Cosmetics: A Long Tradition of Ignoring Common Sense

How old is the complicity between cosmetic companies and the press? Very old. Take a look at an excerpt from this article titled “The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England.”



“Glass and tin bottles hide snug in a case, waiting for a woman’s daily ritual. She reaches for a bottle of ammonia and washes it over her face, careful to replace the delicate glass stopper. Next, she dips her fingertips into the creams and powders of her toilet table, gravitating toward a bright white paint, filled with lead, which she delicately paints over her features. It’s important to avoid smiling; the paint will set, and any emotion will make it unattractively crack.”


YIKES! The article goes on to explain how women would nibble on arsenic wafers to get a very pale skin tone and acheive a “near death” look. This may seem crazy to us now, but it was all the rage less than two centuries ago. Don’t think for a moment that this type of marketing is isolated to the cosmetics industry. Chocolate lovers were tricked in the same way that many skin care buyers have been again and again. Slick marketing from Mast Brothers Chocolate (see articles HERE) set out to trick consumers into thinking the company was providing something rare and costly. They were simply remelting other companies’ chocolate and saying they were “bean-to-bar” chocolatiers. It is true that liars are eventually caught, but in the meantime they make lots of money at the expense of good people, and they leave everyone with the sour taste of feeling cheated.

What to do? How do you protect yourself from these marketing tactics? Simply put, do not trust the magazines or newspapers that depend on advertising for their livelihood! They can’t bite the hand that feeds them…

Who can you trust, then? Skin Actives, for sure.

Beauty brands don’t even bother any more with “genesis stories”. Now they just go for a good name and a photogenic owner. The new brand Pestle & Mortar is selling a Pure Hyaluronic Serum for $69 per ounce (30 ml) with a nice free advertisement in New York Times, the same newspaper that brought you Freeze 24/7.

Instead of falling into the trap, get SAS’ Dermagen at $30 for 4 fluid ounces and you get peptides included in the deal; and feel free to make fun of the people who bought into the gimmick.

-Dr. Hannah Sivak

Nanotechnology in Skin Care

The year was 2000. They told us that nanotechnology is great and that it is the “decade of nanotechnology”. Then they tried to sell us stuff by using the word “nano”.

Ten years later, Robin Cook wrote a medical thriller titled “Nano”.

Soon after, some people began to say that nanotechnology is bad. They ask for money to fund “non-profits” to put pressure on Congress so that everything nano can be banned.

What is nano? You probably learned about this term in high school, when studying the metric system. The nanometer is one thousandth of a micrometer, which is one thousandth of a millimeter, etc.

How small is a nanometer?  Below is a (logarithmic) scale showing where the atom is compared to a giant sequoia.



Where will you encounter the terms nanotechnology or nanoparticles in skin care? In marketing. These are used as scientific-sounding terms to convey extra penetration of ingredients into the skin. In these cases, just ignore the words completely. It was introduced into the advertising world by marketing departments. You need to check the ingredient list, or ask about the ingredients in the SAS forum.

  Continue reading

Fatty Acids

What is a fatty acid?

A fatty acid (example: palmitic acid) has a carboxylic acid attached to a long hydrocarbon chain.

Why are fatty acids so important?

Fatty acids are used as a major source of energy during metabolism and as a starting point for the synthesis of phospholipids, the main category of lipid molecules used to construct biological membranes (generally composed of two fatty acids linked through glycerol phosphate to one of a variety of polar groups).

Why are the differences in chemical structure so important?

The chemical structure makes the function possible.  Stearic acid cannot do what linoleic acid can.

Fatty acids can differ in

  1. number of carbon in the chain,
  2. number and carbon position of the double (unsaturated) bond (the ω refers to the position of the double bond relative to the #1 carbon in the chain)
  3. configuration of the unsaturated bond (cis vs. trans). A “cis” bond bends the chain in space and is very important for the fluidity of cell membranes.

Note: “trans” bonds are not usually found in nature but in synthetic, hydrogenated fats. (whose idea was to hydrogenate vegetable oils to make margarine? And who decided that they were healthier than butter?)

What is an essential fatty acid?

It is a fatty acids that humans and other animals must ingest because the body requires them for good health but cannot synthesize them. Why not? We don’t have the enzymes (desaturases 12 and 15) required to synthesize them from the saturated fatty acid stearic acid.

Only two fatty acids are known to be essential for humans: alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid).

