Primers Part 1: Painting Face Houses

Hi everybody! I’m back! Sorry for falling off the map, there. Last summer happened, complete with two vacations (one with my bf’s family; one just with the bf) and a visit from the parents. What started as a little break from blogging became a sabbatical as we got ready for a short move. Weeks stretched into months. Tumbleweeds rolled across this site. Spiders took up residence. And then a friend of mine was like “what happened to your makeup blog?” and I was like “um… massive personal failings and inexcusable neglect?” and she was like “And? Quit languishing in self-hatred and get back to writing!” and I was like “K”.  I really did miss you guys! Grovel grovel! Sad emojis!

Let’s jump back in. For keepsies this time. Maybe. Don’t mind the spiders.

And yes, we’ll get back into sunscreen somewhere along the lines as we get back into summer (I owe you part 2 after, all), but first, something completely different!

*clears throat*

I grew up starting my makeup routine like I’m betting a lot of you guys did: with concealer and foundation. Bam. Base face two-thirds of the way done. Somewhere along the line, however, everything got way more complicated. Am I talking about contouring? Nope. Strobing? No. Baking? Hell no, honey. I just received an email from one makeup brand suggesting I drop my current bullshit, outdated routine and move on to something called non-touring. That ain’t what we’re talking about today either. But the word “non-touring” bothers me for some reason and I thought I’d make you suffer the same vague sense of unease.

Actually, today, we’re kicking off a series covering the universal Step One for all of those techniques. The holy starter grail! Primers!

the starting lineup

There are gels, oils, and “waters”. Some primers claim to moisturize, some color correct, some absorb excess oil, and almost all boast that they’ll for sure erase that most dreaded facet of human existence: pores. I began my journey by staring, wide-eyed, at the vast range of primers showcased on one end cap at Sephora and then at an equally vast range of foundations, arranged on a neighboring end cap. I could feel everyone else in the store holding their breath, suspense hanging thickly in the air. Would I be the first to successfully pair everything in column A to the right products in column B? I’m pretty sure that getting them all right causes balloons to rain down and sirens to sound and you’re rewarded with a picture on the wall and permanent VIB Rouge status. I can’t confirm this, though, and neither can you, because no one has ever passed that particular test. It’s the Water Temple level of Zelda for the cosmetic world. I’m completely on board with my makeup not running down my face or turning my skin into a dry, flaky Martian hellscape, but seriously, I am in desperate need of a few hints or a cheat code or something.

Internet, I beg of you: haaaalp?

To Youtube we go (for a start)! Then what say we mix and match a bunch of primers with a bunch of foundation types (cushion, liquid, powder, and stick) and see what happens (and then find out why)? Maybe I’ll even give a go at running or swimming with a couple makeup base pairs on in search of a magic combo that will allow me to rule the summer months with an iron fist from this day forward. All shall bow before my sweat-proof glory!

What’s in all these primers? What do they mean by “water” primer? Is silicone gel bad for my face? What key ingredients matter most when comparing primers and foundations? What type of primer works with the most makeup? Is there anything harmful or patently useless in primers that I should be aware of? Are primers even worth using in the first place? Do they really make a difference in the wear time of foundations and in my overall makeup results?

What about eye primers? Should they get their own article, because this seems like a lot to cover already (probably, yes)?

Who started this whole primer fad anyway? How far back does it go? And whoever came first – is their product still being made? Can I try it? Spoiler: yes, and I found it! Is it the best or just the first? Are Korean primers better? Are drug store and high-end primers really that different? Should I use multiple primers?

What about the multi-taskers I mentioned in the beginning that do more than just prime? Is there a really good one out there that’ll save me time and money by – gasp – performing as promised? What’s the difference between a primer and a CC cream? Where do they draw the line? Are skin–toned things not technically primers? Does that make it a tinted moisturizer or bb cream or something else instead? If they’re clear, green, or purple are they primers or just color-correctors?

Why the in the world does this one contain egg yolk?

Well now I've got egg on my face.








Honey and gold flecks: wt actual f?

Always bee prepared!








If I put them all on at the same time, will my face melt off?

(image probably way too graphic to exist here)

Let’s find out!

Sunscreen! Part 1: So Many Acronyms!

I’m back guys! Sorry for the long absence!

Let’s talk sun protection. Granted, it’s technically fall now, and you’re probably breaking out lots of clothes with sleeves and layers and scarfy bits, but the sun’s not actually going anywhere. If you’re at a high altitude, in a tropical/equatorial zone, or maybe somewhere in the southern hemisphere, the UVB rays aren’t even going to diminish in their vicious intensity. As a melanin-deprived individual, for me the threat is constant, no matter where I am. I’m pretty sure my people must’ve adapted for arctic cave dwelling. Or maybe we’re meant to be nocturnal?

(this pic via Wikimedia Commons, because, honestly, my pics are mostly of turtles)

Oh hello, Hilo!

Rebuking all of that, I went to Hawaii last month. I have the best patchy leg tan now, you guys! Related advice: if you’re going to kayak, then snorkel, then get back in the kayak to go back from whence you came, maybe reapply sunscreen somewhere in between those steps. Don’t just lay back in the kayak and lounge with your arms grazing the surface of the water for an indefinite amount of time. At least, not if you need to make use of your knees at all the next day. Ouch. So much ouch.

