What the Heck is a Humectant?

Humectant.  It’s a rather odd sounding word, but it denotes one of the best things for your skin.  Humectants are compounds that bind to water, and if water is bound to it, it can’t evaporate nearly as easily.  Not surprisingly, these are among the best things out there for skin care, particularly anti-aging products.

Water drop before impact

Humectants bind to water, helping hydrate skin.

The time-tested veteran here is glycerin.  Glycerin has a smooth feel to it.  It isn’t what I would call silky, but it does create a nice, smooth barrier on the surface of the skin.  Glycerin is an effective humectant, with the ability to hold its own weight in water.  For every ounce of water applied to the skin, one ounce of glycerin will hold it on.  It isn’t the best humectant, but it is extremely versatile.  This post by Debshikha Banerjee shows just how flexible glycerin can be.  Glycerin is usually created as a by product of biofuel or meat processing.  Most glycerin is based on vegetable oil, and if you want to be sure, look for vegan and kosher certified glycerin.

Hyaluronic acid sounds like some bizarre synthetic chemical, but it is a naturally occurring polysaccharide that is in human skin between the cells.  It provides moisture, plumpness, firmness and suppleness to the skin.  It’s also present in the eyes and in the joint spaces, where it acts as a lubricant and “shock absorber.”  When you’re very young, you have a lot of hyaluronic acid in your skin, which why young skin is so soft and supple.  As you age, the amount of hyaluronic acid decreases, which leads to worn-out looking skin and wrinkles.  Hyaluronic acid has an amazing ability to bind to water, able to trap 1,000 times its weight in water.  It’s not surprising, then, that an astonishing number of premium anti-aging products feature hyaluronic acid.

Hyaluronic acid (HA), even thought is often referred to in the singular, comes in different molecular weights; molecular weight is measured in Daltons.  Higher weights penetrate less deeply than lower weights.  As a result, higher weights are better for barrier protection, while lower weights penetrate deeper into areas between cells.  There is debate over the therapeutic value of low molecular weight (LMW) HA versus high molecular weight (HMW) HA. Is low molecular weight (LMW) HA is truly healing, or just inflammatory?  When HMW HA gets broken down by stresses, it is broken into smaller, LMW fragments.

Hyaluronic acid can be administered via injection or topically.  It requires a dermatologist to have the injections safely done.  Topical application involves some sort of serum or cream, and there are several options out there on the market.  There are a variety of different concoctions out there featuring all kinds of ingredients.  Water, glyercin, and/or aloe vera are frequently used to create a base.  Vitamin C, Vitamin E, ferulic acid, argireline, Matrixyl and Matrixyl 3000 are among the most common actives combined with hyaluronic acid.  We’ll get more into those later, but suffice it to say it can be almost bewildering trying to chose between different choices.  Personal beliefs and finances seem to be the only limitations to what is available.

When it comes down to choices, hyaluronic acid is the better humectant.  Glyercin, however, is more versatile and equated by some as being higher end.  Ironically, hyaluronic acid is frequently blended with bases that contain glycerin, giving people both of the big two humectants in one dose.  There are also other compounds out there that are humectants, but those two are the key players and play a large role in the skin care world.


Working with Neem Oil

Neem oil stinks, but it's benefits may outweigh the smell.  (Photo by Steven Dipolo).

Neem oil stinks, but it’s benefits may outweigh the smell. (Photo by Steven Dipolo).

In terms of therapeutic ability, neem oil might be unparalleled.  It is antiseptic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic.  It has a comedogenic rating of 1, meaning there is a very low risk of clogging pores.  There may be no other oil as effective as neem oil for acneic, inflamed, or damaged skin.  There’s just one problem – it stinks.  It literally stinks.  People euphemistically say it has a garlicky, nutty smell.  More realistic are descriptions like “burnt rubber” or “rancid diesel fuel.”  One beauty blogger described as a “mustard and garlic sandwich.”

