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What’s so terrible about propylene glycol?

Ally asks…I’ve been seeing “propylene glycol free” on a lot of products lately together with ‘paraben free’ and ‘mineral oil free’. Googled it to see what’s so harmful about it and here found the Material Safety Data Sheet warns users to avoid skin contact with propylene glycol as this strong skin irritant can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage’. If anyone could shed some light on the issue, would be much appreciated.

The Beauty Brains respond:

Propylene Glycol (or PG as we cosmetic scientists call it) is primarily used in beauty products to improve freeze-thaw stabilize of emulsions. A few percent or less of PG can prevent a cream or lotion from developing a grainy, cottage cheese-like texture when exposed to low temperatures. It also has moisturizing properties similar to glycerine (which is more commonly used.)

But PG, along with many other chemicals, has gotten a bad rap from groups like the EWG. For example, according to the website The Good Human the main role of PG is to “help any other chemicals that you come in contact with reach your bloodstream.” and that it “alters the structure of the skin by allowing chemicals to penetrate deep beneath it while increasing their ability to reach the blood stream.

That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? But let’s take a look at what science really says about propylene glycol in cosmetics.

Why is Propylene Glycol used in cosmetics?

As I noted above the main reason for using PG in cosmetics is to improve product texture. Relatively small amounts, on the order of 2% or less, are required to achieve this effect. To be fair, I should also point out that PG is used at higher concentrations in a few products where it acts as a solvent for other ingredients. But it is NOT primarily used to help other ingredients to penetrate into the blood stream.

Is Propylene Glycol dangerous in cosmetics?

According to the US Food & Drug Administration, propylene glycol is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for direct addition to food. It’s also permitted for use as a defoaming agent in indirect food additives. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review board (a group of scientists who review the safety of cosmetic ingredients) have determined that it’s ”safe for use in cosmetic products when formulated to be non-irritating.” Essentially this means that companies need to conduct skin irritation testing on new formulas to ensure PG doesn’t cause irritation when mixed with other ingredients. This is a standard test that companies do on new products so it’s not a big deal. (BTW, the testing is done on people, not animals.) In addition, many oral and IV drugs use significant amounts of PG. It’s my opinion that if an ingredient is safe for ingestion AND safe for use in injected drugs, it’s unlikely to cause any problems in a topical cosmetic.

But what about skin penetration?

Let me be clear: propylene glycol is one of the ingredients that penetrates skin but “absorption through the skin is minimal.” Since PG itself is safe to ingest (it’s either excreted in the urine or it breaks down in the blood to form lactic acid, which is naturally produced by your body, toxicity isn’t really an issue. The only cases where PG getting into the blood stream caused a problem occurred when PG-containing creams where applied to large areas of burned skin. That makes sense since burned skin would be missing the outer protective layer. In these cases mild lactic acidosis and serum hyperosmolality were observed. There are certainly no problems when low levels of PG are applied to healthy, intact skin.

How much is PG is ok?

According to a report issued by the World Health Organization, the estimated acceptable daily intake for PG is about 25 mg of propylene glycol per kg body weight. (Seventeeth Report of the FAO/WHO Expert Committee, 1974). For a 130 pound person that would be about 3 pounds of PG per day before you might have problems. That’s by ingesting it, you could put MUCH more on your skin since only a small amount actually penetrates through your skin into the blood stream.

What about penetration enhancement?

So PG is safe by itself but what about helping other ingredients get through the skin? This is the one question I couldn’t get a clear answer to. I couldn’t find any studies showing which ingredients PG enhances penetration and by how much. However, considering it’s used in relatively hight amounts in topical drug products it seems unlikely to me that it will cause problems at the lower levels used in most cosmetics.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Its always good to be knowledgable about the chemicals you put in or on your body. But based on the the most recent scientific data it doesn’t look like there’s really much to be worried about cosmetics that contain propylene glycol.

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In this “lost episode” Perry and I explain EXACTLY why you don’t need to worry about lead in your lipstick.

Click below to play Episode 54 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Question of the week: How much lead is added to your body from lipstick?

Fact 1. How much lead is in your brand of lipstick?
Let’s assume the worst case scenario: the brand/shade with the highest lead content is Maybelline Pink Petal with 7.19 mcg/g (that’s micrograms of lead per gram of lipstick. A microgram is 1/1,000,000 of a gram or about 1/28,000,000 of an ounce.) You can also think of it this way: one microgram is like a single ant swimming in a pool the size of Central Park.
(http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/ProductInformation/ucm137224.htm#expanalyses)

Fact 2. How many times a day do you apply lipstick?
We’ll assume five applications per day which is fairly heavy use. (http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/lipstick.asp)

Fact 3. How much lipstick is deposited on your lips per application?
A tube of lipstick weighs about 3 grams which will provide about 400 applications. Therefore a single application delivers about 7.3 micrograms to your lips. (http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/lipstick.asp)

Fact 4. How much of that lipstick do you swallow during the day?
We know that much of your lipstick ends up on napkins, coffee cups, and body parts but again let’s use the worst case scenario and assume that ALL the lipstick you apply to your lips is swallowed.

