Thursday, March 22, 2007

What is that on your face?

I don't know if it's just coincidence or if it represents some kind of heightened awareness on my part, but in the past couple of weeks I've come across a number of different articles discussing the contents of skin creams and lotions. The truth is that what is written on the label may not tell you what you really need to know about the effectiveness and safety of the product.

First off, I came across the excellent blog, the Beauty Brains, which gives the scientific low-down on how various beauty products work (or not). They have the scoop on facial scrubs containing Dead Sea salt, the scam of "skin tightening" lotions, whether anti-aging creams have been shown to be effective, and expensive products with dilute amounts of botanicals that likely have no significant effect on the skin. Take their analysis to heart and you could save $$$$.

Next, there is a slightly disturbing article in the current issue of Technology Review about the trendy addition of nanomaterials to upscale cosmetics and lotions. Looking at one such pricey product, the writer found that neither the sales staff nor the company representative is clear on what exactly their lotion contains, or whether there is any risk in using the high-tech sounding ingredients.
The cream, she informed me, has various "nano complexes" in an exact ratio that is customized for my age, my gender, and my face's precise degree of oiliness--information gleaned from a number of probing questions she asked me.

How, I asked, did I know these tiny particles weren't going to creep under my skin and wreak havoc with my body? No, she assured me, the cream uses chemicals of a regular size, just in nano amounts. "See the difference?"

Not really. Scientists have for decades been doing experiments using chemi­cals in ­nanomolar quanti­ties, which simply means that they're ­extraordinarily dilute. So how was ­Bionova's product special? ­Alexander Sepper, Bionova's vice president for ­research and development, at first echoed the sales rep's statements. "Our nanotech slightly differs from the nano­tech that's made by most companies," he said. "We are not talking about nano­particles but about nano quantities."

I still didn't understand how the product could be called nanotech if it didn't actually use nano-sized particles. Sepper seemed to agree.

"You know, I should be honest with you. In the beginning, we called them simply biocomplexes," he said. "When nanotech came and everyone started to claim nanotech, nanotech, nanotech, of course the marketing people came to us and demanded that we have to accommodate the present situation. My understanding as a scientist is it's more marketing than science." According to Sepper, revenues from the product, which is sold in upscale stores such as Barneys, went up when Bionova began calling it nanotech. But when I pushed him a bit on the use of the word in marketing the cream, he quickly backtracked. "When I said we are using nano quantities, I thought you already knew that we are using nanoparticles. We are using nano quantities of the nanoparticles."

I suspect that the truth in this case is that they use a homeopathic-like amount of the nanomaterials to justify charging $163 for a jar of face cream. That makes it unlikely that those particular additives would cause any problems - but also unlikely that they have any beneficial effects. The concern that applying nanoparticles to the skin might cause serious side effects is a real one, however.

But here's the rub: though some nanomaterials clearly have advantages, such materials might also pose risks. Will the smaller particles penetrate the skin? Can they clog airways and trigger immune responses? Will they lodge in the body's tissues, including the brain?

The simple answer is that no one knows. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies have research programs in place that may eventually answer some questions about the toxicity and environmental impact of nanoparticles. But such research will take time and a great deal more money.
What surprised me is that cosmetics don't have to pass any sort of safety test. Instead, they are considered safe until a problem arises. I think I'll stick with ordinary lotion for the time being.

Chem Blog addresses the issue of product effectiveness, based a recent paper in Food Chemistry about the wound healing and other beneficial properties of the active ingredients, such as acemannan, in aloe vera. What the study found is that that beauty products touting aloe on their label may not actually provide any of those benefits.
The problem is, however, that of the 9 major manufacturers of powdered aloe that Bozzi et. al. only three contained acemannan in enough quantities to actually seem like they should qualify for aloe. [. . .] They also note that manufacturers cut their product with maltodextrin, sometimes without even labeling their product as being cut with maltodextrin. And by cut I mean 45%-95% w/w. Another problem, as it is pointed out, can be a result of shitty handling of the processed aloe. Bacteria breaks down the acemannan if the product isn’t treated properly rendering it a slurry of organic acids and sugars.

The moral of the story is that your Botanical Blend shampoo may be nothing more than poorly cut sugars with a fancy label.
While it might not have any especially beneficial effects on my skin, I'll stick with my Aloe Vaseline Intensive Care lotion since it smells nice.

Finally, the March issue of WIRED explains the various components of Neutrogena Face Lotion. If you've ever wondered about the purpose of octyl methoxycinnamate (blocks UV-B) or xanthan gum (provides a nice texture), this give a brief overview. I found their description of hydroxyacetic acid or "alpha-hydroxy" a bit disturbing:
It’s a corrosive acid that breaks apart the outer layer of skin, spurring new cell growth. While it may make you look younger, it can also make skin twice as vulner­able to sun damage — good thing Neutrogena adds SPF 15 sunscreen.
I have a tube of alpha-hydroxy acid-containing lotion that carries no caution about potential skin damage in the sun - and contains no sun screen. Wonderful.

The take-home message is clearly that we should be aware of what the chemicals we slather on our skin can and cannot do. And don't believe everything you read on the label.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Please do not leave spam here!th11

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Left Brain said...

Nice post. The other thing about aloe is that cosmetic companies buy it in 1% solutions. Then we put only about 1% of that in a formula. That means of actual aloe there is at most 0.01%. In your vaseline, the aloe isn't doing anything except making the product sound better.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Oh well, it does smell nice :-)

8:56 PM  

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