Nanotechnology, the modern science of manipulating matter on an atomic or molecular level, is revolutionizing the production of everyday items, from computers to chocolate. These miniscule particles can penetrate the body on a level not previously known. In skincare products, nanotechnology is considered appealing on account of the fact that nanoparticles can reach deeper below the skin’s surface to produce enhanced results. To better illustrate the point, one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter. In comparison, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter. While it’s a relatively new field—first implemented about 30 years ago—consumers may not even be aware that some of the products they use contain nanomaterials. But as nanotechnology is making advancements in skincare, experts continue to debate its practice.
A lack of scientific data supporting the safety of some nanosized materials keeps the field an elusive one. “A very tiny particle may have different properties than its full-size component,” says Claudia Aguirre, Ph.D., scientific communications manager for The International Dermal Institute (IDI) and Dermalogica. A particularly controversial nanomaterial in skincare is in the form of buckyballs, she explains. “These are minute soccer-ball looking particles that are shown to be antioxidants, which we know from vitamins can fight premature aging of the skin. Concerns around mini-balls are that these nanoparticles may slip and potentially get into the bloodstream, affecting our immune system.” Joel Schlessinger, M.D., an Omaha, NE-based dermatologist and founder of LovelySkin.com, says he’s skeptical of nanotechnology in potentially inhaled substances like makeup, an area in which nanotechnology is not yet widely used. “The jury is out on nanoparticles as far as their interaction with the lungs go. It is possible they can lodge in the lungs and cause issues down the line, much as asbestos did over time,” he states. As federal administrative agencies attempt to quantify, categorize, and regulate nanotechnology, the FDA does not currently require manufacturers to indicate on a label that a product was manufactured using nanotechnology. “More research into the safety of these materials will be made by government agencies, like the FDA, and should provide more clarification for consumers,” says Aguirre.
However, the use of nanoparticles in sunscreens (containing micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) is one of the more common uses of this technology and has been determined safe for human skin by the FDA, the Environmental Working Group, and other global government organizations, such as the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products. “This technology allowed formulators to transcend the dreaded ‘white face’ effect of ‘80s sunblock,” says Aguirre. “Sunscreen filters are no longer a thick block, but part of a sophisticated formula that allows for UVA and UVB protection, along with other skin benefits, to be easily and transparently applied to skin.” Dermalogica’s Daylight Defense line, for instance, uses particles greater than 100nm, “so while it can be said that they are nanotechnology, we still make sure the size is such that there is no issue of penetration into the skin,” says Diana Howard Ph.D., vice president of research and development and global education for Dermalogica and IDI.
While the use of nanotechnology in skincare at large is still under question (smaller particles are more readily absorbed into the skin, a potential benefit and a possible threat), several companies are touting its virtues. According to Dieter Kuster, Ph.D., founder of CA BOTANA, nanoparticles only cause negative results if the starting materi-als are not compatible with the body. “Our proprietary technology, developed over a period of 12 years, allows us to use materials like amino acids, enzymes, herbal extracts, sodium hyaluronate, vitamins, and the most effective forms of peptides to encapsulate into our Alphasome technology,” says Kuster. “This allows us to control the release of actives in a timely manner and guide them to the target area. Effective results are shown in improving moisture, elasticity, and skin density, and reducing the depth of wrinkles.”
Gold is one nano-ingredient used in luxe products for its miraculous properties. In a study published in the July 2007 issue of Analytical Chemistry, scientists from Purdue University detailed their use of gold nanoparticles to detect breast cancer. However, Schlessinger cautions, “There are allergies that occur from gold in some patients…many of these treatments are promoted as facials and rubbed into the skin, so as to penetrate more effectively. This can lead to an internal allergic reaction if they are absorbed.”
Laka Skin Care & Spa (Honolulu) offers a Laka Nano-Tech Gold Facial ($165, 90 minutes) that uses exfoliating microscopic particles of pure 24-karat nanogold to help draw out impurities. Estheticians employ a special Japanese-inspired massage technique to help the product penetrate deeply and increase circulation. The treatment rejuvenates below the dermis, releases negative ions into the deepest layers, and restores the skin’s ionic balance to its ideal state. “It’s one of our most popular and unique facial treatments,” says co-owner Akiko Chun. “We can instantly see firmness in the jawline and a glow in the skin. It’s good for all skin types.” One skincare line Laka stocks is Cosme Proud, a Japanese brand that uses manipulated 24-karat pure gold, which helps release negative ions in its face wash, toner, serum, and moisturizer. Its Gold Amber Rich Lotion, which features manipulated gold along with manipulated amber, an anti-aging ingredient from the Baltic Sea, heightens the vitality and healing powers of the skin to prevent age spots, wrinkles, and sagging, says sales and marketing manager Mitsuko Nakayama.
Rather than using manipulated ingredients like gold, the Kayantá Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun (Mexico) offers a Nano Technology Facial ($200, 50 minutes; $235, 80 minutes) that uses a high-definition, non-invasive computerized signal at the nanoampere range that is able to resonate at the intricate cellular level and act as an antioxidant without causing trauma to the skin the way a laser might. The result “lifts facial muscles, increasing collagen and elastin while building tissue,” says spa director Viorica Coman. “It is a non-surgical face lift and reduces dark circles and sun damage.”
Beyond the safety of its application, part of the issue with nanotechnology is that there lacks a universal description of what exactly it is. “The definition of nanotechnology is what I think is the biggest problem and biggest question,” says Carolyn Veroni Zinober, director of business development for Celazome Clinical Skin Care. “It means different things to different people. Ours is a delivery method. We do not take an ingredient and nanosize it—we will not use anything nanosized or shrunken down. We’re not going to try to alter the chemical composition of an ingredient. We just want it to work smarter and better.” Celazome uses a patented delivery method that takes already small ingredients and encapsulates them into a plant-based nanosphere (1/50 the size of a skin cell) to put ingredients deeper into the skin and release them over a period of time. This allows for what Veroni Zinober calls “pretty cool formulas that don’t bother each other or the skin.” For example, Retin-A takes away irritation once it’s encapsulated so it can be used on sensitive skin. “When it goes deep down, it’s past that irritation level in the skin. Nanotechnology is brilliant because you can customize how it’s going to work in the body. Skincare is scratching the surface on what nanotechnology can do.”
As some see nanotechnology as a new, exciting buzzword, Veroni Zinober urges more research. “You can take an ingredient and micronize it, but you need to do new clinicals on it, even if it’s vitamin C,” she says. “You’ve altered it.” While the possibilities are endless as to the ways nanotechnology can be used, until more research is done, it’s up to the consumer to make an informed decision. “We need to re-educate ourselves,” Veroni Zinober says. “It’s not a flat-out bad word, but ask a few questions before you decide if it’s something you want.”