This week I have mostly been reading about fullerenes – a newish cosmetic active that is causing a bit of controversy, that is if you read the Sydney Morning Herald  so I guess you may want to find out what all of the fuss is about?  Well, it’s all about balls……. 

But first a few factoids! 

A fullerene is an allotrope of carbon and an allotrope is the name for the shape that is formed when lots of one element join together. Carbon forms a few allotropes including the sparkly diamond, the boring old graphite  sheets and the rather splendid fullerene which is like a microscopic hollow  football. 

Carbon Allotropes sourced from Wikipedia

As the word ‘fullerene’ refers to a whole ‘family’ of chemicals we need to get a bit more information in order to work out how good these things are for cosmetics.  In the article mentioned by the Herald the fullerene was a C60 arrangement made by a company called Vitamin C60 in Japan – hooray! 

Finally although these balls look quite big in reality they are teeny tiny and fall under the ‘nanoparticle’ definition – nanoparticle just means they are very small particles so don’t go pinning any false hopes or fears just yet! 

OK, so now we can investigate what these things may do. 

The C60 fullerene produced by Vitamin C60 has been produced and refined specifically for cosmetic use and has been found to act as a super powerful free-radical sponge.  It does this by breaking some of its double bonds and extending an arm (and electron) to any random radicals (excited particles) that they find speeding around our skin cells and according to research it is brilliant at it!  Mopping up free-radicals is a great anti-ageing strategy as it is these that damage cells like little toxic time bombs. In addition to that its small size and hollow shape allow it to act as a miniature trojan horse allowing it to deliver other actives deeper into the skin.  This is also pretty exciting stuff as many actives need to get down to the dermal, epidermal junction to deliver their goodies.  And that is the good news. 

Dr Brandt Lineless Cream with Fullerene

But we want to know if they are REALLY safe and if they REALLY work and that is a bit harder to answer. 

This particular fullerene was discovered in the mid 1980’s  and by 1997 its discoverers had won a Nobel prize for their efforts.  I remember my chemistry teacher thinking it was great news, he then made us sit and watch a whole lesson long documentary on it. I was utterly bored, how times change! 

Since then it has been studied pretty widely due to its potential as a drug delivery system so it is not surprising that there are literally hundreds of patents, clinical trials and white papers on this particular chemical. I am happy to admit that I haven’t read everything but the studies that I have read were a little confusing to begin with.  You see some studies found the fullerene to be damaging to cells whereas others showed the structure to be practically inert and totally safe.  Further reading showed why – the studies were all looking at different things, using different methods and using slightly different versions of the C60.  Apples were not always being compared with Apples. 

So the final verdict? 

After reading quite a bit (and writing a larger review for the team at New Directions) I can happily say that while I don’t think that these fullerenes are likely to cause any lasting damage when topically applied, indeed they look very useful, I would like more information on what happens to these structures in the environment.  I haven’t found any reason to suspect that these particles may cause environmental problems but then again I haven’t seen anything to say that they won’t (although the carbon-only structure is pretty safe). 

Would I buy a product containing them?  Only out of curiosity as I’m not quite at the stage when I have hundreds of dollars to burn and the cosmetics containing these are pretty exy! 

A full review of the article published in the Herald this week will be published next week  if you are interested!