Bubble Monster!

After a long day, before going to bed, we head into the bathroom, step into the shower and slather on shampoo, shower gel, and face wash. In the morning, before heading to school, we head to the bathroom where we follow the same routine. As we learned in biology, the epidermis is our largest organ, and perhaps in efforts to keep it clean, we’re actually creating a chemical imbalance between our skin’s natural pH, around 5.5 and a alkaline range around a pH of 8, which can lead to higher levels of bacteria on the skin (Health & Goodness, 2013). We use these products everyday without thinking twice about it, but they are made up of dozens of chemicals, chemicals with which we are not necessarily familiar. Do we know the effects these chemicals have on our skin and whether or not they are safe?

Woman washing face

Picture 1: Woman washing her face (Gruber, 2013)

The chemical makeup of soap and the convenience of bathing have drastically changed as technology has improved, yet human reverence for soap has remained the same. Traditionally, soap was made from the chemical reaction between an animal’s triglycerides and an alkali like sodium or potassium salt which, after a chemical reaction creates a mixture of soap, water, and glycerine (which attracts moisture and allows our skin to stay soft). Traditional soap worked with a skin’s natural pH to cleanse but not over-dry. However, with the advancement of modern science, the makeup of soap has changed. Modern day soap is made of chains of hydrocarbons (Duncan, 2009).

Soap molecule

Picture 2: Chain of hydrocarbon (nsb, 2013)

These chains attach to the oil or grease on the body at one end, and on the other end, attach themselves to water molecules, creating a lather which when rinsed, also rinse the dirt off our bodies as well (Duncan, 2009) in a process called saponification (HSC, 2013). Although this modern day soap can be considered more effective, especially in killing bacteria, it is also more abrasive, often cleansing the oils naturally produced by our skin to keep it soft.


Picture 3: Process of Saponification (HSC, 2013)

There has been a long-time debate over whether one can have too much of a good thing. When it comes to showering, the answer is “Yes!” The outermost layer of our skin, called the stratum corneum, is a barrier made of hardened dead skin cells and is held together by lipids, a kind of fatty compound that moisturizes the skin. The stratum corneum is a form of protection for the living and healthy cells underneath it. However, when we shower and cleanse our skin with these chemical astringents, the stratum corneum suffers damage through abrasion and over-drying, forcing the body to repair it. (Clark, 2009) If we shower too many times a day and our body can’t keep up with the pace that we are damaging our stratum corneum, our skin becomes dry, irritated, and cracked, something no one wants as it’s ugly, itchy, and painful (Silva, 2013).

Picture 4: Skin layers (Wikipedia, 2013)

Structural Formula of Lipids

Picture 5: Structural Formula of Lipids (Lipid Library, 2013)

It’s no wonder why we regard soap so highly and think it’s a cure-all. During the olden days, people didn’t shower as often since it was harder for them to acquire water and to heat it as well. They would have to walk miles to and from their house with a bucket to get water, which could take up to half a day. To lower the frequency of this inconvenience, they would only shower once in a while. On a recent trip to Tibet, I learnt from a Tibetan monk that some traditional local people only shower just 3 times in a lifecycle: once when they’re born, once when they get married, and once just after they pass away. This proves that showering daily is not a necessity. However, ever since 1889 when Edwin Ruud invented the in-home water heater (Clark, 2009)allowing hot water to be sent directly to the shower, people have been showering more and more often, sometimes even up to 5 times a day.

Although it is important for us to stay clean, it is still vital for us to strike a balance between clean and healthy skin. Showering only once a day is better for our skin’s health. It maintains a healthy skin pH of around 5.5 and it keeps the skin from becoming irritated and dry. Perhaps we shouldn’t be misled by the convenience of a shower in our home and modern soaps, which are too astringent-like in cleansing the skin, to believe that being ultra clean is the healthy choice. In many ways before all these modern advancements, people actually had healthier skin.


