Sunday, October 12, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S2E2: The Night Lands)

Red and blue face off in this episode, which is actually a pretty awesome one.  Somehow it never stuck in my mind as all that impressive, but I really enjoyed the rewatch.  There's cool stuff going on with the costumes in almost every single scene, even though we don't see much of our "usual" costume MVPs.  Let's get started!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The sexism of "Game of Thrones": Why it matters

For the purposes of this discussion, I will be mainly considering the television show and its portrayal of events, though I may bring in details from the book where relevant.  Consider it SPOILERS ALL.

The misogyny that runs rampant throughout Westeros is no secret, and has been discussed thoroughly in numerous places.  No one ever seems willing to pursue the question as far as it needs to go.  Instead we get articles like this one, documenting all the crimes and injustices that the female characters face in the story, and ending with a limp call to "imagine more".  Invariably someone responds along these lines:

We're talking about a world that has multi-year seasons, 700-foot ice walls, giants, zombies, warging, blue-lipped warlocks, ancient men fused to magical trees, *dragons*...  Why is it possible to contort the laws of nature and physics every which way in the name of fantasy, but not possible to imagine a world in which women are not trapped in their society as sexual objects?

If that's a more implacable fact than the rest of, then the real question is why that should be.

There are two points that people fail to grasp when they make these sort of statements.  The first is that the violences that the female characters in the show endure still happen to women today, and frequently.  I'm not sure when a man in America last had a rat eat its way into his viscera, tortured by roving mercenary bands looking for gold in the village, but women, even in developed nations, are raped; economically exploited; degraded, even by the men who claim to love them; prostituted; made to endure forced reproduction; abused.  To have people blithely write off the violence depicted in Game of Thrones, to hear them speak about it as some "historically accurate" fact from the past, is insulting and offensive.

The other, more important point is, the violence that men endure on the show does not have implications for the rest of the male characters.  When Jaime loses his hand, that does not mean that men's natural purpose is to have their bodies mutilated.  But when Shae is murdered for--what? trying to survive in a world that hates her? there is an enormous gap between the wedding and her murder, and that thundering silence is one of the story's great failures--that is simply what happens to women who displease the men who have owned them.  Honestly, we don't even need to know what happened for us to condemn her and for Tyrion to be justified in murdering her.  She does not exist for us as a real character when she's not getting fucked by a man, be it Tyrion or Tywin.  Cersei endures years of marital rape with Robert because she's his property and that is what she is for.  That is what all women are for.  In this; class does not matter, nor does race.  Women are a sex class, and the violence that one suffers tightens the chains on all the others.

Rape: the threat of it is constant in Westeros.  It's so common, in fact, that we barely recognize it when it actually happens.  As discussed above, Cersei is both a domestic abuse and a multiple-rape victim, yet we never speak of her in those terms.  Maybe because she's too much of a bitch.  Maybe because we think she deserves it.  There we see our pretensions to modern enlightenment skewered: "everyone knows rape is a bad thing!" we cry, but it doesn't take much for us to start making excuses. It doesn't take much for us to decide we can ignore it all together.  Whatever Cersei might be, it's irrelevant to our topic, since as we established before, Cersei is not raped because she is a bitch.  She is raped because she is a woman and as such, the limits of her body were violable.

Tellingly, men's bodies are not similarly at risk.  Jaime and Brienne are captured together.  Jaime, we know, is quite beautiful--he is referred to as "Pretty Man" by Greatjon Umber when he is first captured by the Northerners--while Brienne, we are repeatedly told, is huge, hulking, unfeminine and unattractive.  In the books, Jaime's captors are wild, depraved, and have no loyalty to any particular side.  The leader Vargo wants to "thend a methage" to Tywin Lannister.  In the show, they are Bolton bannermen, who seem to be somewhat out of Roose's control--or perhaps given more freedom to do the dirty work that Roose does not want to be personally seen to do.  In both versions, Brienne's rape is a foregone conclusion.  In the book, Jaime has no such worries--the possibility of him being raped never comes up.  How odd: surely, a bunch of lawless raping madmen would make no particular distinction?  An rectum is as easy to rape as a vagina, and we know Vargo is trying to send a message.  In the show, Locke cutting off Jaime's hand is presented in a "rapey" way: bent over some sort of table, with a threatening knife brandished in his face. 

