.

In a letter to Friends of the Earth, the ACCC attempted to justify its failure to take action by claiming "there is no credible evidence that sunscreens containing nanoparticles pose a health risk". However the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) recently recommended that certain nano titanium dioxide ingredients not be used in sunscreen because they strongly react with sunlight to produce free radicals. The head of CSIRO's Nanosafety division has warned that in a worst-case scenario, nano-ingredients in sunscreens could increase the risk of skin cancer (tinyurl.com/nano-abc). The SCCS also recommends that nano titanium dioxide and nano zinc oxide not be used in powder or sprayable products because of the toxicity risk associated with inhalation.

Some of Australia's biggest sunscreen brands were affected by Antaria and Ross's misleading claims, including products such as Cancer Council Classic, Invisible Zinc Junior and Body sunscreens, Coles Sports and Woolworths Clear Zinc. The complaint against Antaria was supported by range of groups including the Public Health Association, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

More worryingly, it appears that Antaria and Ross Cosmetics' misleading claims were just the tip of the iceberg. Testing by the Government's National Measurement Institute commissioned by Friends of the Earth last year has revealed that a number of other sunscreen brands that claim to be non-nano actually contain nanomaterials. These include Banana Boat Mineral Protect, Cancer Council Kids, Key Sun White Zinke, Coco Island White Zinc Cream, MiEssence Reflect Outdoor Balm and Soleo Organics. That's not to say that we think all of these brands have been deliberately misleading consumers − it appears that a number of them have been misled by ingredient manufacturers.

It would seem that sunscreen ingredients manufacturers can't be trusted to provide meaningful information about the ingredients they are selling. This clearly demonstrates the need for the regulation of nano-ingredients in sunscreen. This scandal would never have happened if Australia regulated the use of nano-ingredients in sunscreens and ensured accurate labelling.

European regulation requiring the safety testing and labelling of nano-ingredients in sunscreens came into force in July 2013 and New Zealand will require labelling from 2015. While the European scheme is not perfect, at least regulators there are attempting to assess the risks posed by nanomaterials and to protect consumer choice. In Australia the use of nano-ingredients in sunscreen and cosmetics remains unregulated.

The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration which regulates sunscreen products has so far rejected calls from the Cancer Council, the peak cosmetics industry body ACCORD, the peak consumers group Choice, health experts, unions, and community organisations for the mandatory labelling of nano-ingredients in sunscreens.

Dermatologists and skin experts warn that people potentially most at risk from the use of nano-ingredients in sunscreen are those with thin or damaged skin, or people who wear sunscreen regularly. Labelling is needed to ensure that these people can avoid nano-ingredients in sunscreen if they want to.

It's a sad indictment of our regulators that Europe is leading the way when it comes to regulating nano-ingredients in sunscreen, when Australia is the place where sun is such a fierce presence in everyone's life. Australians should have the same right to know what is in the products they buy as Europeans.

Take Action:

Contact the Minister for Health and demand the labelling and safety testing of nano-ingredients in sunscreen:

Hon Peter Dutton MP

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600

Ph: (02) 6277 7220

Email: Peter.Dutton.MP@aph.gov.au