Neem oil represents the ultimate risk/reward tradeoff.  The reward is incredible skin benefits.  The risk/drawback is that it stinks.  So how do you get awesome skin benefits without smelling like you just bathed in a pool of sulfur?  Here’s my recommendations:

  1. Do you really need neem oil? I do.  I had acne that would not back down, and tried just about everything.  The secret?  Neem oil and grapeseed oil.  I tried a variety of mixtures, but this one seemed like the miracle cure.  On the other hand, if acne wasn’t my issue, I could have gone with a far less stinky option.  So do you need neem oil?  If you have persistent acne that just won’t subside, then neem oil is your friend.  If you have mild issues, or just are looking for preventative measures, you could easily go a different route, such as tamanu oil.
  2. Use sparingly. This one’s pretty easy to follow. 1-2 drops on wet skin for the entire face and neck is all you need.  In fact, neem oil is reportedly effective at concentrations as low as 2 percent.   This means you can cut it with other fixed oils.
  3. Use an effective mask. Certain scents, particularly strong ones, can hide the scent of neem oil pretty well.  Evergreen scents like cypress, pine, fir, and juniper have strong masking ability, and the “clean” fragrance they possess can really knock down the smell of neem oil.  Other scents, such as camphoraceous scents like tea tree oil and eucalyptus can be effective masks as well.  Also, apply the neem oil first, then apply the other scents on top.
  4. Use at night, wash off the next day. One way to get the benefits of neem oil is to use it when nobody else is looking (or smelling).  Use it at night, then wash off the next day.  Mix it with some other oils, otherwise you may end up with some really messed up dreams or a case of insomnia.  Also, your bedroom will obtain that nasty smell.  If you have an older sibling who recently moved out for college, the military, etc., see if you can sleep in their old room (just kidding on that last one).

Neem is wonderful and awful at the same time.  Awesome benefits, terrible smell.  However, sometimes the ends justify the means, and for some, only neem oil will do.  Consider any combination of the above tips to get the benefits of neem oil, and minimize collateral olfactory damage.

Have you tried neem oil?  What are your experiences?  What works for you?

Jojoba Oil – The All-Purpose Moisturizer?

Jojoba branch with seeds

Picture of a jojoba branch with the seeds that produce jojoba oil. Picture by Kenneth Bosma via Creative Commons.

When jojoba oil got its “big break” in the 1970s, it was nothing short of revolutionary.  For years, the only products that produced similar effects were animal-based oils and fats, particularly oil from the sperm whale.  Approximately 40 years later, jojoba oil has become a staple of the skin-care industry.

What makes jojoba oil so unique is that it’s technically not an oil, but a wax ester.  I know that’s been repeated ad nauseum, but I would be remiss not to mention it, and it’s integral as to why jojoba oil is so unique.  Sebum, the oil produced by the human skin, more closely resembles a wax than oil.  It’s this resemblance to human sebum that gives jojoba its unique abilities.

For dry skin, the benefit is obvious.  If a person’s skin doesn’t produce enough sebum to effectively moisturize, then adding jojoba to augment the natural production makes sense.  For oily skin, the advantage is what makes this oil so different.  The skin’s production of sebum is possibly based on a feedback loop.  Jojoba reportedly “tricks” the human skin into thinking it is also human sebum, signaling to the skin to stop or reduce sebum production.  For oily skin, the benefits are not instant.  It will take a few days for the skin to reduce production.  Even though it doesn’t instantly reduce sebum production, it does dissolve excess sebum after being applied and rubbed in, so it can help unclog pores.  Initial use with oily and/or acneic skin may not be pleasant.  Many first-time users with those skin types experience a “purge.”  As the jojoba dissolves the sebum clogging the pores, the skin will look more inflamed and even a little weepy, as it starts to purge impurities and backed-up sebum from the pores.   This will end, but it definitely feels like a “darkest before the dawn” event.  If jojoba works for both dry and oily skin, then it makes sense it should work for combination skin.  This is where jojoba oil really shines.  For combination skin, picking a moisturizer can feel like picking the lesser evil.  Since jojoba does moisturize dry skin, but also helps oily skin, people with combination skin find this oil doesn’t force them to pick a least-bad option.  Because of its broad spectrum versatility, I consider jojoba oil the closest thing to an all-purpose oil.

