All posts by laurie01pd2014

Decongestants – Visine for Your Nose?

A few weeks ago I traveled to Beijing for a golf tournament.  Unfortunately, I have terrible allergies to pollen and other air pollutants, so as soon as the plane landed in Peking and I stepped into the airport I immediately began my sneezing fit.  Ordinarily, after sneezing, your nose will feel congested for a few moments and then will return to “normal.”  However, because the air was so thick with pollutants, my nose remained congested and I continued to sneeze on approximately five-minute intervals.  Frustrated that I couldn’t breath well through my nose and because my mouth was becoming dry, I hesitantly decided to take a decongestant pill.  This has been a regular occurrence since I was a child: allergies act up, nose becomes congested, pop a pill, few minutes later I can breath again.  For the longest of time, I never questioned this process.   Then, a few months ago, I found that I was always congested, even on the days when pollution levels were low and there were little to no blooming flowers.  I couldn’t breath normally without taking a decongestant and ended up it everyday for approximately two and a half weeks.  As I look back, it was quite foolish of me to do so.  I didn’t know anything about the drug other than it helped me breath, and I didn’t think much of the fact that I couldn’t breath normally.  So as I arrived in Beijing two weeks ago, I wondered, what does this pill really do to me, how does it work, and did I harm myself beyond repair?

Typically, when people think of nasal congestion, they think it is a result of copious amounts of mucus or fluid forming in their nose.  However, this is not the case.  Nasal congestion occurs when the arterioles (small blood vessels) in the membranes of the nose dilate and become inflamed.  This results in a kind of swelling in the nose and makes it difficult to breath because the passage has narrowed or closed off.  (Kaneshiro, N. n.d.)

When individuals take nasal decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine hydrochloride (C10H16ClNO) (Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride. n.d.)

Chemical Structure of Pseudoephedrine
Chemical Structure of Pseudoephedrine HCl

the chemical will bind to alpha receptors (receptors on the membranes of nerve cells) to send a signal to the membranes in the nasal passages to force the blood vessels to constrict.  (Guzman, F. n.d.)

This inhibits the dilation of the arterioles and reduces the inflammation, therefore relieving congestion and allowing the nasal passages to relax.  Based on principle, nasal decongestants are similar to red eye reducing eye drops in that the topical eye drops constrict the blood vessels in the eye to reduce redness.

While an addiction in the traditional sense cannot be developed from long-term use of decongestants, a kind of dependency and tolerance can build up over time from using them daily.  With daily use, the body will become tolerant to the decongestant and will begin to produce chemicals and antibodies to combat the effects of the drug.  In this case, it will begin to produce vasodilators in order to reverse the effects of the decongestant (which are now perceived by the body as unnecessary).  As a result, higher doses of the drug are needed to achieve the same decongestant effects as originally produced.  (Discovery Health “Can nasal sprays be addictive?”. n.d.)  With continued use for many months, or years, continuously using a decongestant can increase blood pressure as it constricts the blood vessels, or can create other, more severe side effects such as tachycardia and seizures.  (Pray, S., & Pray, J., n.d.)

Vasodilation in Arteries
Vasodilation in Arteries

Fortunately, the tolerance that may develop from continued use of decongestants can be reversed.  If use is discontinued for a few weeks, it gives the body the time it needs to return to “normal” and the changes it made to produce the antagonistic chemicals (to the effects of the drug) will disappear.  This implies that even if a tolerance and “dependency” is developed, they can easily be annulled and the body will lose its tolerance.  After the body has returned to a normal state, should the need arise, individuals may choose to take the decongestant and can expect to experience the full effects of the decongestant – open nasal passages and the ability to breath easy.  (Discovery Health “Can nasal sprays be addictive?”., n.d.)

After researching, I realized the severity of taking decongestants for extended periods of time.  Prior to researching, I had assumed that decongestants were not, “serious” drugs in that they couldn’t possibly have many negative long-term effects.  However, I now realize that drugs, regardless of their purpose and accessibility, are strong chemicals used to create chemical changes in our bodies.  While I will never take a decongestant for more than seven consecutive days, the occasional use of it is acceptable and in the long run, it will not harm my body and has not done any lasting damage to my body.


