Thursday, 10 February 2011

Chemistry 3: Made-up names for chemicals

Okay, so last time I ranted about badly-defined science, and deliberately-misnamed scientific phrases, like liquid calcium in toothpaste, and silver molecules in deodorants.  But don't get me started on made-up chemicals.  Not make-up chemicals, made-up chemicals.  And not in science fiction, either, where they belong (kryptonite, dilithium and so on).  Crazy, thrown-together prefixes and suffices that sound like they're chemicals, but are nothing of the sort.  No, they aren't.  Nutrileum, nutrisse, proxylane... they're all nonsense.  Not to mention the use of correct chemical names in incorrect ways.  I mentioned this last time, but 'active oxygen' is another that gets me.  Why is it so different from 'inactive oxygen', or 'lethargic oxygen'?  No, adverts must contain 'active oxygen' because inactive oxygen would probably make us all go to sleep.

Let's take a look at a classic acronym:  AHAs.  Alpha-hydroxy acids.  Yes, that's acids - and by applying this product to your cheeks, you'll be putting acids on your face.  Doesn't this worry you?  Of course it does, because acids are renowned among the uninformed as being bad for your health (they cause tooth decay, among other things), so they get labelled AHAs instead.  What are they?  Acid molecules... organic acid molecules at that (more on 'organic' either today or some other time, but definitely soon).

Pentapeptides - or leftover bits of protein - penta meaning 'having five' and peptides meaning 'made from amino acids'.  So a pentapeptide is a molecule made up of five amino acids (most probably).  A typical protein has thousands of amino acid parts, so having five is a bit small.  Applying this goo to your skin and expecting it to automatically improve your complexion is a bit like trying to construct a piece of literature by randomly adding five-letter chunks to the end of it.  To be fair, skin is a living, well-designed material, and is able to pick out the right letters to keep spelling 'skin' the five-letter chunks, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was proven that eating more healthily does wonders for your skin.  After all, the digestive system is designed to absorb the amino acids to develop and maintain a healthy body, moreso than just throwing sticky creams at your skin, at any rate.

Oxygen is best breathed in through the lungs, carried out in red blood cells in the blood, and used to release the energy found in the food we eat.  Otherwise, oxygen is a gas that's capable of causing damage to cells, and that's why it has to be transported so carefully around the body.  A search for, 'dangers of oxygen' will demonstrate what unrestrained oxygen can do in the human body.  For 'active' in this context, I think it's probably best to read 'fizzy' and producing a tingling sensation.  I can't help wondering what they'll come up with next - perhaps turbo-charged water?  There's much discussion of active oxygen around, and the truth be told, I can't find (and don't know) of the exact definition of active oxygen, but from what I gather, it's all about the electrons in the oxygen molecule... suffice it to say, it's probably not all it's cracked up to be!

As for anything that ends in 'ane', 'ene' or 'eum'... oh dear.  How about methane (natural gas, and very smelly), benzene (I mentioned last time, a cancer-causing irritant) and the ileum (the last part of the small intestine, a dark and unpleasant place)?  And the additions of "oxy" or "xylane" make advertisers look as if they've been building words to obtain good Scrabble scores, instead of communicating science.

Not to mention the lazy addition of 'pro' to the start of a chemical name.  How about 'pro-retinol'?  Sounding like a concoction of pro, retina and alcohol, perhaps it's supposed to help with treating the bleary eyes that follow a late night out?  What's its chemical composition?  Nothing of the sort. Pro-argin (Colgate), Pro-retinol and Pro-gen (L'Oreal), not to mention Pantene Pro-V (where the V stands for...?).

Better still are numbers at the end of chemical names.  Pro-retinol-nine sounds even better than pro-retinol-one, although I'm sure the numbers are carefully chosen to sound scientific.  And if you don't think numbers can sound scientific, consider seven compared to four.  I don't know why pro-chemical-seven should sound better than pro-chemical-four, but Chanel certainly rates No 7, for some unknown reason!

I could go on... and let's be honest, in a future blog post I probably will.  In addition to more made-up chemical names, I'll look at the list of components in shampoo, soap, shower gel and so on, and begin to explain what they actually do, and why (if I can work it out) they're given the strange names that they have.  Until then, I'll keep smiling and laughing at the cosmetics adverts, and browsing the Advertising Standards Authority website for the latest promotional blunders!

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