Despite the undertones, though, there is no actual threat of rape for Jaime.  Both Vargo and Locke want to hurt and humiliate Jaime.  Why wouldn't they rape him, or have him raped?  The show isn't particularly interested in portraying that realistically either.  Really think about this.  It's got nothing to do with sexual attraction: these men would not be interested in Brienne if they met her in other circumstances.  They want to rape her because she is vulnerable and because they can.  In those circumstances, she and Jaime are no different.  What is different is: Jaime is male and Brienne is female, and GoT--like most media--is reluctant to treat its male characters the way it treats its female characters.
Do not fuck men as if they are women; it is an abomination.  The imperative in communicated, in the blank spaces as it were, to fuck women as if women are women: carnal chattel of men; proper objects for the lust of domination.  The abomination is to do to men what is normally done to women in the fuck: the penetration; the possession; the contempt because she is less, lower in standing before the law or God; the right to use her, which is, inevitably, a right over her.  Both Augustine and Mailer describe the lust of dominance in not dissimilar terms: an ecstasy, a frenzy, cruelty, all-encompassing, dominance in the fuck as a supreme and superb pleasure.  Men are not supposed to have to endure being the victims of this lust; perhaps because there is an implicit recognition that the subordination itself, the carnal experience of it, would change them--create in them the incompleteness, the low self-esteem, so commonplace in women under male dominance. (Intercourse, pg 195-196)
The one form of violence that men do seem to be vulnerable to is castration.  We know Varys was castrated for some sort of magic ritual; Littlefinger repeatedly calls him "not a man".  Theon comes the closest to being treated as female character of any male in the series---and tellingly, there are people who eroticize that relationship (as with Brienne, it's not women per se that are sexy, it's the domination).  He is castrated; he is forced to take part in the sexual abuse and rape of another female character (in the books, not yet in the TV show); but even he is not himself raped, as far as we know.  Somehow, in the midst of all the other awful horror that Theon endures, rape must remain something that is carried out on and in female bodies.

Patriarchy relies on keeping men and women separate.  Women are a sex-class; their bodies are penetrable; fucking is what they are for.  Men are the default human; the borders of their bodies are respected; fucking is what they do.  Of course, reality doesn't bear this separation out so well: men have anuses that can be fucked and raped, just like women, and men have mouths that can be fucked and raped, just like women.  Really presenting that fact upsets the whole patriarchal structure, which relies on men being the fuckers of women.  It makes people uncomfortable in a way that depicting the rape of a woman does not (like when people freaked out about Raoul Silva threatening Bond with sexual assault in Skyfall).  However, if you want to claim that depicting in detail each rape of a woman is necessary to the realism of GoT, then you must also necessarily demand to see the threat of rape against male characters addressed--and you know what, I just don't see that happening.

I suppose I have to underline this, because I'm sure people will misconstrue the point I'm making otherwise: I don't actually want to see Jaime raped on television.  However, I don't want to see Craster's wives raped, either; I don't like seeing Daenerys being raped from behind while she cries; I don't appreciate watching one prostitute being made to finger-fuck another so that they can convincingly pretend to enjoy their rapes later on.  You can build a world without staging every single act of sexual violence against women that takes place--but if you are going to argue that those acts must be shown in the interest of "realism", then why aren't the rapes of men shown or even considered?

People often make the claim that the depictions of violence are in the name of the story's trademark gritty realism.  The way the show depicts the lives of women is, however, anything but gritty and realistic.  With moon tea, GRRM has essentially invented a way to include all the sexy bits of prostitution and a sex-class without having to face the less attractive sides (for men, that's generally pregnancy and birth, with the associated complications).  Moon tea might be one of the most fantastical elements of the story: a perfect contraceptive that is apparently 100% effective, with no side effects.  It almost sounds wholesome, really.  Surgical abortion is apparently non-existent.  The deaths from improperly performed, unsanitary abortions are similarly not a problem in Westeros.  What a golden utopia for women!

The fantasy contraceptive serves to keep things hot.  The prostituted women are invariably young and perfect.  Where are those who have had their bodies ravaged by multiple pregnancies?  In the real world, 4% of women who give birth vaginally suffer 4th degree tears: the skin, the back of the vagina, the muscles of the perineum, the anal sphincter, the rectum.  What happens to those 4% of Westerosi "whores"?  Most women experience some tearing that requires stitches.  Those inconvenient realities get swept away.  What happens to the "whores" covered in stretchmarks?  The silver lines catching the candlelight in Littlefinger's brothel would be quite striking.  It would certainly be realistic.  But it would also be a total boner-killer, which is why it's not presented.  Dany similarly seems to have been basically physically unaltered by her third-trimester pregnancy.  Do we just chalk that up to Targaryen-magic?  Why are we inventing magics to keep the women conventionally fuckable?  The "realism" that is so important when it comes to showing women in pain, showing women getting fucked goes out the window when we look at how their actual lives, their actual bodies are depicted.

