Nano – A Small Issue

Ok, first up I would like to just say I am no nano scientist, I don’t spend all day looking through a hugely powerful microscope playing with atoms and such like, or trying to write my name on a hair shaft. So I will default my knowledge to anyone who does if they can read this in such big writing…..

Nano technology is a phrase that is used a lot. Mostly without any real thought as to what it is. Nano just means 10-9, it is just a numerical designation, nothing sinister.

So Nanometre purely means a size of 1-100 x 10-9 metres ie. 0.0000000001 metres ie. Really small. Technology is pretty much what you want it to be. Therefore nano-technology is anything small and sort of scientific/modern.

It really is that wide a definition, encompassing everything from Titanium Dioxide sunscreens to molecular modelling of carbon nano-tubes to surface coating the wings of space craft.

The biggest issue that occurs is that everything is grouped together under this all encompassing heading, with no differentiation based on uses, safety or composition. “Nano-technology is just bad”. It is not as simple as this by any stretch of the imagination.

You will also see that the EU are “regulating nanotechnology so it must be bad” in various blogs and such like. This is not strictly untrue, but it is a blurring of the definition. The EU are actually concerned with Nano Materials, not technology as a whole when applied to cosmetics, and it is more a notification so that they can keep an eye on the levels of use and applications as a means of gathering more information for further study ( as I understand it ).

So having spent a lot of time fairly recently trying to help get some interpretation within the new EU cosmetics legislation for nano materials I will start with that. For those that haven’t seen it the definition as listed in the legislation is :

“Nanomaterial means an insoluble or bio-persistent and intentionally manufactured material with one or more external dimensions, or an internal structure, on the scale of 1 to 100nm”

Which is quite a broad description, if you really think about it. A sheet that is 2 miles long by 2 miles wide, but only 50nm thick would be a nano material. Would this absorb through your skin or lungs ? Well, obviously not, this is a slightly silly example, but it is still correct and should make you think a little bit more about what the definition of nano-materials actually is and whether or not it applies to everything equally.

Back to discussing the description. One of the first things to take note of is “insoluble”. So any talk of things dissolving into the blood stream or such like is not possible under the definition. If the material is soluble in oil, water, solvents, blood, mucous or any other bodily fluid in general, it cannot be a nano-material. Full stop. (I am not going to go into the definition of soluble, I will be here all week, but there are a number of them about, you will just have to trust me).

Also if it exists naturally, ie. It is not “intentionally manufactured” it is also not a nano-material. But this is a bit trickier to work out. However it can still be done. Titanium dioxide used as a sunscreen is intentionally made to be on the nano scale, it has to be otherwise you don’t get the same UV absorption. So it is a nano-material. It is however not entirely clear at this point in time how this is going to cover other materials though. There is certainly talk of excluding natural clays for example, but nothing conclusive yet.

The same goes for the bit about “internal” structures. This was originally added to include the primary particles of any agglomerated or aggregated material that might be nano sized and to cover composite materials. There has been an awful lot of debate as to whether or not this is actually relevant though. Using Silica as an example, this has a primary particle size of approximately 30nm. However, it never exists as a primary particle, always as agglomerates with a total particle size of 10-50 microns (or 1000-5000nm) well outside the definition. To get silica into its primary particle state you really do need to add a massive amount of energy under quite specific conditions, none of which are feasible, or even possible in normal cosmetic usage. How to make a judgement on this is still being discussed. At some length.

Composite materials are a bit different and don’t really occur much in cosmetics. It tends to be surface treated materials made to give a better UV absorbance, or in some cases created to side-step the nano regulations.

Nano materials within cosmetics are not something to be scared of. Even if it means there is a new label that says “nano” on it where previously there was nothing, it is the same material and hasn’t suddenly become something else more dangerous. It is also not something that should be used as one of the many scare tactics used by the many sites discussed here on PCT on a regular basis.

