Nanomaterials in Consumer Products: Miracle or Threat?


Nanomaterials sound like science fiction. New materials that can make chips 100 times smaller while running thousands of times faster, nanomaterials also turn sunscreen from a white paste into a transparent cream that absorbs UV rays. It sounds too good to be true. And maybe it is. No one really knows how safe nanomaterials are. But that hasn’t stopped companies from incorporating them into thousands of consumer products.

What are nanomaterials

The word nanomaterial, often used interchangeably with nanoparticle, does not refer to a specific substance. Rather, nanomaterials are defined by their size, which is less than 100 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is equivalent to a millionth of a millimeter – too small to be seen without an electron microscope. Although some nanomaterials exist in nature, most of the discussion centers around engineered nanomaterials (ENMs). Commonly used nanomaterials include carbon structures, oxides of titanium, and other metals, including silver.

Their size gives them unique properties that are useful in creating more effective pharmaceuticals, stronger materials, and smaller electronic components. They are even useful in cleaning up the environment, where they can bind to toxins to neutralize them.

Nanomaterials are a lot of things. But they are not regulated.

Risky business

Since nanomaterials are relatively new, governments have not developed rules for their use in consumer products or even for the labeling of products that contain them. Although environmentalists adhere to the precautionary principle, governments rarely act in the absence of solid data documenting the damage. So far, most research involving nanomaterials has focused on their development and potential applications. Safety research on their behavior in the environment or potential impacts on human health is scarce.

However, a European study analyzed nanomaterials in an aquatic system. Much like microplastics, nanomaterials entered the food chain and bioaccumulated, concentrating in the brains of fish. It is also known that nanoparticles can enter the human body by inhalation, ingestion and even through the skin. Fibrous carbon nanomaterials can induce asbestos-like inflammation of the lungs.

Consumer products

If you find these red flags concerning and want to avoid nanomaterials until they are proven safe, you are up for a challenge. Companies rarely disclose their use of nanomaterials, which are already prevalent in products such as sunscreens, cosmetics, sporting goods, stain resistant clothing, tires and electronics. And while there are resources to help people avoid toxins in consumer products, undisclosed nanomaterials are not easily detected.

What you can do

The consumer product inventory lists more than 1,600 products identified by the manufacturer as containing nanoparticles. The Safe Cosmetics Campaign maintains a list of ingredients that may indicate the presence of nanomaterials in personal products. But without regulation, there is no guarantee that nanoparticles are absent when they are not listed.

You can use your power as a consumer to let companies know that you are concerned about the use of nanomaterials and want to see more research on their safety. Let your elected officials know that you support building the FDA’s capacity to regulate the safety of cosmetics and that you support the provisions of the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2019.

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