Thursday, 26 March 2015

When Science and Beauty collide

I am a scientist and a beautylover. One thing inherent to my job as a cell biologist is that i take rarely anybody's word for it when it comes to science. I want to see scientific evidence and reasoning best in a peer reviewed journal, or at the very least an argumentation with a good scientific foundation. 

Scientists have a tendency to communicate more with each other than with the general public. Most scientific evidence which makes it to the public does so because non science journalists took interest in it. However, their articles sometimes deform the truth. News and company reps do not want to tell you very specific compound xy in this very specific form showed a 10% increase in effect on 68% of rats. No they want to say: Compound xy will kill you or scientists say compound z is the new fountain of youth. And in all honesty it is what we all, including me want to hear, no? We want to hear what to get and what to avoid. We don't want to get gigantic maybes.

However, i do believe that when we get asked to spend our hard earned cash on products which either contain certain compounds or go to  a great length to omit others, we should all know about what kind of gigantic maybes are associated with the claims.

Now there is enough self proclaimed experts out there in the beauty world and some are great and do their research with decent resources and others are basically making it up as they go and try to push their own product lines. I do not want to claim that i am an expert in any capacity. I am a cell biologist but i am not working in dermatology or with human nutrition, so all i can do is show my opinion and some great resources so you can form your own opinion.

So i thought in this article, i give a few topics which caught my interest and link some nice articles to read on the subject which in my opinion are written by people which have done their research and know what they are talking about:

1) Detoxing of the skin

I look into cells for a living and my sister who is in the medical profession looks into whole humans and we both have yet to find all this toxins companies claim we have in us. Now obviously we are exposed to some toxins during our live.
Some we expose ourselves too like alcohol and nicotine and others we are exposed to by our environment like engines exhaust and heavy metals and chemicals in food or drinks. However, those do not end up in our skin but in kidneys and liver where no face cream will ever reach them.
What are not toxins is dirt on our skin or oils produced by ourselves. Yet this is surprisingly how some popular skin care producers seem to define toxins. What i dislike about this use of the word "toxin" is that it suggests that when we do not use such products is that our skin remains full of toxins, which are damaging to us and that we need to spend a good amount of money for specialised products to protect us from those "toxins" when all we need is simply a product which cleans. I don't know what you do at home but i clean and do not detox my floor. Same goes for skin. So i when i invest into a good skin care product, detox is not what i will pay extra cash for.
I link here a PDF from a great website where young scientist actually contacted the companies which produce some well known products and asked for scientific evidence. The answers you find in this PDF:

and i can also not skip to link this post by fellow blogger and scientist Esmeralda from "Science is so sexy" which explains it in great detail and better than i ever could how much there is to detoxing.

2) Detox foods

If you clicked the link to Esmeraldas website you will also have read about detoxing through foods. So now here the subject lays a bit more complicated. There has been in fact some very specific diets which have shown some evidence that they could have an effect on getting rid of certain chemicals in our body. However, none of them were just a particular smoothie or algae or vitamin pills. The diets which were described as maybe having an effect (and none of that was to the extend that it was called scientifically conclusive) were including huge lifestyle and nutrition changes. 
As i described above there are some toxins we do deal with, however, normally our organs take perfectly care of that for us. They do not need to be boosted nor can they be that easily boosted. The best "boost" for your organs is a healthy lifestyle. This means a balanced diet and sport, not specific pills or smoothies. Saying that, smoothies are delicious so no harm in drinking them. Just i would not spend a lot of money for special detox ones cause chances are you are paying way to much money for what is essentially just a snack.
Here you find an opinion piece by a reputable researcher on the matter.

3) Vitamines and antioxidants

So in the same line of thinking, we all get told to take vitamins to get a better skin, stronger hair etc. If it is not in form of pills then it is in the form of so called super foods. Now i would have loved to believe that. I have thin hair and skin which is pale and blemish prone. Unfortunately (and this actually does touch my research) we all have a maximum of vitamins we can utilise and certain ones even become dangerous to us when we ingest to much of them (e.g. vitamin A, D, E etc.). 
Now vitamin pills can be useful for certain people which have a deficiency which can not be countered with healthy eating. For that it is a great idea to see a health care professional, get your blood taken and check for deficiencies. 
I for example suffer from zinc and vitamin D deficiency which can lead to brittle hair and bones and worst case, extremely low vitamin D levels have even been associated with occurrence of cancer. So i am taking some pills and my hair has indeed become better. However, i am still waiting for that lucious mane.  The thing is, somebody with a regular level of zinc will experience absolutely no effect from taking extra zinc. Imagine your vitamin levels like little containers. Once they are full, they are full and everything you add will just end up going to waste or goes out and does bad things. This containers are surprisingly small and healthy eating and living will keep them in healthy people more then full enough. Unfortunately about our hair and skin is defined by our genetic makeup and no amount of vitamin pills will change that. Quite the opposite, stuffing yourself with vitamins and antioxidants (often antioxidants are vitamins) can effectively damage your health. Here is a scientific study conducted on the effect of supplements of antioxidants like vitamin A and vitamin D on health.

