Q Can you investigate what nanoparticles in cosmetic products might be doing to our health? Should we avoid using them and, if so, why? - RW, via e-mail
A Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve working with matter on an ultraminiscule scale. One nanometre (nm) is one-millionth of a millimetre, and a single human hair is around 80,000-nm thick. Anything that is less than 100 nm in diameter is considered 'nano'. Found widely in the natural world, they are now being produced for use in industry, medicine and cosmetics.
Companies such as L'Or'eal and Clinique use nanotechnology to improve products and create new ones. Shampoos and skin creams with organic nanoparticles (to penetrate deeper into the hair and skin) are already on the market (Wood S et al., The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology, Economic and Social Research Council report, 2003). Iron oxide is also used as the base in some products such as lipsticks (The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering Report on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, July, 2004), and products like Agera Rx are cosmetics used in private clinics throughout Britain to smooth out the skin by delivering molecules that are absorbed fully into the body.
Some preliminary scientific research underpins the virtues of nanotechnology, particularly in products with remedial uses - for instance:
* retinoids (vitamin A) rebuild collagen and can result in lasting improvement, even after treatment is discontinued (JAMA, 1998; 279: 1595-6)
* solid lipid nanoparticle (SLN)-enriched cosmetic creams have proved to be significantly more effective at hydrating skin than normal creams (Eur J Pharm Biopharm, 2003; 56: 67-72).
Nevertheless, the safety issue remains an open question, largely because of the unregulated nature of the industry. Currently, neither the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) requires cosmetics manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are either safe or effective. What we do know is that nanoparticles may pose some risk and that chemicals that can penetrate deeper into the body may be more dangerous.
Some of the biggest concerns centre around the issues of:
* increased exposure via the skin, as these particles may more readily penetrate the protective layers of the skin than ordinary preparations do (Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, July, 2004; op cit)
* evidence that chemicals as nanoparticles are more toxic than the same chemical in its larger form because of the additional increase in surface area with nanoparticles. The Royal Society thus recommends that long-term toxicity to skin be investigated, case by case, and that nanoparticles be treated as a separate chemical entity (distinct from its larger form). But it isn't insisting on full testing or disclosure (Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, July, 2004; ibid)
* the possibility that nanoparticles could enter the bloodstream or vital organs (Smith J, Wakeford T, The Ecologist, 22 May 2003)
* assumptions that a product with nanoparticles will act the same as it would without them - for example, zinc oxide nanoparticles
* insufficient evidence about many of the products - for instance, nanoparticles of titanium dioxide in sunscreens do not penetrate the skin, but we have no idea what zinc oxide nanoparticles (also used in sunscreens) do (Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, July, 2004; op cit)
* the long-term effects of human exposure to nanoparticles via skin preparations (Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, July, 2004; ibid).
The biggest problem of all is that the results of tests on these nanoparticles by cosmetic companies is being kept secret from the public. Although the data have been submitted to the EU Scientific Community for Cosmetics and Non-Food Products (SCCNFP), a regulatory agency, they have not been made available to the public. Without this information, it is impossible for consumers to make an informed decision as to whether or not to use any products using nanoparticles. This gives the cosmetics manufacturers a more or less free rein to include these substances in their products without telling the public of any risks.
Woodford Medical, a chain of skincare clinics in the UK, uses a product that deeply penetrates the skin via the use of nanoparticles. As Dr Mervin Pattison, one of their clinicians, says: "We are moving into an area where skincare is actually doing something to the skin. It is a grey area where the cosmetics industry ends and the pharmaceutical industry takes over."
It's hard to assess the true safety of nano-cosmetics in such a secretive and permissive climate, and with such a lack of evidence. So, it may be prudent to take a more conservative line and avoid products that advertise nanoparticles. However, although L'Or'eal and Est'ee Lauder are known to use them, these global companies own brands that may or may not also use the technology. For example, Vichy, Helena Rubinstein, Biotherm, Cacharel, Lanc^ome, Giorgio Armani Fragrances, Ralph Lauren Parfums, Maybelline, Shu Uemura and Kerastase belong to L'Or'eal, and Est'ee Lauder has Aramis, Clinique, Prescriptives, Origins, La Mer, Bobbi Brown, Stila and MAC. (For more information about healthy alternatives to cosmetics, see Your Healthy House: The WDDTY Guide to Natural Living, which includes information on toxic toiletries).