Vitamin E – The Antioxidant

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant crucially important for our skin’s health. Is also has a proven anti-inflmmatory effect, independent of its antioxidant action.

Vitamin E is a generic name for eight chemical compounds – four tocopherols (alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-) and four tocotrienols (alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-). Of these, the form most often found on cosmetic labels is alpha-tocopherol. It is also the most common form of Vitamin E naturally found in the human body.

Vitamin E’s Antioxidant Function

Antioxidants can inhibit the oxidative damage in our bodies neutralising free radicals or preventing their formation. Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules – they need an electron to become stable, and they will “steal” it from the nearest available molecule. When the “attacked” molecule loses its electron, it can become a free radical itself. This can be the beginning of a free radical chain reaction. When out of control, free radical chain reactions cause cell damage or death.

The body has the ability to keep free radicals in check. To that end, it need antioxidants. Antioxidant molecules are able to donate an electron and yet remain stable, so they don’t become free radicals themselves. Since antioxidants are stable with or without the extra electron, they can act as free radical scavengers. Vitamin E is the primary defender against lipid peroxidation i.e. it prevents the oxidation of fats and oils in our bodies. (Research Info)

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Vitamin C – An Essential Skin Nutrient

It has been know for decades that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is essential to our health. Since its discovery in the 1930s, it has been know that its deficiency in humans leads to break down in skin and connective tissue – a condition known as scurvy, so serious that it could be lethal. Over the following decades, scientific research has shed more light on the many roles Vitamin C has in maintaining our skin’s integrity and function:

1. Vitamin C is necessary for collagen synthesis

Collagen is a generic name for a group of filament-shaped proteins found mostly in animals’ flesh and connective tissue. Its role is to provide a structural framework for the body’s various organs. Most collagen  is synthesised in a specialist cells called fibroblasts.

Collagen synthesis is a complex process by which aminoacids are assembled into peptides, which are then linked in the triple helix structure of collagen. This linking process requires two co-factors: vitamin C and iron. If vitamin C is deficient, the three strands of the collagen molecule are not properly linked together and the molecule is weak and easily destroyed. During collagen synthesis, vitamin C is oxidised and becomes useless, so the supply must be continuously renewed.

The role of Vitamin C in collagen production doesn’t stop here. Research has uncovered several other mechanisms through which vitamin C promotes collagen syntheses:

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Cosmetic Beeswax – Why Using It Is Good for the Environment

Beeswax has been used as a cosmetic ingredient for hundreds, in not thousands of years. Its emollient and protective properties make it a very useful ingredient in moisturisers and lip gloss. A study by German scientists compared four products – two barrier creams and two moisturisers and found the moisturiser containing beeswax to be the most effective in protecting the hands of dental technicians handling irritating substances in their lab work.

Beswax never goes off – the one found in ancient Egyptian tombs is still usable today! It is sustainably produced and harvested without causing harm to bees. It seems and ideal cosmetic ingredient. But not everyone agrees. Over the last decades a vegan trend has developed. According to vegans beeswax is an unacceptable ingredient because it is of course of animal origin.

This trend puts some pressure on cosmetic companies and some have replaced beeswax with waxes of vegetal origin like carnauba or candelilla wax, or with hydrogenated vegetal oils.

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Breathe Your Way to Better Skin

Your skin reflects the general state of health of your body. It will react to factors like diet and stress. Nutrition is a well know line of treatment for conditions like rosacea, acne and eczema. Perhaps less known is the fact that stress levels can be very effectively controlled using some simple breathing techniques.

The underlying principle is that deep, regular breathing sends a signal to each part of your body to relax. And good breathing habits can learnt. That is why disciplines like yoga and chi gung teach breathing techniques. You may not have the time to practice yoga or chi gung, but dedicating five to ten minutes a day to practising a breathing exercise can give you very rewarding results.

The first – and perhaps the greatest – barrier to practising correct breathing is our belief that we know how to breath. After all, we have done it uninterruptedly from the minute were were born. No one will dare argue with that. It is equally true however, that from an early age stress and postural constraints have interfered with our breathing, leading to shallow, less than efficient breathing. So it makes a lot of sense to re-learn how to breath well. Would you care to give it a try? Here are a few simple instructions.

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Cosmetic Preservatives – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A couple of weeks back I had an exchange of comments with a fellow blogger about preservatives. She was optimistic that developments in science will soon produce safer preservatives for the cosmetic industry. This started me thinking about preserving methods currently in use and where new developments may come from.

There are three broad methods of preservation in use by the cosmetic industry today:

1.      Going water free

This is the most straightforward preservation method – where there is no water there is no life. Simple.

This is how granny used to make her ointments. Today we are benefiting from a much wider choice of vegetal oils and butters than granny ever had, so it is possible to make combinations that feel lighter and quicker to absorb into the skin.

