Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Knowing Too Much

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Knowing Too Much
Sometimes it’s better that we don’t know. Last month, while keeping up with current events, I learned too much.

Charlie Naysmith was taking a walk with his father on the southern coast of Great Britain. Instead of walking by a large brownish- yellow rock, he picked it up to examine it. Now, he’s going to be $63,000 richer.

The curious eight year old found a piece of ambergris, which has a odor of its own and is sometimes used in expensive perfumes to prolong the scent. What’s really amazing about the substance, which is literally worth its weight in gold, is its origin.

Ambergris is produced in the intestines of sperm whale to protect them from the beaks of the squid that they often digest. Later, the whale vomits or poops out the excess, which then hardens and seasons, as it eventually floats to the shore.

Selling ambergris has been illegal in the United States since 1972 when the sperm whale became an endangered species. In New Zealand, it washes up on shore, and gangs control the territory, so that they can sell the substance and make a huge profit for themselves.

Author Herman Melville wrote an entire chapter in Moby Dick about how “fine ladies and gentleman...regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.” Recently a 200-year-old fragrance used by Marie Antoinette was replicated using ambergris. It sold for $11,000 a bottle.

The ingredients found in some cosmetics are often, shall we say, unusual.

Lanolin, which is found in many lipsticks, shaving creams, skin creams, shampoos, and make-up removers comes from animal fur or hair. It is the sebum that is made from wax and the remains of dead fat-producing cells.

Squalene can be obtained by squeezing shark livers and is used in facial moisturizers, lipbalm, sunscreen, eye make-up, lipstick, and bath oils. When used, it is easily absorbed into the skin and combined with other oils. Wheat germ oil and olive oil are replacing squalene in many products.

Dead algae or diatomaceous earth is used in some acne treatments, facial cleansers, and exfoliates. You would recognize it as the slimy film on fish tanks. Cholesterol from animals is found in anti-aging and many other creams.

Guanine is formed by processing the scraped off scales of dead fish and then suspending them in alcohol. The result is a pearl essence that gives the iridescent quality to some cosmetics such as finger nail polish.

Other startling substances used in beauty treatments around the world include nightingale droppings, snail secretions, cochineal beetles, placenta creams, cow dung, and snake venom.

After all my research, I am left with the question—what kind of person first decided to rub nightingale droppings on her face or picked up that ambergris rock and smelled it? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I’ll be reading the labels from now on.
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