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Does Hydroquinone Have a Dark Side?

hydroquinoneThey were once mistakenly thought to be caused by a disease of the liver, so they are called “liver spots.” Actually these skin blemishes are caused by a buildup of the skin pigment melanin and are associated with aging and long-term exposure to ultraviolet light. Technically referred to as “Lentigo senilis,” these hyperpigmented spots usually just present a cosmetic problem unless they develop irregular borders and undergo a colour change, in which case they need to be evaluated by a physician. People bothered by such “senile freckles” can look to hydroquinone for help.

When applied as an ingredient in a skin cream, this chemical inhibits the activity of tyrosinase, an enzyme that is necessary for the formation of melanin. This brings up three questions. How well does hydroquinone work, what concentration is needed, and what risks, if any, does its use present? Hydroquinone does work, and its efficacy, as is to be expected, is dose related. Need a minimum of 1% in a cream to see any result, and really significant effects kick in at 4%. In the U.S., hydroquinone is available in over the counter products at concentrations up to 2%, anything more than that requires a prescription. In Europe and in Canada all hydroquinone products require a prescription. Why the difference?

Different regulatory agencies arrive at decisions in different ways. In this case, Europe and Canada look at worst case scenarios while the U.S. evaluates hydroquinone based on its actual use in cosmetics. Rat feeding studies have suggested that hydroquinone may be carcinogenic, although this is contentious. In humans, in rare cases, accidental ingestion of photographic developer fluid containing hydroquinone has resulted in toxic reactions, but in a controlled trial with human volunteers, ingestion of 300-500 mgs daily for months produced no observable effects. As far as topical application goes, no systemic reaction has ever been noted, and no link to skin cancer has ever been found. But there is a chance of skin irritation, especially if sun protection is not used after application, as well as a rarely seen blue discoloration known as “ochronosis.” With higher concentrations there is the possibility of losing too much pigment resulting in white spots. It is mainly for the latter reasons, and some concern that hydroquinone has not been studied with enough rigour, that Canada and Europe are concerned about over-the-counter availability.

But aside from hydroquinone products that have been adulterated with mercury compounds, which has happened in Africa, no significant problems with 2% solutions have cropped up. Hydroquinone also occurs in nature, found in the bearberry, madder and mulberry plants, extracts of which are touted as “natural skin lightening agents.” These do work, but whatever issues arise with hydroquinone apply to these preparations as well. The fact that the hydroquinone comes from a natural source is irrelevant. Basically, 2% hydroquinone preparations, no matter what the source, can reduce age spots effectively and the alarm sounded by some activist organizations about such products is not backed up by evidence.


Joe Schwarcz

Goat Poop in Your Hair?

goatsNow that we’ve got your attention, let’s talk about argan oil. Don’t worry, we will get around to the poop. Surely you’ve heard of corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and canola oil. But unless you’re familiar with Moroccan traditions, or are in the habit of frequenting trendy hair salons, chances are that argan oil has escaped your attention. So what is this oil that most people have never heard of?

Argan is a tree that grows in only one specific region of Morocco and produces a fruit that resembles a large olive. Stripping away the fleshy outside layer exposes a nut that can be dried and cracked open to reveal several kernels. Traditionally these have been roasted, mashed and squeezed to yield an oil with a nutty flavor. Because the trees are rare, and a lot of work is involved in producing the oil, it tends to be expensive. That’s why it is used sparingly, usually to flavor salads and dips. It can also be stirred into couscous. There are even health claims about lowering cholesterol and boosting the immune system, although these have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Chemically argan oil is very similar to olive oil, consisting mostly of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat. While these are deemed to be “healthy,” argan oil would rarely be consumed regularly in significant amounts to have any impact on health. Like olive oil it also contains some vitamin E, along with small quantities of other antioxidants of no practical relevance. There is somewhat more rationale for the use of argan oil in cosmetic products. At least one study suggests that a small amount rubbed on the skin can reduce sebum production and there is some hope that it may have an effect on psoriasis. But even here it is doubtful it would differ from olive oil.

Some hair dressers recommend argan oil as a conditioning agent, often citing that it is the reason why Moroccan women have beautiful hair. Actually there’s no evidence that Moroccan women have particularly beautiful hair, or that significant numbers of them use argan oil. In any case, there’s no theoretical reason to think that argan oil would work better than olive oil as a hair conditioner. But there is also a product called “Moroccan oil” that is available in better hair salons and pharmacies that actually works very well in making hair more manageable and more likely to hold its shape.

