The Straight Dope®

This morning as I was shaving in the shower I read the ingredients list on my can of shaving cream and was astounded to see nonoxynol-9 among the various other chemicals (stearic acid, sodium laureth sulfate, etc.). I happen to know that nonoxynol-9 is the spermicide usually applied to condoms. What's the deal? Are millions of American men slathering their mugs every morning with spermicide? —Doug Farmwald, via e-mail

I initially hazarded the guess that you were a Gillette man, since that seemed to be the most popular brand of shaving cream that had nonoxynol-9 (N-9) in it. You're right, N-9 is used as a spermicide, but no, they don't put it in shaving cream to ward off pregnancy caused by acts involving your beard. As it turns out, Gillette no longer puts it in at all. A spokesperson informs me that Gillette did use N-9 as a fragrance stabilizer and surfactant in some of its Foamy products, but they decided to switch to something else, formulas change all the time, no big deal. Still, you have to wonder whether there's more to this than meets the eye.

Whatever value there may be in having your fragrance stabilized, a surfactant is definitely a good thing to put in shaving cream. Generally speaking, facial hair becomes softer and easier to shave if you can get the surface of the hair wet. That's tougher than you might think. What stands in the way is sebum, a naturally produced oil that protects the hair from moisture. To cut through the oil, you need some kind of soap—that's mainly why we use shaving cream in the first place. N-9 is a nonionic surfactant, meaning it helps break down oils and can be readily washed away. If applied to hair, it helps eliminate the sebum and thus improves the hair's shavability.

N-9 performs other useful functions as well—or so it was once thought. In a 2004 patent for "liquid foaming shaving compositions" containing N-9, we find the applicant claiming N-9 is present for its antiviral properties. Here's the thing, though. In the lab, N-9 kills viruses such as HIV, but as I've reported before, outside the lab it seems to increase the rate of infection due to its alarming tendency when used regularly to create skin lesions in certain sensitive parts of the anatomy. Gillette's not saying why they took it out of Foamy, but given the ever-looming threat of razor burn, maybe this has something to do with it.

One more thing. You may be thinking: gosh, N-9 being a spermicide and all, maybe if I run out of condoms some evening I could find an old can of shaving cream and, you know, improvise. Forget it, buster. In a report from the World Health Organization ("WHO/CONRAD Technical Consultation on Nonoxynol-9," October 2001), we find the following: "There is no published scientific evidence that N-9-lubricated condoms provide any additional protection against pregnancy or STIs [sexually transmitted infections] compared with condoms lubricated with other products. Since adverse effects due to the addition of N-9 to condoms cannot be excluded, such condoms should no longer be promoted. However, it is better to use N-9-lubricated condoms than no condoms."

Many condom makers accordingly have ceased using N-9 on their products, but not all—it's on 20 percent of the prophylactics being sold today. I find that odd, because it seems clear to me the real question isn't why N-9 is (or was) in shaving cream, but rather why it's still on condoms.

I've heard—and yes, I've seen the CSI episode—that you can get lead poisoning from eating chocolate grown in Africa. Supposedly this is because leaded gas is still used over there and the exhaust gets into the atmosphere and ground and then the cocoa plants. Is this really possible? And if it is, how much chocolate over how long a period of time would you have to eat to get poisoned to the point that it's a serious health problem? —Pete M., Oregon, Wisconsin

Well, lead poisoning would be a stretch. But otherwise this is one of those wacko, scriptwriters-on-drugs-sounding stories that turns out to be true. About 70 percent of the world's chocolate is grown in west and central Africa. The lead content of cocoa beans is low, but that of manufactured cocoa and chocolate products is among the highest of any food. How so? No one is sure, but several major cocoa bean-producing countries in Africa used leaded gasoline until recently, and a few still do. It seems likely the toxic metal is introduced at some point, probably multiple points, during cocoa bean shipping and processing. Is there enough to worry about? The Dagoba Organic Chocolate company of Ashland, Oregon, thought so—or anyway did after a little prodding from the Food and Drug Administration. Though the company wouldn't divulge test results, it recalled 40,000 pounds of its high-end chocolate products this spring after some were found to exceed FDA standards for lead.

Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, www.straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. Cecil's most recent compendium of knowledge, Triumph of the Straight Dope, is available at bookstores everywhere.

 
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