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Emu oil — a scam?

October 26, 2010

Emu oil is the rendered fat of the emu, a large bird native to Australia but which is now being raised in North America. It’s commonly sold in pharmacies and health food stores and is intended both for topical use and, when in capsule form, as a nutritional supplement.

I first heard of it when an employee in a shoe store recommended it for treating foot calluses. Proponents claim that, applied topically, it is good for everything from healing severe burns to reversing hair loss to relieving joint pain due to arthritis.

I’ve been using the stuff on and off for the last couple of years to treat an inflammatory skin condition. While it works as advertised (i.e., reduces inflammation, moisturizes the skin, and promotes healing), I find myself wondering if, at almost $30 for a 2 ounce bottle, it really does anything that rubbing lard, tallow, duck or chicken fat, or even butter on the skin wouldn’t do just as well.

What properties, if any, does emu oil have that these other, less expensive fats don’t? There’s a paucity of information on the web, and almost all of it appears to be marketing hype from companies selling the oil.

Some sites claim that emu oil is high in Vitamin E, but even if true, one has to wonder how much of the vitamin survives the rendering process to wind up in the final product that’s found on store shelves. Besides, expeller-pressed wheat germ oil contains an enormous amount of Vitamin E and costs considerably less than emu oil, so if you’re looking for a natural source of Vitamin E, wheat germ oil might be a better, more economical choice.

Other sites make a big deal of the fact that emu oil contains linolenic, linoleic, and oleic fatty acids. While these are undoubtedly good for the skin, there is nothing exceptional about oleic or linoleic acid; they are found in all oils and fats. There’s more oleic acid in olive oil than there is in emu oil. According to one chart I’ve seen, emu oil appears to have a higher than average linolenic acid (Omega 3) content, but what evidence is there that this is of any great benefit for the skin? If Omega 3 fatty acids are valuable for skin health, walnut oil and wheat germ oil also contain a fair amount of them, and are much less expensive.

Are consumers being cheated by paying $15 an ounce for a product that isn’t any better than the fat left in the roasting pan after cooking a chicken?


How natural are Aubrey Organics?

August 23, 2010

Aubrey Organics, a company founded in 1967 by chemist and former carnival magician Aubrey Hampton, claims to manufacture hair, skin, and body care products that are “100% natural”. Hampton has even written a book, Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care, in which he lays out his philosophy on these matters in some detail.

I’ve been using the company’s products for a number of years, mostly their shampoos and hair conditioners, and had until recently taken their claims about the naturalness of their products at face value. However, as a result of the more accurate labelling on their products as of late and my growing knowledge of cosmetic chemistry, I no longer accept the claim that their products are “100% natural”.

Here are some of the discoveries that led me to change my mind:

  • For a long time, Aubrey Organics used the ambiguous term “Coconut Oil-Corn Oil Soap” on its shampoo labels. It would be easy to assume, as I at first did, that this referred to actual soap, i.e., a substance made by reacting oils with lye, but no, what this really refers to is a detergent called coco glucoside, which is made from “coconut/palm fatty alcohols and glucose obtained from corn.” As far as detergents go, this one is considered relatively benign, but Aubrey Hampton knows better than to call it “soap”, and it’s hard to see why this detergent should be considered any more “natural” than, say, cocomidopropyl betaine, another coconut-derived detergent which Aubrey routinely denounces. I’ve seen dish detergents at the grocery store in which coco glucoside was a primary ingredient; should they be considered natural too?

    On p.276 of Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care, Aubrey cautions readers to stay away from purportedly natural products which contain ingredients said to be derived “from coconuts”; does that mean we should avoid the shampoos his company makes?