While this product does contain some argan oil, it is hardly the active ingredient. Basically it is included to allow for some hype about a rare oil. The first three ingredients are actually cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone and cyclomethicone, three very effective silicones that really can tame troublesome hair. But there are plenty of cheaper silicone products that do as good a job. However, they don’t come with the mythology that surrounds argan oil. And part of that mythology is that traditionally the oil was pressed from nuts that had passed through the digestive tracts of goats that had climbed the tree to satisfy their craving for the argan fruit. Supposedly the nuts processed by the goats were easier to crack and yielded a particularly flavourful oil. Goats do climb the argan trees, that much is true. But collecting their poop to isolate the nuts is a myth. As much a myth as the one about argan oil having magical properties.

Joe Schwarcz


Joe Schwarcz’s The Right Chemistry: Paraben phobia is unjustified

ParabenThe public mistrust of preservatives can be traced back to a 2004 paper by Dr. Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading

Stories about recalls of various consumer products are all too common these days, but one about contaminated children’s sunscreen lotion caught my attention. Not because it posed a significant risk, which it didn’t, but because the report mentioned “glucono delta lactone.” This is a compound I worked with extensively back in my graduate school days, using it as a starting material for the synthesis of various carbohydrates. What was it doing now, in a story about a sunscreen recall?

Cosmetic products, particularly those that are water-based, are prone to contamination by bacteria, moulds and fungi. This is not only a “cosmetic” problem, as it were, it is also a health issue. One would therefore presume that the inclusion of preservatives to ensure a safe product would be seen by consumers as a positive feature, but such is not the case. Preservatives are regarded by many as nasty chemicals that are to be avoided.

This mistrust can be traced back to a 2004 paper by Dr. Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading that described finding traces of parabens, a commonly used class of preservatives, in breast tumours. The study received extensive press coverage, with few accounts pointing out that there had been no control group. Since parabens are widely used in foods and cosmetics, they can conceivably be detected in most everyone.

Although Darbre admitted that the presence of parabens did not prove they caused the tumours, she did alarm women by pointing out that these preservatives have estrogen-like activity and that such activity has been linked to breast cancer. What she failed to mention was that the estrogenic activity of the various parabens is thousands of times less than that of estrogenic substances found in foods such as soybeans, flax, alfalfa and chickpeas, or indeed of the estrogen produced naturally in the body.

Regulatory agencies around the world have essentially dismissed Darbre’s study and maintain that there is no evidence linking parabens to cancer. Dr. Darbre, undoubtedly disturbed by being rebuffed, has continued to publish research about parabens, attempting to justify her original insinuation of risk. Her latest paper describes the enhanced migration of human breast-cancer cells through a laboratory gel after 20 weeks of exposure to parabens. One is hard pressed to see the relevance of this “in vitro” experiment to the use of 0.8% parabens in a topically applied cosmetic.

Nevertheless, because of the concerns that have been raised about parabens and other synthetic preservatives, the cosmetics industry is turning toward the use of “natural” substances that have an unjustified public image of being safer.

As I have said many times before, the safety and efficacy of a chemical does not depend on whether it was made by a chemist in a lab, or by Mother Nature in a bush.

Its chemical and biological properties depend on its molecular structure and the only way to evaluate these is through appropriate experiments.

It is through such experiments that glucono delta lactone’s ability to impair the multiplication of microbes was determined. In solution, the compound slowly converts to gluconic acid, creating an inhospitable acidic environment for bacteria and fungi. Marketing-wise, glucono delta lactone can be labelled as “natural” because it can be found in honey and various fruits where it is formed from glucose by the action of enzymes released from the Aspergillus niger, a ubiquitous soil fungus that commonly taints plants.

Industrially, glucono delta lactone is produced by fermenting glucose derived from corn or rice with the same fungus. But acidification alone is not enough to eliminate the risk of microbial contamination, so the producers of the children’s sunscreen turned for help to that spicy mix of vegetables known as kimchee.

Korea’s national dish is traditionally made by fermenting cabbage, cucumber and radishes with the bacterium, Leuconostoc kimchii. One of the products secreted by the bacteria during the fermentation process is a peptide (a short chain of amino acids) that has antimicrobial properties.

