Are You Sure You Are Allergic to That?

Imagine you have been allergic to something for most of your life. But now you’re told that it may not be true. Do you trust it? Recent studies show that there is a substantial number of patients incorrectly labelled as having an allergy to penicillin. Some even call this unverified allergy an epidemic. An estimated 32 million people in the United States are documented to be allergic to penicillin. That would mean that 1 out of 10 people reading this are allergic. Yet, over 90% of these patients are not actually allergic to penicillin.

Penicillin is one of the oldest antibiotics for bacterial infections. Alternatives to this drug raise concerns as they are less effective, more expensive and sometimes more toxic. Therefore, doctors only choose to prescribe alternatives when options are limited.

Penicillin is often termed the wonder drug for it’s ability to fight infections. Source: Flickr Commons

If a patient is labelled with an allergy to penicillin, doctors, with good reason, choose to err on the side of caution and prescribe an alternative medication to fight the infection. A misdiagnosis may occur when symptoms are thought to appear when penicillin was taken, i.e. when penicillin is prescribed to a sick child. If a viral infection is mistaken for a bacterial one then the symptom that is developed from the virus may be attributed to the drug instead. Thus incorrectly concluding the child is allergic.

A skin test is the definitive tool to determine if an allergy exists. The procedure involves pricking the skin and  observing the reaction. Doctors can then determine if the patient is actually allergic to the drug in question.

Allergy skin test. See how allergies are identified by the appearance of red and inflamed areas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A study published in 2017 created an approach for testing and challenging the penicillin allergy label. Patients who were admitted to the hospital underwent an investigation of their allergy history with a pharmacist. Then, if appropriate, the patient would undergo a penicillin skin test. If the test was negative, the allergy would be challenged and the patient would be given a penicillin-like drug. Results showed that one-third of the patients were switched to penicillin successfully leading to less days spent in the hospital and lower hospital bills.

Another paper developed a similar way to evaluate reported penicillin allergies. First, the history of the allergy is researched to determine the risk. Those with mild symptoms would be low-risk while those that develop breathing problems would be moderate to high-risk. Low-risk patients would be given a course of a penicillin-like drug and observed for symptoms of a reaction. Moderate-risk patients would first undergo a penicillin skin test and then given a round of the drug if the skin test was negative. High-risk patients were not challenged and referred to a specialist. Those who tolerated the drug administration then had the allergy removed from their health records.

Both papers emphasize the necessity that penicillin allergy testing  become part of the admission process to a hospital. This test saves money and reduces the chance for patients to get further infections from less effective drugs. Plans for allocating funds in hospitals may need to incorporate this information to better treat patients in the future. 

  • Katie Donohoe

Products marketed as “Organic” vs “Synthetic”… What is truly better for your skin?

When we hear the words “natural”, “organic” and “green” we automatically believe this means something is good for us because it comes from nature, compared to a product that is advertised as “synthetic” or containing “chemical” ingredients. But the truth is, not all products advertised as natural are necessarily good for you, and not all synthetic and chemical products are bad for you… especially when it comes to talking about skincare!

Face Mask Application Source: Flickr Commons


What’s the difference?

One of the main differences between products advertised as “organic” and “synthetic” is that many of the ingredients that are made up from organic molecules in these products are much bigger due to the structure of the molecule and they tend to be less refined. This can be bad because the ingredients then sit on top of your skin and can cause irritation. Whereas in synthetic ingredients, the molecules tend to be smaller and more refined so they can easily absorb into your skin. However, the synthetic products that are more easily absorbed into your skin are only any better than the organic products if they don’t irritate your own skin, but this can vary from person to person. Still, the synthetic ingredients overall have less of a chance of irritating your skin because it can absorb.

In order to decide what kind of products are good or bad for your skin regardless of what they are advertised as, you should always look at the ingredients list to discover the truth of what is in these products. For example, a lot of “organic” skin care products contain essential oils, which may be pleasant to smell but it can actually really irritate your skin as with many fragrances in skin care- these molecules are quite large as well.

Aloe Plant, a common ingredient found in Skincare products Source: Flickr Commons

A recent study was done investigating two forms of sunscreen – a chemical based synthetic sunscreen and an organic physical block. Researchers compared the two and found that the chemical sunscreen absorbed better into skin and people experienced less irritation compared to the organic physical block sunscreen where dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) was common.


So what should you use?

It’s true that some natural and organic skincare products can be harmful for your skin especially if you’re not aware of what ingredients are contained in the product, but the same is true for synthetic. I believe that synthetic products are a safer option for your skin due to the easy absorption. At the end of the day regardless of what the product is marketed as I will always be reading the ingredient list to determine what products are best for my skin and I suggest you do the same as well!

Ingredients List for skincare product Source: Flickr Commons


If you’re curious as to what are some examples of common irritants are in skincare, check out this blog post by skin care specialist and author Paula Beguon.