The story does touch on the mortal dangers of childbirth, but the way this side of the female experience is presented is frankly Disney-level.  There are two women who we know died in this manner: Daenerys' mother on Dragonstone and Joanna Lannister in Casterly Rock.  It happened in the distant past, off-screen for us.  A sad thing from long ago.  It's practically an abstraction.  We're never confronted with the reality of human beings dying in droves.  Consider this:
Studies by Roger Schofield, B. M. Wilmott Dobbie, and Irvine Loudon estimate that maternal mortality rates between 1400 and 1800 were between 1 and 3 percent. Most often, women died in childbirth due to protracted labor caused by a narrow or deformed pelvis, fetal malpresentation, postpartum hemorrhage, or puerperal fevers. The health risk was renewed at each pregnancy. Since a woman averaged five pregnancies, 10 percent of these women died during or soon after childbirth. (quote taken from here, not an ideal source, but based on reputable studies which are, unfortunately, behind a paywall for me.)
Futhermore, the use of the disturbing phrase, "I pulled you from your mother" suggests more Maester intervention than there might really have been in Mediaeval European births, in which case the maternal death rate in Westeros might soar, as it did in the 18-19th century Europe as doctors became increasingly involved in delivery.  It also indicates in a sense that the writers either don't really understand how birth works or have chosen to center a figure other than the mother: in a birth that proceeds normally, there is no "pulling".  Indeed there is little intervention of any kind; the work is done by the woman.

Let's get back to Queen Rhaella and Joanna Lannister.  These women didn't just "die".  They labored, probably for hours, in tremendous pain, and then died in tremendous pain.  Perhaps Joanna hemorrhaged to death, with an unstoppable flow of blood pouring out of her.  Perhaps Rhaella caught a pelvic infection that spread up the fallopian tubes and developed into peritonitis, inflammation of the thin tissues that line the abdomen.  She would have been feverish, perhaps vomiting, her stomach in agony.  And then, at length, she would have died.

That is gritty realism, but we never see it.  We don't want to look at the pain and the blood and filth and fear.  We don't want to see what fucking does.  Daenerys conveniently blacks out for the delivery of her stillborn son--lest sensitive viewers be forced to confront the reality of a beautiful woman being female.  We enjoyed watching her get fucked and we enjoyed watching her learn to like it, but we're not interested what that really entails, what it really means for these women.

By contrast, let's look at Downton Abbey. Broadly speaking, Downton is inferior to GoT in almost every way: it's soapy, sentimental, filled with lazy coincidences, loaded with clunky writing.  It did, however, gave us this:

There's your gritty realism.

Now, don't mistake me here: I'm not arguing that Downton is a "better" or "more feminist" or "less sexist" show that GoT, because it's not.  No one, however, constantly blows smoke up the Downton writers' collective ass for showing women so "realistically"; in this one scene, though, those writers showed themselves more willing to really portray women's stories than GoT ever has and probably ever will.  To borrow a phrase from the comment screencap'd at the beginning of this post, Downton is "on point", in a way that GoT refuses to be.

The violence against women in GoT is not "on point": it is pornographic, and a pornographic portrayal of women is by definition a sexist one.  This violence is not present in the interest of portraying the reality of women's lives in a mediaeval world: if that was the goal of the writers, the story would necessarily include all aspects of those lives, instead of just those aspects that happen to line up with common pornographic images.  There is nothing pornographic about Sybil Crawley's death.  There is nothing pornographic about Joan Holloway's rape on Mad Men.  Game of Thrones isn't sexist because it portrays rape, nor because it shows women in a socially-inferior position to men, nor because it shows them as victims of a society that forces them to be a sex-class.  If it showed those aspects of women's lives honestly, feminist critics would be all about it.  It's sexist because it portrays women and their experiences pornographically.  You could fap to that. 

The treatment that women receive in the name of story is the fantasy.
"Chains are sexy when women wear them, prisons are sexy when women are in them, pain is sexy when women hurt."  (Right-Wing Women)

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S2E1: The North Remembers)

There was no chance that I was just going to crap out on this after I finished the first season.  I actually haven't rewatched Season 2 since it originally aired.  Anyway, as is usual with episodes in which we go to new places and meet new people, this one's pretty packed, so let's get going.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E10: Fire and Blood)

Whoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo~~!  Episode 10, y'all!  Only...30 more episodes to go (as of time of writing).

