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.

Cranberry Vitamin C Serum

If you enjoyed our bonus Cranberry Vitamin C Serum, here is a similar recipe you can make yourself. This recipe is a 1:1:1 ratio of water, Sea Kelp Coral, and Dermagen with 15% ascorbic acid. The amounts below are for 1 oz (30 ml) of serum. Please do not make large batches of this serum as it has a stability of only about 3 months.

10 ml   Distilled Water
10 g     Sea Kelp Coral
10 ml   Dermagen
4.5 g    Ascorbic Acid

*To make it easier to incorporate, add the ascorbic acid powder to the Sea Kelp Coral before mixing the Sea Kelp Coral, Dermagen, and water together.

Apply a thin layer of serum to clean skin once or twice weekly.

Pullulan Nose Mask

For those of you that enjoyed our bonus Pullulan Nose Mask, here is a recipe for you to make a similar product yourself. The recipe below is for 1 oz (30 ml) of the mask. If you would like to adjust the size of this recipe, it should be 25% pullulan in water. The sodium PCA is optional but it will add moisture to the formula.

30 ml   Distilled water
7.5 g    Pullulan
0.5 ml  Sodium PCA (optional)
0.3 ml  Germaben II (preservative)

*Add the preservative and sodium PCA to the distilled water and mix before adding the pullulan powder.
*Allow the pullulan to sit in the water overnight. The next day stir the product and you should have a thick mask.

Apply a thin layer to skin and let dry. Apply a second, thicker layer to skin and allow to dry fully (30-60 minutes depending on humidity). Once dry, pull the mask off and rinse off any remaining mask left on skin.

Skin Actives FAQs for Beginners

Skin Actives FAQs for Beginners







How to layer products

After a shower or bath, the skin will be more permeable to water soluble actives. Take advantage of this by using water-based serums first. Then you can layer oil-based serums or creams on top.

Exfoliators (acidic like Alpha/Beta, protease-based like Pumpkin Enzyme or physical like Exfoliation Set) will increase skin permeability, so take advantage of this and apply Collagen Serum immediately after exfoliation.

Don’t mix serums together in the same bottle, they are O.K. as they are. Some cannot be mixed, like water-based (Antioxidant Serum) and oil-based (ELS) serums. Some will allow for mixing but the actives in the mix will interact with each other and decrease benefits.

Which actives should not be used together

There are not many rules here.

-Be nice to proteins (like Epidermal Growth Factor, Keratinocyte Growth Factor and SOD,) by keeping them cold (NOT frozen) and not mixing them with acid solutions. For example, rinse your skin well after using the Alpha/Beta Exfoliator, one of the few acidic products we sell.

-There is a theoretical point about Vitamin C derivatives and metals like copper and iron, so don’t add Copper Peptide to Antioxidant Serum.

General shelf life of products and refrigeration needs

Please keep all serums and creams that contain proteins refrigerated. Proteins are more stable when refrigerated, NOT frozen. For serums and creams, 6 months is a good estimate of shelf life. They are shipped to you very fresh, so you can count the 6 months from receipt. Remember that a cream will not work unless it is applied to the skin, so don’t just buy SAS products, USE them!

Powder actives are fine in a cool, dark place with the tubes closed. Some actives (like L-Carnitine) will absorb moisture more readily, so it is important that they are kept well closed. Most powder actives will last for years.

What are preservatives?

Nobody likes to use preservatives. They don’t help your skin or make you younger, but preservatives prevent the growth of bacteria and mold in skin care products. Even when you start with a perfectly clean product, spores and nasty bugs capable of causing very dangerous infections are floating in the air. They could grow in the product unless the correct preservative or mixture of preservatives is included.

Clients ask me why we at SAS use preservatives in our products. My answer is that preservatives give me the peace of mind I need, because I know that our products will not cause a skin or eye infection.

There has been a lot of bad press about parabens, and I feel pressed to come in their defense. Why? The arguments against parabens are bogus when the “evidence” is examined. Parabens have some estrogenic activity, but so do thousands of chemicals which we consume daily in our food. For example: Soy-based products. What really matters is how strong the estrogenic activity is. The strength in this case is measured by the concentration of the putative analog (in this case, parabens) required to displace the natural ligand, in this case estrogen. If you need very high concentrations of the estrogen-like chemical to dislodge the estrogen from the receptor, then the activity is very low and unlikely to be of significance in real life. This is what happens with parabens: they have very low affinity for the estrogen receptor.

Parabens have a long record of safety. They are non-allergenic and effective at very low concentrations. Plus, they don’t contribute a smell to the finished product. Smell is one of the problems associated with natural preservatives that contain a mixture of extracts from oregano, rosemary, etc. The smell can be overpowering (at least to my nose), plus several of the extracts are allergenic. In the words of Dennis Sasseville “The history of preservatives goes back to the 1930s, and ironically, the parabens, which the industry has sought to replace with “safer” alternatives, are still the most frequently used biocides in cosmetics and appear to be far less sensitizing than most of the newer agents.”

