How to Know if You Have ‘Fungal Acne’—and How to Treat it

We’re taught from our hormone-riddled teen years to be on high alert for acne—and to attack it with every product under the sun at the first sign of a zit. Of course, as adults, we’re wise enough to know that acne is more complex and harder to treat than the commercials of the past had us believe.

For one thing, no one ever told us that, sometimes, what looks like acne isn’t acne at all. “Fungal acne” is one such impostor—and nothing on the acne shelves will do a thing to make it go away.

What causes fungal acne?

Despite its resemblance to bacterial acne, fungal acne is actually caused by yeast (yes, a fungus) that inflames the hair follicles on your skin and causes pimple-like bumps. The condition is technically referred to as pityrosporum folliculitis or malassezia folliculitis, for the specific type of fungus (malassezia is the more updated term, but your dermatologist may still call it pityrosporum).

And for the record, it’s normal for this type of fungus to be living on your skin. But when it gets out of control, it can lead to fungal acne breakouts or other skin conditions, like seborrheic dermatitis.

Under normal conditions, there will be a balance between the bacteria and fungus on our skin, Hye Jin Chung, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine, tells SELF. But if something happens to wipe out the bacteria (say, you take antibiotics), there won’t be anything to keep the fungus in check. As a result, an overgrowth of fungus can develop, which in turn can lead to skin irritation, inflammation, and fungal acne.

Antibiotics aren’t the only factor in developing fungal acne—sometimes our own habits are the culprits. For instance, wearing tight, non-breathable clothes often contributes to breakouts, Dr. Chung says. More specifically, wearing sweaty workout clothes for too long or rewearing fitness gear without washing it can create a very hospitable (read: moist) environment for fungi to grow, Emily C. McKenzie, MD, clinical instructor in the department of dermatology at the University of Utah, tells SELF.

Unfortunately, some people are just genetically predisposed to overgrowths of yeast and, therefore, experience fungal acne more frequently, Dr. McKenzie adds. Having chronic conditions that affect your immune system, like diabetes and HIV, can also predispose you to fungal acne.

Here’s how to tell the difference between bacterial and fungal acne.

Again, fungal acne can look like regular acne, but there are a few key differences. Regular (bacterial) acne breakouts vary in size and tend to feature blackheads or whiteheads on the face, Dr. Chung says.

But, Dr. McKenzie says that fungal acne will usually appear as uniform red bumps and pustules on the chest, upper arms, and back—rarely the face. Also, the bumps that result from malassezia don’t usually come to heads. And, perhaps most noticeably, she adds that fungal acne breakouts will be very itchy. Typical bacterial acne can be itchy sometimes, she says, “but not that much.”

How should you treat fungal acne?

Depending on the severity of your breakouts, clearing up fungal acne may be as simple as adjusting your lifestyle. For instance, showering and changing your clothes right after working out or wearing looser clothes may do the trick.

But, if lifestyle changes don’t help, your next step for a mild case should be trying an over-the-counter topical treatment. For example, Dr. McKenzie says Selsun Blue, despite being marketed as a dandruff shampoo, works as an antifungal body wash, thanks to its active ingredients (some Selsun Blue products contain pyrithione zinc, while others contain selenium sulfide, but either one will do the trick). Other similar products containing those active ingredients might also do the trick. And the key with all of them is to let the product sit on your skin for about five minutes before rinsing, she says.

Other recommended topical treatments include creams containing 2 percent ketoconazole, econozole nitrate, or 1 percent clotrimazole cream, all of which are often used to treat athlete’s foot.

When in doubt, see a dermatologist.

If your symptoms still persist after about three weeks, it’s time to see a dermatologist. They’ll be able to confirm your diagnosis and may prescribe an oral antifungal medication, which will work faster to treat the breakouts than a cream or shampoo because topical treatments may have a harder time getting into the follicle.

Unfortunately, there’s always a risk of recurrence with fungal acne after it’s treated—especially right after it clears up, Dr. Chung says. It’s not totally understood why, but resistance to the drug, changing seasons, and changing habits are all thought to play a role in the recurrence of it.

As a preventive measure, she tells her patients who deal with fungal acne to use an antifungal product in place of normal body wash as often as once a week, though she adds that there’s “no magic number” for how often to work it into your routine. Once your system has recovered, you can ease off on the antifungal wash, but stopping it altogether might put you at risk for a recurrence.

Antifungal products are touted as being “safe” for use when you have fungal acne, but that doesn’t mean other products are full of yeast. Dr. Chung explains that labeling just means that those products won’t contribute to the growth of fungus. As long as you’re doing other things to keep the growth of that fungus in check, you shouldn’t feel pressured to seek them out.

Ultimately, the biggest mistake you can make when dealing with fungal acne is simply mistaking it for regular acne. Conventional acne products, especially antibiotics, won’t help and might even make your symptoms worse.

