Controversy: Are hydrogenated oils bad for your skin? Part two – the molecular structure of hydrogenated oils

Yesterday, we took a look at hydrogenation, whether it can turn an oil into a trans fat, some naturally occurring trans fats, and, finally, if hydrogenated thingies are bad for our skin. Today, let’s take a look at the molecular structure of oils and plastics.

Let’s recall the paragraph that started this tirade…I mean, chemistry lesson…

“Used throughout the food industry to prolong shelf life and save money, hydrogenated oil is a man-made ingredient produced by adding hydrogen atoms to vegetable oil. It may sound harmless, but this process increases the saturated fat content and can turn the oil into a trans fat.  Trans fats promote inflammation and have been linked to both weight gain and heart disease. Research also shows that the molecular structure of hydrogenated oils is closer to plastic than oil. We think that’s crazy!” Maty’s Are hydrogenated oils bad for your skin? post


No, and three seconds looking at the molecules is all it takes to note that this isn’t even remotely true. Besides, a molecule looking similar to another one doesn’t mean anything, and I’m honestly not sure what being “closer to plastic than oil” even means.

Take a look at these molecules. (The red atom is oxygen, the white are hydrogen.) One is necessary for life on earth, the other is great to apply topically when you’ve just had your ears pierced*, but drinking it is just plain dangerous, possibly lethal, depending on the concentration.

*But also don’t use it on your piercings! “At one time, hydrogen peroxide was used to disinfect skin wounds. This is no longer recommended, since research has shown that hydrogen peroxide can irritate or damage the cells needed for wound healing.” (Reference)

If I gave you a glass of clear liquid and said, “The molecular structure of this chemical is close to water,” would you drink it? No, because you’re not an idiot and you know that many things can be clear liquids – from alcohol to acids to vinegar, which wouldn’t be lethal, but it would be gross and sour as heck!

When it comes to “plastic” molecules, there are quite literally thousands of different types, but they’re all polymers, meaning they’re not made up of those straight chains of fatty acids we see in oils of any sort. They’re based on hydrocarbons – you can see in the polystyrene that there is a “chain” of sorts there – but I don’t think anyone would say that these molecules are similar or that the hydrogenated fatty acid is close to plastic.

As we saw in the water – hydrogen peroxide comparison above, the addition of one oxygen atom is a pretty huge thing, so anyone who might say something like, “Well, they both contain hydrocarbons,” knows less than nothing about chemistry. (Almost everything we study in organic chemistry contains carbon and hydrogen.)

Further more, when we look at that hydrogenated fatty acid molecule, it looks like the solid fatty acids we find in our lovely natural oils and butters, like stearic, palmitic, and myristic, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the evil, artificially, lab altered, hydrogenated fatty acid is closer to our natural, organic, emollient, so good for you oils and butters?

So what to make of this? I mean, it’s a completely wrong statement that can be debunked in a few seconds of searching through reputable sources, and is clearly being used to associate something they don’t like – hydrogenated oils – with something artificial they don’t like – like plastic. And it makes them look science-y by talking ’bout molecules. This makes me incredibly annoyed and I think I need to take a break now…

I had to share this with you as I thought it was an interesting look at polymers and the chemistry of such things. And I like this presentation, where you can see a bunch of polymers in the e-book on this page.)

Join me tomorrow as we take a look at “it takes 26 seconds for something to absorb into your skin”.