But Nichol, you might be asking (because in my head this is often a dialogue) what about reef-safe sunscreen? What about CHEMICALS? What does SPF even mean? If I don’t ever burn, why do I need to care?

Gah! Question barrage! Take a seat, I guess. This might take a while. Tl:dr: anyone who tells you not to wear sunscreen in order to avoid the potential cancer-causing ingredients is dumb, because you know where your biggest skin cancer risk comes from? The sun. When in doubt, put on a hat and throw on some form of sunscreen, even if it costs $2.99/a gallon and smells a little like paint. In the long run, you will be better off. Unless you confused sunscreen and actual paint. What did I tell you before about always reading labels???

Originally this comes from an article on the flammability of spray sunscreens. Avoid fire, people.

Do it! DOOOO ITTT! Protect thyself! (photo from FDA via Wikimedia Commons)

What does SPF stand for and what does it mean for me?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. The rating system was developed in 1962, but is only meant to measure a sunscreen’s effect on the absorption of UVB rays. Those are the rays that will burn you. UVA rays, on the other hand, are more insidious. They’re longer wavelength rays that penetrate deeper into your skin and are responsible for pre-mature aging and many forms of skin cancer. UVB rays are also carcinogenic, but they’re not going to age you as much, because your body can just kick out the damaged cells (Enjoying that peeling skin? You immune system says ‘you’re welcome’. It’s like your cat bringing dead mice to you. Or your gall bladder making stones. The intent was good, even if the result sucks.). Also, UVA rays can penetrate glass and hit us with a consistent intensity throughout daylight hours. UVB rays reach their peak between 10AM and 4PM, and are more intense in the summer months, at high altitudes, and around reflective surfaces (like water, ice, snow, or giant floor mirrors).

What SPF translates to in terms of hours of protection varies by person. To figure out what this means for you, there’s a nifty little equation:

Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time

How long does it take for you to burn without sunscreen? You should apparently know that, even though that number obviously will vary based on where you are and what you plan on doing outside. Anyway, take an educated guess, plug it into the equation and BAM! There you have the maximum time you should reasonably expect to be protected. Or, put another way, whatever your baseline burn time is, an SPF 15 claim means you should be able to expect 15x that, an SPF 30 would be 30x, and so on.

But wait – your educated guess might not even help you, because people in the real world tend to use far less sunscreen than people testing it out in lab settings to determine the bottle-listed SPF value, which could mean you’re getting as little as half the protection time you’ve just calculated. Point being, you should underestimate the times and reapply often. Especially if you, like me, are pale enough to almost emit a faint glow and/or spend 95% of your time either in the water or hiking uphill until you weep and sweat sunscreen like it’s your only remaining bodily fluid. Man, I should really give in and take up spelunking. In the arctic.

You also shouldn’t count on an SPF of 50 or 70 giving you much longer and better protection than an SPF of 15 or 30. In addition to the confusing and flawed nature of the seemingly basic formula above, SPF also indicates UVB absorption, but not in a way that makes much sense on the face of it. SPF 15 will absorb roughly 93.3 percent of UVB rays, but if you go mad and shoot up to SPF 50, you’re still only moving up to 98 percent UVB absorption.

Bottom line here: shoot for SPF 30 or above and reapply at least every couple hours. SPF provides a decent jumping off point for understanding UVB protection, but there are a lot of issues with relying solely on that little number. Also, I feel like we’re leaving out something huge…

What about UVA?

Oh yeah! UVA! That guy! What’s he been up to? Where did all these wrinkles come from?

Source: Evil Erin, via Wikipedia Commons, originating on Flickr

Oh, there he is, over in that terrifying, sci-fi tanning bed

Most modern sunscreens contain added ingredients to block or absorb UVA rays, as well as UVB. Look for the terms UVA/UVB protection, broad spectrum, or multi-spectrum on the label. You could also check for avobenzone, oxybenzone, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in the ingredient list. Those will help. Unfortunately, there’s still no consensus just how much those will help or how much of those ingredients we need to throw in to even ensure adequate protection.

If you’re still getting super tan, that might mean you need to try another combination of ingredients to up your UVA protection numbers. If you’re burning, that’s, once again, a UVB problem. You likely need to reapply your sunscreen more often and, if you’re using SPF 30 or below, consider switching to a higher SPF value. Also look for sweat- and water-proof sunscreens (but still reapply after sweaty or watery activities). It’s also best to initially apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes BEFORE sun exposure, to give it a chance to absorb (unless you’re going solely for UV blocking/physical sunscreens, which we will get around to, I promise). Some sunscreens claim to absorb quicker, but, especially if you intend to hop into a body of water after application, it’s still a good idea to observe the recommended wait time. Otherwise, you’re probably doing more to sun-protect the respiratory system of nearby fish than to protect yourself.

One More Acronym I Keep Seeing: UPF

UPF is like SPF for clothing. As with SPF, the number is based on your ratio of burn time without protection to burn time with protection (although, in measuring UPF, they’re using instruments to calculate UV penetration levels instead of just burning people).

