The luxury makeup company Chantecaille hawks 1.7 ounce pots of high-tech sounding “Nano Gold Energizing Cream” for $420. Other cosmetics companies avoid references to nanotechnology like a dead rat on the samples counter.
For cosmetics companies these days, nanotechnology can be a selling point or a radioactive taboo. But they’re at liberty to say as much or as little as they want about their use of this science. If one U.S. senator has his way, regulators will be better equipped to determine whether that facial cream, sunscreen or foundation contains “nanoparticles” – and whether it presents a hazard to the public.
Nanotechnology, manipulating material at the atomic level, promises huge breakthroughs in fields from computing to medicine to renewable energy. But environmental and consumer advocates warn that not enough is known enough about the consequences of enhancing products with ultra-tiny particles.
With lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic seeking transparency, the cosmetics industry, which relies heavily on nanotech, illustrates how this invisible science defies attempts at scrutiny and definition.
On Jan. 21 U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas sponsored a bill that would establish a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program for assessing nanotechnology, allocating $125 million over five years. While nanotech contributes to many FDA regulated products, the agency has not developed its own formal definition of the term.
The cosmetics industry has more faith in its ability to police itself.
“Nanospheres are an ideal vehicle for delivering an active ingredient to a target site in the skin. And there’s no data showing an adverse affect in cosmetics,” said Dr. Art Rich, a chemist and consultant to personal care companies. “I think that the benefits that target particular skin care and cosmetic conditions outweigh the risks at this point.”
An Old Story, With New Risks
Risk is familiar territory in the world of beauty. For millennia, the pursuit of fashion has compelled people to anoint themselves with toxic substances whether or not they knew the danger. In ancient Rome women applied a skin paint containing lead. Lead-based kohl is still worn as eyeshadow in parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Sunscreen is probably the best known use of nanoparticles in cosmetics. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) fend off ultraviolent rays without leaving that caky layer once flaunted by white-beaked lifeguards. Nano-sized titanium dioxide has been an active ingredient in sunscreen for decades without evidence of causing health problems. But the International Agency for Research on Cancer considers TiO2 possibly carcinogenic in humans based on inhalation studies in animals.
The concern about TiO2 and other nanoparticles is that they’re small enough to go where they’re not supposed to, through the skin, into the bloodstream, into lungs and cells and points beyond. The body may not have a way to purge anything so miniscule.
“If I were a nanoparticle, a red blood cell would be 4.5 miles long,” said Ian Illuminato of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
“There are really so many questions to be answered,” Illuminato said. Meanwhile, he argued, nanotech is “being used in a silly way, to make tennis rackets lighter, to make sunscreen clear, to make cosmetics more appealing.”
The FDA does not have any special requirements for products incorporating nanotechnology. It doesn’t have to sign off on new cosmetics either. The agency must grant pre-market approval to pharmaceuticals and manufacturers of certain new dietary supplements must alert the FDA before they hit shelves.
In Europe, sentiment leans more towards the precautionary principle – the idea that what you don’t know can hurt you. A new regulation, decided in November, will require cosmetics there to feature the label “[nano]” next to any ingredient present in nano size. Even so, a meaningful definition of nanomaterials remains elusive.
The entire universe is comprised of nano-sized particles. That doesn’t help consumers decide what to put on their bodies.
An Elusive Definition
The Euro-labeling definition says nanomaterial is “an insoluble or biopersistant and intentionally manufactured material with one or more external dimensions, or an internal structure, on the scale from 1 to 100 nm.” (One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A piece of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.)
Even so nanoproducts resist categorization. Nano TiO2 tends to clump together in clusters exceeding 100 nanometers. Does that mean they’re not nanoparticles?
It’s not just a question of size. Nano-sized bubbles called liposomes and nanosomes are commonly used in cosmetics to deliver active ingredients. But Dr. John Bailey, chief scientist of the makeup lobby Personal Care Products Council said those bubbles don’t meet the European definition of a nanomaterial. “They’ve been around forever. They’re more molecular than actually constructed to do a certain thing.”
Bailey called the European labeling requirement “a little bit redundant” since companies already have to disclose their ingredients. “If you have a new ingredient that you’re going to use like fullerenes, also known as buckyballs, then you actually have to say fullerene in your ingredient declaration.” (To save you a Google: a fullerene is a carbon nanoparticle resembling a soccer ball.)
It’s possible to have a problem with labeling even if you’re not speaking for the cosmetics business.
“If you warn about everything, you warn about nothing” said Ralph Hall, distinguished professor and practitioner of law at the University of Minnesota and an expert on FDA regulation. If a company has a real concern about a product the best way to hide it is to “warn about it in a label with 43 other things.”
Even so Hall isn’t convinced that current regulations are adequate. When it comes to safety concerns about nanoparticles “We don’t have confidence that we know the questions to ask.”
Cosmetics companies blur the meaning of nanotech as well.
“L’Oréal only uses nanoemulsions and nanopigments in the formulation of some of its cosmetics products,” a spokeswoman for the makeup giant stated in an email message. “Nanoemulsions are common in nature. For example milk is a nanoemulsion.”
In 2007 Friends of the Earth, which favors a moratorium on nanotech products until the science is better understood, put out a “green list” of sunscreens which claimed not to use nanotech. Of those companies listed, most declined to reconfirm to this reporter that they continue to avoid nanoparticles. Others admitted that they do in fact incorporate the technology.
A few treated the question like kryptonite.
When first contacted, one company initially responded, “Allergan does not make topical cosmetic products that women apply to their faces.“The company’s brands include several high end lines with products like VIVITÉ Daily Facial Cleanser.
On the other hand, plenty of companies think nanotech can make them look sophisticated or cutting edge. And with so little regulation, most probably won’t get caught for claiming the nano mantle even if it’s not true. “If someone’s using something that’s 500 nanometers in size and they’re calling it nanotech they could be challenged,” Rich, the chemist, suggested. But he’s never heard of anything like that happening.
The Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars maintains a database of nanotech products available in the U.S.
Among the many sunscreens and lotions listed in the cosmetics section, a few products sounded as if they emerged from Willy Wonka’s tinctures and unguent factory. The database lists Dr. Gunderson’s Nano Copper Facial Spray, “Eyewish! Bioserum”, the GreenYarn G-moist soft cloth mask containing “nano-particles of bamboo charcoal,” Nano Breast Cream by a Thai company called St. Herb, nano-Mascara, Pureology Nano Glaze [hair] Styling Cream, Sircuit Skin Cosmeceuticals’s O.M.G. Serum and its White Out eye-area spray. Nanotechnology also turns up in a product called the Susie-K Whitening Mask, “99.99% Pure Nano Silver, Aloe Vera, Phyto-Collagen & Arbutin.”
Since there are no laws about disclosing the use of elements in products, the database’s criteria for including a product is whether the manufacturer says it uses nanotech. Dr. Todd Kuiken, a research associate at the center, said some of the products might not use nanotech. “They’re just using it as a marketing tool.”