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According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which is run by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, nearly 400 products on the market claim to use nanotechnology, and 64 of those are cosmetics. And yet no one in the federal government is responsible for overseeing the safety of nanotechnology. “People are miniaturizing the particles, nanosizing them,” says Andrew Maynard, science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson project, but he says that companies don’t necessarily recognize the risks associated with the unique properties of nanoparticles.

That nanoparticles have unique properties is, of course, exactly the point of using them. When particles of some materials become extremely small, they can exhibit unusual–and interesting–physical and chemical characteristics. Gold nanoparticles, for example, are red and are much more reactive than larger chunks of the metal. Nanoparticle versions of some ingredients used in cosmetics are more stable, improve product texture, and are absorbed better.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which have been used for decades in sunscreens, are two examples of substances that benefit from nano­technology. Normally, each material forms a thick whitish coating, but nanosizing their particles makes them translucent–and, naturally, more popular among consumers. Some cosmetics companies use other nanoparticles, such as the 60-carbon soccer-ball-shaped molecules known as fullerenes or buckyballs. Zelens, a company based in London, England, claims that fullerenes in its skin cream help to suck up free radicals and slow aging.

But here’s the rub: though some nanomaterials clearly have advantages, such materials might also pose risks. Will the smaller particles penetrate the skin? Can they clog airways and trigger immune responses? Will they lodge in the body’s tissues, including the brain?

The simple answer is that no one knows. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies have research programs in place that may eventually answer some questions about the toxicity and environmental impact of nanoparticles. But such research will take time and a great deal more money. Through the federal government’s National Nano­technology Initiative, the United States has spent an estimated $6.5 billion on various types of nanotechnology research, but only 4 percent of last year’s budget went to assessing potential risks. In the meantime, the best the FDA can do is to say it has “no evidence at present to suggest that any of the materials currently in use pose a major safety concern.”

Nano Mysteries

Unlike pharmaceuticals, cosmetics don’t have to pass safety tests before they are sold. Cosmetics companies are free to sell their products without such testing–at least until a problem crops up. And so far, nanoparticles used in cosmetics seem to have a clean record.

John Bailey, executive vice president for science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, an industry trade group in Washington, DC, points out that sunscreens using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles have been used “safely and effectively by consumers for decades” and have been reviewed and approved by the FDA. But whether that record of safety can be extrapolated to other nanoparticles in other types of cosmetics is less certain. The danger is that conventional safety tests for cosmetics and other products might not pick up the special risks nanoparticles pose.

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Credit: Juliette Borda

Tagged: Biomedicine

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