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Safety of Nano-Cosmetics Questioned

Andrew Maynard doesn't wear makeup. But lately, buying beauty cream and lip gloss is part of his job. Maynard is the science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The center has just put up a new Web site with a searchable list of 212 commercially available nano-products. Thirty-one of those products are cosmetics.

"You know, this is probably the first time I've ever been cosmetics shopping," says Maynard, as he walks into a Washington, D.C., drugstore, heads for the skin-care section, and picks up a package of L'Oreal RevitaLift Double Lifting. "Intense re-tightening gel," he reads off the product label. "'Pro-Tensium plus nanosomes of Pro-Retinol A.' So this is clearly a product which is based in some way on nanotechnology."

We take the anti-wrinkle cream, and some other cosmetics, back to the ladies room at Maynard's office, where he lays them out on the sink. The collection includes a jar of Lancome Hydra Zen, which, like the RevitaLift, contains tiny nano-capsules full of chemicals. These are just smaller versions of something cosmetics have used for years. Some of the other products also use nano-versions of familiar materials, like skin creams with superfine particles of silica and sunscreens with nanoparticles of zinc oxide -- that's the white stuff you see on a lifeguard's nose.

But some cosmetics have more exotic nano-ingredients. Maynard holds up a $300 jar of Zelens Day Cream. "It's very interesting because it uses this material, buckyballs, which really do, in many people's minds, epitomize nanotechnology."

Buckyballs look like little soccer balls made of carbon atoms. They're only a billionth-of-a-meter wide. Their discovery won a Nobel Prize and helped launch the field of nanotech. Now, the skin-cream maker says buckyballs can prevent premature aging of the skin by acting as an anti-oxidant.

But some experts wonder about the safety of highly engineered nanostructures like these. That's because when particles get small, they tend to develop new chemical properties. That might mean unexpected risks. There hasn't been much research into the safety of novel nano-particles, such as whether they can penetrate the skin. "It is a question that is becoming more compelling," says Sally Tinkle, a researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina.

Traditionally, scientists believed that the skin is pretty impervious to particles. But Tinkle's lab, along with some other labs, has found that at least some nano-particles can slip through the skin's tough outer layer. That means they could potentially interact with the immune system or get into the bloodstream. "We rely on our skin so much to be a protective barrier, that we have to be very rigorous in our thinking about it," says Tinkle.

Cosmetics companies say they do rigorous studies before releasing products, which are regulated by the government. John Bailey, of the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, says that most cosmetics today aren't using highly engineered nanostructures, and that any future applications would be tested extensively for safety: "Certainly within the cosmetics law, there are sufficient checks and balances that will ensure that products and their ingredients are safe."

But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally only investigates cosmetics if safety questions emerge after a product is on the market, because there is no pre-marketing approval process for cosmetics formulations. Linda Katz, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, also says the agency has no nano-specific regulations -- cosmetics manufacturers aren't required to tell the agency if they're using nanotech. Katz says her agency has not heard of any cases of adverse effects due to nanotechnology in cosmetics, but the FDA is currently doing some studies on whether the zinc oxide nanoparticles now found in some sunscreens can penetrate the skin.

The results of those studies won't be available for months. For now, consumers have to do their own research into products like Colorescience Eye Serum, which says it contains "magical liquid crystals." This product is one of the cosmetics listed in the Wilson Center's inventory, and its promotional materials say that "based on nanotechnology, liquid crystals show dramatic visual color-play and a high level of iridescence." The product does have an unearthly, sci-fi glow. But, as it turns out, it's not nanotech. When NPR asked about the product, Colorescience founder Diane Ranger said her company originally thought the particles in this serum were small enough to qualify as nanotech, but now they think they're too big.

So it can be hard for consumers to know if they're getting marketing hype or a truly unusual new ingredient when a tube of cream or gel lists "nanotechnology" or "nano-clusters" on the label. And cosmetics that do include novel nanotechnologies may not necessarily disclose that. In building the Wilson Center's new inventory of nano-products, Maynard says his group did not make an independent assessment of products' ingredients or company's nano-claims. They just looked for everyday items advertised as using nanotech. Still, Maynard hopes the inventory will serve a first step towards tracking nanotech as it moves out of the laboratory and into things like hockey sticks, vacuum cleaners and face creams. The center will update the inventory frequently.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.