Answer:
Based on these calculations the absolute most lead you could swallow from lipstick is about 0.3 micrograms per day. (For most people it will far less than that.) Is that much lead bad? Read on.

Question: Is 0.3 micrograms of lead a dangerous amount to swallow?

Fact 1. How much of that lead gets into your blood?
The lead in lipstick is tied up in the color pigments and it takes a very strong chemical reaction (using hydrofluoric acid) to release the lead so it can be absorbed into your blood. So, in reality, a large portion of the lead you swallow doesn’t get into your blood at all, it passes right through your body. (One reference says your body only absorbs about 10% of the lead you swallow) But, once again, let’s assume the worst case and figure that 100% of the lead you swallow stays in your body. So that means your daily lipstick use will add 0.3 micrograms of lead to your blood. (Hepp, N.M.., “Determination of Total Lead in 400 Lipsticks on the U.S. Market Using a Validated Microwave-Assisted Digestion, Inductively Coupled Plasma–Mass Spectrometric Method,” Journal of Cosmetic Science, accepted for publication in May/June, 2012, issue and http://www.lecbiz.com/serv02.htm)

Fact 2. How much lead is normally in your body?
Even though you hear that there is no safe level of lead, every healthy adult has some amount of lead in their blood from drinking water, foods, and the environment. According to the CDC, the average healthy adult person has 1.4 micrograms per deciliter of blood. That means an average woman (130 pounds, 5 feet 6 inches) will have a total of 53.5 micrograms of lead in her blood. Therefore, the additional 0.3 micrograms from your daily lipstick usage will increase the total amount of lead in the average person’s blood from 53.5 micrograms to 53.8. (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ables/pdfs/ABLES_EBLL_050112.pdf) and http://easycalculation.com/medical/blood-volume.php)

Fact 3. How much lead is dangerous?
While this is a controversial point the CDC says that for non-pregnant adults the total Blood Lead Level (or BLL) should be below 10 mcg/dl which is a total of 382 mcg in an average person’s blood. If the BLL is above 382 mcg, then the CDC recommends you seek medical treatment. As you can see, going from 53.5 mcg to 53.8 mcg doesn’t put you anywhere near that limit. The average person would have to ingest an additional 328 micrograms of lead in a single day to cross this threshold. It would take 15 tubes of lipstick to give you that much lead! (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ables/description.html)

Answer:
Based on the calculations used above, you’d have to EAT 15 entire tubes of lipstick in a single day to elevate your blood lead level to the point where the CDC would say it’s necessary to take action. Obviously the small amount of lead you swallow from lipstick each day presents very little risk.

Question: So one day’s worth of lipstick lead is fine but you wear lipstick everyday. Does lead build up over time?

Fact 1. How much lead are you taking in every day from lipstick?
We’ve just shown that in the worst case scenario lipstick adds an extra 0.3 micrograms of lead to your blood every day.

Fact 2. How much lead does your body get rid of every day?
Studies have shown that every day your body can get rid of about 35 mcg.(mostly through urine and feces.) (http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2526&context=opendissertations and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC333178/pdf/jcinvest00644-0006.pdf)

Answer:
Lipstick doesn’t cause any buildup of lead in your blood over time because you’re only taking in about 1/100 of what your body removes.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Even assuming you’re a heavy lipstick user, the amount of lead from your daily lipstick usage only raises your blood lead level by a very small amount. Over time your body excretes far more lead than you take in from lipstick. Lead poisoning from other sources IS a serious problem (especially for children) but non-pregnant adults don’t need to worry about getting lead poisoning from lipstick.

Final note: we’re cosmetic chemists, not toxicologists, and we invite anyone with additional knowledge on this subject to check our numbers and assumptions. We’ll gladly update this article if new information comes to light.

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Buy your copy of  It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

      • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
      • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
      • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
      • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.

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A post on one of our favorite beauty and fashion sites, Refinery29, listed the top 7 worst things you do to damage your hair. Let’s review their list to see if they’re based on beauty science.

1. Neglecting nourishment

The article says that not taking care of yourself can lead to weaker hair. It’s certainly true to some extent but studies have shown you have to be quite malnourished before that takes a toll on your hair. Still it’s hard to disagree with advice “you should take care of yourself.”

2. Tearing it up with your towel

This one is certainly true – the fiber to fiber friction caused by rough towel drying is very damaging to the cuticle. And once you lose a few layers of cuticle your hair will break much more easily.

3. Battling with your brush

It’s also true that brushing and combing can damage hair. As the article points out this is especially true when hair is wet. (Wet hair her will stretch farther but it will actually take less force to break.)

