There’s something I was told when I was a kid that I’ve always found true: life is complicated, and the closer you look at it the messier it gets. There are no easy answers. This is true of science just as it is of politics or relationships or really anything else.
A quote from a nice blog post by Puff the Mutant Dragon on what is worthy of concern and what is a waste of time when it comes to the food we eat. Read it!
A colleague said to me recently, “…and that is why you shouldn’t use shampoo that contains sulfate.” As you can see, I wasn’t paying attention. All the supporting evidence for this statement was bestowed while I was writing a grocery list, or determining my last gym visit or considering any one of the dozen things that go through my mind on a given day. What were we dealing with? Where were we on the spectrum of concern? Does sulfate in my shampoo cause mutations in my unborn child or does sulfate in my shampoo make it impossible to get any body out of my hairstyle? I was too embarrassed to admit my lapse in concentration to ask. To save face it was easier to just go “sulfate-free.”
We are free freaks. Fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, the words seep into our psyche and gull us into believing we are getting something for nothing. It is a great marketing ploy. We fall for it all the time. (The only exception being caffeine-free. Who the hell wants that?) But at what cost? What does all this free seeking get us? Anxiety, not much more.
Before I knew it I was scanning for “sulfate-free” in the hair care isle. It was not hard to find the preferred product, sulfate-free was everywhere. I took it home with a sigh of relief that I found out about this before it was too late. I was righteous, I was keeping sulfates off my head. Wait, why was I keeping sulfates off my head?
If you are familiar with a little chemistry you might recall that a sulfate is a cluster of atoms (one sulfur and four oxygens) with a charge that attracts it to other charged atoms. In shampoo the sulfate in question is sodium lauryl sulfate. This molecule has the charged sulfate at one end and a long, waxy tail at the other which allows it to remove grease and gives shampoo lather.
I am rather fond of sodium lauryl sulfate because I have an oily head. If I showed up at your house after not washing my hair for two days you would think it was pouring outside. My hair would look soaking wet. I can pump out some serious scalp grease. It’s gross. And don’t try to tell me my head creates oils because I wash it too much. I tested the limits of necessary hygienic practices on a number of lazy occasions in college. I can go no more than a day and a half without a good head washing.
While the benefits seem unclear, my philosophy with sulfate-free shampoo has been, “Hey, it can’t hurt. Right?”
But it does hurt, it hurts tremendously. This mentality perpetuates fear and clouds our judgement in determining a true threat.
The author of this story confesses that she started using sulfate-free shampoo because of media pressure, meaning advertising pressure. If Eva Longoria tells you sulfates are bad you buy sulfate-free shampoo. (I mean, she does have great hair.)
We accept a lot of risk in life. We eat too much, we drink too much, we ride our bikes among the traffic of a crowded city street. But, the risk of shampooing is too great? We are convinced of carcinogens and mutagens lurking in our beauty products. We are obsessed with revealing a conspiracy by the beauty industry to force us all to wear leaded lipstick and mercuryed mascara. Because as we know manufacturers don’t always have our best interests at heart. Sometimes advertisers just tell us what we want to hear to sell us their products. Our mistrust of industry has allowed our fear of chemicals to breed out of control. And now our chemophobia is being used to advertise to us.
We have been played. Two years after the bunk-proven hype over the adverse effects of sodium laurel sulfate more and more beauty companies are marketing sulfate-free products. The rumor is still circulating and has finally reached a tipping point where it can be taken advantage of to sell more shampoo.
I have girlfriends who only need to wash their hair every couple days. I am so envious. They are most often curly haired friends with drier scalps. Understandably, they feel differently about sodium laurel sulfate than I do. Choosing sulfate-free shampoo is a preference, like preferring the feel of your skin after bathing with Lever 2000 rather than Dove. If you like it, fine, buy it. But don’t let advertisers convince you that spending more for sulfate-free will make you safer (or make your hair color last longer – there is no proof of that either). It is just a marketing gimmick.
You are probably like me. Your mind is filled with a dozen different things. You have to get to the gym and you need to write a grocery list, but take the time to assess the validity of a threat and don’t let your fears reign uncontrolled.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University have determined that certain beverages alter the length of the copy and repair accessories at the ends of our DNA, known as telomeres. Although the role of telomeres is not completely understood it is believed shorter telomeres are associated with cancer risk (doi: 10.1002/ajhb.21127). The Tel Aviv researchers studied yeast that has many of the same genes as humans. They identified 400 genes that work together to determine telomere length. Many environmental stresses were imparted on the genes with no effect on telomere length. However, when the genes were exposed to a low concentration caffeine they shortened and when they were exposed to alcohol they lengthened (doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003721).
