Surfactants Are Everywhere, aka Stop Being Terrified of Chemicals

Surfactants Are Everywhere, aka Stop Being Terrified of Chemicals

This post was originally published on the now sadly defunct awesome website The Toast in 2014. A reader suggested that I repost it on Lab Muffin… which I thought I did, but apparently that was all a fever dream. Here it is!

There’s soap in your mayonnaise!

As a scientist with a degree in chemistry, the surge in chemophobia over the last five years has been both baffling and frustrating.

While there are plenty of toxic substances that we should be well frightened of, there are also many safeguards against their use – by and large, the chemicals you encounter in your day-to-day life are benign, even the ones with the scary unpronounceable names and the ones made from substances that can literally chew your face off (sodium chloride, I’m looking at you). But it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of common-sense-based marketing. Scientific literature is not exactly reader-friendly, and scientists have a long history of alienating themselves from Normal People.

Surfactants Are Everywhere, aka Stop Being Terrified of Chemicals
“Just kicking back with a brewski in my favourite fuck-off flask. What’s with the side-eye?”

There’s one particularly painful tactic which anti-chemical lobbyists love to use, and that is the faulty generalization. You’ve no doubt seen it enough times already…

  • “I had the flu vaccine and still got the flu, therefore vaccines don’t work.”
  • “This chemical gave rats cancer in a study, we need to take it out of our shampoo/food/clothing!” (Despite the fact that the rats used in these sorts of studies are specifically bred to grow tumors like they’re going out of style, and to receive the amount the rats did, you’d have to mainline a swimming pool’s worth of shampoo/food/clothing every week.)
  • “Mineral oil comes from crude oil, therefore you’re rubbing petrol on your face! Use our natural, organic face cream instead, because you know exactly what’s in it.” (Which is ironic, since natural products are notoriously variable in composition.)
  • “It contains chemicals! Chemicals are bad.” (Except for the million or so chemicals that you unwittingly use every day to stay alive, like oxygen and water and neurotransmitters, one of which is pretty much MSG dissolved in water.)

To demonstrate how easy it is to make these grand leaps from benign facts to chemophobic, scaremongering argumentum ad Natural News, let me introduce you to my lovely assistant, surfactants, one of my favourite categories of chemicals (yes, chemists all have their favourite chemicals, it’s a disease.)

Chemicals can be roughly divided into two broad categories. On one side are the hydrophiles, which dissolve readily in water, and are highly charged, which lets them interact favourably with other highly charged things – common examples are water, salt, and ethanol (drinking alcohol.) On the other side there are lipophiles, which are oily, and tend to be weakly charged or neutral. The two don’t interact favourably enough to hang out together in a happy stable mix, and despite any amount of violent shaking, they invariably separate and go to their respective sides.

Read more

Product Rant: SPF Sunscreen Drops

Product Rant: SPF Sunscreen Drops

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: SPF drops and boosters. Fellow skincare fanatic Hannah (@ms_hannah_e on Instagram) reminded me about them recently, right when I was in a ranty mood, so it fit right in.

Product Rant: SPF Sunscreen Drops

What Are SPF Sunscreen Drops?

SPF Sunscreen Drops are products that you’re supposed to mix into other products to “turn them into sunscreens”. Some examples are:

Why would you use these? Sunscreens often have horrible textures, so why not turn a product you already like into a sunscreen by adding some sunscreen drops into it? Not so fast…this ain’t a rant post for nothing.

Why I Hate Sunscreen Drops

Reason 1: They don’t deliver the protection they suggest

See that SPF number? It looks nice and high… but that’s the protection you’ll get if you apply the undiluted product directly on your skin like a regular sunscreen, with 2 mg of product applied per square centimetre of skin. On my face, that translates to about 3/4 of a quarter teaspoon.

So let’s work out the SPF protection if these sunscreen drops are used as intended.

Read more

Skincare Products I Hate and Do Not Recommend

Skincare Products I Hate and Do Not Recommend

I’ve done a lot of posts on skincare products I love… now, for something a bit different, here are some that I really hate and would only recommend to people I don’t like. So if I ever recommend these to you… it’s not me, it’s you. I just don’t see our relationship working out.

Skincare Products I Hate and Do Not Recommend

Coffee Scrubs

Coffee scrubs are made from coffee grounds, which is literally the stuff you chuck into the bin after making coffee. Now I’m sure there’s a little bit of work involved in making sure it doesn’t mould away in the packet, but essentially you’re buying rubbish at $30 for a small bag.

