24 November, 2009

Nano-technology: Hidden killer?

The Melbourne Age had a great example of uninformed, science fearing, luddism in the paper today. The revelation that that there are small things in make-up. If it sounds like science, it could be a killer!

The use of nanotechnology is common in some top-selling cosmetics - but don't expect to find anything about it on the label.

Those are the findings of a new Friends of the Earth report that claims Australian women are being used as guinea pigs by big cosmetic companies after independent testing showed that several high-end concealer and foundation brands contained nanoparticles in some form.

Describing the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics as the potential modern-day equivalent of arsenic creams popular in the Elizabethan court, Friends of the Earth's Georgia Miller called for greater transparency in the beauty sector.

While I certainly hold a very low opinion of the cosmetics industry, that is based on the fact that they exploit peoples' insecurities to sell them overpriced muck, advertised with claims of efficacy that are deliberately untestable and with science-like, self-invented gibberish of the "neutragenics" and "plasmonic anti-againg" variety.
The article in The Age, however, is equally uninformed. The implication is that nanoparticles are as dangerous as arsenic, are untested, and are being poured into face creams by lab-coat wearing, test-tube wielding mad-scientist types. Fear it because it's science seems to be the message in the article. There's no mention of what the nanoparticles actually are. Are we talking about 5nm clusters of gold atoms (used for catalysis), fluorescing quantum dots (100 nm and potentially useful for tracing transport of nutrients, etc, in plants)
carbon nanotubes (10-100 nm diameter and microns in length: potential uses are varied but include a possible delivery mechanisms for anti-cancer drugs),
Zinc oxide/Titanium oxide in sunscreen: ~50-100 nm? In fact, Why is the The Age running a headline about nanotechnology and sunscreen? It's harder to drum up some hype about products that have been used for years with no obvious negative effects and which are known to help prevent people dying slow painful deaths after getting skin cnacer!

There's much to be skeptical of about the current nanotech buzz: putting omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil inside nano-tubes to make what is essentially an ultra-fresh fish-oil pill*, rather than just suggesting people eat some fresh fish (where's the "value-added" profit in that?). There's also much to be excited about; cleaner/cheaper/more efficient/more powerful technologies to save lives/energy/resources and so on. The variety of applications is huge, because the types of science and technology that can be covered by the label nanotechnology is huge. For the typical reader of the article in The Age, the term "nano" could have been replaced by "very small" without any loss of accuracy or understanding. I know it appeared in the "Life & Style" section of the paper rather than the "Technology" section, but uninformed fear-mongering drivel like this article doesn't help anyone.

*It's true! I was at a conference where this was one suggested application of nanotechnology.


  1. http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,26375283-401,00.html

    Geez, first they tell us its somehow "bad" to use makeup harvested from fatties, and now its supposedly dangerous to use makeup with nanoparticles!

    Maybe we can make makeup with human fat particles stored inside nanotubes so it is extra fresh. I suppose you will tell us if we want fresh human fat on our faces we should just put actual fresh human fat on our faces.

  2. You've really captured the issue well I think. Clearly there is a big difference between the "good" uses of nanoparticles like nanotubes full of extra-fresh human fat to rub on your face and the "bad" uses like dangerous nanoclusters of zinc or titanium oxide in sunscreen. Yet the article doesn't distinguish between these uses.

    BTW you should get a patent on the nanotubes filled with human fat before someone else does. In five years time every aging star in Hollywood will be using the stuff!

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  4. Yeah, well this news of long shelf life human fat with nanotubes is just fantastic. Up until now I had an issue keeping the fat fresh for very long, for example on a long tramp or climb. This is especially a problem in NZ where the backcountry is often not very crowded; sometimes you can go for days without a decent opportunity to resupply. Obviously this is never a problem in the US which may explain why this technology has been so long coming.

    Luckily in Peru it was never a problem since all the backcountry areas have little stalls selling the freshest of fresh fat. And at great prices too!

  5. I guess NZ must be one of the worst countries in the world for that problem since there aren't even any substitute mammals which you can use.

    In Australia, even though you can end up in places where you don't see any people for days, you can usually find a kangaroo or a dingo to get some fresh second grade fat for your face cream.

    It doesn't quite hydrate your skin like human fat but it's better than nothing and more pleasant than using your tub of human fat after it's been in the 40 degree sun for several days. That stuff really starts to stink!