Friday is payday here at Bad Science Debunked. As I’m wont to do when I’m flush with cash, I thought a trip to FoodBabe.com for a little online shopping might be fun. As always, we’ll be wearing our Food Babe Investigator HatsTM as we browse, which means that when evaluating the safety of product ingredients, we use Vani Hari’s rules. In addition, as a special treat, we also need to don Food Babe Lab Coats (patent pending) and Vani Hari Safety Goggles,SM because we’ll be going into our kitchen laboratory to do an actual chemistry experiment.
I can barely stand the excitement, and I already know what explodes! Ready to go? Put on those safety goggles. Today’s Food Babe product is: “Piggy Paint”.
Yes, Piggy Paint
I bought Food Babe’s Piggy Paint nail polish for children from Amazon.com after reading her article “New Products That Make Me Scream In Excitement”.1 I screamed too, because I saw an elementary school science project being deceptively used to sell fingernail polish:
If you’ve studied chemistry, even at the grade school level, you already know the secret of the “melted” styrofoam plate that makes Food Babe’s competition look so dangerous. At the end of this article we’ll do a simple experiment to shed light on this. But, for now, let’s just highlight the encoded FoodBabe.com affiliate link that allows us put vital cash in Vani Hari’s pocket each and every time we buy Piggy Paint from her:
I’m fairly certain Hari donates a portion of each purchase toward the rehabilitation of GMO-injured penguins at the North Pole. Such is the extent of her scientific outreach. My dreams are sweeter each night knowing I’m helping fund her vital work.
Without further ado, let’s take a peek at the ingredients in this nail polish:2
The first highlighted ingredient, neem oil, is a well known pesticide used in organic farming.3,4,5,6 (You did know that organic farmers use pesticides, didn’t you?)
Oh dear. Vani Hari is selling a pesticide to children?
Why yes, she is. At least it’s organic! But crude oil is also 100% natural and organic, so we can’t defend her actions using an appeal to nature. Vani is a skilled researcher, so this must be a mistake… can we just say neem oil isn’t toxic and move on?
“Twelve children were admitted with convulsions and altered sensorium following ingestion of locally obtained neem oil. Ten died within 24 hours.”–Indian Journal of Pediatrics 7
Ten dead children? So much for non-toxic! But that’s just one report, right?
“This report highlights the toxicity associated with neem oil poisoning in an elderly male. […] In the emergency department, the patient developed generalized convulsions with loss of consciousness. “–Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine 8
As it turns out, there are many reports of neem oil poisoning, especially in children (the target audience of Vani’s nail polish). The Indian Journal of Pediatrics paper says that refining can remove toxic components, but Food Babe is against refined and processed products. Honestly, I’m not sure how to defend Hari, my champion of science… if I say that this is a cosmetic and all the poisonings were from drinking neem oil, her critics will point out that she says applying toxins to your skin is dangerous as well .9,10
If I mention that neem oil is also sometimes used as a traditional folk medicine and not just a pesticide, detractors of the Babe will point out the Subway bread debacle: It didn’t matter to Food Babe that azodicarbonamide was used safely in one area (food)–since it was used in another setting (the manufacturer of yoga mats), it was dangerous everywhere.
Maybe we’d better treat Vani’s pesticide just as she would: ignore it completely and move on to something else.
Ooh, The Pretty Colors
Here are the Piggy Paint ingredients again. Let’s apply our Food Babe research methods to those interesting color/number combinations:
“Orange 5″… “red 22″… these seem to be the FDA-approved “short names” 13 for “D&C Orange Number 5” and “D&C Red Number 22”. Why, they are!13 You know the D&C dyes, right? Educate the masses, Vani:
All of those “natural” colors Vani is selling to your kids and giving away to her friend’s little girls? They’re all the same “toxic coal tar dyes” she warned would cause cancer and brain toxicity.
