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Tiny, but scary, nano ingredients
(This article is from the September 2010 ShopSmart Magazine)

Many of today’s consumer products are made using nanotechnology, including food packaging, pots and pans, and personal care products. But there are some troubling questions about nano ingredients, particularly those that are widely used in sunscreens and cosmetics. It’s a worrisome trend, according to Consumer Union nano-engineering expert Michael Hansen, Ph.D., who provided some answers below.

What is nanotechnology?

Nano-engineered ingredients are slightly larger than the size of atoms and molecules, or about one hundred-thousandth of the width of a human hair. When particles become that tiny, they behave differently. For example, titanium dioxide, which is used in sunscreens, goes from being white to almost clear at the nano size, and this makes the sunscreen look clearer on the skin.

Are nano ingredients safety-tested?

Not adequately. If a compound has been determined to be safe, then different-sized versions are considered safe. Although that rule is true in general, it breaks down on the nano level.

Which ingredients used in personal care products are nano-engineered?

Most of the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide used in sunscreens is nano-engineered. Nano silver also might be added to cosmetics, bandages, or toothpaste. Fullerenes (also called C60), are a type of carbon molecule that also is nano-engineered, and it might be put in anti-aging skin creams.

Should we be worried?

Yes. Their extremely tiny size means that nano-scale particles might be able to breach the blood-brain barrier, or the placental-fetal barrier and, if they do, they might cause damage.

Recent studies showed that when swallowed, nano-titanium dioxide can cause a type of DNA damage that could lead to cancer. If it gets into the bloodstream of a pregnant mouse, it can cause reproductive and brain problems in the offspring.

What if you want to avoid nano ingredients?

There are no labeling requirements for nano ingredients in consumer products, so often you cannot know whether something contains nano materials. But you can scan ingredient lists and avoid those products that contain titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, fullerenes (or C60) and liposomes, which are tiny structures designed to deliver ingredients deeper into the skin.

Related links
Safer sun protection 7/10
AOL News Special Report: The Nanotech Gamble—Bold Science, Big Money, Growing Risks (March 2010)
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) This website is part of the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies that provides lists of hundreds of consumer products advertised or labeled as containing nano ingredients.

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