There is no guarantee that a water-free product will be also free from preservatives. Some manufacturers add preservatives anyway, in case the product gets mixed with water during use. But if you check the labels you will be able to find oils, balms and ointments with no added preservatives.

Over the last few years, consumers have been gradually getting more used to water-free, oil-based cleansers and moisturisers and it possible these products may continue to increase in popularity.

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Titanium Dioxide in Foods and Cosmetics

It’s everywhere, from candies to paints, to toothpaste, sunscreens and mineral foundation. Is it safe? And does titanium dioxide (TiO2) equates to nanoparticles?

For years I entertained the reassuring idea that most TiO2 applications involve fairly large particles of this substance. After all it’s only sunscreens that require invisible, nano-form TiO2. The food industry uses this mineral as a colouring agent – to make the milk look  whiter and the marshmallows shimmery. If it’s opacity and coverage you’re after, nano particles, being transparent, are useless. The same applies to most cosmetic applications – mineral make up, toothpaste and many other toiletries. So manufacturers don’t need TiO2 in nano form for anything except sunscreens. Right? Well, not quite. Although nano TiO2 is not useful as a colouring agent, recent research has nevertheless found that about 36% the particles in food grade TiO2 is nano size. Research info

In view of this find, the question about nano TiO2 becomes even more important.

TiO2 nanoparticles in food

There is conflicting research data on the effects of ingested TiO2 nanoparticles. A few experiments have shown that ingested titanium dioxide does not get absorbed from the guts into the bloodstream. These are the experiments which have informed the decisions of food industry regulators to approve TiO2 as a colouring agent. More info

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Essential Oils and Skin Care

They smell good, they are extracted from plants, so pretty much everyone would agree essential oils are natural. How good are they for your skin?

Despite their name, essential oils are not actually oils – they are not composed of lipids like the vegetal or mineral substances we class as oils. They are, in fact, aromatic volatile substances made of chemical compounds responsible for the distinctive fragrance of the plant they originate from.

Essential oils have been used for hundreds of years in aromatherapy. Their effects are largely due to their smell - relaxing, refreshing, uplifting etc, although some physiological effects have been observed. E.g. linalool, one of the main compounds of lavender essential oil has been shown to decrease systolic blood pressure and slightly lower skin temperature, but these effects were too slight to be noticed by the subjects in this research. More info about this research

The use of essential oils in skin care is a matter of heated debate, with essential oil manufacturers and aromatherapists strongly defending them, while a number of skin care experts argue against all fragrance ingredients in skin care products, essential oils included.

Here are a couple of objections raised against:

  1. Geraniol – one of the main aromatic compounds in rose and geranium essential oils. Geraniol is “a skin sensitizer in humans and mice” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More info about this report
  2. Linalool and limonene – the most common essential oil compounds, present in large proportions in Lavender and all citrus essential oils ( Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Manadarin and Orange). Both linalool and limonene oxidize on air exposure. The pure compounds do not cause any iritation, but “autoxidation of the fragrance terpenes linalool and R-limonene increases irritation” have concluded a group of Swedish researchers. The effects were similar in dermatitis patients and controls. More info about this research 

The irritating potential of these compounds will naturally decrease with concentration. Aromatherapists observe fairly strict limits with regards to the amounts of essential oils in their massage mixtures.  The Cosmetic Safety Regulations do not impose a maximum limit on essential oil compounds in skin care products. All they require is that the aromatic compounds are listed separately at the end of ingredient lists so that consumers are aware of their presence.

Essential oil critics argue that essential oils should be enjoyed for what they are i.e. fragrances, therefore – when it comes to cosmetics – their place is in perfumes and not in moisturisers.

What do you think about essential oil use in skin care products? Do you like cosmetics containing essential oils or do you prefer unscented products?

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Looking After Sensitive Skin

There is no universally agreed definition of sensitive skin. The one definition that I came across which does not overlap with problem skin definitions (e.g. rosacea, eczema etc.) is based on the  relative thickness of the outermost skin layer, called the stratum corneum. This is the definition I will use in this post.

Stratum corneum is made of dead skin cells embedded in a mesh of  fatty molecules called the intracellular matrix. Yes, it is odd to think that our entire bodies are covered in dead skin cells (the average adult caries about 2 kg of them) but they’re really important – a barrier between the living tissue underneath and the outside world. Sensitive skin has a thinner stratum corneum than average. To this it owes its beautiful fine texture and supple look. It also means that people with sensitive skin are less able to tolerate cleansers and moisturisers containing harsh chemicals like preservatives and alcohols. Mineral particles in make-up may feel gritty on sensitive skin, as nerve endings are closer to the skin’s surface.

