Is That Face Cream Safe?

Chantecaille PhotoAs nanomaterials become more common, the cosmetics aisle is at the forefront of new nano-infused consumer products. Sunscreens, wrinkle-fighters and even lip plumpers are using these super-small particles to attract customers.

A new study shows dermatologists—and their clients—aren’t yet up to speed when it comes to understanding what’s in those creams, lotions and treatments.

Dermatologists and researchers Adam Friedman and Adnan Nasir asked 100 of their peers a set of questions about nanotechnology; 23 responded. The results, while drawn from a small sample, offer a glimpse at what’s going on inside clinicians’ offices.

The paper was published last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

Just under half of the respondents said they were familiar with nanotechnology, and none said they were certain their patients understand it. While the vast majority said they see nano-based applications as promising for both the diagnosis of skin diseases and their treatment, they were less sure about the safety of these newfangled ingredients: 16 of the 23 respondents said they were uncertain about the general safety of consumer products.

The respondents also were supportive of the idea of regulation of nanotechnology for both consumer products and within the pharmaceutical industry, as well as the need for safety research.

Friedman, the director of dermatological research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the study shows the need for more information and education about nanomaterials for both patients and their doctors. He and Nasir are also preparing a much larger survey; both are leaders in the Nanodermatology Society, a generally pro-nano group that receives industry support.

More information is getting into the hands of clinicians, he said, but a lot more should be done.

“I think things are headed in the right direction, and I hope this very small pilot study can serve as the impetus,” Friedman said.

Nanotechnology leverages the often unique and amazing properties of materials at the atomic level (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Ultra-small, ultra-light carbon nanotubes can make airplane wings stronger; nanosilver is increasingly used as an integrated antimicrobial agent.

In cosmetics, the nano business is booming, in part because of the growth of so-called “mineral” sunscreens, which use super-small titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to give sun coverage that’s also transparent.

Friedman said nano-based applications are emerging on the pharmaceutical side of dermatology as well.

But shrinking these materials can change their properties, raising questions about their impact on people, animals and the environment. As toxicologists race to figure out what’s safe and what’s potentially dangerous, products continue to come on to the market.

Friedman said patients are asking their doctors, who often don’t have good information to give them. That’s a real problem, he said, for both sides.

The surveys were completed online, not in interviews, so respondents weren’t asked about their answers. But Friedman said his interactions with fellow doctors make him suspect that the uncertainty is more about not knowing anything about nanotechnology, rather than being wary of particular elements. He said when he gave a lecture on the basics of nanotechnology, he did a pre- and post-talk questionnaire, and found that his audience was much more positive after hearing him speak.

While Friedman, who acknowledges that he’s a strong booster of nanotechnology, he said the shift was about more than just his cheerleading.

“I think people just don’t know about it, and automatically assume it’s dangerous,” he said.

He pointed to some good sources of information—the National Nanotechnology Initiative, for one—but Friedman said it would be tremendously helpful to have a sort of clearinghouse for product information, so that both consumers and doctors can find out what they need. Also missing, he added, is much testing on the formulations that are out there, as academic researchers and government scientists tend to test particular substances, rather than, say, a nanogold cream.

That can be an important difference, since many commercial applications are combinations of nanomaterials, making it hard to predict long-term effects based on single-material research.

The respondents seemed interested in letting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as other agencies, decide what’s safe. Friedman said he’s less supportive of regulation but does think much more testing is needed.

“It is important to allay fears,” he said, “as well as warn patients as to what they should avoid.”

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