Popstar Watch: Bird Poo Facial No Fun

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Zits? Just rub bird shit into your face. If you’re a pop idol you know it makes sense.

I have a love / hate relationship with the Daily Mail. It is an egregious and hateful publication that provides so much to get worked up about – like still defending that arsehole Wakefield for instance – but on the other hand it remains one of my most reliable sources of stuff to rant about. That and BBC Radio 4’s utter inability to report a science story, obviously. Anyway, you find me in Ontario waiting for a flight and I was going to write about something else pithy and relevant until I encountered the Daily Fail in the BA lounge. Just one quick look. It can’t hurt, can it?

Instant gratification. Paydirt – literally and metaphorically. So, according to the Fail it would seem that Harry Styles, a singer in One Direction (a beat combo that might be popular with one’s servants, m’Lud) has taken to rubbing bird shit into his face to cure his refractory and quite possibly terminal acne.

OK, now I’m hooked. Apparently Tom Cruise and Victoria Beckham swear by the Bird Shit Facial too. Woop! Woop! Woo alarm is now off the scale. But this is serious stuff; apparently poor Harry fears a tour could take its toll on his skin, which is “already prone to spots”. OF COURSE IT IS – HE’S BARELY REACHED PUBERTY FFS so he’s been having “an intensive course of anti-wrinkle and acne” Bird Shit Facials. (Note to self: park car elsewhere in case it’s defaced with crayon).

So here’s the deal. Pony up £180 and someone will lovingly smear bird shit on your face. (Or for that money they might do it roughly and shout abuse if that floats your boat.)

But this isn’t any old bird shit. It’s nightingale droppings. And only nightingales from the Japanese island of Kyushu, fed on special caterpillars. Caterpillars whose diet consists of special plums. And these cosseted fowl have their poop harvested by artisans who sun-dry it and sterilise it to sell to the rich and famous. (As you might imagine, by now I am knicker-wettingly excited and attracting strange looks from other passengers and staff).

Time to calm down and do some research. Believe it or not I do research these posts quite assiduously for a number of reasons: to sharpen my own knowledge and to make sure when I post snarky, sarcastic stuff it stands up to scrutiny. Let’s face it, I’ve accused the Disney corporation of sacrificing children on the altar of TV ratings, had multiple bites at the UK Secretary of State for Health and accused the BMJ of whiffy research. And I’ve not been sued. Yet.

My first thought was Salmonella, Histoplasma, psittacosis, vector-borne stuff like West Nile and St Louis encephalitis but apparently these avian arse biscuits are desiccated and UV-sterilised to eliminate microbiological risk. I’ll let the microbiology pass this time but only because there’s more to this than meets the eye…

Feathery Faecal Facials

Cettia diphoneApparently the Japanese Bush Warbler (Horornis diphone) is farmed for its much-prized poop which centuries of mind-boggling ingenuity has put to a variety of uses. And no, I’m not making this up. It was introduced to the Japanese by the Koreans in the Heian period (794 to 1185) first for its use in the fabric dyeing process until the mid-Edo period (1603-1868) where it found a new use with the arrival of the modern Geisha in about 1700. Geisha and Kabuki actors’ heavy white makeup initially used ingredients like white lead and zinc. Both are incredibly toxic so when it was discovered nightingale nuggets conditioned and soothed the skin – as well as giving it an iridescent quality – the birdie bum fudge quickly became popular as a cosmetic.

And no, it’s not called “uguisu no fun” – Japanese for ‘warbler shit’, apparently – the Japanese are far too polite for that; it’s “uguisu no kona” – powder, not poo. And it’s not used much in Japan; cosmetics have come a long way in three centuries. You are now most likely to find it as an old fashioned stain remover or in an amenity pack in a traditional Japanese spa – apparently the smell is ‘unforgettable’ – and people only really try it for the experience: “let’s see what it was like 300 years ago when people thought smearing bird shit on their face was a good idea!”.

