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Consumer products leap aboard the nano bandwagon

Nature volume 440, page 262 (16 March 2006) | Download Citation


Number of products boasting small science doubles.

Washington DC

The number of commercial products advertised as containing nanoparticles is increasing rapidly, according to a new inventory. Environmental groups say the list shows that not enough is being done to oversee nanotech's spread into the commercial sphere. But others say that marketing, not a rise in use of the technology, may be driving the trend.

The inventory of nanogoods was released on 10 March by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank based in Washington DC that works on nanotech issues. Cataloguing every nanotech product that exists would be close to impossible — there are no regulations that require companies to register such products. So for a rough estimate of how much nanotech is out there, Andrew Maynard and his colleagues at the centre scanned the web for products that openly advertise the use of nanotechnology.

Maynard and his co-workers found 212 products that use nanotechnology. This is double the number found by a similar survey carried out last year by EmTech Research, a pro-industry research group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nearly half of these products were creams, cosmetics and supplements, designed to be applied to the skin or taken orally.

“The cosmetics industry is just exploding with nanotechnology.”

That is evidence of the industry's growing commercial success, says Francine Porter, president of Denver-based Osmotics Cosmeceuticals. Her company markets an anti-cellulite cream called Lipoduction, describing “Nano Technology that increases delivery up to 700% over traditional cellulite products.” Porter says sales have been brisk. “This industry is just exploding with nanotechnology,” she says.

Small wonder: advertising the use of nanotech may hook buyers. Image: GULLIVER/ZEFA/CORBIS

Environmental campaigners, who have long voiced fears about the health and environmental implications of nanotechnology, say the figures highlight a worrying lack of regulation. “If the numbers are to be trusted, it says to me that potential exposure to nanomaterials would appear to be growing quicker than expected,” says Douglas Parr, a physical chemist and chief scientist for Greenpeace UK in London.

But others say much of the apparent surge in the use of nanotechnology may be the result of companies relabelling their goods to meet consumer preferences. For example, most cosmetic creams already contain nanoscale particles to penetrate the skin, so companies could use this in their marketing. “Non-scientists tend to think there is something magic about nano.” says Jöns Hilborn, a chemist at Uppsala University in Sweden and former president of the European Tissue Engineering Society.

Scientists have already learned to use this relabelling trick to win funding from politicians, says Hilborn. A project he heads, to develop miniature scaffolds for tissue engineering, recently won €1.7 million from the European Union's Framework programme, following a call for nanobiotechnology projects. “I could have very well written the proposal without nano in there,” he says. “I didn't lie to get the money; I just used the word they like to hear.”

Paul Ferron, who heads Beyond Skin Science — a California-based company that sells a line of nanotechnology-based products — agrees that despite the concerns of campaigners, the term ‘nano’ is increasingly becoming a selling point for consumers as well as funding agencies. Products such as Apple's iPod nano music player have boosted recognition of the word, he says. “I see it more and more, I hear it more and more.”

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