Let's see what the final hour of Season 1 gives us.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E9: Baelor)

Well, we've made it to Series One, Episode 9: The one where the main character gets his head cut off.  This is the episode that really defined the whole series and established the "anyone can die" principal.  Let's get stuck in, shall we?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E8: The Pointy End)

Welcome to Episode 8: The Pointy End, brought to you by...

Darkness, and

Shadows, and

Candles flickering in darkness, and

People holding conversations in shadows.

Not that I'm complaining, per se, since this frequently-repeated image of small points of light surrounded by shadow is almost certainly thematically-relevant, but all this doom and gloom isn't exactly helpful when I'm already straining on my little laptop screen to look for embroidery details.  There's some pretty good stuff towards the end of the episode, though, so let's take a look....

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E7: You Win or You Die)

I talked a little bit about why I haven't written much lately in my previous Haircare Question post, but there's another reason it's taken me so long to get this episode's costume analysis out...  This episode is effing boring, y'all.

Purely from a costume perspective, I mean.  Plot-wise, it's got some fun stuff.

Let's just knuckle through this one, okay?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Question of the Week: Are coffee wraps legit?

Hey, strangers.  It's been a while, huh? 

So, the blog kind of got away from me, basically for two reasons:
  • The hypomanic high that propelled me through February and March and the first part of April gave way, as it inevitably had to, to some sluggish, lethargic, perpetually-exhausted unpleasantness.  Whereas I had been enjoying inordinate amounts of free time in the first few months–because I only needed to sleep 4 hours–suddenly most of my unaccounted-for moments were going to naps.
  • I started helping mod the /r/HaircareScience board.  I noticed that some of the writing that I used to be doing for the blog was now being done as comments on the board.  Which got me thinking...why not pull some of my longer, more thoroughly-researched pieces back over here?  Which brings us to today: redditor /u/mrs_shrew kindly agreed to have her original question replicated here with my response.  You can click here to visit the entire thread on Reddit (consider joining us on the board!).  :I thought about rewriting just my response into more of an essay type thing, but I think the Q&A format is fun and easy to get into, plus...the May doldrums are still hovering around and I'm feeling lazy.  So!  Let's take a look at our question, shall we?


Mrs. Shrew has a question about the humble cuppa joe:

Has anyone tried a coffee hair wrap?

I read somewhere once that the caffeine stimulates there any truth to this? 

I thought I would try it so I made a cup of strong coffee (3spoons of instant in half a teacup) and soaked my hair for a couple of hours and it seemed to make it thicker or was that just the shafts being swollen?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E6: A Golden Crown)

Trying to get back on my projected schedule after March went a bit off the rails!  Season 4 just started, and it's really hard not to jump the gun and start picking apart the first episode for costume details, however...since so much of this depends on tracking the changes over time, I'd only be able to tease out a fraction of what the new season's costumes have to tell.  Let's just keep chugging along, and we'll get to Season 4 in due course.

This episode is lots of fun.  It's one of the most action-packed ones we've seen so far, and its got plenty to discuss.  Let's go!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E5: The Wolf and the Lion)

Sorry that I am so, so behind schedule!  Persistent migraines for the past two weeks or so really threw a wrench in the works, and then late-March/early-April is a really busy time of the year for social events.  I was really hoping to get more of these done before Season 4 kicked off and no-one cares about the previous seasons anymore, but...  Let's look on the bright side: halfway there for the first season!  This is a pretty fun episode from a story perspective, though a lot of the costumes are continuations of themes we've seen before, but in any case, after last week's endless Castle Black/Dothraki carosel, we're off to some new places!  Let's seen what we've got to work with.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E4: Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things)

Apologies for being a little slow with this post: a massive migraine over the weekend meant that I made precisely zero progress.  Anyway, I was a little bit worried about this episode when I was re-watching it: after last episode's costume explosion, there are relatively few big changes in this one.  There's loads of backstory and several scenes set in Castle Black, a location which is not exactly a costume goldmine.  This episode also contains the first of the really flagrant "sexposition" scenes, which is, for obvious reasons, a bit light on the clothing front.

Thank the old gods and the new, then, for the second half!  The tourney of the hand yields some interesting pieces for discussion, as does another scene with Cersei.  Let's get stuck in.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E3: Lord Snow)

I'm so glad that these costume analyses have been proving popular!  I love doing them, and it's nice to see that other people are interested.  I'm still working out the best way to do them: if there's anything you'd like to see more focus on, please do leave a comment and I'll take it on board!