Pictured: Non-optimal summer fashion

Tighter woven, UV absorbing (darker colored), and thicker fabrics provide a greater level of natural protection.The typical UPF rating for standard western summer clothing (think, a flimsy t-shirt) is around a 6. Protective fabrics, like rash guards or outdoor athletic wear, tend to hover around a UPF of 30. The highest possible UPF rating is 50+, which blocks 97.5 to 98 percent of UV radiation. I guess, theoretically, if you were wearing a lead coat around, you could probably reach a higher protective rating, but at that point you’re facing other issues, both from overheating and from all that lead hugging your sweaty body. Also, if that’s your solution, swimming is pretty much out. You know what? General rule of thumb: do not wear lead for your outdoor activities unless those activities involve nuclear testing (of the legal, government sanctioned variety).


And that’s it for part one. Hopefully this gives you a baseline understanding of UV rays and key sun protection terms. Up next, we’ll cover the wide variety of sunscreens available and try to figure out if any of them are doing more harm than good (to us and to the environment). There is an enormous amount of stuff to cover on this topic and a ridiculous amount of environmental- and health-based controversy. Hopefully I’m able to do it some justice. If you’re a dermatologist or some kind of sunscreen expert and would be willing to submit to ALL THE QUESTIONS, let me know, because I aim for accuracy and crave your wisdom. Also, thanks to How Stuff Works and to The Skin Cancer Foundation, both of whom I’ve relied on a lot for research. Both are excellent sources for more info.

Parabens 2: Still Just as Fresh as the First Time

Hullo all! Finally – it’s Parabens 2! So well preserved it couldn’t not be back for more! Let’s  dig into some paraben-free goodnesses I’m currently enjoying. This is going to be a wild smattering of various favorites. Where it was readily findable, I’ve tried to list what’s used in lieu of parabens to keep these products safe and sanitary, in addition to some short reviews.

First, the return of my favorite face moisturizer/sun protector (because this is, after all, a sequel post), this time accompanied by a new friend, La Vanila deodorant (you know, to keep this franchise fresh).


Earth Science SPF 15+ Almond Aloe Moisturizer

Preserved with: Potassium Sorbate, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Citric Acid,Tocopherol

This moisturizer remains my lightweight, go-to daily staple. It has a light, almondy scent, doesn’t feel greasy and doesn’t clog my pores. It’s the perfect base to use as a pale Californian. I know whatever else I do or don’t apply over the top, I’ve got some sun protection, with no additional tint or texture going on. I picked it up at Whole Foods initially, but have since managed to re-buy at TJ Maxx. I wore it while swimming all last summer, and came away remarkably lacking in the freckle department for once, so I’d say it sinks in enough (if applied well ahead of time) to remain decently waterproof for an hour or two. If you’re staying out longer, especially in the water, maybe re-apply, though. The magic is not permanent.

La Vanila – The Healthy Deodorant (in pure vanilla – I believe it also comes in lavender)

Preserved with: Tea Tree Extract, Sodium Stearate

This deodorant is a bit pricy (Tom’s is a cheaper and also paraben-free alternative, which Target now carries) but it’s my favorite hippie deodorant by far. It is not an anti-perspirant, however, so if you’re trying to eliminate sweat altogether, this is not your answer. I use it when I’m working out, because who cares how sweaty I am? I love the raw, not-too-sweet vanilla scent. It almost has a bit of a baby powder edge. After an hour of running like the super-determined sloth-creature I am, I don’t smell like week old underwear or an over-perfumed old lady or a sugar cookie. It’s as if I’ve been sweating happiness and sunshine, like that’s just naturally me. Since I don’t use this all the time, I just grab the travel size version at Sephora, which is $8. I believe they have a two-pack online right now that’ll save you a bit. I might snag a set for summer travel.

Tarte Amazonian Clay 12 Hour Waterproof Concealer (in ‘fair’)

Maybelline's classic concealer (with scare-bens) and Tarte's concealear (without)

Maybelline’s classic concealer (with scare-bens) and Tarte’s concealear (without)

Preserved with: Sodium Hylauronate, Sodium Chondroitin Sulfate, and other goodies

The lightest shade is pretty much the same for both

The lightest shade is pretty much the same for both

I love a good stick concealer for spot treatments. Quick and easy. My Maybelline one was showing some wear and tear (and is not paraben-free), so I decided to give this a go. Tarte’s version has the added benefit of being waterproof, which, again, is a huge summer plus. I’m currently using the lightest shade, but might actually need to move up to the next shade by fall. There are eight different shades, so you’ve got a good chance of a decent skin-tone match in this line. Tarte is, of course, a pricier option, and if you’re cool with the parabens, Maybelline’s concealer is a decent dupe, although they offer fewer shades in their basic stick concealer line (are you ivory or a beige of some sort? no? Well, sorry, that’s the extent of the options… which, blah).

Tarte LipSurgence Lip Creme (in Brilliant) and Revlon’s Colorburst Matte Balm (in Sultry)


Preserved with: Tarte’s entry contains Tocopheryl Acetate; Revlon’s uses BHT (which is sort of a synthetic version of a tocopherol, and will likely get its own post at some point)

Revlon on top; Tarte on bottom

Revlon on top; Tarte on bottom

Revlon's Sultry

Revlon’s Sultry

Tarte's Brilliant

Tarte’s Brilliant

When I’m feeling bold, I lean toward berry reds. It’s such a nice spring transitional color – bright, but cool. I’ve bought two similar lip crayons at two different price points, both paraben-free. The Revlon crayon swatches a bit redder; the Tarte version, a bit pinker. The Revlon is a slightly more matte version of the Tarte. Otherwise, they’re very nearly dupes once applied.