Here are a few tips for looking after sensitive skin:

  1. Cleanse with an oil instead of water-based lotions or wipes. The latter rely on surfactants as cleansing agents, and these wear down the fatty molecules that hold the stratum corneum together.  An oil will do less damage. It will also remove water-proof make up quickly and easily, so you will be able to cleanse your skin thoroughly without applying too much pressure.
  2. Cleanse only when necessary i.e. when there is make-up or dirt to remove. On a day you have not applied any make-up and didn’t get exposed to dust or sweat, skip the cleansing or simply rinse with water and pat dry with a clean face towel.
  3. Use a moisturiser without harsh chemicals. I talked about these in a previous blog post  – “Sensitive Skin? – Why Water-Free Moisturisers are Better for You
  4. If you use an exfoliating face mask, choose a gentle one, free of AHAs or other chemical exfoliating agents. Keep the face mask on for no longer than 5 minutes and allow at least 4-5 days between exfoliations.
  5. It’s a good idea to sample any skin care and make-up products for a couple of days before buying  full size items.

With the correct skin care routine and using gentle products, sensitive skin can feel perfectly happy and you can enjoy its delicate beauty in comfort.

Do you have sensitive skin? If so, what sort of skin care routine have you found to work?

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Mineral Make-up – What’s in a Name?

When “mineral make-up” first appeared on the market, that phrase meant 100%  mineral and water-free foundation, blusher or eye-shadow. Mineral make-up products were innovative in leaving out potentially harmful conventional ingredients like preservatives, mineral oils, chemical dyes and perfumes, thus offering consumers a genuine healthy alternative.

Sadly, as the term “mineral make-up” has become more popular, manufacturers have started to apply it to more conventional products, many of them containing the less-desirable ingredients that mineral make-up originally left out.  These days, simply buying an item labelled “mineral make-up” doesn’t guarantee you will get the kind of new generation product you might expect. The good news is  that there are ways to tell a genuine new generation product from a re-labelled old one. Here’s what to look out for:

  • 100% mineral make up is a a loose powder, not a liquid or a compact powder.
  • The ingredient list of 100% mineral make-up tends to be short. For example: “Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide, Iron Oxides, Ultramarine Blue” might be the full ingredient list of a 100% mineral foundation. When the ingredient list runs into ten or more items, then you’re probably looking at a re-labelled conventional product.

You can also look for particular tell-tale words in the ingredient list:

  • If you see “Aqua” or “Aloe Barbadensis” (i.e. Aloe Vera, which has a high water content), this means the product contains water, and therefore also preservatives
  • If you find words ending in “paraben” (like methylparaben or propylparaben) – these are all names of preservatives
  • You might see ”Mineral Oil” listed as an ingredient, or you might also see the same additive listed as ”Paraffinum Liquidum”
  • You may see perfume additives listed as “Fragrance” or “Parfum”
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Sensitive Skin? – Why Water-Free Moisturisers are Better for You

You friends may tell you how well they get on with this face cream or the other, but if you have sensitive skin, you may find that most water-based moisturisers you’ve tried are causing more problems that they solve.

Here’s why: in order to create a water based-cream, cosmetic manufacturers have to use two categories of substances that are not exactly skin-friendly: emulsifiers and preservatives. They often add a third type of additive called penetration enhancer  – a solvent that makes the product penetrate the skin faster.

  1. EmulsifiersFats and water don’t naturally mix, so an emulsifier is needed to create a smooth emulsion. Emulsifiers are designed to change the properties and behaviour of the fats and oils in the moisturiser, but there is a problem – our skin also uses an orderly structure of fats to maintain its integrity. It is called the intracellular matrix – if exposed to a lot of emulsifier, it will break down, causing a variety of problems from dryness to irritation and, in the long run, to more serious conditions like eczema.
  2. PreservativesThese are added to keep micro-organism off your face cream, which otherwise would really be a tasty snack to scores of bacteria, moulds and fungi. These are pretty resilient creatures – defeating them is quite a challenge and  it takes a pretty aggressive additive to keep them out. No wonder these additives often melt plastic, as described in this post:
  3. Penetration enhancersUnlike the two additives above, penetration enhancers are not a must, but cosmetic manufacturers often add them – if the skin doesn’t care to take in the product, then it must be made to. Penetration enhancers are solvents that react with fats and - like emulsifiers – they don’t discriminate between the fats in the moisturiser and the structural fats of our skin.

Healthy, strong skin has mechanisms to cope with these additives – after all, our skin is a barrier organ, designed to keep out substances that would harm us. In sensitive and  problem skin the barrier function is impaired, the offending substances have more of a chance to get into the living tissue of the epidermis and cause damage.

For all these reasons, a water-free face cream that nourishes your skin without exposing it to harmful additives is a lot more likely to  help your skin get back on its feet.


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