A "review of the safety of the insoluble nanomaterials presently used in sunscreens is required," concludes a scientific opinion on the safety of nanomaterials in cosmetic products. The opinion was issued by the Commission's Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP), which addresses questions linked to the safety and allergenic properties of cosmetic products and ingredients with respect to their impact on consumer health.
In its opinion, adopted in December 2007 and made public in late February 2008, the committee recommends a case-by-case risk assessment of all nanoparticles used in cosmetics. It argues that this should be done either through validating existing safety evaluation methods for nanomaterials or by developing new ones specifically for nanomaterials.
The opinion also calls for the "urgent development of new methodologies to assess [the] skin penetration" of biopersistant nanomaterials which can accumulate in organs and which scientists consider more hazardous to health than the biodegradable ones, in particular with repeated application of cosmetic products.
The SCCP was asked to address the safety evaluation of nanomaterials for use in cosmetic products and to determine whether the previous opinions on nanomaterials currently used in sunscreen products need to be revised, following the publication of the UK's Royal Society & Royal Academy of Engineering report on the opportunities and uncertainties of nanotechnologies.
The report suggested that nanomaterials should be treated as new chemicals from a risk point of view and that evaluation of skin absorption should be considered for both normal and diseased skin.
The use of nanoparticles in sunscreen is just one example of the use of nanotechnology to improve consumer products. The argument is that while zinc is one of the most effective UV blockers, the large size of its particles makes it look thick and unattractive when applied as a sunscreen. Pulverising zinc into nanoparticles makes the sunscreen texture more fluid, transparent and attractive to use.
Other personal care products containing engineered nanomaterials such as deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, anti-wrinkle cream or nail polish are also already commercially available despite the lack of any nanomaterials regulation or requirements for product safety testing.
Nanoparticles and materials are so small that they can be inhaled, swallowed, absorbed through the skin or injected into the body, and yet their behaviour inside the body is still unknown, making the potential health and environmental effects impossible to predict.
The European Commission is currently completing a review of existing EU regulations to see whether specific nanotech legislation is needed to cover risks in relation to nanomaterials, or whether these materials can be considered as being part of, for example, the EU's chemicals legislation REACH. A Communication on the issue is foreseen in 2008.