Does natural really mean safer?

By Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Soil association, Science

The New Scientist has criticized the Soil Association's 'false,
unscientific distinctions' following its ban on man-made
nanoparticles appearing in health, beauty and food products.

Nanoparticles are appearing in an increasing number of personal care products, particularly sunscreens, although fears over the safety of the technology and calls for its regulation are widespread. Earlier this month the UK-based Soil Association announced a ban on man-made nanoparticles in its organically certified products that has attracted criticism from the New Scientist magazine. "There is no evidence that people who apply suncreams are putting themselves at risk, as the Soil Association implies, but there is still a great deal of research to be done"​ said Michael Bond in a New Scientist Editorial column. Bond notes that the health threats from many nanoparticles remain unknown and finds no fault in drawing attention to risks as and when they arise. However, for Bond the issue surrounds the belief that man made nanoparticles are more dangerous than their natural counterparts. "The Soil Association's concerns are related to man-made nanoparticles; we are not objecting to natural nanoparticles such as soot produced by volcanoes (life has evolved with these),"​ said the organisation on January 17, 2008. Bond replies: "Whether or not a nanoparticle is safe hasnothing to do with whether it is 'natural'."Just because they existed in the environment in which we evolved does not mean we are immune to their effects. It is fine to flag up risks as they arise, but not to use false, unscientific distinctions when pressing your case." ​ According to Bond this reflects a more general notion that a substance or process is more likely to be harmful if it is synthetic, which is common among environmental and health pressure groups. It is not just the interest groups that champion the cause. The cosmetics industry is fast catching on to the marketing potential that can be found in the concept of 'natural'. According to UK based market research company Organic Monitor, worldwide sales of natural and organic products are approaching $7bn, and predicted to rise to over $10bn by the end of the decade. Fear over toxic chemicals is certainly adding to the trend, heightened by a number of high profile scares such as the recent Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' report regarding lead in lipsticks. In the UK 89 per cent of buyers of natural personal care products stated that avoiding synthetic chemicals was important or very important to them, according to a study by Organic Monitor. The most avoided chemicals were parabens, widely used in personal care products as cheap, effective preservatives, according to the market research company. The use of nanotechnology in cosmetics products, particularly sunscreens and anti-aging formulations, has been increasing despite repeated calls for regulation from both scientists and interest groups. A recent research report from BCC Research has estimated that the global market for cosmetics using nanotechnology is currently valued at $62m and is forecast to grow annually by 16.6 percent reaching $155.8m by 2012.

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