Men’s Skincare: The Unusual Suspects

A stinging nettle plant. Image By Júlio Reis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Men have it easy if you consider the volume and degree of bullcrap associated with products targeted to women. Maybe the marketers think that men are less inclined to believe bull or they are more critical or more scientifically minded. Or afraid to scare off men, who for centuries survived without skin products beyond hair grooming. But as the number of men’s grooming products increases to include eye creams and moisturisers the bullshitters are moving into the new territory.

Take the Autumn/Winter Style Issue of  British  ShortList magazine. One its features were about men’s grooming products, which contain unusual ingredients.  Some of the ingredients don’t raise my eyebrow – I know about the vast spectrum of biologically active compounds, which plants accumulate. I would never argue that, for example,  Camomile extract does not soothe skin irritation, or that tea tree oil inhibits blemishes.

But let’s have a look at the list, assuming that the title ingredients are not present in “homoeopathic”  e.g. “name only, no substance” quantities.

  1. Stinging nettles

Nettles is a well-known folk remedy for arthritis and eczema. According to the article in J Ethnopharmacol., nettles extract has shown “antimicrobial activity against nine microorganisms… and analgesic effect on acetic acid-induced stretching”.

Read more about nettles in a  blog post from a certified specialist in natural remedies.

  1. Gunpowder

Gunpowder. (Image by Oliver H, via Wikimedia Commons)

That’s a strange one at a first glance. Gunpowder is an irritant, so if you are into reenactment of historic battles and have bags of  it lying around, don’t spill it and certainly don’t lather it on you skin.  But  even a concentrated poison somethings is beneficial in a diluted form. Before the invention of first disinfectants such as phenol, soldiers used gunpowder to treat wounds, e.g. as an antimicrobial agent.

Let’s have a look at gunpowder composition. It consists of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur and charcoal.

*Saltpeter was used as soap;

*sulfur has antimicrobial properties and on its own used to treat skin diseases;

* charcoal absorbs oils (men’s skins is oilier than women’s).

An additional and not biological advantage of course would be association of gunpowder with traditional masculinity. Mmm… Captain Jack Sparrow after firing his pistols.

  1. Blue Diamond

Blue diamond called Hope (in the middle) – fancy some of that ground up  and on you? (Smithsonian via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite my first boss accusing me of too much lateral thinking, I cannot fathom any rational reason for using crystallised carbon powder with boron impurities aka blue diamond in skincare. It sounds luxurious and expensive, but diamond is biologically neutral. And there are easier ways to sparkle.

Can I detect a bit of Zoolander in this one?

  1. Tourmaline

Suspiciously close to the blue diamond – a  sparkly stone with no obvious biological effect. Although, unlike diamond,  tourmaline is semi-precious stone with a complicated formula that includes lots of metal atoms: (Ca,K,Na,[](Al,Fe,Li,Mg,Mn)3(Al,Cr, Fe,V)6(BO3)3(Si,Al,B)6O18(OH,F)4 .

Tourmaline – pretty in pastel colours. (Image by Kulka, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I am (very) afraid the rationale – if you can call it this – for both diamond and tourmaline use in skincare comes from the same place. The place is crystal healing, where crystals have mythical healing powers. If you believe that physical process of crystallisation connects you to yet undiscovered powers of nature,  you won’t be dismayed that when diamond and tourmaline are used, they are not crystals but fine powder.

Most likely, the products containing any mineral will be just as  useless.

  1. Copper

If the previous two entries were head-scratching (hopefully, not literally) but with no obvious harm, copper does not belong in skin care. As a scientist, I worked with oxidative stress. When oxygen transformes into hyper-reactive radicals they damage biological structures. And the easiest way to produce the oxygen harmful radicals? Just add some copper ions.

Yes, just like gunpowder copper was used  as an antimicrobial before the more efficient ones,  agriculture used copper  as a pesticide or fungicide. But cooper-containing compounds use is restricted now and copper is treated as a  toxic heavy metal  – its accumulation is bad for your health.

Fortunately, there is no evidence that skin absorbs cooper (which’s a hint that it’s not needed and kept out). Otherwise, just like people poisoned by cooking food in damaged copper vessels, copper accumulation would have ended in vomiting and liver damage.

If “crystal healing” is to blame for the supposed skin-caring magic of  the diamond and tourmaline, copper presence connected to copper bracelets… let’s not start on them.

In the end, my advice is to read the ingredients before you buy anything and filter the bull, be you a man, a woman or neither.


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