People who do like parabens may eventually lose the “media war,” as more people are convinced to avoid parabens. In this case, the general public suffers, because there are no good substitutes for parabens that will work for all products. The result will be new preservatives coming to the market too early without enough testing because preservatives are essential to keeping skin care products safe. Then, in one or two decades, we may start seeing side effects from preservatives that were adopted too soon.

It is worth mentioning that preservatives are just part of the equation. It is important to start with a clean product, i.e. to limit the bacterial and fungal presence as much as possible. It has been shown that the concentration of parabens required to inhibit fungal growth depends on the initial concentration of the organisms. In short, if you are planning to make a serum, please work in a clean environment. Disinfect everything you will be using with rubbing alcohol. Let it air dry, do not blow on the utensils! Then add the preservative at the time of preparation, NOT as an afterthought one week after making the serum.

Organic, natural, synthetic

Scientists learn to use words carefully. Marketing people tend to use words carelessly. This  doesn’t matter unless you dislike paying too much for a product or don’t want to be “taken for a fool.” I don’t like to be taken, fooled, or pay too much for anything.

A client wrote to me asking how to use our Sea Kelp Coral (one of our best-selling products) with an organic cleanser she bought elsewhere. She prefers using organic products. Here is the ingredient list she sent me: “Water, shea butter, succinic acid derivatives, karite tree fruit extract, laurel berry derivatives, coconut methyl glycol, essential oils, beta glucosamine, beta fructan, amino guanidine.”

Sounds good, especially the laurel berry and the coconut. Except that there is no such thing as laurel berry derivative in the INCI. (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) The “laurel berry derivative” is probably sodium lauryl sulfate, a detergent that people don’t like to see in the label because it is a known irritant. Unfortunately, it is the best ingredient when it comes to giving you bubbles for very little money and manufacturers love it. This is an example of the “organic” label being used by people who have no problem lying.

Organic conveys a meaning of wholesomeness. When used for food, it means that the crop has been grown without adding synthetic fertilizers and that no pesticides have been used. The FDA has some rules about how to use the word “organic” for food products, but when it comes to cosmetics there are no rules. Therefore, many irresponsible companies will take advantage of the consumer (no rules means no punishment.) My advice: whenever you see the word “organic” in a skin or hair care product, look at the ingredient list and make sure you know how to read it. (See my article How to Read an Ingredient List)

What is “natural?” My own definition: natural is something that has been taken directly from nature and has not been modified chemically.  Why is “natural” a marketing word? It sounds good, but in reality there is nothing that makes a natural chemical better than a synthetic one. In other words: a chemical is not defined by how it was obtained but by how the atoms are arranged in the molecule. There is no way to differentiate between a synthetic and a natural chemical. Moreover, whatever the feeling the word natural conveys, natural can be bad… Just think “poison ivy.”

If you are faced with a product that is advertising “all natural,” read its ingredient list. Most manufacturers use synthetic chemicals that have been optimized for use in cosmetics after many decades of testing. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as customers are not lied to.

Some manufacturers don’t even know that they are using synthetic chemicals. For example, most botanical extracts used in the industry are made using hydroglycolic solvent: water plus propylene glycol, and includes synthetic preservatives. By ignoring this fact, the manufacturer can list a “liquorice extract” and make you think you are using a natural product when in fact the extract has little liquorice in it and contains synthetic chemicals.

We at Skin Actives Scientific use many natural products, and many of them are organic. But we do not want to reinforce the idea (wrong, in our view) that natural is good and synthetic is wrong, so we don’t emphasize the origin of the chemical.

What about DMAE?

DMAE “firms” the skin, and it is one of the few “plumping” actives. I am having trouble remembering any others, except for our own Celestite Spritz. Because plumping is so effective in hiding wrinkles, DMAE has become very popular. It has also been used for decades without any problem. The problem I have with DMAE is that it’s mechanism of action is unknown, that exposes DMAE to claims from people who say DMAE is bad for you. There have been a couple of such scientific papers, and the quality of that research is so bad (yes, there is such a thing as bad quality scientific research) that no conclusions can be extracted from the results. That’s why I tell our clients to use DMAE for short term “plumping” only and make up the rest using actives that are better known.


How to Read an Ingredient List

Labels 101 How to read an Ingredient list







Don’t panic! A first look at an ingredient list.


The ingredient lists on the labels of skin care products look, at first sight, practically undecipherable. However, it is possible to understand what is in that product if you try hard enough. It’s not easy though; it helps if you know some chemistry, but if not, you can still figure it out with some patience ( if all else fails, you can post on our forum and I will help.)

A good start is to try and separate the ingredients into two lists: one of ingredients that make the base cream (or serum) and the second which lists the actives.

For a very basic cold cream you will find just a few components:

Ingredients: Water, Mineral Oil (emollient, skin conditioner,) Wax (thickener,) fragrance.

