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9 Weird Ingredients Hiding in Your Makeup Bag

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Since ancient times, humans have combined strange ingredients to create personal care products. Today, the ingredients are only slightly less bizarre. Here are nine weird items you may not have known about.


1. Sodium Chloride (Table Salt)
Good old table salt is a common ingredient in shampoo, facial cleanser, body wash, bubble bath, and anything else that foams. These products are made using specific combinations of surface-active agents (surfactants), which usually require salt to reach a usable viscosity. The next time you shudder with delight while working your hair into a lather, take a second to peek at the back of that shampoo bottle and see if your friend, table salt, is in the mix.

2. Oleoresin Capsicum (Pepper Spray)
If you're a police officer, vigilante, or really serious about self-defense, you know Oleoresin Capsicum is the primary component of pepper spray. Specifically, it's the pepper part. Why, pray tell, would there be pepper spray in your lipstick? Well, there probably wouldn't be (barring the possibility of a horrible, horrible joke), but there might be some capsicum in any product that causes a warming sensation when applied topically (don't think lube—external use only!) and in many over-the-counter pain and itch creams.

3. Diatomaceous Earth (A Component in Dynamite)

Also known as diatomite, this is one of the two components of dynamite (along with nitroglycerin). DE is a silica-based powder made of the fossilized remains of diatoms, a kind of spherical, hard-shelled algae. Because the particles are hollow, they are very porous; it is even utilized in cat litter and water filtration processes. In cosmetics, diatomaceous earth finds a home in natural toothpastes, deodorant, absorbent powders, cuticle cream, and in mild-exfoliation products due to its gentle abrasiveness.

egg-whites.jpg4. Albumen (Egg Whites)
Egg whites are sticky and gooey, but they constrict very efficiently when dried, and are used in skin-firming products for just this reason. Processed for purity and spray-dried for industrial use, albumen doesn't exactly resemble your breakfast. But the next time you take half an hour to use that peppermint hydrating peel-off mask, think about the eggs you left in that pan this morning.


5. Plastics
In addition to the obvious packaging role, plastic serves as a film-former in hair gel, hairspray, barrier products, and liquid bandages. Used as polyvinyl alcohol and various other forms, plastics are easily incorporated into many skin and hair care products. Plastic keeps your coif in that perfect Flock of Seagulls swoop, makes your waterproof mascara waterproof, and suspends those little beads in your eye gel. Speaking of beads, tiny polyethylene spheres are frequently used in exfoliating scrubs. The products are generally marketed as "extra gentle," since they are perfectly round and do not damage the skin's surface when used in moderation.

mylicon.jpg6. Simethicone (Gas Relief Drops)
To all mommies who have lain awake with a fussy baby, this ingredient is better known as gas relief drops (Mylicon is a popular brand.) For cosmetic and industrial purposes, the generic name "˜antifoam' is usually applied. For the same reasons we ingest it, simethicone is used in cosmetics during the manufacturing process to reduce the surface tension of air or gas bubbles, causing them to collect and rise upward. In a baby, this is called "˜burping' and the process is identical in cosmetic manufacturing, although it lacks the distinctive noise and cuteness.

7. Urea (Formerly Extracted From Urine)
As a cosmetic ingredient, urea is a functional skin-softener and humectant, which means it helps to collect and hold moisture in the skin. And thank goodness it isn't extracted from horse urine anymore, because a form of urea (diazolidinyl urea, specifically) is widely used in all manner of cosmetics, household cleansers and hair products as a broad-spectrum antimicrobial and preservative. (These days, urea is made using the Wöhler synthesis.)

8. Propylene Glycol (Not Antifreeze)
Commonly mistaken for its lethal and less human-contact friendly cousin, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), propylene glycol gets a bad rap. Used to moisturize the skin and hair, as a primary ingredient in "self-warming" products (this time, think lube), and to extract herbal ingredients for greater stability and efficacy than water, propylene glycol is a multi-tasker in the cosmetic quiver of tricks. While it is not toxic or harmful, propylene glycol just so happens to share a few of its unsavory relative's anti-freezing effects; it is commonly used on the wings of aircraft to prevent the accumulation of ice crystals and excess moisture, which can cause drag and erratic flap control.

9. Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Or, As My Granny Called It, Shortnin')
This is the exact thing that you buy in the giant metal can, and that comes in a 20-pound brick for the food service industry. Topically, hydrogenated vegetable oil is an amazing skin-softener, emollient, and barrier ingredient. You can find it in most heavy body and foot creams, lip balms, and in some suntan products. Although the trans fat content is a legitimate reason to avoid eating it, it actually improves the cosmetic performance of the ingredient—many substitutions for petrolatum contain a hefty proportion of hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Although some of these ingredients seem out of place, the truth is that they're pretty tame compared to the bugs and such in our ancestors' makeup. (More on that next time.) So, what's the weirdest thing you've noticed in one of your products?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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