According to Food Babe’s own “research”, she’s selling a toxic rainbow:
- “Red 28” is D&C Red 28 (CI 48410)
- “Yellow 10” is D&C Yellow 10 (CI 47005)
- “Violet 2” is D&C Violet 2 (CI 60725)
- “Red 22” is D&C Red 22 (CI 45380)
I’m disappointed in Food Babe for not catching this faux pas. She didn’t have to go to the FDA, who regulates the dyes. No, she has her own higher authority: the Environmental Working Group:11
“In the end – If you want to know if your makeup is safe and not toxic – check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database, they have thousands of your favorite brands listed with their safety ratings for you to investigate yourself…”–Vani Hari11
What does Vani’s beloved EWG say about the Orange 5 she’s selling?
“D&C Orange 5 is a synthetic dye produced from petroleum or coal tar sources”–EWG Skin Deep Database 12
With full disclosure that I’m a co-author and this could be considered an affiliate link, Marc Draco and Kavin Senapathy point out in our book, The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, that “coal tar dye” is a misleading term. These dyes are commonly derived from petroleum now, not coal tar, but once “derived”, they’re no longer petroleum. The good folks at Piggy Paints reaffirmed this in an email to me, and correctly point out that the dyes are tested under the authority of, and approved by, the FDA. But since Food Babe says they’re dangerous, isn’t it curious that she’s selling them?
Looking at the big picture, Piggy Paint nail polish appears to be just as safe for its intended use as conventional nail polish. I hope the company won’t be punished because a hypocritical “activist” is selling this polish while simultaneously (falsely) linking the ingredients to myriad diseases. If not for their deceptive advertising, I’d be happy to buy Piggy Paint nail polish for my young nieces. I just wouldn’t buy it from Food Babe.
Speaking of that deceptive advertising, you’re welcome to join me in the kitchen for a quick experiment that exposes the “melting” Styrofoam plate used by Piggy Paint and Food Babe to scare people away from conventional nail polish…
How Piggy Paints and Vani Hoax Their Customers With That “Melting Plate” Demonstration
A skeptical mind would well ask why Vani and the Piggy Paint promoters selected a Styrofoam plate as the “substrate” (the target for their nail polishes) in the product demo that kicked off this article. It’s almost as if they knew that the Piggy Paint wouldn’t eat through the plate while the competing nail polishes would, and chose styrofoam for that reason alone. In fact, that’s exactly what happened.
Conventional nail polishes contain a component known as a solvent that helps keep the polish in the form of liquid until it’s time to apply it. Once on the nails, the solvent quickly evaporates, leaving behind a solid film of color bound to the nail. Organic solvents used in nail polish include acetone, ethyl acetate, and butyl acetate.
Styrofoam is made up mostly of air and a small amount of a polymer named polystyrene. The long polystyrene polymers in Styrofoam intertwine during manufacturing, trapping copious amounts of air. 95% or more of that styrofoam plate is actually just air. (A kind reader pointed that “Styrofoam” is a trademark that covers a specific manufacturing process for polystyrene and that the manufacturer of Styrofoam doesn’t actually make cups and plates. Please note I used “Styrofoam” in the generic sense in this article.)
Polystyrene is soluble in acetone and other organic solvents used in nail polish and nail polish removers. The solvents dissolve the polystyrene strands, allowing the air to escape. That’s all that happens. What looks like “melting” certainly isn’t an indicator of what’s going to happen to your nails, which–in case you haven’t noticed–aren’t made of styrofoam. Knowing the composition of your product and your competitor’s product, it’s easy to pull off a deceptive marketing trick like “melting” a plate.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better
But wait! Two can play this game.
What if, using the very same rules laid down by Vani Hari and Piggy Paint, I can accomplish the opposite of what they’ve done with their Styrofoam test? That is, would it be possible for me to make the Piggy Paints looks like the “Dirty Dissolvers” while the conventional nail polishes come out looking clean as fresh-fallen snow, not leaving a mark on the surface where they’re applied?
Let’s find out.
Here’s a reminder of the rules: I have to use both Piggy Paint and conventional nail polishes. Just as Team Piggy/Vani got to pick a Styrofoam plate, I get to pick my own substrate. Whatever I choose, Piggy Paint must damage it. Conversely, the conventional polishes can’t do it any harm.
