Innovative science at the nanoscale would seem nothing but exciting and promising, but the use of such small particles in the beauty and anti-aging industries has harbingered a host of fears, from potential side effects to long-term toxicity. Nanotechnology first emerged on the skincare scene over 40 years ago, when manufacturers of moisturizers started using liposome technology to add shimmer and increase solubility. Today, cosmetics makers are dealing with particles 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The size of nanoparticles is both their greatest asset and their greatest danger to humans. The diminutive nature of nanoparticles enables them to encroach off-limits areas such as the vascular system, potentially ending up in the bloodstream or the brain. Although studies on the absorption of nanoparticles through the skin are still inconclusive, it is no small worry that nano-sized ingredients could infiltrate the lungs and intestinal walls. Toxic matter might then have free reign over the body’s internal organs, while even non-toxic nanoparticles could wreak havoc by accumulating in vital areas and causing blockages.

According to SpecialChem, 43% of cosmetics formulators polled worldwide are already using or are close to using nanotechnology. Some examples of cosmetic brands that are harnessing the power of nanotechnology include Freeze 24/7, DDF (Doctor’s Dermatologic Formula), and Colorescience. But more mainstream manufacturers are in on the act as well. Since 1998, L’Oreal (which ranks No. 6 in nanotech patent holders in the U.S.) has been using polymer nanocapsules to deliver active ingredients (ie. retinol, vitamin A) into the skin in products such as Primordiale Intense and Plentitude Revialift anti-wrinkle cream.

Shiseido’s Elixir line is based on research which found that the combination of oxide powder and silica powder (talc) at the nano level can restrain the enzymes that lead to dry skin. The French skincare line Caudalie has a Vinosun Anti-aging Suncare treatment that relies on “nanomized” UV filters and antioxidant. La Prarie’s outrageously-priced Skin Caviar Ampoule treatment claims that its nanoemulsions speed the delivery of functional materials to the site of action. You can get the same nanoemulsion technology for much cheaper with Proctor & Gamble’s Olay of Olay brand. Its Complete line of daily UV moisturizers incorporates nanotech particles because they can block the sun without interfering with the lotion's feel and look.

Ironically, nanoparticles cropped up in sunscreen products because of an effort to avoid toxic chemicals, such as benzophenone, homosalate, and octyl-methoxycinnamate. Manufacturers discovered that by dispersing the less risky titanium dioxide as nanoparticles, the final result appeared transparent while providing equivalent sun protection. The Environmental Working Group has determined that zinc and titanium-based formulations are among the safest and most effective sunscreen agents on the market. However, there is reason to steer clear of chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are readily absorbed by the skin and act like estrogens in the body.

Considering the looming concerns about the future of nanotechnology in cosmetics, there may be reason to steer clear of all products marketed with nanoparticles. Stay tuned for Part Two to find out how the cosmetics industry is using nanotech and how it can affect your health. Though the size of nanoparticles might lead you to believe otherwise, this is no small matter.