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Is it okay to melt coconut oil in a microwave oven?

Lindsay Girl asks…I have used extra virgin coconut oil in my hair as a deep conditioning treatment once a week for several years now. I melt the oil in the microwave. This morning I was reading in an article on the naturallycurly.com website that the author of the article “heard” that you shouldn’t warm coconut oil in the microwave because that will “alter the bonds” in the oil. What say the Brains? Can I safely put the coconut oil in the microwave to melt it? Or is there a better way?

The Beauty Brains respond:

When LG raised this question in our Forum we said “no problem.” But after further consideration we realized that there is some risk involved with heating coconut oil in a microwave oven.

The danger of microwaving coconut oil

Coconut oil penetrates hair because of its size and the configuration of its carbon chain. Unless you’re heating it above the point where it will decompose, microwaving it should cause no problems. In other words, “melting” it is just fine. BUT you need to be very careful when using this approach. Here’s why:

Microwave ovens work by exciting the bonds between atoms, causing them to vibrate. The motion of the molecules vibrating and bouncing around generates heat. Different substances will absorb microwave radiation differently depending on a property called the “dielectrical constant”. Water molecules have a high dielectical constant; they are very mobile and will bounce around a lot. Oil molecules are larger and more fixed. Their dielectrical constant is smaller so and they will take longer to heat up. HOWEVER, the specific heat capacity of oil is less than water which means that oil will hold about twice as much heat as water will. And that means that it’s easy to over heat oil to the point where it could burn you. (f you really want to geek out on dielectrical constants and specific heat capacity check out this thread about microwave absorption by oil in the Physics Forum.)

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Melting coconut oil in the microwave is unlikely to hurt the oil but you could accidentally over heat it and give yourself a nasty burn. To be safe you might want to melt the oil in a bowl of hot water instead.


What is Kajal and is it safe around my eyes?

Rozy asks…Is Himalaya Herbals Kajal safe to put around eyes? What ingredient gives it pigment?

The Beauty Brains respond:

Before we can talk about this specific product, we need to explain what is kajal is.

Curious about kajal

Those of you not familiar with Kajal may recognize it by its more common name: Kohl, which is a pigment that has been used since ancient time in parts of Asia and Africa to darken the area around the eyes. (“Kajal” typically refers to Kohl eyeliner while “Surma” refers to Kohl powder.)

Historically kohl was made from a sulfide of lead which, as we all know now, is not the safest of chemicals to expose yourself too. While some old-school kohl/kajal products still exist, most modern versions (like STILA Kajal Eye Liner use the name but not the lead. Instead, they use iron oxide pigments (like those used in mascaras) which are much safer and give the same basic effect.

Is Himalaya Herbals Kajal safe?

Here is where it gets tricky. Unfortunately this company, like many others, does not provide full ingredients lists for its products online. All we’ve been able to find is what they refer to as the “key ingredients” which to us is just marketing speak for “we’re only going to tell you about the ingredients we want you to know about.” Still for the sake of completeness here are the ingredients that we were able to find:

Almond Oil (Prunus amygdalus, Vatada) Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora, Karpura) Castor Oil (Ricinus communi, Eranda) Rose (Rosa damascene, Shatapatri) Triphala consisting of the fruits Emblica officinalis (Amalaki), Terminalia chebula (Haritaki) and Terminalia bellerica (Vibhitaki)

It’s obvious that this formula must have more ingredients since there’s nothing here that contains a black pigment. It’s likely that the product uses an iron oxide just like most other companies do you. But, since, in their infinite wisdom they’ve chosen not to share that information with us, there is no way to know for sure that they are not using a lead compound.

Unless you can get the company to give you a full ingredient list I would err on the side of safety and buy a product that’s honest and open about the ingredients it contains.


On this week’s show we talk about the date rape nail polish, stinky celebrities, and more!  Plus a brand new game we call “Improbable Products.” 

Click below to play Episode 49 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Improbable Products

In this new game Randy challenges me to guess which of the following new beauty products is the fake.