Some other fatty acids are sometimes classified as “conditionally essential,” meaning that they can become essential under some developmental or disease conditions; examples include docosahexaenoic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and gamma-linolenic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid).  At SAS we use a variety of plant and algae fatty acids to ensure that our skin has a good supply of both essential and conditional essential fatty acids.

Figure: linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid abundant in pitaya oil. Note the position of the double bonds relative to the omega Carbon 1 in red).

Figure: linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid abundant in pitaya oil. Note the position of the double bonds relative to the omega Carbon 1 in red).






What is the role of fatty acids in our skin?

Cell membranes are crucial to health. Deficiency in essential fatty acids shows as dermatitis.

Fatty acids in general are central to the use of energy in the skin, required to make new skin and maintain function and health.

DIY Vitamin C Serum

There are many DIY vitamin C options. You can take some suggestions from the ascorbic acid usage page for a simple solution, search the forum for tons of different recipes, or try out this recipe below from Dr. Sivak.

DIY vitamin C serum with ascorbic acid, ferulic acid, and phloretin

15% approx.

tsp: teaspoon. All measurements are approximate, unless you have a laboratory scale and can measure grams and milligrams. Use level teaspoons, NOT full teaspoons.

1 tsp (5 g) ascorbic acid
1 tsp Sea Kelp Coral
1 tsp rosehip oil
3 tsp (15 gm) distilled water
1/8 tsp ferulic acid
1/8 tsp phloretin
1/4 tsp Antioxidant Booster
1/4 tsp vodka or pure ethanol (NOT denatured)
1/2 tsp Hyaluronic acid

Use 2 small glasses.

Glass with phase 1 (water)

Put ascorbic acid in glass, add water, stir frequently and let it fully dissolve. If not completely dissolved after 10 min, add a hint more of water.

Glass with phase 2 (alcohol and oils suspension)

While you are waiting for the ascorbic acid to dissolve, you can proceed with the rest. Put the ferulic acid in the 2nd glass, pour the vodka in and stir. Now add the Sea Kelp Coral. Add the Antioxidant Booster and rosehip oil and stir.

When the ascorbic acid has fully dissolved, mix the contents of both glasses together and stir well.

This is not a real solution but a suspension, so mix well before every use.

Finally, add the hyaluronic acid to thicken the mix.

Discard if color changes to brown (this will indicate that ascorbic acid has oxidized).

Babies and Children

Just like we associate certain food smells and tastes with childhood and nostalgia, fragrances from baby products trigger those same feelings. This is why, despite the fact that fragrances in baby creams, shampoos and diapers are unnecessary, they still “sell” and you will find them in most products.

Dr. Sivak's granddaughter Bee

Dr. Sivak’s granddaughter Bee

In most cases, these fragrances are okay. However, the fact remains that we do not know enough about allergies to tell us what can be used without risk of causing long term eczema and contact dermatitis. It seems that even the companies that manufacture these products don’t know enough, and this is bad.

The most offensive example I have found is Boudreaux’s Butt Paste. The name (butt paste) tells you that it is plain and simple, the smell is sweet and homey. The ingredient list is short and to the point:

Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 16% (skin protectant)
Inactive Ingredients: Castor oil, mineral oil, paraffin, Peruvian balsam, petrolatum

What’s wrong with this list? Peruvian balsam is an inexpensive fragrance additive that is known to be allergenic.

Read the following excerpt from Wikipedia: “A number of surveys have identified Balsam of Peru as being in the ‘top five’ allergens most commonly causing patch test reactions in people referred to dermatology clinics. It may cause inflammation, redness, swelling, soreness, itching, and blisters, including allergic contact dermatitis, stomatitis (inflammation and soreness of the mouth or tongue), cheilitis (inflammation, rash, or painful erosion of the lips, oropharyngeal mucosa, or angles of their mouth), pruritis, hand eczema, generalized or resistant plantar dermatitis, rhinitis, and conjunctivitis.”

Remember that you don’t know enough about the immune system of your child. If there are “allergy genes” in the family you must be extra careful. In general, occlusion by the diaper can raise the potential for contact dermatitis from topical skin care products because it increases penetration of potential allergens.

In short, the marketing tactics of the diaper and diaper cream companies are harmless for maybe 90% of the baby population, but hurtful to the remaining 10%.

I think 10% is too much, especially when the whole of my family is included!

At Skin Actives, we have no products dedicated to babies and children, but at home I use Dream Cream, Rosehip Seed Oil and Every Lipid Serum. Even Dream Cream (no fragrance at all) can be too much when eczema is flaring up, but ELS and Rosehip Oil can be used at any time.

