Experts make sense of the notion of using far-fetched ingredients in beauty treatments.
BEFORE dermatologists, cosmetic chemists or global beauty brands got into the picture, flora and fauna in their most rudimentary form were used to treat or beautify the skin.
Crushing plants or insects to make a dye to beautify the face or body was not unthinkable then. But wait, things haven’t changed that much. The difference is, you can choose between a sanitised version or a closer-to-nature alternative.
You can have snail slime packed in a shiny, pricey jar, or book yourself into a swanky spa for a sanitised bird poop facial as you listen to birds chirping through piped-in music. There’s even snail facials, where live snails glide over your face, leaving their nutritious slime behind.
Over the years, all sorts of bizarre treatments and ingredients have found their way into the beauty industry, ranging from “vampire treatments” to bird poop facials.
“Some of these odd treatments come from a desire to keep us talking, while others are rooted in history and were discovered when there were no options,” says Amanda Foxon-Hill, a British cosmetic chemist, writer and educator with 15 years of experience in the cosmetics industry.
Based in Australia, Foxon-Hill is the founder and director of cosmetic consulting company Realize Beauty.
For example, the bird poop facial or the geisha facial, is based on an age-old practice by geishas in the early days in Japan where women used the nightingale droppings to brighten and heal their skin from the heavy make-up they had to wear.
“These facials utilise the urea-based chemicals found in nightingale poop. It excretes ammonia by producing a white poop called guano that is rich in uric acid, which in all likelihood is what brightens the appearance of skin. Guanine is probably a skin repairer and protector,” she says in an e-mail interview.
Shizuka, a New York spa that offers the bird poop facial, says droppings are sanitised under ultraviolet light before it is milled to a fine powder, to which Foxon-Hill says makes sense as it’s then suitable for cosmetic use.
Several brands in the market claim that snail’s mucous contains proteins, antioxidants, elastin and hyaluronic acid – all stuff that helps skin look better.
“It’s true that snail slime is magical stuff! The snails that beauty brands use are Helix aspersa (land snails) which produce two main types of trails, a non-sticky secretion that helps them glide and an extra-sticky secretion that helps them stay on a rock or plant.”
She says that the secretions are rich in proteins and other skin repairing actives.
“Snail slime is both moisturising and regenerative. When topically applied, the collagen and elastin boost the skin’s moisture content, making skin look smoother and softer.”
So, would having live snails glide over your face be more effective than snail skincare?
“It would certainly be cheaper! However, the extract used in cosmetics is cleaned and sterilised. Additionally, active components are measured and characterised,” she says.
“The healing actives are only secreted when the snail is mildly stressed rather than all the time. Because of this, it is necessary to evaluate the secretion to measure the levels of key actives before classifying it as cosmetic grade. So, just adding snails to your face may not give you the same level of active benefit.
“Beetle juice has long been used in the cosmetics industry and it’s abbreviated as Carmine or EU number CL75470. The beetle named Dactylopius coccus secretes carmic acid which keeps predators away, and it is this secretion that produces crimson dye,” Foxon-Hill continues.
These beetles’ eggs are crushed to extract the acid which is then reacted with aluminium or calcium salts to produce the well-known dye. According to the book Tropical Agriculture, it takes about 70,000 Cochineal insects to make one pound of crude cochineal which yields 10% of pure dye.
“While there are synthetic red colourants available, sadly, for lipsticks, the Cochineal based colour is one of the best sources of red,” she points out.
To keep customers’ hair looking luscious, a hair salon in London and another in Santa Monica, United States, used to offer bull semen conditioner treatments for ultimate shine.
“Semen is rich in amino acids and sugar fructose, hence its potential as a hair conditioning treatment,” she explains.
“People are always attracted by novelty factors. Cosmetics is as much about marketing as it is about science. Basically, it is human to have an insatiable desire for exploration, and as chemists, it is our job to find something interesting and useful out of all these materials,” Foxon-Hill says.
Fact or fiction?
Dr Ruban Nathan, a consultant dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon in KL, describes these unusual beauty treatments akin to “asking a car mechanic whether one could use ostrich urine to lubricate a car engine”.
He adds that if anyone actually benefits from such treatments, then it’s further proof of the placebo effect.
“It must be stressed that only with beauty products can one convince anyone to use almost anything. All it takes is someone to say it is terrific and it will muffle the screams of the rest who swear it’s rubbish,” he says.
Dr Ruban adds that it’s “highly unlikely one would consider bizarre (treatments) when it comes to serious medical conditions such as dengue, appendicitis, fractures or cancers.”
“There’s an endless list of plant based antioxidants from around the globe that will no doubt find its way into a jar of cream,” he emphasises.
Consultant aesthetician Dr Hew Yin Keat believes that the Internet and social media hype along with celebrities’ endorsement of strange ingredients or treatments generate a buzz.
“There is the prestige of being perceived to be a fearless early adopter. But, perhaps the simplest answer is that people don’t want to be perceived as boring!” says Dr Hew, founding member of the Malaysian Society of Aesthetic Medicine.
In his years of experience, he has come across controversial ingredients such as sheep, horse, rabbit and even human placenta as well as organic material like aborted embryos or the penile foreskins of male children.
The latest sample he received lately is crocodile oil for an anti-acne treatment. “Presumably because crocodiles don’t get acne!” he jests.
On the much touted goodness of snail slime, Dr Hew says the mucin of the Helix aspersa muller snails contain proteins, antioxidants, elastin and hyaluronic acid.
“Apparently, the Chilean snail farmers who export escargot to France found their hands visibly softer and smoother, and cuts healed quickly without scarring. And this led them to believe in the healing properties of snail secretion.
“While it may be mostly harmless, I’m sceptical that such creams have a significant advantage over other products when it comes to skin rejuvenation,” Dr Hew says.
Similarly, there are no clinically published studies showing the effectiveness or safety of bird poop. There could be some basis for the use of starfish extract, but until there are some scientific studies to demonstrate its effectiveness, the claims of manufacturers are no more than whimsical marketing, he adds.
According to Dr Hew, botox (botulinum toxin) is probably one of the strangest ingredients used for beauty purposes.
“It is a prescription drug derived from the most deadly poison known to man. It is derived from one of the seven toxins created by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria that causes food poisoning and can be fatal.
“I now use it on a daily basis on my patients and am in awe of its beautifying effects. Botox is no longer regarded as strange, but it continues to be vilified by certain quarters despite hundreds of scientific papers showing its safety when used by trained medical professionals.”
It took almost 40 years for botox to get where it is today, where it is used in more than six million cosmetic procedures annually in the United States alone.
Only time will tell if any of these offbeat treatments will make the grade and hit the mainstream.
What are little girls made of? Starfish, snails and sperm...
Two women will try just about anything in the name of beauty