  1. Old People’s Soap – a soap bar specially designed to neutralize the body odor produced by the elderly. It’s a necessity for nursing homes!
  2. Pig Perfume – a fragrance for dogs which uses pig pheromones to curb excessive barking. It’s the safe, muzzle free alternative.
  3. Eggshell Sunblock – a chemical free lotion that uses crushed eggshells to block UV light – for a “sunburn free eggsperience.”

Which do you think is fake? Listen to the show for the answer!

Beauty Science News

Chameleons and color changing cosmetics

Scientists have discovered how chameleons change color. Do color changing cosmetics work the same way?

Stinky celebrities versus science

According to Soft & Dri deodorant, Cameron Diaz, Matthew McConaughey and Bradley Cooper don’t use deodorant because of the “toxins that most deodorants contain.” So, Soft & Dri  offers an Aluminum-Free Deodorant that is “a safe alternative, with fewer chemicals, that goes gently onto any skin type!” This approach promotes chemophobia and it’s misleading because it implies that an aluminum free deodorant will do the same thing as an aluminum based antiperspirant – which it won’t.

Is the date rape nail polish for real?

You may have seen the news about the new nail posh that can detect date rape drugs. But is this for real? Tune in to find out.

Sensitive skin breakthrough

Beiersdorf, maker of Eucerin and Nivea, has developed a new compound for sensitive skin. One cause of skin irritation is when chemicals trigger nerve cells to fire – that signal is interpreted as pain or irritation. Apparently this compound, which they call Sym-sti-itve works by blocking that signal from reaching the nerve cells. They used capscicn which is pepper extract, known to be irritating. When their active is applied after the pepper extract it reduces or stops the irritation and when applied before the pepper it prevent the irritation from happening at all. This ingredient will be available in their Ultra sensive and anti-redness lines.

Is stress really bad for skin?

Everyone’s heard that stress is bad for skin but now science has as thing or two to say about it.

Is it safe to use DEET against mosquitos?
These days there’s much more concern over mosquito borne diseases like West Niles Virus and dengue fever. Fortunately, DEET is a good mosquito repellant but you’ll still hear the chemophobes complain that it’s not safe, particularly that it’s linked to brain swelling. Well, rest easy because a recent study has confirmed the safety of DEET. BTW – the study also confirmed that changes in diet (like eating lots of garlic) does NOT reduce the number of mosquito bites.

Ten innovations that might change the future of beauty – or not

It’s surprising to see what some people consider innovative. Listen to our discussion of the list and judge for yourself.

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.


Does Avon ANEW Clinical Pro Line Eraser really work?

FK1221 asks…What is A-F33? According to AVON “It’s unlike AHA. Unlike Retinol. It works to deactivate collagen blocking ( what does ‘deactivate collagen blocking’ mean?) and help effectively boost collagen production in just 3 days. The look of deep wrinkles begin to fade in just one week.” What part does the ingredient Acetyl Tyrosinamide play in the formulation?

The Beauty Brains respond:

The product you’re referring to is officially known as Avon ANEW Clinical Pro Line Eraser and is new to the market as of September 2012. The magic ingredient Amino-Fill 33 is actually the Acetyl Tyrosinamide that you asked about.

What does “decrease collagen blocking” mean?

Our skin contains an enzyme called PLOD-2 that is partially responsible for ensuring our skin has an adequate amount of healthy collagen. As we age the production of this enzyme drops which causes collagen production to decrease. Less collagen means more lines and wrinkles. Supposedly, A-F 33 works to increase the levels of this enzyme so collagen production remains that youthfully high levels. In other words, the ingredient decreases the chemical that stops new collagen from being created.

Does it really work?

As always, it can be tough to separate the science from the marketing spin when it comes to anti-aging products. We haven’t been able to track down anything on this ingredient that was published in the peer-reviewed technical literature but we did find information from Avon about a poster session presented by one of their researchers at the Academy of American Dermatologists. Here is a summary of some of the key points along with our comments.

In vivo testing showed that the formulation “increased the thickness of the stratum corneum…and compressional elasticity of skin.”

Without being able to review the actual data it’s unclear whether the skin thickening was the result of plumping from moisturization or a more fundamental long-term structural change. It’s also impossible to tell the magnitude of the result. While the researcher noted that the results are statistically significant there is no indication of how large the improvement was. Therefore it’s impossible to tell if this product causes enough improvement to be noticeable to the average person.

