Another day, another scare story. This one suggests that ingredients in anti-ageing creams can affect the development of unborn children so they are more likely to be born autistic. Well, nothing is totally impossible but this one seems a bit more far fetched than most. The research has found that brain development can be affected by high levels of lipids. This doesn’t seem particularly surprising to me. Brain development is a highly delicate process so disrupting it shouldn’t be too difficult. And lipids are certainly used in anti-ageing creams. So should we start to worry? Let’s have a look at what lipids are first.
Lipid is very nearly, but not quite, a synonym for fats in science. Lipids are fats that are liquid at room temperature. When you are writing about them, there is a tendency to use the word lipid fairly freely. Although fat is a perfectly respectable technical term, lipid doesn’t also have an everyday meaning so it is a bit clearer. Lipids are predominantly hydrocarbon molecules of biological origin that are liquid at room temperature and are not water soluble.
Although most people aren’t familiar with the term, there are plenty of lipids that they are familiar with. Vegetable oils like olive oil are lipids. Other components of food like ceramides, lecithins and cholesterol also fall into this category. (Some are strictly speaking fats, but often get described as lipids. If you read about this sort of stuff a lot you know what they mean.)
So in other words, lipids are something you eat in pretty large quantities every day. It would be surprising if the same molecules would be harmful to brain development when applied to the skin but not when you eat them. So should you stop eating them? That isn’t possible- you would die. They are essential components of the diet.
The nature of lipids makes them difficult for the body to transport around in their original form. It also makes them hard to absorb across the skin. So if they are to get to the developing foetus the body will have to contrive to absorb them, break them down and then reassemble them at the site of action. As I say, not totally impossible. But very very unlikely indeed.
I have now tracked down an abstract of the actual research. It adds a further detail. It turns out that the damage was done not by the lipids found in skin creams, but in biochemical agents synthesised in the body from them. This makes the proposal even less likely than I originally thought. I think this one can be dismissed as little more than speculation, and not very well informed speculation at that.