Consumer awareness of nanotechnology is low, survey suggests

By Charlotte Eyre and Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nanotechnology

Consumer awareness of nanotechnology and its potential uses and
risks is low according to a national survey conducted by the
Woodrow Wilson Center.

The survey by the Woodrow Wilson International Center indicates that industries and regulators using nanotechnology need to be more proactive in informing the public about the science, especially as consumers are worried about the potential health and environmental effects. Nanotechnology has been heralded as a potentially major breakthrough in many industries. Within the personal care market it is already included in a number of formulations, specifically sun care and anti-aging treatments. It has proved to be particularly effective as a delivery vehicle for active ingredients in skin care products, with smaller particles being able to penetrate the skin's dermal layers more effectively. However, according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center only six percent of Americans say they have "heard a lot" about nanotechnology, while a massive 70 percent say they have only heard a little or nothing at all. "Even though the number of nanotechnology-enabled consumer products - from dietary supplements to skin products to electronic devices - has more than doubled to over 500 products since last year, the 'needle' on public awareness of nanotechnology remains stuck at disappointingly low levels,"​ said David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. What is even more discouraging is that the percentage of people who say they have heard about nanotechnology has actually fallen four percent from last year. "Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area,"​ Rejeski explained. He said: "As in previous polls, the results of this survey indicate that public wants more information about nanotechnology." ​According to Rejeski, this lack of general understanding means that there is no leeway for any safety problems in the nanotechnology industry. "The slightest bump - even a false alarm about safety or health - could undermine public confidence, engender consumer mistrust, and, as a result, damage the future of nanotechnology, before the most exciting applications are realized,"​ he said. "If they do not effectively engage a broad swath of the public in steering the course of nanotechnology, government and industry risk squandering a tremendous opportunity" he added. ​Furthermore, a number of campaigning organisations and lobby groups have been very vocal over the possible risks of personal care products containing nanotechnology, which is likely to further endanger public confidence. Earlier this year Friends of the Earth released a report outlining some of the possible dangers of nanotechnology in sunscreens, listing 'safe' nano-free products, whilst calling for consumer action to help lobby the industry. The organisation called for a moratorium on the commercial release of all nanotechnological materials and products until various conditions are met. Conditions include the rigorous testing of nanomaterials and products - including their environmental impact - prior to release, an improvement in product labelling and that all relevant data is available in the public domain. Similar concerns have been voiced by the Environmental Working Group who are calling for consumers to sign a petition 'to force the FDA to require manufacturers to clearly label nanomaterials and conduct thorough safety evaluations of nanotechnology in personal care products, through an open, transparent process, focused on protection of the public health'.

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