In vitro research showed A- F33 was shown to stimulate the production of both collagen and elastin.

In vitro essentially means the testing was done on cells in a test tube not on “complete” skin on a real person. Chemicals applied directly to a solution of living cells have the opportunity to interact with those cells in ways that are much different than a product that is applied to the top of your skin. Therefore this kind of testing is directional at best. Plus, you’ll notice that the ingredient A-F33 was tested, not the finished product. So even if A-F33 works we have no way of knowing if the finished product contains enough of the ingredient to be effective.

ANEW Clinical Pro Line Eraser improved “fine wrinkling, pigmentation and skin texture better than the commercial treatment.”

The study notes that the ANEW product works better than a ”commercial anti-aging wrinkle treatment.” Unfortunately the reference does not disclose which anti-aging product was tested. If this product works better than a retinol containing product we might be impressed. However if the other anti-wrinkle product was simply a moisturizing lotion the results would be less meaningful. There’s no way to tell without access to the full study.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

We haven’t seen strong enough evidence to convince us that this product is worth its high price tag. It was would be really helpful if Avon was a little more forthcoming in the details of their testing or if they published the results in a peer-reviewed journal. Nonetheless we are a little more optimistic than Paula Begoun’s BeautyPedia site which cranked out a scathing review of this product. Unlike many other products there seems to be at least a nugget of science behind this treatment. Try it at your own risk.

Clinical Pro Line Eraser Ingredients



Should I pat my face with water before applying oil?

Ida inquires: In another beauty-related forum, I read the following claim (from a member, not an “expert”) about applying a face oil: “Make sure your face and your hands are slightly damp when applying the oil. Rub the oil between your hands to emulsify slightly, then pat it on your face and massage it in. The oil will help trap the water in. ” Is this true? Can the skin really absorb water this way? And if so, is it beneficial in any way?

The Beauty Brain respond:

The quick answer is: it won’t hurt but it won’t really help much either.

How moisturizers work

The main moisturizing function of oil is to create a barrier that prevents the moisture in the deep layers of your skin from evaporating. The oil can only lock in the water that’s already absorbed by your skin. So, if you’ve just saturated your skin by taking a shower then you’ll lock in quite a bit of moisture with oil. But if your face is dry and then you just splash it with a little water before applying oil, you’re really not helping that much.

Creams and lotions are designed to deliver oil WITH water so you lock in the deeper moisture that’s already in your skin AND get a quick hit of surface moisture from the water in the lotion.

What is “emulsify?”

Also, just to clarify, you can’t really “emulsify” oil and water just by rubbing them together in your hands. There are many technical definitions of emulsify but to put it in layperson terms it means to disperse tiny droplets of one liquid in another liquid. Since oil and water water don’t naturally mix, you need a chemical known as an emulsifier (also called a surfactant) that allows the two to co-mingle without separating.


Is animal testing still necessary to ensure the safety of cosmetics or is it an obsolete idea? Listen to the show to find out the scientific perspective on animal testing of beauty products. 

Click below to play Episode 48 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Announcing the winner of the Beauty Brains T-shirt!

On our 44th anniversary show we played the “Name that Noise” game. Hanka from the Czech Republic correctly identified the sound as finger nail clipping (which Perry’s wife hates.)  Congrats Hanka! You win a “Be Brainy About Your Beauty” Tshirt. 

Listen to this week’s show if you’d like to play again. This week’s winner gets a special autographed photo of one of the Beauty Brains doing something unusual. All you have to do is be the first person to leave a comment correctly identifying the beauty-related noise.

Question of the week…Is animal testing still necessary? 

Christina asks… As cosmetic scientists do you feel that animal testing is still relevant to gain data and create safe and effective products for consumers, or is it unneeded and irrelevant?

Is animal testing required?

The only place I could find that definitively required animal testing of cosmetics is China. Russia also requires animal testing but they have recently issued a statement saying they would accept alternative animal testing data. There are a number of countries who have specifically banned animal testing as related to cosmetic products. This includes the EU countries, Norway, Israel, Brazil, and India.

