Sunday, April 14, 2013

Beauty Bullshit: Oxygen-Infused Makeup and Skincare

I first came into contact with the idea of oxygen in products as a way to promote cellular respiration when I got a free sample of Philosophy's "Take A Deep Breath" Oil-Free Energizing Oxygen Gel Cream Moisturizer. According to Sephora, "This cream diffuses energizing oxygen to... support cell respiration". Wait... This toothpaste-teal, sparkly moisturizer is supposed to do WHAT?

But Philosophy isn't the only offender. Benefit's 'Hello Flawless!' Oxygen Wow Liquid Foundation (whose name coincidentally sounds exactly like what would be written on the back of a Benefit counterfeit by someone who isn't fluent in English) supposedly "helps boost cellular respiration for a 'plumping up' effect".

Among more obscure brands, this claim is even more prevalent. Robanda Oxygen Boost Night Therapy, Bliss Triple Oxygen+C Energizing Cream, Dr. Brandt "detoxygen experience" (which supposedly is "formulated with oxygen spheres"... oxygen SPHERES? WHAT? Oxygen is a linear molecule! What is going on with all this "sphere" nonsense?), Thalgo 'Oxygen SOS' serum, AINHOA Oxygen Cream, and countless others all suggest that their product has some sort of beneficial effect on your skin via cellular respiration.

At the heart of the issue, there are three implied claims that need to be tackled here:
1. These products have some sort of oxygen composition that is different from that of comparable products that don't make these claims.
2. Oxygen in skincare somehow boosts cellular respiration.
3. Boosting cellular respiration provides some sort of benefit to your skin.

So, let's start at the beginning.

Claim #1: These products have some sort of oxygen composition that is different from that of comparable products that don't make these claims. 

High school chemistry reminder: what is oxygen, anyways? Oxygen is the chemical element with the atomic number 8. That means that it has eight protons in its nucleus. Oxygen is very abundant. It is the third most abundant element (behind hydrogen and helium). Because the human body is comprised mostly of water, oxygen makes up about two thirds of the mass of a human body.

When we talk about oxygen colloquially, though, we are usually talking about dioxygen, or O2. Oxygen is a gas, so it cannot be an ingredient in any cosmetic product in its own right (unless your product is being used below -183 degrees Celsius, which is the boiling point of oxygen).

That doesn't mean that there is no O2 in a cosmetic product. Oxygen can dissolve in water, for example. However, the oxygen composition of water is much, much lower than that of air. Air contains about 21% oxygen. Water, on the other hand, contains only about 1% oxygen. We can increase the composition of oxygen in our water by making it colder or by splashing it around. Unfortunately, neither of those things are under the control of a cosmetics company. I can think of no method that would increase the composition of O2 that would feasibly survive mass production and distribution. Furthermore, no matter what you do, air is going to have more O2 than whatever you are spreading on your forehead... and your face is surrounded by air all the damn time.

Even ingredients that dissolve high amounts of oxygen, such as perfluorodecalin, dissolve carbon dioxide more readily than they dissolve oxygen. Although they can hypothetically be saturated in oxygen, in practice, they are saturated in carbon dioxide unless they are constantly being recycled to pump in new oxygen. Furthermore, even if they were to be saturated with oxygen (which they are not), the percent oxygen is no better than the air around you, meaning it doesn't give your face anything that it doesn't already have every minute of the day.

This baby chick and I are surrounded by Oxygen. WE WILL BE IMMORTAL.
Thus, when companies are talking about all the oxygen goodness in their products, they're talking about oxygen the atom, not O2. If we want, we can be very generous and conclude that these products probably do have a fair bit of oxygen the atom. After all, the first ingredient of Philosophy's "Take A Deep Breath" Oil-Free Energizing Oxygen Gel Cream Moisturizer is water. H2O! It totally contains oxygen! Still, no matter what way you slice it, that is misleading. I am confident that a Philosophy moisturizer called "Really, this is mostly just water" would not sell very well. (Although I might buy it. I like honesty.)

Claim #2: Oxygen in skincare somehow boosts cellular respiration.

To respond to this claim, we're going to quickly remind ourselves what cellular respiration is and how it works. Although this process is relatively complex, I am going to break it down as simply as possible. There are many online resources available if you want more detailed information on this series of reactions.
The mitochondria is the location of cellular respiration.
Cellular respiration is one the fundamental processes of life. With regards to the gases involved, the basic reaction (C6H12O6 [glucose] + 6O2 -> 6CO2 + 6H2O + energy) is the opposite of photosynthesis. The creation of energy happens by affixing an extra phosphate to ADP, making it ATP, one of the most commonly used cellular energy sources.