Not only does jojoba oil balance moisture for a wide variety of skin types, it’s also an extremely stable oil, because it’s not a true oil.  The wax structure means it doesn’t spoil like most oils do.  Not only is jojoba oil extremely stable, it can extend the shelf life of some other oils.  The oil is also highly effective in nourishing and protecting dry or irritated skin.

Jojoba is not without its drawbacks, not including the purge issue.  Despite being mostly non-comedogenic, jojoba can still clog pores for people with extremely acne prone skin.  The second concern is sustainability issue.  Jojoba plants take 3 to 5 years to reach maturity, and the plants must reach maturity to produce the kernels that produce the oil.  To compound the issue, there isn’t really a lot of land devoted to jojoba production relative to demand, so some feel that jojoba consumption cannot be sustained at current rates.  Not that current prices necessarily promote consumption.  Jojoba oil is among the more expensive options in the fixed oils category.  Not extremely pricey, but it can add up after a while.

For those looking for an alternative to jojoba, there are a few options.  One vendor I go through recommends meadowfoam seed oil as an alternative.  Because both are largely based on long-carbon-chain fats, jojoba oil and meadowfoam seed oil offer similar skin feel, although the benefits are slightly different.  Some feel meadowfoam offers a richer feel, while others feel it is oilier than jojoba.  Meadowfoam seed oil is also extremely stable, thanks to it carbon structure.  Meadowfoam seed oil is good alternative for people with dry skin, but for oily and/or acneic skin, it may not be the best alternative.

Another alternative may be hemp seed oil (aka hemp oil).  Hemp has a bit of a stigma to it, being in the same family as the marijuana plant.  Unlike marijuana, hemp has very little of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly referred to by its acronym, THC.  Hemp also has a very low comedogenic rating of 0, meaning it won’t clog pores.  For the sake of comparison, jojoba has a rating of 2, meaning a slight possibility of clogging pores.  It is effective for both dry and oily skin, and it possesses anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.  It’s also relatively inexpensive, having come down in price in recent years.  If hemp has one real drawback, it is hemp oil can go rancid fairly easily.  Hemp oil typically contains 57% linoleic acid, and most oils high in this fatty acid tend to spoil rather easily.  Using a mixture of 99.0 to 99.5 percent hemp seed oil, and 0.5 to 1.0 percent tocopherol (Vitamin E) may help extend shelf life, even though hemp seed oil already contains some Vitamin E.

Argan Oil is another “miracle oil” that has devoted followers.  It has many of the same therapeutic properties as jojoba oil.  It absorbs relatively quickly (about the same speed as jojoba), has protective properties, and dissolves excess sebum.  Argan has an even lower comedogenic rating than jojoba, with a rating of 0 versus 2 for jojoba.  Unfortunately, argan oil can be expensive, usually more so than jojoba, but you can find good deals if you look around online.  Also, argan oil can have a slightly oily finish, which is off-putting to some.  Some people with oily skin say this has made it worse, while others with similar skin have said it is the only thing that works.

A final option is not to avoid jojoba oil entirely, but blend it with other oils.  Jojoba can be effective in fairly low concentrations, but even cutting to 50 percent means using half as much jojoba oil.  The remainder of the mixture could be an oil that is suited for a particular skin type, such as grapeseed oil for oily skin, or olive oil for dry skin.  Adding jojoba to hemp oil may extend the shelf life of the hemp oil as well.

Jojoba certainly is legendary, and with that legend comes high demand.  Despite concerns about an impending shortage, jojoba oil still remains readily available.  As long as it remains easily available, it will remain a skin care staple.  If it doesn’t, there are other options out there that may work.  I’ve presented three, but go ahead and look around online.  Feel free to add any findings in the comments below.