4. Blasting with your blow dryer.

The article claims that when you excessively blow dry your hair you pull out “intrinsic moisture” which damages your hair even more. (It’s also true that the heat can cause some structural disruption to the proteins in your hair.) Surprisingly though, here’s an article that talks about why air drying may be more damaging to your hair than blow drying!

5. Skipping shampoo

Not washing your hair often enough is one of the worst things you can do? This one is mystifying to us. Refinery29 says two things that are scientifically questionable: The first is that oil on your skin (or in this case on your scalp) does not provide hydration. That’s not really the case because oils do a great job of moisturizing by preventing water from evaporating from the deeper layers of skin. (This is called trans epidermal water loss.)

The second questionable statement is that if you don’t wash your hair the bad bacteria will grow out of control and cause itching and dryness. If you’re talking about microorganism-induced itching and dryness then you’re talking about some form of dandruff which is caused by the yeast Malassezia not bacteria. But if you don’t have dandruff you won’t develop the condition just because you don’t wash your hair. And if you DO have dandruff regular shampooing may not solve the problem; you need an active ingredient calm the flaking and itching.

6. Agonizing with accessories

The article states that you should be careful when using pins and elastic bands on wet hair. We agreed since, as noted above, wet hair is more susceptible to breakage. Anything you do to wet hair, whether it be brushing, adding hair extensions, or using pins and elastic, can cause more damage.

7. Causing cumulative damage

Refinery29 says that you should give your hair a break from constant stress of styling. In other words, this one is essentially the same as items 2, 3, and 4 above.

What’s missing?

Amazingly the article makes no mention of the two or three things that more damage to your hair than ANYTHING else on this list. Chemical processes like relaxing, perming, straightening, coloring, and highlighting all intensely and irreversibly damage your hair. These are the worst of the worst! And if we had to pick one more factor they missed we might add damage from over exposure to the sun. In reality it takes quite a bit of solar exposure to do significant damage to your hair but if frequently soak up the sun it is something you should be aware of.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

There’s some good advice in this Refinery29 article but don’t forget how much damage you’re doing to your hair with chemical processes.

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Is Cetaphil a good mild cleanser for getting rid of germs?

Bluecatbaby asks…Lately I’ve had some kind of rash on my wrist. Instead of using my usual Softsoap non-antibacterial, I bought Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser to use as hand soap, thinking it would be less irritating. I chose Cetaphil because on the website of the National Eczema Association they recommend using products at a certain pH that makes them less irritating, and Cetaphil is on their list. Now I’m wondering if Cetaphil can really do the job of getting rid of germs, like from the bathroom, or from handling raw egg or meat. If Cetaphil isn’t good to use for cleaning germy hands, does anyone know of another gentle cleanser that is? Also, does anyone agree or disagree that the ph of a soap or cleanser plays a part in how irritating it is?

The Beauty Brains respond:

When it comes to removing bacteria there is evidence that shows regular cleansing products do a good job but anti-bacterial soaps are a little bit better. Check out this post on Can soap really kill germs for more details along with references. But what about irritation?

Is Cetaphil mild?

There are two main factors that determine the irritation potential for a cleanser and pH ain’t one of them! That’s because based on the chemistry of the surfactants used to most cleansers, pH is in a very narrow range typically (somewhere around 5 to 7.) AHA cleansers are an exception because the pH is lower due to the acid but that’s not the kind of product for talking about here. Here are the two most important factors that do determine how irritating a cleanser might be.

Type of surfactant

As we’ve explained before, some cleansing agents are inherently more irritating to skin than others. Sodium lauryl sulfate, which is in this Cetaphil product, has been shown to interact with skin protein in a way that makes it harder to rinse away which results in irritation for some people. (To be fair it should also be noted that many many people use this ingredient with no problem whatsoever.) Sodium cocoyl isethionate is a much gentler (but more expensive) ingredient that is used in the top 10 mildest body washes and facial cleansers. (Follow the link for technical references which back up what we’ve said here.)

Fragrances and essential oils

Fragrances are one of the most potentially irritating ingredients used in cosmetics. That’s why fragrance allergens must be listed as separate ingredients. And don’t think they are irritating just because they’re full of “bad synthetics.” Even natural essential oils, especially citrus oils, can be very irritating to skin. So, fragrance free products really do have an edge when it comes to mildness.

How does Cetaphil score?

Well it’s kind of a mixed bag – there’s no fragrance which is good but it uses sodium lauryl sulfate which may be bad. This is one of those cases where you’ll have to try it for yourself and see. The product is reasonably priced and if it doesn’t irritate you it’s perfectly fine to use. If you still have irritation issues after using it look for a fragrance free facial wash based on sodium cocoyl isethionate.

Cetaphil cleanser ingredients

Water, cetyl alcohol, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, stearyl alcohol, methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben

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Is it true that Europe bans more cosmetic ingredients that the US? Listen to this week’s show to find out (or read the notes below). You’ll also learn about perfume from the past, microbeads in your mouth, and more. (Plus a special themed version of our  “Improbable Products” game.) 

