Tuesday 27 March 2018

Complex complexions: patch test upshot and my top topical tips for dealing with dermatitis

Queued for ingredient reading!
When I was a kid, I remember my mother going to the local pharmacy and asking for a moisturiser called 'Pretty Face'. "Sorry", said the chemist, "We don't stock that, but I do have 'Happy Feet'?" Or maybe it was the other way about, but whatever, it still makes me smile.

Now to create a mash up of the two products, I have not had a 'Happy Face' for over forty years, in terms of the state of my skin. For I have been an acne sufferer without interruption - but with lots of eruptions! - since I was 15, then about two years ago I was diagnosed with contact dermatitis AND another kind of eczema that manifests itself as red blotches with or without a kind of white scurfiness. I hope you are not reading this at a mealtime. A condition possibly known as seborrheic dermatitis, but I am way too scared and squeamish to look in Google images, with it being as we all know a bottomless pit of grossness, pretty much regardless of what you look up of a medical nature.

But the distinction between the two is that I get symptoms of contact dermatitis when I use a skincare or beauty product that contains a specific ingredient to which I am allergic, while the causes of seborrheic eczema - if that is indeed what it is - are harder to pinpoint. They include stress, cold, dry weather and hormonal changes, as well as things like harsh chemicals, detergents etc, where it crosses over with the other kind of dermatitis.

So in short I now have a double whammy of skin ailments, triple if you include the acne of yore. I was moved to write this post because last weekend I happened to be back in Preston, staying at the very same guest house where the notorious 'Clarins cleanser incident' occurred in April 2016, triggering this latest on-off phase of contact dermatitis. I wasn't in the same room thankfully, but one of my friends was. He looked much the same at breakfast, so I assume that no such dermatological disaster befell him in the night.

Source: booking.com

While remembering back to this trouble all kicking off two years ago, I realised that I never did do the follow up post about my allergy tests last June(!) and their upshot. It might also be useful to recount how I have gone on since in terms of experimenting with skincare products of varying degrees of innocuousness.

I had the patch tests during the hottest few days of last year - it was 35C in my car on the drive down to Wolverhampton, and I was absolutely drenched in sweat by the time I got to the hospital. And no, I don't have air con in my car in case you were wondering. ;) As a result, my back was far from the ideal substrate to have a load of sticky fabric strips affixed to it, in which dozens of would-be allergens nestled in little pockets. I had some 120 different substances split across ten strips and the nurse drew notches at intervals in black marker pen all the way down both sides of each strip to facilitate the reading of any reactions. I was told to come back in a couple of days for a review, and again about five days later (the exact time frame is approximate as it was a while ago). During that period I was told not to wash my back and to stay cool and dry! Well, fat chance of that, as I was semi-liquefied on arrival, and the presence of ten strips of gauze taped to my back made me feel itchy and uncomfortable, and if anything more inclined to perspire in these extreme weather conditions.

Black marks still visible after patch removal!

After what seemed like an eternity, the day of the final 'reveal' arrived, and the strips were whipped off my back. The tests showed three different allergies:


Now nickel by any other name is very common, to the point of being dull and boring, like the house sparrow of allergens. It is found in jewellery, coins, household utensils - the list is endless.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the population is allergic to nickel. The reactions can be unpleasant, but not fatal."

That's reassuring. You can't really avoid nickel in life, so I basically moved on to...


This is an interesting one, as I used to use acne medications with this as the active ingredient, and found it really harsh and liable to bring me out in a worse reaction than I had to start with. Actually, if you read all its applications, it doesn't sound too appealing:

"This chemical is used to bleach edible oils, flour, bread and other food. It is also used in some dental applications, for the treatment of acne and as an antiseptic and local anaesthetic in the treatment of burns and ulcers. It is also used in vinyl flooring, in fast drying printing inks and in mixed fabrics with viscose, silk or cotton. Further research may identify additional product or industrial usages of this chemical."

Hey, you can stop right there for me with your research - I am sufficiently put off as it is! I don't think this allergen has anything to do with my recent outbreaks, however, because I ditched the acne creams decades ago, and I don't eat much bread, haha. Leaving us with the final culprit, which the nurse said was the main one:

Tocopherol...aka Vitamin E

Oh my lord, this is also a tough one to avoid, for Vitamin E is added to a ton of toiletries, make up and skincare products, including both the suspects I featured in my last post on this subject.

