Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Science behind Cosmetics: De-coding Common Beauty Lingo

The smell of Bunsen burners, ugly lab coats, safety goggles, and the teacher screaming at you to tie your hair up, are just a few of the horrors that the word 'chemistry' emits within our thoughts. The word whisks you back to the time when cramming in last minute revision of the periodic table seemed a daily chore, or perhaps you were granted with a teacher who was the perfect portrayal of a character from Scooby Doo; a crazy scientist, simply in their element.

The ludicrously long list of chemicals and ingredients on the back of a product, that, combined with percentages and all other weird and not quite so wonderful mixes of numbers and letters often or not send us cross eyed and our heads spinning. We see them; we ignore them. In return for our mild state of befuddled-ness, we pay little attention to what is actually applied to our face, often gullably listening to the obnoxious and far fetched claims of the manufacturers.

The mish-mash of scientific names and numbers really aren't as scary as they sound. So, if you're not so clued up on the science front, at the mention of putting acid, or for that matter, any ludicrous form of chemical on your face, please do not go running a mile with your knickers in a twist.
*pops lab coat and ghastly safety goggles on*

Hydroxy Acid's are the Caroline Hirons of the skincare clan. Hydroxy Acid's, to put it into friendlier terms, are organic acid's. Putting an (organic) acid on your face is far from as scary as it sounds. These acids are derived from the most mundane of products, such as fruits, nuts, milk and even trees. The Hydroxy Acid family work as an exfoliant, promoting the sloughing away of dead skin cells. Despite the friendlier connotations of the name, the family of acids is all rather confusing. The family splits off into two generations; AHA's and BHA's; Alpha Hydroxy Acid's and Beta Hydroxy Acid's.

Beta Hydroxy Acid's have the ability to penetrate the skin follicle (clogged pores). The acid encourages the pore to shed the dead skin cells, which are the cause of cellular debris (the stuff that results in nasty clogged pores). As a result, the cellular debris is reduced, meaning that your skin is left looking clearer, brighter and less red.

Strikingly similar in name, Alpha Hydroxy Acid's are also responsible for shedding dead skin cells. However, AHA's are water soluble due to their molecular compound and as a result are not capable of penetrating the skin, but rather targeting the upper layers of the skin. They speed up the production of new skin cells (think skin cells own version of a fast food drive-through) and so are particularly effective on sun damaged, older, thicker skin that is more prone to wrinkles.

To skip the science lesson and to sum the Hydroxy Acid family up in a nutshell, each acid aids the shedding of dead skin cells, whilst BHA's are targeted at reducing the number of pore blockages and breakouts on the skin, AHA's work as skin-regenerators, and are particular useful for reducing wrinkles and dry skin.

Parabens are an ingredient used in cosmetics that have been in the target line of some heavy criticism in recent months. Linked to breast cancer tumours and high oestrogen levels, growing concern surrounds the use of this compound within cosmetics. Parabens are a form of preservatives, which primarily focus on the prevention of microbial growth. The most common forms of parabens are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. They are derived from a mix of an acid and alcohol molecule, which are formed after displacing a water molecule. As a result, this chemical reaction removes the possibility of microbial growth derived from water and oxygen colliding, consequently forming an ingredient that successfully functions as a preservative in your cosmetics!

In stark contrast to your daily Starbucks caffeine intake, your skin is also impacted by a daily dosage of caffeine. Caffeine, contrary to what you may believe, is a common ingredient in cosmetics and skin care products which claim to eliminate dull and tired skin. Caffeine aids the skin boosting properties; aiding the optimisation of cellular energy in order to help condition and repair the skin in one quick step. This results in brighter, 'plumper' and all round more healthier-looking skin.

Hyaluronic acid is a molecule naturally present in human tissues, such as your skin, muscles, arteries and ligaments. (Not the pack of Morrison saver tissues we run towards at the slight sign of the sniffles) Hyaluronic acid serves as a substance to retain water, in order to keep your body hydrated and supple. Ever heard of the phrase 'your body consists of 80% water?'. Its true, and its mainly down to this gel-like molecule. HA is found in both layers of the skin – in the dermis and the epidermis, where its function is as a protective, hydrating and water retaining substance. When added to commercial products, the substance aids skin hydration with its unique ability to penetrate the skin in areas that need a moisture-boost, and extra elasticity, thereby producing the perfect anti-wrinkle solution.

Whilst you may be on the side of the pond that still thoroughly associates solvents with nail polish remover and Pritt sticks, the reality is afar from your assumptions. Solvents tend to make up a hefty portion of your cosmetics that you apply to your face daily. These include ethanol, glycerine and butylene glycol. Solvents are used to balance the pH of products, which is particular important in creating stable emulsions. In addition to this, solvents such as ethanol, (the fancy name for alcohol, but not your average bottle of Vodka don't you worry) are widely used in return for their antibacterial properties, as well as maintaining the correct and balanced consistency to a product.

*gratefully removes lab coat and ghastly safety goggles*

How often do you consider exactly what goes into your cosmetics?


  1. Such an interesting post, far more than my chemistry lessons where I want to smash my head against the desk! I actually purposefully burnt myself in a lesson just to leave for a few minutes! X

    Stella Et0ile

  2. Your posts are so intriguing and helpful, information that usually goes over my head, thanks lovely xxxx

  3. This was so helpful, I wouldnt normally pay attention to what is in products because I never understood it, so thank you! xx

    Abby |


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