Cow farts are an even bigger problem than we thought

Climate change just isn’t that funny. Cow belches, conversely, are hilarious. It’s the rare issue that’s seriously impactful and giggle-inducing—bovine flatulence is a precious, smelly diamond in the climate change rough. And it turns out to be an even bigger problem than we thought.

A new estimate of the global methane emissions from cow mouths and butts is 11 percent higher than previous stats suggested. The study was funded by NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System program, and published in the journal Carbon Balance and Management. Fortunately, it seems that the U.S. estimates are still on track. It was mainly the global numbers that varied.

That may seem like a tiny amount to be off by, but the dose makes the poison—and boy is there a lot of poison billowing into our atmosphere. This updated estimate says that livestock pushed about 119.1 million tons of methane into the air in 2011 alone. Carbon dioxide emissions are far greater in terms of volume, but because methane captures more of the sun’s energy, it’s actually a more potent greenhouse gas. And underestimating emissions means we also underestimate how much we need to do to combat climate change.

The problem with methane estimates is that they’re just that: estimates. No one from the EPA is standing out in a pasture measuring how much gas comes out of each individual cow. Our estimates are based on data, but scientists have to make certain assumptions in scaling that data up to account for every bovine. And it’s not just “how much methane does the average cow emit in a day?” It’s also how big the average dairy cow is, how much each animal eats, how much dairy and feed cattle differ in size, how their manure is handled, and so on. There aren’t universal guidelines for these things, so climatologists have to build models. When those models are based on outdated information, they’re bound to be inaccurate.

That’s what happened with the global methane emissions data. The 2006 estimates were based on a different rate of change, because post-2006 the rate of methane production shot way up. Plus, the way we raise cows has evolved. Today’s bovines are larger, for example, which means they consume more feed and pump out more gas.

American and Canadian cows have somehow managed to produce increasing amounts of methane, despite their decreasing numbers. One possible explanation? How we handle their poop. Manure also emits methane, so in Europe they handle cow feces in a way that minimizes further gas leakage. North American companies prefer to centralize their manure processing for economic efficiency, but in the process they’re also putting more methane into the air.

Europe has begun to decrease their agricultural methane production, but the rest of the world seems to only be getting worse.

Scientists from many disciplines are trying to figure out creative ways to keep cows from belching out so many greenhouse gases, but they’re not exactly close to implementing it industry-wide. Sure, we can feed garlic to cows and tweak their microbiomes to prevent methane formation in the gut. But those changes will take a long time to really have any effect. And in the meantime, we’re clouding our atmosphere with massive quantities of cow belches.

Of course, we could always just give up red meat. Our consumption has decreased over time, but come on…convincing the majority of the American public to drastically decrease their steak intake? Unlikely. A marbled ribeye is just too enticing. Maybe for one month (#NoRedOctober) or on one day of the week, but not all the time forever.

Still, little changes like that across an entire population can have an impact, and there’s no reason not to do it. The siren song of delicious cow meat can be hard to resist. But if you want to motivate yourself to cut down on your weekly burger intake, try to remember how many farts had to fill the air to create that juicy ground beef.

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Concussion Recovery is Slower in Girls, Mounting Evidence Suggests

Recovering from a concussion typically takes female athletes more than twice as long as males, according to a new study that tracked hundreds of teenagers active in sports. The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that vulnerability to this injury—and aspects of the healing process—may vary by sex.

A handful of studies published since the mid-2000s have suggested that girls in high school and college may sustain a higher rate of these injuries on the playing field than boys do, and investigations over the last few years have indicated they may also take longer to recover. As a result, when sports medicine researchers and experts convened in Berlin last fall for the 5th International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport, their subsequent statement cited evidence girls were more likely to suffer concussions that required a more lengthy recovery period than their male counterparts did. “But there wasn’t enough data to [definitively] say that this was the case,” says John Neidecker, a sports medicine physician with the Orthopaedic Specialists of North Carolina. “We thought that we’d take a look back at the athletes that we saw over a three-year period and actually [provide] some objective data.”

