Carmex “addiction”

Two different Carmex pot designs.

For many years now, people have mentioned some form of lip balm addiction, usually Carmex addiction. There are valid reasons to believe lip balm is a bad idea, and Carmex in particular; furthermore, I don’t really care what you do to your own lips. But the “addiction” cycle people discuss is something of a misnomer.

Also, erm. So. I listen to this geeky wonderful podcast called Back to Work,* and in Episode 149 Merlin Mann stated that Carmex feels good when you put it on, because the active ingredient is acetylsalicylic acid, which is the same as aspirin. So you’re essentially balming your lips with aspirin. I’m here to correct that statement, and describe in too much detail what Carmex is actually made of and how it works. God I’m a pretentious asshole. Here goes!

Carmex, for the unfamiliar, is this gross terrible balm you can buy for super cheap in a white milk glass pot with a yellow painted metal lid. The old lid design (showing the old URL) is on the left; the new design is on the right. You can also get it in a tube but why would you, because why would you get it all? It sucks.Two different Carmex pot designs.

Carmex is made mostly of lanolin, otherwise known as the grease off a sheep’s back, and then a bunch of other crap including camphor, menthol, and salicylic acid.

Lanolin is the emollient agent which helps moisturize skin that has become dried or cracked usually from weather extremes. Moisturizes by coating your LIPS in a film of SHEEP SKIN GREASE. I cannot stress this part enough. Ew.

Menthol and camphor both provide that cooling, “aaah” feeling when you apply it. They create the illusion that a product is being deeply absorbed, when in fact it’s some weird aromatherapy trickery of bringing the blood closer to the skin. (Look, I’m a linguistics major, an online dating coach, and a hobbyist beauty blogger, OK? I’m no Dr. Drang. Go ask him why it makes your skin feel all cold and deeply-penetratey. Phrase it just like that. Come back and tell me how it went.)

Salicylic acid is where it gets interesting. This is somewhat similar to aspirin chemically, hence the somewhat similar names. (A Twitter pal with more chemistry knowledge than me said that aspirin is salicylic acid with an acetyl group, which is wholly different.) Despite not being a chemistry wizard, I do know that these chemicals confuse a lot of people linguistically, and they’re similar enough that people who are extremely allergic to aspirin sometimes have issues with products containing salicylic acid, and vice versa. BUT they’re not the same thing.

They’re both originally derived from a certain willow bark, though I’m pretty sure we synthesize them both now. Acetylsalicylic acid/aspirin is an analgesic we take orally, or I guess sometimes topically; salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid we usually use in skincare and beauty products to exfoliate the skin. Chemically. You know those creepy chemical peels you hear about celebrities or fancy people getting that give you face dandruff and then allegedly make you look prettier? Yeah, those are salicylic acid, but at mega-high percentages (like 30%; the most you’ll ever find in a consumer beauty product is 3-5%.) Carmex doesn’t list the percentage of salicylic acid, as I believe they are not required to do below 0.5% in the USA. But that quantity is not nominal; this stuff is strong.

Salicylic acid causes your skin to shed. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do. So why the heck is it in Carmex? A: To cut down the lifetime of cold sores by causing that skin to shed. Salicylic acid is a great cold sore and acne blemish treatment, because it forces exfoliation by making skin dry out and fall off, thus speeding up the life cycle of whatever unpleasant skin thing you’re trying to cure. (Don’t, uh, don’t go putting it willy-nilly on other types of herpes sores. Not a doctor.)

The problem most people have with Carmex is that the salicylic acid dries out more than just their cold sores, ya know? It has the effect of drying out their entire lips. So then they feel like they need more Carmex to soothe those dried out lips, thus the cycle of perceived Carmex addiction.

Carmex’s website states it like this:

SALICYLIC ACID — A mild exfoliant allows moisturizers to be better absorbed.

