As I'm sure every student remembers, when you're in the middle of studying for a test, you often end up doing the most counter-intuitive thing to studying: you surf the net in search of procrastination. This, I admit, seemed like a much better idea than trying to decide whether or not Emily had a justified true belief that there was a cat in her house, and I somehow ended up on the most fascinating of NPR stories, about nano-cosmetics.
It would seem that the newest thing in anti-aging is nanosomes. Nanospheres. Buckyballs. Some of the ingredients are just smaller versions of chemicals that have been used for years, like nano-particles of zinc oxide, but others are genuinely new, like buckyball enhanced day cream; apparently the buckyballs are an anti-oxidant that prevent skin aging?
The concern, however, isn't minor. No one knows for sure what nano-particles will do; in many cases chemical compounds that are familiar at a larger level take on new properties when they become so small (this is, after all, part of the appeal of nanotechnology). Another concern is one that admittedly sort of freaks me out with it's unknown-ness: can nano-particles penetrate your skin? Is that day cream really seeping into your tissues, oozing into your blood and muscle and ick? (It's like the beginnings of a Robin Cook horror novel...) And this isn't just some random, too much horror-scifi reading as a kid concern; Sally Tinkle, a researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina, has shown in her lab that at least some nano-particles can seep through the skin, which means they could potentially get into our blood stream or interfere with our immune system. (I have the sudden urge to check all my cosmetic products for nanoanything...)
Of course, cosmetic companies point out that if what they were using in their products wasn't safe, the FDA wouldn't let it go on the market. But the FDA typically only investigates cosmetics if safety issues come up after the product is on the market; unlike drugs, there is no safety level testing, studies, or trials that have to be done on cosmetics, and no final approval or rejection process prior to marketing.
But at least some people are making an effort to track the claims of nanotech on the market. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has a Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies where they track all of the supposed nanotech out and about in our products, in everything from iPhones to face cream. They make this information available to the public, via their website, and it's incredibly easy to lose a few hours of time there browsing and marveling at all of the nanotech that has quietly become part of the marketplace.
In the meantime, I think I have something else to add to my labels watch list aside from high fructose corn syrup - it might be a slightly luddite reaction, I'll grant you that, but the idea of unknown nano-particles being a part of my beauty routine just makes me hesitant in a way that only being raised on a lot of science fiction can probably explain.