Skin Deeper: Nanotechnology and Cosmetics

Deeper, faster, further. As if there weren’t enough concerns about the toxicity of cosmetic chemicals, manufacturers are rushing to incorporate nanotechnology that uses particles 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanotechnology has been touted as the next revolution in cosmetics and packaging. However, nanoparticles, being so tiny, have the potential to penetrate unusually deeply into the skin and organs, causing exotic physical effects.

Animal studies show that some nanoparticles can penetrate cells and tissues, move through the body and brain and cause biochemical damage. As one example, carbon fullerenes–also called buckyballs, and currently being used in some moisturizers–can cause brain damage in fish, and even low levels of exposure can be toxic to human liver cells. The health impacts of nanomaterials in cosmetics and sunscreens remain largely unknown, pending completion of long-range studies that have only recently begun. But that’s not stopping the cosmetics industry from leading the charge to incorporate the inadequately tested technology into products we put on our faces and in our hair.

“In one of the most dramatic failures of regulation since the introduction of asbestos, corporations around the world are rapidly introducing thousands of tons of nanomaterials into the environment and onto the faces and hands of hundreds of millions of people, despite the growing body of evidence indicating that nanomaterials can be toxic for humans and the environment,” said a May 2006 report by Friends of the Earth. The group filed the first-ever legal challenge on the potential health impacts of nanotechnology in a 2006 petition to the FDA, demanding that the agency monitor and regulate nanoparticles in cosmetics.

Hundreds of personal care products already contain nano-sized ingredients, and thousands more contain ingredients that are available in nano form but don’t include information about particle size on the labels, according to a Skin Deep analysis. Since nano-sized ingredients are absorbed differently into the body, they require separate safety studies. But as Iane Houlihan noted, “Manufacturers seem to be following the pattern they established with conventional chemical ingredients–put poorly tested chemicals into personal care products and do the science later, if at all.”

With no safety framework and little government oversight, the cosmetics industry is operating in a virtual Wild West. And the West has gotten wilder still.

• Nanoemulsians in shampoo encapsulate active ingredients and carry them deeper into hair shafts.
• Nanosomes of Pro—Retinol A penetrate the skin’s surface to soften wrinkles and reduce the appearance of fine neck creases.
• Nanovectors transport and concentrate active ingredients in the skin.

In the absence of federal regulations, some cities are trying to get a handle on the situation. Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to regulate nanotechnology in December 2006, and other cities may follow suit. Under the Berkeley law, companies and research labs that make or use nanoparticles must disclose that fact to the city government and provide information about known health or safety risks.

Adapted from Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan (New Society Publishers, 2007).

Adapted from Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan (New Society Publishers, 2007).

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