Bottom line is that vitamin pills, in my opinion should be used only when your doctor advises them due to a deficiency.
By the way, a lot of the vitamin pills you can purchase in the health food isle are not even in a form which can be taken up.  So rather save your money and buy a nice bunch of veggies.

4) Hair Repair and making your hair grow faster

Okay let me start by getting disgusting. Hair is dead waste material pushed out of your body to keep you warm.  It is made mostly of keratin and a few lipids. Okay with that mental picture lets move on to what that implies. The following claims of shampoos can not possibly be true:
- it provides nutrient to your hair
- it goes into the core of your hair and regenerates it
- it detoxes your hair
- it suffocates your hair
I cannot feed, suffocate or regenerate my hair more then i can feed, suffocate or regenerate my furniture. It does not need vitamins or nutrients because it is not a living material. And as much as i can not let my couch table regenerate the scratch my cat left in it, i can not regenerate broken or thin hair.
One more thing it can not do is make your hair grow faster. Your hair grows at a pace determined by your hormones and other cell biological processes happening inside your scalp and body. Unless you inject your shampoo into your blood, it won't change your hair from the get go.
What shampoo can do is to protect your hair against damages and can keep it to some extend from getting dry and brittle. The lack of damage and breaking might give you the feeling that your hair grows faster or thicker. It can also keep your scalp healthy and prevent that your inflamed scalp stops hair production or sheds the hair.
And thats also where the bad news start. If your genes say thin and few hair, then no amount of products will change that. You can use shampoo and masks and conditioners to keep it from breaking but it won't become thicker or even more hair then what your genes allow. If that would be possible, all rich people would have lucious manes.
Good news is that with good styling and good hair care we can cheat quite a bit. However, me as a somebody who really envies people with beautiful hair get nearly a bit angry when i see youtube guides to long lucious and full hair by people which are obviously born with long lucious and full hair suggesting that any form of routine could lead to me having what they have. 
Obviously there are diseases and deficiencies which can lead to thin brittle hair and hair loss in which case you should see a general practitioner, however, none of them is fixed by shampoo.

While i did not find any science based article on this subject, i will link here a nice article by Esmeralda about your shampoos ingredients which is well worth a read.

I could go on but i do not want to kill you all with a wall of text. If you would like to read more of this type of articles. Let me know in the comments. You disagree with me, please let me know. I always love to learn and get my opinion challenged. 
If you have any suggestions which topics would deserve some scientific background check. Please let me know also in the comments.


  1. Love this! Many people just read into claims rather than reading into the subject. In my health science classes, we learned early on to not give into the puffery that is ever present in beauty & media.
    :] // ▲ ▲

  2. This was a really thought out post and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Unfortunately not many people are aware of this and continue to buy into it all!

  3. OOO I read this post with great interest! I don't know that much about science (I wish I did but it's just not how my brain functions haha), but I am a skeptic at heart. I've never really fallen for most of the claims, although I do believe in antioxidants... I don't believe in detoxing but I believe eating healthy would give people better skin. Then again I know a lot of it is genetic. I guess as long as you don't go to extremes or spend a huge amount of money on supplements it's not that bad? ;)

    1. Do not get me wrong, antioxidants are a good thing, same as vitamins, i just think that as long as we stick to natural sources in their natural delivery form, we have a better chance to not accidentally achieve the opposite of what we are trying to achieve (exclude from that eating liver since some animals liver have an already toxic level of vitaminA). Overdose of vitamins D, A and E (A end E commonly also referred to as antioxidants) can actually have severely harmful effects. If you are interested i can recommend googling Hypervitaminosis. Indeed it is about extremes but if you are eating food extremely rich in those vitamins and then add supplements to it, you might actually be at risk to have adverse effects. Then again supplements can be a godsend for those of us with to low levels.
      I agree with you that healthy eating and exercise will lead to an improvement of the skin. Our looks are to some extend a mirror of our health. Actually historically seen this is how we arrived with our beauty ideals. Most of what we consider beautiful is just measures of health (e.g glowy skin, thick and shiny hair, red lips etc) So for our forefather it was a way of searching the females or males best for producing offspring. But okay i am becoming a wiseass here ;). In short i agree with you that our looks depend on our nutrition and our lifestyle, however, unfortunately there are some bottle necks by genetics. But pretty much alike make up can enhance our natural facial features, a good diet and exercise regime can get the maximum out of what we have.
      Thx so much for commenting, i love to hear others opinion and i am happy you enjoyed the post. I was a bit scared to be to much of a wiseass, but i thought this is maybe something i can bring to the table since i am for sure no make up guru ;).