What is Nano Technology?

Nanotechnology is an umbrella term referring to the ability to expertly use matter at the atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale (i.e. nanoscale). Nanotechnology holds considerable promise for many different disciplines and it is a growing area of research. At the nanoscale, some materials exhibit additional or different properties as compared to larger materials with the same composition.

Nanomaterials are used in a wide range of innovative applications and products, including Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated products such as foods, drugs, medical devices and cosmetics and personal care products. While FDA does not have a legal definition for either nanotechnology or nanomaterials, scientists usually refer to materials that have at least one measured dimension in the range of 1-100 nanometers (1 nanometer = 1 billionth of a meter) as a nanomaterial. To put this into perspective, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers wide and a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.

Nanoparticles have been naturally occurring for all of human history. They are found in volcanic ash, ocean spray, fine sand and dust, and are the byproduct of human activities, such as welding fumes and the burning of wood; even homogenized milk is a nanoemulsion. We are constantly exposed to incidental nanoparticles from sources that include cars, your home stove and outdoor fires.

Why are Nanomaterials being developed?

Nanoscale materials are being developed because they can have chemical, physical and biological properties that differ from their chemically identical but larger-scale counterparts. Products containing nanoscale materials may offer advantages over similar products that contain the same materials on a larger scale.

Some of the advantages that have been enabled by the use of nanoscale materials include:

  • improved texture
  • enhanced stain resistance
  • Improved aesthetics
  • longer shelf life
  • improved UV protection

Consumer products that may incorporate nanoscale materials include clothing, wear-resistant coatings and paint, electronics and personal care products.

Why are Nanoscale materials used in personal care products?

The application of nanotechnology to products regulated by the FDA, including cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs (OTCs), provides health and other benefits to consumers. The use of nanoscale materials in such consumer products is not new. For example, nanoscale particles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO) have been used in sunscreens for many years.

Remember the old pictures of lifeguards with noses coated in thick white sunscreen? Today, small nanoparticles are used to formulate sunscreens that contain a protective barrier that is easier to apply and has a more pleasing texture than earlier opaque versions with larger particles. This leads to greater consumer acceptance and use. These factors ultimately contribute to a greater public health benefit by protecting individuals from the harmful effects of the sun, including skin aging and skin cancer.

Did you know? Cosmetics manufactured using nanomaterials are subject to the same legal requirements as any other cosmetics.

Nanotechnology in Cosmetics

The applications of nanotechnology and nanomaterials can be found in many cosmetic products including moisturizers, hair care products, make up and sunscreen. A report from Observatory Nano (this report looks into some of the nanotechnologies used in the cosmetic industry and provides an overview of activity in this area) describes two main uses for nanotechnology in cosmetics:

  • Nanoparticles in cosmetics as UV filters: The first of these is the use of nanoparticles as UV filters. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the main compounds used in these applications. Organic alternatives to these have also been developed.
  • Nanoparticles in cosmetics drug delivery agents: The second use is nanotechnology for delivery. Liposomes and Niosomes are used in the cosmetic industry as delivery vehicles. Newer structures such as solid lipid nanoparticles and nanostructured lipid carriers have been found to be better performers than liposomes. In particular, nanostructured lipid carriers have been identified as a potential next generation cosmetic delivery agent that can provide enhanced skin hydration, bioavailability, stability of the agent and controlled occlusion. Encapsulation techniques have been proposed for carrying cosmetic actives. Nanocrystals and nanoemulsions are also being investigated for cosmetic applications. Patents have been filed for the application of dendrimers in the cosmetics industry.

A draft guidance documents from the FDA “Guidance for Industry: Safety of Nanomaterials in Cosmetic Products” discusses the FDA’s current thinking on the safety assessment of nanomaterials when used in cosmetic products. Key points include:

The legal requirements for cosmetics manufactured using nanomaterials are the same as those for any other cosmetics. While cosmetics are not subject to premarket approval, companies and individuals who market cosmetics are legally responsible for the safety of their products and they must be properly labeled.

To conduct safety assessments for cosmetic products containing nanomaterials, standard safety tests may need to be modified or new methods developed.