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November 12, 2007
Volume 85, Number 46
p. 72

Science Friction with Bob Wolke

Heather Mull
Bob Wolke

I just read the Sunday newspaper, and boy, do I feel old! I don't mean the New York Times, which takes so long to get through that I really am significantly older by the time I finish it. I mean my local Sunday newspaper.

Along with some 400 others, it contains a supplement called Parade, which I pluck out of the insert package only for its syndicated column, "Ask Marilyn," by Marilyn vos Savant, who in five successive editions of the "Guinness Book of World Records" was listed as having the highest IQ in the world. (What happened in that sixth year, Marilyn?)

I consult Marilyn's column only on the chance of gleaning a morsel or two of knowledge, which is my favorite form of entertainment. But to find her, I have to page past stories about whichever celebrities are currently dating, marrying, separating, divorcing, battling, expecting, adopting, or rehabbing.

And then there are the advertisements, many of which imply strongly that I am infirm, wrinkled, blotchy, and in dire need of their "rejuvenating" products. Well, perhaps I'm not the typical Parade reader.

One ad implies that I can't even get in and out of the bathtub unassisted, and that I may have "given up bathing because of age." Well, I have given up many things in my time, some even voluntarily, but bathing is not one of them. The Archimedes Bath Lift (I did not make that up) is a battery-operated chair that would lower me into the tub and raise me out of it. In between, I imagine, it would permit me to be buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the water I displace. Mercifully, it does not encourage me to run through the streets naked, shouting, "Eureka!"

Several advertisements focus on my purported "age-worn skin." I resent that, because my skin is the only organ I routinely expose to public view (although only rarely in its entirety), and it is therefore the primary indication to the world of who and what I am. Nobody ever sees my brilliant brain or stout heart, for example—or, luckily, my liver.

One advertisement is headed "Your Hands Definitely Show Your Age" and promotes a hand "revitalizer" that will make me "look 5, 10, even 20 years younger!" Heck, if that's all there is to it, I can look younger instantly by putting my hands in my pockets. This product also promises "to reduce the appearance of free radical damage." I just hate the appearance of free radical damage, don't you?

Free radicals are all the rage in the skin game these days. Many "anti-aging" products now contain antioxidants such as vitamins E and C and beta-carotene, intended to destroy all those nasty little free radicals that are presumably having a picnic on my skin.

Now, I'm well aware that there are cosmetics chemists among my readers, and I don't mean to make fun of their profession. But I'm sure they are as amused as I am at what the marketing people have been doing with their formulations.

• One product's ad says that it is "infused with an anti-aging complex to help regenerate the skin's surface at the cellular level." I must concede that my skin's surface is made of cells "at the cellular level," but so are all my other aging organs. Could this product "regenerate" them also? If so, I can suggest a few candidates.

• Then there is the "Zero Gravity Lift" face cream. But under zero-G conditions, I wonder how I'm supposed to know whether it is lifting or lowering my face.

• Other products contain exotic, scientific-sounding ingredients such as "an exclusive amino-peptide complex," a "hexapeptide complex," and "oxygenated derma-beads." Look that up in your Beilstein!

Technical words such as complex, oxygenated, buffer, cellular, peptide, infusion, and fusion (presumably nonnuclear) are very trendy in today's skin-cosmetic ads. And of course, a lotion is no longer a lotion; it is a "serum" or a "crème," which is obviously much better than a cream because it is French.

In search of the science (if any) behind all these claims, I have become an obsessive reader of the lists of ingredients on cosmetics labels. But I confess that I don't understand what most of them are or what they do. If you don't either, the cosmetics ingredient dictionary at will tell you a lot more than you will ever need to know.

Bob Wolke can be reached at

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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