In a critical first step to regulating nanomaterials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made it compulsory to label for nanoscale ingredients in cosmetics.

The use of nanomaterials has been racing ahead of regulation in everything from automobile parts to pesticides. The extent of their spread is generally unknown due to the absence of regulation.

The EPA decision represents an important turning point as until now, government has taken no concrete action to protect workers, consumers or the environment. Last year the government brushed aside a report that identified numerous gaps in safety laws.

The rule change will now make visible those nanomaterials that go on the skin and the challenge for the EPA is to go more than skin deep with the technology.

The decision is particularly welcome for explicitly affirming that consumers have a right to know when nanomaterials are used.

As the level of risk that nanomaterials pose is largely unknown, labelling cosmetics ensures consumers will at least have the ability to make informed choices.

The decision brings New Zealand into line with pending European cosmetic labelling requirements – as the Sustainability Council proposed to the EPA’s hearing.

Cosmetic products that contain nanomaterials will not have to be labelled in New Zealand until July 1 2015 – a delay intended to allow manufacturers and importers to sell through existing stock. However, that will leave New Zealanders in the dark for three years.

The Sustainability Council has further proposed that the EPA bridge the three-year gap by creating an online public register of cosmetic products that contain nanoparticles.

The progress made with the EPA decision is welcome, but labelling is a minimum requirement and the real challenge lies in actually assessing and managing risks posed by nanomaterials. This involves making decisions about what people should be exposed to and the EPA will need to introduce mandatory risk assessment of such ingredients.

It also involves defining what size a nanomaterial needs to be before it is regulated as New Zealand lags behind the EU on this important question.

The Council looks forward to the EPA building on this turning point and tackling a regulatory backlog in order to best protect the people and environment of New Zealand.