The Tarte one came as part of a set along with a liner and a gloss, which work to complete my look with either crayon. The full set was $24. The Revlon one is around $9.50, but Ulta and Walgreens often have buy one, get one half off deals on Revlon products, and Ulta almost always has a $3.50 off of any $10 drugstore brand purchase coupon. Check your online circular. Both crayons are decently long lasting (I use them with the liner and a primer) and not super drying. Sorry, not sorry for the total lack of any other make-up on my face in the pics.

Finally, let’s do some blushes!

Maybelline Dream Bouncy Blush (in Pink Plum and Rose Petal)

Preserved with: hexyl laurate, squishy magic

Pink Plum (left) and Rose Petal (right)

Pink Plum (left) and Rose Petal (right)

Despite ‘rose’ being in the name, the Rose Petal blush is more of a coral color. Pink Plum is a true pink. The consistency of these little guys is strange – like a cream, but in squishy solid form. They apply similar to my blush sticks, with the added bonus of feeling like IMG_20150429_162902286I’m playing with play-doh. I apply with my fingers or a sponge. The blush tends to smush away from brush invaders and it’s difficult to pick up much color that way. I think this formula might be more popular in Korean cosmetics. Is this what an any-cushion is? Whatever’s going on, they’re pretty dang cool and vibrant, and nicely sized for traveling. They’re $8 each at Ulta.

So if you do decide to cut down on your paraben use or if you’re just plain allergic to the stuff, there are definitely tons of options out there these days. Go wild with your label-scrutinizing self! See you again soon, when we’ll be getting jittery and youthful with some good,old-fashioned caffeine.

Parabens: The Root of All Evil? Or Our One True Savior? Or… Neither?

Parabens are a hot-button topic for a myriad of reasons. Let’s break ‘em down! (Also, yes, I know, this article’s going to be a bit dry and picture-less, but there are so many points to hit on this alleged Big Bad, that I figured my best course of action would be a two-parters – first addressing the issues and then offering you some paraben-free options.)

An Isopropylparaben in the wiki-wild

What are parabens?

They’re a para-hydroxybenzoic acid mixed with an alcohol, which yet again gives us an ester. Various alcohols can be used to create polymers of various lengths for use in a huge variety of products, thus producing methylparabens, ethylparabens, isobutylparabens, etc. This group of man-made esters has been widely used as a preservative since WWII. They are awesome at their job, inhibiting germ growth and extending the shelf-life of makeup, toothpaste, moisturizers, hair care products, lube, shave gel, and food of all sorts. When people talk of ‘cutting out preservatives’, this Big Bad is likely central to their crusade. However, parabens are the best broad-spectrum antimicrobial and antifungal agent we’ve come up with thus far, and that’s important to keep in mind.

Are they giving me cancer?

There is, to date, no proven cancer link. tells me, “There are no strong epidemiologic studies in the medical literature that link breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use, and very little scientific evidence to support this claim.”

The 2003 study often cited (concerning women who developed breast cancer at a younger age reporting that they began shaving at an earlier age than women who developed breast cancer later in life) lacked a cancer-free control group of women, young or old, and fails to take into account that shaving and deodorant use are fairly newfangled concepts, in the grand scheme of things, and there’s definitely been a generational shift in how early we start to use the associated products.

The “upper outer quadrant” breast cancer scare comes from, as far as I can tell, the speculative statements of one doctor in the early 2000’s speaking to what she’d observed and then hypothesizing a potential cause. There is no study that I can find that backs up her hypothesis.

Unlike many of our makeup Big Bads, parabens, as I said before, are included in our food, which means they cross over into FDA territory, which has garnered them far more attention and tons of studies, with the FDA, even now, pushing for more on all of the topics I’m addressing here.

What about the estrogen-mimic effect? Are parabens wrecking my lady bits?

The effects of parabens on estrogen production and gene expression vary among the various paraben types. As the polymer length varies, so to does the way it’s able to interact with our cells. But on the whole, parabens likely lead to a minimal increase in estrogen levels. We use them in small amounts and metabolize them quickly, but it’s unclear how much build up occurs and how that affects us over time. Clearly, more studies are needed (and possibly already being done). That said, the U.S. and most European countries currently certify parabens, at the level we’re typically exposed to, completely safe for use. Your lady-bits are probably fine. if you have man-bits, your shower gel isn’t destroying them, either. You’ll likely be no more feminine five years from now than when you started using that fancy 3-in-1 wash in the first place.

Is it an allergen? Is that the plan: off-me quick with anaphylactic shock?

A small portion of the population is allergic to parabens. If you don’t have a specific existing issue with parabens, they should be non-harmful to healthy skin in this regard.

Are parabens teaming up with UVB radiation to kill me just in case nothing else does the job???

Sun-exposure risk studies are in the early stages. The paper most often cited (the 2006 study) concerned skin cells in isolation, in a petri dish, in lab settings. In vivo studies (on skin in all its, preferably living, glory) need to occur for us to more fully know how the complex relationship of skin, parabens, and UVB radiation plays out in the real world. Increased cell die-off is bad, but how our body deals with it matters, and how frequently mutagenic changes result really matters. So… it’s too early to know for sure. Always wear your sunscreen and check to see if it has parabens in the mix (your self-tanner likely does – fair warning there).