This episode is an interesting one: it has some pretty pivotal scenes for a couple characters, the importance of which will be reflected in how their costumes start to change.  Let's dive in, shall we?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

No Feels, Only Reals: Rye Flour on Trial


Sometimes I start to feel like a bit of a buzzkill at the Haircare Science and No-Poo parties.  I'd love to be sharing supportive, U-go-gurl advice and flipping my hair in the sun like a shampoo commercial with everybody else, but instead I'm crouched in my corner with notebooks of crabbed little calculations and "Don't do that!" as my mantra.

When I originally posted my explanation of baking soda and why dilution with water doesn't have much effect on its pH, a lot of people naturally asked, "So, if baking soda's no good, what can we use?"  I was embarrassed to realize that I didn't really have an answer to that.

So! Clearly the only thing to do is to get experimental.  Based on other people's comments, I've got a short list of shampoo alternatives that I'm planning to test.  I will use each of them for a month (unless they become unfeasible) and catalog their pros and cons using the following criteria:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E2: The Kingsroad)

Saddle up! This is a long one.  I was actually worried if I would find much to say about this episode (since most of the costumes are ones we've seen before) but...I really didn't need to be concerned.  Let's go!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S1E1: Winter is Coming)

So, I happen to like the Mad Men, rather a lot.  Lots of people do: it’s easily one of the most acclaimed shows on air in the last few years, and there are scores of blogs offering critiques, recaps, and analysis.  Some of the most enjoyable takes on Mad Men crit are the “Mad Style” posts from Tom and Lorenzo, a series which has more or less catalogued and critiqued every costume worn by a female character—and many of those worn by the guys, but since it’s set in the real-world, they’re limited to a more restricted range of suits and are consequently less tappable for analysis.  Anyway, they’re fascinating posts, and beautiful to look at. 

Game of Thrones is no less known for its gorgeous costume work, and I recall Tom and Lorenzo remarking at one point—sorry, I can’t find the exact post—that it is one of the few shows that comes close to Mad Men’s level of sophistication regarding costumes, but that they were simply not going to give it the Mad Style treatment.  Well, why not try to produce the content I would like to see?  I may not be up to TLo caliber, but surely it’s better than nothing? The costuming of Game of Thrones has some key differences too: Mad Men is somewhat constrained by the actual fashions of the 1960s; Game of Thrones has more creative leeway.  Part of the job of the fashion on Mad Men is to evoke the era; on Game of Thrones, it’s world-building from the ground up.

          We'll see how this goes; I'm not making any promises.... Let's begin at the beginning with Season 1 Episode 1: Winter is Coming, shall we?

Friday, February 21, 2014

"It's Toasted"

I never really "got" the famous "It's Toasted" scene from the first episode of Mad Men until I started taking haircare science more seriously.

I'm not a smoker, and nowadays we have so much more information on how and to what extent cigarettes cause those "certain fatal diseases".  Any slogan is going to seem nonsensical when smoking seems like such a fundamentally crazy thing to do.

This line, though:

"We have six identical companies making six identical products...We can say anything we want."  

That IS the beauty industry, once you cut through the comforting, marshmallowy, beglittered layers of marketing and bullshit in which it's wrapped.

Please don't misunderstand me: I am in no way comparing the toxicity of tobacco with anything you'll find in conventional cosmetic products.  Smoking demonstrably causes a nightmare-carousel of diseases, and the modern beauty industry is regulated to be broadly safe, if not perfect.  There are similarities, however, in the massive levels of consumer distrust towards certain common chemicals: sulfates, parabens, whatever the flavor of the month happens to be.

Let's re-imagine the conversation taking place between Don Draper and, say, Lush executives regarding their I Love Juicy shampoo:

"How do you make your shampoo?"
"We start with surfactants, thicken it, scent it, color it, use natural extracts and safe synthetics..."
"There you go: 'safe synthetics.'"
"But everybody else's shampoo uses the same safe synthetics."
"No, everybody else's shampoo will ruin your hair.  Yours is made with safe synthetics."

Lush drives me absolutely up the wall with the sheer amount of garbage they peddle in their marketing.  I mean, look at the first five ingredients in that shampoo: water, two sulfate surfactants, one more foaming surfactant, and propylene glycol (which has several functions).  That is a bog-standard shampoo right there, with a couple potentially-irritating fragrances tacked on.  Then they have the absolute nerve to suggest that it's the "fresh fruit juices" in the product that are doing the heavy lifting of removing oil, rather than the three surfactants at the top of the list.