Click below to play Episode 53 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Improbable Products

Can these crazy products be real? Two of them are – but one is made up. Can you guess which one is fake?

  1. Triple Penis Potion – this exotic skin lotion uses fermented penises from dog, deer and seal to moisturize skin and increase virility.
  2. Pocket penis – A prosthesis you slip in your pants to instantly look more well endowed.
  3. Fresh Crotch- a revolutionary lotion that transforms to powder as it dries to soothe a guy’s sweaty private parts.

Listen to the show for the answer!

Beauty Science News

Perfume from the past
Bottles of perfume have been recovered from an 1864 shipwreck. Using a gas chromatograph, perfumers were able to recreate the scent and it is not offered for sale in a limited edition. The lesson here is that it’s a good idea to store your perfume in a cool, dark place because it prolongs the shelf life. (You can wrap the bottle in aluminum foil and keep it in the refrigerator.)

Are micro bead toothpastes bad for your gums?
We’ve talked about microbeads before in an abstract “somehow they’re bad for the environment which is probably not good for us either” context. But now the stakes have been raised and research shows microbeads now present a clear and present danger. Dentists are finding that these little polyethylene micro-beads from toothpastes can become lodged in your gum line and lead to inflammation and infection.

Now if there was definitive benefit to the beads I’d say that MAYBE they’re worth the risk but they don’t do anything! So, that begs the question, why do toothpaste manufactures put them in the first place? They’re just there for the visual effect – to provide a sensory cue of scrubbing beads. The beads don’t actually contribute to cleansing. This maybe a moot point if microbeads are banned but the lesson is be careful what you replace them with.

Butterfly wings inspire a new type of cosmetic pigment
Did you know that butterfly wings do NOT contain any colorants? If you look at a wing under high magnification you’ll see the structure looks like rows of tiny Christmas trees. This nano-structure reflects light in a specific way that makes creates all those iridescent colors. Scientists are now looking at similar technology to create paints that will NEVER fade and cosmetics that don’t contain chemical colorants.

Are soaps safe for the environment?
Plastic microbeads may not be good for the environment but what about all the tons of shampoo and body wash that we dump down the drain every day? Do you think all that detergent kills little fishes and frogs? A new study says that we’re NOT damaging the environment by shampooing our hair, cleaning our bodies, and even washing our clothes.

Researchers at Department of Environmental Science AU Rokskilde were concerned because these detergents are some of the most commonly used substances and we dump a LOT of them into our wastewater – so if they make their way into the environment that could be a BIG deal. So, they looked at 250 studies done over the last 50 years and found that because these detergents are made to degrade rapidly and once they are processed treatment plants there’s very little risk to the environment. The study was done based in the North America but they expect the results will apply across the world. It’s good that we keep an eye on these things but sounds like we can keep using our cleaning products – as long as they are micro-bead free, that is!

Is it true that Europe bans more cosmetic ingredients that the US?
The rumor is that the EU has banned over 1000 ingredients while the governing body in the US (the FDA) has only banned 9. Can this be true? Is the US really that reckless compared to Europe? When you look at the EU laws that govern cosmetics you’ll see that the list of 1000+ ingredients include chemicals that are not used in cosmetics AT ALL (such as the picric acid, which is explosive, and radioactive substances.) These ingredients would never be used in cosmetics in the US because they are not safe, so even though they are not banned they are not legal in the US. Many of the banned ingredients in Europe are only banned if they contain contaminants. As long as the ingredient is purified, it’s allowed to be used (just like in the US.) Click the link if you want to learn more details about the EU regulations.

New scent trends for 2015
Just like in the world of fashion, there are new fragrance trends are predicted for the coming year. For 2015, here are the surprising (and not so surprising) notes that are expected to be used in perfumes and personal care products:

  • Rhubarb
  • Mint
  • Tea

LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of  It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

      • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
      • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
      • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
      • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.

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Is Psoria-Gold effective against rosacea?

Viviana asks…I recently found the Dr Keng or Heng’s discovery about the benefits of curcumin on rosacea, the product is psoria-gold. I would like to know what you think about that, does it really work? I am thinking on try a mask with turmeric, honey and milk, once a week, and i do not want to waste my time.

The Beauty Brains respond:

Curcumin (also known as diferuloylmethane) is an active component in the spice turmeric and has anti-inflammatory properties. According to PubMed there is some published research indicating that curcumin is effective against psoriasis but we couldn’t find any specific reference proving it’s effective on rosacea.

And here’s more bad news: even if curcumin is effective against rosacea there’s no way to tell if there’s enough cucurmin in the Psoria-Gold to actually be effective. Further more, according to their website, Psoria-Gold contains a good amount of isopropyl alcohol which can dry/irritatye skin and make rosacea even worse!

Can you make a DIY turmeric mask?

