Nano-ingredients Pose Big Risks in Beauty Products

Nano-ingredients Pose Big Risks in Beauty Products

Friends of the Earth report highlights unregulated risks of nanoparticles in cosmetics and sunscreens

Lisa Grob, Friends of the Earth, 202-222-0744, [email protected] 
Lisa Archer, Friends of the Earth, 202-222-0712, [email protected]
Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth, 202-222-0739, [email protected]

Washington, D.C.— Some of the biggest names in cosmetics, including L’Oreal, Revlon and Estee Lauder, continue to sell products containing nano-scale ingredients despite growing evidence that nanomaterials can be toxic to humans, according to a report released today by Friends of the Earth.

The report, titled “Nanomaterials, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks,” details the extensive use of newly developed and poorly understood substances called nanomaterials in more than 116 sunscreens, cosmetics and personal care products currently on the market—despite a lack of independent safety assessment and regulation. The report also surveys a growing body of scientific research showing that many types of nanoparticles pose risks to consumers, workers and the environment.

“Engineered nanoparticles are being used in virtually every type of personal care product on the market, from sunscreens and anti-aging creams to toothpastes, despite preliminary scientific evidence that many types of nanoparticles can be toxic,” said Lisa Archer, Senior Health and Environment Campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S. “Corporations should stop marketing nano-laced products until these materials are proven safe and stop treating their customers like guinea pigs.”

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials and the creation of structures and systems that exist at the scale of atoms and molecules. A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter. By way of comparison, a DNA molecule is roughly 2.5 nm, a red blood cell 7,000 nm and a human hair cell a whopping 80,000 nm wide. The existing body of toxicological literature indicates that nanoparticles have a greater risk of toxicity than larger particles.

Cosmetics companies are using ingredients that include nano-scale metal oxides, carbon spheres called “fullerenes,” and “nanocapsules” designed to penetrate deeper layers of skin. Friends of the Earth believes its survey represents only a small sample of the cosmetics and personal care products containing “free” engineered nanoparticles now on store shelves.

Carbon fullerenes, which are used in some face creams and moisturizers, have antibacterial properties and have been found to cause brain damage in fish. Even low levels of exposure to fullerenes have been shown to damage human liver cells.

The summer sunbathing season presents an urgent dilemma as consumers use heavy amounts of sunscreen to ward off harmful ultraviolet rays, and in doing so unwittingly expose themselves to additional risk. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—used in large numbers of cosmetics, sunscreens and personal care products—have been shown to be photoactive, producing free radicals and causing DNA damage to skin cells when exposed to UV light.

Nowhere are nanomaterials entering consumer products faster than in the personal care and cosmetics industries. Use of personal care products such as certain shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and toothpastes poses a clear risk of exposure to untested nanomaterials because these products are used daily and are designed to be used directly on the skin. They may be inhaled and are often ingested. Because of their size, nanoparticles are more readily taken up by the human body than larger particles and are able to cross biological membranes and access cells, tissues and organs that larger particles cannot.

While the jury is still out on whether nanomaterials can enter intact skin, studies show that broken skin is an ineffective barrier and enables particles up to 7,000nm in size to reach living tissue. This suggests that the presence of acne, eczema or shaving wounds is likely to enable the uptake of nanoparticles into the body. Furthermore, many cosmetics and personal care products contain ingredients that act as “penetration enhancers,” raising concerns they may increase the likelihood of skin uptake of nanomaterials and possible entry into the blood stream.

In a 2004 report, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society—one of the oldest and most respected scientific bodies in the world—recommended “ingredients in the form of nanoparticles should undergo a full safety assessment by the relevant scientific advisory body before they are permitted for use in products.” Despite this warning, companies are rushing to incorporate nanomaterials into their products and cosmetics in a vacuum of independent safety testing. Two years after the Royal Society’s report, there are still no laws governing the use of nanomaterials in consumer products to ensure they do not cause harm to the public using them, workers producing them, or environmental systems into which waste nanoproducts are released.

“We’ve seen many ‘wonder’ materials with early warning signs, including but by no means limited to asbestos, DDT and PCBs,” Archer said. “The failure of government regulators to take seriously the early warning signs surrounding nanotoxicity suggests they have learned nothing from this long list of disasters.”  

Friends of the Earth recommends a moratorium on further commercial release of personal care products that contain engineered nanomaterials, and the withdrawal of such products currently on the market until adequate, publicly available, independent peer-reviewed safety studies have been completed. Friends of the Earth further recommends that adequate regulations be put in place to protect the general public, workers manufacturing these products, and the environment.

“It’s the least we can do until we know more about these products and this new, untested technology,” Archer added. 



Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of an influential, international network of grassroots groups in 70 countries. Founded in 1969 by David Brower, Friends of the Earth has for decades been at the forefront of high-profile efforts to create a more healthy, just world. Our members were the founders of what is now the world’s largest federation of democratically elected environmental groups, Friends of the Earth International.

Our report, “Nanomaterials, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks” is available at our Web site at /camps/comm/nanotech/.