Nanotechnology—in bed with Madonna?

If you want proof that nano is mainstream, just pick up the U.S. May edition of fashion magazine “Elle.”   Sharing cover-space with Madonna is the latest article on nanotech and the beauty business.

Elle might not be your first choice of reading for cutting edge science, but Joanne Chen’s article “Small Wonders” is no slouch when it comes to conveying complex ideas in digestible bites.  Using beauty products as examples (from hair dryers to conditioners to anti-wrinkle cream), Chen takes the reader on a journey through the wonders and worries of nano.   As an exercise in making nanotechnology accessible, the article is a must-read.  

On the benefits of smallness:  

“Once downsized, common materials can take on almost supernatural powers.  Nanogold transforms into a catalytic agent and carbon, Clark Kent-like, suddenly acquires strength 100 times that of steel.”   

And on nanoscale liposomes: 

“If your liposome is your chunky, clunky well-loved first generation iPod, a nanosome is an nth-generation iPod, the hearing-aid size one that Steve Jobs will persuade you to buy in a few years. … But just as that little iPod of the future will inevitably get lost at the bottom of your F/W 2010 Balenciaga Giant purse, nanosomes could shimmy through the dermis, sliding into nerve endings, even into the blood cells, surfing their way through the circulatory system.”

Some dismiss nano-consumer products as trivial; even flippant. But for most people, this is where they will first encounter nanotechnology.  And it is these products that will mould their perceptions and opinions.  Pick up a nano-hair dryer that really works, and you have a nano-advocate.  But slap on a nano-cream that leaves you with nothing but worries, and nano-doubts begin to set in.  

These products are increasing rapidly in numbers and diversity—as Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies director David Rejeski noted while showing U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair John Kerry a locally-purchased tube of nano-silver toothpaste yesterday.  The current tally of allegedly nano-enabled consumer products in the on-line PEN inventory is over 600; and these are just the tip of the iceberg.  Rejeski’s Ace Silver Plus Nano Silver Toothpaste is typical of many entries—using nanotech to “improve” an existing product, but with apparently little attention paid to whether the use is a good idea.

And this raises serious questions in the minds of consumers, regulators and many nanotech businesses.  What safeguards are there to ensure the nano-innovator next door (or South Korea in the case of the toothpaste) is asking the right questions about avoiding adverse impacts?  Not a lot is the answer.  Many nanotechnology industries are still floundering in a sea of uncertainty when it comes to ensuring product safety.  

Matthew Nordan, president of Lux Research, summed it up in testimony submitted to yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing: 

“Seven years after the NNI’s launch, it’s still unclear to most commercial entities when and how the materials they work with will be treated under the EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act – forming a real commercialization gating factor.” [written testimony available here.  PDF, 192 KB]

Such uncertainty is bad for business, bad for consumers, and ultimately bad for nanotechnology.

As nanotechnology begins to rub shoulders with pop culture and awareness of its existence grows, more and more people will be asking what it can do for them, and what the down sides are. Yesterday’s hearing (focused on the reauthorization of the U.S. 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D act) asked what is needed to ensure the commercial success of nanotechnology.  And the answers came through loud and clear—understand and avoid risks ahead of the game, ensure transparency, and engage people.  

This month in Elle, nanotechnology just happened to be in the right place at the right time as it shared the cover with Madonna.  But awareness is definitely growing.  And as it does, people will want to know whether it is safe and effective.  

The question is, will we have the answers?  

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Trivia

  • Madonna’s 1991 film “Truth or Dare”, documenting her Blond Ambition tour, was released as “In Bed With Madonna” in the UK and Australia.
  • In 2004, nanotech commentator and fellow blogger Howard Lovy drew a link between Madonna and nanotechnology in the Salon article Nanotech angels.
  • I am not a Madonna fan 🙂

 

This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in April 2008

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One Response to Nanotechnology—in bed with Madonna?

  1. […] Oct 24 2008: This article is also available at 2020science.org)If you want proof that nano is mainstream, just pick up the U.S. May edition of fashion magazine […]

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