My poor little telomeres must be exhausted, yo-yo’ing between the coffee induced shortening of the morning and the alcohol encouraged lengthening of the evening. But, hey, at least it all balances out.
Are you a gymnast? If so you most likely have 6 times the concentration of fire retardant chemicals in your blood than the general public – a rate of exposure on par with carpet installers. The source? All the foam that cushions your landing.
Epidemiologist and exposure scientist Counrtney Carignan is a post doc at Dartmouth College, she was also at one time a competitive gymnast. Her graduate work on flame retardants got her curious about the risk of pentabrominated diphenyl ether exposure in the gym environment. The chemical has been banned as a retardant in the EU since 2005 because it causes health issues. Carignan found that air samples taken in training facilities measured up to three orders of magnitude higher for PentaBDE than in a residential environment.
The image above shows a few of the 100,000 turbine blades squeezed onto a disk about a centimeter wide. The turbines run the world’s smallest vacuum pump, part of the tiniest mass spec imaginable. The device, created by Honeywell, could be equipped for your smart phone and continuously measure the quality of air you breathe. A Honeywell scientist says,
"One thing we are very excited about is putting these into smartphones, essentially adding a sense of smell that can sense everything from toxic chemicals to pollen to general air quality," Yang said. "They could keep a cumulative record of exposure for every person carrying one, noting when and where a user was exposed."
Meet Siphopteron species 1. It’s a species of sea slug, recently discovered by Rolanda Lange. To procreate, two members of the species get together, stick organs into each other’s heads, and fertilize. That’s right — nature has at last provided us with a perfect example of the mindfuck.
This blog is only intended to provide snippets from a vastly complex chemistry world. I don’t review journal articles here or discuss the validity of the data published therein. My lack of doing so should not be interpreted as nescience. I just prefer to keep it light.
I admire bloggers who evaluate the ruggedness of published data. A blogger who calls out the editor-in-cheif of a scientific journal for stating that a blog is an inappropriate place to question scientific findings? Well, that is going to earn my lifelong fandom, especially with such an expertly written retort.
Last week the editorial board of ACS Nano published their thoughts on how scientific misconduct should be handled. They feel it is inappropriate for issues of misconduct to be taken up in a public form such as a blog or on Twitter. ChemBark fired back:
Your assertion that commenting on papers is a “privilege” smacks of the elitist, opaque, closed-door, Old-Boys’-Club approach that many lament has become standard operating procedure in too many areas of chemistry. Many young chemists decry that success in our field is not so much about what you do, but whom you know. Blogs are helping to level the playing field by putting users on equal terms and democratizing the flow of information. In order for any self-governing and self-policing body to operate effectively, members of the community must stay informed about important issues they face. There can be nothing more important to chemistry than the integrity of our data; it is the foundation on which our knowledge is built.
The realization that your chemistry midterm is in 24 hours and you are wholly unprepared, the untimely call from your folks to remind you they are shouldering a heap of debt for your education – there are any number of downers to experience in a day, but leave it to chemists to identify the ultimate buzz kill. Kynurenic acid, shown above, has been proven to counter act the effects of THC, rendering marijuana use uneventful. Bummer living through chemistry? Read about it here.
The Noble Prize in chemistry was announced today. It was given to three computational chemists whose work allowed chemical modeling and interactions to be visualized like never before. In this quote from Reuters Martin Karplus and Arieh Warshel, who won the prize along with Michael Levitt, talk about what they had to over come to reach this achievement.
It was not an easy scientific journey, however. Warshel said he had been convinced of the case for using computers to simulate chemical reactions since 1975 but did not know if he would live to see it adopted.
"I always knew it was the right direction, but I had infinite difficulties and setbacks in the research. None of my papers were ever published without being rejected first," he told Reuters.
Karplus said his early work using computers was initially met coldly by many of his scientific colleagues in the ’70s.
"My chemistry colleagues thought it was a waste of time," he told reporters at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, adding that the next generation of scientists should be courageous and "not believe their colleagues necessarily if they say they can’t do something."
I have to recommend that you pick up the Sept. 30th issue of C&ENews. There is some crazy fun stuff in there. Like:
Intermolecular Forces Visualized (Smack that on a Powerpoint!)
A bizarre story about the CEO of a biotech start-up who tried to murder his chief scientific officer and then his brother-in-law. WHA?
3D printed guns. (Did C&ENews get a scoop on the season premier of Elementary?) The plastics available for printing are not currently durable enough to withstand an explosion in the chamber, but it is definitely of concern.
And my favorite read in the issue, a story about motorsports and the different ways racers cheat. There are a dozen concoctions they sneak into the gas tank to try and improve performance. But the most cleaver cheater rigged his mandatory fire extinguisher so it dispensed nitrous oxide into the engine at the push of a button. NIce!