Smarter Living: Chemical Index

Nanomaterials, used widely in consumer products including clothing, sunscreen, cosmetics, personal care and baby care products, are so small they can enter the lungs, pass through cell membrances and possibly penetrate the skin. Ultrafine air pollution, much of which is nano-sized, is associated with reduced lung function and increased likelihood of death from lung and heart disease.

Health Concerns

Many nanomaterials are so small that they can enter the lungs, pass through cell membranes and possibly penetrate the skin. Once inside the body, they seem to have unlimited access to all tissues and organs, including the brain and possibly fetal circulation.

Very few studies have examined how a nanochemical might behave differently from its normal-sized counterpart when it interacts with the human body and the environment. But there is cause for concern.

In animal studies, carbon nanotubes, which are long, thin and rigid--much like cancer-causing asbestos fibers--cause lung damage. Other animal studies suggest that some nanomaterials can cause inflammation, damage brain cells and cause pre-cancerous lesions.

Ultrafine air pollution, much of which is nano-sized, is associated with reduced lung function and increased likelihood of death from lung and heart disease. Nanosilver, which is commonly used in sunscreen, is known to wash out of products and enter the waste stream, where it may harm aquatic life.

Exposure

Nanomaterials are used in a wide range of consumer products, including clothing, sunscreen, cosmetics, personal care and baby care products. They can help fabrics resist germs or make ceramics lighter or stronger. They may dissolve differently, reflect light differently or have different magnetic properties than their normal-sized counterparts.

According to manufacturer's claims, nanomaterials such as aluminum oxide, zinc oxide, carbon nanotubes, carbon buckyballs, and nanosilver are found in more than 800 commercial products--everything from mascara and baby wipes to sunscreen and paint.

Stay Safe

Avoid products containing nanomaterials--while they're not required to be labeled, you can check for the words "nano," "ultrafine" and "micronized."

Watch out for wrinkle-free or stain-proof clothing, clear sunscreens and some cosmetic and personal care products. Many contain nanomaterials--but so do other products as diverse as tennis balls and laptops. Check this ever-growing database of consumer products that contain nanomaterials.

Use a traditional sunscreen that goes on white, not clear. Clear sunscreens usually use a nanosized version of a sunblocking chemical in order to appear transparent.

Take Action

The regulation of nanomaterials has fallen far behind the technology that is pushing them out into the world. Nanomaterials are used in hundreds of commercial products, yet no one can say if they are safe or not. And consumers often have no way of knowing if the product they're buying contains these untested chemicals.

Congress introduced legislation in April 2010 to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, a weak law dating back to 1976 that has failed to protect the American public from harmful chemicals. Reforming chemical policy in this country can ensure that unsafe chemicals are removed from the market and that new chemicals like nanomaterials are tested for safety before being put into use. Support NRDC's efforts to get a good bill passed.

Learn More

Nanotech Project

Nanotechnologies: Safety Questions Linger

NRDC Protecting People from Unsafe Chemicals

K. Donaldson, et al., "Combustion- Derived Nanoparticles: A Review of Their Toxicology Following Inhalation Exposure," Part Fibre Toxicol. Vol. 2, No. 10 (Oct. 21, 2005)

P.J. Borm, et al., "The Potential Risks of Nanomaterials: A Review Carried Out for ECETOC," Part Fibre Toxicol., Vol. 3, No. 11 (Aug. 14, 2006).

G. Oberdorster, E. Oberdorster, and J. Oberdorster, "Nanotoxicology: An Emerging Discipline Evolving from Studies of Ultrafi ne Particles," Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 7 (July 2005), pp. 823-39.

A. Nel, et al., "Toxic Potential of Materials at the Nanolevel," Science, Vol. 311, No. 5761 (Feb. 2006), pp. 622-27.

last revised 12/27/2011

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