Discovery Health “Can nasal sprays be addictive?”. (n.d.). Discovery Health “Discovery Fit & Health”. Retrieved October 12, 2013, from

Guzman, F. (n.d.). Alpha receptors | CME at Pharmacology Corner. Medical Pharmacology | Pharmacology Corner. Retrieved October 21, 2013, from

Kaneshiro, N. (n.d.). Nasal congestion: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from (n.d.). Pseudoephedrine – Oral, Afrinol, Novafed, Sudafed . Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Pray, S., & Pray, J. (n.d.). Safe Use of Nasal Decongestants. Medscape Multispecialty . Retrieved October 13, 2012, from

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Sudafed decongestant tablets and liquid (pseudoephedrine). (n.d.). – The UK’s leading independent health website. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from


You put WHAT on your face?!

As a teen constantly plagued by hormonal changes and the havoc they reek on my skin, namely in the form of the dreaded pimple, I’m always cautious as to what skin products I apply onto my face.  Recently, at a yearly physical examination, I asked my doctor when I might be able to expect my hormones and acne to subside.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get an approximate time.  Instead, she told me to avoid comedogenic skin products (tending to cause blackheads by the blocking of the pores in the skin) (source) and specified that mineral oil was often one of the main perpetrators in creating pimples as the molecules were too large to be absorbed by the skin and instead sat in the pore, therefore clogging it.  Pleased with this new bit of information and determined to rid my sink counter of comedogenic products, you can imagine my surprise when I saw that the small jar of Vaseline, a 100% petroleum jelly product – a direct product of mineral oil, was labeled as noncomedogenic on the back.  How was this possible?  My doctor clearly stated that mineral oils were comedogenic, was she mistaken?  Can’t you trust doctors?  Or did the label lie?  Confused, I decided to research how exactly mineral oil based products “clogged” pores.


Figure 1: Vaseline

There is much controversy regarding whether or not mineral oils (oil – paraffin, jelly – petroleum, White mineral oil) can clog pores, create skin sagging, cancer, etc… (How Bad is Mineral Oil for Your Skin? Natural Acne Treatments. n.d.).  Regardless of the controversy, several cosmetic companies use different forms of mineral oil in many of the products they advertise as moisturizing, such as baby oil and cold cream.

Mineral Oil

Figure 2: Mineral Oils

Mineral oils, which are synthetically created and refined into cosmetic grade substances by distillation, are composed of several different lengths of hydrocarbons held together by the Van der Waals forces from their tail.  Typically ranging from 20-25 carbon atoms long in petroleum jelly (How do they make petroleum into jelly? n.d.), the length of the hydrocarbon tail will determine the properties of the mineral oil such as viscosity and melting point.  Because of the long hydrocarbon tails petroleum jelly has and its polar (generally OH) heads, it is both non-polar and polar.  (Although it appears similar to the structure of an alcohol, mineral oils are classified as hydrocarbons.) (Petroleum Jelly, n.d.).  As a result, when petroleum jelly comes into contact with skin, rather than become absorbed by the skin, which has a high water content (Skin Conditions: Understanding Your Skin, n.d.), the polar water and non-polar Vaseline repel each other and the Vaseline forms a layer of non-polar hydrocarbon tails over the pores of the skin, therefore creating an occlusion effect – similar to wrapping the skin in plastic wrap (Biever, Doran, College, H., n.d.).


Figure 3: Possible Structure of Lanolin – Can Be Found in Petroleum Jelly

However, the premise that it clogs skin pores is incorrect.  The hydrocarbons are repelled by the polar water in the skin and therefore do not enter the skin’s pores.  It does in fact; help to prevent the loss of water from the skin.

Similarly though, in forming a hydrocarbon tail layer on the surface of the skin, the epidermis, it has a “saran wrap” effect on the skin.  Nothing gets in and nothing gets out.  While it may be helpful for water retention, petroleum jelly’s effects as a physical barrier can also be adverse.  If used in conjunction with comodegenic substances, such as coco butter or coconut oil (Comedogenic Rating of Oils and Other Things, n.d.), then the petroleum jelly can effectively keep the comedogenic molecules in the pores and prevent them from leaving and prevent them from leaving, therefore clogging the pore.