  • In his sales literature, Aubrey makes out his “Coconut Fatty Acid Cream Base” to be a unique, proprietary “absorption base containing essential fatty acids” and “coconut fatty alcohols,” when in fact it’s nothing more than cetyl alcohol — which is a common, off-the-shelf ingredient — dissolved in denatured alcohol and water. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this ingredient, but that Aubrey would hype it up as something special and exclusive to his products shows you just how shrewd of a salesman he is.
  • Despite what Aubrey claims, grapefruit seed extract (GSE) is not a natural preservative, and when one looks at an Aubrey Organics product label in which the ingredients and their quantities are accurately represented rather than being obscured behind phrases like “Aubrey’s Preservative” and “Coconut Fatty Acid Cream Base,” it’s clear GSE constitutes a significant portion of some of the products.
  • Aubrey condemns the “quats” (quaternary ammonium compounds) which are ubiquitously used in mass-produced hair conditioners; well, it turns out that GSE is a quat (benzethonium chloride), and from what I’ve been able to piece together, so are hydrolyzed proteins, including the “hydrolyzed sweet almond protein” which is a main ingredient in Aubrey’s Island Naturals Conditioner and which datasheets indicate has “antistatic” and “hair conditioning” properties, these being characteristic of quats. In the quantities at which GSE is used in Aubrey Organics hair conditioners, I suspect that it’s not just there to act as a preservative, but also to serve the same detangling and softening functions as quats do in other companies’ hair conditioners.
  • Now don’t get me wrong: I consider Aubrey Organics products to be of high quality, and they undoubtedly contain more natural ingredients than most of what’s on the market.

    My concern is that Aubrey Organics is representing its products as being far more natural than they really are, which strikes me as dishonest, particularly when it attacks competitors’ products for having ingredients which it itself uses, albeit in hidden form.

    The bottom line is: if you need something to be 100% natural, without any artificial preservatives, the only way you’re going to get that is by making it yourself in small batches and quickly using it up before it goes bad. As soon as a product containing large amounts of water has to sit on a store shelf for several months, it’s going to need an effective (and that means artificial) preservative. Aubrey Organics is no exception.

    Aubrey wants you to believe that his company’s products are the same as those he helped his mother make in her kitchen during the Great Depression, but that is simply not the case.

The Take Charge Beauty Book

August 21, 2010

The Take Charge Beauty Book
by Aubrey Hampton and Susan Hussey
Organica Press, 2000
ISBN: 0939157098

Aubrey Hampton is the founder and president of Aubrey Organics, a manufacturer of “100% natural hair, skin, and body care” products. Susan Hussey, now deceased, was his wife and the vice-president of marketing for the company.

According to the description on the Aubrey Organics website, The Take Charge Beauty Book promises to give you thirty of Aubrey Hampton’s “exclusive cosmetic preparations — from facial cleansers and wrinkle-reducing moisturizers, to shampoos and conditioners, to natural baby products — recipes you can make at home using ingredients from any health food store or grocery store.”

I was disappointed with this book. Here are some of the reasons:

