The Right Chemistry: Facial creams and lotions offer hope in a jar

These days you are just as likely to see a product advertised not for what it contains but for what it does not. Either way, someone profits.

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It used to be that cosmetics were sold for what was in them. Creams and lotions would hype their copper peptides, antioxidants, collagen, bull semen, ambergris (whale regurgitation), caviar, placenta extract, crushed pearl, snake venom or nightingale poop. Yes, snake venom and nightingale poop!

A synthetic version of the venom of the Temple Viper is used in some exotic creams because of its ability to paralyze facial nerves à la Botox, albeit not as effectively. Nevertheless, it has some effect at smoothing out wrinkles. And the nightingale poop? That is a traditional ingredient in creams used by Japanese geishas, supposedly because the uric acid content does wonders for the skin and guanine adds a pearly shine. That’s the way things used to be.

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These days you are just as likely to see a product advertised not for what it contains but for what it does not. No parabens, no mineral oil, no preservatives, no gluten, no propylene glycol and the ultimate absurdity, no chemicals. This “no” craze is generated by a plethora of books and websites that claim our personal-care products are loaded with dangerous, untested chemicals. They generally create panic by digging up references that cite some sort of nasty effect but are probably not pertinent to cosmetic application. Consider for example propylene glycol, added to various beauty products to prevent a grainy texture when temperatures fall, to solubilize other ingredients that are not water soluble and to help retain moisture in the skin.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist organization that never shies away from spreading a little alarm, propylene glycol can cause a whole host of problems. EWG claims that it has been linked to cancer, developmental or reproductive issues, allergies, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption and skin irritation. In rare cases, skin irritation can occur, but as can happen with virtually any ingredient, studies show that prolonged contact with propylene glycol is essentially non-irritating. As far as carcinogenicity is concerned, there is absolutely no evidence. Propylene glycol is even approved for use in foods and is the solvent used in electronic cigarettes. Exposure in these cases is far greater than from cosmetics. The chemical is also approved for use in medications. For example, Valium and Librium are insoluble in water and propylene glycol is used to dissolve these drugs for injectable clinical use. In spite of this, some websites scare consumers by claiming that not only does propylene glycol contaminate the bloodstream, it even helps other chemicals penetrate the skin. There is no evidence for this and, in any case, once in the body, propylene glycol is quickly metabolized and eliminated.

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Propylene glycol also appears in the list of substances used by Tom’s of Maine, a company that prides itself on using natural ingredients in the consumer products it sells. In that list of ingredients, the source of propylene glycol is described as “natural gas from the earth.” This is ridiculous on many levels. Propylene glycol is made via standard synthetic methods from propene oxide, which in turn is made from propene. It is true that propene does occur in small amounts in natural gas, but that is not from where it is sourced. Propene is made by the catalytic cracking of larger molecules in petroleum. Of course, whether the starting material for the synthesis of propylene glycol comes from natural gas or not is totally irrelevant. Petroleum is no less natural than natural gas. And I won’t even mention that there are all sorts of gases “in the earth” — hydrogen sulphide for example, which can do away with people quite nicely.

Basically, the term “natural,” which has become so common in marketing, has also become meaningless. If one ignores processing, every substance in the world can be described as natural because all raw materials come from nature. Where else would they come from? A car could be described as natural since the metals, leather and plastics used all can somehow be traced back to substances that can be found in nature. We either need some proper definition of the term natural that can be applied to marketing or eliminate its use completely. And for the silly info circulating about propylene glycol being dangerous in cosmetics because it is used in cars as antifreeze, well that’s just bunk. Water is used in enemas and to flush toilets. Doesn’t mean it isn’t safe to drink.

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The notion of promoting cosmetics for what is in them instead of what isn’t, isn’t dead. Cosmetics producers are constantly challenged to come up with some ingredient that can be touted as “revolutionary,” “ground-breaking” or “cutting edge.” Including probiotic bacteria in a product fits the bill. While most of the research on probiotics has focused on the digestive tract, bacteria also cavort on our skin. And it seems that one species, Lactobacillus crispatus, is capable of synthesizing collagen, the structural protein that determines the skin’s firmness, smoothness and elasticity. This is by no means the major way collagen is synthesized. That job is performed by cells called fibroblasts in the dermis, the layer just below the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. With age, the production of collagen by fibroblasts declines, the skin roughens and wrinkles set in.

If Lactobacillus crispatus can be formulated into a cream that when applied to the skin shows a boost in collagen production, an “anti-aging,” financially lucrative product could be in sight. That is just what researchers at BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, thought. The stimulus was the discovery that Lactobacillus crispatus is abundant on the skin until it begins to disappear around age 50. BASF scientists were able to isolate this microbe from human skin, culture it and develop a cream containing a dormant form of the bacterium that comes awake on contact with moisture on the skin.

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Photomicrographs of the skin confirmed there was indeed an increase in collagen formation. Next came a two-month trial with 30 women ages 45 to 65 who applied a cream that yielded a 0.25 per cent concentration of live bacteria. Named “Probiolift,” the cream is said to show up to a 10 per cent improvement in skin elasticity, and a seven per cent decrease in crow’s feet and pigmented age spots. Not exactly a breathtaking result and not likely to be noted by an observer. But it is “proof of concept,” with perhaps more effective creams to come. A major problem, though, is how to ensure that live bacteria are delivered to the skin in sufficient numbers. It will be a while, if ever, until Probiolift makes it to market, but if hyped with terms like “natural,” “vegan,” “clinically tested,” “probiotic” or “chemical-free” it will probably sell well even with minimal efficacy. The public is always ready to fork out for hope in a jar.

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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