Neidecker and his colleagues analyzed the medical records of 212 middle and high school athletes who visited a sports medicine practice in southern New Jersey—110 boys and 102 girls—who had experienced their first concussion while playing an organized sport such as football, field hockey or wrestling. (Only initial head injuries were considered to rule out the possible effect of prior incidents.) Their analysis revealed the median recovery time for girls was 28 days—more than double that of boys, which was 11 days. The results appeared Monday inThe Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

After a concussion, some individuals experience migraines and mental health issues, such as depression, which can contribute to longer recovery times. Yet researchers have also found evidence suggesting longer bounce back times are associated with suffering from those conditions prior to a head injury—raising some questions for Neidecker’s group. Although previous studies have reported a longer recovery period for girls, “what nobody has brought up is that all these preexisting [conditions] that seem to affect concussion recovery are more prevalent in females,” Neidecker says. “So maybe it’s actually not the concussion that’s still giving them the symptoms but the preexisting problems that were exacerbated [by the injury].”

The research team’s analysis partially supports this hypothesis—he and his colleagues examined the students’ medical histories and found that the girls were more likely to have previously suffered migraines than the boys. They also suggest psychological factors, such as depression or anxiety disorder, may play a role as well. In this new work there was a slightly higher prevalence of mental illness in girls versus boys, they note, but this difference was not statistically significant. Neidecker says he suspects this effect might be more pronounced in a larger sample, however.

Michael Collins, a concussion scientist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who was not involved in this work, points out that other factors could also contribute to the disparity in recovery times. His prior research has shown, for example, that women also tend to experience more eye movement and visual stability issues following a concussion than men, which can require longer recovery times.

Other researchers have proposed potential biological explanations for the gender difference such as women’s smaller necks, which give them less strength to absorb shock, and higher rates of glucose metabolism (a process that generates the body’s energy). A woman’s menstrual cycle may also directly impact recovery—one 2014 study of 144 women reported brain injuries during certain phases of the cycle might take longer to heal, which researchers think might be due to a sudden drop in levels of progesterone, a female sex hormone. And other research suggests menstrual patterns, which are often associated with headaches and other symptoms of discomfort, might also affect self-reports both before and after concussions.

Across the sexes, concussion is common in contact sports such as soccer and hockey, where heads bang and helmets clash. And, over the years, the public has become more aware of the serious health effects associated with repeated blows to the head. The National Football League has publically acknowledged the link between its sport and degenerative brain disorders such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Such head injuries are also prevalent in amateur and recreational athletics. In a study published last week in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, researchers found that in a sample of 13,088 U.S. teens, around 20 percent reported at least one diagnosed concussion in 2016. Among those who had participated in a contact sport recreationally, such as football or wrestling, the prevalence was 31.5 percent.

Overall, this latest study adds to a growing body of literature that shows girls have a higher incidence of concussions than boys and might also experience more persistent symptoms, says Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and professor at Boston University who did not take part in the new research. “This is one of the most robust studies in terms of the numbers of people involved,” he says, confirming “girls take longer to recover.”

Yet some concussion experts caution this latest work has some limitations. Mayumi Prins, who studies traumatic brain injury in children at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out that whereas Neidecker’s findings are consistent with what others have reported, a key consideration is that the authors relied on the athletes’ self-reports to determine their conditions at baseline (before the injury happened)—measures physicians typically use to determine whether a concussion has resolved. “Self-reporting or parental-reporting is often fraught with errors,” Prins says.

More generally, there is also evidence of gender differences in symptom-reporting across concussion studies. For example, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Athletic Training found that although high-schoolers of both sexes were equally knowledgeable about concussion symptoms, girls were more likely to disclose sports-related injuries to authority figures such as a medical professional or coach.