While animal testing is not mandated in countries such as the US, Australia, Canada and Japan, the information is from animal tests are accepted as suitable for demonstrating that a cosmetic meets health and safety standards. And for many aspects of product safety, there are no acceptable alternatives to animal testing. Therefore, although it’s not mandated in some cases manufacturers have no alternative methods of safety testing,

Here is what the FDA says about animal testing of cosmetics….

“The FDA is responsible for assuring that cosmetics are safe and properly labeled. The FD&C Act does not specifically require the use of animals in testing cosmetics for safety, nor does the Act subject cosmetics to FDA premarket approval. However, the agency has consistently advised cosmetic manufacturers to employ whatever testing is appropriate and effective for substantiating the safety of their products. It remains the responsibility of the manufacturer to substantiate the safety of both ingredients and finished cosmetic products prior to marketing. Animal testing by manufacturers seeking to market new products may be used to establish product safety.”

So in a sense, for some types of cosmetic products animal testing is a de facto requirement in the US.

Why are products tested on animals?

Before the 1930s, Prior to the creation of the FDA, the cosmetic and drug industries were pretty much unregulated in the US. When in the 1930’s there were a number of incidents in which people were blinded or even died due to using a drug or cosmetic, Congress passed the FD&C Act of 1938. This created the regulations for cosmetics that we follow today.

The FDA worked with industry to develop methods which could demonstrate product safety to the satisfaction of both government and industry which lead to the testing of cosmetics on animals. How could this have happened? Two reasons:

1. At that time, animal testing was the best model available for product safety testing. We didn’t have the advanced in vitro testing methods we have today.

2. The majority of society had a different view about the treatment of animals back then. People just didn’t look at the issue the same way.  In the last several decades, Most people’s views on animal rights have changed and scientists are working on creating alternatives to animal testing but the technology is slow to develop. We just haven’t had enough technological development to replace all animal testing.

What kinds of animal are used in the development of cosmetic ?

There are 9 basic types of tests that historically have been done on animals:

  • Skin sensitization – tests for allergic reactions
  • Skin irritation – tests for reversible skin damage
  • Eye irritation – tests for reversible and permanent eye damage
  • Oral toxicity – determines how much of a substance ingested kills test subjects
  • Dermal toxicity – determines how much of a substance applied to skin for 24 hrs kills test subjects
  • Inhalation toxicity – determine the amount of a substance that kills test subjects when inhaled
  • Reproductive toxicity – tests for effects on reproductive health (mutagenicity?)
  • Developmental toxicity – tests for effects on fetus (teratogenicity?)
  • Carcinogencity – determines if an ingredient is likely to cause cancer.
  • There are also a large number of companies that still uses one or more of these tests: Here’s a list that was last updated in Jan of 2014: http://www.thevegetariansite.com/ethics_test.htm

Can we completely eliminate animal testing?

People have made the claim that “eliminating animal testing of cosmetics is entirely feasible.” They point to the fact that the US does not specifically require animal testing (they don’t) and the availability of animal testing alternative tests (some do exist). Scientists have developed many advanced alternatives to animal testing—tests that use human cell lines, artificial skin or computer models to test the safety of products. A number of companies employ these methods now reducing the amount of animal testing they do and in many cases eliminating it.

However, there remain types of animal tests which do not have validated animal free alternatives. For example, there are no replacements for inhalation toxicity tests. We haven’t developed an artificial lung yet. There is nothing for repeat dose toxicity. And there are no validated test for carcinogenicity. So, we can’t yet eliminate cosmetic animal testing for those types of factors.

“Cruelty free” claims

How can a company claim a product is “cruelty free” or “not tested on animals? “ Easy – there is no law that defines requirements for these claims so companies are free to make up their own definitions. The simplest way to define cruelty free is something like “Our company does not test our products on any animals.”

But, manufacturers are still required by law to show that a product meets certain safety standards so here’s how they do that:

1. Use animal testing alternatives – in vitro testing has come a long way and can be used to substantiate safety of certain ingredients. That’s a no brainer.

2. Test on humans – Companies can do their safety testing on human volunteers typically patch testing for skin irritation. There are ethical limitations here of course you certainly wouldn’t text toxicity on people.

