What’s in it?

A Quick Guide To Finding Out What’s Hiding In Your Face Cream.


My grandmother always used to say that cold coffee made you beautiful. And while that’s a topic for another post, it’s a good metaphor for how we often take statements like that without questioning them. She had heard it somewhere in the past and then imparted her wisdom to me. And it’s my grandmother, so it had to be true, right?

Maybe – or maybe not.

In any case, it’s a phrase I still jokingly use with my husband since I am notorious for letting my coffee get cold. And being the scientist he is, he always questions that statement with a ‘Why?’. Sadly, he is the only one. The most common answer I get from other people is ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ And it is not just because he is a scientist, believe me. Many of my science colleagues don’t question what they use on a daily basis to groom themselves. I have asked several of them – and they were without a fail surprised by the question, let alone the thought behind it.

Methylchloroisothiazolinone vs Aloe Vera

Even before I became a biochemist, I was interested in what personal care products were made of. And not only because of cold coffee. The insistence with which the media on behalf of cosmetics companies tried to sell us the next best shampoo made me suspicious. I honestly felt no difference in my hair quality regardless of whether I used Timotei or Herbal Essence. In fact, becoming bored and disillusioned with the never-ending promises of silkier and softer hair, I began to experiment with homemade cosmetics in my late teens. I discovered that it was much more fun to tailor a cream or a shampoo to your personal tastes and play with ingredients, than use products whose components I knew nothing about.

The search for ingredients for my own creams led me to take a closer look at those in store-bought ones. Needless to say none of the outlandish sounding names on my mother’s face cream made any sense to me back then. Without readily available access to the Internet, research wasn’t quite as easy. So it wasn’t until my time at University that I got more of an idea what’s really in her face cream. No matter how fancy or expensive, Nivea or Clarins – the ingredients are always similar. And not in a good way.

The Internet Is Your Friend

Nowadays it’s much simpler to look behind the label of your body care products. Just type any of the ingredients into Google – and voila! Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) of any chemical are available online. They list the potential hazards of a chemical and the  amounts that could be dangerous in an easy-to-understand manner. Another great resource is Wikipedia. Information on almost all chemicals can be found there. However, not all entries list their hazards to health when used in the cosmetics industry.

A resource I have found useful and very accessible over the years is Skin Deep, a database by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The database, which was established in 2004, contains information on around 79,000 products and 2500 brands. And although a good base, it’s not updated regularly, and some of their data is limited and often not stringent enough.

Another source of information is the David Suzuki Foundation. David Suzuki has been engaged in environmentalism since the late 80s and founded the organization in 1990 as a solution-based group. The Foundation has a lot of material on cosmetic ingredients as well as other topics such as safe food and climate change.

But it is not just large organizations that can help in the quest of investigating your shampoo. FemmeToxic is a young Montréal-based organization dedicated to a youth-oriented campaign for safer cosmetics. Founded in 2009 the group is particularly focused on raising awareness amongst young women on the dangers behind cosmetics and personal care products. It is also a strong advocate for stricter regulations and labeling. Their website has easily accessible information on dangerous ingredients and their risks.

Resources like these allow us to finally break free from the propaganda machinery of the cosmetics industry. It allows us to do our own research on their latest not-to-miss-out-on ingredient, or how nanoparticles will truly affect our wrinkles. With the worldwide web at your fingertips it is simple and straightforward to find out what’s really in your shampoo or face cream – or if cold coffee could make you beautiful.


Not All That Smells Is Roses


Our society is obsessed with smells. But is this obsession really worth our future offspring?

Each and every one of us has to smell fresh at all times. Our clothes have to smell fresh – even after a night out in a smoky club (well, now mostly a thing of the past), and even natural baby scent is not good enough any longer. Yes, now there is even a perfume for babies.

We don’t buy body care products that only have a subtle smell. I only realized the full extent of this recently when my husband proclaimed that my homemade shower gel just didn’t smell strong enough. I was confused.  I had added grapefruit oil and rosewater, and, at least to my own nose, it was pleasant, yet not overbearing. But then again, I am the person that cannot walk the perfume section of a department store without feeling nauseous and developing a headache from all those overpowering scents. Yet usually my husband is the one with the sensitive nose.

It all comes down to a formula

Unlike with many other things, when we smell something, good or bad, we don’t readily associate some chemical formula with it. Regardless though of whether it is the smell of an orange or Febreze, in both cases there is a chemical compound entering our system through inhalation and it reacts with our olfactory system creating a sense of smell in our brain. Sadly, that’s not the end of it.

More and more people these days seem to be affected by ‘fragrances’ used in deodorants, air fresheners, shower gels, perfumes – you name it, and exposure often triggers migraine, allergies and asthma symptoms. Moreover, most of the ingredients used for fragrance, have actually not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. So why are these chemicals not simply avoided by companies? Simple. Since they haven’t been tested, there is no law in effect that enforces avoidance or even disclosure of the danger behind these ingredients.

Naturally Irritating – and so much more

So how can you detect them? Only with diligence and reading ingredient lists. If you were to look at any deodorant, all you may find is either the generic term ‘fragrance’ or a short list of names that no meaning to most people such as Limoene, Citral, Geraniol or Linalool. They all sound harmless and somehow related to smell we know – lemon, citrus, geranium. No? None of these ingredients are derived from the natural source of lemons or geranium, and in fact, many of these compounds are irritants.

Lastly, some fragrance ingredients are not actually perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents. One such widely used ingredient is diethyl phthalate, or DEP, and is added to make the scent linger. Phthalates are choice ingredients in cosmetics because they are cheap and versatile. However, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed DEP as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone (endocrine) function. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy), not to mention liver and kidney failure in young children when exposed for extended periods.

So what’s a girl or guy got to do to smell nice and stay healthy? Look for products with the least fragrance, avoid DEP at all costs, and maybe mix your own. A mixture of essential oils of your choice mixed with some alcohol and glycerin goes a long, healthy way.