Nanotechnology run amok is a popular “end of the world” scenario in science fiction; but the day when it will be common place in everyday products has already arrived. Substances that contain nanoparticles are used to create protective, easily cleaned coatings on construction materials such as glass, concrete and metal. High performance fabrics, adhesives, medical products, computer components, and hundreds of other items that are advertised as nanotechnology based are readily available to consumers.
What About Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?
Currently, not all manufacturers are ready to jump on the bandwagon with nanotechnology. In 2009, the International Risk Governance Council in Geneva released a policy brief cautioning industry leaders in the food and cosmetic industries against using nano-scaled particles in their products without more research into the possible effects. The IRGC is an advisory body with no authority to make or enforce laws regarding the appropriate use of new technologies.
However, in an unusual display of restraint, the cosmetic and skin care industry actually appears to be taking this advice seriously. Although new nano ideas for personal care products are being patented right and left, only a few items such as sunscreen are currently on the market. Many manufacturers are holding off on releasing products while the FDA investigates. At this time, it is unclear how long it might take for the FDA to come to any conclusion. Lack of adequate government funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is blamed by some stakeholders for the lack of comprehensive research into potential risks.
Why Are Nanoparticles Controversial?
Unlike the typical micrometer sized particles used in cosmetics and other skin care products, nano-particles are tiny enough that they penetrate the skin much more readily. Ironically, companies that claim their current products deliver vitamins, anti-oxidants, and other anti-aging components deep into the skin to stimulate a beneficial effect are taking a step back from using nanotechnology that might actually make this possible.
Particles in the nanometer range behave in different ways than micrometer sized particles. The effects can be unpredictable. Nanoparticles of some substances may be absorbed into the tissue and even into the bloodstream through the skin. This increase in the effectiveness of delivery may greatly alter the impact of ingredients that are usually thought of as fairly inert when used in traditional skin care products. Active ingredients may also become many times more potent, creating an increased potential for unforeseen side effects.
There is too much money to be made from nanotech for manufacturers to wait much longer to start releasing products. However, hopefully before the first really big wave of nanotech cosmetics and skin creams hits the market there will be some regulation in place to safeguard consumers from catastrophe.