The Invisible Dangers of Nanoparticles

You may have heard of nanoparticles, but did you know that you are now exposed to them daily? Lyndsey Bates of organic cosmetics brand Zao Essence of Nature explains the dangers

Touted to manufacturers as a way to boost performance of consumer items, nanoparticles have been deployed in consumer packaging and products for over a decade now.

In the personal care products sector, nanotechnology promised to deliver a longer shelf life and a whole host of consumer benefits such as enhanced UV protection and smoother skin.

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Beauty companies were not keen initially to disclose the use of nanotechnology in their products, prompting new EU Cosmetics Regulations in 2013 to decree that the use of nanoparticles must be named as such.

So now we know – or do we? What exactly are the implications of this technology?

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Let’s start with the definition of a nanoparticle itself. Ranging in size from 1-100 nanometers, nanoparticles can be as much as 1/100,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair. Nanotechnology is the process of manipulating matter at the ‘nanoscale’, creating particles so small that they can leach through our skin, cell and tissue membranes, as well as affecting the environment in unexpected ways.

In a recent study by MIT & The Harvard School of Public Health*, researchers tested 5 types of nanoparticles, all of which are in personal care products, clothing and a multitude of other consumer items.

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Zinc oxide, renowned for its unblemished safety record in safe sunscreen, was found to produce free radicals in nanoparticulate form, causing damage to DNA and advancing disease.

Titanium dioxide, too large to enter skin cells in its usual form, is another metallic particle that is especially dangerous in nanoparticulate form.

Yet beauty companies have incorporated this technology into makeup, as well as UV protective products, to deliver UV protection without whitening skin, a common complaint with sunscreens that work by blocking UV light.

Women have been warned about the dangers of titanium dioxide in makeup, yet the real danger lies when it is used in nanoparticulate form.

Nanoparticles are commonly used in personal care products


Used for UV sunscreen but also to create a white base from which colours can be added accurately to create a uniform and standard colour, the warnings about titanium dioxide fail to differentiate between micronized form, larger than a skin cell and therefore unable to penetrate, or nanoparticulate form, where it can accumulate in human body cells.

The unknown long-term effects of accumulation in tissues over time is a very valid concern, due to the now ubiquitous presence of nanotechnology in personal care products.

Nanoparticles pose a particular risk when inhaled, so dusting your favourite loose powder on your face could cause an asbestos-like condition in your lungs due to the hidden presence of nanoparticles**.

The dangers of nanotechnology extend to the environment. A disturbing study*** by researchers from the National Science Foundation Centre for Sustainable Nanotechnology found resistance in bacteria exposed to nanoparticles used in making lithium ion batteries and yet resistance only usually applies to antibiotics, revealing that nanoparticles act differently to larger scale particles.

It’s been tricky for scientists to predict the impact of nanotechnology on the environment as the smaller particles do not follow the laws of physics that larger particles are governed by; instead quantum mechanics dictate the outcome for nanoparticles. This means that the ability of nanoparticles to react chemically, and cause toxicity, is likely to differ from the source material, and so effects are still largely unknown.

Therefore, government legislation is totally inadequate in the field of nanotechnology, and so our environment and our own bodies have become unwitting experiments in the race for market share by consumer products’ manufacturers.


So, what can we do about it? EU legislation for cosmetics means that you can check labels to discover if your beauty product contains nanoparticles as the word ‘nano’ is required to follow all ingredients that have been subjected to this technology, so check your labels carefully and choose wisely. Do some research on all the ingredients found in your favourite products here:

Choose natural and certified organic products; nanotechnology is prohibited as part of the certification process, which is strictly regulated and subject to testing to prove purity of products. Be content with whitened skin when using SPF protection sunscreen, invest in brands that support and care about the environment and use your purchasing power to support brands that oppose environmental damage and risky untested technology.

Zao Essence of Nature retails 100% natural, certified organic, vegan, cruelty-free and refillable makeup in the UK. At the heart of organic make-up is David Reccole, Founder of Zao. With over 10 years experience in organic cosmetics, David had a vision to provide natural formulas enriched with active organic ingredients and sustainable packaging. Its name inspired by a blending of Zen and Tao, the Zao brand was born, using Bamboo both for casting and formulations.

Find out more about the Zao philosophy and products here:


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