Sure, kinda. It’s an exfoliant, but its mildness varies from person to person, like any chemical exfoliant. The effect is also increased over time with repeated usage. And like any chemical exfoliant, it’s always going to have a certain amount of drying and shedding effect on the user, even when combined with a heavy greasy disgusting emollient like lanolin, which I’m under moral obligation to remind you is sebum from a goddamn sheep. Salicylic acid doesn’t actually help moisturizers be “absorbed” per se, especially in that you might not so desperately need said moisturizers if you weren’t applying an inherently chemical exfoliant to your delicate lip skin. I get that they need a perceived justification for what is usually an acne and cold sore drying-out skin-peeling ingredient, don’t you?

Anyway, there you have it. Carmex is not addictive, and it does not contain aspirin, but it can cause a cycle of perceived dependency because it’s designed to dry your skin out, and it tends to accomplish that task well, especially with repeated usage. If you like that menthol-cooling feeling but you don’t like the idea of chemical exfoliants or sheep grease, try using a lip balm that contains peppermint essential oil but doesn’t contain any salicylic acid or lanolin, respectively. (There are loads; poke around at your local hippie grocery.) You’re likely to suddenly realize you’re not, in fact, addicted to lip balm, and that you can stop using it whenever you choose. And you won’t be rubbing sheep grease all over your mouth like an animal, either! Yay! Everybody wins! Except for Carmex! Oh well!



*I doubt there’s much crossover between my beauty blog reading audience and my tech podcast consuming audience, but alas. I’m sticking this post here anyway, because it’s technically a beauty and skincare topic, ya know? Go visit my business site or my more techy blog if you like.

Branching out from my usual sources

I’m a big Sephora fan, no doubt. I’ve also enjoyed shopping for beauty products at Nordstrom, and of course I get some of my stuff from EDS and my hippie-dippier ingredients from Mountain Rose and Nature’s Gift. But lately I’ve found that shopping at bigger retailers is surprisingly un-scary! I was eyeing my go-to eye cream online, and there were no good shipping deals from the manufacturer’s site or QVC where they often sell their stuff. But Amazon had a great deal! I emailed the seller just to be sure, and they confirmed that it was a fresh shipment, too. So I went for it and was very pleased with the price point. (Go here if you want a similarly great deal.)

And just last month, on a trip to Texas, I lent a friend some Peter Thomas Roth Max Complexion Correction pads to calm her breakout—her skin had freaked out in the humid Dallas climate. She loved them so much she asked me for a referral, and when I Googled them, the Amazon price was way lower than the Sephora price! AND the Amazon shipping was free.

Look, some of you lovelies know I used to work for Amazon. But I worked in Kindle, and thought of them primarily as a tech company plus a place to, like, research for the best headphones and flash drives. I don’t actually order through them all that often for more “normal” items. But I’m totally going to start checking them for skincare deals, and I’ll be watching my lil’ widget to see what kinds of products it starts suggesting. (If it doesn’t get smarter soon I’ll have to hard-code it to offer y’all up beauty deals.) I think as my tastes mainstream a bit more, I’ll start to find better and better deals from the big A.

And lest it not be said, those complexion pads are GREAT for acne, and also help with wrinkles and age spots! Just be careful not to overdo it, or you’ll get mad flaky and dry—you may wanna start with the sensitive formula and work your way up to the full thing.


EDITED TO ADD: I actually received a totally gross-looking shipment of these pads. The top foil was punctured and the product was clearly contaminated, even though it’s largely alcohol based. However, I wrote the seller to complain and they immediately refunded my money, without me having to harass them or send the product back or anything. I was then able to salvage what seems to be clean and safe to use product—it really was just the top seal that was disgusting. So overall, even though I wouldn’t expect it to show up like that from Sephora, I had a good skincare shopping experience with this Amazon seller, so I’ll be trying that out again soon for sunblock.

