Nanotechnology goes skin deep: but EU researchers keep it safe
Nanotechnology harnesses the power of the very small - just a fraction of the size of a human hair and too tiny to see with the naked eye - to make more effective devices, materials and medicines. Now researchers behind the SKHINCAPS project funded by the European Union want to use nanotechnologies to make smart clothing and cosmetics.
Imagine sportswear or underwear that keeps you cool when it’s hot or warm when it’s cold. This could now be possible thanks to the use of new fabrics impregnated with tiny capsules of materials that absorb and release energy.
Imagine fabrics or creams that limit bacterial growth while preserving ‘good’ skin bacteria. Such gentle antibacterial materials could help those suffering from uncomfortable and debilitating skin conditions without resorting to strong chemicals or potentially environment-unfriendly silver ions.
Carla Silva of CeNTI
Imagine face creams and skin lotions containing a cocktail of antioxidants and anti-aging ingredients that are safe and natural. This is also one of the aims of the SKHINCAPS project coordinated by Carla Silva of CeNTI (Centre for Nanotechnology and Smart Materials) in Portugal. She explains how tiny capsules of different active ingredients are being incorporated into fabrics, textiles and lotions to make a new generation of smart materials and cosmetics.
What do you hope to achieve through the project?
The main idea of our project is to develop tiny ‘nano’ capsules containing active ingredients that can be incorporated into textiles or creams where, in close contact with the skin, they will provide superior comfort for the user. We will encapsulate what are known as phase change materials to improve the thermal comfort of users, antimicrobials to control excessive microbial growth and antioxidants and antiaging formulations for cosmetics.
How did you become interested in this area?
I have been a researcher for 17 years, starting at Minho University with a PhD in textile chemistry. From that moment on I became interested in doing research in technological areas that were closer to the market. At CeNTI, we help companies adopt new technologies so I started looking at nanotechnologies almost 10 years ago because the textile industry was not ready to work with the new nanomaterials that were appearing in the market. We set up this project to implement nanotechnology-based solutions and take them to the market.
What issues or problems are you hoping to tackle?
Commercially available products that promote skin comfort are usually based on microcapsules but are not as effective as they could be because skin is such a good barrier. So we want to encapsulate safe active ingredients in smaller capsules, which improves efficacy and efficiency. We want to develop nanocapsules that will be easily approved and will be safe for the user, so we are focusing on safe ingredients and safe processes.
Nanotechnologies can provide very effective technologies and products, but we always need to keep in mind that we don’t know their long-term impact. So in this project we are working with nanomaterials that are larger than 100 nm in size – because we know that from the point of view of potential side effects this can make a difference. We are using a safe-by-design approach with safe materials because we want our products to reach the market, we want the success of our partner companies and, as consumers, we want effective products. It has to be this way!
What have you achieved so far?
Although we are only in the first year of the project, we have developed the technology for no-release capsules that contain phase change materials. We are now working on linking these nanocapsules to textiles. But this is very difficult because we need the textiles to withstand washing and last. Then we will demonstrate the effectiveness of our textiles and compare them with conventional microcapsule solutions that are already being marketed by one of our partners, DEVAN.
Eventually, though, we want to have nanocapsules that release their active ingredients in other ways. In that case, we are working on targeted nanocapsules and ones that release their contents on a specific trigger.
For the capsules themselves, we are using a patented technology from one of our other partners, BIONANOPLUS, based on a natural material derived from starch. The process itself uses only water-based solutions – no organic solvents – and is very easy to scale up.
With the active ingredients, we also wanted to use safe materials, so the majority are natural based. In our skincare and cosmetics products, for instance, we are using compounds provided by nature such as carotene and natural oils from trees and plants that have an antimicrobial effect. The idea is to use safe ingredients encapsulated in a safe technology to deliver a safe product to the user.
What might it be like to wear one of your ‘smart’ garments?
For the wearer, the garment would not look any different. But when you are wearing one of these t-shirts and doing sports, for instance, you would feel comfortable even when you started to get hot and sweat. In cold conditions, you would feel warmth being released by your t-shirt. These temperature-balancing clothes could also be really useful for the elderly and children.
Why did you set up this project?
We really believe in this technology and feel that the market needed something like this.
How did you find your partners?
Sometimes it is tempting to set up a consortium with partners you have worked with before or are close colleagues, but in this case it was not like that. We looked for partners that made sense to the project and had the technologies we needed in this project. So for example, our partner BIONANOPLUS from Spain has the encapsulation technology, DEVAN and TELIC have the know-how on the textile and cosmetics markets, VTT from Finland has experience in lifecycle analysis, Belgian consultants PRO-ACTIVE know about product- and market-related legislation and so on. We are a small consortium, four research organisations and four SMEs, but very complementary, oriented and focused.
It’s been very interesting working with these partners because everyone is highly motivated to find the best and most effective solutions to reach the market.
What have been the main challenges working together?
I would say the first barrier was that we didn’t know each other already. I was really worried before the project started because it was risky but it is working very well. Even at the first meeting, you could see everyone was highly motivated and responsible. We are also a young team – even though some of the partners are well established – but we are all going in the same direction, which is very important.
What are the key ingredients for a successful project?
Doing research means being in partnership, so look for the expertise you need. When you are establishing a consortium, focus on the objectives of the project and what you need to achieve them.
As a coordinator, you need to be very effective in communicating your message. You need experience in managing people because sometimes you have to be the bad guy to get results. But you also need to understand different points of view and be able to reach an agreement that is the best for the project – even if sometimes that is not the best for the individual or the institution.
What has been the most exciting part of the process so far?
I would say, personally, it has been very challenging coordinating a project at the international level. It has been very interesting to interact with the EC and try to balance everybody’s interests.
As for CeNTI, we are being invited to participate in more European events as a result of being a coordinator and this has given us access to information and networks we didn’t have before.
What have been the major benefits?
We have coordinated national projects before, but coordinating a European project under the Horizon 2020 programme has given us a totally different vision and image of the market because we are now looking worldwide. Our stakeholders, potential partners and clients are now global. This has been very important for us.
What advice would you give to someone starting out on the process?
My key advice is look to the topic of the call when you are preparing a proposal. Make sure you have or are developing the technology that can solve the specific requirements. Then find the partners that you really need based on their expertise and skills – not on your personal and professional experience of working with them. To develop products that get onto the market, you need to be focused and straight to the point.
Would you do it again?
Yes for sure! It is very demanding in terms of effort, but it is also a very interesting and rewarding experience coordinating a project.