3. Use ingredients & formulas that have already been tested on animals
Most of the 15,000+ ingredients in the INCI dictionary (the cosmetic ingredient Bible) have been previously tested for safety. Companies
can use ingredients who’s safety was established by someone else. They then point to this data as proof of safety.

Conversely, avoid ingredients that are unknown for safety – Similarly a company can avoid ingredients that haven’t been safety tested or are similar in structure to compounds that are known to have safety issues.

4. Lastly, and most sneaky, is to ask the supplier of the raw material to do the testing for you.
So the problem with these claims is that companies don’t have to disclose HOW they support them. If you’re really concerned, you need to do some digging to understand which of these 4 approaches they’re using.

EU ban on animal testing loophole

I wanted to say something about the EU ban on animal testing which people may not realize. The EU instituted a ban on animal testing for cosmetic products in 2013 so, theoretically, you are not allowed to conduct any animal testing on a cosmetic product. However, companies are allowed to use supporting data that has already been generated to prove safety. And this means that if there was data about an ingredient used in another industry that would be acceptable. So if an ingredient is animal tested for a pharmaceutical application (not banned) that data can be used to prove the safety of it in a cosmetic. Yes, animal testing for cosmetic products is banned but there are ways for companies to get around this ban.

There is at least one organization trying to hold companies accountable to their “no animal testing” positions. The Leaping Bunny program was created by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ (CCIC). It’s a list of companies that they certify as achieving their cruelty-free standard. If the Leaping Bunny folks deem them worthy of inclusion (after paying money to be certified) then they get to use the Leaping Bunny Logo on their packaging. According to the CCIC, the Leaping Bunny Program provides the best assurance that no new animal testing is used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or suppliers.

Of course, any company can put a bunny on their packaging and claim that they are “cruelty free.” It’s very difficult for consumers to know who to believe.

Where to learn more

“Safety Evaluation Ultimately Replacing Animal Testing (SEURAT)”


Review of alternatives to animal testing (EU)

FDA and animal testing


List of animal tests


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.


Does your Vitamin C lotion contain a dangerous ingredient?

Elana44 asks…I’ve recently heard that sodium benzoate when met with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can lead to cancer and damage DNA. Is it true?

The Beauty Brains respond:

Why is sodium benzoate in my cosmetics and can it really form benzene?

Sodium benzoate is a preservative that helps protect your creams and lotions from micro-organisms. This story has it roots back in 2005 or so when trace amounts of benzene where discovered in a variety of soft drinks. Benzene is a found in a variety of petrochemical products (like emissions from burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations, and motor vehicle exhaust) and in cigarette smoke. In this case the benzene was apparently being generated by the decarboxylation of the benzoate by ascorbic acid. This was of concern because benzene has been linked to several types of cancer.

The FDA investigated and found that most of the soft drinks had less benzene than is allowed in water. (The FDA sets limits for water but not other beverages.) The limit for water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). (Remember we’re all exposed to chemicals that at low levels are perfectly safe – the dose makes the poison, as they say.) The soft drink manufacturers that were exceeding the 10ppb decided to reformulate their products and those have now dropped to much lower levels. So for now, there doesn’t appear to be any concern for soft drinks. But what about cosmetics?

Definitive data is needed

Vitamin C lotions certainly can contain sodium benzoate. But since no one’s published data we don’t know if these cosmetics undergo the same reaction that occurs in beverages. Since we know that sugar inhibits the creation of benzene, it’s possible that similar ingredients in cosmetics (like sorbitol) could have the same effect.

Since no one has done a definitive study on cosmetics (that I’m aware of) we don’t know what the benzene levels are. (Perhaps individual manufacturers have tested some of their own products. If they have it would be nice if they would share that data.) It’s difficult to guess, but it seems doubtful there’s much to worry about. We know that the pH has to be below 2 for benzene formation to occur and not many cosmetic products are in that ranges. Even if small amounts are formed, there’s less risk to you than if you were ingesting the same amount (because it won’t all penetrate your skin.)

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Ok, lots of info here but what to do? It looks like that even under the worst conditions (with the highest level of benzene directly ingested into your body) the risk of cancer is still low compared to environmental exposure to this chemical. If you don’t find that reassuring enough then I see only one other option. Your only choice for true peace of mind is to avoid Vitamin C products that contain sodium or other benzoates. Fortunately this is easy enough to do by reading the ingredient list.

