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Nanotechnology to Transform Cosmetics Industry and FDA Regulation

March 28, 2008

HOUSTON (March 28, 2008): Cosmetic products manufactured to nanoscale include more protective sunscreen, more effective hair care preparations, and skin creams that minimize lines and wrinkles.

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Emerging Nanotechnology project has currently identified 75 cosmetics among over 500 consumer products that claim to use nanomaterials. Controversy has grown over the effect that nanoscale particles in cosmetics may have if they enter cells in the human body or migrate into the bloodstream. The size of these particles created by revolutionary new nanotechnology is measured in nanometers – one billionth of a meter, or approximately 1/100,000 the width of a human hair.

“Nanotechnology is often called an industry, but is actually a set of technologies that are transforming a whole range of industries – from energy exploration to food packaging to cosmetics,” says Tracy D. Hester, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani’s Houston office and co-author of the Environmental Law Institute’s new Nanotechnology Deskbook, the first general work to explore the impact of law and regulation on nanotechnology.

Sunscreens are an excellent example of the benefits created and questions raised by nanomaterials in cosmetics.  Producing zinc oxide, the active material in sunscreen, in nanoscale dimensions makes the cream transparent, enhances its absorptive qualities and better protects users against ultraviolet rays.  Environmental groups and consumer advocates, however, have argued whether nanoscale zinc oxide are not simply a new version of the existing chemical and subject to current regulations.  They instead believe that it is an entirely new material with novel properties whose human effects must be studied.

“The controversy over nanotechnology in cosmetics is already in full swing,” Mr. Hester explains.  “The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved nanomaterials for use in sunscreen products and other creams, but the International Technology Center and many consumer groups are challenging that ruling. The FDA has not yet promulgated regulations specifically focused on nanotechnology, which heightens the level of controversy.”

Because federal environmental, health and safety laws and regulations that expressly regulate nanomaterials currently do not exist, a more intensive focus on how to use current statutes and regulations is necessary to identify where new action is needed.

“Because the use of nanotechnology in cosmetics is already so far advanced, consensus on a regulatory protocol for these products could create a foundation for a more comprehensive approach to match legal breakthroughs with technological ones,” adds Mr. Hester. “Until such a protocol is reached, however, cosmetic companies should evaluate and take into consideration all regulatory and public policy ramifications of introducing nanoscale particles into their products to avoid costly future litigation and uphold brand reputation.”

A wide variety of other industries, from microprocessors to oil and gas exploration to military applications, stand to benefit from greater clarification on nanotechnology regulation standards.

Mr. Hester is a frequently speaks on the environmental regulation of nanomaterials at national and international conferences and other industry forums, including those sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nanotechnology to Transform Cosmetics Industry and FDA Regulation