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Investigator

Nanotechnology and smelly feet


Tired of smelly socks lying around your campus lounge? Wishing you didn’t have to change them five times a day? Scared of taking your shoes off when relaxing in front of a film with your girlfriend? Well, we might just have the perfect solution for you! With the rise of nanotechnology, scientists have created anti-odour socks which supposedly kill the bacteria associated with smelly and sweaty feet.

Nanoparticles are currently all the rage in many different domains such as electronic engineering, medicine and the creation of consumer products for marketing purposes. A nanoparticle is a tiny particle measuring between 1 and 100 nanometres in size (1 nanometre is 1 millionth of a millimetre!). Although nanoparticles were officially described by Michael Faraday in 1857 and have created over the past decade a massive field of research, it is believed that they have been used for much longer than we know of. Possibly even by artisans from the 9th century to create glittering effects in materials, paintings and sculptures.

The main point of using nanoparticles is that they have a high surface to volume ratio, meaning that they can be present in very high concentrations in small volumes. This makes them very reactive. Different nanoparticles are being used for different purposes, their high reactivity being the key to their usefulness. Data storage devices are being created using them (yes that’s where the “nano ipods” get their name from) as we move towards smaller and smaller ways to store our films and music. In medicine, nanostructures (tiny spheres which can encapsulate drugs) are being used to target drug delivery for example. With a drug encapsulated within a nanoparticle, this method promises to deliver more of the drug to the target and to reduce the harmful effects of the drug on other organs. Although these findings are all very new, they are thought to create an opportunity for cancer therapy in the future and have even been mentioned in some research on AIDS therapy.

But back to our socks! In these specially created footwear, silver oxide nanoparticles are being used to kill bacteria. Silver is a well known antibacterial product which is used in dishwasher tablets for example. It can denature the proteins in bacteria (i.e. breaking them down) and also generate oxygen from air and water to destroy the cell membranes of bacteria. In high concentrations like they are in anti-odour socks, the tiny silver oxide particles can attack and kill all the bacteria particles making themselves at home in your gym trainers!

Nevertheless don’t jump to your computer to buy some just yet! Major controversy surrounds these tiny elements and opinions are still diverged as to whether they should be considered dangerous or not! Nanoparticles are so small that they can interact with the molecules inside your body, rushing through the blood stream to different organs like the liver or heart. One of their main features is that they can cross membranes which mean they have the opportunity to enter every single cell in your body. Although this might not be dangerous for some particles, many are insoluble meaning that they can remain in the body for very long periods of time. And I don’t think anyone wants tiny particles of possibly poisonous substances roaming around their body for years and years. Other serious allegations have been made as to their safety, including their possible threat to the environment. Nanoparticles are being included in many consumer products like cosmetics and sunscreen. When these are washed off, they can pollute the water sources that maintain our natural habitat.

So what can we conclude for this rise in nanotechnology? Does the threat of exposure to nanoparticles outweigh the benefits of this rising technology? Is it up to the consumer to make a conscious decision to understand what he/she is using or should scientists be more careful of informing the possible risks of new technology? Ultimately, how much are you willing to risk to live smell free?

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About me

Hi! My name is Natacha - I'm a research scientist and a lover of all things science! I love finding out interesting facts about all aspects of life, whether it's how genetic engineering works or what the difference between crimped and straight hair is. There's a bit of science behind every mystery and the Science Informant will help find the clues for everyone to enjoy and understand the amazing world of science!
Member Button linking to the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) - an association of science writers, journalists, broadcasters and science-based communications professionals - many of whom are available for freelance work

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