Remember that we said that turmeric does contain curcumin? Well, we should also mention that curcumin has to be properly extracted from the spice or it won’t be effective. When swallowed the tumeric can be metabolized but just dumping some turmeric in honey and milk and rubbing it on your face won’t cut it. Extracting a decent amount of curcumin from turmeric requires takes several hours and requires using a combination of ethanol and water (or other solvents such as petroleum ether.) A do it yourself mask is most likely a waste of time.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

While the scientific literature does indicate that cucurmin has anti-inflammatory properties there’s no real data showing that the Psoria-Gold or your homemade version will help with your rosacea.

Bonus fact: Did you know that tumeric root is part of the ginger family?

References:
Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:343-57. Beneficial role of curcumin in skin diseases.

Extraction of curcumin

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Which kind of titanium dioxide is safer in sunscreens?

Kate G says…Now how are we able to tell which kind of titanium dioxide is used in our favourite cosmetics? (This question is in response to an article we posted on Facebook about the new research on the safety of titanium dioxide.)

The Beauty Brains respond:

First a quick bit off background and then we’ll explain what this new research means.

As many of you may be aware titanium dioxide (TiO2) is very good at reflecting UV rays so it’s often used in sunblocks. Traditionally it has been considered to be a very safe ingredient because it is chemically inert and does not penetrate skin. But in the last few years there has been some research to indicate that this chemical may be reactive in the presence of UV light and can actually generate free radicals which can damage the skin.

New research reveals a safer form

But now a new study shows that the “rutile” form of TiO2 may be less reactive than the “anastase” form. Therefore, products made with with the rutile version are less likely to form free radicals. It sounds like this version of TiO2 would be the obvious choice to use in sunscreens, right?

However, upon closer reading you’ll find that the difference between the two forms is that the rutile version washes off more easily and therefore is not left on the skin to react with UV rays. Since the point of a sunscreen is to stay on the skin where it can provide protection, it doesn’t seem to make sense to recommend a sunscreen active that is only safer when it is washed away. Sunscreen actives should be waterproof so they last longer at the beach, when you sweat, etc. Gaining an advantage in safety at the expense of efficacy doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff in this case.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

For now we wouldn’t worry about which version of TiO2 your sunscreen contains. The risk of potential of free radical damage from titanium dioxide seems small compared to the risk associated with of photo-aging or even getting skin cancer.

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Does Poo Pourri really prevent bathroom odors?

Lexi says…I typically skip over YouTube commercials but I saw one yesterday that mesmerized me – some British chick talking about a product called “Poo Pourri” that covers up bathroom odors. The commercial looks like a total joke but apparently it’s a real product. Is this any better than a regular air freshener? Enlighten us oh Beauty Brains!

The Beauty Brains respond:
We have to admit this entire advertising campaign does have the feel of an elaborate put on. (Check out the video for yourself…) However, if their website is to be believed, this is indeed a legitimate product.

What is Poo Pourri?

The product is a non-aerosol mixture of essential fragrance oils which is sprayed into the toilet bowl prior to the dirty deed. (As opposed to traditional scented products which are sprayed in the air afterwords.) Their tagline is “spritz the bowl before you go and no one else will ever know.” According to their website the product’s essential oils cover the water in the toilet bowl with a fragrant film. When your “astronauts splashdown” (that’s from the commercial – we couldn’t make this stuff up) the film traps their odors below the water level.

Could this stuff really work?

We opted out of any elaborate consumer testing on this one and instead will comment on some of the theoretical aspects of how fragrances work. This product certainly uses a clever approach. Applying a film on the water to seal in orders in theory could help reduce some of the scent problem. And since the fragrance oils have a higher coefficient of diffusion then the “bad odors” they should lift up and fill the room helping to mask those smells that do escape.

While this approach should work with just about any liquid fragrance product we presume that Poo Pourri has optimized their oil-to-fragrance ratio to get the right balance of the toilet bowl coverage and fragrance “bloom.” It’s unlikely that a traditional air freshener would have enough oil and while you could use your favorite perfume (which contains up to 20% oil) it will be a very expensive alternative. (You’d be better off by diluting perfume with another oil.)

The Beauty Brains bottom-line

There is enough fragrance science at work here to suggest that Poo Pourri may provide a unique benefit in the bathroom air freshening category. If anyone is brave enough to give it a try leave a comment and let us know what you stink…uh, think.

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Are those expensive “sonic” face brushes really better than just washing your face by hand? Tune in and find out.  

Click below to play Episode 52 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Question of the week

Phillip from Germany asks…Is “sonic cleansing” the best way to clean your skin? Will these brushes harm your skin like the sharp particles in a scrub?

What is sonic cleansing?

Let’s start by explaining what “sonic cleansing” is. The term originally comes from the fact that the bristles on the head of the cleansing brush oscillate at a precision-tuned sonic frequency (which happens to be 127 Hz, if you’re keeping score at home). The first “sonic” skin care device was the Clarisonic brush which was created by the key inventor of the Soni-care toothbrush which used oscillating bristles to clean teeth.