  • Duncan, Aida.  “Face Soap 101”  20 August 2009.  HowStuffWorks.com. <http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/products/face-soap.htm>  28 January 2013.
  • Clark, Josh.  “Is a daily shower too much for your skin?”  03 September 2009.  HowStuffWorks.com. <http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/daily/tips/daily-shower-skin.htm>  28 January 2013.
  • Ganzel, B. (n.d.). Indoor Plumbing Arrives in Rural America during the 1930s. Wessels Living History Farm, Inc.. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_13.html
  • Silva, R. (n.d.). Learn How to Shower To Keep Your Skin Healthy. Health Guidance – Free Health Articles. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/2395/1/Learn-How-to-Shower-To-Keep-Your-Skin-Healthy.html
  • Health & Goodness. (n.d.). Skin pH And Skin Health. Health & Goodness – Information, inspiration and healthy living products.. Retrieved February 5, 2013, from http://www.healthandgoodness.com/article/skin-ph-and-skin-health.html
  • HSC. (n.d.). HSC Online – Industrial Chemistry: 5. Saponification. NSW HSC Online. Retrieved February 5, 2013, from http://hsc.csu.edu.au/chemistry/options/industrial/2764/Ch955.htm


  • The Importance of Washing Your Face | The Luxury Spot. (n.d.). Bryce Gruber – Official Blog of Bryce Gruber – The Luxury Spot. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://www.theluxuryspot.com/beauty-spotting-the-importance-of-washing-your-face/
  • Cleaning Aciton of Soap by Structure – Nsb Notes. (n.d.). Nsb Notes. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://nsb.wikidot.com/c-9-5-5-3
  • File:Skinlayers.png – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Skinlayers.png
  • Lipid Library. (n.d.). Waxes, structure, composition, occurrence and analysis. . Lipid Library – Lipid Chemistry, Biology, Technology and Analysis. Retrieved February 5, 2013, from http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/lipids/waxes/index.htm

2 thoughts on “Bubble Monster!

  1. As someone who relies on soap everyday, I was naturally interested in Lisa’s post and was surprised to learn how soap’s cleansing property can negatively impact our skin. When I think of soap, the question of whether liquid soap is better than bar soap comes to mind, so I’ve decided to explore further on differences between the two soaps and concerns arising from soap’s makeup.

    Image 1: Bar soap and liquid soap (Zebra Skimmers Corporation, 2010)

    As Lisa says in her post, all soaps are made up of alkali salts, fatty acids, and detergents, which are called surfactants. Surfactants are composed of both lipophilic and hydrophilic ingredients, allowing water to mix with and wash away oil and dirt (Pander, 2009).

    Image 2: How detergents work (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003)

    While the composition of bar soap and liquid soap is essentially the same, the two soaps differ slightly in their pH. The skin has a pH of 4.5 to 6.5, while most soaps have a pH of 9 to 10; the closer the soap’s pH is to that of the skin, the less drying and irritation it will cause (Siddons, 2009). Most bar soaps have a higher pH than that of liquid soaps, meaning a greater pH difference between the skin and the bar soap, which not only dries the skin but also causes the skin to heal more slowly when injured (Forester, 2009). In contrast, liquid soaps are often milder than bar soaps and contain moisturizers (Pander, 2009), which retain skin hydration.

    Another significant difference between the two is their environmental impacts. Bar soaps are often packaged in paper, which is recyclable and breaks down more easily in landfills than the plastic packaging of liquid soap (Forester, 2009). Therefore, from an environmental perspective, bar soaps are indirectly more environmentally friendly than liquid soaps.
    While soaps’ composition is, as mentioned earlier, mostly the same, soap additives can enhance a positive impact on the skin. For example, liquid soaps contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide that removes dead skin cells and unclog pores, which is greatly beneficial to people with oily skin (Siddons, 2009). Similarly, bar soaps contain glycerin, which is beneficial for people with dermatological problems, such as eczema, and dry skin (Forester, 2009).

    However, many additives have negative impacts on the skin, like the over-drying of the stratum corneum that Lisa mentions. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), commonly found in soap and shampoo, is a detergent that breaks up oil and grease. In doing so, however, it also breaks up the oil that keeps our skin from drying out, weakening the oily barrier and making the skin more vulnerable to allergens (Flinn, 2009). Likewise, coconut diethanolamide acts in a similar fashion but causes more allergic reactions. In addition, fragrance is a top allergen (Flinn, 2009). It is difficult of identify the specific ingredients that cause allergies because manufacturers keep them a secret, but many bar soaps are fragrance-free while fragrance-free liquid soaps are harder to find (Flinn, 2009).

    After learning more about bar soaps and liquid soaps, I realize that the functions of the two are essentially the same, while liquid soaps are often milder. In terms of the soaps’ side effects, I’ve also learned to be more cautious in using soaps to not use them excessively and to always be suspicious, because I’ve previously assumed that soaps don’t have negative influences. While soaps can be deadly in the allergic reactions they induce, we shouldn’t give up hope. Perhaps, in a decade’s time or less, genetically-customized skin cleansers (Siddons, 2009), which is in its early development stage already, will be fully developed, creating soaps suitable for everyone.