Instead of a perfumed diaper rash cream, use petrolatum, which will replace the natural skin barrier when it is damaged by diaper rash. Don’t play with fragrances, especially when they come with explicit allergy inducing credentials!

-Dr. Hannah Sivak

Are Your Lips Surviving Winter?

Why do you need anything? Aren’t your lips just like your skin? Not really. The skin of the lips, with their three to five cellular layers, is very thin compared to typical face skin, which has up to 16 layers.

The lip skin does not have sweat glands or hair, so it does not have the usual protective layer of sweat and body oils which keep the skin smooth and somewhat protected. For these reasons, the lips dry out faster and become chapped more easily.dry-lips

And why the color? In people with light skin color, the lip skin contains fewer melanocytes (cells whichproduce melanin which give skin its color). The blood vessels can be seen through the skin of the lips, which makes them look pink/red, and the resistance to UV provided by the melanin will not be there to protect them. Continue reading

Special – Free with orders of $50 or $150

January/February Bonus: Earl Grey Soft Lip Balm
or Healthy Lip Duo

For our January through February bonus we are featuring a new soft lip balm prototype that we hope to eventually bring on full time.

Orders over $150 – Healthy Lips Duo- 10mL Earl Grey Soft Lip Balm & 10mL Lip Collagen Serum

Orders over $50 – 10mL Earl Grey Soft Lip Balm

SOFT LIP BALM INGREDIENTS: C10-30 Cholesterol/Lanosterol Esters, Prunus Armeniaca (Apricot) Kernel Oil, Polyglycerol – 3 Beeswax,  Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Oil, Cholesteryl Oleyl Carbonate, Cholesteryl Nonanoate, Cholesteryl Chloride, BHT, Lecithin, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Ceramide – 3, Punica Granatum (Pomegranate) Seed Oil, Tocotrienols, Tocopherol (Alpha-D-Tocopherol, Vitamin E), Astaxanthin, Lycopene, Xanthophyll (Lutein), Alpha Lipoic Acid [R-(+)-], Beta Carotene, Petrolatum, Flavor.

Please note: Bonus products are added automatically. No code is required, and they will not show in the shopping cart.

The Concept of Limiting Factors and it’s Application to Skin Care



Concentration A is carbon dioxide. B is light intensity


The graph above describes most biological processes that depend on the supply of nutrients or substrates. I first encountered it as a student of photosynthesis, trying to understand how the effect of light intensity and the concentration of carbon dioxide affected the rate of photosynthesis of a leaf or an alga. In this graph, “A” would have been carbon dioxide and “B” light intensity. You can keep increasing carbon dioxide concentration but then you reach a plateau. At that point, more carbon dioxide will not change the rate of the process, you will have to increase light intensity.

Let’s use the graph to describe, for example, the division of skin cells, a process we want to promote in our aging skin.

Do the cells need glucose? OK, let’s give them glucose and division rate should increase…. but only up to a point, because when the cells have enough glucose, the division rate will stop increasing. Maybe what they need at this point is an amino acid, say, proline? Let’s add it. Division rate will increase but not “forever,” not proportionally to the addition of proline because as soon as there is enough proline, another nutrient will become “limiting.”

If you look at skin from this point of view, and we should because the skin is a biological system that responds in this way to the addition of nutrients, then the “magic ingredient” approach of most skin care companies looks like nonsense (and it is nonsense.)  Even assuming that the kin of all the clients will be in need of the same nutrient, be it an amino acid, a sugar, a vitamin, whatever, it should be apparent that there is a certain amount of that ingredient that will benefit the skin and then something else, not the ingredient advertised as magic, will be required.

This is why SAS ingredient lists are so complex. For example, our Hair Care Serum contains Keratinocyte Growth Factor, a powerful growth factor that will signal the keratinocytes in the scalp that they should multiply and produce hair. In addition, you also need to provide the keratinocytes with the resources to do this job. This is where amino acids, sugars, vitamins and more are required, and so we provide them.

The complexity of biological processes is another reason why we focus each of our products on a particular problem or issue. But we also need to be attentive to the whole of the skin’s biology. What’s the point of killing acne bacteria with powerful oxidants when those oxidants will accelerate skin aging? Instead, we look at the whole picture and aim for long term results.

At Skin Actives we don’t follow the marketing myth machines by using the “ingredient of the month.”  We only use actives that are proven to be effective in published scientific studies.


