The following article appears in the March/April 2007 issue of Technology Review.
There’s a lovely jar of night cream that’s been sitting on my dresser for a month. According to the salesperson who spent a half-hour on the phone with me extolling its virtues, the cream will dig up the gunk that’s clogging my pores, soak up excess oil, and “teach” my cells to make less of it.
Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Too bad I’m too scared to use it.
The cream, which cost me $163 for half an ounce, is made by New York City-based Bionova. The company’s website makes much of its “nano tech platform,” and explanations of its products feature incomprehensible phrases such as “restoration of the malfunctioning biological information transfer.” But details in plain English of how any of this would actually work are sketchy. And the saleswoman’s explanation was similarly cryptic. The cream, she informed me, has various “nano complexes” in an exact ratio that is customized for my age, my gender, and my face’s precise degree of oiliness–information gleaned from a number of probing questions she asked me.
How, I asked, did I know these tiny particles weren’t going to creep under my skin and wreak havoc with my body? No, she assured me, the cream uses chemicals of a regular size, just in nano amounts. “See the difference?”
Not really. Scientists have for decades been doing experiments using chemicals in nanomolar quantities, which simply means that they’re extraordinarily dilute. So how was Bionova’s product special? Alexander Sepper, Bionova’s vice president for research and development, at first echoed the sales rep’s statements. “Our nanotech slightly differs from the nanotech that’s made by most companies,” he said. “We are not talking about nanoparticles but about nano quantities.”
I still didn’t understand how the product could be called nanotech if it didn’t actually use nano-sized particles. Sepper seemed to agree.
“You know, I should be honest with you. In the beginning, we called them simply biocomplexes,” he said. “When nanotech came and everyone started to claim nanotech, nanotech, nanotech, of course the marketing people came to us and demanded that we have to accommodate the present situation. My understanding as a scientist is it’s more marketing than science.” According to Sepper, revenues from the product, which is sold in upscale stores such as Barneys, went up when Bionova began calling it nanotech. But when I pushed him a bit on the use of the word in marketing the cream, he quickly backtracked. “When I said we are using nano quantities, I thought you already knew that we are using nanoparticles. We are using nano quantities of the nanoparticles.”
Confused yet? So was I. And so, it seems, is nearly everyone involved in the marketing of nanotech-based products. The fact is, Bionova is not an exception. Cosmetics are among the first consumer products to make use of nanotechnology–or at least to tout its benefits–but nobody, it appears, has a handle on exactly what is in these products, or how those mystery ingredients might affect people’s health.
“You’ve got this situation where people are putting chemicals on the skin when we know very little about [nanotechnology’s] safety,” says Sally Tinkle of the North Carolina-based National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health.