-Morgan Strohan

Is it Me or is the Sea Rising?

Sea level rise – the consequence of climate change that is creating fear in societies across the globe, especially those in low-lying coastal areas. Sadly, climate scientists have not been able to quantify how much the sea will rise. Why? It depends on where you live.

Regional Factors

Rebound or Subsidence?

Believe it or not, land can rise (rebound) or fall (subsidence). For instance, Canada is rebounding as it was compressed under the weight of glaciers during the last ice age. In contrast, land masses such as South England are experiencing subsidence as these non-glaciated areas had been elevated by glaciers in the periphery. A modern forcing to land subsidence is the exploration for natural resources like oil and gas. Resources are found in subsurface deposits, but once these units are drained of their contents, the subsurface material will collapse from the weight above. Clearly, the glacial history and economy of your region do have an impact in whether you are moving towards or away from sea level. 

Glacier Rebound and Subsidence (blogger). Credit: Tom James, Natural Resources Canada. Link:

Gravitational Effects

The gravitational force, the same pull that keeps you planted on Earth, can have an impact on sea level rise. Gravity is defined as an attractive force between two bodies of mass. The interactions of most importance exist between seawater and the Greenland & West Antarctic ice sheets. Enormous in size (large mass), these sheets exert a very strong pull on seawater. It is so strong that water is pulled from regions thousands of kilometres away. As mass is lost during melting, the pull is weakened, and water freely flows away. Depending on your region’s relative location and the glacier’s size, some areas are expected to experience a greater sea level rise than others. For example, due to the strong pull by the Antarctic ice sheet, northern areas have lower sea levels compared to those in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately, these distant areas will experience a relatively larger change in sea level as water is released from the pull of this ice sheet.

The gravitational effect of an ice sheet on sea level
(blogger). Credit: Jerry Mitrovica & Natalya Gomez, University of Toronto. Link:

Changing Ocean Currents

Ocean currents are changing with our warming climate and a region’s proximity to an overturn zone can influence the local change in sea level. For example, the United Kingdom is near an overturn zone (of the Gulf Stream) where warm water from the equator cools and sinks. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for this water to sink as its density has decreased due to a warmer northern climate and dilution from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. This results in more water at the surface, or in other words, an elevated sea level.

Ocean overturn (blogger). Credit: World Ocean Review. Link:


In short, regional variations make it challenging for climate scientists to quantify sea level rise. However, there are many more factors that I have not shared with you, such as the complexity behind ice sheet dynamics, which further complicate this task.

Interested in the effects of sea level rise on Metro Vancouver and/or how governments are responding? Check out the video below!

Credit: Government of British Columbia

-Malavan Subramaniam


Spicy foods: Do we eat them because we like the way they taste?

Trick question. While there are five different classes of taste, spicy isn’t one of them. Sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami are the five basic qualities that stimulate taste receptors on our tongue and all other taste sensations arise from the different combinations. So what about spicy?

(Source: Flickr Commons)

Spicy is not a taste

We experience the sensation of spiciness not because it’s a taste but because it’s pain-inducing. Spicy foods make you feel as though your mouth is on fire even though there is no real heat in spices. The searing pain occurs because of a chemical called capsaicin present in spicy foods that activate nociceptors (pain receptors) called TRPV1 on the tongue.

Interestingly, the description of heat is more accurate than most people realize. TRPV1 normally respond to heat to alert the body for heat damage, thereby warning us when we consume literally hot drinks or foods. They respond to extreme temperatures, intense mechanical stimulation, as well as certain chemicals like capsaicin.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons (modified))

So why do we eat spicy foods?

Some of our taste preferences are innate, such as our tendencies to crave sweet and salty foods and avoid bitter and sour foods. We’re inclined to consume sugar and salt because they’re biologically useful to us and we have an aversion towards concentrated bitter and sour foods because they can be poisonous or can damage our body tissues. When it comes to spicy foods, it seems that our preferences depend on social influences.

Some people dread the runny-nosed, sweaty-faced experience while others indulge in the burn. In places like India and South America, hot peppers are an integral part of their culture and is often incorporated in daily cuisine. For example, Mexican children are introduced to chili early on through spicy candies, and by the time they’re 5-6 years old, they eat chili peppers on their own accord.

Internationally famous spicy instant noodle from Korea. The cartoon says “스트레스 해소에 직빵이닭”, which means it’ll relieve your stress. (Source: my picture)

In Korea, it’s part of their culture to eat spicy foods in an attempt to relieve stress. The rationale? The pain of eating scorchingly spicy foods distracts someone from their anxieties. Unsurprisingly, a study at the Pusan National University found that Koreans who love spicy food are more prone to stress.

In the Western world, the interest in spicy foods as demonstrated by the fire noodle challenge, Carolina Reaper challenge, etc. may have more to do with masochism than an appreciation of a burn that accompanies a meal. The love for spicy food could be an indicator of personality; a study at the University of Pennsylvania found a relationship between chili-liking and thrill/sensation-seeking in Americans.