Only at that time my finger of suspicion was pointing to two other chemicals: a formaldehyde-releasing microbial preservative called 2-BROMO-2-NITROPROPANE-1, 3-DIOL (in some makeup removing wipes that had triggered an isolated, but earlier attack in early 2014), and METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE, a controversial preservative found in the Clarins cleanser I used in Preston. And instead the villain is the harmless - nay, positively benign-sounding - Vitamin E! Surely vitamins are meant to nourish and feed the skin, not sent it into paroxysms of allergic mayhem.

And what a pain it was to eliminate tocopherol in its various forms from my wash bag...! My gut feel was that the synthetic form of tocopherol, where it is combined with acetic acid to become tocopherol acetate, was more likely to be dodgy than the naturally occurring Vitamin E you get in many facial oils, so over the next few months or so I set about cautiously testing toiletries one by one to see what happened. I did also throw out any that had tocopherol acetate very high up in the ingredients list, but kept an open mind about any that had it as a middle ranking one!, which was more typical. Because logically the amount of the chemical may have a bearing on the matter, also whether it was present along with a whole bunch of other fairly aggressive things such as the two mentioned above, even if the tests had not revealed an allergy to those in particular - and they did test for both. I still don't like the sound of them, and quite a lot of other chemicals if I am honest!

Nine months on, I have a routine of skincare that broadly works. I have had no reactions as bad as the one in the picture below(!), but I do get shadows under my eyes and extra wrinkles in a sort of sweeping semi circle - the "engraved" look I developed after the make up wipes disaster of 2014. I think stress could be a trigger on its own, mind, and also lack of sleep, but the problems tend to occur more when I am travelling. This suggests that it could partly be a reaction to unfamiliar toiletries in hotels, though I do try to take my own. That said, there may be nefarious effects from the manky bits of moisturiser I shouldn't still be keeping in my travel pots! ;) Oh, and of course who knows what fumes are emitted from the aggressively laundered bedding I have blogged about recently.

Me on a very bad dermatitis day before the tests!

Here is a round up of the main products I use now:

Morning cleanser

Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish


Dr Organics range from Holland & Barrett

Actually I don't think what I put on my head is the issue here, or I am working on that assumption. So I do still use shampoo freebies in hotels, but NOT those generic 'hand and body and hair and everything washes' in those wall mounted dispensers to which hotels are increasingly migrating, which don't have an ingredient list you can inspect.


Olay Regenerist Daily Regenerating Serum

Daytime moisturiser

Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense Normal / Oily / Combination SPF30 (when it is sunny!)


Nivea Daily Essentials Light Moisturising Day Cream for Normal to Combination Skin SPF 15 (when it is dull!)

The former doubles up as a foundation on good skin days, as it is slightly tinted, so were it not for the price I would use it all the time.

Source: Paula's Choice

Make up removal

La Roche-Posay Toleriane

I do additionally use one or two micellar waters specifically to take off eye make up, though they can sting a bit. And sweet almond oil is a good standby for stubborn areas.

Acid toner (once or twice a week)

Bravura Purifying Calendula Toner

Nighttime moisturiser 

Cerave Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM (with ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid).

How much do I love this product!, which I was put onto by a blog reader. It is cheap and packs a lot of skin boosting goodies for the money.

Source: Dermstore

Sometimes, if my skin feels a bit twitchy, I just use a very neutral moisturiser for sensitive skin such use Avene Skin Recovery Cream for Hypersensitve and Irritable Skin. You can use it in the day but it doesn't have any SPF. Or even just slather my face in coconut or sweet almond oil to mix things up a bit, taking care not to get oil all over the pillow.

And that is it more or less, though I occasionally ring the changes round the margins beyond what I have described. But here is the kicker...several of these products have Vitamin E in them, also in its synthetic form! And I appear to be completely fine with that, much like Eleanor Oliphant. So assuming the tests were in fact accurate, all I can say is that the precise amount of tocopherol in each must be at a sufficiently low level not to trouble me. From which I also take that there is no point having a knee jerk response and ditching literally everything containing the allegedly offending allergen. For that way lies baby and bath water throwing.

Meanwhile, controlling the seborrheic eczema is a whole other game, and the bottom line is that I frankly don't think I can. Or rather I cannot stop it coming back every few days - which doesn't sound like controlling to me! - mostly on my forehead (mercifully screened by a fringe), above one eye only, and in both eyebrows. The only thing that really shifts it is hydrocortisone ointment at the very gentle 0.5% strength, making it suitable for the delicate eye area. Though I still don't like using it very often as it is said to thin the skin. Tara kindly gave me a new eczema remedy called Gladskin - I need to have a few more go's with that before I can definitively report on the outcome. And am a bit wary of using it round my eyes.

