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Nanoparticles pose mega questions in cosmetics

Chris O'Brien

March 31, 2009

8 Min Read
Nanoparticles pose mega questions in cosmetics

Nanoparticles are no small matter when it comes to cosmetics and consumer safety. Some say this technology will help bring better and more effective products to the market while others warn of the unknown long-term effects of these particles.

Should we be worried? First yes, then no, now maybe. In 2006 the Environmental Working Group sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration citing concerns that “the cosmetics industry uses nanoscale ingredients routinely, even though exposures and potential risks are poorly understood.” Further, they recommended warning labels on nano-containing products, saying that until safety is better understood, consumers need to know what’s inside.

But this year, after a massive review of nearly 400 studies, “we find ourselves drawing a different conclusion, and recommending some sunscreens that may contain nano-sized ingredients,” the EWG says.

“The EWG reviewed 16 different peer-reviewed studies on nanoparticles and skin absorption with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and found no absorption into the skin,” says Paul Halter, product development lead for Boulder, Colo.-based manufacturer Goddess Garden. “This is consistent with the scientific evidence I have reviewed.”

Sizing it up
Nanoparticles are miniscule particles, many unable to be seen even under a microscope. They are measured in nanometers—billionths of a meter. Nanoparticles are defined as particles measuring less than 100 nanometers. The next step up is micronized particles, usually between 100 and 200 nanometers and thought to be safer, although the size threshold of risk hasn’t been determined.

The most common nanoparticles used in cosmetics are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, primarily in sunscreens. While titanium dioxide has been used since 1990 and zinc oxide since 1999, the transformation of these ingredients into the nano field has made some uncomfortable, particularly because their small size may allow nanoparticles to migrate through skin, membranes and different parts of the body.

The risks
“Nanotechnology is basically a new wave of engineering,” says Ian Illuminato, health and environment campaigner at Friends of the Earth, whose U.S. headquarters are in Washington, D.C. “And while there are not many studies out yet, we do have some premier folks in the scientific community who are raising red flags.”

Illuminato says that when materials are engineered down to the nano scale, their shape, bioavailability, reaction to light and other substances all change and present a host of unknowns for the human body.

“For example, what we do know is that titanium dioxide itself is known as a probable carcinogen and that at the nano scale it has properties that can cause free radical damage,” Illuminato says.

“I have also heard of nanosilver used as an antimicrobial in cosmetics,” Illuminato says. “This stuff might kill all the germs on your skin but there is a big question of safety. Animals studies are showing silver toxicity consequences like liver disease and in-vitro studies have shown that nanosilver can damage DNA and mutate cells.”

In addition to the zincs and titaniums, other nanoingredients are used in personal care. For example, Dermazon’s Sunwise products include nanosomes, just bigger than a nanoparticle at 125 to 150 nanometers, but touted by the company as being able to penetrate the skin and provide moisturizing benefits without being absorbed by other organs. Similar ingredients are found in Lancome’s lipsticks and creams, Osmotics Cosmeceuticals’ Lipoduction Body Perfecting Complex, Sircuit Cosmeceuticals’ White Out eye cream and a host of other products. The non-profit Consumer Reports recently tested eight mineral sunscreens and detected nanoparticles in each one, even if they were not labeled.

In February, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products recommended a case-by-case risk assessment of all nanoparticles used in cosmetics and says in its report that nanoparticles should be treated as new chemicals from a risk point of view.

The committee was also concerned about accumulation of nanoparticles in organs in the body and says that the current in-vitro methods for testing permeability may not be sufficient. They said new methodologies for establishing safety were urgently needed.

A little hype
While the arguments surrounding risk might be compelling, other players in the industry aren’t so concerned.

“I think there are some groups that have felt the need to tell a story that isn’t accurate by saying there are all these nanoingredients in products today,” says Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association. “We have always supported the [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act] provision and regulations and this area is no exception. There was a meeting [with the FDA] last year and that pretty much clarified that the use of nanoparticles would need to be covered under [new dietary ingredient regulations] just like any other ingredient.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation about nanoparticles,” says Carl Geffken, vice president of the Palatine, Ill.-based trade association Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors and chairman of its technical, regulatory and legislative committee. “What is evident, from my understanding, is that nanoparticles in cosmetics—for example those used in sunscreens—while extremely small in raw material state, cease to be discrete, small particles once they are blended with other ingredients. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide become part of an emulsion and don’t get absorbed into the layers of the skin.”

“There are probably fewer than a dozen different types of nanoparticles used in the cosmetic industry,” Geffken says. “And the studies thus far have indicated that these particles really do not permeate deep within the skin as people have speculated or worried about in the past.”

More than skin deep
A look at nanoparticles beyond vanity and health risks also brings up difficult questions. Illuminato says that zincs, titaniums and other ingredients worn on the body can wash off into lakes and rivers and affect ecosystems.

“There are studies that have found that when nanoscale titanium dioxide gets into the environment it can kill certain algae and water fleas, upsetting the food chain and having a negative effect on fish.”

Regulation leaves manufacturers liable
Nanoparticles are not regulated as an ingredient any more than aloe vera or a preservative; they are simply required to be safe for use in cosmetics, a categorization that carries a very subjective evaluation.

“The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act says that the product must be safe, but that leaves it up to the individual company as to what constitutes safe and proper usage,” Geffken says. “Every company is free to select its own methodology and choose the best way to test its materials, and therefore the responsibility for safety is borne by the individual company.” “I think the arguments on both sides stem from the fact that the cosmetic industry is liable but not regulated when it comes to nanoparticles,” says Patty Schmucker, president and CEO of Torrance, Calif.-based Performance Branding Services and former vice president of personal care company Aveda. “At this point, there are no laws governing nanoparticles, and while it’s important for us to continue to advance scientifically, right now, I choose not to use nanoparticles. There are too many other options that get visible results and until we know more, I am just not willing to put the safety of the public at risk.”

“We have selected not to use nanoparticles in our products because the science is yet unclear,” says Laura Setzfand of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Nature’s Gate. “The fact that they have the potential to get into the bloodstream or impact the skin layer has compelled us not to use them.”

The retailer’s role
Schmucker says retailers should get as educated as possible about this subject because it is both controversial and complicated. “They should ask a lot of questions and not be misled by marketing hype,” she says. “Ask for substantiation of claims, [ask if] testing has been done, what is the delivery mechanism, does it permeate the skin, what is it carrying with it and what is it intended to do?”

“As a retailer I would tell customers that nanoparticles are being evaluated by the FDA, but the European Commission scientists have concerns about whether they are risky or not,” Setzfand says. “Some customers are concerned with a traditional mineral sunblock because it can turn their skin purple and may be willing to take the risk with nanoparticles.”

In addition to current scientific and regulatory status, it may also be important to communicate to consumers who are hoping for some kind of miracle, skin-penetrating product, that certain claims may be more hype than science.

“It’s a new frontier,” Schmucker says, “and I think that consumers are justified in wanting to explore both the positive and negative potential with nanoparticles in cosmetics.”

Chris O’Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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