The chemistry of cosmetics

Cosmetics are not a modern invention. Humans have used various substances to alter their appearance or accentuate their features for at least 10,000 years, and possibly a lot longer.

Women in Ancient Egypt used kohl, a substance containing powdered galena (lead sulphide—PbS) to darken their eyelids, and Cleopatra is said to have bathed in milk to whiten and soften her skin. By 3000 B.C men and women in China had begun to stain their fingernails with colours according to their social class, while Greek women used poisonous lead carbonate (PbCO3) to achieve a pale complexion. Clays were ground into pastes for cosmetic use in traditional African societies and indigenous Australians still use a wide range of crushed rocks and minerals to create body paint for ceremonies and initiations.

Today, cosmetics are big business. According to the 2011 Household Expenditure Survey, conducted every five years by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians spend around $4.5 billion on toiletries and cosmetic products every year. Cosmetic advertising, previously directed mainly at women, is now targeting a wider audience than ever.

What is a cosmetic?

In Australia, a cosmetic is defined under the Industrial Chemical (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989 as ‘a substance or preparation intended for placement in contact with any external part of the human body' (this includes the mouth and teeth). We use cosmetics to cleanse, perfume, protect and change the appearance of our bodies or to alter its odours. In contrast, products that claim to ‘modify a bodily process or prevent, diagnose, cure or alleviate any disease, ailment or defect’ are called therapeutics. This distinction means that shampoos and deodorants are placed in the cosmetics category, whilst anti-dandruff shampoos and antiperspirants are considered to be therapeutics.

Regulation and safety

In Australia, the importation, manufacture and use of chemicals—including those used in cosmetics—are regulated by the Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS). NICNAS works to ensure that chemicals used in consumer products do not cause significant harm to users or to the environment.

In the case of cosmetics, every ingredient contained within the product must be scientifically assessed and approved by NICNAS before being manufactured or imported into Australia and before they can be used in consumer products. Where appropriate, NICNAS sets limits on the level at which a chemical can be used in a product and also conducts reviews on chemicals when new evidence arises.


Tianeptine is a tricyclic anti-depressant that is also known to have opioid receptor activity. We present two fatal cases of tianeptine intoxication in Texas in which tianeptine was used recreationally. The first case involved a 28-year-old white male found alone on the floor of his locked residence. He had a history of drug abuse but no other toxicological findings. The second case involved a 30-year-old white male found on the floor of the bathroom in his home. Drug paraphernalia and bags labeled as tianeptine powder were found at both scenes. In response to the first case, our laboratory developed a method for quantitation of tianeptine by LC–MS-MS. This method was then validated according to SWGTOX guidelines for specificity, calibration model, limit of detection, limit of quantitation, accuracy, precision, ion suppression, and carryover. This method was successfully used to determine tianeptine concentrations in postmortem blood in two cases.

Microneedles Could Enable Painless Injections and Blood Draws

Barely visible needles, or “microneedles,” are poised to usher in an era of pain-free injections and blood testing. Whether attached to a syringe or a patch, microneedles prevent pain by avoiding contact with nerve endings. Typically 50 to 2,000 microns in length (about the depth of a sheet of paper) and one to 100 microns wide (about the width of human hair), they penetrate the dead, top layer of skin to reach into the second layer—the epidermis—consisting of viable cells and a liquid known as interstitial fluid. But most do not reach or only barely touch the underlying dermis, where the nerve endings lie, along with blood and lymph vessels and connective tissue.

Many microneedle syringe and patch applications are already available for administering vaccines, and many more are in clinical trials for use in treating diabetes, cancer and neuropathic pain. Because these devices insert drugs directly into the epidermis or dermis, they deliver medicines much more efficiently than familiar transdermal patches, which rely on diffusion through the skin. This year researchers debuted a novel technique for treating skin disorders such as psoriasis, warts and certain types of cancer: mixing star-shaped microneedles into a therapeutic cream or gel. The needles' temporary, gentle perforation of the skin enhances passage of the therapeutic agent.