Do any of you Vitamin C fans out there have a recommendation for Elana? Leave a comment and help her out.


Is the “Lift Away the Years Wand” just quackery?

Brittasbits asks…I just read an article on mail online that states a new device called Lift Away the Years wand and serum by Crystal Clear is the new scientific breakthrough of the year! Claiming to erase saggy skin and wrinkles – so my question is does this device actually work ? Or is it yet another gimmick?

The Beauty Brains respond:

Here are the basic claims for this product according to their website:

  • The dual action technology in the Lift Away the Years wand forms the perfect combination in reducing the appearance of ageing skin.
  • The wand uses gentle vibrations to stimulate the muscles in the face while Crystal Clear’s Intense Anti Ageing serum is massaged deeply into the skin.
  • Lift Away the Years produces an instant anti-ageing effect. Used morning and night as part of your daily moisturising routine, the results will get better and better.
  • The Lift Away the Years wand has been designed to create skin that appears younger, firmer and more toned. In a recent study with 30 women, consumers reported a 27% reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and a 45% increase in skin firmness.

We’re not sure how stimulating muscles in the face will help since the cause of wrinkles has less to do with muscles and more to do with collapse of collagen and other skin supportive tissues. If vibrational muscle stimulation really was a cure for wrinkles, every dermatologist would be offering this as an in office treatment!

The claims regarding reduction in appearance of wrinkles and increased skin firmness are very standard claims and can be achieved with “regular” lotions and supported by consumer testing. It’s also less than impressive to note that this is apparently based on a single study with a very small base size (n = 30.)

What’s in the Crystal Serum

They don’t fully disclose ingredients on their website but they do call out the following special ingredients:

  • Matrixyl 3000
  • Biopeptide CL
  • Oxygen Complex
  • Sy-Nake
  • Camelia Vegetal oil
  • Argan Vegetal oil

While, as with many other anti-aging ingredients, there is some data on in vitro cell cultures which indicate these are functional, there is little or no data proving they work when applied topically to skin.

The Beauty Brain bottom line

Without a lot more disclosure on their formula and test data, we’d have to call this a gimmick. It’s certainly not the scientific breakthrough of the year!


How to pick a mild shampoo The Beauty Brains Show episode 47

There are SO many cleansers used in shampoos, how can you tell which ones are the mildest? Tune in this week as Randy and I teach you how to find a gentle shampoo.

Click below to play Episode 47 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Beauty Science News

Question of the week: How do you choose a mild shampoo?

Alexandra asks…I have been trying to find more delicate shampoo because my hair is baby fine and prone to breakage. I know laureth is better than lauryl but is it the best? What about coconut based detergents in natural products. I’d love to be able to tell how harsh a shampoo is just from the list of ingredients.

What does mildness mean?

“Mild” can mean different things to different people.

  • Does “mild” mean the product shouldn’t irritate skin? Then you will want classic gentle, ingredients.
  • Or does “mild” mean it won’t sting your eyes? In that case you need something that’s not only gentle to skin but that’s proven to be non-stinging to eyes, as in baby shampoos.
  • Or, as Alexandra asked, are you worried about fine hair which can break easily? Then you might need extra conditioning to provide mildness.
  • She also might want a shampoo that lathers as quickly and thoroughly as possible so she doesn’t have to spend a lot of time scrubbing her hair to get it cleaned which can cause more breakage. In that case a shampoo which produces lather very quickly maybe important to her.

As you can see depending on what you’re looking for in a “mild” shampoo may determine what type of product we would recommend.

So why don’t cosmetic chemists just make one type of formula that suits all these goals. Why not make it high foaming AND fast foaming, AND mild to skin AND to eyes AND very conditioning – why not just put all that together into one product? The answer is – it’s a little more complicated than you might think.

