The European Parliament sat last week  to discuss, among other things how the European Cosmetics Industry is regulated.  While the cosmetics industry has been to a large degree self regulated it has to work within the laws of the country  or legislative area in which the product is to be sold for some time. The law that has covered the  cosmetics industry  in the EU was the  Cosmetics Directive, dating back from 1976. Since 1976 the cosmetics directive has been amended every three to five years as new information on the safety and usage of ingredients and the effects on human and environmental health are made available. In addition to that many new materials are added and classified based on their constituents.

Since the introduction of the European Union, the cosmetics directive has been managed by the European Parliament and harmonized to cover it’s member states (which currently stand at 27, representing 492 million people).   The European Parliament work closely with representatives from each member state via industry associations such as the  European Cosmetic Association: COLIPA.  The new legislation passed last week aims to make cosmetics safer and the legal requirements much clearer and easier  implement across the member states.  The law also for the first time makes it mandatory to clearly label the nano particles within a particular formulation.

Up until this new law comes into play,   nano particles (that is particles that are manufactured to be under 100nm in size) do not have to be labeled as “nano” in Europe.  They only need to be listed as the ingredient only  (e.g: Nano Zinc Oxide would be labeled as Zinc Oxide in the same way as larger particle Zinc Oxide would, Looking at the label alone would not allow you to differentiate the products).  However, once the new law comes into play, manufacturers of products containing nano particles who wish to sell them in the EU (whether made there or not) will have to list the nano particles separately on the label.

The labeling of nano particles opens up a whole lot of questions for the currently under-informed consumer. The labeling of nano particles  is essentially a good thing  as it allows consumers to identify which products contain this new technology. In products such as sunscreens, nano zinc and titanium do make the sunscreen more aesthetically pleasing and wearable, therefore “containing nano particles” may well be a  “selling Point” in this case. However, as nano technology is still relatively new and is little understood outside of the nano industry, most consumers will probably feel confused or even cheated by this new piece of information and won’t have a clue how to use their newly gained insight (is an insight without information even an insight)?

Nano particles sound very “chemical” and as anyone with their eyes on the growing “natural” beauty world knows, Chemical is not something that these consumers want more of. Whether that is a good or bad thing is academic  as with cosmetics, people tend to vote with their feelings rather than their heads in the first instance. The science comes later and is often drip fed over many years or through “word of mouth” around the water cooler or coffee bar.

To date the cosmetics industry has not been as vocal in its defense of nano particles as its opposition has been in arguments against using them. People like Friends of the Earth, The Environmental Working Group and their other group – Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are all likely to step up their campaign against the mass use of anything nano in response to this legislation. The cosmetics industry, via COLIPA and Cosmetic Info. Org  state that the products that they manufacture are safe and law abiding, backed up by research and should cause no concern. However, as any observer of the industry knows, nothing spreads faster than bad news or scandal and it is always easier to prey on peoples insecurities than it is to put forward strong scientific evidence (from either side of the debate). People want to hear from people and Friends of the Earth sound much more welcoming and wholesome than “COLIPA” or the European Parliament or any other faceless organization. Evidence based white papers from independent scientific organizations rank well down the consumers list of “go to” places for information.

The issue of nano particles in skincare is important both from a health and environmental perspective. The benefits of nano particles from an asthetic angle are clear which is why the technology has been adopted so readily by an industry that is always looking for something fresh, new, innovative and that works. There is no doubt that Nano technology has much to offer in that regard.  However, the questions surrounding the use of  nano materials in this arena are too important to ignore which is why globally, governments are funding research into the fate of nano particles in the soil, waterways and the sky (via aerosols) and also their effect on human health.  For an industry that needs quick answers, the wait for evidence is going to be painful.

Real science should not be dressed up with spin and should only come with one agenda – what is the truth. This search for truth  must also be backed up with evidence and then communicated in a responsible way. The widespread use of nano materials in cosmetics may  be  a case of the cart being put before the horse – at least from the consumers point of view.  It is a given that the nano scare stories will start to circulate at a greater pace once this new legislation takes effect and while some of the stories  may be based on truth,  many more will just jump on the bandwagon and add to the confusion of the consumer.

There is much to learn about cosmetic  nanotechnology and while I, like everyone else would rather have the answers now, the world has long since stopped working that way.  That is not to say that products don’t get safety tested- they do. It is more a case of new technology gets tested according to the existing laws and regulations, it is proved to be popular and advantageous and therefore gets taken up by the main stream.  It is only brought back to the attention of regulators, governments or the industry when questions are raised about possible consequences surrounding  the direct or in-direct use of the product . Think the eco -iendly CLF light bulbs that may save energy but contain mercury which needs careful handling,  or the fact that while plasma TV’s give you a great picture, they may increase your carbon footprint. Science and business evolve over time buffeted along by public opinion and finally compacted into a neat shape by a legal system.  As a general public we have all gotten used to science being able to give results instantly – think Dr House, CSI, Inspector Morse etc. The real world turns  a little  slower…..

It would be great to see more people and consumer groups that are either concerned, interested or just curious about nanotechnology putting their money, voices and support behind the independent research facilities around the world that are working on small budgets and tight deadlines to fill in these knowledge gaps.  This new E.U legislation means that European consumers can vote with their wallets when it comes to nano inclusive cosmetics. This will be both interesting and telling based on the lack of real scienfitic evidence available to the consumer at this point in time. I for one will be keeping a close watch to see how this plays out after all what’s wrong with  wanting safe and effective products that don’t damage the environment?