OK. I choose hard white discs with a circumference roughly equal to an American half dollar, made primarily of solidified sodium bicarbonate and citric acid. The discs I’ve obtained are far more rigid than Team Piggy’s foam plates, and at least five times thicker:
With any experiment, we need a control group. Here is mine: swatches of three conventional nail polishes spread on a styrofoam plate, alongside a similar spread of Piggy Paint polishes. Note that the conventional polishes have bubbled and warped the plate just like with Team Piggy’s experiment, while the Piggy Paint leaves the plate unscathed. The control we’re using here affirms that we’re using the same type of nail polishes used in Vani Hari’s demo.
Let’s pour some conventional nail polish on three of the discs, and Piggy Paint onto another three:
Zut alors! Piggy Paint reacts violently with the discs, while the conventional nail polishes have no effect whatsoever. Look Ma… I just conclusively demonstrated that conventional nail polish is safe and Piggy Paints are dangerous. Or not.
So what happened?
When I studied organic chemistry, we spent a huge amount of lab time learning to pick a solvent that would affect one substance while leaving another substance untouched. This is really important when, for example, you want to separate two compounds.
So, knowing the solvent used in Piggy Paints (water), I picked Alka Seltzer discs. The solid sodium bicarbonate (baking soda, for you Food Babe fans) and citric acid dissolved in the water. The chemical reaction between base and acid released carbon dioxide, causing the Piggy Paint nail polish to bubble violently. Alka Seltzer isn’t as soluble in acetone and other organic solvents as water, so before the discs could dissolve, the solvent evaporated, leaving the discs untouched by the conventional nail polish.
Did I cheat? Well, only as much as Vani Hari and the Piggy Paint vendors did when they made that styrofoam plate appear to “melt” away. The moral of the story: armed with a modest chemistry education, it’s easy lead the casual observer into believing something is “safe” or “dangerous” with nothing more than a cheap science fair project. And that’s exactly what Food Babe and Piggy Paints have done.
Noted polystyrene solubility in acetone, other solvents used in nail polish (ethyl acetate and butyl acetate are more common than acetone), sodium bicarbonate = baking soda, “Styrofoam” trademark, word “encoded” more accurately used than “encrypted” in describing Vani’s affiliate link. (13 Nov 2015). Added Revlon “Hot For Chocolate” ingredients as an example of a nail polish that used all organic solvents mentioned in this article.
Piggy Paint and Food Babe screen snapshots and product image captures are used in strict compliance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of United States copyright law (commonly known as “fair use law”). This material is distributed without profit with the intent to provide commentary, review, education, parody, and increase public health knowledge.
Kitchen chemistry shots by the author. Freely distributable for educational purposes, photo credit to “Mark Aaron Alsip/Bad Science Debunked” appreciated.
(1) New Products That Make Me Scream In Excitement
(2) Piggy Paint Ingredients
(3) Natria Neem Oil Pesticide (Lowes)
(4) Garden Safe Neem Extract (Lowes)
(5) Bonide Neem Oil (DoYourOwnPestControl.com)
(6) Safer Brand 1 Galllon Neem Oil Insecticide
(7) The Indian Journal of Pediatrics
May 1982, Volume 49, Issue 3, pp 357-359
N. Sundaravalli, B. Bhaskar Raju M.D., K. A. Krishnamoorthy M.D. (1)
(8) Neem oil poisoning: Case report of an adult with toxic encephalopathy
Indian J Crit Care Med. 2013 Sep-Oct; 17(5): 321–322.
Ajay Mishra and Nikhil Dave
(9) Be A Drug Store Beauty Dropout
(10) Holistic Hair Care
(11) How To Find The Best Natural Mascara That Actually Works
(12) EWG Skin Deep Database: Orange No. 5
(13) Color Additives and Cosmetics (FDA)
(14) Revlon Hot For Chocolate/Ingredients (Amazon.com)