Bottom Line

Holy well-preserved crap, you guys! There are a ton of papers out and a ton more on-going studies on all the various potential paraben risks. It was a lot to wade through. What are my final thoughts? Well, regardless of the veracity of the armpit claims, I’m finally trying to make the leap to using less bad-ass deodorant/ antiperspirant at least part of the time. This is more me realizing it’s probably better to just let myself sweat during warm weather workouts than anything else. I’ve switch to a deodorant with no antiperspirant for those sorts of activities. Other than that, I’m actually not too scared of parabens. But you know what IS scary? A world completely devoid of them.

That’s the thing: parabens are one of the best cheap preservatives out there, preventing bacteria and mold from taking root in all our stuff. Going paraben-free means you probably need to pay more attention to expiration dates and know what preservative alternatives are in the mix (if any). Grape seed oil is a natural alternative that crops up quite often, though there seems to be debate about just how effective it is at its job. There are several other organic compounds on the market as alternatives today, but none offer the kind of nearly complete broad spectrum protection you’ll get from parabens. Typically, multiple preservatives must be added (an anti-fungal and an antibacterial agent) to approach the same level of protection. One of the alternatives is more formaldehyde releasers, which seem to also make people uneasy (we’ll get to those at a later date), but which offer possibly the second best alternative to paraben use.

Going au naturale and forsaking all the wonders of the past century that prevent us from dying of botulism or needing antibiotics far too often (and thus contributing to drug-resistant strains) is a choice that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If what you’re using is truly preservative-free, it most certainly won’t last you more than a month (and that’s being generous in most cases) and could be harboring any number of nasty microbes just waiting for the chance to murder the heck out of you. Preservatives represent a HUGE technological advance for for us, allowing the food (and personal care) infrastructure we rely on today to exist without enormous expense on our end and/or widespread, frequent food-poisoning epidemics and skin infections. And again, if we aren’t treating our makeup stash like a mad scientist’s cell culture lab, growing and nurturing bacteria at break-neck speed, and then contracting random awful illnesses as a direct result, we don’t have to struggle to stay one step ahead in treating those illnesses as they crop up. Makeup irritating your skin? Maybe it’s not the ingredients themselves causing problems. Maybe your culprit is whatever’s grown inside your makeup since you opened it.

Preservatives, on the whole, are NOT your enemy.

Can I get a “Huzzah for Hygiene”?

Back in Black: My Adventures in Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal. It’s another huge fad thing, apparently.


People are brushing their teeth with it, adding it in with their crazy juice cleanses, rubbing it all over their faces. It’s far from new, however. Charcoal, on its own, has been utilized for filtering water and ‘curing’ all manner of maladies for thousands of years. Activated charcoal was developed at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a form of carbon processed to increase the surface area, and thus increase its adsorption abilities (think absorption, but just across the surface area). It was used in gas masks for filtering toxic chemicals way back in World War I, and has also been used to treat poisonings and other digestive issues from the moment it hit the scene (you could buy multiple versions of activated charcoal tabs way back in the 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog).

There seems to be no actual dermatological evidence out there supporting its topical benefits, but that’s done nothing to halt its popularity. At the very least, it’s not harming you unless you inhale it, or you’re ingesting it too often, so by all means, do your thang. As far as I can tell, it’s hypoallergenic and obviously it’s vegan. It’s usually super-cooked woody plant matter that’s been oxygenated for your convenience. Think charcoal briquettes, but more aerated.

I’ve been in the midst of a face routine overhaul. Currently, I’m trying to cut back on salicylic acid use. It suddenly dawned on me that I’m far from teenagedom these days. The rest of my routine reflects that, but I hadn’t truly updated my facial care in eons. I definitely don’t need harsh acne pulverizers anymore. Aside from some breakout patches now and then, I have sensitive, mildly combination skin. I need gentler oil control, and way more moisture. It’s not about aging or wrinkles or any of that jazz. I’m just trying to be a bit more forward thinking and a bit kinder to my face.

Sponge, face wash, and bonus face mask (we'll address him in a minute)

Sponge, face wash, and bonus face mask (we’ll address him in a minute)

I introduced two main products into my routine over the last week or so: a charcoal infused konjac sponge (it’s two fads in one!) and Biore’s Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser. I use the latter in the mornings every other day or so and the former in the evenings at the same interval. How’d it go? Let’s dig in!

First, the sponge:

Konjac sponges are plant-based, not a dead sea creature like you’re used to smooshing all over your body. They come out of the package as hard, rough, porous little hemispheres. Opening up the box for the first I felt a little apprehensive. How could this not be super abrasive? Like a condemned man to the gallows, I prepared to steel wool the crap out of my poor face – because I care about you guys JUST THAT MUCH. I cupped it in my hand and let water run over and soak into it, and a miracle happened. It softened up and expanded to about the size of a halved tennis ball. Surprise! It’s not a torture device; it’s just a dense sponge! I… don’t know why I didn’t expect this.



After staring at it and poking it for a minute or two, I applied a mixture of jojoba and Vitamin E oil to the surface. Then, onto the scrubbing. I decided to use this as my make-up removal step. That’s the moment I fell in love. The sponge provides such gentle exfoliation. Combined with my oil cleansing, my face is left so soft and glowy. I’ve been following this step up with a little toning wash and then some night cream (or my daytime moisturizer, if my skin isn’t very parched). The whole set up is fabulous.

