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Nanotechnology: Small Wonders

Nanotechnology could very well change the face of beauty. But is it safe?

It deals in the science of the infinitesimally small, but nanotechnology could contribute enormously to the fight against wrinkles, according to some industry executives.

The technology that processes matter so it becomes miniscule (one nanometer measures one billionth of a meter) is increasingly being used in a wide range of items, from stain-resistant fabrics to prosthetic heart valves. For the cosmetics industry, nanotechnology potentially offers myriad treatment opportunities.

“The main advantage of nanotechnology in skin care is new and improved delivery systems,” said Marko Lens, a London-based research scientist, plastic and reconstructive surgeon, and founder of the Zelens treatment brand, who noted the technology first emerged more than 40 years ago with the introduction of liposomes. “These delivery systems actually allow ingredients contained in cosmetic formulations to penetrate and deliver skin benefits directly upon application.”

“As a delivery system, nanotechnology can transport ingredients to an exact location in the skin, where you want them to go,” continued Sven Gohla, vice president of research and development at Beiersdorf- owned La Prairie skin-care brand, in Zurich.

Lens gave the example of nanocarriers developed by University of Massachusetts researchers that encapsulate and transport vitamin E deeper into skin than traditional cosmetics.

Such advantages have sparked interest across multiple consumergoods categories. Among pioneer beauty brands already using nanotechnology are PureOlogy, a salon hair-care line recently purchased by L’Oréal; Colorescience makeup, and Kara Vita sun-care products.

“Analysts estimate that the market for [all nanotechnology-based] products is currently about ?2.5 billion [£1.7 billion/$3.5 billion] but could rise to hundreds of billions of euros by 2010 and ?1 trillion thereafter,” according to the European Commission’s “Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology” report.

Nanotechnology might be on a strong growth trajectory, but it’s nonetheless controversial. Given the tiny size of nanoparticles and delivery systems, there are fears that products applied to the skin containing them may be absorbed in the bloodstream—making them more than simply cosmetic, according to some—with consequences yet unknown.

While Gohla and others maintain cosmetics containing nanotechnology have very low concentrations, skeptics abound.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty about what’s safe and unsafe,” said Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “We’re not sure how to evaluate the long-term and short-term safety of [nanotechnology].”

Questions have also arisen about environmental issues.

“There is a washing machine on the market right now that uses silver nanoparticles … which are then flushed into sewage and processing waste, and as they’re so small, they just keep going through the system,” said Brian Lundquist, publisher of Nanotechnology Now, an online information portal based in Banks, Oregon. “Where do they end up? In fish and aquatic life.”

La Prairie’s Gohla believes the beauty industry’s use of nanotechnology has a less negative impact on nature than other consumergoods industries, since its product ingredients are often derived from natural botanical sources and are therefore biodegradable. Such ingredients also tend to form big particles once they’re returned to nature, so they are less likely to be absorbed by small life forms.

Maynard said it could take five years of research to begin understanding the impact of products created with nanotechnology.

“There are big warning bells going off,” said Lundquist. “Nanoparticles are so small they can penetrate through cellular walls. We need more research and a better understanding of how they interact with the skin and our bodies.”

While touting the importance of progress in the field of nanotechnology, the European Commission has also called for industry players to research fully its potential implications and encouraged specialists to communicate on its risks and benefits.

“It is in the common interest to adopt a proactive stance and fully integrate societal considerations into the [research-and-development] process, exploring its benefits, risks and deeper implications for society,” the report said. “This needs to be carried out as early as possible.”

Nanotechnology might be under the microscope, but many beauty companies are ready to forge ahead with the technology.

“Some people don’t care” whether the technology has dangerous consequences, said Lundquist. “They’d rather look good now.”