A cosmetic leap of faith

Industry ignores perils of using nanotechnology in beauty products

By Jayanthi A Pushkaran
Published: Saturday 31 March 2012

Jayanthi A PushkaranThe latest Sunsilk advert doing rounds on TV showcases its new range of hair care products. Sunsilk’s breakthrough formulations claim to provide root-to-tip nourishment to each strand. Its patented formula entails nanoparticles with a highly concentrated protein compound which coats every strand and supposedly provides even deposition across the strand. These products are based on nanotechnology, the new kid on the block of mega-technologies which has become a huge hit in the cosmetic sector.

A report by Thomson Reuters suggests that cosmetic firms have doubled their investment in nanotechnology R&D over the past seven years. Products trademarked with the term nano in the brand names have also risen. Cosmetic giants like L’Oréal, Amorepacific, Avon and Proctor & Gamble are using nanotechnology not only to enhance the efficacy of their products but also to raise the bar in the market by achieving technology-based product differentiation. L’Oréal is one of the largest nanotechnology patent holders in the US and has devoted $600 million of its annual $17 billion revenues to nanotechnology research.

India’s cosmetic market is being targeted by premium global cosmetic brands due to its favourable demographics and tremendous annual growth rate (15 to 20 per cent). Market experts have observed a parallel shift in the demand from functional to specialised cosmetic products. Earlier this year, International Trade Administration of the US Department of Commerce identified India as a vibrant spot for US firms. It is time to reflect upon the potential implications of this technology.

Why is cosmetic industry so fond of nanotechnology? The answer lies in the unique properties that these particles hold. At the physical range of 1-100 nm, nanoparticles display improved properties (physical, chemical or biological) that enable application of new phenomenon based on their size.

imageNanotechnology is used in lotions to make wrinkles disappear, in serums to enhance breasts and in sunscreens. The mineral-based pigments of titanium and zinc oxide, commonly used in sunscreens, are greasy and leave a white residue on application. But when reduced to nanosized bits, the pigments become transparent and more penetrating. Likewise nanosized emulsifiers used in shampoos, hair conditioners and makeup removers yield less oily mixture when they are broken down. In anti-aging products nanoparticles are used for its potential to topically deliver antioxidants, vitamins and minerals for skin rejuvenation.

However, the long term health impacts of nanoparticles remain poorly understood. We assume that if a cosmetic product is available in the market, it has been checked for safety. But experiences from different parts of world suggest otherwise. L’Oréal lists several products under its anti-ageing Revitalift product line containing nano-sized ingredients.

However, neither the word “nano” appears on the label, nor are they tested for their nano-properties in India. D S Sankholkar, the former head of Technical Regulatory Affairs, Unilever India, argues that the pace of regulation for cosmetic labelling and standard development in India is not in line with technological progress. In fact, Indian norms for labelling and safety tests of cosmetic products as dictated by Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and the Drug and Cosmetics Act have no specific provision to address nanoparticles. Therefore, if titanium dioxide is permitted in cosmetic preparations then nanosized titanium oxide too would be treated as harmless and seen within the framework designed for its bulk counterpart. In the past few years, countries like the US, UK, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and Japan have started addressing concerns related to use of nanotechnology in cosmetics. The EU has passed laws which require all cosmetics having nano-ingredients to be tested for safety before being marketed.

It has been a decade since Nano Science and Technology Initiative was launched in India yet there is no policy that regulates nanotechnology. “Though BIS has developed four standards in nanotechnology, none of them deal with its use in cosmetics,” says Madhulika Bhati of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Jayanthi A Pushkaran is at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, Delhi

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