Ultimately, Prins says, researchers need an objective test to determine whether an individual has had a concussion. Scientists are currently working on developing better neuroimaging measures and identifying biomarkers in blood and other bodily fluids. In the meantime, however, one thing does appear to be clear: Concussion risk factors—and how they may differ by sex—require further scrutiny. Understanding what preinjury conditions are associated with recovery has important implications for treatment, Collins says. “The bottom line here is the injury needs to be recognized, the patient needs to be taken out of play and the [concussed] kids need to go to the clinics where they can get the multidisciplinary care that they need.”

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SpaceX wants to build the Swiss Army knife of rockets

Just how far can that rocket take you? SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes that his new vessel can take journeys as long as ventures between planets, and as short as a hop across the globe.

SpaceX is on a roll. They’ve stuck the landing of their booster rockets 16 times in a row with Falcon 9, and space enthusiasts are still eagerly awaiting the launch of the far larger Falcon Heavy. Their Dragon capsule has successfully delivered cargo to the space station, and is set to carry humans as early as next year. But despite the string of successes, Musk has headed back to the drawing board for his latest idea, announced on Friday at the International Aeronautics Congress meeting in Australia.

Elaborating on his long-standing plans to get to Mars as expeditiously as possible, Musk announced that while SpaceX would keep working on the Falcons and Dragon long enough to build up a stock of those models, his company would eventually shift focus away from the vehicles entirely, replacing them with a Big F*cking Rocket.

Yes: that is really, truly what Musk is calling his new rocket. We’ll just call it the BFR.

The BFR is slightly smaller than previous iterations of the same concept, but it’s still huge. It will be about 30 feet across and 347 feet tall, powered by 31 of the raptor rockets we learned to love in the Falcon 9. It’s big enough to send people and cargo beyond the Earth-Moon system, but that’s not all it’s designed to do.

Instead of designing a rocket for one specific mission, Musk is looking to manufacture the Swiss Army knife of aeronautics. He wants something that can conveniently adapt to any mission required—while still being durable enough for repeat uses.

The entire BFR system involves both a booster to propel the ship out of Earth’s gravity, and a spacecraft capable of carrying humans or cargo. Both sections are intended to be re-usable.

The spaceship could be configured for long-haul flights with 40 cabins, giving passengers some private space en route to far-flung destinations like Mars. The BFR could also be tooled to carry cargo, or to pack in even more passengers for short-haul flights.

Really short-haul flights. At the end of his announcement, Musk declared that these rockets could become part of our terrestrial transportation systems. He painted a vision of trips anywhere around the globe in less than an hour—and often even less. One could rocket from London to New York in just about 30 minutes, he claimed.

In an Instagram post, Musk promised that the cost of the flight would be about the same as a ticket on a commercial plane. No word yet on what the environmental impact will be, or how flight controllers will deal with not only the rocket launches, but also the landings of both a spaceship filled with people and the re-usable boosters that pushed them into the sky.

It certainly sounds nice: if you only spent an hour in the air to get to the other side of the planet, travel could truly be about the destination instead of the journey. But people have been dreaming about this kind of thing for decades, and Musk has plenty of hurdles to clear before he can make the enticingly retro-futuristic idea of transatlantic rocket travel a reality.

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An Enormous Hole in Antarctica’s Sea Ice Could Help Solve a Climate Riddle

Aerial view of the Weddell Polynya in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica. Image: Jan Lieser, ACE CRC, Australia

An enormous hole in the the wintertime sea ice surrounding Antarctica is attracting considerable scientific attention. Researchers think the so-called Weddell polynya is part of a natural cycle, but its present size—the biggest it’s been since it was first spotted in the 1970s—could help us understand the processes controlling Antarctic circulation, and how the Southern Ocean is changing due to human-caused climate change.

Polynyas are regions of open water that occur in the Arctic and Southern Oceans where you’d expect to see ice, typically around coastlines that experience fierce wintertime winds. The Weddell polynya is unusual in that it occurs far offshore, in a shallow water region known as the Maud Rise. It was first spotted in the winter of 1974, when a hole roughly the size of Oregon emerged in the Antarctic sea ice in the dead of winter. The polynya cropped up again for the next two winters, before going dormant for decades—although low sea ice concentrations persisted in the region.

