Can you be tickled pink?


“Why settle for the ‘almost the right shade’ of blush?” Stila asks us. Its Custom Colour Blush is a “perceptive one-shade-fits-all powder (that) reacts with your skin’s pH to create a one-of-a-kind, customised shade perfect for you.” And what about Bourjois’ Rose Exclusif lipgloss? “Because the pH of your lips is unique, this lipgloss is enriched with pH reactive pigments that will self-adjust into a bespoke pink to suit your skin tone!”

This all sounds very impressive, but what’s the secret of these chameleon-like, pH-reactive products? A closer look at the ingredients list gives us a bit of a clue:

  • Bourjois: Polybutene, Diisostearyl Malate, Octyldodecanol, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, Ethylhexyl Salicylate, Parfum (Fragrance), Propylparaben, PEG-8, Citric acid,
    CI 45410 (Red 27), Tocopherol, Benzyl Alcohol, Linalool, Geraniol, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, Citronellol, BHT, Ascorbic Acid 09bml0021
  • Stila: Talc, zea mays (corn) starch, dimethicone, zinc stearate, zeolite, dimethiconol, sorbic acid, may contain (+/-) mica, Red 27 (CI 45410), Red 28 lake (CI 45410)

So what is Red 27?

Red 27 falls into a family of organic pigments known as non-azo soluble dyes and can change colour when exposed to different pHs. Healthy skin generally sits on the lower, acidic side of the pH scale, which helps to ward off bacteria and other bugs. When Red 27 is applied to our skin, the pigment will react to its lower pH, changing in colour and in theory producing a slightly different shade to match everyone’s own natural pH. Nice!

But does our skin’s pH really vary that much from person to person? Traditionally, picking the perfect lipstick or blush colour is down to what suits your skin tone, so for these products to transform into your perfect shade, surely the pH of skin in people from different ethnicities, and so with different skin tones, would need to vary too? Generally speaking, it doesn’t. The literature, which has been reviewed by a number of authors, shows that the pH of the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of our skin, doesn’t seem to differ significantly between different ethnicities. Therefore, these products probably won’t differ a huge amount from skin tone to skin tone, so I’m hesitant to believe any claims that the colour you’re getting is “one-of-a-kind”.

So, in summary, yes, pH is involved. That being said, I still think how these products have been marketed is a little misleading: the idea that a perfect, unique shade for our skin tone can be achieved using the “bespoke” pH of our skin just isn’t the case. While these colour-changing cosmetics are undoubtedly cool and pretty clever, I’d be hesitant to jump on the bandwagon.


Man’s emotional blind spot

A man’s inability to understand his female counterpart appears to be a plague of endemic proportions. But what makes the fairer sex so difficult to understand? After all, women aren’t from Venus and men aren’t from Mars; we’re from the same planet, sure, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a language barrier. A study, published in PLoS ONE at the end of March, reveals that men struggle to process emotion from female eyes in the same way they can for their male companions. Seemingly, some essentials are lost in translation.

The study, led by Dr. Boris Schiffer of LWL-University Hospital Bochum in Germany, used the functional MRI scans of 22 men faced with pairs of eyes from both genders, expressing various positive, negative and neutral expressions. The task was to simply match the expression with the correct emotion. Unsurprisingly, men found it twice as difficult to decode female eyes, but showed no struggle in identifying with their male comrades.

A closer look at neural regions in action over the course of this decision-making revealed why this may be so: when looking at male eyes, the men’s right amygdala and limbic region showed heightened activation. These areas, including the hippocampus and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, have a proven association with emotional memory, so men are well-equipped to gauge how each other are feeling. Looking at women’s eyes seems to be a different story: these regions of the brain aren’t activated, so men don’t look back on their own memories in the same way; hence facing a disgruntled pair of female eyes doesn’t elicit an equivalent response. Whether women experience similar difficulty was, perhaps significantly, not examined.

The authors propose that this phenomenon, while often getting the contemporary man into trouble, was crucial in getting our ancestors out of it. The eyes are crucial in processing how others are feeling, and by being able to interpret them well, men could thrive when confronted with territorial fighting or hunting. “From an evolutionary point of view, accurate interpretations of other men’s, rather than women’s, thoughts and intentions may have been a factor contributing to survival,” says Dr. Schiffer. “It would have been important for them to able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals.”

So there you have it. A little off topic I know, but interesting nonetheless. Will this discovery prove to be a get-out-of-jail-free card for the poor souls who mistakenly agreed, “Why yes, your bum does look big in that”?

Somehow, I think not…

Natural pigments? Think ink.