Sunscreens in particular are a very important issue. If you avoid all the chemical filters (as quite a few people do) due to sensitisation or allergies, then you really only have the choice of staying permanently out of the sun or using a physical filter, which will be a nano particulate (or clothing). Most of the technology being used has been used for a very long time and has a lot of data behind it. I will admit some of it not positive, and there is still more to be done. But as the prevention of skin cancers is increasing in importance, so is the development of ever more efficient UV filters, which most importantly, are safe, but that is a different topic entirely.

Marketing companies selling products need to sound modern and scientific, and consequently use ridiculous made up terminology “contains super nano lipo actispheres”, or such like, just to differentiate their products. The claims are much more present than actual nano-materials.

Nano-technology on the other hand is worth looking at slightly differently. The most commonly used piece of nano-technology are in emulsions. A nano-emulsion is merely a very fine ( and therefore good ) emulsion. That is it. It doesn’t have any massively new, dangerous or space age ingredients. They are made by mixing oils and water with good emulsifiers. There is actually limited evidence that they are even any better than a normal non nano emulsions at delivering actives (at the end of the day the active molecules are the same size whether in a big oil droplet or a small one).

When used in articles and stories nano-technology as a general description is used in very emotive ways, mostly negative. The simple truth is that within cosmetics it is very, very limited and will certainly never turn out to be the self replicating sentient grey goo that seems to be mentioned whenever nano seems to be used in the same sentence as science !!

I will finish with a small disclaimer, the above are opinions and personal (and I think well informed ) interpretations and not an official interpretation of the legislation. This will be forthcoming from COLIPA shortly,  I have seen drafts already, but as mentioned there is still a bit of discussion going on. (For those that don’t know them, COLIPA are the European cosmetics industry trade body).


About Richard Summers

Having fallen in to the cosmetics industry by accident after leaving university, Rich spent time developing a wide variety of cosmetics and toiletries. Having now moved into the distribution side of the industry, Rich now spends his time giving technical, formulation, application, and regulatory support to customers all across the UK.

  • gloriaswanson43

    Whoa! LOL! All I know is when I typed in “nanotechnology in cosmetics” and found 2 websites devoted to it as well as an IT guy and a surgeon (!) discussing it it seemed to be something that could have great benefits and potential as well as it won’t be going away anytime soon.

    • Rich Summers

      I think you are right. There is a lot being used in areas such as medicine, IT, even construction and transport, and this is why I think that there needs to be rational thought about it. How can you compare a sunscreens safety to using atoms to etch a computer chip ? Yet the same old scare mongers use the broad terms which get people looking at the wider applications of nano based stuff and then somehow extrapolate that into how cosmetics will kill you.

      I think the biggest potential issue is that for some of the wider applications the technology is so new no one really knows how to assess it for any sort of safety margin let alone knows if it is actually safe for use in/on humans or not, and probably won’t until it is used in more applications, and this is the fear that the scare mongers spread.

      There are some beneficial bits of technology coming out, there has to be, the amount of work that is going into it, but most of it by-passes the cosmetics industry at such speed the inventor wouldn’t even recognise it as a potential area of use. Couple that with the sheer cost of most of this kind of thing and you basically would end up with a cream that no one could explain and would probably cost a couple of million dollars a pot !!

      • gloriaswanson43

        Excellent points. I think it’s human nature to be so excited about a discovery that it’s put into play before all testing has been done.
        I’m not fully certain I understand the fears behind cosmetic use, even in the future. Again it goes back to how little actually get absorbed by the skin and then what it does once it’s in the bloodstream, which if you believe that everything you put on your skin gets absorbed then everything you put or get on your skin (ever changed a baby’s diaper?) should be questioned. Eggs can have salmonella. Raw meat can have E-coli. And if there are some beneficial uses to this technology in cosmetics then what it does comes into play. Is it a superficial cosmetic or does it actually change something (I’m going for having my skin to go back to at least age 36) then you’re out of the realm of cosmetics and into drugs.
        I’m not critisizing (sp) marketing but I can’t help but go back to the idea that if the creams, potions and lotions that we use actually work as claimed then botox and plastic surgery wouldn’t still be used except for medical reasons.