In the winter of 2016, a sea ice gap similar to what scientists had spotted in the ‘70s, although considerably smaller, re-appeared, drawing the attention of Antarctic scientists. Now, the polynya has opened yet again. At more than 16,000 square miles, it’s larger than the Netherlands, and quite a bit bigger than it was last year. Though it’s still about five times smaller than it was in the 1970s, according to Torge Martin, a meteorologist and climate modeler at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, who has been tracking the feature since mid-September.

Other Antarctic researchers have spent the last few days getting excited over the weird ice gap on Twitter:

The Weddell polynya is thought to be driven by the upwelling of warm water, which releases heat to the air, before becoming cooler and denser, and sinking.

“The polynya is like a big window,” Martin told Earther. “Through the hole in the ice heat escapes from the ocean, warming the atmosphere above but more so cooling the ocean underneath.”

“We really don’t know what’s going on. We don’t have enough observations of the Southern Ocean yet.”

According to Céline Heuzé, a physical oceanographer at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, sinking water within the polynya contributes to the formation of very cold, very dense Antarctic Bottom Water, which feeds into the global ocean conveyor belt.

“There’s a bit of a mystery going on in Antarctica at the moment,” Heuzé told Earther. “From global circulation, we know how much deep water should be formed, but the areas we know are forming water now just aren’t forming enough. We’ve got a source of deep water that’s missing, somewhere. Maybe [the Weddell polynya] contributes to that.”

The polynya’s cycle—of heat release, followed by sinking water—is expected to continue until it’s halted by warm springtime air, or the addition of fresh water from melting sea ice, which stratifies the ocean. While the polynya is a naturally-occurring feature, some researchers thought it would disappear due to global climate change, “which is expected enhanced surface freshening putting ‘a lid’ on top of the ocean and thus shutting down the polynya,” Martin explained.

Martin said that his group’s climate models supported the view that the Weddell polynya could make a comeback, as it seems to be doing now.

“While many climate models tend to produce such a large open ocean polynya, the feature was viewed more as a disruptive model glitch than a true phenomenon in the past,” Martin said. “Its recurrence supports our hypothesis… that the Weddell Polynya was not a one-time event but possibly occurred regularly in the past.”

Importantly, Martin thinks the polynya’s resurgence suggests that global warming “is not yet strong enough to suppress this internal variability” in the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is indeed a bit of an anomaly when it comes to climate change: It’s one of the slowest-warming places on Earth, and, with the noted exception of last year, its sea ice has been growing, rather than shrinking, over the satellite record.

A study published last year attributed the Southern Ocean’s ability to keep its chill to powerful currents that siphon warm water northwards, only to be replenished by very old, cold water from the deepest parts of the ocean. Changes in the winds surrounding Antartica have also been implicated. The truth is, we aren’t totally sure why the Southern Ocean isn’t heating up faster, and the Weddell polynya is another piece of a very complex puzzle.

“We really don’t know what’s going on,” Heuzé said. “We don’t have enough observations of the Southern Ocean yet.” She hopes that the polynya’s reemergence will prompt scientific expeditions to the region—there’s only so much we can learn from satellites.

“At the moment any expedition into the Southern Ocean needs to be planned years in advance,” Heuzé said. “But I do hope that now that [the polynya] has formed people will go observe it. You can monitor it by satellites, but for really what’s happening in the ocean we need to go down there.”

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It took six months for my Nintendo Switch to run out of space

When Nintendo announced that its next game console was going to come with just 32GB of internal storage, my heart sank. I’d been planning to go all digital for the Nintendo Switch — making it a portable console that always had my favorite games on tap at a moment’s notice. Instead, I found myself pre-ordering the console with a physical copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild. The compromise didn’t last long. Between the tedium of swapping game cards and my fear of losing them, I wound up going all digital anyway. Within six months, my Nintendo Switch ran out of space.