  • It gave the impression of being a rushed job. Unlike Aubrey’s first book, in which I didn’t see more than a couple of typos, this one was littered with them. Some of the material was repetitive and could’ve been left out. Little effort went into the layout, which looks like a standard word processor document. The quality of the photos is poor, the photos looking like they were prepared on a low-end, 1990s ink jet or laser printer.
  • With the exception of the recipes section, the book was mostly cobbled together from material already published in Aubrey’s previous books. If you own Aubrey’s first book, Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care, you’ll find little that is new here.
  • These are hardly what I’d call kitchen recipes, if by “kitchen recipe” is meant something which can be easily put together in a kitchen from commonly available ingredients. Several of the ingredients called for in these recipes aren’t ones that you’ll be likely to find at your local grocery store or pharmacy. For example, how many people have ingredients like biotin, vegetable glycerin, liquid vitamin C, collagen liquid protein, 150 proof grain alcohol, liquid Castile soap, PABA capsules, or cayenne pepper oil readily on hand? I don’t think I could find even half of those ingredients at health food stores, and I have several in my city. If you want to make these recipes, expect to do some mail-ordering.
  • Even more annoying is that some of the recipes call for an Aubrey Organics product as one of the primary ingredients. So don’t expect to be able to make Formula #18 for a “Rosa Mosqueta Super Protein Shampoo” if you can’t find or aren’t willing to pay for a product called Aubrey Organics Seasoap, or Formula #20 for a “Blue Green Algae Hair Rescue Shampoo” if you can’t locate Aubrey Organics Herbal Liquid Body Soap.
  • Many recipes use an “essential fatty acid cream base” in which the primary ingredient is tofu. This is a turn off for me, since I avoid soy products as religiously as vegans do animal products. I would never put tofu into my body, so why would I want it on my body?
  • I didn’t learn anything about making cosmetics from these recipes. There is no explanation as to what each ingredient in a recipe does or why it was chosen. For example, what function does the tofu serve? Is it there as an emulsifier? Not knowing these things makes it difficult to modify the recipes or substitute ingredients.
  • Why do several of the recipes call for GSE (grapefruit seed extract) as a preservative but then warn you to refrigerate your creation when it’s not being used? If GSE is an effective preservative, why can’t you store the shampoos you made according to these recipes alongside your store-bought ones in the shower? If GSE is not an effective preservative, then why call for it at all?
  • The book contains too much self-promotion. The first 4 pages are endorsements for the book. Pp.1-3 provide biographies of the authors; then on p.261, in case the reader has forgotten these two VIPs’ life stories and needs a reminder, there’s another pair of biographies. On p.225, Aubrey Organics is placed on a list of the top 10 best cosmetic manufacturers — humility isn’t the authors’ strong suit, apparently! And to make sure we don’t forget, another biography of Aubrey Hampton is provided on that page. On p.118, in the chapter on ingredients, we find another plug for the Aubrey Organics Seasoap product mentioned above. On pp.213-214, there are endorsements for Aubrey Organics products from a Dr. C. Leigh Broadhurst. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
  • On p.218, the authors tell you to avoid cosmetics containing silica at all costs. Then on p.226, they praise a product called Un-Petroleum Jelly which contains silica, and on p.231 they praise the company Weleda for using “naturally occurring minerals such as chalk, clay, and silica” in their products. So which is it? Is silica to be avoided or not?
  • Why is using products containing lanolin discouraged on pp.217-218? Lanolin is natural and, in my experience, one of the most effective skin care ingredients around. It is thought by many to be allergenic, but this reputation is undeserved. I’d wager that there are more people who are allergic to the essential oils of chamomile or lavender often used in beauty products than there are who are allergic to lanolin. Some raise the specter of residual pesticides being in lanolin, but, aside from the fact that lanolin refiners have gone to great pains in the past 20 years to bring residual pesticides in their product down to negligible levels, this issue could just as easily apply to many plant-derived products. How do we know the vegetable oils we’re putting on our skin don’t contain pesticide residues and chemicals left over from the extraction process? We don’t. So why single out lanolin for a problem that likely affects every plant extract that isn’t issued from organic farming? As the book says, it’s possible to buy lanolin that is free of pesticides. It’s also possible to buy “hypoallergenic” versions that even those who are normally allergic to lanolin can safely use. The book should’ve stuck to recommending you pay attention to the quality of what you buy rather than discouraging the use of lanolin altogether. (On a side note, check out this description for a lanolin-free nipple gel for nursing mothers. In an attempt to scare nursing women away from using lanolin-based products, it says that lanolin is “100% cholesterol”, as though that were a bad thing, while it conveniently avoids mentioning that mother’s milk contains a large amount of cholesterol. And it’s simply not true that refined lanolin combined in a lotion with other ingredients is “dark, greasy, and malodorous.” It’s interesting how the worst of the fear mongering concerning lanolin is coming from manufacturers of lanolin-free products.)
  • The nutritional advice in this book is not the worst I’ve read (I use the WAPF guidelines as my standard), except that it promotes the vegan myth that soy is a safe, harmless substitute for animal protein. This myth has been thoroughly debunked in Kaayla T. Daniel’s The Whole Soy Story.

