The evidence on nanotechnology

Related tags Nanotechnology Cosmetics Research and development

Nanotechnology creates substances with new chemical properties that
we do not yet understand. A science with such huge potential
deserves closer attention to the possible risks, before it falls
the wrong side of belated discoveries of toxicity.

A year ago, a UK report commissioned by the British government and carried out by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, extolled the virtues of nanotechnology while simultaneously warning about the dangers.

Falling short of recommending a total ban on the production of nanoparticles, the report stressed that substances manufactured in nano form can have totally different chemical properties compared to their natural-sized counterparts.

For cosmetics this matters a great deal. Scientists' primary reservations are that because the particles are so small, there is a risk that topical application could penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream, causing toxicity.

For this reason, both scientists and legislation bodies believe it is crucial that the necessary research is undertaken to determine the chemical profile of specific nanoparticle formulations in an effort to gauge their safety.

But legislation on the area is hazy. The Royal Society recommends that cosmetic products using nanotechnology are clearly labelled as such. But this is just a recommendation.

The US FDA says it has no authority over the pre-market approval of cosmetics products using the technology, but it is conducting research to understand the characteristics of nano-materials and nanotechnology processes in general.

The EU has concentrated its efforts into the research and development of pharmaceutical applications for nanotechnology through a €12m research project partnering major players across Europe. Specific legislation on cosmetics research and applications does not yet exist.

This leaves responsibility for safety firmly in the hands of the industry itself.

Currently there are two leading players on the market - L'Oreal and Estee Lauder - marketing anti-ageing products featuring nanoparticles in anti-ageing formulations.

Yet neither company is seeking market advantage by shouting from the tree tops about its use of nanotechnology. Perhaps this is because the technology still has so little consumer recognition. Nanotechnology is to many individuals a haze of complicated science, and few are yet aware that it is already appearing in cosmetic applications available in shops today.

But to those who are closer to the science, the industry's near-silent adoption of the technology is more worrying.

The British Society claims to have positively badgered cosmetics companies to be more transparent about their "veiled" research and development into nanotechnology.

That cosmetics companies are devoting time and resources to the research and development of nanotechnology is not in question. L'Oreal, for example, is said to be spending a significant amount of its €350m R&D budget in this one area alone.

But what the industry is not doing is offering any evidence of risk-free products to the outside world. The Royal Society says there has been no public sharing of any research results. This leaves public knowledge about the safety of nanotechnology for cosmetics products still at a zero.

There is no reason to doubt the wisdom of such companies in delivering products that will do no harm, but, as it is, everything rests on trust and nothing on evidence.

Is it not about time that this changed? Nanotechnology holds great promise for the cosmetics industry, but if research currently being undertaken in the field is not made more transparent, suspicion could cause damage that is hard to repair.

Simon Pitman is editor of and He has worked in print and online media in Asia, the US and Europe.

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