Nanoparticles: The Good, The Bad and the UNKNOWN

NANO-WHO?! WHAT ARE NANOPARTICLES?

Nanoparticles (not to be confused with microbeads) are microscopic particles that are generally described as less than 100 nanometers in diameter, although some sources reference an upper limit of 200 nanometers.  This size boils down to about 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.  Nanotechology is the science of manipulating these microscopic particles.  According to the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), cosmetic manufacturers commonly use nanoscale versions of ingredients to provide better UV protection, deeper skin penetration, long-lasting effects and more intense color and/or finish.

WHICH PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS CONTAIN NANOPARTICLES?

  1. Hair Care: shampoo, conditioner, color treatment
  2. Makeup: foundation, concealer, blush, eyeshadow and mascara
  3. Skincare: moisturizers and anti-wrinkle creams
  4. Sunscreens: nanoparticles are commonly added to enhance skin penetration. 
  5. Aerosolized cosmetic products can result in exposure to nanomaterials via the respiratory tract. 

BENEFITS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY:

We see no need for nanoparticles in personal care products.  However, nanotechnology is beneficial in other industries.   It is being used to build smaller and more efficient batteries, fuel cells and solar cells.  They are even used to make materials stronger, such as bicycle helmets! In the healthcare industry, the technology could revolutionize the way we treat disease and tissue damage.  In addition to detection and targeted destruction of cancer cells, nanotechnology can be utilized to administer drugs more effectively, to absorb and remove toxins from the bloodstream and organs, and to detect levels of chemicals and nutrients in the body.

DANGERS OF NANOPARTICLES:

Unfortunately, some nanoparticles can be toxic to both humans and the environment. A particle that is nano-sized behaves differently than when it is regular-sized.  Per an article in MIT news, researchers have discovered that some nanomaterials (silver, zinc oxide, iron oxide, cerium oxide and silicon dioxide, or silica) can produce free radicals which can alter DNA and – when absorbed into the body – accumulate in tissues and cause damage.  Because they are microscopic, nanoparticles in skincare products can easily be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin, inhalation or ingestion. If not properly handled, nanoparticles can be released into the water, air and soil during manufacturing or disposal.

THE CONFUSION AND THE UNKOWN:

Some sunscreen manufacturers use nano Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide to enhance skin penetration in order to avoid a white cast.  Those that do not use nanotechnology typically label their products as NON-NANO.  The EWG has some conflicting information regarding nanoparticles in Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide sunscreens.  Although originally concerned about the use of nanoparticles in these active ingredients, their recent studies have found Zinc and Titanium Dioxide do NOT penetrate the skin regardless of size – nano or not!  However, EWG discourages the use of aerosolized products including sunscreen and loose powders because of the inhalation risk.

Despite on-going studies, it may be years before understanding how the use of certain nanoparticles in hundreds of consumer products is impacting human health, wildlife and the environment. This is because the properties of nanoparticles may vary depending on size, shape, surface area and coatings. According to Yale Environment 360, “Other questions about nanoparticles need to be answered: Who is at risk? Workers? People using nano-enabled products? Wildlife and ecosystems? How should we measure exposures?

HOW TO AVOID NANOPARTICLES IN SKINCARE PRODUCTS:

Unfortunately, there are no specific regulations in the U.S. regarding the safety of nanoparticles, so you may not be able to find information on product labels or company websites. If you wish to try and steer clear of nanos, follow these tips: 

  1. Avoid anything that promotes “nanotechnology” or “nanodelivery.” Opt for organic and natural products from brands with a strong reputation for consumer safety.
  2. Contact the manufacturer with any ingredient questions.
  3. Because particles can be dangerous to lungs when inhaled, avoid or limit use of LOOSE mineral makeup that MAY contain nanoparticles. Loose mineral makeup may also contain mica (not a nanoparticle) that can be harmful if inhaled.
  4. Avoid aerosol products including spray sunscreens.
  5. Look for Ecocert: As of 2011, Ecocert no longer permits manufacture of products with nanotechnology. If a product is certified by Ecocert, it is a good indicator it is NON-NANO.
  6. At The Choosy Chick, we seek NON-NANO cosmetic and sunscreen formulations manufactured by companies with a strong commitment to consumer safety.  One of our top brands, Badger, provides a thorough explanation of nanoparticles on their website. 

 Photo Credit: Vectorpot/Bigstock.com  

 

REFERENCES & SOURCES: 

FDA Final Guidances on Nanotechnology: http://www.fda.gov/ScienceResearch/SpecialTopics/Nanotechnology/ucm301093.htm
 “Nanotechnology in Cosmetics: Opportunities and Challenges” by Silpa Raj, Shoma Jose, U.S. Sumod and M. Sabitha, NCBI, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3425166/
 “Nanotechnology: Potential Pros and Cons for Humanity by PL Chang,” Conscious Life News, April 24, 2014, http://consciouslifenews.com/nanotechnology-potential-pros-cons-humanity/1172870/
 “Tiny Particles May Pose Big Risk” by Anne Trafton, MIT News, April 8, 2014, http://news.mit.edu/2014/tiny-particles-may-pose-big-risk
 “What are Nonoparticles?” by Dr. Ananya Manda, M.D., News Medical, http://www.news-medical.net/life-sciences/What-are-Nanoparticles.aspx
 “Nano-materials: prevalence in personal care products” EWG http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2007/08/25/hundreds-of-personal-care-products-contain-poorly-studied-nano-materials/
 “Nanoparticles in Sunscreens” EWG
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/nanoparticles-in-sunscreen/