Many microneedle products are moving toward commercialization for rapid, painless draws of blood or interstitial fluid and for use in diagnostic testing or health monitoring. Tiny holes made by the needles induce a local change in pressure in the epidermis or dermis that forces interstitial fluid or blood into a collection device. If the needles are coupled to biosensors, the devices can, within minutes, directly measure biological markers indicative of health or disease status, such as glucose, cholesterol, alcohol, drug by-products or immune cells.

Here's the big caveat: many of those exciting supplement studies were observational—they didn't test a particular supplement against a placebo (inactive pill) in a controlled setting. The results of more stringent randomized controlled trials haven't yielded the same good news.

"Often the enthusiasm for these vitamins and supplements outpaces the evidence. And when the rigorous evidence is available from randomized controlled trials, often the results are at odds with the findings of the observational studies," explains Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of a large randomized trial known as VITAL (Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial).

Because observational studies may not fully control for dietary factors, exercise habits, and other variables, they can't prove whether the treatment is responsible for the health benefits. "People who take supplements tend to be more health conscious, exercise more, eat healthier diets, and have a whole host of lifestyle factors that can be difficult to control for fully in the statistical models," Dr. Manson says.

Some supplements that were found to have health benefits in observational studies turned out, with more rigorous testing, to be not only ineffective but also risky. Vitamin E, which was initially thought to protect the heart, was later discovered to increase the risk for bleeding strokes. Folic acid and other B vitamins were once believed to prevent heart disease and strokes—until later studies not only didn't confirm that benefit but actually raised concerns that high doses of these nutrients might increase cancer risk.

How to get your nutrients

We need a variety of nutrients each day to stay healthy, including calcium and vitamin D to protect our bones, folic acid to produce and maintain new cells, and vitamin A to preserve a healthy immune system and vision.

Yet the source of these nutrients is important. "Usually it is best to try to get these vitamins and minerals and nutrients from food as opposed to supplements," Dr. Manson says.

Fruits, vegetables, fish, and other healthy foods contain nutrients and other substances not found in a pill, which work together to keep us healthy. We can't get the same synergistic effect from a supplement. Taking certain vitamins or minerals in higher-than-recommended doses may even interfere with nutrient absorption or cause side effects.

Suspicious and shady sellers peddle sex enhancement medicines at makeshift stalls on the street or through online sources, exploiting the insecurities and anxieties of consumers. They may make exaggerated claims that their products are “all natural” and can "prolong your sexual stamina" or miraculously cure medical conditions such as erectile dysfunction or impotency. However, the risks from taking these products may lead to serious side effects, including death.

Why sexual enhancement products bought from dubious sources are dangerous and should be avoided:

They may be counterfeit. Sexual enhancement medicines such as sildenafil, tadalafil and vardenafil are prescription medicines which should only be obtained from doctors or from pharmacists with a doctor’s prescription. Such medicines sold by dubious sellers can be counterfeit or fake. These products may be contaminated, contain the wrong ingredient or wrong amount of the ingredient, or contain no active ingredient.

They are of poor quality and may contain undeclared prescription medicines. Products from dubious sources are often produced under poor manufacturing conditions with no quality control by unscrupulous persons who have little regard for human health. They usually contain undeclared western medicinal ingredients or toxic ingredients in varying proportions (e.g. there could be an overdose), or contain ingredients not stated on the packaging.

They are not guaranteed to work. The claims made regarding the effects of illegal products should be viewed with caution, as they are not backed by scientific evidence or clinical studies.

Medical conditions require proper diagnosis and treatment. There are many causes for erectile dysfunction, including chronic illnesses, psychological factors and poor lifestyle. A medically trained professional can help to diagnose the root cause and work with you on appropriate treatments. In addition, medicines used in the treatment of erectile dysfunction are prescription-only medicines and should only be used under strict medical supervision as they may not be suitable for individuals with certain medical conditions and can cause serious side effects.