Attack of the wrinkled ladies

May 5th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics | 30 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday May 5, 2007
The Guardian

Wrinkly ladies nationwide have coordinated a stampede for Boots No 7 Protect & Perfect face cream, after it was endorsed by the BBC’s Horizon: so let’s do face creams. Basically they’re all the same. They all moisturise, like vaseline, but without the greasiness. And most also contain mashed up protein chains: these are long and mobile when they’re soggy, but curl up and contract when they dry, for instant tightening gratification. Companies give these proteins French sciencey names such as Tenseur Peptidique Vegetal.

Lastly, they may contain active ingredients: a double-edged sword. So vitamin A seems to be helpful on skin, but its active form, tretinoin, Read the rest of this entry »

You And Yours – An all time low in consumer reporting

May 4th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, cosmetics | 11 Comments »

You and Yours has just broadcast one of the weakest pieces of journalism I have heard in a very long time. The Boots No7 face cream has precipitated a mass stampede of wrinkly ladies since it was endorsed by BBC Horizon: it is, people say, the only “scientifically proven” cream.

The reaction of You and Yours to this?

A hysterical witch hunt about the fact that Boots paid for the research. Read the rest of this entry »

Atomic tomatoes are not the only fruit

December 16th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in africa, alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, channel 4, channel five, cosmetics, dna, express, gillian mckeith, herbal remedies, independent, letters, mail, MMR, nutritionists, oxygen, penises, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, quantum physics, references, space, statistics, telegraph, times, very basic science, water | 9 Comments »

This article is a rough transcript of the most excellent Bad Science Awards 2004 that were held in the Asylum Club on Rathbone St W1, a tiny basement club with a fire safety license for 150. We were expecting 20 people but to general astonishment there were queues down the street, and an unruly crowd who were drunkenly, loudly, and at one point quite violently baying for Gillian McKeith’s blood. Also performing were the excellently frightening and dangerous Disinformation presents “National Grid”, performance terrorism with victorian electrical equipment and rubber gloves, featuring Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor and Guardian Far Out fame.

Thursday December 16, 2004
The Guardian

Ben Goldacre on the gongs nobody wants to win…

Andrew Wakefield prize for preposterous extrapolation from a single unconvincing piece of scientific data

With its place at the kernel of Bad Science reporting in the news media, this was bound to be a hotly contested category. Were there any Read the rest of this entry »

Sitting pretty

September 9th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, cosmetics | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 9, 2004
The Guardian

· I prostrate myself before you and admit defeat. I’ve been writing this column for nearly two years, and I still haven’t managed to stiff a single multinational cosmetics firm: they’re just too good at constructing legally defensible pseudoscience. I’m picturing huge laboratories and rows of scientists writing incomprehensible but legally sound babble onto their clipboards.

· Cosmetics companies take laboratory data – stuff at a molecular level, the behaviour of cells in a glass dish – and then pretend it’s the same as the ultimate issue of whether something makes you look nice. This amino acid, they say, is crucial for collagen formation. Perfectly true, along with 19 others. No evidence to say that anyone is deficient in it, and, crucially, no explicit claim from the company that rubbing that actual amino acid on your face is what is going to make you look better. That link is made only in the customer’s mind: because the claim that the cream makes you look good is an entirely separate one, made for the cream as a whole, and it’s true, because all creams will hydrate your skin and make you look good. Vaseline, as it happens, also does it rather well, but leaves a greasy sheen. And most cosmetics research, since you ask, comes down to conserving the moisturising properties of Vaseline, but avoiding the greasiness. Diprobase, at less than £10 for a half-litre tub, represents a pretty good stab at solving this problem.

· What about the other magic ingredients? One thing kind of works: cooked and broken-up protein (hydrolysed X-microprotein nutricomplexes, or whatever they’re calling them this month). These are long soggy chains of amino acids, which contract when they dry, and so temporarily contract your wrinkles. That’s temporarily. And all the expensive creams have got that in them anyway. A couple of other things kind of work. Vitamin C, and alpha-hydroxy acids affect skin significantly, although only at such high concentrations that they also cause irritation, stinging, burning and redness: so now they have to be watered down, to pretty useless dilutions. But companies can still name them on the label, and wallow in the glory of their efficacy at higher potencies, because by law you don’t have to give the doses of your ingredients, only their ranked order.

· Now, I’m begging you, find me one that makes a properly fraudulent pseudoscientific claim I can write about without getting sued, and I’ll give you a free tub of Diprobase.

Ladies’ Pages

June 7th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, cosmetics | 3 Comments »

Laura Barton quotes me, very kindly.

