Nanotechnology and personal care products: Reviews less than ‘gold’.

Image by EMSL | flickr.com

Image by EMSL | flickr.com

When you buy a personal care product, how thoroughly do you read its label? Sure, we all look at the front of the product, but it is on the back in fine little print that you’ll typically discover what you’re really slathering all over your face or under your armpits. Will you read it in the store before you purchase it, in the shower as you’re using it, or simply not at all? Or, alternatively, do you choose your products based on the ingredients listed on it?

We’ve already heard about carcinogens, phthalates, and heavy metals in our personal care products. But there’s another player in the ingredients game, and if you’re in North America, you’ve likely never heard of it before.

Nanotechnology sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, but examples of it are all around us.  It is used in food products, drug development, environmental remediation, and personal care products, among countless other applications. Technically, it’s been around for a long time, but only in the last few decades have we been able to specifically identify and create nanoparticles intentionally. Nanotechnology is mostly based on nanoparticles, which are particles smaller than 100 nanometers. For some perspective, 1 inch is equal to 25,400,00 nanometers, a piece of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick, and your fingernails are growing at a rate of about 1 nanometer/second. These things are tiny!

Nanoparticles are unique from larger particles because they have an extremely high surface area compared to their volume. Remember learning about cells in biology class? Cells can only get so big, because they rely on their surface area to transport nutrients in and waste out. You can think about nanoparticles in a similar way. Their unique properties depend on their surface areas staying large, and the rest of them staying small.

Nanotechnology has been used in personal care products for a number of years, but you probably wouldn’t know, since there are currently no regulations requiring labeling of nanomaterials in consumer products in Canada or the United States. Companies are simply labeling the product with the material the nanoparticle is made of, and not indicating that the ingredient has the unique properties of a nanoparticle. One example of this involves the use of gold in face creams, lotions, and skin treatments, which claims that it will reduce wrinkles, revitalize your skin, and empty your bank account. Bulk gold doesn’t have any negative effects on our skin, but these treatments often contain nanogold, which acts much different than its bulk counterpart. Nanogold is actually known to accelerate aging and damage skin, which is the exact opposite of the purported effects of a gold beauty regimen. Save your money, and your face, by skipping the gold.

As of 2009, the European Union requires all nano ingredients in cosmetics to be labeled. However, just slapping the word “nano” on a product is not always the best idea. Countries have expressed concern that consumers might be alarmed by a nano label, especially since the most commonly used nanoparticles have been determined to have no significant risk when applied on the skin. Consumers unsure of the meaning of “nano” may balk from using labeled products.

Currently, Environment Canada is evaluating ways to regulate nanomaterials, while the EPA has been struggling to manage nanomaterials in other industries. It may be some time before a global consensus is reached on how nanomaterial ingredients should be labeled. If you start to see nano labels on your products in the future, don’t be too alarmed though; those ingredients have probably been there the whole time.