The Common Cuttlefish. Photographer David Nicholson, Copyright Marine Biological Association of the UK

Meet Sepia officinalis, the cuttlefish, who may well be making a surprisingly hefty contribution to your makeup bag in the near future, according to this paper from Coloration Technology. But what could possibly connect these true molluscs (not fish, despite the name) that, let’s face it, are certainly more Davy Jones than Grace Jones, with the ever-glamorous cosmetics industry?

Mascara seems to hold a very special place in our hearts, and has done so for thousands of years. Eye makeup, be it mascara or eye shadow, has been used throughout Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome and beyond, and is now a hallmark of anybody’s cosmetic bag. In fact, a survey from last year hailed it “the most important makeup product for women”.

Cuttlefish are known as the chameleons of the sea – they can blend in seamlessly with their surroundings, even if they’ve never seen them before. Besides being the deep sea masters of disguise, they’re also known for being producers of an ink, used to protect them from predators, in exactly the same way as octopuses and squid do. You can see them in action in the clip below. In terms of colour, it’s incredibly dark, which comes as a result of its main constituent: melanin. We humans are no strangers to melanin: it is, after all, the primary determinant of our hair, skin and eye colour.

But what do these marine molluscs have to do with mascara? The small, but ever-growing, market for natural products in the cosmetic industry means that manufacturers are constantly seeking out alternatives to replace the synthetic pigments used in most products. That’s where cuttlefish come in. The study was looking at potential avenues to obtain natural black dyes, an essential addition to a multitude of makeup items, and found that the ink that cuttlefish produce might just do the job. Colours have proven to play an instrumental role in the commercial success of cosmetics; cosmetics, after all, is a huge industry, now everywhere and constantly expanding (quite worryingly, in my opinion) into younger territory. Any progress in the development of new pigments will therefore be a huge boost for the natural cosmetic market.

This natural black, sepia black ink, seems like a perfect candidate: the presence of melanin means that it should be compatible with our own colouring, and the processing of cuttlefish generates lots of waste, including the ink sacs we’re interested in here.

How does it perform? The pigment showed good results when tested for the basics: texture, colour and covering capacity all proved effective, and the fact that it’s odourless makes it an especially worthy candidate. However, as well as being a good performer, any potential pigment must of course pass through a series of rigorous safety testing. A primary concern is the growth of bacteria, but the use of sepicide (a preservative used for the ink) was shown to keep this at bay; in fact, sepia ink itself was shown to possess antibacterial and antiseptic properties itself – most definitely an added bonus.

So while these deep-sea creatures certainly don’t look the most glamorous, they may well be the makeup’s next big thing.

The blue-eyed bandits?

“Oh Grandmother, what big eyes you have!” squealed Little Red Riding Hood just seconds before she was gobbled up by the Big Bad Wolf. It’s such a shame The Brothers Grimm never thought to mention what colour they were, as a recent study by Karel Kleisner found that untrustworthy people might be given away…by the colour of their eyes.

The study, which sets to see a swarm of criminals, journalists and politicians desperately trying to get their hands on some contact lenses, shows that those with brown eyes are perceived as more trustworthy than those with blue eyes.  As bizarre as it sounds, eye colour does seem to correlate with the development of certain behaviours, so being perceived as less trustworthy could well be a knock-on effect of this. Seemingly, there’s more to the colour of our eyes than meets the…actually, no. I’ll spare myself the embarrassment…

Which behaviours are linked to the colour of our eyes that might make this so? This paper was built on many other studies which looked into how eye colour affects behaviour. Studies have found that infants with light eyes are more shy and timid than those with brown eyes. Interestingly enough, the impact of eye colour also seems to be far more influential in boys than girls: blue-eyed boys were shown to be socially warier than boys with darker eyes, but this trend was not noticed in girls.

So, this study wanted to test this hypothesis once and for all: are those with brown eyes deemed more trustworthy by their peers than those with blue eyes? The answer, oddly enough, is yes.

Who to trust? Courtesy of Kleisner et al., 2010

Who to trust? Courtesy of Kleisner et al., 2010

But for those of you with blue eyes, there’s no need to worry: the reason for this isn’t to do with eye colour per se; rather, it’s to do with the impact our eye colour has on the shape of our face. Well, the shape of men’s faces: the results for women didn’t prove to be sufficiently statistically significant to make this association (though they were still heading in this direction), probably because the shape of ladies’ faces tends to vary a lot less than the shape of men’s.

Eye colour, believe it or not, seems to play a role in the development of facial features, particularly around the mouth and chin. Brown eyes are also associated with happiness, so are perceived as more trust-worthy than their blue-eyed, angrier looking counterparts. This is because blue-eyed men tended to have a more angular and prominent lower face, a long chin and a narrower mouth with downward-pointing corners, relatively small eyes and quite distant eyebrows, which are traits which happen to coincide with that of an untrustworthy face.

