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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Mondays, our Business Report focuses on technology, and today nanotechnology at the drugstore.

Consider these products: chocolate, chewing gum, vacuum cleaners and computer chips. A new report says these are all products that claim to use nanotechnology, the science of the super small.

The report lists more than 200 everyday products, including more than two dozen cosmetics.

NPR's Nell Boyce recently went on a Nanocosmetics shopping spree and looked into what is known about the safety of smearing nanotech on your face.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Andrew Maynard is standing outside a drug store in Washington D.C. He says he doesn't really wear make-up.

Mr. ANDREW MAYNARD (Science Advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): You know, this is probably the first time I've ever been cosmetics shopping.

BOYCE: Buying beauty cream is suddenly part of Maynard's job. He's the science advisor for the project on Emerging nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The center has just put up a Website with a searchable list of commercially available nano-products. About 10 percent are cosmetics.

Okay, so here we are in the skin care section of our local CVS, and what are we looking at here?

Mr. MAYNARD: We're looking at L'Oreal RevitaLift; and let's just grab one of these off the shelf and reading the label it says: Intense Re-Tightening Gel, Pro-Tensium plus Nanosomes of Pro-Retinol A. So this is clearly a product which is based in some way on nanotechnology.

BOYCE: We take the anti-wrinkle cream and some other cosmetics back to the ladies room, at Maynard's office.

Mr. MAYNARD: Let's see what we have here.

BOYCE: Do you want to put them up here on the sink?

Mr. MAYNARD: Okay so that's RevitaLift, we've just purchased. We also have some Lancome Hydra Zen.

BOYCE: The Hydra Zen and the RevitaLift, both contain tiny capsules full of chemicals. Just smaller versions of something cosmetics have used for years. Some of the other products also use nano-versions of familiar materials, like skin creams with superfine particles of silica and sunscreens with nano-particles of zinc oxide--the white stuff you see on a lifeguard's nose.

Mr. MAYNARD: So let's open this up and see what we have in here.

BOYCE: Some cosmetics have more exotic nano-ingredients. Maynard holds up a $300 jar of Zelens Day Cream.

Mr. MAYNARD: It's very interesting because it uses this material, buckyballs, which really do, in many people's minds, epitomize nanotechnology.

BOYCE: Buckyballs look like little soccer balls made of carbon atoms. Their discovery won a Nobel Prize and helped launch the field of nanotech. Now the skin cream maker says buckyballs can prevent skin from aging prematurely.

But some experts wonder about the safety of highly engineered nano-materials like these. When particles get small, they tend to develop new chemical properties. That might mean unexpected risks. There hasn't been much research into the safety of nano-particles, like whether or not they can penetrate the skin.

Ms. SALLY TINKLE (Researcher, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina): And it's a question that is becoming more compelling.

BOYCE: Sally Tinkle works at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina. She says her lab and some others have found that at least some nano-particles can slip through the skin's tough outer layer. That means they could potentially interact with the immune system or get into the bloodstream.

Ms. TINKLE: We rely on our skin so much to be a protective barrier that we have to be very rigorous in our thinking about it.

BOYCE: Cosmetics companies say they do rigorous studies before releasing products, which are regulated by the government. John Bailey works for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.

Mr. JOHN BAILEY (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association): Certainly within the cosmetics law, there are sufficient checks and balances that will ensure that ingredients are safe.

BOYCE: The Food and Drug Administration only looks at a cosmetic if safety questions emerge after it's on the market. And manufacturers aren't required to tell the agency if they're using nanotech.

The FDA is doing studies on whether nano-particles, now found in some sunscreens, can penetrate the skin. But a spokesperson said those are expected to take months.

So for now, consumers have to do their own research into products like Colorescience Eye Serum, which says it contains magical liquid crystals. While I paint my eyelids at the Wilson Center, Andrew Maynard reads its promotional material.

Mr. MAYNARD: Based on nanotechnology, these compounds exhibit dramatic visual color.

BOYCE: What do you think?

Mr. MAYNARD: Let's have a look. It certainly looks iridescent, it gives your eyelid a certain purple glow.

BOYCE: The unearthly glow does look sci-fi, but it turns out it's not nanotech.

The founder of Colorescience told me they'd thought the mineral particles were small enough to qualify. But now they think they're too big.

So some products that say they contain nanotech, may really not. And some that do, may not tell you.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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