Nanotechnology has entered the production and application of various personal care and cosmetics products, such as sunscreens, anti-aging creams, toothpastes, hair care and perfumes.
Due to blurred definition of applied nanotechnology in terms of production procedures and ingredients, as well as due to loose regulatory and safety control systems, is the current scope and scale of nano-based personal care and cosmetics products only a wild guess.
However, one such estimation shows there is currently around 1000 personal care and cosmetics products on the global market that are nano-based.
While nanotechnology is widely applied and marketed in certain groups of cosmetic products such as sunscreens, anti-aging skin care and hair care products, much less is known about nanotechnology in perfumes; their production and application.
Applications of Nanotechnology in Perfumes
Currently known applications of nanotechnology in perfume production and application are predominantly based on nano-encapsulation methods (coating of nanoparticles with different substances):
1. Production of perfume (aroma) compounds. Application of nanotechnology enables reduction of costs of perfume compounds manufacture, while at the same time making it possible to produce purer and completely natural perfume compounds.
This can be achieved by using nanoparticles such as gold-palladium that can replace expensive and potentially toxic reagents that promote oxidation of aromatic primary alcohols to aldehydes, which is one of the crucial processes in the perfume production.
Another nano-encapsulation procedure proposes the use of nanoparticles coated in natural enzymes in the process of manufacturing expensive perfume compounds. There are no unwanted or harmful residuals.
Further, the acquired scent compounds are of higher purity and can be labeled as completely natural since they are derived from reaction catalyzed by enzymes from natural organisms. This procedure could replace expensive extraction of perfume compounds from natural materials or their expensive purely chemical synthesis.
2. Time-controlled and prolonged release of scents. Nano-encapsulation (nano-delivery systems) can also help improve the attributes and performance (durability, stability) of substances such as fragrances that can be negatively affected by changed conditions of the environment (light, air). Application of nano-encapsulation in fragrance products enables more efficient (prolonged) and time-controlled release of the scents.
This can be used in the manufacture of more durable fragrance samples used for marketing purposes, in textile and accessories fashion (e.g., embedding perfume into textiles, shoes, jewelry) and other materials (e.g., ceramics, baby dippers). Release of scents can be time-controlled by stimuli such as diffusion, pressure or temperature sensitivity.
3. Use of nano-encapsulation procedures in development of ‘nanotechnology electronic noses’ (replication of human olfactory sense) promises detection and absorption of variety of odors, which could be used in detection and absorption of unwanted or hazardous odors (e.g., carbon monoxide).
Further, this could facilitate electronic sampling and testing of fragrance products, thus reducing the costs of fragrance and fragrance products development, and it could even enable development of artificial noses for people who lost the sense of smell.
Recently, one type of electronic appliances in this direction, nano perfume ejectors, has been put on market. They are designed to mix nanoparticles with perfume and / or water particles and enable sterilization of air, absorption of unpleasant and release of pleasant odors.
Considering the wide range of places where it could be used (e.g., homes, hospitals, public places) this type of nano-appliances undoubtedly has a bright commercial future.
Potential Risks of Nano-based Perfumes
The main concerns of using nanotechnology in perfumes as in all personal care and cosmetics products are connected to potential human health and environment hazards.
Concerns regarding human health got louder after it has been discovered that it is possible for some nanoparticles to cross the natural blood-brain barrier and that they can lethally damage living cells. Nanoparticles can enter the human bodies in many different ways; nanoparticles from nano-based fragrance products for example through skin and inhalation.
Due to their small size, nanoparticles are extremely mobile once they enter the body and it is feared to what extent they can penetrate naturally selective barriers in the living cells, which could result in toxic or even lethal consequences. Using nano-based fragrance products could thus implicate a variety of negative health consequences, such as severe damages of DNA, chromosomes and immune system, toxic accumulation in tissues and organs (e.g., lungs, brain), interference with vital processes and mechanisms.
This is all due to the fact that nano-scaled particles tend to develop properties which can not be assigned completely to their chemical nature. Their properties and behaviour when interacting with other (living) substances and processes are not yet researched in sufficient detail to enable prediction and avoidance of possible negative consequences for human health.
Another concern the application of nano-based fragrance products raises is connected to potential environmental hazards. Scarce information about conducted environmental impact assessments is available regarding the possible impacts of spreading nanoparticles into the environment during the life cycle of nano-based fragrance products.
Parallels and environmental hazard warnings are drawn similar as in the case of introducing genetically modified organisms, nuclear energy and use of asbestos in construction.
Up until recently majority of nano-based cosmetic products entered the global market without sufficient safety and risk assessments conducted and transparent product labeling. The producers of nano-based (cosmetics) products advocated this by declaring nano-scaled ingredients to be chemically and thus safety-wise identical to bigger-sized particles of the same substance.
However, concerned public, NGOs and even governmental bodies have in the last years intensified their calls to set up tighter regulatory systems that would more efficiently control the production, risk assessment, handling and labeling of nano-based (cosmetics) products and that would also apply the so called ‘precautionary principle’ already widely applied for the newly introduced medications.
Nanotechnology in Perfumes: High Tech of Small That Serves Giant Thrills with Giant Threats
As with any novel cutting edge technology that promises unprecedented benefits and solutions to the existing problems, the same should hold also for the nanotechnology applied in perfumes: ‘curb your enthusiasm’. In order to avoid unwanted effects on human health and environment, tighter and more efficient regulative rules regarding the manufacture, handling and labeling of nano-based fragrance products need to be enforced as soon as possible.
Considering the vast scale and scope at which consumers are directly exposed to fragrance products daily (e.g., perfumes, deodorants, home fragrances), the unwanted health and environmental consequences of smelling nano could be of unimaginable magnitude in the longer term.
Cosmetics and fragrance industry giants, such as L’Oreal and Coty, are heavily investing in nanotechnological research, therefore further nanotechnological leaps in the way perfumes and related products are produced and applied can be expected in the very near future. But if the perfume industry wants healthy returning customers, they need to build consumer confidence regarding the safety of using nano-based perfumes.
This could be achieved by conducting rigorous risk assessments and by providing an efficient labeling and consumer information system. Feared or factually proven negative health impacts of using such mass-products as perfumes, could stigmatize the public image and consequently investments into R&D of nanotechnology as whole.
So, the next time you smell, let’s say the newest Chanel women’s perfume, ask yourself, do you smell nano-future? And if you do, will you want to – know?