“Leucidal Liquid” is a commercial extract of the antimicrobial peptide produced by the action of Leuconostoc kimchii on radishes. In combination with glucono delta lactone, it forms an effective preservative system; but as evidenced by the sunscreen recall, not in all cases. The lotions were free of contaminants before being shipped to retailers but some samples on the shelf were later found to contain bacteria and fungi that could have caused a problem if absorbed through cuts or lesions.

Contamination would most likely not have occurred if parabens, a far more effective preservative, had been used. But the label could then not have declared the product to be “natural.”

And here we have a curiosity.

Compounds in the parabens family actually do occur in nature. Methylparaben can be found in blueberries and interestingly, in the secretions of the female dog where it acts as a pheromone notifying the male that its advances are welcome. But since extracting parabens from berries or canine secretions is not commercially viable, the compounds are produced synthetically. This means that even though the final product is identical to that found in nature, it cannot legally be called “natural.”

A further issue, at least in the eyes of the chemically unsophisticated, is that benzene, the starting material for the synthesis, is derived from petroleum. Thanks to activist dogma, labelling any chemical these days as “petroleum-based” is tantamount to calling it toxic.

So far, no manufacturer has tried to counter this assault by describing petroleum as an organic substance formed through the natural decomposition of biological matter by soil-dwelling microbes, but similar seductive innuendo about “natural” ingredients is not uncommon in the cosmetics industry.

Phenoxyethanol is sometimes advertised as a natural alternative to parabens because it occurs in green tea, but in fact is commercially made from petroleum-derived phenol.

Some companies tout sodium hydroxymethylglycinate as a natural preservative, basing on the fact that it is made from glycine, an amino acid abundant in the human body. But glycine has to be put through a series of synthetic modifications to produce the preservative.

The demonization of synthetic preservatives has led not only to the glorification of less-effective natural products but to a host of “preservative-free” ones as well. These should only be trusted if they come in either single-use vials, or if the sterilized contents are sealed in a container with a pump that prevents entry of microbes when it is used.

Otherwise “preservative-free” can quickly become “bacteria-filled.”


Joe Schwarcz

Safe Sunscreens But No Safe Tans

sunscreenWhen it comes to health matters, scientists rarely make statements that do not begin with “may.”  But here is one.  Excessive exposure to sunlight causes skin cancer!  There’s no “may” about it.  And here is another one.  Chemical protection can effectively reduce exposure.  Uncertainties do, however, emerge when it comes to deciding on which specific chemicals to use.  Activists claim that some sunscreens are unsafe and blame regulatory agencies for not looking after the welfare of the public while manufacturers profess that their products have been thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy.  As usual, the public is left confused.  Actually, when you blow away the superfluous blather emanating both from the alarmists and from industry, there is some simple advice to offer.  Let’s work it out.

The challenge is clear.  Find a chemical or mixture of chemicals that can be applied to the skin to reduce exposure to the full spectrum of ultraviolet light.  Then make sure these chemicals do not degrade upon exposure to light, have no topical or systemic toxicity, are minimally absorbed into the body, are resistant to water, do not have a greasy feel, are cosmetically acceptable, do not stain clothing and can be incorporated into a “vehicle” that allows for easy spreading.  Quite a list of demands.

The first commercial “sunscreens” appeared in the 1960s and were designed to filter out “UVB,” the shorter wavelengths of ultraviolet light (290-320 nanometers).  These are the rays that cause sunburn, which was the main concern at the time.  Slightly longer waves, those responsible for tanning, were deemed safe.  Finding chemicals that absorb the nasty UVB rays was not particularly difficult, with para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), octocrylene, phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid and various cinnamates and salicylates being up to the task.

Products with different concentrations of these ingredients were introduced for different skin types, each prominently featuring a “Sun Protection Factor (SPF),” basically a measure of the time it takes for skin to redden compared with having no protection.  The SPF value is determined in the laboratory by applying 2 mg of product per square centimeter to the skin of volunteers.  Using a product with an SPF of 15 means that a person who normally begins to burn in ten minutes can in theory stay in the sun for a hundred and fifty minutes before experiencing any visible effect on the skin.