As if by magic

So, there’s an instant potion for lean, toned thighs? Hmm, says Laura Barton

Monday June 7, 2004
The Guardian

As the season of swimsuits beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to Slimfast, Atkins and half-arsed intentions of taking the stairs – last-ditch efforts, of course, to acquire the thighs of Halle Berry before we take ourselves off to the beach. But for those of us who cannot haul ourselves off the chaise longue and detach ourselves from the custard creams, come an exciting array of firming lotions and potions. These require only five minutes of our time spent inelegantly posed in the bathroom, dolloping herbal gloop on our thighs in the hope that it will “firm”, “tone” and “reduce” those lumpen bits of our anatomy.

Article continues
The notion that ladling cream on to one’s curvier bits might help us to lose several inches does, in saner moments, appear ludicrous. What is this cream going to do with the squadgy inches of podge? Eat it? Evaporate it? Feed it to the ducks? Nevertheless, in this isle alone, the “slimming creams” market is worth £30 million a year, and the shelves are heaving with impossibly-named products – Clarins Body Lift Contour Control, Shiseido Advanced Essential Energy Body Firming Cream, Christian Dior Bikini Anti-Cellulite.

“Skincare companies are really, really, really good at making pseudo-scientific claims,” explains Ben Goldacre, author of the Guardian’s Bad Science column. “They’ll say ‘Vitamin E and collagen are essential for the cross-molecular structure of whatever,’ in technical grand terms, without making any claim that the specific ingredient will have any effect on your skin. They blind you with cell-biology-level rhetoric and then they say ‘and our cream will moisturise your skin!’ Which even Vaseline will do. And they say things like, ‘you’ll absorb the nutrients through your skin,’ when you absorb nutrients through your gut. Your skin is very thick and dead and designed to be impervious, not letting things in or out. Otherwise you’d leak.”

But so lucrative is the market that, as summer arrives, one can barely move without seeing a lady’s naked bottom plastered across billboards and buses and squashed between segments of Coronation Street. And what a peachy derriere it is – unsagging, uncellulited and without stretch marks. Dove was the first this season, with its ad showing “real women” in sensible undergarments. They were curvy and fulsome, but my, they were firm. Now the skincare giants appear to have moved beyond touting their products’ firming properties and on to shouting about the actual slimming effects. The latest Roc ad, for example, shows a lady tugging at the gaping waistband of her jeans – beneath claims of dropping a dress size.

But at up to £20 a pop, do they work? Last month, a study by the French Consumer Association announced that two creams, L’Oréal PerfectSlim and Elancyl Chrono Actif, could actually reduce a lady’s (or, one presumes, a gentleman’s) thighs by two centimetres in two weeks. Two centimetres is not to be sniffed at, but the nagging question remains: is cream a long-term solution?

“It’s tempting to think you can buy thin thighs out of a bottle,” concedes Susie Whalley, co-author of Running Made Easy and features editor at Zest magazine. “But you shouldn’t rely on lotions and potions. You might lose a couple of centimetres off your thighs if you’re lucky, but you’re never going to shed half a stone. Exercise gives you lots of other health benefits that you won’t get in a squeezy tube. It improves heart health, boosts self-confidence, makes you feel more energised and gives you improved circulation, which helps with cellulite, and your skin facially will improve – that healthy flush tends to last.”

Yes, yes, Susie, but what about the thighs? “I would say you would really notice a difference after running for three weeks,” she says. “If you’ve altered your eating habits a little you might have lost 3-4lbs and you’ll feel slimmer all over. You might feel your thighs are toning and tightening up.”

The problem is that exercise involves some degree of public humiliation, sweat and physical exertion. And “altering your eating habits” requires, well, not having seconds and laying off the sauce. We want these slimming and firming creams because they’re easy and we’re lazy. But the hard truth is there is no magical fix. You want slimmer thighs? Eat fewer cream horns, honey. Do some exercise. It ain’t rocket science.

Friendly bacteria?

January 29th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Friendly bacteria?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 29, 2004
The Guardian

· In the hands of a pseudoscientist, even morally neutral items like bacteria and salt can become “good” or “bad”. Paul Flowers writes in to tell us about Carex soap, available in his local pharmacy: “Carex effectively removes bad bacteria on hands, whilst gently protecting the good.” Presumably the soap molecules carefully examine the surface receptors and DNA profile of the bacteria, before comparing this against a comprehensive database of man’s vulnerabilities to bacterial attack, in order to calculate exactly how dangerous they might be, before ranking them in ascending order of evil?

