Beware personal care products that tout use of nanoparticles, nanomaterials or nanotechnology. This emerging technology is almost entirely untested for its health effects, and no requirements exist for either testing or labeling these products to make sure consumers are both safe and informed. That means that you might be getting a dose of nano without even knowing it.
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials and the creation of structures and systems that exist at the scale of atoms and molecules. This is seriously tiny stuff: a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter.
Because of their size, the properties of nanoscale materials (measuring <100 nm) differ significantly from larger scales of the same materials, introducing new and potentially heightened risks of toxicity that remain poorly understood. For example, nano-sized titanium dioxide, often used in sunscreens, may have completely different UV-blocking properties and health effects than conventional titanium dioxide particles (also used in sunscreens).
Research by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics founding partner Friends of the Earth suggests that nanoparticles have entered just about every personal care product on the market, including deodorant, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, hair conditioner, sunscreen, anti-wrinkle cream, moisturizer, foundation, face powder, lipstick, blush, eye shadow, nail polish, perfume and after-shave lotion.
Preliminary scientific research has shown that many types of nanoparticles can be toxic to human tissue and cell cultures, resulting in increased oxidative stress, inflammatory cytokine production, DNA mutation and even cell death. They can penetrate cell walls, including organ tissues, and are known to be highly reactive.
One emerging finding is particularly ominous: researchers using animal models have found that, when inhaled, carbon nanotubes may cause the same type of cancer linked to asbestos: mesothelioma. That's cause for grave concern among workers who manufacture products containing carbon nanotubes, and cause for unknown concern for consumers and the environment.
No government in the world regulates nanoparticles, but the European Union has at least begun to take action to better understand the risks posed by nanomaterials in cosmetics and personal care products: The EU's Scientific Committee on Consumer Products advised in March 2008 that a review of the safety of nanotechnology is necessary, and current approaches to assess the potential risks of nanomaterials in cosmetics, including sunscreens, are inadequate.
What You Can Do
Avoid personal care products that advertise use of nanotechnology or nano ingredients. Because no labeling laws exist for nanotechnology in any type of consumer product anywhere in the world, nanotech may be difficult to avoid completely. One thing you can do: contact the customer service department of cosmetics companies whose products you use, and ask if they use nanotech. If so, let them know that you won't be buying their products until they remove the nanoparticles.
Nano-Sunscreens: Not Worth the Risk (Friends of the Earth, Aug. 2009)
Nano and biocidal silver (Friends of the Earth, June 2009)
Nanomaterials, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small ingredients, Big Risks (Friends of the Earth)
Nanotechnology and Sunscreens: A Consumer Guide for Avoiding Nano-sunscreens (Friends of the Earth)
Fact sheet: Nanoparticles in suncreens and cosmetics (Friends of the Earth)
Research: Study Says Carbon Nanotubes as Dangerous as Asbestos (Scientific American)
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Position Statement: Nanotechnology