It didn’t take long for this scenario to prove to be too simplistic.  As a clear link between skin cancer and UVB emerged, the focus shifted from preventing sunburn to preventing skin cancer, resulting in an industry frenzy of products with higher and higher SPF values.  In truth, an SPF of 15 already blocks 94% of UVB, only 3% less than one labeled as SPF 30.  In any case, these numbers are only meaningful if the product is applied the same way as in the lab studies, which turns out not to be the case.  Most people were applying far less than 2 mg per square centimeter and were not getting the protection they thought they were getting.  What many were getting, though, were various skin reactions.  And something else became apparent as well.  The longer wavelengths of ultraviolet light, 320-400 nm, known as UVA, previously thought to be inoccuous, were found to be more deeply penetrating than UVB and responsible for premature wrinkling and aging of the skin (“photoaging”).  Unlike UVB, they can even pass through glass.  Furthermore, UVA also was found to be potentially carcinogenic.

Now there was a need for a novel class of products that would protect the skin both from UVB and UVA.  Ideally, not one that would just absorb some wavelengths, but one that would reflect all ultraviolet light.  Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, both mineral pigments, fit the bill, but left a white residue on the skin.  That was alright for lifeguards’ noses, but not for vane sunbathers.  The search was on for cosmetically acceptable molecules capable of absorbing UVA.  Oxybenzone and avobenzone (Parsol 1789) were up to this task, but as usual, there are some “buts.”

When oxybenzone absorbs ultraviolet light it becomes energized and some of this energy is dissipated through the production of free radicals.  These are very active molecular species that have been linked to cancer.  Oxybenzone also undergoes a reaction in the presence of ultraviolet light to form a compound called a semiquinone which in turn can inactivate some of the naturally occurring antioxidants in the skin, such as reduced glutathione.  Not a good thing since antioxidants offer protection against free radicals.  And if that weren’t enough, it turns out that oxybenzone can also mimic the behaviour of estrogens, at least in fish exposed to high doses.  It has therefore been labeled a potential “endocrine disruptor.”  Concern has been raised, mostly by the Environmental Working Group, an American activist organization, because surveys have shown that ozybenzone can be found in the blood of 97% of the population.

But, and a big but it is, there is no evidence reported in the scientific literature of oxybenzone being linked to any human health problem, except for photodermatitis, a skin reaction triggered by exposure to sunlight. There are hundreds and hundreds of compounds, both natural and synthetic, that if scrutinized the same way as oxybenzone, could be linked to problems.  Phthalates, bisphenol A, soy extracts and various pesticides are estrogenic.  We live in a world full of hormone-like substances and a complete analysis of our blood would reveal hundreds of these.  All of this goes to say that the risks of oxybenzone as implied by the Environmental Working Group, I think, are overstated.

Avobenzone is cosmetically elegant, non-irritating, but becomes unstable after a couple of hours of exposure to ultraviolet light.  However, its stability is increased when combined with oxybenzone, especially if another stabilizing agent known as diethylhexyl-2,6-napthalene (DEHN) is added.  This combination, developed by Neutrogena, is known as Helioplex.  An important question arises here.  What happens to the UV energy that these chemicals absorb?  The energy has to go somewhere, might it not have a damaging effect?  DEHN takes the energy absorbed by avobenzone and transfers it to oxybenzone which then fluoresces it as harmless red light.

Another effective broad spectrum sunscreen is tetraphalydine dicamphor sulphonic acid, which goes by the trade name Mexoryl.  It is stable, absorbs UV light and dissipates the energy as harmless heat.  Mexoryl isn’t absorbed through the skin and so far there are no safety issues.  And recently, excellent products using “micronized” titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been developed which do not leave a tell-tale white residue.  Presently it is difficult to judge exactly how much protection a product affords against UVA because there is no SPF-like system has yet been devised.  But regulatory agencies are working on it.

There is one more “may” about sunscreens that has been converted to fact.  We no longer have to say that sunscreens may prevent skin cancer, we can say they do.  A study in Australia, where skin cancer is a huge concern, involved 1600 subjects who were given sunscreen to use every day for four and a half years.  They developed 40% fewer squamous cell cancers than a control group who just maintained normal skin care without being given specific instructions about the use of sunscreens.

So there it is.  Sunscreens can prevent skin cancer, which is not a rare disease.  The World Health Organization estimates 48,000 deaths a year from melanoma (likely sun related but not conclusively proven) and 12,000 from other forms of skin cancer.  What to do?

