Are all those nanoparticle cosmetics really safe?

If there is one category of objects classed as the bleeding edge of modern science, it is nanoparticles. From the ever-popular carbon nanotube to the innocuous quantum dot, there doesn't seem to be anything that science can't find a useful nanoparticle for.

Many question the use of these microscopic heroes, however, as they are as of yet poorly understood in terms of what they may or may not do to human physiology after long term exposure. It is well-known that some nanoparticles can collect in various organs in the body and at least one study has shown that needle-like carbon nanotubes have a very similar effect to the much-feared asbestos particle when accumulated in the lungs.

A paper published by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers now confirms that at least one kind of nanoparticle can penetrate a human's most resistant line of defense against foreign particles: the skin. The group's study, which can be found in the September issue of Nano Letters, shows that quantum dots were able to pass through the skin of laboratory mice.

While quantum dots are some of the smallest manufacturable nanoparticles, the research raises concerns about the use of nanoparticles in consumer products like cosmetics and sunscreens. The research shows that not only can these dots pass through skin, but when skin has been exposed to ultraviolet light, like that from the Sun, it becomes much easier for them to do so. As many cosmetic products, especially sunscreen, are now harnessing the unique properties of nanoparticles, many are curious as to what effects may come of such seepage.

Though titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, two nanoparticles commonly used in cosmetics and sunscreens, are much large than quantum dots, Lisa DeLouise, Ph.D., the leader of the Rochester study, intends to continue studying how they may or may not be able to utilize the same vectors to enter the body. Funding from various centers and foundations has allowed DeLouise to expand her study for an additional three years.

Nanoparticle research will be important in the coming years as too little is understood about their affects on the body. As it stands, nanoparticles will be an important part of science in the next decade and it would be sincerely foolish to not understand all of the benefits and consequences their use may bring, intended or otherwise.

"When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song." -- Sony BMG attorney Jennifer Pariser

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