Nanoparticles and Your Health – What You Need to Know 

NanoparticlesNanoparticle Detective

You can’t see them but they’re everywhere. They’re in your food, clothing, cosmetics, and sunscreen. You ingest, inhale and absorb them into your body. And they may be threatening your health.

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the control of matter at the nanoscale, meaning anything that is between 1 and 100 nanometers. So nanoparticles are particles less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size. To put that into perspective, one hair on your head is 80,000nm thick.

When scientists first started making materials at the nanoscale they discovered that particles that small behaved differently than larger particles. Substances at nano-scale proved to be stronger, lighter and more chemically reactive than their larger-scale counterparts.

In other words, nanomaterials are very tiny versions of things like silver and zinc oxide that have been used in consumer products for many years. And since 2000 they started showing up in products that you use every day. Things like golf balls that fly straighter, tennis rackets that are stiffer, baseball bats with better flex, nano-silver antibacterial socks, clear sunscreens, wrinkle- and stain-resistant clothing, cosmetics, and food and food packaging.


Nanos Commonly Found in Products

Nanosilver (Ag) - is the most commonly used nanomaterial. It is an antibacterial agent and a health supplement. There are at least 390 products that utilize some form of nanosilver, like socks and linens, cosmetics/hygiene products, appliances, cleaning agents, food storage containers, bakeware, cutting boards, toys and building materials.

NanoTitanium (TiO2) - is used in paints, coatings, plastics, papers, inks, medicines, sunscreens, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, toothpaste, nutritional supplements and food products.

NanoZinc (ZnO) - is widely used in cosmetics, paints, and plastics like polypropylene.

(According to Friends of the Earth and Nanotechproject.org)


Your Exposure to Nanoparticles

Manufacturers have figured out that nanos of things like silver and zinc are great for keeping food  fresher longer so they are used a lot in food and food packaging to increase shelf life. There are currently 400-500 ways to apply nanotechnology to food production and 150-600 nanofoods on the market.

So as you go about your day you ingest them from the food you eat because it contains nano food additives, because they migrate from food packaging and because they are showing up in your drinking water from the release of nanos into the environment.

They’re also in an estimated 300 personal care  nanoproducts for a variety of reasons, including increasing shelf life and UV protection. So you are also inhaling them when you use cosmetic powders and sprays that contain nanoparticles.

Nanos can also be absorbed through the skin from wearing antibacterial clothing that contains nanosilver or from sunscreen made with nanotechnology.

The reasons that make nanotechnology so appealing to manufacturers are the very reasons that make nanoparticles so dangerous to you.

Size Really Does Matter

Whether the materials that nanos are made from are toxic or not doesn't really matter. Cause when you shrink things to nanosize all bets are off. Here are five things you need to know about nanoparticles. 

1. Nanosize particles act differently than larger size particles of the same substance. They have different physical, biological and chemical properties and are governed by quantum physics.

2. There is a relationship between the size of particles and how toxic they are. Smaller particles have a greater surface area to volume ratio, which increases how chemically reactive they are.  

Your ears are a good example of this. Lots of surface area but little volume. It’s one of the reasons why your ears get so cold when you don’t wear a hat in the winter.

This increased surface area to volume ratio suggests that nanomaterials in consumer prod­ucts could easily interact with other ingredients in the product and cells in your body. 

3. Nanosize particles can go where larger particles can’t. Unlike larger particles, they can easily enter cells, tissues and organs like your brain, heart, kidneys and commonly the liver and spleen. Ingested nanos can pass through your gut into your bloodstream. Once inside the body they are known to cause severe damage to DNA, disrupt the function of cells and even lead to cell death according to studies.

4.Your body is not as effective at removing nanoparticles as it is with larger particles. Plus, it’s also easier for nanoparticles to stick to surfaces within your body.

5. Studies on the safety of nanoparticles show that, because of their size, they are a threat to your health.

  • Some types of nanos are endocrine disrupters that may affect male and female fertility and thyroid function.
  • Nanoparticles may cause lung, liver and kidney damage.
  • Significant accumulations can occur in the lungs, brain, liver, spleen, and bones.
  • Exposure to some nanoparticles can stimulate inflammatory and immune system responses.
  • Ingested nanos can compromise your digestive system. They are suspected of contributing to Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.
  • A small number of clinical studies suggest that non-degradable nanoparticles can accumulate in your body and over time result in the development of ‘nanopathologies’, like granulomas, lesions (areas of damaged cells or tissue), cancer or blood clots.

Become a Nanoparticle Detective

While I covered what we do know about nanoparticles, there is so much that we don't know. There are no regulations in place for nanos, so once again you and I are guinea pigs. We are being exposed without any real understanding of the impacts on our health.

There are some things you can do to reduce your exposure. One of the biggies is avoiding antibacterial products because they almost always contain nanosilver. Items to avoid include antibacterial sponges, cutting boards and socks, and food storage containers that claim to keep food fresher longer. If you're healthy you really don't need these things anyway.


A Soapbox Moment

For some reason we have become terrified of bacteria and we'd rather expose ourselves to toxins than germs. Even though, in most cases, our bodies have excellent defense mechanisms against bacteria that have developed since we were babies.

All of the effort we put into avoiding germs I believe should be used to support our immune systems - by eating whole foods, and getting lots of exercise and sleep. 


It's more difficult to avoid nanos in personal care products because they may or may not be listed on the label. If the label mentions silver (to improve shelf life) or titanium dioxide (UV protection) there's a good chance they are nanosize.

It's practically impossible to avoid nanoparticles in your food. For example, know that foamy pad underneath your pack of ground meat - it contains nanosilver.

You can find some of the products that contain nanos by searching the Consumer Products Inventory, a database of 1,814 products that contain nanotechnology. And check back for future posts on nanos in food and sunscreen. This is an issue that you'll be hearing a lot about as more and more studies are done on the safety of these tiny terrors.

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