Zinc oxide nanoparticles (ZnO NPs) exhibit novel physiochemical properties and have found increasing use in sunscreen products and cosmetics. The potential toxicity is of increasing concern due to their close association with human skin. A time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (TOF-SIMS) and confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) imaging method was developed and validated for rapid and sensitive cytotoxicity study of ZnO NPs using human skin equivalent HaCaT cells as a model system. Assorted material, chemical, and toxicological analysis methods were used to confirm their shape, size, crystalline structure, and aggregation properties as well as dissolution behavior and effect on HaCaT cell viability in the presence of various concentrations of ZnO NPs in aqueous media. Comparative and correlative analyses of aforementioned results with TOF-SIMS and CLSM imaging results exhibit reasonable and acceptable outcome. A marked drop in survival rate was observed with 50μg/ml ZnO NPs. The CLSM images reveal the absorption and localization of ZnO NPs in cytoplasm and nuclei. The TOF-SIMS images demonstrate elevated levels of intracellular ZnO concentration and associated Zn concentration-dependent 40Ca/39K ratio, presumably caused by the dissolution behavior of ZnO NPs. Additional validation by using stable isotope-labeled 68ZnO NPs as tracers under the same experimental conditions yields similar cytotoxicity effect. The imaging results demonstrate spatially-resolved cytotoxicity relationship between intracellular ZnO NPs, 40Ca/39K ratio, phosphocholine fragments, and glutathione fragments. The trend of change in TOF-SIMS spectra and images of ZnO NPs treated HaCaT cells demonstrate the possible mode of actions by ZnO NP involves cell membrane disruption, cytotoxic response, and ROS mediated apoptosis.
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