How can they charge this much, you ask? Well, it’s because they usually claim to get rid of cellulite. This is a bald-faced lie, because apart from the fact that you can’t actually get rid of cellulite, one application of the amount of caffeine required to make cellulite look a little better equates to 2.1 kg of coffee grounds, left on your skin for hours. Any improvement you get is probably mostly a combination of massage, exfoliation and placebo, which really shouldn’t cost that much.

Coffee scrubs are also messy as hell – unlike sugar and salt scrubs, they don’t dissolve in water so gritty black specks will lurk in unexpected places forever. I’m still finding bits of coffee grounds under my soap despite rinsing my entire shower down with vinegar the one time I tried one.

I suppose there’s nothing really harmful about coffee scrubs, really. What pisses me off is mostly just the SHEER AUDACITY of charging so much for a product that’s worse than salt mixed with a bit of oil (about $1.10 a kg, if you shell out for the nice oil). It’s more expensive than a whole bunch of other great exfoliants, and it’s basically bagged up garbage. I wish I’d thought of it.

What you should use instead: Salt + oil, or a leave-on anti-cellulite caffeine cream.

Apricot Scrubs with Shell Bits

First off, physical exfoliation is not the devil. It’s a great thing to use in conjunction with chemical exfoliants. But apricot scrubs containing ground walnut shell… that’s a different matter entirely.

As far as I can tell with my trusty literature review tools, there isn’t any evidence that they cause microtears which harbour bacteria (and I have no idea how that rumour started, but if you know anything about it I’d love to hear from you!), and there are many beneficial products and procedures with harder particles (hello microdermabrasion). But maybe half of the “skincare-naive” people who ask me about their skin problems have this on their bathroom shelf, and they use way too much pressure when scrubbing, and do it way too often (for some reason people feel the need to use it once a day). This sort of treatment usually starts by giving you a nice glow, but it’s unsustainable and quickly leads to sensitive, dehydrated, compromised skin that feels rough and is prone to breakouts. Of course, the obvious thing to do is to use more of the product to get that nice glow back, but it’s a downward spiral from there.

I don’t think St Ives deserves to be sued, but I also wouldn’t lose any sleep if apricot scrubs disappeared. (Also, why are they all called apricot scrubs instead of walnut scrubs?)

Skincare Products I Hate and Do Not Recommend

What to use instead: Any gentler physical exfoliant: konjac sponges, sugar scrubs, cleansing brushes. If you don’t already have an exfoliation routine in place, I’d recommend setting one up.

Soaps for the Face

True or “natural” soaps that is, made from lye or caustic potash and fats or oils. This includes products like African black soap and Castille soap. Soap is bad news for your face for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s impossible for soap to work at a pH lower than around 9.5, which is unfortunate because your face has a pH of 4-6, and high pH will disrupt your skin’s ability to stay intact
  • Soap’s structure (straight tail, small head group) makes it awesome at messing up the proteins in your skin

Some people with tolerant skin will be able to handle soap on their face, and most people can use it on tougher body skin with no big dramas, but a lot of companies that sell soap as facewash go for the “gentle, great for sensitive skin, BECAUSE IT’S NATURAL” angle.


If your skin is sensitive, soap is not great for it (dehydration, breakouts and roughness galore), and soap isn’t much more natural than gentler cleansing ingredients anyway. Soap is fats and oils which have been reacted to turn it into something else entirely, much like how plastic is made by reacting dead dinosaurs.

What you should use instead: A gentle face cleanser that’s formulated with surfactants made for mildness. Check out this gentle cleansing guide for tips on how to pick a good product and some suggestions.

Hypoallergenic Natural Products Loaded with Essential Oils

On a similar note, the “gentle, great for sensitive skin, BECAUSE IT’S NATURAL” brigade are also really fond of jamming essential oils into products to somehow make them less reactive. Which is entirely the wrong direction to go, because fragrance is one of the things that people with sensitive skin are frequently sensitive to, and guess what – essential oils are fragrant (and plant extracts usually are too). In fact, many synthetic fragrances are just essential oils with some chemicals taken out. That’s why a whole bunch of “natural” skincare products have a list of chemicals at the end of their ingredients, like linalool, benzyl alcohol, geraniol and coumarin – these ingredients known to cause allergies in susceptible people are usually hidden in essential oils and plant extracts, but EU regulations require that they be listed.

Read more