Preservatives and Other Bad Words

In the world of skin-care products, at least to some, preservative is a dirty word.  To many, preservatives are some nefarious chemical created in a lab somewhere.If preservatives are so bad, why are they used?  Are some preservatives less harmful than others?  How much is too much?

Chemistry beakers

This is what most people think of when they think of preservatives.

Before we go any further, let’s distinguish antioxidants from preservatives.  Antioxidants are used to extend the shelf life of oils by slowing down the reaction of the oil with oxygen.  When an oil has oxidized, it becomes rancid.  Vitamin E is the most commonly used antioxidant, and most people don’t have a problem with it, since vitamin E is good for the skin anyway.  While antioxidants, in essence, help “preserve” an oil, the enemy is oxygen, not bacteria and fungi.

Preservatives come into play whenever water is part of the product.  Whenever water is introduced into the equation, an environment conducive to bacteria and mold exists.  That aloe vera you bought to kill the burn?  It can easily turn moldy without preservatives; refrigeration will only slow the process down, not prevent it.  The role of preservatives is to inhibit the growth of bacteria and mold in a product.  Seems pretty beneficial, right?

So why is there an issue with preservatives?  Much of it stems from misuse and overuse of preservatives in the past, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century.  For the greater part of that time period, there seemed to be a “better living through science” mentality.  Even potentially harmful synthetic chemicals were seen as effective agents to fix whatever problem.  The resulting backlash against this overuse was to vilify anything that was created by human hands.  Even natural, safe products wearing a certain label became the enemy.

The problem with generalizing preservatives is some manufacturers avoid preservatives, only to use worse chemicals.  I saw an aftershave by a respected brand that crowed “No Preservatives!” and “No Emulsifiers!”  Sounds great, until you realize the product is mostly SD-40 alcohol.  You know, highly drying, bad-for-your-skin alcohol?  Denatured alcohol, such as SD-40, while commonly used in skin-care products, has shown to be a potential carcinogen in some studies.

Grain alcohol, or ethanol, is common in the popular astringent witch hazel.  For this reason, many avoid the standard witch hazel available at most drugstores and general stores.  Witch hazel, by its nature, has to be preserved upon extraction, and the easiest way to do this is with grain alcohol.  With an alcohol content of only 14 percent, it doesn’t really present a huge health risk (unless you drink it), and witch hazel is generally beneficial when it comes to skin care.  I use standard witch hazel, because it does a great job of knocking down inflammation on my skin, but I also use moisturizers to keep my skin in good shape.

Among the vilified preservatives, parabens are probably among the best known.  I know lots of people who avoid parabens like the plague.  I have suppliers who avoid parabens, probably for commercial reasons, and my wife’s aunt swears against them.  Parabens have been linked to cancer in some studies, and many natural-product manufacturers avoid them like the plague.  However, in doing a little research, I found an article on paulaschoice.com that states parabens may not be as bad as many people think.  I don’t use them, but you can read the article, do a little research, and make an informed choice.

Sodium benzoate is probably more questioned than it is vilified.  Sodium benzoate is the product of naturally occurring benzoic acid (found in several fruits) and sodium hydroxide (lye).  Some think it is perfectly safe and natural, and the products using it often tout “no parabens.”  Sodium benzoate is not perfect, though.  There are articles out there that report that sodium benzoate really is bad, although most of the criticism is directed at its use as a food additive.  For skin care, it appears safe in small quantities, but it creates benzene when combined with citric acid, another common preservative.  Fortunately, you almost never see the two used together.  I try to avoid sodium benzoate, if for no other reason, to reduce the chance of an accidental interaction.

Potassium sorbate is another preservative that has not received as much bad press as parabens or sodium benzoate, but still has enemies among the organic and natural crowd.  Potassium sorbate, the potassium salt of sorbic acid, is a commonly used food preservative, and the only one to have the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA.  Mind you, this is as a food preservative, so as a skin care product preservative, it poses even less of a risk.  It is highly effective, especially when combined with vitamins C and E, and has a long track record.  I don’t directly add potassium sorbate to any of my products, but I don’t have a problem with my ingredients that contain potassium sorbate.