· Meanwhile, reader Adam Rice is slightly worried about the advice his father is being peddled on the “metabolic acceptability” of certain brands of salt. “After a number of articles on the danger of salt consumption appeared in the Guardian, my father resolved to give up his prodigious salt habit. To help in this endeavour, my mother purchased a fabulously eccentric book entitled Get the Salt Out by Ann Louise Gittleman (MS, CNS PhD).” In the spirit of all the best pseudoscientists, Ann calls upon the rhetorical force of the experimental method to bolster her case: “Put the salt you now use to a test to determine its metabolic acceptability: add a spoonful to a glass of plain water, stir it several times, and let it stand overnight. If the salt collects in a thick layer on the bottom of the glass, your salt has failed the test: it is heavily processed and not very usable by the body. To give your body salt it can use, switch instead to an unrefined natural salt that will dissolve in a glass of water as well as in bodily fluids. This experiment gives you a visual example of what refined salt can do to your system: collect in body organs and clog up the circulatory system.” I never knew that.

· Fortunately for us all, Adam has done his own experiment. “In the interests of science, I borrowed some road salt from the tub at the end of the road. I reckon since it’s completely unrefined its metabolic acceptability must be beyond compare. I stirred a teaspoon into a glass of water and left it overnight, but I must have done something wrong because now there’s a nasty brown scum on the bottom of the glass. Probably just as well I didn’t try it on my chips.”

Because you’re worth it

November 27th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, homeopathy, ions, MMR, quantum physics | 8 Comments »

Because you’re worth it

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 27, 2003
The Guardian

· Reader Helen Porter writes in to tell me about the Ion-Conditioning Hairdryer, which uses “Patented Trionic Action” to “micronize” water molecules and, impressively for a hairdryer, magically hydrate your hair. The Journal of Trionic Physics, for those of you who thought they made those long words up, was the name of a Jefferson Airplane fanzine. But I digress: the manufacturer, Bioionic, is also the inventor of Ionic Hair Retexturising (IHR). And it’s not just a new way to straighten your hair, it’s a whole new branch of physics.

· Colour Nation, hairdressers to the stars in Soho, London, offers Bioionic’s IHR. Its public relations material explains how it works: “Positive ions have lost an electron, and are considered unhealthy,” whereas negative ions “have gained an electron, and greatly assist in a body’s mood, energy level, and overall health”. When these benevolent negative ions encounter water, “the water molecules are broken down to a fraction of their previous size . . . diminutive enough to penetrate through the cuticle, and eventually into the core of each hair”.

· I might be wrong, but surely shrinking water molecules must cost more than the £230 Colour Nation charges for IHR? The only other groups who have managed to create that kind of superdense quark-gluon plasma used a relativistic heavy ion collider, and if Colour Nation has got one of those at the back of the salon then I’m glad I don’t live in the flat upstairs. Although a Mirror reporter who had the compressed molecule treatment did say her hair “itched and smelled of chemicals” afterwards. Maybe there is something more potent than negative ions in there after all.

· Meanwhile a tip from a friend who, may I just point out, doused for the sex of her baby. She was delighted, at her antenatal yoga class, after being told how immunisations would kill her baby, to be handed Homeopathy News. The pamphlet mentions a study from the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital in which 80% of 25 children reported an improvement in their asthma after homeopathy. Which sounds impressive. But there was no placebo control group, and it doesn’t seem to have actually been published anywhere (or not anywhere peer reviewed). Which doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just remember that in a recent review of all the evidence on homeopathy – I’ll say it again – it was shown, overall, to be no more effective than a placebo …

DNA magic

November 13th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, dna, very basic science | 5 Comments »

DNA magic

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 13, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· I was delighted to read in the journal Science that researchers from Stanford University in California have successfully created a form of “super DNA” that is larger than normal DNA and easier to study. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t the first time that DNA with amazing properties has been documented.

· Geneticist Dr Ed Hollox of Nottingham University draws my attention to the cosmetics company Valmont, who will sell you a concoction called Cellular DNA Complex, made from “specially treated salmon roe DNA”, at the bargain price of £236 for seven phials. According to the Sunday Times’ style supplement, it “enhances the cosmetic properties (moisturising, regenerating and protecting) of DNA”. “Sadly,” their correspondent continues, “smearing salmon on your face doesn’t have the same effect.” I guess we have to take their word for that, although Dr Hollox, who knows a bit about DNA, doubts whether the specially treated salmon roe DNA stuff would have much effect, either.

· And there was more unusual DNA in Die Another Day, when James Bond came up against a Korean baddy who turned himself into an English gentleman criminal using DNA. As his evil doctor explained: “First we kill off your bone marrow, wipe the DNA slate clean.” Not that we need to worry about the DNA in every other cell in your body. But what happens in phase two? “The introduction of new DNA harvested from healthy donors, orphans, runaways, people that won’t be missed.” Surely a Hollywood scriptwriter should know that one mouth swab from one child would give the doctor all the DNA he could possibly need to carry out his evil plans?