Why chemists pick one surfactant over another

As in the case with most cosmetics, it’s a question of trade offs. Yes some ingredients are milder than others – but there are always multiple goals you’re trying to achieve when you make any formulation. If your goal is to produce the mildest formula period, then yes of course you should use the gentlest ingredients. But what if your goal is to also make the shampoo foam really well? The mildest ingredients don’t always foam well – so that’s a problem. And you’ll also have cost constraints which limit which ingredients you can use. If your goal is to produce the cheapest formula, then no. So as chemists it’s our job to do the best we can in balancing all these parameters to deliver a product that meets the goals. Here are a few of things we measure when we formulate a mild shampoo:

  • Irritantcy
  • Foam height
  • Foam texture
  • Flash foam (speed of foaming)
  • Detergency – how well it cleans. A shampoo may be very gentle but if you have to wash your hair three times to remove styling residue the net result will be more damage to your hair.
  • Processing considerations – we tend to think of the consumer is driving all the important product attributes however this is not necessarily the case. I think you would be surprised to find out how much the manufacturing side of a company how much input they have on what goes into a formula.
  • Compatibility with other ingredients – strong anionics like sulfates don’t play well with conditioning agents. Sal acid needs low pH which some surfactants don’t like.
  • Color
  • Odor
  • Purity – trace amounts of things can that mess up the formula like too much salt.
    Natural considerations (sourcing/biodegradability etc)

So the point of all this is just to recognize that there is a lot more involved in picking a good surfactant beyond its mildness.

Lower cost cleansers that are more likely to irritate

These are the most commonly used surfactants because they clean well and they’re cheap. However, they are also more likely to irritate skin and strip hair.

  • Sulfates (regular): Sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, TEA lauryl sulfate
    Excellent foamers and degreasers. However sulfates do tend to bind to skin protein which means they don’t rinse very well. This can lead to irritation for some people.
  • Ether Sulfates (ethoxylated): Sodium laureth sulfate, Ammonium laureth sulfate, Sodium trideceth sulfate
    Milder than regular sulfates but don’t foam as well.
  • Alpha Olefin Sulfonates: Sodium C12-14 Olefin Sulfonate, Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate
    One of the most commonly used surfactants in the world (not just in shampoos) because they’re low priced, high foaming, all purpose surfactants. In terms of mildness they about the same as the ether sulfates.

Mildness boosters (can be added to lower cost cleansers to reduce irritation)

This is the list of ingredients that can make an SLS or SLES based shampoo much more tolerable because these can mitigate irritation. They can “plus up” a cheap surfactant to give you a milder product

  • Amine oxides: Cocamidopropylamine oxide
    These have excellent oily soil removal properties. Are used as foam boosters. They not only improve the amount of foam but also the quality of its structure. They have the bonus feature of providing some conditioning to hair that persists after rinsing.
  • Betaines: Cocamidopropyl betaine
    Betaines are effective cleansers, they are also foam boosters and thickeners. They can also reduce irritation of other surfactants. Good value for the money.
  • Glutamates: Sodium lauroyl glutamate, sodium cocoyl glutamate
    Made glutamic acid. Very mild but don’t lather very well.
  • Glycinates: Sodium cocoyl glycinate,  potassium cocoyl glycinate.
    Glycinates are made from the amino acid glycine. These are mild because they have good skin compatibility. (Not irritate like SLS). They even show some hair conditioning properties. However they’re not stable in hard water so unless you have soft water you probably want to stay away from formulas containing glycinates.
  • Sarcosinates: Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate
    Sarcosinates are made from yet another amino acid called sarcosine which is also known an n-methyl glycine.  Similar mildness and foaming profile. However, some people have gotten contact dermatitis from hand soaps using this stuff.
  • Sulfoacetates: Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
    Although it seems to be a “safer” alternative to sodium lauryl sulfate, it still does pose the risk of skin irritation. Additionally, it’s not an environmentally-friendly option, as it takes a long time to bio-degrade and does pollute aquatic ecosystems.
  • Sulfosuccinates: Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate,  CocamidMEA Sulfosuccinate
    This mildness booster gives high foam but it doesn’t do much to build viscosity. It is mild but has some restrictions around pH so this is another one that you can’t use in sal acid systems.
  • Sultaines: Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, lauramidopropyl hydroxysultaine
    Give great foam at low pH and can improve the mildness of harsher detergent systems. Also good for dispersing lime soap so if you have some bath rub ring, it will help with that whereas some surfactants will just make the problem worse.
  • Taurates: Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate
    Another amino acid based surfactant, this one based n-methyltaurine.