Flames, ladies and gentlemen, flames on the side of my face.  It's not that the product is necessarily bad, but the advertising is so weaselly and insulting.  The Beauty Brains once said that greenwashing in particular (I would add most beauty marketing in general) is "the art of storytelling", and Lush are particular masters of it, but they are far from the only ones.

It's made with safe synthetics!
It nourishes!
It's hydralicious!
It quenches!
It's got marine extracts!

It's f*cking toasted.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

No Feels, Only Reals: Baking Soda, pH, and Dilution Edition

Hello everyone.  So an article was posted recently that caused a bit of a kerfuffle on r/NoPoo: it showed that when raw baking soda is added to water, the pH remained more or less the same, regardless of the amount of water added.  Only when she took some of the baking-soda water solution (i.e. AFTER the solution is in equilibrium) was dilution possible.

I thought it might be instructive to look at why that is.  Not entertaining, particularly, but instructive.  There's a metric butt-ton of equations in here, which is why I changed from just posting on reddit to the blog.

–Let’s do some conversions and define some terms–

1 tablespoon = 0.0148 L
1 cup = 0.237 L
2 cups = 0.473 L (Not dodgy math: the values of 1 cup and 2 cups were calculated independently and rounded to three significant figures)

Baking soda  = NaHCO3 (Take heed! Baking soda is a chemical.  It's not really even a natural one most of the time.)

–There are a few factors that complicate this reaction–

First of all, pH is the measure of acidity or basicity in aqueous solutions.  That is to say, before we can talk about what the pH of NaHCO3 “is”, we first have to make a solution with water.

Furthermore, NaHCO3 is a weak base, which means it does not dissociate completely in water (Rats! This means loads more work for us).

What happens when you mix NaHCO3 with water?

The Na+ ion is a “spectator ion”, leaving us with HCO3. This gets even trickier because HCO3 is amphiprotic, meaning it can act like an acid OR a base, depending on the reaction.  HCO3 can react to form its conjugate acid H2CO3 (carbonic acid) and OH- (what makes a solution basic), and vice-versa, although the system will eventually reach equilibrium.  We need to know the acid dissociation constant (ka) and base dissociation constant (kb).

The ka of a weak acid can be used to find the kb of its conjugate base, using ka*kb=1x10-14.  The ka of carbonic acid is 4.45x10-7, so the kb of HCO3 is 2.25x10-8.

–Let’s get started!–

We have to do a few preliminary calculations.

First, we need to know what the molarity of our baking soda solution.  Let’s assume that we are making the standard 1 tablespoon of baking soda to 2 cups of water no-poo mix, since this is the most frequently-given ratio, the one that people are advised to try first and then adjust based on results.

We need to know what 1 tablespoon of baking soda is in grams, which is a bit of a pain, because one is a measure of volume and the other of mass.  There’s no clear conversion.   If you try and find out by googling, you’ll find kind of a range of answers.  So, I figured I’d just measure a tablespoon for myself and see what I got.  It came to 12.6 grams, which is in range, so this is the figure I’ll be using for the calculation.

The molar mass of NaHCO3 is 84.007 grams so to find how many moles in a tablespoon:

Now, we need the molarity of the solution so:

We will get one mole of HCO3 from NaHCO3, so we can say that the pre-equilibrium concentration of HCO3 will be the same as above.  The OH- concentration is so small that it can, helpfully, be regarded as 0M (technically speaking it’s 1.0x10-7M).  Since there is no H2CO3 before reaching the equilibrium state, it is also 0M.

After reacting with water, one mole of HCO3 will form one mole of OH1 and one mole of H2CO3.  So, given that, let’s make a table to chart these changes:

0.315 M

Now we get to use the equilibrium equation:

Now we have something we can work with!  We know that the Kb of HCO3 is 2.25x10-8 from earlier.

It looks like here we have to use the quadratic equation to solve, but it turns out that since x is likely to be much, much smaller than 0.315, you can drop the x from the denominator without affecting the outcome too badly (you can double-check that this is a valid approximation later on--just put it back into the equation for Kb above and make sure it all checks out).  So:

Since “x” stands for the molarity of OH-, we can now use this value to solve for the pH of our solution!

So you can see that 1 tablespoon in 2 cups of water will have a pH of 9.9.  This is very high, and exactly what the other blogger demonstrated with universal indicator paper.

