Demystifying Nanoparticles and why you should care about them - By Jahnavi Jethmalani


Everything we do not know about the chemicals we use on our skin could fill a very thick book. A very large and important chapter in this book would have to be on the impact of nanoparticles.

With the advance of nanotechnology, the use of these particles in cosmetic products has grown rapidly with very limited understanding on how they impact our bodies and the environment. We demystify nanoparticles for you in this blog by answering the following questions:

  • What are nanoparticles?
  • What sizes of particles penetrate to which layer in the skin, blood, other organs?
  • What are some examples of good nanoparticles and bad nanoparticles?

Nanotechnology is the process of stripping compounds down to really tiny sizes (one hundred thousandth of the thickness of a sheet of paper¹) in order to harness previously inaccessible qualities. Compounds at the nano size begin to exhibit very different properties than their macro-counterparts, and are often unstable and highly reactive. 

For instance, graphite, the flimsy material in your pencil can be used to make bulletproof vests through nanotechnology1

The cosmetic industry has swooped in on the immense potential of this technology to enhance the efficacy of their products or provide some specific benefit. It is used in a variety of products like moisturizers, serums, sunscreens and soaps. Nanoparticles make these products better at delivering what they claim to provide for users like anti-ageing effects, sun protection, moisture and so on. However, there is cause for concern as our bodies and their surroundings get increasingly populated by these particles:

1. Nanoparticles penetrate deep within the body

The smaller the particle size, the easier it is for it to pass through the layers of our skin and enter the bloodstream for them to be used. Moreover, nanoparticles are commonly used in moisturizers to enhance the delivery of active ingredients to the cells. Nanoparticles, being highly reactive, attach themselves to active ingredients, thereby carrying these compounds into the cell. This means that as nanoparticles enter the bloodstream, they can also open the way for other compounds to enter, where previously they would have been blocked. Certain dangers associated with the permeability of nanoparticles have already been uncovered. Two of the most commonly used nanoparticles--zinc oxide (used in sunscreens) and titanium oxide (used as a whitener in moisturizers, lotions, creams, serums, etc.)--which are otherwise safe, have been found to catalyze the release of free radicals in the body leading to cell damage and skin cancer.² 

2. Nanoparticles can cause unintended and widespread impact on the environment

During the manufacture of nanoparticles and after they are washed off the skin, these reactive substances are unleashed into the environment. They can react with compounds in air and water to cause a variety of unintended consequences. For instance, anti-bacterial nanoparticles have been found to affect the balance of healthy bacteria in water bodies. They can increase the toxicity of pollutants in the environment and bind onto them in the atmosphere carrying them over large distances.³ Studies have found that nanoparticles from sunscreens and moisturizers can seep into the soil and find their way into crops that are grown in the soil.⁴ 

3. Nanoparticles are very loosely regulated

Although nanotechnology has been used in cosmetics for a long time, it has never been as extensive as it is now. Federal regulations have not yet been updated to accommodate this rapidly advancing technology. Since they function very differently from larger particles, completely fresh studies need to be conducted in order to assess potential risks. These studies are still in their nascent stages while the cosmetic industry is already using nanoparticles in a wide variety of products.⁵ In several countries, including the United States, companies are not required to disclose the use of nanoparticles in the manufacturing process.⁴ The only way to be sure your products don’t contain nanoparticles is if the label specifically claims it. 

As we venture deeper into unknown territory with respect to our most intimate products, we might be wise to simply steer clear of them completely. Alternatives do exist that make use of methods that avoid all these potential disasters and have decades of data in support of their safety. If implemented properly, these methods can be as effective, if not more, as their chemical counterparts. Keeping yourself well-informed is the best gift you can give your body in times of fast-paced and uncertain consumerism. 


  1. Preston, Cristopher. "Making New Matter." The Synthetic Age. MIT Press, 2018. 1-19.
  2. Soutter, Will. "Nanotechnology in Cosmetics." 21 September 2012. AzoNano. August 2020.
  3. Shokri, Javad. "Nanocosmetics: benefits and risks." BioImpacts (2017): 207-208.
  4. Annmarie Skin Care. The Potential Dangers of Nanoparticles in Food and Cosmetics. 7 March 2018. August 2020. <>.
  5. Environmental Working Group. "A Survey of Ingredients in 25,000 Personal Care Products Reveals Widespread Use of Nano-Scale Materials, Not Assessed for Safety, in Everyday Products." EWG (2006).

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