Monika Kulak

Move over, Cover Girl. Step aside, Revlon. Monika Kulak wants to have her own cosmetics line someday – she even has a name picked out: Epic Dermis. “That’s my dream,” says the third-year nanoscience student. “We’ll see where it takes me.”

For now, she’s putting makeup under the microscope to find out how nanoparticles can improve application and wear.

“We all want to look good,” says Kulak. “Looking good makes us feel fabulous.” Cosmetics aren’t restricted to makeup, she adds. They also include personal hygiene products like shampoo and toothpaste for both men and women.

Nanoparticles have been used in cosmetics since the early 1960s. Their nano size allows them to penetrate the skin more effectively, which improves the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. Vitamin C, for example, is popular in anti-aging skin-care products because it stimulates collagen production, improving the skin’s elasticity and reducing the appearance of wrinkles.

Nanoparticles also spread out more easily than larger particles, which can form “globules” on the surface of the skin. Sunscreen containing nanoparticles can be applied more thinly and evenly to the skin without looking pasty.

When it comes to applying nanoparticle-based cosmetics, less is more. “They’re so small and there’s so many active ingredients, you can put so much more into the little dab of skin cream or serum that you’re putting on,” says Kulak. “It’s a slower penetration rate, so the skin is not shocked by the amount of chemicals you are putting on it.”

To prevent cosmetic ingredients from entering the bloodstream, “site-specific targeting” combines nanoparticles with a chemical compound called a ligand to make a nanoemulsion that attaches to receptors on certain types of skin cells. “Different cells in the body have different receptors,” Kulak explains. “If we add this ligand, we want it to go to this cell.”

Most people want to look good and smell good, but the price of vanity may come at the expense of human health. Some cosmetic ingredients have been identified as carcinogens. Nanoemulsions are considered safer, she says, because their surface consists of oil and water naturally found in the skin, which is less likely to react to natural ingredients than synthetics.

Kulak’s passion for cosmetics began when she started wearing makeup in high school, but her sensitive skin reacted to certain types. Some ingredients can cause skin irritation and clog pores, leading to breakouts. When she switched to using cosmetics with more natural ingredients, she noticed a difference. “They do feel better on my skin.”

This past summer, Kulak worked with chemistry professor Mario Monteiro on sugars that could be used to make thin uniform films. “If we can find a way to incorporate that into a type of makeup, that would be really awesome,” she says.

But even nanoparticles may have an ugly side. Kulak says more research needs to be done on the potential health effects of their long-term use. Researchers are studying the effects of nanoparticles on skin cells using atomic force microscopes.

Products that contain nanoparticles may be more difficult to remove from the skin, because soap and water don’t penetrate deeply enough. In that case, she says, you may need to wait until your skin cells slough off.

Despite the potential downsides of nanoparticles, Kulak says, “Properly designed makeup formulations using nanotechnology and natural ingredients can be healthier.”