Chemicals, minerals, and other materials 40,000 times smaller than a human hair are being added to an astonishingly high number of consumer products, from peanut butter to socks to sunscreen. And in an unusual departure from its usual innocent-until-proven-guilty approach in regulating consumer goods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a new statement saying that such tiny technology needs more safety testing before it's used in consumer goods.
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At issue here is nanotechnology, the science of constructing materials so small they're invisible to most microscopes. In addition to making things like iPhones and solar panels possible, nanotechnology has been used in sunscreens, where nano-size particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide prevent white residues, and in food packaging, in which materials like nanoparticles of silver prevent food spoilage.
Although the technology has been in widespread use for the past decade, scientists still have very little to go on with regard to whether products that contain nanoparticles are safe. Some studies have shown that nanoparticles in cosmetics or personal care products can be absorbed by the skin and make it into your brain, causing oxidative stress (essentially, rotting of your brain cells) while others have found that ingested nanoparticles can damage the colon. Because it damages aquatic organisms and can build up in fish and other species, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates nano-silver, used in a large number of products claiming to be antibacterial, as a pesticide. The nonprofit Friends of the Earth has also warned that overuse of nanosilver can lead to antibacterial resistance and the rise of superbugs, such as MRSA.
Now, at least, the FDA has said that companies who use nanoparticles in food packaging, food additives, or other food-contact applications have to prove the technology is safe before unleashing this tiny technology on the public. Rather than falling under the category of "generally recognized as safe," as nearly all food additives do, nanoparticles will have to undergo additional safety testing, and companies will have to show documented safety records.
Unfortunately, the same will not hold true for cosmetics. The agency has said that cosmetics containing nanoparticles—sunscreens, lipsticks, lotions, and the like—will be regulated as all cosmetics are, which, in FDA parlance, essentially means not at all.
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Even more unfortunately, the same law that allows cosmetic companies to sell untested products also allows companies to be vague on ingredient labels. Any material used in a lotion or lipstick, for instance, can be nanosize without the company informing you of that.
To avoid nanoparticles in your makeup, befriend two databases:
• The Environmental Working Group's SkinDeep Database scours labels for words such as "micronized" and "nanodelivery system" and for mineral ingredients, such as iron oxide, gold, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide, which are often added to cosmetics in nano-scale size.