Have you every had patch testing? If so, what did it find, and how did you go about rejigging your skincare routine?

I would love to hear anyone else's experiences!

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Jessica finds closure on her 'really rosy yet cosy' signature scent quest

Essaouira ~ Source: Wikimedia Commons (via Kayaky)
It's been just over three years since I embarked on a quest to help my friend Jessica find a 'really rosy, yet cosy' perfume, ideally to become her signature scent. The initial phase of the search is recounted in the original post, and for reference this was the brief:

"I think what I want is something soft and comforting without too many other notes competing with the rose. A little spiciness would be okay, eg cardamom. I want it to wear every day, for myself, rather than to make a statement."

Over the weeks I sent Jessica a clutch of samples I happened to have of things I thought she might like, forwarded links to compendium posts of rose perfumes of every style on Perfume Posse, Boisdejasmin and NST, sporadically came up with names of other scents that might conceivably hit the spot, and enlisted the help of Tara and Birgit a month or so into the exercise, who auditioned a handful of additional perfumes when we swung by Libertys (Jessica's preferred hunting ground) after our brunch in Soho. 

I did struggle to find really rosy perfumes with that extra touch of spice Jessica was after, as the ones in that vein invariably proved to be insufficiently rosy. After a while, we narrowed the focus to the fragrances' inherent rosiness and dropped the 'spice route', as it were. Even so, it was important that the rose notes were not overpowering - Frederic Malle's Une Rose, while initially promising, ultimately failed on that count.

In the end, as is often the way of these things, Jessica has found 'the one' entirely unaided, and I couldn't be happier. I don't mind how a person finds a perfect scent for them, as long as they do!

The other day, out of the blue, I received this email from her:

"Hi Vanessa,

I was in Liberty’s today and gave Mogador by Keiko Mecheri another go. It’s definitely the one! Pure creamy rose - I don’t detect jasmine although I know it’s in there - but with that Japanese lightness and subtlety. So glad my quest is over!
Jessica xx" 

Source: Fragrantica

Now I couldn't remember ever recommending Mogador at any point (doh!!), though I know that Tara and Birgit and I thought Keiko Mecheri's Attar de Roses might be a contender. A delve into my email archives revealed Jessica's own early reference to it...

"...another scent that nobody mentioned, 'Mogador' by Keiko Mecheri. (Do you remember last year my saying I was interested in Japanese perfumes? I gather KM operates from NYC but she is Japanese...). I have one on each wrist and think that while 'Une Rose' is longer-lasting, I might prefer 'Mogador' because it is not as sweet. I'll try them again, though, along with the others on the list (although it could take me some time)."

To which I replied:

"Interesting about Mogador, which I hadn't heard of, although I have tried some others by Keiko Mecheri, and have a decant of her musk one. It's a line I have seen in store in the US and which you do also find in good European perfumeries. However, it is much less talked about and reviewed on the blogs than many other brands. I can see how the Japanese angle would appeal.

Here are some Basenoters on the case - they are pretty in favour as you can see - it seems a very rosy rose all right, which is what you were after. Does it have a darker drydown / twist, and if not, do you think abandoning the twist might be the price for gaining extra rose?"


And then I promptly forgot all about Mogador for three years, even though Undina kindly gave me a 'Flo' of it last May when we met up - which is now completely drained! At no point did I think to go back to Jessica and add it to her list of scents to try, but as luck would have it she remembered Mogador herself, even after all this intervening time...

On hearing the good news about her rosy epiphany, I inquired further into the exact circumstances:

"I think Mogador was one I found while browsing in Liberty's at the beginning of my quest. I remember thinking it was lovely, but I thought at the time it was a bit too subtle. It certainly seemed a bit weedy in comparison to Frederic Malle's Une Rose (which I now find completely overpowering). I think I may splash out on a bottle when I'm next there as I can't see myself going off it in a hurry."

Mogador was created by Yann Vasnier and has the following notes:

Bulgarian rose, May rose, Dades rose, jasmine

And a word on the name, Mogador, which makes me think of Mogadon, a class of benzodiazepine drugs to combat insomnia. A post on that very topic may well be coming along soon! But getting back to Mogador, it was the Portuguese name up until some time in the 1960s for a resort on the Moroccan coast now known as Essaouira. It is additionally the name of an island just off the coast opposite Essaouira. And Dades roses are cultivated in the Dades Valley, in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. A Moroccan theme is nicely knitting together...