For a commercial product the list gets longer because formulators use a variety of ingredients to improve the feel, texture, stability and color.

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Good Housekeeping’s Top Beauty Products of 2014


The Good, the Bad and the Very Bad.

We see these beauty articles nearly every day: Reader’s Choice, Best Picks under $20, Beauty Editor’s Favorites, Best Eye/Lip/Anti-Aging (You name it.)


Every beauty publication out there is giving us endless lists of “Must-Have” products we need ASAP. It makes you wonder, what is the motivation for publishing these lists? The products on these lists change so frequently, what about the “Must Have” from the last list? Nowhere to be found… Gone forever. Are companies paying for these product placements? Are editors desperate to put out brand new content? Are thei really testing these products before they tell millions of readers to go purchase RIGHT NOW?

We decided to take Good Housekeeping’s Top Beauty picks of 2014, one of the most trusted household publications, and have Dr. Hannah Sivak analyze the actual ingredients in these so-called “Top Beauty Products.”

We looked at the claims they make, what are they promising? The name of the product is usually the main indicator of these promises, but do the ingredients back-up these claims? We had Hannah look at the INCI nomenclature of these products to determine if these claims were at all justified. (When we could find the true INCI lists, as many companies don’t allow them on their websites.) We asked Hannah what SAS products were similar to these product ingredient lists, and what SAS products could actually deliver the promises. (Interestingly, not always the same thing.)


Exuviance Age Reverse Day Repair SPF 30, $70

Active Ingredients: Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane (Avobenzone) 3.0%, Ethylhexylmethoxycinnamate (Octinoxate) 7.5%, Ethylhexyl Salicylate (Octisalate) 5.0%

Ingredients: Aqua (Water), Acetyl Glucosamine, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Cyclopentasiloxane, Glyceryl Stearate, Butylene Glycol, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, PEG-100 Stearate, Dimethicone, Cetyl Alcohol, Nylon-12, Triacontanyl PVP, Retinol, Tocopheryl (Vitamin E) Acetate, Palmitoyl Oligopeptide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, Punica Granatum (Pomegranate) Extract, Coffea Arabica Fruit (Coffee Bush Berry) Extract, Rosa Damascena Flower Oil, Arginine, Glycerin, Propylene Glycol, Triethyl Citrate, Cyclohexasiloxane, Caprylyl Glycol, Citric Acid, Disodium EDTA, BHT, PEG-75 Stearate, Ceteth-20, Steareth-20, Dimethiconol, Polysorbate 20, Xanthan Gum, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/ VP Copolymer, Methyldihydrojasmonate, Ethylene Brassylate, Chlorphenesin, Phenoxyethanol, CI 19140 (Yellow 5), CI 17200 (Red 33).

Note: this is a sunscreen, so it is actually an “OTC” (over-the-counter medication) according to the FDA. For this reason, the ingredients that give the sunscreen it’s sun protection properties are listed separately.

Description: The SPF 30 is good. It is always a good idea to wear sunscreen. Acetyl Glucosamine is also a nice ingredient.

Claims: FAILED. This product will not “reverse age” or “repair,” but it will prevent further damage.

SAS: SPF 30 Advanced Protection to prevent sun damage.

SAS that can help “reverse age” (what this product promises): UV Repair Cream

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Chemistry: the difference between salicin and salicylic acid

From: Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

More than one thousand years ago, humans in different continents discovered that the leaves and bark of the willow tree could alleviate aches and fevers. With the advent of modern chemistry, in 1828, salicin, the major salicylate in willow bark, was isolated by Johann Buchner. A few decades later, industrial production of synthetic acetylsalicylic acid, trade name Aspirin, was introduced in Germany by Bayer. In skin care, we use two chemicals of this family: salicin and salicylic acid.

The names of both chemicals originate in from the Latin “Salix”, willow tree, from the bark of which the substance used to be obtained. The salts and esters of salicylic acid are known as salicylates, and acetylsalicylic acid, a.k.a. aspirin, is one the them.

Salicylic acid belongs to a diverse group of plant phenolics, compounds with an aromatic ring bearing a hydroxyl group or a derivative. These ubiquitous chemicals are present in plants for reasons that have nothing to do with human headaches, but are related to the regulation of plant physiology and resistance to pathogens.

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Fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases, and/or alcohol. It occurs in yeast and bacteria, and also in oxygen-starved muscle cells, as in the case of lactic acid fermentation. Fermentation is a process that has been used by humanity to preserve foods, changing chemical structure and taste, for millennia. Pickles, wine, beer, bread and much more are made using fermentation.

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Natural or Synthetic?

Natural or synthetic? Can you tell? And, more important, does it matter?

A definition by the FDA:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDAhas not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

We have discussed this subject many times, but it keeps re-appearing in emails and questions. Probably as a result of social media and advertising, there is the misconception that natural is better than synthetic.

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