The basic idea is that the rapid movement of the brush bristles gently deep cleans skin by removing makeup residue, clearing pores, and lightly exfoliating skin. In addition, some products claim that they increase the absorption of skin care ingredients.

You need to understand, however, that not all “sonic” cleansers are really sonic and that there’s not a lot of evidence that these expensive devices are much better than a simple wash cloth.

Oscillating nylon brushes

There are three basic types of sonic cleaners. We’ll describe each type and give a few examples.

The most common ones consist of a nylon brush that is driven by a battery operated motor. The biggest difference between these is whether the brush oscillates or rotates. There are also non-brush type cleansers. But let’s start with the oscillating brush.

This type uses a combination of moveable and stationary nylon bristles which are 10mm in length. The bristles move back and forth at a rate greater than 300 motions per second. This movement generates enough force to deep clean skin without damaging it. The true sonic cleansers are the ones that oscillate.

Clarisonic
Clarisonic is the “mother of all sonic cleansers.” It’s the most expensive brand but they offer the widest range of products. They vary by speed and power and by which products and accessories they come with.

Their face cleansing collection starts with the Mia for $99, the Mia 2 for $149, the Plus for $225 and a Pro model that’s apparently only for sale to dermatologists and aestheticians. The main claim for the product line is that it “Cleanses 6x better than hands alone.”

They also have a special version designed to work with their skin brightening cream. It claims to provide “10x reduction of hyper pigmentation vs manual treatment.” But of course it’s sold with a product that works against hyper pigmentation so it’s not just the brush the provides the benefit.
They also offer the Pedi Sonic which is designed for your feet. It has a smoothing disk like a buffing stone which is designed to work on tough calloused skin.

Lastly there’s the Opal for $185. Instead of a simple cleanser this is a “sonic infusion” device that’s designed to improve the penetration of anti-aging ingredients.

Clinique Sonic System
Phillip mentioned the Clinique sonic system which, at $135, is slightly less expensive than the some of the Clarisonic line. It features an oscillating brush with a dual angled head and its claim to fame is its gentleness. See their website for a video showing it’s gentle enough to use on a flower.

Nutra Sonic Cleansing brush
And, finally, if you want true oscillation at a bargain then look for the Nutra Sonic brush which retails for about $100. Now let’s look at the rotating brushes.

Rotating nylon brushes

The rotating brush also uses 10mm nylon bristles but these move in a circular motion rather than back and forth. These products tend to be much cheaper and people have raised concerns whether they work as well.

Spa Sonic
As we explained the “sonic” name comes from the oscillation frequency. Of course that only applies to the oscillating brushes, not rotating brushes like this one. This is one of the pricier rotating brushes at $50 but their website claims it’s been tested and is comparable to the Clarisonic.

Proactive Deep Cleansing Brush
At $30, the Proactive Deep Cleansing brush is an affordable alternative although there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the claims it makes.

Ulta Dual Action Cleansing system
Similarly, there’s the Ulta version for $25

Olay Pro-X Advanced Cleansing System
This one costs anywhere between $20 to $50 depending on which products you purchase with the brush.

Conair Facial Scrub Brush
Our final example of rotating brushes is the Conair Facial Scrub Brush which has the dubious distinction of allowing you to rotate the brush clockwise or counterclockwise. I don’t know WHAT difference that would make – it’s not like your skin can tell the difference. You can pick this up for only $15.

Non-brush cleansers

There are also “Non-brush” cleansers. These are less common – instead of a nylon brush they channel pulsations through soft silicone filaments or some sort of non woven pad. So even though the technology is different these are probably more similar to the oscillating brushes.

Luna
The pricey Luna, at $199, uses transdermal sonic pulsations to refresh the look and feel of your skin. Because it uses silicone touch-points it’s supposedly more hygienic than standard brush bristles. It claims to give you “Deeper, gentler cleansing for a healthy-looking glow” and to “Improve the absorption of your favorite skincare products.”

Neutrogena Wave Sonic Power Cleanser
And finally there’s the Neutrogena Wave Sonic Power Cleanser.  The motor vibrates a disposable non woven pad and it retails for less than $15.

Are sonic cleansers effective and safe?

All these products can help clean your skin and they’re kind of fun to use but there are two key questions:

1.) Are they sufficiently more effective than “regular” face washing to justify their price?

2.) Can all this oscillation and rotation actually damage your skin?

To answer those questions we looked for evidence that demonstrates the safety and efficacy of these products. Unfortunately, there’s no independent scientific review that compares all these products on all these attributes. However, we were able to find some evidence, including some peer reviewed articles, which should help guide your decision whether or not to purchase one of these devices.

