Chemistry & Life Sciences

Labeling Nano-Products

Where Cosmetics Lead, Others May Soon Follow

10.12.2010 -

Not-So-Small Problem - The labeling of products to indicate their nanoscale chemical content may or may not be very welcome in the chemicals industry. Already coping with Reach, the last thing the industry would want, it might be said, are the complications and cost of labeling nanotechnology innovations. Then there is always the concern about sending the consumer the wrong message. Still, it may be worthwhile to weigh up the pros and cons before jumping to conclusions on a subject that will surely have to be faced sooner or later, as the cosmetics industry has recently discovered.

Consumer Nano-products

There are over 1,000 consumer products on the market containing nanomaterials, and very few of these carry specifically "nano" labels, except for promotional purposes. These products range from car wax, plastic products and self-cleaning surfaces to cosmetics, food and drinks, socks and go-faster skis.

It will be said perhaps that consumers are only interested in the effects of an application, not on how the effects are obtained. This was no doubt once largely true, but as an argument it is less and less convincing as the years go by. European buyers in particular are somewhat skeptical of novel technologies, especially if it concerns anything that enters or might enter the human body directly, as in food and cosmetics. In the U.S., Japan and elsewhere the consumer tends to be more pro-technology and arguably less questioning.
It is surely time seriously to consider at least voluntary labeling, and not only from a consumer perspective. Intermediate products, from the raw materials manufacturer down the supply chain, are increasingly using nanomaterials. What is needed is some balanced guidance that is sensitive to the different kinds of need (or no need) for labeling down the supply chain.


For four years, I have chaired a standardization project group on drawing up voluntary (not mandatory) guidance on the labeling of manufactured nanoparticles and products containing them. This was first at the national level of the British Standards Institution (BSI) and now continues at the level of a joint initiative at European and International levels: the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The BSI's "Guidance on the labeling of manufactured nanoparticles and products containing manufactured nanoparticles" (PAS130), came into effect on Dec. 31, 2007, and was valid for two years. In that guidance the term "nanoparticles" was used broadly to include nanotubes and nanofibers, whereas that term has recently been more narrowly defined as an object with all three dimensions in the nanoscale and the broader term "nano-object" is being introduced more broadly to signify one, two or three dimensions in the nanoscale. This would include tubes and platelets.
The CEN/ISO voluntary guidance on manufactured nano-objects (MNOs) or products containing manufactured nano-objects is now in a complete draft and is under international ballot among the official delegates of national standardization bodies. It went through a long and rigorous negotiation process involving industry, consumer bodies and other stakeholders.

Voluntary Guidance

To avoid misunderstanding, I must emphasize at once that the CEN/ISO guidance is not proposed as a new regulation but as voluntary guidance and would not substitute for any current regulations (the same was true of the BSI guidance.) The point of such guidance is to be helpful to all parties, whether they are neutral about labeling or reactively inclined to be for or against it.
The underlying conviction is that it is best to be open and consensus-building at an early stage on a matter that may otherwise generate divisive controversy that benefits no one and hinders the market. Hopefully, lessons have been learned from the past.

What Is Nano?

With one exception, there are currently no requirements for labeling specifically aimed at the use of MNOs or PCMNOs. Neither is there any regulation specific to the nanoscale properties of nano-objects. There is at a more general level, of course, the requirements imposed by the Global Harmonized System (GHS) for classification and labeling of chemicals, that provides users with information on potential hazards, and this would implicitly include nanomaterials. There are sectoral labeling and safety requirements that may be relevant to nanotechnology
The exception is the EU Cosmetics Regulation of 2009, which does contain an explicit labeling requirement for nanomaterials. I might speculate that the next sector to meet with regulatory labeling in relation to nanotechnology would be food and drink and their packaging. But we shall have to wait and see. I suggest that companies that familiarize themselves with any voluntary guidance from a standardization body would be ahead of the game.

But what is it that we are labeling? It would be a certain class of nano-objects i.e. a material with one, two or three external dimensions in the nanoscale. The nanoscale is the size range from approximately 1 nm to 100 nm, and a PCMNO is product in which MNOs are deliberately added, mixed, attached, embedded or suspended. The guidance therefore does not address nanomaterials that are larger than 100 nm, nor is it concerned with natural (e.g. volcanic) or incidental (e.g. diesel combustion) nanoscale entities.

What's In A Label?

Except to make some generalizations, I cannot go into the details of a document that is currently under ballot, and which may be accepted, amended or rejected. The guidance draft now being considered refers to MNOs and PCMNOs under certain specified conditions.
Clearly, a label which simply stated "this contains nanoparticles" would be meaningless. Among other things the draft guidance is clear on the acceptable use of the term nano in a label. It also keeps in mind what kind of information in a label is useful depending on the particular circumstances and purposes and who the reader of the label is. Minimally, consideration might be given by a relevant party to indicating in a simple fashion that a particular chemical substance in the product is in fact nanoscale in some dimension. Other information such as CA number, size range, surface area, aspect ratio and amount may or may not be relevant, depending again on the circumstances.

Parts of the document function as helpful reminders on what kind of thing specific to nanomaterials the manufacturer and anyone in the supply chain might wish to consider for the purposes of labeling. It adopts a life cycle approach.
Nothing is mandatory, and the changes proposed are simple to implement and have the benefit of enhancing communication and lessening misunderstanding.

An Ethical Issue

There is probably now sufficient, if far from decisive, information from toxicologists concerning some nanomaterials to suggest that labeling would be a sound precautionary measure at this stage. Besides the issue of risk, which the CEN/ISO draft guidance neither deals with nor dwells upon, there is the simpler issue of public perception and the right to know.

Labeling is already perceived as not just an informational issue, but as an ethical one. It would only take one adverse incident, possibly misconstrued or magnified by the media, to result in the public demand: "Why weren't we told nanoparticles were being put into X, Y and Z?" This would damage the entire industry that is using nanotechnology techniques. The acceptance by a company of voluntary labeling for nanomaterials, under the appropriate circumstances, would undoubtedly help the corporate responsibility profile of that company. 


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