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and citric acid are also commonly used; they lower the pH of a product to inhibit the growth of bacteria and mold.  Since these are very natural products, many people don’t have a problem with them.  The only real problem is that they are not highly effective by themselves, although they boost the effectiveness of other preservatives, especially potassium sorbate.

No matter what preservative you are comfortable with, quantity is important.  A good case in point is aloe vera gel.  Most organic aloe vera gels that don’t require refrigeration are typically 99.5% or 99.75% pure aloe vera.  That remaining fraction of one percent is the preservatives used to keep the product from spoiling too fast.  Good skin-care products should be able to keep their preservatives levels to a minimum, and many will advertise how low of a level it is.

Preservatives have received a bad rap, and manufacturers probably did a good job of causing it, but preservatives are not the enemy many make them out to be.  Bacteria and mold, on the other hand, are very real enemies.  Think of it this way, which is safer?  A glass full of soda, or a glass full of murky swamp water from the Amazon?  The swamp water is all natural and contains no preservatives, but it’s full of bacteria and fungi.  I’ll take my chances with the soda.  Just like the soda, however, don’t overdo it.

What are your feelings on preservatives?

Lavender Essential Oil – The Most Versatile Essential Oil

There’s a saying in essential oils, “When in doubt, go lavender.”    When it comes to versatility, probably no essential oil quite matches lavender.  From skin care to aromatherapy to just plain smelling great, lavender oil is one of the most useful essential oils out there, and considered by many a “must have.”

Expansive lavender field

A lavender field stretches all the way to the horizon.

Lavender’s best-known characteristic is the clean, floral scent that has become synonymous with the plant, and the scent alone makes it desirable.  In colognes and perfumes, it finds applications in both men’s and women’s scents.  Masculine scents value the “lift” it creates in the traditionally heavy masculine tones, and feminine scents value the clean and floral aspects of the scent.

The scent is more than just a pretty smell, however, Lavender is well known for its calming effect, and it is one of most widely used scents in aromatherapy where a calming influence is desired.  For this reason, it can be used to fight anxiety, depression, and insomnia.  A variety of aromatherapy products designed to promote peace and calm, including sleep products, use lavender’s scent.

The benefits of lavender go beyond just a calming, wonderful scent.  It’s also a fantastic skin care oil.  It does wonders to heal damaged skin, particularly burns.  I have burned myself more than once while cooking, and lavender helps to take the burn out of the skin faster.  Not only that, but lavender is gentle enough that I can apply it undiluted.  I do recommend dousing the burned part in cold water first, but lavender helps take the edge out of the pain and speeds recovery due to its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic qualities.  It’s also great in aftershaves to help combat razor burn.  For the same reasons, lavender essential oil is effective in treating insect bites and wounds.  It’s an all-around effective acne fighter as well, helping sooth the irritated areas to reduce redness and reducing the bacteria that cause acne.  It may not be as antiseptic as tea tree oil, but it possesses superior anti-inflammatory abilities.  Many essential oil blends designed to treat acne combine lavender and tea tree to create an effective one-two punch.  It can also be used to help treat eczema, by decongesting the irritated areas and adding moisture to help reduce itching and inflammation.  The oil also contains antioxidants to help detoxify skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

Lavender essential oil has other uses as well.  It can rejuvenate tired muscles, reduce hair loss, fight dandruff, aid in proper digestion.  This oil is truly remarkable in all that it can do, but there’s an added bonus:  it’s relatively inexpensive.  At between $4 and $7 per ounce, it is one of the most affordable essential oils.  Lavender is widely grown, and possesses among the highest essential oil yields per pound of plant matter, so it’s a relatively efficient crop in that regard.  With all its great properties and a bargain price, it’s no wonder lavender is widely loved, and it deserves a place in your medicine cabinet.  It’s my favorite essential oil.