    At some point the neo-hippie granola types are going to have to come to terms with the fact that eating plant foods like soy is not what’s best for the environment and that veganism is not a natural (let alone healthy) lifestyle. They’re going to have to decide which is more important to them, protecting the environment or avoiding animal products at all costs, since these goals are, ultimately, mutually exclusive. There is no logical basis for claiming that plant products are more “natural” than animal products or are safer or healthier for humans and the environment, or for claiming that “animal rights” activism has anything whatsoever to do with protecting the environment.

Houses That Kill

August 17, 2010

I recently read Ces maisons qui tuent by Roger De Lafforest, a book first published in 1972, no doubt in an effort to cash in on the occult and paranormal craze going on at the time. There was an English edition published under the title Houses That Kill, but it is long out of print and used copies are fetching a tidy sum (as of this writing, there are three yellowed paperback copies on Abebooks going for upwards of $59). Copies in the original French are plentiful and affordable, so if you happen to be fluent in that language, that’s the way to go.

Why does this obscure, forgotten book deserve attention? Well, for the simple fact that much of the misinformation it advanced is still making the rounds some 38 years later.

If there’s an interest, I may sit down and write a proper review sometime, but for now, what follows are my impressions in bullet point form (all page numbers refer to the 1986 J’ai lu paperback edition):

  • heavy on the dowsing/radiesthesia and pyramid power; on p. 193, for example, the author claims that it is “almost unanimously agreed among Egyptologists” that the preservation of mummies is in large part due to the shape of the pyramids.
  • all the evidence presented is anecdotal.
  • borrows concepts and terminology from physics and electronics in order to lend an air of scientific credibility to its claims (for example, on p.175 the author borrows from the theory of radio transmission when he talks about human emotions having specific frequencies which modulate pyramid-power “shape waves” acting as carrier signals); such pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo might impress flakey New Age types, but it’s not likely to fool a critical thinker with a background in science or engineering.
  • typing the term “negative green” or the French “vert negatif” into a search engine doesn’t yield a single result from a scientific source; the only hits are from dowsing and New Age sites, and from sites which specifically mention De Lafforest’s book. “Negative green” appears nowhere in the English version of Wikipedia, including the articles on “Green,” “Color spectrum,” and “Electromagnetic spectrum.” If, as this book alleges on p.167, there is a wavelength called “negative green” within the electromagnetic spectrum, then physicists must be keeping mum about it, since I can find no mention of it in scientific literature.
  • at a couple of points (pp.153, 162) the book comes off like an ad for certain questionable products, namely a gadget called “aspironde,” said to neutralize the allegedly harmful fields emitted by 220 volt house wiring through the emission of pyramid-power “shape waves,” as well as a similar gadget designed by “physicists” A. de Bélizal and P.-A. Morel.
  • makes dubious, unverifiable claims that Howard Carter protected himself from King Tut’s curse by wearing an “Atlantis Ring” (considering that “replicas” of this supposed ring are, to this day, being sold for exorbitant prices through New Age shops and mail-order outlets, one has to wonder if the author wasn’t getting a cut from sales of these rings in exchange for clandestinely marketing them in his book; frankly, I believe the author invented this ring and the legend surrouding it out of whole cloth, as to the best of my knowledge, no one had ever heard this tale until the publication of his book).
  • by extension, if the story of the “Atlantis Ring” was a hoax by the author, then there likely was no “curse of the Pharaoh’s tomb,” since nothing bad befell Howard Carter.
  • while I believe that much of what is written in this book is not only wrong but outright fraudulent, I don’t rule out that cosmic rays and telluric fields could exert an influence on human health; that there are such things as “cancer houses” and areas along roads that for no apparent reason act as magnets for automobile accidents (though I don’t necessarily agree with the explanations put forth by the author); that certain shapes and architectures might have negative psychological (but not directly physical) effects on some individuals; and that there are such things as haunted houses, whether these hauntings be by actual discarnate spirits or entities, the result of telekinetic projection by live occupants, or through an undiscovered mechanism whereby the house “records” traumatic events that have occurred within its walls.