What are nanoparticles, and why are they in cosmetics?

Nanotechnology is a science that’s increasingly being applied to electronics, medicine, and—in a huge way—cosmetics.

Many of the biggest international brands are now making products using microscopic nanoparticles, and some even proudly boast about their use of nanotechnology on labels. But, like many ingredients used in personal care products, these tiny particles come with tiny amounts of research related to whether or not they are safe in terms of long-term health effects.


What we know:

Nanoparticles are measured in nanometers, which are equal to one billionth of a meter. To put that into perspective, a strand of human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick, and a sheet of paper is about 100,000. Nanoparticles’ small size makes them particularly useful in cosmetics for a couple of reasons. First, they may speed up a product’s penetration into the skin. For example, many sunscreens contain nanoparticle-sized zinc oxide to help prevent that familiar white film from forming. Second, when used in cosmetics like face powders and blushes, they are able to fill microscopic crevices in skin, creating a smooth look.

Some studies have shown that, due to their size, nanoparticles can quickly make their way into the bloodstream and other parts of the body, either via inhalation or skin absorption.

What we don’t know:

While the particles may be entering the body, there’s very little safety data on whether they may be causing damage once they’re there.

Although several studies on nanomaterials used in cosmetic and personal care products have suggested possible adverse health and ecological impacts, there is not sufficient evidence to-date to draw definitive conclusions. The European Union’s Scientific Committee on cosmetics denied the use of micronized (1) zinc oxide as a sunscreen in 2003 due to the lack of safety data, and a review by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) cited similar concerns. “Our research indicates that the cosmetics industry uses nano-scale ingredients routinely, even though exposures and potential risks are poorly understood,” the report stated.

The bottom line? We simply don’t know if nanoparticles are safe, so Beautycounter will not use nanotechnology or nanoparticles until we know for sure that they don’t have health risks.

(1) Although all nanoparticles (particles less than 100 nanometers, or 0.1 micron in diameter) can be considered ‘micronized particles’ (meaning that they are reduced in size until they are a few micrometers in diameter, usually ranging from 0.1 micron and 100 microns), not all micronized particles are necessarily nanoparticles.