· But the real action is with Kryon, a “supreme being” spiritually and lucratively “channelled” into book form by a human being called Lee Carroll. Kyron informs us that DNA actually contains 12 strands – not two – thanks to which “every single human being has the potential for all knowledge”. Just to keep you worrying, he’s sold more than half a million books, and apparently all this wisdom “resides in the crystalline 12-segmented structure that wraps itself around the encoding [DNA]“, which, er, you can’t actually see. If you’re interested, a woman called Marlana at www.marlana.org will activate your 10 extra strands of DNA remotely, over email, for just $39.

Swimming with sharks

October 30th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, express | 4 Comments »

Swimming with sharks

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 30, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· Dolphins will save us all, according to the International Journal of Bad Science – sorry, I mean the Express. “Swimming with dolphins is increasingly recognised as a therapy for clinical depression, autism, and other neurological conditions,” it says, before regaling us with tales of autistic children speaking their first words. All sounds jolly nice, if a bit sentimental. No bad science there. Although no evidence on Medline. I was just wondering, how does it work? Over to Dr Horace Dobbs: “One theory is that the sounds they make coming through the water interact with our central nervous systems and produce tiny holes which can boost energy and stimulate the immune system,” he tells the Express.

· Tiny holes? A bunch of holes might well stimulate the immune system, but who says that’s a good thing? In the past week, it’s been reported that echinacea, Geranium Egypt aromatherapy and aspartame are all immune system stimulators. But could stimulating the immune system, if such a thing is possible, actually be bad for you? Holistic Vets spammed me last week trying to get me to feed my cat “immune stimulating” mushrooms, weirdly, I swear, on the actual day the cat died from leukaemia, a disease of an overactive immune system.

· Do these things come with a health warning? Clearly not. Although best-selling author Andrew Weil says: “I advise people with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus to avoid long-term use of any of the immune-enhancing botanicals. But I think it’s perfectly fine for them to take echinacea or astragalus short-term (up to 10 days or so) to treat colds and other minor infections.” Based on what exactly? Well, he is a doctor. And Dr Dobbs is, it turns out, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, no less. You can buy his book, Dolphin Healing, on Amazon at the moment for 1p.

· Which is a lot cheaper than the bottle of “Organics” conditioner with collagen and amino acids (your hair is dead, I repeat, your hair is dead) that I have before me. May I point out, before I go, that the ingredients of this conditioner are as follows: Aqua, Cetearyl Alcohol, Dimethiconol, Cetrimonium Chloride, C11-15 Pareth-7, C11-15 Pareth-5, Parfum, Tocopheryl Acetate, Citric Acid, Amodimethicone, Cetyl Hydroxyethylcellulose, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Hydroxide, Isoleucine, Lysine, CI 47005, CI 4700, CI 42051, and Collagen Amino Acids.

Neutral whites

September 4th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, cosmetics, herbal remedies, magnets | 5 Comments »

Neutral whites

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 4, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· When I was a lad, washing powder adverts were all about men in white coats on housewives’ doorsteps; now international biotech firms have to wear a kaftan and beads just to get your attention. New Persil Aloe Vera contains “Aloe Vera extract, well known to be gentle on skin … a touch of nature for all the family wash”. If I can be the man in the white coat for a moment: aloe vera has been shown “in tests” to accelerate wound healing, which might count as gentle, but [turns earnestly to camera ignoring baffled housewife] “a touch” of nature is just about all you’ll get once it’s been through two rinse cycles and a drum spinning at 1200rpm.

· And while I’m still in anally retentive mode: Bach’s Flower Remedies were not, as the unendingly credulous Times stated last week, “discovered” by Dr Bach in the 1930s. Species and laws are “discovered”; esoteric moneyspinners, no matter how well-meaning and fluffy they may be, are “concocted”.

· And now to our star bad science activist from Birmingham, who, sadly, wishes to remain anonymous. A firm called Neutralec is apparently on to something big. That funny shading you sometimes get on your carpets, where the weave points in different directions? Electromagnetic waves, apparently. I turn to the website (www.field-free.co.uk). I start to worry when I see the pictures of big dark rectangles in fitted shagpile that were apparently caused by a broken video recorder that was 2m away in the loft and wasn’t even plugged in. The website says I can get rid of this sort of thing by plugging a little ceramic sphere (that costs £60) into my earth loop through the three-pin plug on the wall, and this will also protect me from electromagnetic radiation. Or will it? In among the testimonials (“Neither I or anyone else has experienced a headache since … Twelve months later … her husband had not experienced any fits whatsoever!”) they seem to be hedging their bets: “We are not in any way suggesting that the Neutraliser will cure any specific illness or prevent disease.” Well, as the Guardian legal department often say, as they rap my sarcastic little knuckles: that’s certainly what you’re implying. Where others would have held their heads in disbelief, our masked crusader wrote to Solihull trading standards, asking: “How many gullible souls have to part with £60 before someone makes a stand?” So far, no response. If you need any help, trading standards, a nation of scientists is at your disposal.