Q:I am worried about what I read on the topic of nanoparticles in cosmetic preparations. There seems to be concern about the safety of nanotechnology applications for skin-care products.
Answer: Sunscreens and cosmetics are among the consumer products that may contain nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles are ultra-tiny particles, one-billionth of a meter in size. At such a small size, materials behave differently.
Nanoparticles exist naturally or can be manmade. Nanotechnology refers to manipulating particles that small.
Silver, carbon and titanium are the elements most often mentioned in nanotechnology-based consumer products, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a private research collaborative in Washington. The research project maintains a list of consumer products made with nanotechnology or that contain nanoparticles. Of the list of more than 1,000 products, about 60 percent are health-and fitness-related.
Silver is used for its germ-fighting properties. Titanium and zinc nanoparticles can block ultraviolet-light absorption.
A concern about the use of nanomaterials in cosmetics and sunscreens is that the particles are so fine they might penetrate the skin and get into a person’s bloodstream.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies are looking at the impact of nanoparticles and nanotechnology on humans and the environment.
Makeup with nanoparticles makes for a smoother appearance, said Everett E. Carpenter, director of the Nanomaterials Core Characterization Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“They do fill in wrinkles and smooth over your skin. They are such a fine powder,” said Carpenter, a professor of chemistry. The VCU center, a collaborative effort among chemistry, physics and engineering programs, has received federal grants to buy equipment to study nanomaterials.
“From someone who makes nanoparticles in the lab for a wide range of applications, the health concern is not so much if they cross the skin,” Carpenter said.
“The concern is more when you inhale them as dust. For the worker who is making these fine-particulate dusts, there is a concern. But it’s really a case-by-case basis. Different materials behave different ways,” Carpenter said.
A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in May concluded that the “current understanding of the risks posed by these materials is limited.” That’s partly because there hasn’t been enough research, and existing research has not been conclusive.
Follow-up: A previous column talked about disposing of old and unused prescription medications. A reader called to say her doctor’s office takes unused and expired drugs and disposes of them for patients.