Look for a product with SPF 30 containing for avobenzone, Mexoryl, titanium oxide or zinc oxide.  Apply fifteen minutes before going out in the sun, use a shot glass full for the body and half a teaspoon for the face.  Reapply frequently.  Forget terms like “waterproof,” “all day protection” and “sweatproof.”  They’re meaningless.  And if you are buying something that is “chemical-free,” you are not getting a good deal because you’re buying a vacuum.  Sunscreens should not be used to prolong sun but rather to protect the skin when exposure is unavoidable.  Above all, remember that unfortunately there is no such thing as a healthy tan.


Joe Schwarcz


phytoceramide“As seen on the Dr. Oz Show” is a claim that is guaranteed to boost sales for any product. Like the “phytoceramides” glorified by a couple of plastic surgeons on the show. Incorporated into dietary supplements, these plant derived chemicals are supposed to rejuvenate the skin. There’s no magic pill, Dr. Leif Rogers commented, but “this is pretty close.” And after Dr. Oz wondered “why we haven’t used this earlier,” marketers went to work and quickly filled websites with advertisements about how you can “fake a facelift” with phytoceramides. As is often the case, some websites bleated about Dr. Oz’s “phytoceramide scam,” a common ploy to attract an audience to their site which claims that the product shown on the Oz Show is not as good as the “authentic one” that they are selling.

Perhaps the most impactive statement on the show was Dr. Rogers’ claim that phytoceramides had recently been approved by the FDA. This is totally misleading. In the U.S. dietary supplements do not need premarket approval by the FDA, all that is required is a “Dietary Ingredient Notification” describing what is in the product and why it is believed to be safe. That was not a problem in this case because not only do ceramides occur naturally in our skin, they also can be found in a variety of foods that include dairy products, eggs, soybeans, rice, millet, spinach and wheat. The term “phyto” means plant, so “phytoceramides” are ceramides found in plants.

Ceramides are a class of compounds, along with fatty acids, proteins and cholesterol found in the skin’s outer layer, that help retain moisture. By plumping up the skin, moisture can reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Topical ceramides have long been incorporated into moisturizing creams with positive effects but there are all sorts of substances that can be smeared on the skin to prevent moisture loss, ranging from Vaseline and Crisco to snail extracts. They all work in terms of retaining moisture, but the feel on the skin can be very different. The phytoceramide pills seek to circumvent the problem of finding the right topical moisturizer by delivering the ceramides into the skin directly from blood vessels.

Some studies have indeed shown that such delivery is possible but of course the critical question is whether taking phytoceramide supplements has a noticeable effect. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and pictures on the web that show spectacular changes but of course it isn’t hard to fake photos. Then there are claims of celebrities using the product, ranging from Ellen DeGeneres to Jennifer Aniston. We are told that they are not allowed to speak about their use pf phytoceramides because they have contracts with other cosmetic companies. Well, if that is the case, how would anyone know they use phytoceramides?

It is possible that these pills may have an effect, however it is doubtful it would be “near magical.” No surprise that Dr. Rogers uses that expression, given that he sells his own brand of phytoceramides, along with a host of other cosmetics., something that was not mentioned on the Oz Show. Dr. Rogers’ did manage to milk his appearance by prominently featuring “as seen on the Dr. Oz Show” on his website where he also promotes the product she sells. Highly unethical to say the least.

 Joe Schwarcz

Making it up

minkSeveral people have sent me this video of a Harvard student “inventing” a 3-D printer that cranks out cosmetics at home. She starts out by telling us that the cosmetics industry, a $55 billion annual business, is bulls–t. Well there is a lot of BS in that industry, selling hype and hope for lots of bucks. That’s true. But there is a lot of interesting and important chemistry there as well when it comes to the formulation of the various products.

Now, talking about bulls–t, that’s just what this video is. Her idea is to use some type of 3-D printer to make a little cake of pigments. That is, in theory at least, possible because what these printers do is lay down substances layer by layer so you could create different colours by dispensing different pigments. In the video she shows such a cake of pigment being produced…well..not exactly. We see her lifting it out of the contraption but we do not see it actually being produced. I think it is contrived. It would be very difficult to keep the nozzles clean and to mix the pigments just right. But not outside the realm of possibility. Then she goes on to claim that the machine will also be able to produce lipstick, creams and various other cosmetics. This girl has no idea of cosmetic production. She seems to think that it is just a question of mixing some pigments into what she calls “raw material.” I don’t think the notion of bacterial contamination has ever crossed her mind.