  • Philippe Papadimitriou

    I have read the size in the official description might well change and put into categories. May you confirm?

    What about agglomeration of the material in formulas? It is fine to have nanomaterials, but if particles aggregate once formulated, then there is no real gain. Still much to find out on the issue of the technology, I would say. This is a first problem in my opinion for which I think we are going too fast.

    I guess the whole problem regarding human safety comes from the description itself, then. The “bio-persistent” term refers to the fact the nanomaterial will not be metabolized by the body. As such, there are concerns about the accumulation in tissues or cells. It is of course possible that the inert material is excreted as such (it doesn’t need to be metabolized), but there are unfortunately not enough studies to be sure by now for what I am aware of.
    The size of the material will allow it to have more penetration and this also influences the potential bio-persistency aspect.

    I believe innovation in cosmetics is important, but I also believe we should not be precipitated when human safety is at stakes. Let’s collect data before we use nanomaterials.
    Didn’t the SCCS recently edit a report regarding the absence of data on Isopropylparaben and Isobutylparaben that may soon lead to a ban in the EU? This is roughly the same story, isn’t it?
    We do not need to always accept things for their innovative aspect. By being optimistic this time, we are giving amunition to some people who are only waiting for a mistake on our side.
    ->Mind the gap!

    Other nanomaterials than nano filters used in cosmetics are fullerenes. For me, fullerenes in cosmetics is pure nonsense.

    Sorry to be less enthusiastic than I usually am, but this is Personal Care TRUTH and this is what I may offer regarding it.
    Replies will be very welcome and appreciated.

    • Rich Summers

      Firstly, Fullerenes in cosmetics is nonsense. As far as I know there is no reason why on earth you would do it. It is adding science for the sake of it ( IMHO ! ).

      Anyway, with rgards to the size, there has been a lot of discussion on this, and the numbers are completely arbritrary. It is unlikely that they will change though, as the information I have seen is that the definition will stand and that anythign else debatable will be done using interpretations. This is of course currently, it is entirely possible that it may well change, the EU commission are known for changing their minds. ( The discussion I am refering to is the opinion of SCENIHR, the documents for whcih can be found whcih explains botht he acronym and the whole topic of size and risk ).

      Biopersistance could be an issue. I have no idea how this is likely to be measured, and I am also entirely unsure if it is actually going to be relevant. Take clay for example, it is very biopersistant, otherwise large portions of my garden would disappear, or turn into something else ( which I will admit I wish it would sometimes, plants don’t like clay !! ), but does that mean it is harmful ? Clay particulates could easily be on the nano scale, they are insoluble, and they are biopersistant. Clays are used a lot in cosmetics mostly in face products, so have hte risk of accidental ingestion, inhalation ( unlikely with clay masks I will admit ).. What does that actually mean though ? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t want to speculate too much before we have any guidance from COLIPA but it is worth thinking about.

      Aggregates and agglomerates are the big current issues. The definition is entirely designed to capture any primary particles, even if they can never exist. I personally have no idea what this will acheive, other than to worry consumers, create work for formulators and brands who will now have to register products and create more work for formulators who are told to formulate without nano materials by their marketing departments.

      There is a massive amount of data on a lot of the things that are going to be classed as nano materials. Silicas, carbon black, titanium dioxides, hectorites, bentonites, the list is quite long if you take a good hard look at the materials that you are using, because it is “in one or more dimensions”. So my sheet example is valid ( if a touch ridiculous ). Stuff that has been used and safety tested for many many years is suddenly going to have this “nano” label stuck to it, causing the fear mongers even more to write about.

