Manufacturers, not wanting to miss a chance to apply the benefits of the new wave of technology, are placing a lot of faith in the future of nano materials — tiny particles designed to improve certain product characteristics.
Nano particles are smaller than a speck of dust. Though their effect on humans and on the environment has not yet been researched conclusively, they already are found in many products without being listed as ingredients on the packaging.
But a new decree issued by the European Parliament would require cosmetic makers to list nano materials in the ingredients and put the word nano in parentheses next to the name of the material by 2012..
They must also file a security dossier with the European Commission. If there is doubt over the safety of a material used, the EU can order an investigation of the material and, if necessary, issue special regulations for the material in question.
The materials titanium oxide and zinc oxide, for example, have been used as a UV filter in sunscreen creams. Birgit Huber, a member of an industry association for personal care and laundry products in Frankfurt, said almost all sunscreen products on the market contain both ingredients.
The industry values materials like titanium oxide and zinc oxide in nano form because they open new possibilities.
“The two materials previously were included in cosmetics as white pigments. But they left a white film on the skin, something consumers didn’t like,” Huber said.
The nano particles now used in sunscreen creams make the pigments invisible to the human eye. In addition they offer a higher protection against UV light. Products with very high UV protection can be produced only if nano pigments are included as ingredients.
Several scientific studies have shown that under certain conditions, the materials can damage human DNA, Germany’s union for environmental protection said.
“However, to our knowledge nano materials that are currently in products on the market applied to healthy skin result in no direct danger to consumers,” said Mario Goetz of Germany’s federal institute for risk assessment in Berlin, while adding that the new decree seeks to strengthen consumer protection.
The union views the regulations as a step in the right direction, but they are not technically advanced enough to deal with the continued adoption of nano materials.
“The definition of nano materials in the EU decree is in our opinion too narrowly conceived,” said Katja Faupel of the union for environmental protection.
What is still lacking is a worldwide uniform definition of the term nano materials. In the EU cosmetic decree, only insoluble and stable materials with a size of 1 to 100 nanometers count as nano materials.
The union thinks the definition should be broadened to include degradable and soluble materials.
“Otherwise a lot of nano materials could be used without the appropriate label,” said Faupel, adding that she believed the regulations would soon be revised.
This is possible in principle, Goetz said, as the new decree offers some room to fit definitions and regulations to technical progress.
Critics also complain about the long transition phase: The new decree takes effect in 2012. Until then, nano materials may continue to be used without labeling. A consumer who would like to know whether a product contains nano materials has only one way of finding out: Call the maker of the product and ask.