So does it work?

Can bird shit have beneficial effects on the skin? Could it cure zits? What’s in it?

First, birds only have the one exit route so it’s actually a mixture of pee and poop. Bird shit or ‘guano’ does have its uses: it contains a high proportion of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium and so is a very good fertiliser. According to the Daily Fail it has “enzymes which are said to break down dead skin – restoring complexions that have been damaged by ageing and sun exposure”. Wrong. Not enzymes. But there are high levels of two biologically interesting compounds – urea and guanine – in the feathery faeces which could have effects on the skin. (I did see one claim that it contains lysozyme which is an enzyme and has zit bug killing potential but I couldn’t confirm it. It is possible to carefully freeze-dry lysozyme so it retains its structure but even if lysozyme were present if the UV didn’t finish it off the urea definitely would.)

Urea

Urea is a humectant – it absorbs water and so will hydrate skin. Humectants are common ingredients in many personal care products that make moisturisation claims. But urea is not that common in skincare formulations, possibly because it’s also a mild keratolytic – it breaks down keratin, a key structural component of human skin. Keratin is an even more important structural component of hair and nails – products like Nair and Veet use urea in their formulations to digest ginger clock springs (something I understand One Direction fans are untroubled with).

Guanine

Guanine is another interesting molecule: as a nucleic acid it’s a key component of DNA and RNA but is known commercially as pearl essence. It’s found in fish scales, crocodiles’ eyes and its iridescent properties lend themselves to eye shadow, nail varnish, paints, fake pearls as well as make up. In shampoos and the like it gives that pearly sort of glitter to them. Its biological utility – aside from it being pretty fundamental to genetics – is that it enables many organisms to get rid of nitrogenous by-products of metabolism with minimal water loss.

So, it’s plausible that the Bird Shit Facial could well soften skin and the guanine will have an iridescent quality. But only if left on and all the use instructions I’ve seen involve washing the songbird sewage off.

Zits!

But what about zits? Urea has form as a bactericide but ‘pure’ urea (as opposed to one of its salts such as ethyl carbamate) needs to be at a high concentration to be effective – for example Staphylococcus aureus  can survive 20% urea for 24 hours. And the pH of 20% urea for that long would probably cause significant irritation. But staph is usually more associated with folliculitis than with acne.

There is a form of acne called keratosis pilaris that sometimes responds to keratolytic moisturisers containing ammonium lactate or urea but most acne is caused by Propionibacterium acnes which is pretty resistant to urea. I’ve also seen other Poo Woo out there claiming urine ‘therapy’ as an acne treatment. Just rub it in to your face – you’re guaranteed to pull, honest. There is evidence that 10% urea (>10x more than in pee) with benzoyl peroxide is effective against acne vulgaris but it’s the peroxide that’s doing the killing, the urea is there more for its humectant / penetration properties.

Verdict

So, there is some biological plausibility but it’s stretchy. Really, really stretchy. I can see how the biologically active components could conceivably have an effect on skin if left on rather than washed off but despite hundreds of years’ use there’s still no data – but plenty of anecdotes. And the plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘anecdotes’, not ‘data’. And I find the anti-zit argument less than compelling.

Even if it does work – and if you want to use urea and guanine on your skin there’s got to be a better way to apply it than by slapping on songbird sewage. And were this blend so effective one or more of the big cosmetics firms would have been all over it years ago. This reeks of the combination of a product with little use in its original market finding a new niche where people are dumb enough to be fooled into thinking it works. And the marketing is riven with the usual logical fallacies: appeals to antiquity, anecdote, appeals to (false) authority and a big dose of the naturalistic fallacy.

So, Master Styles, I’m afraid someone is having your trousers down (figuratively, not literally, obviously). And while you might claim to be bigger than the Beatles be careful what you wish for. I understand your US Tour is provoking a campaign for Mark Chapman‘s release…

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