Dr. Hannah Sivak


How things should be done… the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2015 by Dr. Hannah Sivak

I was recently made aware of yet another new “miracle” cure for hair loss. A molecule of unknown structure, with two trade names, unknown side effects and vague benefits, being used by L’Oreal to make money off of people desperate to stop hair loss that have never heard of our Hair Care Serum. It’s just one more example of the industry appropriating scientific sounding language to sell products of doubtful efficacy.

It is nice when science is done properly and results in the discovery of remedies that improve the lives of millions by ending nasty parasitic illnesses. It is even better when the scientists who do such good work get recognized with the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015.

Plants and microbes manufacture very complicated chemicals, designed to keep the enemies of the organism under control. Sometimes, one of the chemicals happens to keep a human enemy away too. You need the human persistence of scientists to find those special chemicals.

The two inventions/discoveries mentioned in the Nobel Prize awards are Artemisin and Avemectin.

Avemectin is an earlier version of Ivemectin, a medicine that has practically eradicated river blindness and reduced the incidence of filariasis, parasitic infections caused by roundworm. Dr. Omura applied what the Nobel Committee said were “extraordinary skills in developing unique methods” for scientifically characterizing natural products in Streptomyces bacteria found in soil (related bacteria have yielded antibiotics like streptomycin). After obtaining cultures from Dr. Omura, Dr. Campbell documented one that yielded a substance effective against parasites in domestic and farm animals. He named the purified substance Avermectin. Further chemical tests produced Ivermectin that killed parasites in infected humans. The collective work of Drs Omura and Campbell produced a new class of powerful anti-parasitic drugs.


Figure: Artemisia annua


Dr. Tu was inspired by Chinese traditional medicine in discovering Artemisinin, a drug that is now part of standard anti-malarial regimens and that has reduced death rates from the disease. Dr. Tu screened many herbal remedies on malaria-infected animals and extracted a promising agent from Artemisia annua. Because of inconsistencies in test results, she turned to ancient texts and discovered clues to identify and extract the active component of the Artemisia herb. The proposed mechansim of action of artemisinin involves cleavage of endoperoxide bridges by iron, producing free radicals which damage biological macromolecules causing oxidative stress in the cells of the parasite, Plasmodium falciparum.

I find this year’s Nobel prizes for Medicine a reason to celebrate. Real, serious science done for the benefit of humanity.
We at Skin Actives love science… The real thing, like when using chemistry to look at plants used in old folk remedies in search of molecules that will improve life.

Dr. Hannah Sivak


Dragon’s Blood: Is the Risk Worth the Hype?



Figure. “Sangre de Drago” by natikka


Let’s discuss Sangre de Drago, Dragon’s Blood, because it sounds so very exciting.

Exciting, yes. But would we use this plant product in SAS produts? No.

Why? Dragon’s blood, the red latex obtained by wounding the trunk of Croton lechleri, is an almost perfect active for a skin care product. It has some attractive properties, a fantastic name and a nice story. This red latex can be used in an emergency as a liquid bandage: apply to an open wound, and it will help stop bleeding and prevent infection. Sangre de Drago (what a beautiful name!) is used by indigenous cultures of the Amazonian basin for it’s wound healing properties.

So, what is in there NOT to like? Plants, in the Amazon or anywhere else, are not there for our benefit. The chemicals they make are either essential to their own metabolism or used to defend themselves from stress, viruses or some other external aggressor. Plus, humans are among the external aggressors plants need defending from.

Don’t be surprised if a chemical present in a plant causes itching, or blisters, or male sterility. Don’t be offended, it is not personal. In the case of Dragon’s blood, I would definitely try it if I cut my finger in the middle of the Amazonian jungle and there was nobody with a bandage nearby. But apply it to my skin every night? No.

Some chemicals in this plant are cytotoxic (toxic to cells). Cytotoxic is not always bad, sometimes you want to kill cells like in cancer. It is worth taking a risk when trying to medicate a serious problem, like some life threatening complications of AIDS (one of the uses of Dragon’s blood). But if your objective is to rejuvenate your skin, go for the proven and safe actives: look at our collagen serum actives, for example, and don’t apply cytotoxic agents to skin that has already suffered innumerable mutations as a result of sun damage.

There are some nice antioxidants in this latex (flavan-ols), and maybe with time it will be possible to purify the beneficial chemicals. Perhaps then you will see Dragon’s Blood in SAS products.


Reference: Lopes, M; Saffi, J; Echeverrigaray, S; Henriques, J; Salvador, M (2004) Mutagenic and antioxidant activities of Croton lechleri sap in biological systems. J Ethnopharmacology. 95: 437-445.