Nanocosmetics in the news

Uncertainties surrounding the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics made the news in the UK yesterday; this followed a press release from the consumer group Which? – Beauty must face up to nano. This is related to a forthcoming report in their magazine, in which a variety of cosmetic companies were asked about their use of nanotechnologies (I was one of the experts consulted for commentary on the results of these inquiries).

The two issues that concern Which? are some continuing uncertainties about nanoparticle safety and the fact that it hasn’t generally been made clear to consumers that nanoparticles are being used. Their head of policy, Sue Davies, emphasizes that their position isn’t blanket opposition: “We’re not saying the use of nanotechnology in cosmetics is a bad thing, far from it. Many of its applications could lead to exciting and revolutionary developments in a wide range of products, but until all the necessary safety tests are carried out, the simple fact is we just don’t know enough.” Of 67 companies approached for information about their use of nanotechnologies, only 8 replied with useful information, prompting Sue to comment: “It was concerning that so few companies came forward to be involved in our report and we are grateful for those that were responsible enough to do so. The cosmetics industry needs to stop burying its head in the sand and come clean about how it is using nanotechnology.”

On the other hand, the companies that did supply information include many of the biggest names – L’Oreal, Unilever, Nivea, Avon, Boots, Body Shop, Korres and Green People – all of whom use nanoparticulate titanium dioxide (and, in some cases, nanoparticulate zinc oxide). This makes clear just how widespread the use of these materials is (and goes someway to explaining where the estimated 130 tonnes of nanoscale titanium dioxide being consumed annually in the UK is going).

The story is surprisingly widely covered by the media (considering that yesterday was not exactly a slow news day). Many focus on the angle of lack of consumer information, including the BBC, which reports that “consumers cannot tell which products use nanomaterials as many fail to mention it”, and the Guardian, which highlights the poor response rate. The story is also covered in the Daily Telegraph, while the Daily Mail, predictably, takes a less nuanced view. Under the headline The beauty creams with nanoparticles that could poison your body, the Mail explains that “the size of the particles may allow them to permeate protective barriers in the body, such as those surrounding the brain or a developing baby in the womb.”

What are the issues here? There is, if I can put it this way, a cosmetic problem, in that there are some products on the market making claims that seem at best unwise – I’m thinking here of the claimed use of fullerenes as antioxidants in face creams. It may well be that these ingredients are present in such small quantities that there is no possibility of danger, but given the uncertainties surrounding fullerene toxicology putting products like this on the market doesn’t seem very smart, and is likely to cause reputational damage to the whole industry. There is a lot more data about nanoscale titanium dioxide, and the evidence that these particular nanoparticles aren’t able to penetrate healthy skin looks reasonably convincing. They deliver an unquestionable consumer benefit, in terms of screening out harmful UV rays, and the alternatives – organic small molecule sunscreens – are far from being above suspicion. But, as pointed out by the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, there does remain uncertainty about the effect of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on damaged and sun-burned skin. Another issue recently highlighted by Andrew Maynard is the issue of the degree to which the action of light on TiO2 nanoparticles causes reactive and potentially damaging free radicals to be generated. This photocatalytic activity can be suppressed by the choice of crystalline structure (the rutile form of titanium dioxide should be used, rather than anatase), the introduction of dopants, and coating the surface of the nanoparticles. The research cited by Maynard makes it clear that not all sunscreens use grades of titanium dioxide that do completely suppress photocatalytic activity.

This poses a problem. Consumers don’t at present have ready access to information as to whether nanoscale titanium dioxide is used at all, let alone whether the nanoparticles in question are in the rutile or anatase form. Here, surely, is a case where if the companies following best practise provided more information, they might avoid their reputation being damaged by less careful operators.

4 thoughts on “Nanocosmetics in the news”

  1. As it happens I was talking to some people from L’Oreal yesterday who were furious at the way the Daily Mail presented the Which? report. As they say, using sunscreen containing titanium dioxide has very well documented benefits and if, suddenly, the public decide that the use of sunscreens is too dangerous to use we can expect to see an increase in skin cancer. I think that is incontrovertible (although perhaps in the UK, after a summer like the past one, this is less of a danger!). So, once again, we see the media taking a reasoned case and creating an irresponsible scare story, just as with MMR vaccinations and on too many other occasions, which in turn leads to more of a public health hazard than the shock-horror story they are apparently uncovering. It makes it so much harder for the public to understand where there genuinely is risk and uncertainty, and where the potential risks outweigh the gains (Ben Goldacre has cogently argued the case against the media for the MMR issue: see )

  2. Indeed, the Daily Mail once again lives down to its dismal reputation, so I’m not surprised there’s unhappiness in L’Oreal. It seems to me that these companies need to put their heads above the parapet and explain what they are using, what the benefits are, and why they think they are safe. To be fair, both Unilever and L’Oreal did do this (together with the other 6 respondents) in response to the Which inquiries, but this could usefully have come somewhat sooner.

  3. Another example of some media outlets thinking that the story drives the science, rather than the converse – some brief comments on this at

    In contrast to the Daily Mail story, the Which? article is well balanced, and starts with the science – certainly worth reading

    (due in part no doubt to impeccable expert input 🙂 )

  4. The other day I proof read an essay my son had written about issues surrounding nanoparticles in the environment for his Science GCSE. He did discuss the titanium oxide/suncream issue and I’m pleased to say that he did a much better job than the Daily Mail.

    Hopefully this means that UK schools in general are developing better critical thinking skills than the DM requires of its journalists and that in the long run this will result in better debate about issues such as this in the general media.

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