Author: Olivia Wong


First plant to grow on the Moon ever!

Do you think we can one day sustain life outside of Earth? Perhaps one day in the future, but when will that be? That day may be sooner than you think!

The first time biological matter to  sprout and grow on the moon has been achieved! On January 2nd 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe landed on the far side of the moon where no human or robot has ever ventured before.  It carried a “lunar biosphere” experiment containing plant seeds and silkworm eggs.  The plan is that the plants provide oxygen for the silkworms, and in turn, the silkworms will nurture the plants with its waste and released carbon dioxide. There are potato, rock-cress and cotton seeds among the seeds carried on board.  The “biosphere” experiment is all contained inside a 0.8 liter aluminum alloy cylinder weighing in around three kilograms and includes nutrients, water and dirt.  Sunlight is filtered into the container through a tube with small cameras set up inside. The cameras watch the environment and relay the footage back to Earth through a complicated relay system. The accomplishments so far show great progress towards sustaining life on the moon.

A picture of Yutu-2 taken by the Chang’e-4 lunar probe. Source: China National Space Administration (CNSA)

The Far Side of the Moon

The moon’s rotation speed is in sync with Earth’s orbit.  This results in the moon rotating on its axis and also orbiting the Earth every 28 days.  The same face of the moon always faces Earth, and the side we can’t see from the planet’s surface is considered the far side.

source: YouTube
Why is it hard to land on the far side of the moon?

To put it bluntly, the moon blocks radio contact to Earth and makes it very difficult to maintain a communication link. To overcome this issue, in May 2018, CNSA launched a satellite Queqiao into orbit around “L2.” L2 is a point beyond the moon where the gravity of the moon and Earth cancel out the centripetal force of an object stationed there. This satellite helps bridge the gap between the Chang”e-4’s lander and mission control.

China has sprouted plants on the moon!

A picture taken on January 12th 2019 of the cotton seeds growing after the excitement of them sprouting a few days prior. Source: Chongqing University.

Out of all the germinated seeds (rapeseed, potato seed, cotton seeds), the cotton seeds were the first to sprout.  This amazing breakthrough could be the start to a new era and displays great progress towards a system where food ( such as potatoes), clothing (from the cotton), and oil (from rapeseed) can be sustained for space explorers.  Being able to grow plants on any celestial body outside of Earth will be necessary for any future human settlements outside of Earth.

In the future, if things go as planned, China will launch Chang’e-5 sample-return mission later this year. Let’s all look forward to the future progress together! Keep an eye out!

-Peter Le

Coming Out Clean with Anti-Wrinkle Creams

Cosmetic companies have been selling anti-wrinkle or anti-aging facial creams for a while. They often advertise that by using their products, users will see an increase in hydration, reduction in facial lines, and look up to ten years younger after one month of usage. Basically, these companies are advertising that they’ve pretty much developed the fountain of youth in a jar.

Before we discuss whether anti-wrinkle creams work, let’s talk about the physiology of our skin!

Skin Layers (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The skin is the largest external organ on our body and is comprised of three layers: epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. The epidermis is the outermost layer that is exposed to the environment, and the hypodermis is the innermost layer that is mainly made of fat. The dermis is in the middle and is the layer that contains fibroblasts, which are specialized cells that secretes a chemical compound known as collagen. Collagen is in charge of giving our skin it’s tensile strength and its overall structure.

Wrinkles are caused by external factors like the sun’s UV (ultra-violet) rays, which in turn can also damage fibroblast cells. However, a study found that fibroblast cells also lose their ability to secrete collagen as it ages. Since the wrinkles within the skin are caused by fibroblast cells losing their ability to produce collagen, the question still hangs in the air: do anti-wrinkle creams work?

Yes, and no. Anti-wrinkle facial creams contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, retinoids, vitamin-C, etc. Hyaluronic acid is a chemical compound that helps your skin retain its moisture. Retinoids are another kind of chemical compound that functions like hyaluronic acid, except it also stimulates the production of collagen and promotes the shedding of old skin cells. Vitamin-C helps with preventing any further damage to the internal components of skin cells. As mentioned before, wrinkles are caused by a decrease in production of collagen by the fibroblast cells in the dermis layer, and these ingredients aren’t a permanent fix to these cells. At best, some of these ingredients can protect our skin from UV damage, or reduce the look of fine lines by adding extra moisture to give the appearance of a fuller look. So anti-wrinkle facial creams can work in a sense that it provides a bit of protection from external factors and a temporary fix.  However, it’s not permanent and probably won’t make you look ten years younger.

In all honesty, the best “anti-wrinkle cream” anyone can use is sunscreen. Applying sunscreen to the skin on your body can prevent the development of skin cancer and protect the fibroblast cells within your skin from prematurely stopping the collagen production.

Link to specific study: