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Specks of gold: Understanding the benefits and risks of nanomaterials in cosmetics that use gold nanoparticles

Sunday, September 29, 2019 by

Are gold nanoparticles safe for human use and consumption? European researchers have recently evaluated the benefits and risks of using nanomaterials in cosmetics, pharmaceutical drugs, and other products.

Many sectors use tiny particles to create new materials and technologies. Their small size gives the nanomaterials many advantages.

Changing the size, shape, and the molecules bound to a nanoparticle alters its properties. Researchers have taken full advantage of this versatility to make useful new materials and products.

Among other roles, nanoparticles are used in sun creams and cosmetics. They also deliver pharmaceutical drugs into the body and work as contrast agents.

In particular, gold nanoparticles set a new standard in nanoengineering. They are very efficient catalysts at the nano-scale, and they also transport both small and large molecules.

Researchers know little about the possible ways nanomaterials may interact with living matter and the environment. Nanoparticles may not work as designed, which is bad news if they misbehaved inside the human body.

For example, researchers find it hard to determine the toxicity of gold nanoparticles. They also know little about the health risks of gold getting absorbed by human cells. (Related: Study: Can nanoparticles be used to deliver treatments to injured brain and spinal cord cells?)

Is it safe to use products with gold nanoparticles?

French researchers from the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) teamed up with their colleagues from other universities across Europe. They studied the chemical and physical effects of positively charged gold nanoparticles on a model of a lipid membrane that surrounded biological cells.

The multinational team monitored the behavior of the nanoparticles as the materials interacted with the cell membrane. They used neutron scattering techniques and advanced computational methods for their observation.

First, they checked if the particles were drawn to or repelled by the layer. Next, they tested if the gold was adsorbed or internalized by the biological cell. Lastly, they wanted to see if the nanomaterial destabilized the membrane.

By improving the knowledge of factors that affected these behaviors, the researchers sought to make sure that future gold nanoparticle products interacted with human cells in the right and controlled manner.

“Nanoparticles are proving to be an invaluable tool to help us address a number of social challenges,” explained ILL researcher Giovanna Fragneto. “With so much promise for the future, it is important that we develop the tools to better investigate nanomaterials, so we can harness them effectively and safely.”

Gold nanoparticles may destabilize the lipid membrane of a biological cell

The ILL-led research team reported that the temperature and the electric charge of the lipid membrane changed the behavior of energy barriers. In turn, altering those affected the way the nanoparticle responded to the layer.

They also identified the molecular processes involved in the interactions between gold nanoparticles and the membrane. The mechanisms helped the nanomaterial get internalized in the lipid layer.

Further, the molecular mechanisms and the gold nanoparticles worked together in destabilizing a lipid membrane with a negative charge.

To show how gold nanoparticles interacted within the cell membrane at the atomic level, the researchers employed molecular dynamics. The computational approach modeled the behavior of the atoms.

“There are thousands of different nanoparticles of different sizes and compositions, which all impact on cells differently,” explained Université Grenoble Alpes researcher Marco Maccarini. “The complementarity of computational and neutron techniques highlighted in this study has helped to provide a clearer indication of what influences the behaviour of nanoparticles.”

Maccarini and his colleagues concluded that the combination of neutron scattering and molecular dynamics made it possible to understand nanoparticles. They hoped that their findings would assist future research on the interaction between other nanoparticles and biological cells.

Visit for more studies on the uses and applications for gold nanoparticles and other nanomaterials.

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