It seems that those of us with brown-eyes have more of a baby face, and the pointed chin typically associated with light eyes is a definite departure from this. Those of us with baby-faces are shown to be more honest, so maybe this is good logic on our part. Another thing to consider is dominance: blue-eyed men typically have a small nose, mouth and chin: such small features are less masculine, so these individuals supposedly aren’t as reliant and trustworthy compared to brown-eyed men.

They do say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but I don’t think anybody expected it to taken be quite so literally…

Micellar Water: How does it work?

MWater (1)The hype of micellar waters seems to have trickled down from its prime position in a make-up artist’s kit and backstage at Fashion Week to us folk in the real world. In a big way. In fact, calling them the next big thing may be somewhat overdue: these microscopic micellar make-up removers are already the big thing, according to half of the internet. A hoard of excited beauty bloggers tell us that once you’ve introduced a micellar water into your regime, there’s no going back.

But what on earth are they?!

The logic: We’ll start with the basics. Micellar waters contain tiny molecules called micelles which form when placed in water. If we look at these a bit closer, micelles are made up of surfactants. In terms of structure, surfactants look like a bead stuck to the top of a long chain, forming its head and tail respectively.

But when it comes to mixing with water, these heads and tails behave very differently: the tail is what we call hydrophobic (water-hating), while the head is hydrophilic, (water-loving)This means that when we place them in water, the tails of surfactants are desperate to get away from it, so huddle together facing inwards to form a cluster, while the heads are keen to stay in contact with the water, and stick with the outside instead. The result? A micelle:


This is all well and good, but how do these miniscule molecules actually help your skin?  Well, oil and water don’t mix. This is why washing your face with water alone will never do much good: the water can’t do a lot to break down the oils on your face, regardless of whether its sebum, the oil produced naturally by our skin and hair, or the last hangers-on of make-up after a long day.

What does this have to do with micelles? When we’re thinking about oils, or lipids, our heads and tails switch roles: heads are lipophobic (oil-hating) and tails are lipophilic (you’ve guessed it, oil-loving). For this reason, when we pop some of this “magic” water onto a good old cotton pad and rub into our skin, these oil-grabbing tails can catch onto and trap any of the unwanted oils on our face, which are then washed away leaving sweaky-clean skin.

In theory, this all sounds great. How have we lasted so long without them, you might wonder? Simply put, we haven’t. Micelles are found all over the place: this is how all soap works, so is there really any need to spend a small fortune on something just because it has fancy name (and an even fancier price tag)? Micelles play a really important role in a number of processes – not just hygiene-related applications either, but in drug delivery too; they’re certainly nothing new. However, these waters are not entirely redundant, as micellar waters are notoriously mild and gentle: soaps can often be a touch too stringent for those of us with more sensitive skin: surfactants are documented as having the ability to induce irritant dermatitis, a skin reaction which occurs in response to allergen exposure.

All in all, I think it’s really interesting to see how micelles have applications spilling over into all kinds of industries and markets. However, I can’t say I approve of what seems to be the capitalization of ideas which are not only simple, but incredibly common too.

Could bacteria banish your blemishes?

As if our teenage years weren’t painful enough already, acne was a not-so-welcome addition to the party for about 80% of us over this period. Magazines and school friends provided a continual source of tips and tricks to get rid of those pesky pimples: whether it’s drinking more water or using a blemish-busting face cream, there seems to be an ever-growing list of miracle cures for acne, but one remedy certainly does not fit all. While acne is by no means a life-threatening condition, it can wreak havoc on an individual’s self-esteem, and has been associated with the development of anxiety, and even depression.

While the build-up of bacteria often bears the brunt of the blame for acne, a new study from UCLA reveals that not all the bacteria on our faces are the bad guys; in fact, some may actually help to improve our skin, while others could make it worse. Having the wrong type of bacteria on our skin is something I’m sure we never even thought about. Before we discuss this further, let’s go back to basics…

How do we get spots?

Acne vulgaris, to give acne its full name, is officially the most common skin condition encountered by doctors, and there are four changes to think about when we’re trying to understand how acne develops:

hair follicle

Normal and clogged hair follicles, courtesy of

1. Sebum production. Sebum is the natural oil produced by our own skin and hair. Before puberty begins, the glands that produce sebum (the sebaceous glands) get much bigger, so we end up producing a lot more of it (and not just on our face: our chest and back produce a lot more too). Seemingly, the more sebum  our skin produces, the worse our acne gets.

2. Follicular hyperkeratinisation. While this sounds horrendously complicated, it’s just a process that clogs up our pores, or the follicle opening, when we couple it with the production of high levels of sebum.

