By Helen Vong
Nanotech beauty products can better penetrate the skin and deliver real results – but can it harm you down the road?
When it comes to standards you look for in beauty product, every woman wants the same things: anti-aging creams that work, streak-free sunscreens and makeup that can go on smooth and sheer. One way of doing this is with nanotechnology, the science of reducing active ingredients into ultra-tiny bits of matter known as nanoparticles, which can measure 10,000 time narrower that a human hair.
Though it sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, nanoparticles occur naturally in nature (the smell of toast is made up of nanoparticles, for example) but the cosmetics industry – which leads all other industries in nanoparticle patents – has found that when these miniscule molecules are engineered into skin care, they enhance the benefits of active ingredients.
Toronto-based dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett, M.D., F.R.C.P.(C) of DLK on Avenue explains, “In most skin care, the active ingredients are too large to actually penetrate into the skin so they often remain on the surface where they are not effective. Many companies are now using nanotechnology to make molecules much smaller so as they can penetrate deeper into the skin and make the active ingredients more effective.”
The most common use of nanotechnology is in sunscreens. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide, the mineral-based ingredients commonly found in physical sunscreen, don’t spread easily and give skin a white tinge. But when crushed into nanoparticles, as is the case with the more than 300 sunscreens on the Market, you get a sunscreen that can be easily rubbed on and has reduced appearance on the skin.
Another use for nanotechnology is in hair styling appliances. According to manufacturers like CHI, incorporating “nanosilver” into tools like flat irons inhibits bacteria growth – a desirable factor for salon and spa goers who are styled with the same tools that are used on other clients. CHI has also incorporated the germ-fighting ingredient into its line of professional nail lacquers.
Anti-aging products are also capitalizing on the technology. Ideal for use on the eye are after peels, lasers or injectables, Euoko Y-41 Eye Contour Nanolift incorporates active ingredients derived from all corners of the world. The product’s delivery system, which uses nanoparticles, ensures that these ingredients are stable and carried deep into the skin. Luxury hair care like Pureology, also uses nanotechnology to deliver high-end ingredients in its anti aging Nanoworks line. Shisheido uses prismatic “nanopowder” in its Dual Balancing Foundation SPF 17 to even out skin tone.
“People are starting to question the safety of nanoparticles due to research being done regarding nano-toxicity and its effects,” says Kellett. The concern stems from several studies dating back to 1997 that found that nanoparticles could cross biological membranes and enter the blood stream. This poses a threat to larger organs and tissues, such as the nervous system, brain, liver, heart, kidneys, spleen, and bone marrow, as taking up residence inside these cells may cause harmful damage to DNA. Recent research from the journal Nature Nanotechnology showed that sunscreens that provided the best transparency and sun protection also interact with sunlight to produce the most free radicals. Such evidence begs the question: do nanosized particles in sunscreens and other topical creams offer only the benefit of cosmetic feel?
A REAL THREAT?
Major cosmetic companies in the U.S. have imposed a voluntary ban on the use of nanoparticles as they await a ruling from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And Health Canada is on the fence too, stating on its website that “nanotechnology is still a new field of research and application, and its risks and benefits are still being examined and evaluated.” The challenge for the government will be to assess clinical research, map out identifiable problems and risks and set standards in the cosmetics industry that reflects these finding. Many staunch environmental groups are urging for clear labeling of nanoparticles on beauty products.
Could this be a case of over-hyped hysteria? Mike Patton from the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association thinks so. “Because there’s no compelling evidence that nanoparticles can get people sick, there’s no need to panic – just yet.” The future of nanotech beauty products may be under scrutiny, but certainly not endangered. Nanotech beauty products continue to grow in leaps and bounds with upward of 600 products already on the market, and The National Science Foundation estimates that the industry could be worth $1 trillion by 2015. Much like computers and smart phones, the next big thing in beauty remains small — nano-scale small.