Diagram of Skin

Figure 4: Diagram of Skin

Additionally, if petroleum jelly, which is generally soluble only in non polar substances, like sebaceous oil (the oil skin secretes as a natural lubricant and protectant), (Petroleum Jelly, n.d.) is applied to more oily skin, then the slightly non-polar sebaceous oil (composed largely of triglycerides and wax esters) (Sebum: Physical Chemical Properties, Macromolecular Structure, and Effects  of Ingredients, n.d.) the body naturally produces mixes with the Vaseline and is unable to exit the pore.  This build up of the sebaceous oil results in the clogging and inflammation of the pore, in other words, a pimple.


Figure 5: Pimple (Infected and Inflamed Pore)

Although, with individuals who have dry, sensitive skin, or during the cold winter months, petroleum jelly can be an effective means of protection for the skin.  The hydrophilic layer of hydrocarbon tails it creates forms an insoluble barrier to the external environment, therefore preventing the loss of H2O molecules and sebaceous oils.  Additionally, because the hydrocarbon tails in petroleum jelly are stable and non-reactive, it can be suitable for many with skin allergies or sensitivity as a means of “moisturizing.”  Due to its non-reactive nature, stability, and insolubility, petroleum jelly will evaporate slowly and can maintain the skin’s moisture for several hours.  However, this can have adverse effects on the skin as any particles (such as dirt) that become trapped in the petroleum are also trapped in close proximity to the skin and can lead to clogged pores. (Rogniln, n.d.)

While petroleum jelly provides a cheap alternative to many moisturizers, it is still a mineral oil and a synthesized product.  From an environmental perspective, petroleum jelly comes from the same well sources as the petroleum we place in cars, use as lubricants in machinery, etc…  It is not a renewable resource.  Many companies use mineral oils in their products because of the duality it has as a both polar and non polar molecule; the polarities it has allows it to act as an emollient in products – meaning that it can suspend both polar and non polar molecules.  In addition to its excellent ability to suspend a variety of differently charged particles, mineral oil is very inexpensive to refine and purchase.   A simple distillation process refines the mineral oil into cosmetic grade oils and jellies (paraffin and petroleum), the most common of which is White Mineral Oil, which can be used on its own as a cleanser or moisturizer (the polar and non polar molecules of grime, makeup, etc… attach to the oil and can be removed). (Skin Care Natural Oils and Butters, n.d.)

Some natural alternatives to mineral oil based products would be olive oil, safflower oil, or argan oil.  Each of these products acts as moisturizers that maintain skin hydration and are better for the environment.  They not only have the same dual polarity as mineral oil, but many of the “natural” oils have restorative and nourishing qualities that can benefit the skin not only in terms of moisture and protection, but also in terms of anti-aging, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties that help to maintain skin health and appearance. (Skin Care Natural Oils and Butters, n.d.)  However, because the oils are naturally produced from plants, many people do have allergies to them.  Also, because they are naturally harvested, the oils have limited shelf lives.  Relative to naturally based oils, mineral oil, a highly refined amalgam of various lengths of hydrocarbons, has a much longer shelf life, making it more appealing to consumers in terms of convenience and cost.  While natural oils offer more nourishing qualities and protection to the skin, several cosmetic companies choose to use mineral oil as their emollient because it has a longer shelf life, is more cost effective, has the capability to bind both polar and non polar molecules and because it is hypoallergenic.

However, this does not justify the use of a non-renewable resource.  While many major cosmetic companies make a fine profit, they also aid in the slow killing of the environment and the expenditure of non-renewable resources.  For those of us with less sensitive skin, natural oils should be considered in place of their non-renewable counterparts.  Natural oils, although they have a shorter shelf life, not only offer younger, taught skin as well as anti-aging and anti-bacterial properties, but they are also much better for the environment as biodegradable products.  Personally, after researching this topic, I found myself throwing out more of the non-natural products.  I not only replaced my normal moisturizer with organic grape seed oil, but I also try to purchase less from large companies who base their products on petroleum.  Although I now have to purchase a new bottle of oil every so often, my skin has improved exponentially and has become less sensitive in general; rather than appearing slightly mottled and flaky, as well as being painful, I have found that my skin now carries a slight “glow” on good days and overall, is far less painful than before.  While this is only my personal experience, my sensitive skin has benefitted greatly from the change from manufactured moisturizers to grape seed oil.  Rather than immediately trust the words of labels, advertisements, or even doctors, I now take the time to do my own research, after all, we only have one body and our skin is the largest organ we have.

Oil Refinery

Figure 6: Mineral Oil Distillery


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