When she is queried about how the pigments are combined with the raw material, she opines that “this is where the bulls–t comes in,” suggesting that cosmetics manufacturers just take the pigments and do a little “hocus pocus” to mix it with the “raw material” and then charge an arm and a leg. Well, that mixing is the crux of cosmetic manufacture. This is where particle size, emulsifiers, temperature gradients and mixing speed come into play. There’s much more to lipstick than mixing pigments with “raw material.”

This video activated my bulls–t detector, big time. Let’s see a working model rather than hear chirping about how easy it is to print out any type of cosmetic. And I would like to hear how bacterial contamination is going to be prevented. Will the preservative be printed out too?



Joe Schwarcz

You Asked: Should we worry about plastic pollution?

plastic pollution in oceanPlastics are the fabric of modern life. They’re in our cars, our planes, our kitchens, our electronics, our furniture, our bottles, our packaging, our floors and our medical equipment. We are using more and more plastics and unfortunately also discarding more and more. And that’s a problem. Plastic debris is commonly sighted on the landscape and is accumulating in marine habitats. A recent study revealed that plastics make up 50-80% of shoreline debris and accumulate in certain areas of the oceans. There is already a huge plastic wastedump in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Besides being an eyesore, plastic debris poses a danger for wildlife. Marine mammals can become entangled in plastic bags or six-pack holders, and even worse, ingestion can cause death by blocking the digestive tract or by causing the animal to starve due to false satiation. Then there is the problem of potentially toxic compounds such as phthalates or bisphenol A leaching out of plastics. Because some of these chemicals are fat-soluble, they accumulate in adipose tissue of fish. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, we may possibly be exposed to physiologically meaningful amounts, although so far there is no evidence of any harm to people.

Some people believe that switching to bioplastics may be the key to reducing plastic pollutants in the environment. The term ‘bioplastic’ refers to materials made from natural sources such as corn. The common assumption is that these are biodegradable, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It is true that under suitable conditions bioplastics can be degraded by microbes, but this doesn’t happen in landfills where many plastics end up, and even elsewhere the biodegradation is very slow. Then there is the issue of “microplastics,” tiny particles found in many consumer products. They are usually used as abrasives and exfoliants in facial scrubs, shampoos, toothpaste, eyeliner, lipgloss, deodorants and soaps. Due to their miniscule size, these particles typically escape removal at sewage treatment facilities after being washed down the drain and can end up being consumed by animals. As a result, companies are being pressured to end the use of microplastics and switch to other natural alternatives like apricot shells and cocoa beans. Plastics are an integral and irreplaceable part of our lives but we need to take better care with how they are used. One way is to place more emphasis on recycling. So, don’t neglect your blue box. Feed it regularly.


Dr. Joe Schwarcz & Alexandra Pires-Ménard

Comaneci’s cosmetics claims are a bit of a stretch

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.44.57 PMSome memories remain indelibly etched in one’s mind. Like cheering in the Montreal Forum during the 1976 Olympics as Nadia Comaneci earned the first-ever perfect score in gymnastics. The total of seven perfect 10s she would eventually receive allowed her to rival Count Dracula as Romania’s most famous citizen. It also catapulted Nadia into several careers, including being a spokesperson for a line of cosmetics produced by the Gerovital Company.

“CosmeSilk Sericin Q Complex” promises to preserve youth with sericin, “a unique biopolymer with a unique structure leading to unique performance.” It’s a string of uniquely meaningless terms. As for the name Gerovital, it undoubtedly rings a bell with European immigrants, particularly Romanians. For it was back in the 1950s that Romanian gerontologist Dr. Ana Aslan introduced a potion that became famous around the world as a “fountain of youth in an ampoule.”

Aslan was a good friend of Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s notorious dictator, who was keen to present a youthful and vigorous image of himself, and who supposedly charged Aslan with devising a remedy to turn back the clock. Dr. Aslan, who passed away in 1988 at the very respectable age of 91, got on the track of Gerovital after hearing accounts from physicians about alleviation of arthritis symptoms and improved skin elasticity in patients who had been administered the local anesthetic procaine hydrochloride.