Valley of the roses ~ Source: Wikimedia Commons

My favourite titbit about Mogador is that in the early 1950s, Orson Welles filmed several scenes of his 1952 version of 'Othello' there. Wikipedia goes on to tell us more about the famous director's connection with the town:

"Legend has it that during Welles's sojourn in the town he met Winston Churchill, another guest at the Hotel des Iles. A bas-relief of Orson Welles is located in a small square just outside the medina walls close to the sea. It is in a neglected state being covered in bird droppings, graffiti and with a broken nose. In addition, the dedication plaque below it has been stolen (as of Dec 2008)." Alas poor Orson!

Source: Wikipedia

So there you have it...sometimes it takes no time at all to find the scent that blows you away - my friend B who fell hard for Beyond Love is testament to that - and sometimes it takes slow, meticulous trial and error. Either way, Jessica has finally found rosy closure, hurrah!

To round off this post, here is another video of Jessica's band in action, featuring Val the Cookie Queen's favourite bass player!

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Bitesized Not Quite Reviews Of Perfume-Themed Books: No 3 - Damage Control by Denise Hamilton

If anyone out there is contemplating a career in Public Relations, they may well wish to reconsider after reading this book. Or certainly reconsider accepting a job putting a favourable spin on the lurid shenanigans and dodgy dealings of LA's great and good. Or great and bad, more like. 'Bad, mad and dangerous to know' indeed, to reprise Lady Caroline Lamb's astute assessment of Lord Byron.

Damage Control is a psychological thriller combined with a well observed social commentary on the privileged and intractably amoral West Coast elite. The book's plucky heroine, crisis management professional Maggie Silver - who pops a cocktail of amphetamines in a bid to stay awake 21 hours a day in the execution of her job, in the course of which she is nearly executed herself on more than one occasion - is a latter day Jane Bond. Indeed, she has days which make James Bond look like a pen pusher in a building society by comparison. But I am running a little bit ahead of myself, much like the page turning, cliff hanger-bristling plot of the book itself, which manages to combine the breathtaking twists and turns of its narrative with a languid and lyrical evocation of the surf-tossed coastal landscape of Southern California. In that regard I am vividly reminded of the book White Oleander by Janet Fitch, and Maggie is well versed in the local flora, as it happens. Denise Hamilton also captures that edgy, 'city that never sleeps' feel to LA. I have been there a few times, invariably staying somewhere not overly salubrious, and the sense of danger in the sultry night air is palpable.

But in what way perfume-themed, I hear you ask? Well, I suppose it would be more correct to say that Damage Control is perfume-inflected. To backtrack a bit, author Denise Hamilton is an LA-based writer, journalist and blogger, and has a perfume column in the Los Angeles Times, or did up to 2013 at least. And because she is a fumehead and 'one of us', she imbues her protagonist with a similar love of perfume. On and off through the novel Maggie will comment on her scent of the day and bottles spied on other people's dressing tables. She will score a long discontinued perfume in a thrift store, foist unsolicited decants on friends in a bid to cheer them up and/or broaden their horizons, and notice ambient smells generally.

"At a traffic light, I smelled carne asada juices dripping onto hot coals, the toxic bite of lighter fluid exploding against a match."

My favourite line in the book - and this isn't a spoiler - has to be Maggie's upbeat comment:

"I must be okay, if I can smell Chanel Sycomore." (!!)

Moreover, a particular bottle of perfume does in fact serve as a material clue in the unravelling of the plot, but I will draw a fragrant veil over that.

Now I abandoned the last perfume-themed book I didn't quite review - Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney - part way through, something I haven't done since I chucked a particularly impenetrable Henry James into a rubbish bin in Swindon. By contrast, I was completely swept along by Damage Control, rooting for the heroine to strip back the dizzyingly complex layers of intrigue and double dealing and work out who if any the good guys are that she can trust - also within the company she works for!

Luckily justice prevails, and the multiple pile up of damage broadly controlled, but the reader is quite exhausted by the time the nerve-racking denouement finally comes. And what I have learnt about the PR profession is that even a daily drenching in your most fortifying 'scent as armour' will not cut it, and you may need to top up with caffeine and stimulants of every stripe to get the job done.

And finally here I am, looking worryingly starry-eyed in my first ever branch of Starbucks in LA's Westwood district (in 1994). I am about to get my first fix of caffeine of the day, albeit from my beverage of choice, English Breakfast tea (or its nearest approximation).