Group picture of all my night-time buddies

Group picture of all my night-time buddies

I don’t know if the charcoal is a major factor, though. The sponge itself might be the big winner. It’s very hard to tell. One thing I do know is, I love this exfoliation method so much more than anything involving tiny mystery beads. It’s far better for the water supply, there are no unnecessary cleansers or chemicals in the mix, and each of these sponges is supposed to last me a month or so. I’m sold on this one.

Second, the cleanser:

This one’s a mixed bag. The ingredient list is chock full of frightening buzzwords. SLS is third in the list. There’s sorbitol, methylparabens, and other miscellaneous parabens, oh my! I’m not so crazy about putting all that on my face on a daily basis. It smells amazing, however, like a mild berry Noxema, if that makes any sense. It does feel less harsh than my standard Neutrogena wash, but somehow also a bit more drying, like it sucked everything up but at least didn’t offer me a bonus acid peel. I could see using this a couple times a week to strip away residual gunk from all the random make-up products I slather on my face, but this is just a bit too rough for a daily morning wash, as least for me.

the goop (much greyer out of the bottle)

the goop (much greyer out of the bottle)

It’s probably not going to be a re-buy. If your skin is oilier and less sensitive, maybe this could be your winner. Charcoal doesn’t come close to top billing in the formula, though, despite being the sole item setting this product apart from competitors. If that’s what’s attracting you, you might want to head elsewhere. If you’re looking for a salicylic-acid-free drugstore cleanser with a twist, maybe give it a go, but hunt around for a sample size first. I had a $7 bonus bucks coupon from CVS, so I was willing to take my chances (with that, I paid about a buck for my full size bottle).

Once you pop, you don't fall down?

Once you pop, you don’t fall down?

In addition to those two little beauty care marvels, I also tried the Naris Up Pore Clear Pack Eggshell and Charcoal Face Mask, which I believe is a Japanese product? I picked it up at my local Marukai Market. I couldn’t resist. The little guy on the front looks like the love child of the Pringles Man and a Weeble. So adorable. Somewhere along the line, I lost the outer packaging and with it, the only English instructions. I decided to just wing it.

Rockin' it

Rockin’ it

As you can see, I mainly focused on my chin area before taking a few liberties in the name of style. While waiting for the mask to dry, I checked up on the details as listed on Amazon, which confirmed I’d applied the mask more or less as directed. Go me! The mask starts out as a rich black goo. It smells like finger paint and it’s a bit sticky. I definitely recommend wetting the area you’re applying it to before slathering it on, otherwise it’s difficult to apply smoothly and evenly without it drying too quickly and sticking to your fingers. After peeling off the spot-treatment mask ten minutes later, my chin was a bit red, but nothing out of the normal range. I’m a pasty white girl – that’s my skin’s automatic reaction to literally everything. After a rinse, my chin felt smooth. It’s still looking good today. Despite the paint smell, the mask didn’t irritate my skin or dry me out, and removal wasn’t even painful (we’re talking Elmer’s glue on your hand rather than Biore strip cemented to your nose). I’ll probably revisit this one now and again as a pore strip alternative, despite my misgivings on its smell.

After all that, I think the take away is that, as with anything, the activated charcoal products out there are all over the map, in terms of quality, ingredients, and general ability to live up to their claims. I didn’t get a sense that any of the products’ effectiveness hinged on the presence of charcoal. I’m honestly not sure if that element did anything other than make it look cool. Activated charcoal is still a definite winner if you, say, failed to heed my advice and ate some jojoba pods, but as far as topical use goes, I remain skeptical.

A Very Dry Discussion of Sulfates

When we talk about sulfates in shampoos, conditioners, body washes, toothpaste (yes, really – it’s part of what screws with your taste buds for a while after brushing), etc. we’re usually talking about one of two different compounds: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (aka sodium laureth sulfate or SLES). The former is cheaper to produce, but the latter is a bit less harsh.

I thought I’d start with this Big Bad, because it’s so ubiquitous these days. Crunchy, natural sites across the internet make it out to be evil incarnate, born of the unholy union of conspiratorial mega-corporations and super villain scientists. Is any of the fear mongering warranted? Can we stop screaming ‘corrosive’ for like five seconds and do some research? I’m not sure that word means what you think it means. If we’re going to get that flexible with definitions, please stop corroding my brain cells.

Sorry. I can only read so many all-caps rants before I start biting back, regardless of the topic. The internet: turning us all into toddlers with keyboards since 1997. Let’s back up a bit. What the heck are these compounds in the first place? And why include them despite the controversy? Working backwards through the name, the sulfates used are typically petroleum derived. They’re turned into sulfur gas, which is in turn treated with lauryl alcohol. Lauryl alcohol is derived from coconut or palm oil, making it sort of a synthesized waxy ester. Remember those? I wonder what jojoba oil would do to the process? Any chemists out know if it could work in this arena? Is it already being used? I am suddenly curious.