Higher cost/proven to be most mild

These are the premium cleansers that are the most mild and which are typically used in the most expensive products.

  • Amphoacetates (Amphoterics):Sodium Cocoamphoacetate
    At normal use levels amphoacetates are non-stinging to the eyes which is why they’re used in baby shampoos. While you may see this listed as the first surfactant, it’s typically not the only one. It still needs to be coupled with other surfactants to provide optimal performance. (for example, it doesn’t thicken easily.) Having said that, it does have good lather, it’s gentle, and it provides some conditioning to hair. It also biodegrades easily which is a bonus.
  • Glucosides: Decyl Glucoside
    These are formally known as Alky Polyglucosides. While these are certainly synthetic materials they are often considered natural because the alkyl part can be made from coconut oil the glucoside part is typically corn derived. It’s non-ionic (one of the reasons it’s mild) – the more glucose units it contains, the milder it is. It also has pretty decent foam. It’s typically used with a betaine to thicken and boost lather. Benefit is that it’s completely free from any kind of ethoxylation which can lead to dioxane contamination.
  • Isethionates: Sodium cocoyl isethionate, Sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate
    Our favorite mild surfactant – the isethionates. Multiple studies have shown them to be extremely mild to skin and it produces a really creamy lather. The “isethionate” part comes from isethionic acid which is a type of sulfonic acid – so this is related to the sulfonates we talked about earlier. It can be irritating to eyes at higher concentrations so you won’t see this used much in baby shampoos but other than that we consider it to be the gold standard for mild surfactants.

Four tips to pick a mild shampoo

  • Avoid anything with “sulfate” and “sulfonate”
  • Look for Isethionate or Glucoside as the first ingredient after water
  • Look for Mildness boosters such as sulfosuccinates, sultaines, amphodiacetates
    Look for conditioning ingredients like silicones, polyquaterniums, and “guar”

Finally keep in mind that fragrance can be irritating and that no matter how hard you look for a mild product that can be an issue that you can’t screen for by looking at the ingredients.

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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.

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How does Colorgirl Outlast Lipcolor work?

Bandana begs to know…I love Covergirl Outlast All Day lip color for the summer–I can boat, pool, eat, and have lovely fresh looking lips! When I put on the lipstick, I can’t help but think of nail polish because you have to let it dry. (It’s safe, right?) How in the heck does it work? AND how does the top coat make it shiny and petroleum jelly remove it?

The Beauty Brains response:

Most long lasting lip colors stay in place because the colorants stain the skin. That approach is fine but it means that those products can only offer a limited number of shades because not every lip color acts as a stain. Outlast is different than other long-lasting lip colors because it’s a two part system consisting of a colorcoat and a topcoat. Let’s take a look at each.

How Outlast lasts longer

As you can see from the ingredient lists below, the color coat contains colorants in a silicone and hydrocarbon base. The topcoat is made of sucrose polycottonseedate in a waxbase. The “magic” ingredient is the sucrose material which is a cotton seed oil ester. It’s an anti-transfer agent that helps keep the color from leaving your lips. Petroleum jelly is needed to remove the waxy topcoat so you can take off the color when you’re ready.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Outlast does contain technology that’s different than other lip colors. It’s more of a hassle because you have an extra application step and it’s harder to remove the color, but if all day color is what you’re looking for you should give it a try.

Colorgirl Outlast ingredients

All-Day Colorcoat: Isododecane, Triethylsiloxysilicate, Dimethicone, Mica, Disteardimonium Hectorite, Propylene Carbonate, Propylparaben, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Tocopherol Acetate, Flavor, (+/- CI 15850, CI 15985, CI 19140, CI 42090, CI 73360, CI 75470, CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499, CI 77891)

Moisturizing Topcoat: Sucrose Polycottonseedate, Ozokerite, Cera Alba, Tocopheryl Acetate, Tocopherol, Propylparaben, Propyl Gallate, Acetyl Glucosamine, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut Oil), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Seed Butter, Butyrospermium Parkii (Shea Butter), Sodium Saccharin, Aroma.

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