It’s my own fault, really. If I hadn’t insisted on playing every major release Nintendo put out since launch, I wouldn’t be in this mess. Still, can you blame me? Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was a masterful reissue of one of the Wii U’s best games, and Splatoon 2 was a strong follow up to multiplayer shooter that ruled my summer in 2015. On top of that, we had a brand new Nintendo IP in the guise of ARMS, a wacky telescoping boxing game, the delightful absurdity of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and plenty of great download-only titles like Sonic Mania, Blaster Master Zero and Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment. Nintendo’s hybrid portable console has had a good first year.

When this steady stream of games filled my switch to capacity, however, I didn’t run out and buy a microSD card as I originally planned. Instead, I’ve spent the last few months using Nintendo’s built in data management tool — a pop-up menu prompt that helps you clear out space for a new game by automatically culling your unplayed library.

If you try to download a title you don’t have enough space for, a broken progress bar will appear on the bottom of the game’s icon. Click it, and the Switch will immediately tell you how much space you need to clear to install the game and recommended software to archive. Don’t like what the Switch chooses? No problem — the pop up window will happily take you to the console’s data management screen to sort through your unplayed game library yourself.

It’s a small feature, but it makes managing the Nintendo Switch’s lack of storage space ridiculously easy. When my PlayStation 4 runs out of space, it only notifies me passively — leaving me to drag myself to the system’s storage management menu and stumble through four different categories of data — but the Switch identifies a problem and immediately offers a solution. It takes the work out of juggling data and opens a path to just playing the game I want to launch. That’s nice.

This data management screen doesn’t forgive the Nintendo Switch’s lack of storage — 32GB is still far too little for any modern game console — but it made one of the console’s biggest flaws bearable. I’m still going to buy expanded storage for the Switch eventually, but I don’t feel like I need to right away. That’s a nice quality of life feature, and a small indication that Nintendo is getting better at designing console user interfaces that can rival the competition.

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Airline plans to use electric airplanes in 10 years—is that possible?

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This electric jet doesn’t exist yet, but it might in 2027!


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One of Europe’s largest airlines, EasyJet, announced on Wednesday that it is aiming to begin service with electric-powered airplanes within the next decade. EasyJet will be collaborating with an aviation startup called Wright Electric to make this vision a reality.

The companies have ambitious goals: they want to build airplanes with room for 120 and 220 passengers and a range of 335 miles. That’s so ambitious, in fact, that I was a little skeptical that anyone should take it seriously.

The fundamental problem is a matter of physics: the energy density of jet fuel is way, way higher than the energy density of batteries. As a result, while a conventional airplane can travel thousands of miles before refueling, electric airplanes can only travel a fraction of that distance before they run out of juice.

Yet there’s significant room for improvement in electric airplane technology, argued NASA scientist Sean Clarke in a Thursday email to Ars.

“Electric propulsion systems may be relevant in the marketplace sooner than you might expect, because they can be much more efficient,” Clarke told Ars.

Not only is battery performance steadily improving, Clarke argues, but there are ways to improve the performance of electric motors and thereby squeeze more range out of existing battery technology.

And there’s another way to capture most of the benefits of electric airplanes while still achieving reasonable range. A Seattle startup called Zunum Aero is developing an electric airplane that combines battery power with a conventional generator. Zunum expects its first airplane, which it’s aiming to release in the early 2020s, will have a range of 700 miles—far enough to serve many popular short-haul routes in the United States and around the world.

Electric airplanes push the limits of battery technology

 

Jet fuel has a specific energy of 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram, Clarke told Ars. For comparison, battery systems work out to around 200 watt-hours per kilogram. In other words, jet fuel is about 60 times as efficient for storing energy as batteries are. This is somewhat offset by the fact that electric motors are about three times more efficient than jet engines. But that still means that you can go a lot further with a kilogram of jet fuel than you can with a kilogram of batteries.