    Flinn, G. (2009, August 20). Top 5 Allergens in Soaps that Cause Dermatitis.HowStuffWorks. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/tips/5-allergens-in-soaps-cause-dermatitis.htm
    Forester, E. (2009, August 20). Does bar soap work better than liquid soap?.HowStuffWorks. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/products/bar-soap-liquid-soap.htm
    Pander, C. (2009, August 20). Body Wash Basics. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/products/body-wash.htm
    Siddons, S. (2009, August 20). Body Soap Basics. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved May 18, 2013, from health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/products/body-soap.htm
    Siddons, S. (2009, August 20). Genetically-customized Skin Cleansers.HowStuffWorks. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/products/genetically-customized-skin-cleansers.htm

    Images Cited
    Detergency [Image]. (2003). Retrieved May 17, 2013, from Royal Society of Chemistry: http://www.rsc.org/images/Rheology_tcm18-34871.gif
    Uncle Earl’s Hand Healing Soap [Image]. (2010). Retrieved May 17, 2013, from Zebra Skimmers Corporation: http://www.zebraskimmers.com/graphics/UE-liquid-foam-bar-soap.jpg

  2. After reading Lisa post on the chemical make up of soap and it’s effects on human skin, it made me wonder about the other body parts that we wash when we shower. Possibly the most important aspect of physical appearance is hair. For some, keeping hair soft and wavy is top of their priority, even more significant than health and nutrition. This made me wonder about the chemical composition of hair, a topic that I knew almost nothing of. People always tell me hair is simply just dead cells that we can cut and shape every day depending on our personal preferences. I can say I have numerous experiences in this when I refer to all the times I got hair cuts. I never looked at hair from a perspective other than a boy trying to look manly with neatly cut short hair.

    First, I started by familiarizing myself with the basic structure of hair strands on the body. Each strand of hair is made up of the medulla, cortex, and cuticle. Hair is located deep beneath the skin, taking up a part called the hair follicle. There are over 120,000 stands of hair on an average person’s head, and it has the highest rate of cell division in the body and is the fastest growing tissue after bone marrow (Blackmoor, 2013). What really surprised me when I was researching is the strength of hair. Hair is incredibly strong, each hair can apparently incredibly strong, each hair can withstand the strain of 100 grams, meaning that all you hair added together can cope with 12 tons. To find out more, I looked further into the chemical composition of hair that cannot be viewed under normal microscopes.

    If you cut a hair in cross section, one can see cells of the cortex, these long cells are joined together by an intercellular cement rich in lipids and proteins. Within each of these cells are bundles of keratin macrofibrils. Keratin is an essential component of hair, it makes up of about 97% of hair. It is actually a protein formed by a combination of 18 different amino acids such as cystein and glycine. Each amino acid is made up of elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur. Peptide bonds join the amino acids together to make a chain (L’Oreal, 2013). Then these polypeptide chains that are in the cortex layer are bonded with cross bonds. The three cross bonds include hydrogen, salt (sodium chloride), and disulphide bond (Sustaita, H, 2013). I found it odd coming across this because I know we covered hydrogen bonds in the Bonding unit but the other two there was no mention of. I found myself looking this up.

    Image 1: Keratin Helix

    Hydrogen bond is the strongest type of intermolecular force formed between polar covalent molecules that contain covalent bonds, hydrogen must be bonded with either fluorine, nitrogen or oxygen. My research indicates that hydrogen bond is responsible for at least 50% of hair’s elasticity, because it can be temporarily changed by heat or water. Hydrogen bonds allow heat and water to change its shape, such as using dryers or curlers. Second, are the salt bonds. Salt bonds are physical bonds which can be broken by the pH of the hair. If the pH is too acidic or too alkaline, then it can break down the salt bonds (Napptuosw, 2013). Third, is the disulfide bond, or sulfur bond that is a chemical bond and not a physical bond. It is formed by cross-links between cystine amino acids. This is the strongest of the three and cannot return to its original state if changed. Chemical relaxers in bleaching products can break down disulfide bonds causing permanent straighten or curl. If your hair is extremely dry and weak, it is perhaps because these bonds are broken (Flexiblelearning, 2013).