Evidence for cleansing efficacy

Clarisonic:
First, there’s some evidence from the manufacturers (which always has to be looked at skeptically since the data are self-serving.) But here’s the proof that Clarisonic puts forth:

They conducted a half-face study in which they applied makeup spiked with a fluorescing agent. Half of the face was washed manually and half was washed with the device.  There are pictures on their website taken under blacklight which causes the makeup to glow and you can clearly see that almost all makeup is gone on one Clarisonic side. Apparently this is the study which support the “Cleanses 6x better than hands alone” claim.

They also conducted a study shows that use of the product reduces pore size in “hard to reach places” but it didn’t compare the Clarisonic to anything. Therefore, this study is not a compelling reason to buy the product.

P&G:

P&G has done one of the most comprehensive studies on facial cleansing brushes. They measured 5 parameters comparing brush cleansing to manual cleansing and in some of those parameters they directly compared rotating and oscillating brush heads (remember, they make an inexpensive rotating brush product.)

P&G did a study comparing rotating and oscillating brush heads and found “Rotating and Oscillating implement had parity cleansing results regardless of cleanser.” The brushes with cleanser did a better job than manual cleansing alone.

4 of these measurements where related to cleansing efficacy:

Make-Up Removal
Objective: Evaluate cleansing efficacy of the cleansing implements compared to manual cleansing

Results showed rotating and oscillating brushes cleaned better than hands alone. No significant difference between the brushes.

Stratum Corneum Exfoliation
Objective: Measure stratum corneum exfoliation of the cleansing implements via DHA exfoliation over four treatments.

Results showed both brushes exfoliated better than manual cleansing. No difference between brushes.

Stratum Corneum Hydration
Objective: Evaluate effects of cleansing to skin hydration when a topical moisturizer is applied after use. This test just compared their brush to manual cleansing. Clarisonic was NOT tested. Why? Maybe they knew they couldn’t achieve parity and didn’t want to have negative data on file.

Results showed the rotating brush provided better hydration than the cleanser alone, assuming a moisturizer was applied immediately after cleansing. Again, there was no comparison to Clarisonic. The report states that “The lead hypothesis for increased hydration following use of the cleansing implement is that penetration of hydrating ingredients is enhanced via exfoliation.”

Cleansing Effects on Facial Bacteria Population
Objective: Evaluate effects of a facial cleansing implement to facial bacterial populations, tested on women with acne. Again, Clarisonic was not tested.

Results showed use of the rotating brush decreased bacterial population. Although no direct anti-acne claims are made the presumption is that if it removes more bacteria you’ll get less zits.

Other manufacturers:

Other companies don’t provide much information. Clinique shows a video to prove their brush is safe enough to use on a flower petal but there’s no hard data. And Nutra sonic makes same claims as Clarisonic but don’t present data of their own so my GUESS is that they’re assuming equivalency but didn’t do any of their own testing. Or maybe ALL these companies have their own data and have just chosen not to share it. There’s no way to tell. But the good news is that there are a few independent studies that provide additional information.

Independent scientific studies:
We found two studies by cosmetic science rock star and friend of the Brains, Dr. Zoe Daelos. In her study titled “An Efficacy Assessment of a Novel Skin-Cleansing Device in Seborrheic Dermatitis” she notes that plain old soap and washcloth may be fine for people with normal skin but people with skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis (and others) may require specialized cleansing to deal with their symptoms. That’s because regular cleansing may lead to facial scaling and because manual washing doesn’t clean as well around unusual skin structures. So this indicates there sonic cleansers DO provide a special benefit for some people.

In her second study, “Re-examining methods of facial cleansing” she compared the following: a lipid-free cleanser, a foaming syndet-based face wash, an abrasive polyethylene beaded scrub, a face cloth, and the sonic skincare brush. So this is the most direct comparison we’ve seen. Her results showed that the sonic skincare brush removed the most makeup from the skin, followed by the wash cloth, then the scrub, the syndet-based face wash, and then the lipid-free cleanser. She concluded that the bristles on the sonic skincare brush were able to “traverse the dermatolglyphics, facial pores and facial scars more adeptly than any other cleansing method.” Draelos also commented on 10 individuals who had various dermatologic conditions, including acne vulgaris, pseudofolliculitis barbae and seborrheic dermatitis, and found that the sonic skincare brush provided “excellent cleansing on the uneven skin surface caused by these conditions.”

So it looks like a sonic cleanser can be “better” than just using a washcloth but there’s still no answer to how much better and if that difference is big enough to justify spending $100 to $200.

Evidence for gentleness

Again, let’s look at the information provided by the manufacturers as well as the scientific literature.

What companies say
The P&G study was the only one to address this directly. One portion of their study evaluated “effects of a rotating brush on stratum corneum barrier function.” This could be considered a measure of mildness because the more intact the skin barrier is, the better it will seal in moisture. If the brush was creating little tears and fissures then more moisture would leak out.

Results showed moisture loss was not increased as a result of using the rotating brush vs a cleanser alone. They said they would expect that the oscillating type would have similar results but again they didn’t test against Clarisonic. They also said that “Low irritation scores from a consumer study with the rotating implement provides supporting evidence” but they did now show this data.