      I fully agree that any new technologies that are based on this size level have got to have testing done on them, and I think that they need to be watched very closely. I don’t however believe that “all nano-techniology is bad” and that we should start to ban materials that have proven safety records just because we have suddenly changed the way that we measure the particle sizes.

      • Philippe Papadimitriou

        Some fullerenes are now sold and not considered inappropriate by the cosmetic industry. I am happy to learn we share the idea of nonsense regarding them (but they nonetheless are sold as fantastic antioxidants!).

        This is the thing I had read about the size issue: Also by the SCENIHR. I am not following this topic closely, so I do not know what relevance this still has today.

        As science evolves, new aspects of it arise. Accumulation of nano size materials in tissues has never been evaluated. That probably means it is not to be of concerned for irritancy and minor such problems linked to “direct” human safety, but it might well be that other problems appear partly because of that. And as new raw material are now made into nano grades, we can not only test these for accumulation, and not the previous ones.
        I am not well-informed about the manufacture of ingredients as the ones you list, but natural or not, old or not, safety has to be known. This is basic deontology. One can be sure new regulations will someday be created in fields like environment and long term toxicity by accumulation. By now, we only have suspicions good or not, but nothing to let us work with with a clean mind. Assumptions are not facts and we need facts to proceed.
        I do not have any idea how we can study this..?

        I do not like to scare monger at my turn, but I believe the industry was too prompt to get on this nanowagon. Some say penetration happens mainly folicularly. I guess we both are old enough to have used old “whitening effect” sunscreen formulas. Do you remember how these white remains used to only be present near thebase of hairs after washing?

        I am just a guy who doesn’t know.
        Any scientist knowing about an unknown subject is not reliable (nothing addressed to any of us here – a general comment only).

        • Philippe Papadimitriou

          Sorry to comment again, but reading my own comment, I see there is a poor formulation (ah damned English!).

          The definition mentions “manufactured” material, hence my use of the expression “manufacture of ingredients”. I do not know if many grades exist for the listed ingredients of your comment above (except clay, of course), but are they really all “manufactured”?

          I agree that nano-size ingredients are not all bad (future INCI for Water = Water [nano]? – haha!) and that no confusion should be made between nanomaterials and nanotechnologies.

          • Rich Summers

            Yes, the manufactured bit is quite important, but it is not currently known how far this will go. With Titanium Dioxide, sometimes the only extra manufacturing that is done to acheive nano grade is milling. However some things are manufactured but just get certain particle sizes just because that is the way that they are formed and it is not really clear yet if this kind of material will be included because of the word “intentionally”. The Titanium Dioxide is intentionally milled to make it nano, but the clays just are. As I say it is not clear in which direction any of the guidance on this is going to go currently as this is one of the most difficult issues to work around.

            I also completely agree with you in that I do think that there are technologies being used that we do not understand enough at the moment. I hope that this part of the legislation will make people think about it though, rather than just panic.

    • Dene62

      I see no correlation beteween “nano” and the iso-parabens! The main reason that the isoparabens were not assessed for safety was because the SCCS were displeased by industry not providing all the data requested (and it was not provided for good scientific reasons!). It should have been possible to “read across” the data from propylparaben to isopropylparaben and similarly for butylparaben, but they refused to do this (despite this being encouraged in other EU legislation to reduce animal testing requirements). This is internal politics, not science, which is why I say there is no correlation!

      • Philippe Papadimitriou

        No scientific correlation, no.
        I was simply writting that safety data were recently lacking on some ingredients -about which much noise was made- and they thus may soon be banned.

        The safety aspect of accumulation because of bio-persistence is unknown for some new nanomaterials. I think it would not be safe to accept further use of these materials without these data.

  • Maha


    I am a new person to this site. Honestly, I am lost because of sunscreens. Some sites say that there are specific sunscreen are safe to use and effective. others say that most sunscreens are somehow good and effective. So would anyone provide me what are best suncreens to use please?