Bad Chemistry.

Whenever I see an ad for a beauty product with hyaluronic acid in it I think, who wants to put acid on their face? I also wonder what hyaluron is, but, seriously, there have been far too many times when acid has been used as a weapon that leaves the victim permanently disfigured.

Well, that took a bit of a turn and I don’t want to treat such incidents lightly but what mainly comes to mind when I hear about beauty products that contain acid, aside from how horrifying the history of beauty products is, which could be another turn in itself, is my school science classes and learning about acids for the first time. They seemed like magical potions since they were usually described as “eating” through metal and other substances. I think we all learned that silly little rhyme that also gets written on cardboard tombstones at Halloween every year: “Peter was a happy boy/But now he is no more./What he thought was H2O/Was H2SO4.” Which is a pretty horrifying short story of a potent potable. Fortunately none of us were given access to sulfuric acid, at least not at my school where, thanks to budget cuts, pretty much everything we learned about chemistry we learned by reading about it. Most practical work was limited to all of us gathering around the table while the teacher placed a piece of sodium the size of a pinhead in a beaker of water and it fizzed for about ten seconds before fizzling out.

One day a kid in my class named David tried to convince me he’d mixed all the chemicals in his chemistry set together and created an ultra-dangerous acid. “It eats through everything,” he told me. “It eats through metal, it eats through glass, it eats through wood.” I thought about asking, “What do you keep it in, then?” but he was a big kid and I was afraid he might hit me. I also liked the mental image of this stuff getting away from him and leaving a hole in his parents’ basement that went all the way through the core of the Earth.

“What do you think it is?” he asked me.

Trying to keep a straight face at the thought of Australians climbing out of the hole and stealing his dad’s car I just said, “I have no idea, I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

He must have thought of me as something of an expert because I’d done a science class presentation on acids and their effects on different metals. It sounded very serious and scientific, and it looked very impressive with a set of test tubes—two with hydrochloric acid I’d gotten from the hardware store, and two with sulfuric acid I’d gotten from an old car battery, and I put pieces of zinc and iron in each. I also had three big presentation boards illustrating each of the reactions. Everybody thought it was really cool but, in the back of my mind, I knew it was a ripoff of something I’d seen on Mr. Wizard’s World where he put sulfuric acid in a test tube then added a strip of zinc then capped the tube with a balloon. It swelled up with hydrogen released by the reaction. He then took the balloon and held it over a Bunsen burner so it exploded in a shower of water as the hydrogen combined with oxygen. And also a bunch of little pieces of burned rubber, but Mr. Wizard had stagehands to clean up after him. Since I didn’t have those I couldn’t blow up a balloon, and also none of my teachers thought causing a small explosion in the classroom was a good idea.

Even after that I kept doing some home experiments with acid which were mostly harmless. My father, who studied chemistry in college, told me not to mix any acid with the sodium cyanide crystals that came with my chemistry set because it could be lethal, so I mostly stuck to things like testing the effects of hydrochloric acid on our concrete driveway, and sometimes I wonder if any of the people who moved in after we left have ever found my initials palely etched into a corner.

I never could get my hands on nitric acid, powerful stuff, more reactive than Aunt Gerda after three glasses of sherry, which fascinated and terrified me—combined with hydrochloric acid it could be used to make “aqua regia”, a liquid that would dissolve gold. Not that I had any gold, but I knew that two German scientists, Max von Laue and James Franck hid their Nobel prizes from the Nazis with the help of a third scientist, George de Hevesy, who dissolved the gold medals then left the liquid on a shelf in his laboratory in Denmark when he fled to Sweden. After the war was over he went back and found the innocuous-looking orange liquid still there, so he was able to extract the gold and the medals were recast and returned to the scientists who won them.

So that was an interesting bit of history. Also the guy who told me about nitric acid, an older friend of the family who’d also studied chemistry, told me it could be combined with glycerin, which was easy to find at the drugstore, to make nitroglycerin. In tablet form it can be great to have around if you’re suffering from angina but brewed up in the basement could cause a large explosion, which would not have been a good idea.

All this leaves me thinking that hyaluronic acid might be beneficial—so is vinegar, also acidic, and orange juice, and various acids our bodies produce naturally, including hydrochloric acid which swirls around on our stomachs—but I wouldn’t want to go mixing it with the wrong thing.

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  1. Allison

    The only acid I recall from Chemistry class is some experiment we did with Oleic acid, and I joked to my lab partner that they must use it in Oil of Olay. I had the best lab partner. She’s a lawyer now – not unlike many of the high achievers in my class. We might have a few doctors as well. No alchemists, though.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Alchemy is a seriously endangered profession. It’s funny that your lab partner is a lawyer now. I have a friend who was also very good in Chemistry, and math, who’s also now a lawyer. I wonder if there’s something to that. Maybe lawyers do well in subjects like science and math because they like the rules, although the law seems to be one area where some practitioners bend, break, or just make up the rules.


    I never like Chemistry in high school, Chris, but I love the way you mixed all the elements in this post.



    2. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Funny enough, Ann, I never liked high school Chemistry either. I find science fascinating but somehow with all the time we spent bent over textbooks with lines like–and this is not a joke–“Someday man will reach the Moon” took all the fun out of it. But I also realize it’s the stories, where science is only an element, that really make it interesting.

  3. mydangblog

    I use hyaluronic acid on my face—it’s in some drug store serum I bought. Doesn’t seem to make much difference. Maybe I need something stronger…????

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Using a stronger acid on your face seems like a bad idea unless you want to look like an Egyptian mummy. Although looking like Billy Zane wouldn’t be so bad.

  4. mydangblog

    I use hyaluronic acid on my face, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. I guess I should be careful not to mix it with anything though. Speaking of chemical reactions, did I ever talk about the time that Ken over-chlorinated the hot tub. When we turned on the jets, it created a cloud of chlorine gas and I had to take him to the hospital–it was terrifying!


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