Mountain Rose Herbs giveaway

Mountain Rose Herbs, my favorite hippie skincare and herb supplier is doing a very cool giveaway for the best herbal recipes of 2011. Check ’em out — not only do they have great ideas there and a killer prize, but these guys sell extremely high-quality, well-priced DIY skincare items. I use them to purchase all my butters and almost all of my oils, and they have some terrific tea blends too. Plus hardish to find items like Fuller’s Earth clay. Kicking myself for forgetting about an argan oil refill on my last order — ah well, at least I have an excuse to load up on some more fun stuff soon!

Update on lies and oils, respectively

OK, I know it’s been WAY too long since I last updated. Home ownership is busy-making! As is trying to work full time while running a side business and writing a book and generally making an effort to cook more and decorate and yada yada. ANYWAY. Hi, I’m back! So what has been going on with me, you wonder?

  • I tried out a new lip “stain” – must remain in quotes because it is SO NOT A REAL STAIN SEPHORA. So annoyed it’s making me all capsy (cf Fug Girls). To be fair, they actually have many products in their Lip Stain category that I don’t consider true stains, but I suppose I’m a bit of a purist (since my husband is such a pickypants about kissing me with any discernible product on my lips). Anyway – “Cream Lip Stain” – a LIE!!! It’s a long-lasting liquid lipstick like you get from the drugstore, guys. And it’s icky and hard to get off and I’m returning that shit.
  • I ordered more oils! After my post-wedding resolution to quit spending so goddamn much on skincare and beauty, I did a good job of not buying stuff for a while. But then I ran out of stuff and my face got sad and long story short, I invested in some new purchases. I got an oil sampler pack from Garden of Wisdom, and I also shelled out for a big bottle of their nice organic argan oil that my skin and hair both seem to love. Check out my little three-pack — I love being able to sample different types!

The trouble is, they don’t use the best packaging — I hate a nice unrefined cold-pressed organic oil going into a lipophilic plastic bottle, and I hate that the ink on the shitty labels gets all over my hands. So I’ve started being crazy-weird about how I unwrap them, only undoing the bit around the cap so I don’t touch the ink — and I need to hit Zenith to buy some new glass bottles so I can decant my argan.

Aaaanyway, as you can probably see, I got a combo of Baobab, Kukui and Tamanu oils. I’ve already tried Tamanu and it’s fine, but nothing amazing — didn’t break me out and seemed to moisturize well enough, but I prefer the smell (or lack thereof) and consistency of argan which I now have too much of. Working on trying Baobab now — it’s clear and yellow and semi-thick, and so far seems fine but not resplendent. Will update once I hit Kukui!

How can we look “polished” on the go?

A friend’s recent Facebook comment cracked me up — she said on the first day of her attempt to dress a bit sleeker looking, she forgot to wear deodorant; this was proof to her that it was impossible for her to be “polished” no matter what she tried. I used to be much the same — i.e. a frizzy mass of imperfect skin, hair, makeup, and fashion. But I’ve found a lot of little “polished” tricks over the years.

The strongest example is with deodorant! During my Frazzled Summer Heat Wedding Gear-up Insanity I forgot deodorant approximately once per week, and keeping a stick in my car always made it melt, so I got a packet of DermaDoctor MedETate wipes. Even after that hectic season, I now always carry one with me and keep a couple in my desk at work.

And, now that I walk to work most days, and my hair sometimes loses its oomph or straight look while I work, I now have a crappy half-inch straightener (a relic from when I had bangs) in the bottom drawer of my desk. I’m also never found without my purse hook, which keeps my bag from drooping on the floor getting dirty or just looking sloppy.

In addition, I now carry a small cosmetics bag with every essential imaginable, so I can touch up anything that needs touching up on the go. (I don’t always use it, but the fact is that I COULD if I wanted to.) But I have this grandiose idea of the perfect interchangeable on-the-go kit, with little spots for mascara, tweezers, brow wax, you name it!