You can also see why adding more water doesn’t really do much to the pH of the solution.  Adding more water will only change the initial M-value that we used.  Let’s look at this equation with 20 cups (= 4.73 L) of water.

Almost no different!  So, what value of M value do you need in order to have a pH of 7?  Well, let’s work backwards.  If our pH is 7, so is the pOH.  Then, we can use the definition of pOH to find that we need x=10-7 to get a neutral solution.  Now our equation looks like this:

This is a tiny, tiny number!  Let’s keep going to see how many liters of water you need to add to a tablespoon of baking soda to get this result:


1 tablespoon of baking soda in 2 cups of water has a pH of 9.9.
1 tablespoon in 20 cups has a pH of 9.4.
You need 1418439 cups of water to make a solution with a pH close to 7.

Anyway, the key point of all of this is, because of the nature of the reaction that NaHCO3 has with H20, it takes an enormous amount of water to dilute even one tablespoon of baking soda down to a near-neutral pH.

No-Poo People who use baking soda (or those who are considering it) may want to take this fact into consideration when constructing their hair care regime.  It’s certainly true that pH is not THE ONLY important factor when it comes to hair health, but it’s also a fact that the scalp has an acid mantle that will be disrupted by having a high-pH solution onto it, and there are a number of people who say that hair itself is strongest when slightly acidic.

Furthermore, the pH of 1 tablespoon : 2 cups solution is starting to approach 10, which is the range where the cuticle of hair can becaused to lift.  This is very undesirable.  As the linked page says, the hair cuticle is not hinged, it cannot open and close freely!  Repeatedly lifting and smoothing it will damage it.

Those of us striving for a scientifically-sound hair care regime would do well to leave the baking soda in the kitchen.

If you'd like to know more about alternatives to baking soda, I'll be testing out common choices for a month at a time. So far: rye flour.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

No Feels, Only Reals: Essential Oils Mythbusting Edition

*I originally posted this to reddit, but figured I would reproduce it here (with minor edits for clarity) on the blog, so that everything is all in one place.*


People start looking into no-, low-, and natural-poo for a variety of reasons.  For whatever reason, we do have a tendency to let our beliefs and emotional reactions (feels) get in the way of facts (reals).

One of the key sources for No-Poo info is the NoPoo subreddit.  It and Haircare Science are the two places where I actually posted this first, and are major sources for information.  There’s a link in the sidebar of r/NoPoo to a page about “Essential Oils and Haircare”.  This set off crazy warning bells: essential oils are not something with which to be tinkering around.  This is about 7000 times more true if they are being used topically, rather than for aromatherapy, which is how the linked website (and many of this subreddit’s users) recommend using them.

Just because something is “natural” or derived from a plant does not mean it’s a-okay for your skin.  There’s no market out there for poison ivy tea rinses, after all.  I want to work through (for now) the oils specifically mentioned on the linked page, since that is what the subreddit “advocates” or is, at least, what most users will find when looking into essential oil use.


