To nanotechnology’s credit, nano-engineered products may be more effective in that their delivery systems are built in at the molecular level, enabling beneficial ingredients to penetrate directly upon application rather than resting on the surface level of skin. But nanoparticles can assume very different chemical and biological properties than their original-sized counterparts. Among the more than 350 safety studies currently underway at labs and academic institutions across the globe, the results remain in the preliminary stage. In an article published in the February 3, 2006 issue of Science, researchers at UCLA concluded that nano-materials can indeed create toxic effects, but that these effects can be addressed by a rational, scientific approach. Unfortunately, the cosmetics industry does not operate this way.

Even if a skincare product doesn’t include information about particle size on its label, there is a good chance that some form of nanotechnology was used, especially in sources such as mineral makeup, sunscreens, anti-aging creams, and eye shadows. According to a Skin Deep analysis, thousands of cosmetics contain ingredients in nano form without having been approved by separate safety studies. In spite of the lack of long-range studies on the health impacts of nano-materials in topical products, the cosmetics industry is leading the charge to integrate this inadequately tested technology.

Although healthy skin puts up a sufficient natural barrier against particle absorption, damaged and even flexed skin may allow particles to enter the body, according to scientists at UCLA. Once particles shrink below 80nm, there is a high danger that they might sneak into the bloodstream. Companies like Telomelecular and Bimene Cosmetics have countered this risk by using PLGA (polylactic-co-glycolic-acid) as a vehicle for delivering large collagen molecules. They claim that their use of nanotechnology is safe since their molecules average a size of 250nm.

Do the benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the risks? Most of the advantages of nanoparticles rest on aesthetics. Nanotechnology made its way into sunscreens to make consumers happy with a clear application and into mineral makeup to create a smoother, more glowing appearance. It can be confusing for us as consumers to know whether we are being fed marketing hype or a truly unusual, effective ingredient when a product lists some sort of nano-claim on the label. But more importantly, it can be dangerous for us to continue using these products without substantial evidence that unwelcome substances cannot piggyback on nanoparticles.

What will happen if all of the nanoparticles in our body lotion, face cream, sunscreen, and makeup band together and swim upstream throughout our internal system? Over the long term, nobody knows. Until there are industry-wide standards and FDA regulations in place based on comprehensive clinical research, we have to be smart shoppers. The quest for youthful skin and shimmery eye shadow should never trump health and safety concerns.