    Image 2: Hair Bonds

    Another aspect I wondered about hair is the natural greasiness some people have. Further research showed me that there is a hormone dependent organ, sebaceous gland next to the hair follicle that produces sebum. This contains a mixture of triglycerides, waxes and squalene to form the surface of the skin and lubricate the hair. Depending on the hormone level, excessive or shortage of sebum will be produced (L’Oreal, 2013).

    Lastly, I researched on the chemical that is responsible for the natural color of our hair. In the hair follicle, it contains certain pigment cells that produce the chemical called melanin, this is responsible in deciding the color of our hair. As we grow older, the pigment cells in follicles die, this leads to a smaller amount of melanin being produced. This is why our hair becomes more transparent in color, to grey and silver when we get older (The Human Touch of Chemistry, 2013). In terms of color, I remember my brother bleaching his hair at some point in school, ranging from red, blue then green. I remembered I wanted to try it but I didn’t want to damage my hair. So I investigated how bleach chemically affects hair. Bleach uses the oxidizing effects of hydrogen peroxide. By mixing it with alkaline solution (ammonia), it swells the hair cuticles in order for bleach to penetrate the cortex of the hair. The hydrogen peroxide and bleach reacts and oxidizes the melanin within the hair, rendering it colorless. Then other separate pigments of lighter phaeomelanin or darker eumelanin is added to change the color of the hair. The use of metal implements and hydrogen peroxide to apply bleach can cause permanent damage to hair by breaking the disulphide bonds mentioned earlier (Chem. Shef, 2013).

    Image 3: Oxidation of Hydrogen Peroxide

    The research allowed me to learn about the many aspects of hair, including its composition and what are the chemical effects of age and bleach. Even though I don’t use many hair products, so this will not greatly affect my daily habits. It is nice to know that hair, like the rest of our body can be so complex. I learned the effects of what bleach does and what permanent damage it causes to hair. I will probably avoid using excessive hair products or put in some effort in researching them before use. I have to consider the pH and amount of metal in products because everybody’s hair has different pH. I also learned why some people naturally have shinier or more greasy hair than others, however most of the celebrities probably just put a lot of hair products. I had no idea hair was so complex. It reminded me of the complexity of carbon nanotubes in nanotechnology. It made me think about all the other parts of the world that I ignored or simplified in my head for faster understanding that I could know more about. If a part of the body such as hair can be so complex, then everything else must also have the equivalence if not greater complexity in scientific terms. During the research I found myself playing with a fallen strand of my own hair, hoping that squinting would be enough to see the keratin helixes and chemical bonds.

    Work Cited:
    L’OReal, (2013) Superb Chemistry, L’Oreal Hair-Science.com. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from http://www.hair-science.com/_int/_en/topic/topic_sousrub.aspx?tc=root-hair-science%5Eportrait-of-an-unknown-element%5Esuperb-chemistry&cur=superb-chemistry#HEALTHILY-AND-HAPPILY-GREASY

    The Human Touch of Chemistry, (2013), Why does hair turn grey?, A human touch of Chemistry. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://humantouchofchemistry.com/why-does-hair-turn-grey.htm

    Chem. Shef, (2013), Bleach, The Chemistry of Hair Dye, Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.chem.shef.ac.uk/chm131-2003/cha02js/bleach.html

    Sustaita, H. (2013), Topic 3: Chemical Composition of Hair, A Close Look at the Properties of Hair and Scalp. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.texascollaborative.org/hildasustaita/module%20files/topic3.htm

    Flexiblelearning, (2013), Temporary Changes, Hair Science News. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://toolboxes.flexiblelearning.net.au/demosites/series4/407/staff_room/magazines/hs_temporary_changes/hs1.htm

    Napptuosw, (March, 2011), The Bonds in our Hair, Napptuous Woman. Retrieved May 30, 2013 http://luxurianthair.com/2011/03/06/the-bonds-in-our-hair/

    Blackmoor, L (2013), Hair Science: Hair Structure 101 (With Diagrams), Hubpages. Retrieved May 30, 2013 http://lanablackmoor.hubpages.com/hub/Healthy-Hair-Essentials-Conditioner

    Pictures Cited:

    Keratin Helix [Image]. Retrieved from May 30, 2013 from http://www.chembio.uoguelph.ca/educmat/phy456/gif/peptide5.gif

    Hair Bonds [Image]. Retrieved from May 30, 2013 from http://pgbeautyscience.com/assets/images/twoh/Chapter%201/Hair%20Strength%201.jpg

    Hydrogen Peroxide Oxidation [Image]. Retrieved from May 30, 2013 from http://www.worthington-biochem.com/hpo/images/reaction.jpg

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