Nanoparticles in Cosmetics: They Are a BIG Deal by Chryso D'Angelo, October 14 2016, 14 Comments

Photo courtesy of Gisela Giardino via Flickr.

The word “nanoparticle” has been in the news a lot lately, but what exactly is a nanoparticle and how can it impact our lives when it comes to the simple things—like beauty?

A nanoparticle is a very small particle, or object, that behaves as a whole unit in terms of its properties and transport. Usually, nanoparticles are between 1 and 100 nm in size (diameter). FYI, 1 nm = 1 billionth of a meter—VERY small! (but bigger than an atom).

“The applications of nanotechnology and nanomaterials can be found in many cosmetic products including moisturizers, hair care products, make up and sunscreen,” according to That means we may encounter nanomaterials on the daily.

In fact, you may have slathered nanoparticles on your skin over the summer in the form of sunscreen since nanoparticles may be used as UV filters. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the main compounds used in these applications, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

In addition, nanoparticles may be used as “delivery vehicles” in cosmetics. According to, this means that when used, nanoparticles can provide enhanced skin hydration, bioavailability and stability of the agent. In English? They make cosmetics look, feel and work better.

The trouble is nanoparticles can be absorbed through the skin and wreak havoc on our health, according to the report Friend of the Earth: Nanotechnology & Sunscreens.

The report reads: “Unlike larger particles, nanoparticles can enter vital organs, tissues and even our bodies’ cells. While we still don’t have a very good understanding about what levels of nano exposure might be unsafe, available scientific studies have shown that nanoparticles used in sunscreens can cause severe damage to our DNA.

“Nanoparticles could cause lung damage when inhaled,” according to the EWG. That’s why the EWG “strongly discourages the use of loose powder makeup or spray sunscreens using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size."

While there has not been much research on nanoparticles, the bit that's been studied is troubling. For example, the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens has classified titanium dioxide as a possible carcinogen when inhaled in high doses (IARC 2006b):

"The lungs have difficulty clearing small particles, and the particles may pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. Insoluble nanoparticles that penetrate skin or lung tissue can cause extensive organ damage.”

Further, the EWG report notes that lip sunscreens may contain nanoparticles, which can be swallowed and might damage the gastrointestinal tract.

As was the case with parabens and sulfates, there is not much regulation when it comes to nanoparticles. In fact, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the qualities of the particles used in their sunscreens, according to the EWG.

To date, there is no FDA regulation of nanoparticles in cosmetics. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency is conducting nanoparticle safety research. In addition, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials was established in 2006. According to Nanoparticles in the Environment Tiny Size, Large Consequences?, nanoparticles "may adversely effect sea life, but studies aren’t conclusive.”