Aslan herself carried out trials, which she claimed showed the drug increased longevity in rodents. Although others were unable to duplicate these results, Gerovital managed to develop a “jet-set” aura, apparently snaring celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Kirk Douglas, JFK and Nikita Khrushchev. Procaine may well have been the only thing the latter two ever had in common.

Much of the satisfaction with Gerovital was undoubtedly due to the placebo effect, but it seems the drug may have some pharmaceutical properties other than inducing anesthesia. Researchers agree that procaine hydrochloride is a weak monoamine oxidase inhibitor. In other words, it acts as a mild antidepressant, which would appear to explain the feeling of well-being claimed by its proponents.

One of the breakdown products of Gerovital in the body is diethylaminoethanol, a compound that has antioxidant properties. Such substances may indeed reduce damage to tissues caused by free radicals, but procaine is not innocuous, sometimes causing allergic reactions and migraines. There is insufficient evidence to warrant the use of Gerovital to counter the aging process, and its sale in North America is illegal. The company has, however, come up with various cosmetics that ride the coattails of Gerovital’s dubious fame and promise a range of anti-aging effects.

“Gerovital Anti-Aging Super Enzyme” cream has over 50 ingredients including “superoxide dismutase” (SOD). This enzyme is found in human cells where it plays a vital role in neutralizing superoxide, a potentially cell-damaging free radical generated by normal metabolic processes. SOD may indeed prevent skin damage when it is synthesized inside cells, but there is no evidence that it can be absorbed to any significant extent when applied topically. Given that it is third from the end on the list of ingredients, SOD is unlikely to contribute anything other than an opportunity for advertisers to tout the wonders of “bio-mimetic” ingredients and “long term anti-aging effects.”

The cosmetics industry has often been castigated for such “inventive” marketing, but the industry also features some very inventive science. Strangely, though, there is an interesting wrinkle here. Substantiating a claim of skin rejuvenation would require a demonstration of structural changes in the skin and a permanent elimination of wrinkles. But that would also mean the product would be classified as a drug rather than a cosmetic, and would therefore require a prescription.

This is the case for creams containing retinoic acid, a compound that has been shown in properly conducted scientific trials to improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin and to stimulate the growth of collagen, the protein responsible for the skin’s elasticity and firmness. The challenge then for cosmetic manufacturers is to develop products that can be scientifically shown to improve the appearance of the skin without causing significant changes in its structure. A temporary ironing out the wrinkles, as it were.

Special instruments originally designed to test the smoothness of race-car tracks are now available to measure the depth of wrinkles. The fact is that all moisturizers reduce wrinkle depth to some degree by puffing up the skin as they are absorbed, but cosmetic chemists are in a constant search for ingredients that enhance this effect. Palmitoyl pentapeptide, acetyl hexapeptide-3, hyaluronic acid, furfuryladenine and a host of other compounds all claim to erase fine lines and mask blemishes. And companies do provide evidence to back up the claims with photomicrographs of skin cells and close-up pictures of improved “crow’s feet.” Interesting academically to be sure, but the question is whether an objective observer will note an improvement. Mirrors don’t lie, but the reflection seems to reflect the amount of money spent on a product.

With the current concern about “chemicals,” producers are looking toward “natural” alternatives. “Stemlastin” is described as “an extract of a particular red algae found living in extreme conditions in volcanoes in Indonesia produced in a natural, eco-friendly way, using a photo bio-reactor that delivers a special intra-cellular composition of extremolytes like mineral nutrients, amino acids and algae polyphenols.” I have no idea what some algae’s ability to survive in volcanoes has to do with wrinkles, but the impressive-sounding hype could well erupt into hot sales.

Neither is it clear why the gummy coating on the fibres produced by the silkworm should “restore skin tonicity and firmness,” as claimed by Nadia Comaneci Skincare’s “Blossom” concoction. I remain unimpressed by the claim that “the Empresses of China and Japan used it for centuries to stretch their youth.”

I think what is being stretched is the truth.

I have no doubt about the product’s moisturizing effect, something that is in the realm of any protein preparation. But I do wish that Nadia’s talent on the balance beam had translated into a better ability to balance hype and science in her line of cosmetics. Still, because of the thrill she gave me and others in 1976, I’ll forgive this little wrinkle in her career.


Joe Schwarcz

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