There are four main steps in cellular respiration:
  • Glycolysis (literally "sugar splitting"): A glucose molecule is broken down into two pyruvate molecules. In other words, a six-carbon sugar is broken down into two three-carbon sugars. This releases two ATP.
  • Oxidative decarboxylation of pyruvate: This is a transition reaction. The pyruvate molecules are oxidized to acetyl-CoA and CO2. It doesn't do anything particularly handy in its own right, but it is necessary to link glycolysis to the citric acid cycle. 
  • The Citric Acid Cycle (you may have learned it as the Krebs Cycle): In the presence of oxygen gas (O2, NOT oxygen the atom!), all of the hydrogens are stripped off of acetyl-CoA, leaving you with CO2 and H2O. This process produces some ATP, some NADH and some FADH2. NADH and FADH2 are capable of carrying high energy electrons. 
  • Oxidative phosphorylation: Through a series of reactions, these high energy electrons are passed on to Oalong the electron transport chain. This process creates 32 ATPs for every glucose molecule. 
As you can see from even the briefest run-through of the steps of cellular respiration, oxygen the atom isn't going to a do a fucking thing to increase cellular respiration.

Even more damningly, even if you could awash your cells in ludicrous amounts of oxygen, oxygen isn't a rate-limiting factor in cellular respiration: enzyme production is. That means that no matter how much oxygen your cells receive, your body can't produce enzymes fast enough to take advantage of them. You could have so much oxygen on your face that you're suffering from oxygen toxicity and you still would have the same rate of cellular respiration.

Claim #3: Boosting cellular respiration provides some sort of benefit to your skin.

This is where things get really weird and confusing. I have no idea where this idea came from. At least when people make bullshit claims about how they're going to increase your collagen production or something you kind of know why you might want your collagen production to be increased, even if that product isn't going to do shit.

I have no idea why you would want to boost cellular respiration.

I can't even find a claim about it.

[The only thing I can find is by "Prof. Dov Ingman", who states that he has a product that he has a product that "Enhanc[es]... cellular respiration (gases exchange) due to restoration of gaseous partial pressure in and out of capillary." WHAT. WHAT. WHAT. CELLULAR RESPIRATION AND GAS EXCHANGE ARE NOT THE SAME THING. (Gas exchange is the process by which oxygen is delivered to the bloodstream from the lungs and CO2 is delivered from the bloodstream to the lungs.) And how would your face mask have anything to do with what's going on in your capillaries? But I am sure you are totally a "prof"... because why would a website lie to me?]

What is it that "boosting cellular respiration" supposed to do? Why would it have a "plumping up" effect? The internet does not seem to know.

Y'all, I am super happy with my current rate of cellular respiration. And even if I wasn't, this product wouldn't help me. If you want to ensure your skin is getting the proper levels of oxygen, save your $34 and skip the Philosophy moisturizer. All you have to do is take the advice that's on the label... and take a deep breath.
If you have any beauty claims you want researched in future Beauty Bullshit blogs, feel free to leave them in the comments below. 


  1. Oh my gosh, it's like I'm back in biology! Haha. This is awesome.

  2. This is great, and brings to mind the MAC "Charged Water" range... when I first heard of it I scoffed, but my high school chemistry isn't quite enough to justify my instincts. Can you investigate?

    1. I will look into it, although it might be a post that's on the short side!

  3. I really do wonder sometimes what the developers are thinking. "Oh, yes, lets just throw oxygen into every product name! Nobody will ever be smart enough to work out we're bluffing!"

    On a slightly unrelated note, I recently came across an oddball claim that I thought you might find amusing. Revlon's retailer training describes their Eterna 27+ skincare as having a "protective telomeric complex" that "is like a special "memory" for your skin that continually reminds our skin cells to reproduce and reproduce accurately-- helping keep skin younger for longer."

    1. Oh. My. Gosh. That is seriously fantastic Beauty Bullshit fodder.

      Is that a direct quote? I can't seem to find that exact wording online anywhere. Is there any chance you could take a picture for me if you have the training guide available?

    2. It's from the online training they let cosmetics staff onto. I've printscreened it here:

  4. Can I just say I love your approach to beauty blogging? It's so refreshing, and genuinely helpful!

  5. You are awesome. Thanks for keeping scientific facts at the center of our skin care world. The people who comprise the marketing machines of the skin care industry would be laughable were it not for the sad fact that they are incredibly effective at seducing buyers into spending money on these BS products. I will mention you in my blog - the more people who have realistic expectations of their skin care products the better :-)

  6. I actually really enjoy the moisturizer. I have really oily skin and it sinks in really well.
    However, I didn't go into trying the product with the claims in mind.

  7. A family friend sells Nutrimetics and just posted on Instagram about some kind of oxygen cream that "delivers oxygen "deep into the cells". What does this even mean?

  8. Thanks for the nice blog. It was very useful for me. I'm happy I found this blog. Thank you for sharing with us,I too always learn something new from your post. led products


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