3. Colonisation of the sebaceous gland by Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes). Our sebaceous glands are one of the favourite hiding places of a bacterial species called P. acnes: living in the sebum-rich follicles mean that the bacteria have a constant supply of nutrition, as it can break these lipids into a food source with ease.

4. Bacteria behaving badly. Unfortunately, these bacteria aren’t always well-behaved: they release substances called proinflammatory mediators and free fatty acids into the surrounding area of the skin that irritate it and cause it to become inflamed.

How could bacteria help me?

Now, back to the bacteria. Before this paper was published, we didn’t really know anything about specific strains of P.acnes found on the face. A different strain of bacteria is the same species, but has slightly different characteristics due to the development of mutations in its genes. So while some of these bacterial strains contribute to acne, not all are to blame for it; some seem to be associated with having clear skin. A sheep in wolf’s clothing, if you will.

The study of 101 people (52 with clear skin, 49 with acne) wanted to investigate if there were any differences between the bacterial hitch-hikers on a clear-skinned person compared to one with acne. The bacteria were collected using pore strips, and a quick analysis of the DNA revealed 66 new strains of P. acnes which were previously unknown. Three strains were of particular interest: RT4 and RT5 seemed to be associated with acne, while RT6 was found to be “enriched”  in people with clear skin. It was found that RT6 lacked some of the genetic elements that make some other strains more problematic.

What the group haven’t worked out yet is why there are differences in the bacteria we carry, and we can’t exactly prove that these bacterial strains are making acne worse. This doesn’t detract from the fact that these are some very strong associations, and hopefully future research can tell us a bit more.

So what do you think? I do wonder what we can actually do these results; while finding a way to administer these bacteria may seem like a bit of an oddity, if snake venom is good enough for anti-ageing, then I’m sure some face-friendly bacteria may be finding their way into the shops sooner than you might think…

Should I be worried about…parabens?

Ah, parabens.  These molecules have developed into such a skincare rogue that a countless number of products now boast “paraben-free” as a chief part of their marketing arsenal. Yet another victim of media hype, parabens have yet to shift their scarlet letter. But what are parabens, why are they thought to be dangerous, and most importantly, why shouldn’t you be too worried?

Typical paraben structure, courtesy of Wikipedia

Typical paraben structure, courtesy of Wikipedia

Parabens were first approved in 1984 as an effective, cheap class of preservatives: they have proven to be an essential component of everything from beauty products to foodstuffs, protecting them from any nasty bacteria they may come into contact with. If you have a close look at your skincare products, you’re bound to find parabens (methylparaben or propylparaben, most likely) towards the bottom of an ingredients list on at least a few of them. They’re found all over the place in the beauty industry, from the cheap and cheerful to skincare (and bank balance) heavyweights like Philosophy and Dermalogica.

So what’s the problem? Initial concerns came from the fact that parabens are an oestrogenmimic. As I’m sure you know, oestrogen is a sex hormone (a chemical messenger) produced in high levels at the onset of puberty and initiates development of secondary sex characteristics. But that’s not all: to carry out these tasks, it needs to get into our cells, and it’s structure (and by extension, that of its mimics) allows it to do this with ease. However, oestrogen interferes with the division of our cells too, so naturally, fiddling with the concentration of the hormone brings concerns about cancer, where this division in uncontrolled; in fact, oestrogen is essential in the maintenance of a number of breast cancers. Too much of an oestrogen mimic? Cells could divide too frequently and too quickly, resulting in the formation of a tumour.

Alarm bells truly started ringing in 2004, when a publication from The Journal of Applied Toxicology proposed that use of paraben-containing underarm deodorants was responsible for the development of breast cancer. In the study, Dr. Philippa Darbre found parabens in tumours of twenty women suffering from breast cancer.

This is quite an allegation, but is it substantial to make the link between the two? I don’t think so. In fact, the original paper outlining these concerns were found to be littered with limitations: while parabens were indeed present in the breast tissue, were they simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Possibly. The study couldn’t show that parabens actually caused breast cancer.  Au contraire, a French study from 2008 actually examined this relationship more carefully, looking at a total of 59 studies relating to the shamed preservative. After thorough investigation, no association between the two was found:

“After analysis of the available literature on the subject, no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research”.

Do you think that should that be the end of it? While you may well be concerned with other impacts that parabens could have, the truth of the matter is that parabens aren’t loaded into our products; they’re found at levels which are deemed safe and acceptable, never exceeding about 0.3%. In fact, of all the things alleged to contribute to our chances of developing cancer, the risk associated with parabens is negligible. In spite of all this, parabens maintain their bad reputation, and I don’t think that will shift any time soon.