What the scientific literature says
There are two data points in the independent studies that we found which indicate these sonic cleansers are gentle. The first is from “Clinical-Efficacy-of-a-Novel-Sonic-Infusion-System-for-Periorbital-Rhytides” which states the device tested generates “a force powerful enough to unclog pores, but low enough to minimize strain to the skin.” Be aware, though, that this study was done on the non-brush type cleansers (like the Luna and the Opal.)

And finally, Michael Gold, another dermatologist has written that the sonic brushes “enhance cleansing of the surface while being gentle enough for at least twice daily use without compromising the skin barrier.”

So based on the little data we could find there doesn’t APPEAR to be any cause for concern about these products damaging your skin.

The Beauty Brains bottom line:

So what does all this mean? If you have “normal” skin and you wash your face diligently with a washcloth, you may not see much additional benefit from any of these devices. BUT, if you have skin conditions like those that Dr. Draelos mentioned, you may be able to more effectively and more gently clean your skin using a sonic cleanser.

Then again, you may just like the aesthetic experience of a pampering face scrub. That alone can drive greater compliance – if you like using the device the chances are that you’ll wash your face longer and more thoroughly. In fact, some of the brushes even have a built in timer that tell you how long to wash each part of your face.

If that’s the case, then do your research to make sure you get a brush that doesn’t feel too hard or too soft for your skin and that it doesn’t splash soap and water all over the place (as some of these products do.) And of course, decide how much you want to spend.

The Clarisonic is the gold standard (because they pioneered the technology and have done their own testing) but their top of the line product is very costly. Perhaps a good compromise would be to start with their $99 model and see how you like it. It’s up to you, or up to Phillip in this case, and hopefully he’ll write back to us from Germany and let us know what he decides to do!

References

https://www.clarisonic.com/on/demandware.static/Sites-Clarisonic-US-Site/Sites-Clarisonic-US-Library/default/v1411684755088/static_pages/clinical-studies/8425.pdf

http://pgbeautyscience.com/assets/files/Advantages%20of%20Powered%20Implements%20for%20Facial%20Cleansing.pdf

http://www.the-dermatologist.com/article/6269

http://www.cosderm.com/fileadmin/qhi_archive/ArticlePDF/CD/019110671.pdf

Draelos ZD. Re-examining methods of facial cleansing. Vol 18, No 2; Cos Dermatol. 2005: 173-175.

Draelos ZD. An Efficacy Assessment of a Novel Skin-Cleansing Device in Seborrheic Dermatitis

https://www.skinlaser.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Clinical-Efficacy-of-a-Novel-Sonic-Infusion-System-for-Periorbital-Rhytides.pdf

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Quiz answers:

  1. FDA must approve cosmetics before they go to market. F
  2. Using mascara the wrong way can cause blindness. T
  3. Tattoos used to be permanent but now lasers are an easy, reliable way to erase them. F
  4. Cruelty free or not tested on animals means that no animal testing was done on the product and its ingredients. F
  5. There are non-animal tests that can replace all animal testing of cosmetics. F
  6. If a product is labeled as all natural or organic it is probably hypo allergenic. F
  7. Even if a product is labeled hypo allergenic it may contain substances that can cause allergic reactions for some people. T
  8. Choosing products with the claim dermatologist tested is a way to avoid an allergic reaction or other skin irritation. F
  9. Lots of lipsticks on the market contain dangerous amounts of lead. F
  10. About 60 to 70% of what you put on your skin is absorbed into your body. F
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Why does oily skin make my eyes burn?

RizosMios says…Is it normal for sebum to burn the heck out of my eyes? I wash my face twice a day and my morning wash goes normally for the most part, but my nightly wash burns my eyes and leaves me looking high afterward, they are so red. Is it normal for sebum to affect one this way? Could it be something else that I’m not considering? I do think I excrete an excess of oil, by the way.

The Beauty Brains respond:

We addressed this question in our Forum a few months ago but thought that the rest of the Beauty Brains community might like to hear about this as well.

Skin oils can cause eye irritation

As the article “Sebaceous gland lipids” (from Dermatoendocrinol. 2009 Mar-Apr; 1(2): 68–71.) explains, sebum consists of about 20 to 30% fatty acids, of which the most abundant is palmitic acid. And, according to this study, these fatty acids have been demonstrated to cause mild to moderate eye irritation in similar concentrations (at least in rabbit eye testing.) Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that if enough sebum enters your eye it could cause a burning sensation.

We’re assuming that you’ve already ruled out that the effect is caused by any makeup or moisturizer you might be wearing. If you’re still unsure of the cause, here’s an experiment you can try to see if it is the oil: get some of the oil blotting sheets and blot HALF your face. If everything else is constant and only the unblotted eye stings, then it is more likely to be the facial oil causing the problem.

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