I’m a sucker for all kinds of products designed for gals on the go, like Trish McEvoy’s refillable pages, Too Faced’s Glamour 2 Go, and the above-pictured Dior Deluxe Travel Palette. I carry a little makeup-and-more bag that I keep stocked with pre-moistened glasses cleaning wipes, Similasan individually-packaged eye dropsHello Kitty Band-Aids, miniature Anastasia tweezers, a tiny Burt’s Bees comb, a combo nail file and emory board, my awesome O Hui compact, at least a couple retractable makeup brushes (including my über-fave Baby Buki),  a tiny sample mascara tube, hair ties, a sample perfume tube, tampons… all in my petite Coach makeup case which fits in my purse. Oh, and in the winter I’ll hit up a Whole Foods for a free sample of Dr. Hauschka Rose Day Cream, and carry that teensy tube around all season.

I’m curious to know if any other ladies out there have tricks to look more polished/together themselves — I doubt this post will get enough hits to really say, but I’d love to hear from you if you have any input! What’s your tip for staying smooth-looking even when life on the go leaves you frazzled?

DIY goals for 2011

The time is now! For several years, I’ve been wanting to make my own naturally-pigmented lip stains. I had always assumed beet powder was the only option I had, but a cup of Tazo Passion tea recently reminded me that, in addition to beets, there’s also hibiscus, red cabbage, saffron, and turmeric. (How did I come up with this list, you ask? By thinking of all the things that stain my hands in the kitchen!)

I switched to using lip stains instead of glosses, balms, or lipsticks way back in 2006 when I met my husband, because he couldn’t stand kissing a made-up mouth. I started a long EDS thread about it in which many others chimed in, and I blogged some updates here. The conclusion was and still is that Vincent Longo stains are best, largely because of the wand applicator. So I’ll be using empty wand applicator tubes designed for lip gloss when I make my own stains.

Since my main complaint about the VL ones is that they’re too dark for my coloring and can be slightly drying, I’ll be making mine in softer shades and including moisturizing ingredients (I’m thinking glycerine and honey). They may not work out, but I already have 75% of the components I need anyway, so it can’t hurt to try!

In addition to stains, I’m planning on making new oil blends for facial and body moisturizers, plus a facial cleansing oil; and a belly butter for my pregnant pal; and taking another stab at DIY deodorant since Aromacreme isn’t back yet.

Dark circle remedies

Okay, to be fair, most of us don't look like Reggie Wayne in eye black.I recently had a reader email me asking about good eye creams to help combat dark under-eye circles. Since the advice I gave her applies to most dark circle sufferers out there, I figured I might as well blog my advice!

Almost 100% of dark circles (especially in lighter complexions) are from other health factors like circulation, nutrition, diet and allergies, and not something that can actually be remedied with skin care. (I know that’s a bummer to hear, but it’s usually true!) If you’re not already a naturopath kind of person, booking an appointment with someone more hippie-minded like a naturopath or allergist can sometimes help you track down the source of stuff like that, since most naturopaths and natural-minded allergy professionals take a more comprehensive look at overall health, as opposed to only examining a target area.

For those of you in the Seattle area, I can also strongly vouch for Paula Zook at the Polyclinic Downtown. I first found Zook because I was sick of seeing derms who were all essentially crusty old men with obvious unsightly skin growths — i.e. not their fault, but they were far more concerned with cancerous biopsies than how to diminish wrinkles or fade acne scars. I set out to find a derm who was also  a *pretty lady* and Zook fit the bill. I think it’s important to be determined, especially if you have a PPO-type health plan that allows you to pick your own specialists. If you’re after dermatology with a somewhat aesthetics-related skew, then find someone you think looks nice with nice skin!

That said, there are also some great makeup tricks for alleviating that dark under-eye appearance. For starters,  Suresh urged me to ALWAYS apply an eye cream under eyes, to help hydrate the skin and plump it up so wrinkles aren’t as noticeable. Then use an illuminating under-eye thing like Smashbox Photo Op or (splurge) YSL Touche Éclat to the area including right up to under the eye — you can use a brush, but I often just do this with my fingers. Only after these touches should you use a normal concealer, and you can keep that one to the lower part of the dark circle so it doesn’t settle into the fine lines closest to your eyes.