According to Clarke, one of the best electric airplanes on the market, the Alpha Electro, has a range of around 80 miles. That’s a tiny fraction of the range of conventional airplanes powered by jet fuel—and much less than the 335 mile goal EasyJet touted in its press release.

Clarke, a leader of NASA’s own experimental X-57 electric airplane project, told Ars that, despite the limitations of battery power, electric airplanes have real promise.

For starters, battery technologies have been improving at around seven percent per year. If that pace of progress continues, batteries will hold about twice as much energy a decade from now as they do today.

Also, there are efficiency gains to be had by re-designing airplanes to work with the strengths of electric motors, which are lighter and more reliable than conventional jet engines.

For example, Clarke plans to move the propellers on the X-57 out to the edges of the wings. “This may improve aircraft efficiency by reducing the drag caused by the vortex that forms at most wingtips. This isn’t really feasible with gas burning engines because they would be too heavy mount at the wingtip,” he says.

Also, he said “aircraft are required to operate even with a failed engine, which would not be feasible if the only remaining engine is at the wingtip. Electric motors may become so reliable that it isn’t credible to have a motor fail entirely.”

Hybrid systems can bridge the gap

Jeff Engler is the CEO of Wright Electric, the startup EasyJet says will provide it with electric passenger planes within the next decade. In a Thursday phone interview with Ars, Engler readily acknowledged that the projected range of 335 miles was beyond the capabilities of today’s lithium-ion batteries and that the lithium-ion battery technology may not improve quickly enough to achieve the goal within the next decade.

The company is still in the early phases of designing its aircraft, and Engler says the company is considering a number of alternative approaches. “We’re looking at other battery technologies: lithium sulphur, aluminum air, and fuel cells,” he told Ars.

Wright Electric is also looking into the hybrid approach, Engler said, using “turbine engines as a range extender.” One advantage of this approach, he pointed out, is that airplanes always need extra fuel to provide a margin for safety. Extra fuel is much lighter than extra batteries, and the spare fuel doesn’t get burned on most flights, minimizing its environmental impact.

Zunum Aero is planning to build a hybrid plane, and that allows it to offer longer range than EasyJet is touting.

“Our plane should fly a 700-mile range in the early 2020s, out to 1000 miles by 2030,” Zunum chief marketer Sandi Hwang Adam told Ars in a Friday phone interview.

Zunum plans to start small by building airplanes designed for 10 to 50 passengers. Adam said the electric propulsion system should reduce noise by 75 percent compared with conventional airplanes. And carbon emissions could be reduced by as much as 80 percent.

“We also designed the aircraft so it’s battery technology agnostic,” she told Ars. In the early years, the aircraft will depend heavily on supplementary power from the onboard generator. However, she said, “you can easily swap out batteries.” As batteries with higher energy densities become available, airlines will be able to swap them into existing airplanes, allowing them to draw more power from the batteries and less power from burning fossil fuels.

Electric airplanes won’t replace conventional airplanes any time soon. The huge gap in energy density means that long-range flights will remain the domain of conventional airplanes for the foreseeable future. But Adams, Clarke, and Engler all envision a future when short-range flights—those measured in hundreds rather than thousands of miles—are handled by hybrid airplanes and eventually by purely electric ones. Those short flights account for a significant share of overall air travel. Electric airplanes have the potential to make these flights quieter, more efficient, and better for the environment.

Update: A reader pointed us to this 13-part series on electric airplanes by industry analyst Bjorn Fehrm. He was a bit more pessimistic than the NASA expert I talked to for this story. You can read his conclusions in the final installment of the series. Fehrm finds that batteries are simply too heavy for all-battery airliners to be practical within the next decade. Hybrids are more promising, he says, but they’re unlikely to be economical within the next decade.

However, much depends on the pace of improvement in battery energy density. As battery densities increase, hybrid systems become more efficient because the battery can supply more power during takeoff, allowing the aircraft to get by with a smaller and lighter generator.