  • BASIL: first up, this essential oil has some compounds that are going to be old friends by the time we get through this: linalool and eugenol.  This are BOTH documented irritants that you should avoid in any skin care product. (, (, (
  • CHAMOMILE: this one checks out; it doesn’t appear to be widely irritating in general, though some people with allergies to the daisy family may have issues. (
  • CEDARWOOD: this is a fragrance, and like many fragrances, can be irritating and allergenic.  There is also, apparently, some research which found it to cause tumors on mouse skin.  The evidence is far, far from conclusive, and even if there were more studies with similar results, “correlation is not causation” would still apply.  However, if you’re going to freak out about parabens or whatever, it doesn’t make sense to use cedarwood oil. (
  • CLARY SAGE: this is tagged with the Risk Number* R38, marking it as irritating to the skin.  Don’t put it on your scalp, fer Pete’s sake. (
  • EUCALYPTUS: this is a fragrant oil which, as the sidbar-linked website says, may well have some anti-fungal and anti-microbial effects.  HOWEVER, some of its components are known irritants.  "Truly a mixed bag, because this oil, like rosemary oil, is one that has benefits and risks. Because the risks are primarily with topical application to skin, eucalyptus oil is an ingredient to avoid” (
  • LAVENDER:  STOOOOOOOOOOOOP putting lavender essential oil anywhere near your skin. The “tingling” feeling that many people describe isn’t lavender oil stimulating your bloodflow or anything, it’s the oil irritating and damaging your skin.  You do NOT want to experience tingling with any product you apply topically: it is your body sending you distress signals.  Lavender is so, so misunderstood, so I’m going to quote the whole article: "Of particular concern is the lavender oil, which smells great but causes havoc on skin. Research indicates that components of lavender, specifically linalool, can be cytotoxic, which means that topical application causes skin-cell death (Source: Cell Proliferation, June 2004, pages 221–229). Lavender leaves contain camphor, which is a known skin irritant. Because the fragrance constituents in lavender oil oxidize when exposed to air, lavender oil is a pro-oxidant, and this enhanced oxidation increases its irritancy on skin (Source: Contact Dermatitis, September 2008, pages 143–150). Lavender oil is the most potent form, and even small amounts of it (0.25% or less) are problematic. Although it’s fine as an aromatherapy agent for inhalation or relaxation, it is a must to avoid in skin-care products. (Sources: Psychiatry Research, February 2007, pages 89–96; and"(
  • LEMON: this provides no demonstrated skin care benefits, but can be both irritating and photo toxic, i.e. reactions may result following exposure to sunlight.  (
  • LEMONGRASS: this is another fragrant, volatile oil which contains the same compounds that make lemon oil (above) irritating to the skin. (
  • MYRRH: another one that contains limonene, an irritant also found in the two oils above, as well as pinene (see “volatile oil" description below) and eugenol, which you also don’t want on your body. (, (
  • PATCHOULI: this is derived from mint, can sensitize skin, and contains eugenol (see myrrh, above) which is an irritant.  Patchouli is considered a “counter irritant”, for which see below for a full explanation. (
  • PEPPERMINT: it’s another counter-irritant; move along. (
  • ROSEMARY: this one kind of almost barely checks out.  In very, very small quantities rosemary EXTRACT can be okay, but if you look at the main constituents of rosemary OIL, it’s a whole lot of known irritants: pinene, borneol, linalol, camphor, etc. (, (
  • SAGE: I feel like this is starting to get repetitive: it’s a fragrant oil, and all the usual, skin-annoying compounds are there, including camphor.  Nope.  (
  • TEA TREE: Fiiiiiiiiiinally!  This one kind of checks out too!  It can have anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal effects and seems effective at treating certain skin conditions.  However, that doesn’t mean you should go whapping it all over your head: it still contains components that can cause issues, so it should STILL be treated with caution.  (
  • THYME: once again, fragrance compounds found in thyme oil are undesirable on your skin.  Billionth verse, same as the first, no?  (
  • YLANG YLANG: allllllllllll together now!  It’s a fragrant oil made up of compounds known to cause skin issues!  Skip it!  (


Many people who avoid shampoo do so because they feel it contains too many “harsh” or “irritating” chemicals.  Swapping out a rigorously-tested, carefully-formulated shampoo only to start smearing essential oils (chemicals) over your head is, however, nonsensical.  Not that you can’t do it, of course; it’s your body.  If, however, you’re going to invoke science in defense of any part of your regime (often done in no-poo-land), why not apply that standard consistently?  “Diluting” these oils with carriers may help, but these compounds can be problematic for skin even in tiny quantities in professionally-made products.  If you’re avoiding shampoo to limit your exposure to chemicals and irritants, why risk the above-listed essential oils


  • VOLATILE OIL: "Group of volatile fluids derived primarily from plants and used in cosmetics primarily as fragrant additives. These components most often include a mix of alcohols, ketones, phenols, linalool, borneol, terpenes, camphor, pinene, acids, ethers, aldehydes, and sulfur, all of which have extremely irritating and sensitizing effects on skin.” (
  • COUNTER-IRRITANT: "Ingredients such as menthol, peppermint, camphor, and mint are counter-irritants (Sources: Archives of Dermatologic Research, May 1996, pages 245–248; and Code of Federal Regulations Title 21—Food and Drugs, revised April 1, 2001, CITE: 21CFR310.545, Counter-irritants are used to induce local inflammation for the purpose of relieving inflammation in deeper or adjacent tissues. In other words, they substitute one kind of inflammation for another, which is never good for skin. Irritation or inflammation, no matter what causes it or how it happens, impairs the skin’s immune and healing response (Source: Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, November–December 2000, pages 358–371). And although your skin may not show it or doesn’t react in an irritated fashion, if you apply irritants to your skin the damage is still taking place and is ongoing, so it adds up over time (Source: Skin Research and Technology, November 2001, pages 227–237).”(
  • RISK NUMBERS: an explanation can be found here (