Last but not least, I will give you *one* tiny skincare tidbit relating to dark under-eye circles — try an eye cream with caffeine. These don’t work for everyone out there, and I personally haven’t yet found a formulation that I always like. But there is some research showing that caffeine can help stimulate blood flow, so it helps for some milder cases of dark circles or tired-looking eyes. A few to try are 100% Pure,  Best Bath Store and Kiehl’s.

Crawling back to Retin-A

I went off Retin-A close to my wedding, because I couldn’t guarantee a flake-free face for my big day no matter how careful I tried to be.

So why am I crawling back to my frenemy prescription now, when winter’s flaky dryness is just around the corner? Because I miss my best-ever pore cleanser! Sure, I don’t miss the flaky scaly feeling, but I’ve been in breakout city lately. (I think this is largely because I’m using crappier stuff to try and save money and not waste existing products and samples, plus I’ve been horrendously lazy about skincare and beauty ever since the wedding.) I want a faster track to clear skin, since I feel like pores that never used to get clogged are now exacting their revenge on me. Nothing has ever worked as well as The Big A in the past.

I’m not sure how long this fling will last, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a whirl now that no big important events are on the horizon. Hopefully if I get a bit more aggressive with the physical exfoliation, too, my angry pores will chill out by next year.

Here are the major tips I have for making Retin-A work for you!

-Don’t forget to amp up the sunscreen when using Retin-A! When your skin is unnaturally exfoliated, that newer tender skin is extremely photosensitive. Use a good high PPD option like Burnout.

-Wait at least 30 minutes between washing your face and applying the stuff! Even with the supposedly gentler microsponge version is still very prone to causing red, peeling, flaky skin if it’s applied while there’s still moisture in your skin. Plus, it’s more easily absorbed into the blood stream if you apply it on still-damp skin, and this can result in liver toxicity.

-Don’t ever, ever use it during the daytime! Because of the photosensitivity I mentioned in point 1, this is just a no-no. Retin-A is a nighttime only treatment, and your face must be thoroughly cleansed of it the next morning.

-Be consistent, but don’t be overzealous. Retin-A will always catch you in a bad cycle if you apply one day out of four. However, in the very beginning, it can be good to back off and go every other day — just make sure to be CONSISTENT about every other day, even if you’re a bit flaky or dry in the process. Every time you quit for more than a one-day gap, you’re setting yourself waaaay back on the Retin-A adjustment clock. Keep at it and you WILL get through to the happy skin phase eventually.

-Consider diluting or protecting your skin. If you find that your skin reacts poorly to Retin-A no matter how closely you follow these tips, then consider moisturizing with a very heavy/occlusive cream before applying the stuff, or consider diluting your Retin-A with a bit of heavy or oily moisturizer. (I actually found an oil- and wax-based balm called Surfer’s Salve that blends nicely with my Retin-A — I blend during the first few nights when my skin is getting used to the treatment, and then I ease off. And my dermatologist uses Cetaphil lotion.)

Best of luck to all of you beauties battling winter skin issues!

Powdered sunblock upgrade!

A few years back we had a blazing summer, and I got really into the idea of powdered sunblock. I tried a slew of brands (Peter Thomas RothBare EscentualsShiseido and Colorescience) but didn’t care for any of the  packaging or formulations. I even tried buying my own synthetic non-scratchy powder-dispensing brush that I could theoretically wash, but it was too big to fit in any makeup bags, and I tried making my own powder but I used the wrong zinc and it was all whitish… DIY fail. (Been meaning to go back to the drawing board, but no dice yet.)