What seems clear is that electric power will start with the shortest routes and gradually move up-market as battery technology improves. Electric power might open up opportunities for small vertical take-off airplanes flying intra-city routes before they start becoming viable for the shortest conventional commercial routes. It will be a long time before electric airplanes will be able to compete with conventional airplanes on longer routes.

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‘Hypoallergenic’ And ‘Fragrance-Free’ Moisturizer Claims Are Often False

A recent test by dermatologists found that 83 percent of the top-selling moisturizers that are labeled “hypoallergenic”contained a potentially allergenic chemical.

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A recent test by dermatologists found that 83 percent of the top-selling moisturizers that are labeled “hypoallergenic”contained a potentially allergenic chemical.

Jill Ferry/Getty Images

For most people, buying a “fragrance-free” or “hypoallergenic” moisturizer that turns out to be neither, might be frustrating, but not harmful. But for people with sensitive skin or conditions like eczema or psoriasis it can be a big problem.

“I will start to itch and I have to get it off my body right away,” says 62-year-old Kathryn Walter, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Walter has a severe case of eczema and always chooses moisturizers that claim to be free of fragrance and allergy-causing additives. But more often than not, Walter ends up with a product that clearly isn’t.

“My ankles and calves are all scratched up as we speak and my hands,” she says.

For people like Walter, moisturizers aren’t just for smoothing skin. They can actually treat the dry, cracked and reddened skin that come with conditions like eczema. But finding the right moisturizer can be truly “hit or miss,” she says.

“Because you can’t just go to a drug store and open up all their tubes of cream to make sure they don’t aggravate your skin.” So Walter ends up throwing a lot of products away.

“Basically, it’s a big expense,” she says.

“Every single day, I get questions about what moisturizer should I use, what sunscreen should I use,” says Dr. Steve Xu, a dermatologist at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“I found myself really struggling to provide evidence-based recommendations for my patients,” he says. So he decided to take on the challenge of figuring out “what’s actually in this stuff.”

Xu and some of his colleagues at Northwestern, examined the ingredients of the top 100 best-selling moisturizers sold by Amazon, Target and Walmart. And what he found was pretty surprising, he says. Nearly half — 45 percent — of the products in the study that claimed to be “fragrance-free” actually contained some form of fragrance. And the vast majority — 83 percent — of products labeled “hypoallergenic” contained a potentially allergenic chemical.

Bottom line: The vast majority of moisturizers that are best sellers “have some form of potential skin allergen,” Xu says.

And when a product is labeled “dermatologist-recommended,” Xu says “it doesn’t mean much,” because there’s no way of knowing how many dermatologists are recommending it, or who they are.

“It could be three dermatologists, or a thousand,” he says.

In large part, the deceptive labels result from the lack of federal regulation of these sorts of products. The Food and Drug Administration considers moisturizers cosmetic and barely regulates them. There are some labeling requirements, but they can be easily avoided by companies that claim the ingredients are “trade secrets,” says Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for Health Data Science at Duke University School of Medicine and a former FDA commissioner.

“The cosmetics industry is highly competitive,” Califf says, “and if someone can easily copy someone else’s successful cosmetic, that would be a competitive disadvantage.”

And, when it comes to adverse reactions, manufacturers aren’t required to report consumer complaints about cosmetics. This means the FDA doesn’t know the extent of the problem, says Califf.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask of manufacturers that they [be required to] register what they’re selling so that it can be tracked,” he says.

Califf wrote an editorial accompanying Xu’s study; both were published in a recent issue of JAMA Dermatology.

Congress is now considering legislation that could make the industry more accountable. In the meantime, dermatologist Xu recommends what he calls a “skinny, skin-diet.”

“What we mean is, using the least amount of products with the least amount of potentially allergenic materials or chemicals in them,” he says, “to reduce the risk.

Xu says some single-ingredient products — like petroleum jelly, shea butter, sunflower oil or cocoa butter — can minimize the risk of an allergic skin reaction.

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