What is Nanotechnology: Your Guide to Science and Beauty

Emma-Charlotte Bangay

Beauty and Lifestyle Expert

You may have heard the term ‘Nanotechnology’ bandied around at your favourite cosmetic counter – even though it sounds more at home in a science lab. So what is nanotechnology and how much do you know about it?



“Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of tiny particles at the nano-scale which is the scale of atoms and molecules,” explains Louise Sales, Friends of the Earth’s Nanotechnology Project Coordinator. “‘Nanomaterial’ is a catch all term referring to substances with dimensions at the nano-scale.”

In relation to beauty, there are hundreds, if not thousands of cosmetic, sunscreen and personal care products on the market that contain nanomaterials, says Sales.

“These include products such as deodorant, soap, shampoo, hair conditioner, sunscreen, anti-wrinkle cream, moisturiser, foundation, face powder, lipstick, blush, eye shadow, nail polish and perfume,” she explains.


Nanotechnology itself is nothing new, as advances in technology that began in the 1980s have allowed scientists to manipulate matter at the nano-scale. However it’s only really been in the past decade that nano-ingredients have started being widely used in beauty products.

Nano titanium dioxide and zinc oxide first started being used in sunscreen around a decade ago, notes Sales. Other nano-ingredients used in beauty products such as fullerenes are also fairly recent developments. “Australia has a number of companies that produce nano-ingredients for use in sunscreen and some of these companies also export these ingredients overseas.”

The WHY:

“The two main uses for nano-ingredients in beauty products are UV filtering and more effective delivery of active ingredients,” explains Sales. “Nano titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are both used extensively in sunscreens as UV filters, because – unlike bulk forms of the chemicals which rub on white – they rub on clear.”

“Nano-ingredients are also used to deliver active ingredient into the skin cells in anti-ageing creams and other skincare products.” 


Sales notes that concerns have been raised about the use of nano titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in sunscreen, as they are both big producers of free radicals, which can damage proteins and DNA. “Accordingly, the leader of CSIRO’s Nanosafety group warned in 2008 that in a worst-case scenario, nano-ingredients in sunscreens could cause skin cancer,” she notes.

“The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety recently recommended that certain nano titanium dioxide ingredients not be used in sunscreen because they strongly react with sunlight to produce free radicals. It also recommended that nano titanium dioxide and nano zinc oxide not be used in powder or sprayable products because of the toxicity risk associated with inhalation.”

Concerns have also been used about the use of fullerenes in face creams and moisturisers since these nano-ingredients have been found to be toxic to human liver cells and cause brain damage in fish. “A 2010 review of the research done so far found that there is not enough evidence to conclude whether fullerenes are safe to be used in skin products.”

Unfortunately nanomaterials used in beauty products in Australia don’t require either safety testing or labeling which means consumers have no way of avoiding these ingredients. “If people want to avoid nanomaterials in cosmetics we suggest contacting companies directly and asking if they use these ingredients,” says Sales. Alternatively, organically certified products must be nano-free, so this may also be your safest skincare bet.

For more information, click here.

You may be interested in getting more insight into sunscreen ingredients, healthy cosmetic alternatives and here’s an Aussie Organic option; Kora

Image Credit: hairandbeautyjobs.com

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