Anyway, tangent! So you put together those two wonder-goodies to produce hydrogen laurel sulfate, which is then neutralized with some sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as soda ash or washing soda. This stuff:


Pictured in a suspicious baggie

It just so happens I have some washing soda around, because it’s used as a fixative in dyeing clothes, and I’ve heard it could give a more pinky-purple tone to my cochineal dye. It’s harsh to work with, but so is bleach, and yet we keep that around. Always use gloves and proper ventilation, people.

When those three ingredients – sulfur gas, laurel esters, and sodium carbonate – come together, you get SLS, which is a detergent/surfactant. As compounds go, it’s kind of cool. Amphiphilic compounds like SLS act as a sort of chemical mafia on your behalf. When you lather up that soap or shampoo, it’s like letting these little mafiosos into a room and telling them you have a problem with Mr. Oily. He’s been clogging up business lately and causing facial chaos. So they surround him, leaving you physically unscathed while they whisk him away. The last you saw him, as you can tell the cops, he was alive and well. Just… you know, surrounded by angry guys with weapons. Meanwhile, Mr. Oily disappears into the East River, or whatever body of water your shower is draining into. And don’t worry about him bobbing to the surface anytime soon! Surfactants lower surface tension. It’s like those guys think of everything! Unfortunately for you, Mr. Oily’s family will show up looking for him and raising a whole host of uncomfortable questions within a day or two, but you can always bring back the SLS mafia to take care of them, too.

Artist's rendering of events

Artist’s rendering of events

Put a little less crazily, SLS molecules look a little like sperm or a balloon, with a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail. When you introduce them to water, the head half tries to bond with it, while the tail tries bonding with the oil or with air or anything else present, sucking in and trapping whatever isn’t water. This creates balls of trapped oil, suspended in the water, which then get washed away.


The dark blue balls are hydrophilic heads; the green squiggles are the hydrophobic tails

So, on its face, SLS isn’t really that bad for you. If you use SLS too much, you’ll likely end up with dry skin and hair that’s dull and prone to breakage because you’ve robbed yourself of all your natural oils. But if you don’t use it at all, ever, the other products you do use, like dry shampoo, hair spray, and makeup, will build up and never quite get washed away. It’ll be as if Mr. Oily got comfortable and invited friends over to party. As with most things in life, the key lies in moderation. Also, try not to get yourself indebted to the mob. That’s always good advice.

SLS is not eco-friendly as long as petroleum is used in its production (it’s cheaper than working with naturally occurring sulfur, apparently). It is totally valid to object to the compound on environmental grounds. Provided alternate sulfur sources are used, and the coconut or palm oil is sustainably sourced, however, the finished product itself? Pretty much fine.

“But what about carcinogens?” you may be asking.

“1,4-Dioxane!” you may be screaming, fists in the air, tears in your eyes.

Calm down.

While trace amounts of 1,4-Dioxane can crop up in SLES, in particular, the FDA maintains that it exists in amounts too small to cause harm. Ethanolamine lauryl sulfates WERE carcinogenic, but those were pulled from the market by the 1970s and replaced with their two, now better known, cousins. It’s also worth noting that, and I’m quoting here, “three different agencies — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have all rated SLS as being non-carcinogenic.” It’s not like there’s some grand conspiracy where damning research is being suppressed. There’s info out there from so many different programs and agencies. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no worse than a lot of the other things I’m subjecting my body to regularly, like balsamic vinegar or sunshine, so whatevs.

When it comes down to it, yes, you likely use SLS and SLES containing products every day, but chances are you always use them in small amounts (they make up 15% or less of the total ingredient mix in shampoos) and in combination with water (which further dilutes your products). It’s important to factor in those elements. And, yes, SLS is used in industrial cleaning agents as well. It’s good for cleaning! That’s what makes it great for you and your floor! The big difference is, those industrial cleaners are going to be far more concentrated, because they’re meant for scrubbing linoleum, not skin.

IMG_20150309_191220804If you’re looking to replace or supplement your shampoo and conditioner with a sulfate-free and affordable alternative, I’m a big fan of the OGX line of products. I found a double-size bottle of their Awapuhi Ginger conditioner at CVS some time ago for half-price ($5), and have been riding that train for at least half a year now. Loreal has apparently launched a sulfate-free line as well, but I haven’t tried anything from that line and thus can’t vouch for it yet. If you’re tried it, let me know what you thought.

I, personally, always try to use sulfate-free conditioners. That’s one area where I’m in the crunchy granola camp. It just doesn’t make sense to me to include something drying and oil-stealing when I’m trying to replace the oils and moisture I just took out. Why do companies put SLS in conditioners in the first place? Possibly just because we’ve been conditioned (puns! Ha!) to expect a rich lather in our hair products, which is produced by adding in detergent, and SLS is one of the cheapest detergent options. Forgoing SLS means you might need to forgo the suds. Sorry, but that’s life.

Creepy Crawly Lippies and You

Be forewarned: today we’re delving into our first creepy crawly topic, and, oh yes, there will be pics. Sorry if that bugs you. Heh heh. Bugs. Get it? Because we’re learning about cochineal scale insects.


A big ole’ jar of fun times

Carmine is the dye derived from cochineal. It can be found in a variety of foods, hair and skin care products, lipsticks, eye shadows, and blushes. Basically, in anything pink or red. Cochineal refers to the insects themselves. They are true bugs, of the order hemiptera, which means they have piercing, sucking mouthparts. Don’t panic. They only use their terrifying beak-things to drink from prickly pear cactus pads. They’re herbivores.