Enter O HUI! My friend and fellow beauty bloggerette MeanJean gave me her compact, since she’s heading back to Korea soon and can replace it easily. This stuff is fab! The powder leaves only a very slight whitish cast that goes away almost immediately — it’s replaced Make Up For Ever as my everyday finishing powder, since I can kill two beauty birds with one puff.

Plus, this is the cleverest compact I’ve ever found. All the pictures I can find online show a totally different packaging than the one I have, so you have to bear with my silly iPhone home-shot image. It’s got the powder, then this plastic screen that flips closed (to protect the powder from the puff if you get it all sweaty/greasy wiping it on your skin) and then a  cavity for the puff and THEN the mirror. Thus, it can’t get all powdergunked, so it stays shiny and clean.  And it came with a really nice latex-y round puffish thing as well as a sealed spare.

I just love the stuff — I’m going to see if my local Asian supermarket carries it! I do wish I could find an ingredients list in English, but it’s been treating my skin so nicely that I’m honestly not that bothered, if you can believe it. Hooray for a skincare victory after many months of duds!

Tinted Moisturizer Roundup

In my desire to be more frugal and less cluttered, plus my pent-up need to sample new products after carefully avoiding changes in my skin routine leading up to the wedding, I have been systematically devouring all my Sephora samples. This particular experiment deals with the many vials of tinted moisturizer I’ve accumulated.

The first I tried was Smashbox Sheer Focus, which was fine but not amazing. Even their paler, more neutral shades still wind up looking really dark and *wrong* on me — I can’t always tell in which direction they’re wrong; I just know I don’t look like myself! This stuff was fine, but simply nothing special on my pale complexion. I do like the SPF though, and it didn’t seem to cause any angry skin reactions (besides slightly clogged pores, but I’m VERY sensitive to dimethicone and similar so that’s to be expected). Weirdly enough, it felt very greasy several minutes after application even though it was oil-free — can’t tell if it made my skin over-produce or what.

Next up was Perfekt Skin, which was perfektly lovely. The (tiny!) sample I had was in Radiant, which is a shade darker than I needed, but it actually went on just fine and wasn’t too dark or obvious around my hairline or brows (always the tells). It feels like a primer — suuuuper silicone-y — and it looks and feels fabulous on its own or under my HD Finish Powder (didn’t try under full foundation).

However, three minor cons: 1) It’s SO EXPENSIVE! Almost $60 for the full-sized tube! 2) Definitely caused some clogged pores, especially on and immediately around my nose. (Again, to be expected w/ me, but still — worse than other tinted moisturizers due to high ‘cone content.) 3) When I checked out the Sephora tester to see about the lighter shade, the pump had totally gross dried-up product in it, so I worry about freshness. The To Go size seems like a better buy if you’re not going to slather this on daily. Oh yeah, I lied: 5) No SPF. :( This stuff was still the big winner though, just in terms of awesome formulation.

Next up was Dr. Perricone No Foundation Foundation. I’d been wanting to try this for ages, even though it seemed too dark when I tested it on my hand. My suspicion was confirmed, as this was just NOT my skin tone. It also went on way sticky and tacky and uneven-feeling, and was obvious in my “tell” spots (brow & hairline). But I like the high SPF! Still, I felt like I needed to GOB it on to get good sun coverage — ew. Not for me.

Last up we have Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer — another one I’ve been dying to try. I had both a couple foil packets and a big sample tube of this stuff, all in Nude, which is the second-lightest shade — but it was too dark for me. However, that didn’t seem to matter as much upon application — it still blended and disappeared nicely, and really wasn’t noticeable on my skin. This stuff is quite pleasant and lives up to the hype, after all! Not wild about the chemical sunscreens, but beggars can’t be choosers — these were all free samples, after all. Laura was a close second based on formulation, but I wish there were smaller tubes out there.

So there you have it! I doubt I’ll buy any of these for regular use, esp. since I can just mix foundation and sunblock/lotion. But I might pick up a Perfekt To Go in Luminous for those big night out kinda moments!