I am so sorry if all of this leads to nightmares. I just… I am not good at not being creepy when it comes to insects. I’m way too entranced by them.



The chemical extract we so value exists in the female cochineals as an ant repellant. It is not poisonous and neither is the eventual dye. So much misinformation exists on the internet about these little guys and I don’t know why. Are you all really that skeeved out about insects? Is that it? Because they’re fine, I promise. They won’t ever even come in contact with you while they’re alive unless you make a habit of sleeping outdoors in the Mexican desert on a bed of cacti, in which case bugs can’t possibly be at the top of your list of concerns.

Pictured: possibly the least comfy thing ever (Image courtesy pf Zyance (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons)

Cochineal (oh by the way, it’s pronounced either coach-ih-neel  or cotch-ih-neel, whichever feels right to you) was first used by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a fabric dye. Colonization by Spain brought the dye to Europe for the first time in the 1500s, where it became highly coveted and pricy, replacing many older red dye sources due to its colorfastness and vibrancy. For 300 years the bugs reigned supreme. Then science happened, as it so often does. In 1863, Alizarin crimson became the first natural pigment to be reproduced synthetically, using coal tar. It was cheap. It was mass-producible. It was awesome. It was hugely popular. Also, like almost everything else in the 1800s, it was carcinogenic.

Cochineal production ground almost to a halt, existing only for the sake of tradition (Thanks, stubborn elderly people!) until the second half of the 20th century, when we began to question the effects the synthetic alternatives were having on our health. Again, refined coal tar. On our faces. All the time. Nowadays, if you’re using cochineal products, you’re likely supporting small scale farmers in Peru, the Canary Islands, and Mexico, helping them to make a living farming the bugs. As with jojoba, this all occurs in a desert landscape, sustainably and with little agricultural water use. Because we’re working with bugs here, pest control measures (to protect the cacti and the cochineal bugs from predators) must take care to not prematurely kill off the cash crop, so these farms aren’t producing many excess toxins. It’s a great set-up.

Oh, and many products still use coal tar or petroleum derivatives for red hues in lieu of carmine. For real. Natural is usually a better alternative than those options.

On the flipside, these are tiny living animals. For the purposes of this blog (and because they’re neat and tie dye is fun), I ordered a jar of dried cochineal. I’ve dyed a tank top with these before, but I had forgotten how smelly they are in their raw form. I’ll show you the results in a separate post, since this one is once again soooo long. It’s undeniable when you’re working closely with them that these are dead things. It’s harsh. It’s unpleasant. It’s obviously not vegan or kosher or halal friendly.

Cochineal dyes also cause an allergic reaction in a small subset of the population. That’s why, in 2009, the FDA mandated that cochineal be explicitly listed on ingredient labels rather than vaguely hidden behind the label “natural color”. Depending on where you are and where your makeup comes from, however, you might still see it listed as cochineal extract, carmine, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120. If you’re allergic to shrimp and shellfish, you might want to get tested for carmine/cochineal allergies as well, since carmine dye is used in everything from yogurt to lunch meat and could be angering your intestines as we speak. Any time you’re unsure of how you’ll react to a new product, swatch a tiny bit on the back of your hand before you buy. As someone with ultra-sensitive skin, I can’t stress that enough. Swatch and wait. Hang around Ulta until you’re fairly certain nothing is happening. Better au naturale than au bleeding, cracking, clown-lipped. That’s what I… sometimes… say.

If you are allergic and scrutinizing labels, always scan the actual ingredient list. Front of the label buzzwords are largely meaningless. Just because a company doesn’t test on animals, that  does not mean they refrain from using beeswax, shellac, cochineal, or squalene as ingredients. Even companies that advertise as hypoallergenic may still use cochineal in some products.

That said, let’s wrap up with a few carmine-free recommendations, shall we?

IMG_20150225_151841864First off, E.L.F. cosmetics are as cheap as it gets and, save for one of their brush lines (which is made with horsehair), they are vegan. I’m loving their HD blush in headliner and their matte lip color in praline.

Some NYX products are carmine-free, while others aren’t. Up there you’ll see a nice matte red, called Alabama, which claims to contain no carmine. For an at least semi-complete listing on their products go here. I, personally, love their matte lipstick line. The colors are amazing, the matte isn’t super-drying, and it’s super affordable ($4 each, I believe?).


From left to right: E.L.F. blush (not blended out at all), Butter London lippy, NYX matte lipstick, Tarte Tartelette lipstick, and E.L.F. lip matte lip crayon

As far as prestige brands go, I’m having wintery fun with this Butter London Lippy in Ruby Murray (Scored at half price. Holla at the Ulta clearance aisle!). For Butter London’s vegan product list head over here. I’m also indulging in Tarte’s Tartelette lipstick in ethereal pink, which is a new release that is perfect for spring. It’s a rich neutral staple (trendy!), it’s made with clay pigments, and it’s a little bit minty. Both of these are carmine-free, but may contain beeswax. Tarte does carry some vegan products, labeled helpfully with a green V on the product pages of their website (it will be to the left of the ‘add to bag’ button) if you’re interested.

Coming up: a dyeing experience, as well as our first toxic baddie. Hopefully those two will be unrelated and completely separate.