So, if your breakouts itch and are concentrated on your upper arms, chest, and back (your “trunk,” as Dr. Chung puts it), it’s probably fungal. And, if you simply aren’t sure, you can always check with your derm before trying any treatment. When it comes to fungal acne, Dr. Chung says it’s better to “see a dermatologist sooner rather than later.”

Related:

What I Learned From Having an On-Call Astrologer for a Week

My interest in astrology began in my dentist’s waiting room in 2008.

I was reading Cosmopolitan and came across their 2009 horoscope forecast, a small insert published annually in the December issue. It said that me (a 13-year-old Virgo) and my then-boyfriend (a Taurus) had a nine out of 10 rating on the love scale and an eight on the sex scale. I found the proof of our love so moving that I ripped it out and snuck it home with me underneath my jacket.

Since then, I have let astrology loosely guide my life, as many millennials do. Today, the $2 billion psychic services industry is having a moment: It is hip (though at times appropriative) to have your tarot cards read, call yourself a witch, and burn sage in your apartment as a means of resistance, of autonomy, of self-assurance.

Following in this tradition is Sanctuary, an app helmed by CEO Ross Clark (a veteran of media companies like Hearst, Condé Nast, and Epix), that launched last week. What sets Sanctuary aside from its sisters is that it has three price tiers: The free version will get you a two-sentence daily horoscope, a power emoji (mine was a file cabinet today), and “starry-eyed news,” an on-this-day type pop culture tidbit that incorporates astrology. The first paid option is $19.99 per month for one live, on-demand reading with a real astrologer—one of several Sanctuary keeps on-call at any given time—each month, plus another $19.99 for each additional reading you want. The third option costs $199.99 annually, which has the same perks as the others but is the most cost effective for die-hards.

After finding out about Sanctuary, my inner astrology nerd was chomping at the bit to give the app a go. The company offered me a week of free on-demand readings via the app (normally $19.99 each). To really put it—and my faith in astrology—to the test, I decided to use my horoscope and daily on-demand readings to live under the guidance of the stars for a week.

To start off my week of living astrologically, the company set me up with an in-person chart reading (not something offered via the app) with Aliza Kelly, Astrologer-in-Residence at Sanctuary who, to my delight, also has a column in Cosmo. When I met her, she was all big hoops and eyeliner, and she wore the black stretch choker emblematic of the late 90s.

We started with my sun sign (Virgo), often associated with being analytical, organized, and practical, and my rising sign (Sagittarius), often thought of as adventurous, optimistic, and stubborn. Most people only know their sun sign and read their horoscopes for that. But, Kelly told me, our rising sign dictates who we are even more. We focus on our suns because they are easier to figure out—all you need to know is your birthday. Your rising, on the other hand, reflects the constellation that was ascending in the East at the moment you were born, which means you have to know your birth location and time and have a program to plug all that information into.

“I feel like I’m the opposite of a Sagittarius,” I told Kelly about my rising. “I feel like Virgos and Sagittarians are different in a lot of ways, so I have a hard time seeing myself as one even though I know I sort of am one.”

“Well,” she raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down. “You’re giving me a lot of Sag energy.”

Just 10 minutes into my week and already, it appeared, I didn’t know myself at all. But I was ready and open to see what happened.

Here’s what my week of living astrologically looked like:

Monday

It is the first day where I will have access to Sanctuary. I’m on a plane, traveling from West Palm Beach to Newark. I feel fairly refreshed after spending the weekend at my grandparents’ retirement community. Last week, I felt a wave of burnout coming on, and I’m mostly just relieved that my brain was not permanently stuck like that.

I go back to my parents’ house and work from there for the rest of the day. Midday, my stomach feels a bit off and I’m not quite sure why. Later, Mom drives me to the bus stop so I can return to the city. On the way, I open up Sanctuary and signal for an astrologer. The process is more or less like calling an Uber. Someone named Nico responds to my “Hi!” It is also more or less like a dating app.

I tell Mom I can’t talk because I have to discuss my nausea with my astrologer. I am eager to hear their perspective. Mom is very excited.

“Ask them what’s going to happen with Dad’s job! And Jonah! And where Eli is going to go to school!”

I say, “Nico is an astrologer, Mom. Not a psychic.”

“I feel a little off today—and last week too,” I type to Nico, “and I was curious if there’s any explanation for that. I know I’m ruled by Mercury and Mercury is retrograde right now.”

Nico responds in a language that I don’t fully understand: “While the confusion of the current Mercury retrograde bares a significant weight on your Mercurian Virgo sun and moon, your Sagittarius rising combats this hectic energy, allowing you to indulge in a more poised aesthetic, while other people may be clamoring in the confusing waters of Mercury retrograde in Pisces.”

I am still concerned I have a stomach flu but Nico and I get disconnected and I can’t restart the chat. I give up and take the subway downtown to my apartment. I have a friend’s birthday dinner at 9 P.M. and I am afraid I will basically throw up at the table. But by the time I finish getting ready, I feel fine. My nausea has disappeared completely. I order the duck, eat the whole thing, and do not even have diarrhea.

Tuesday

I am constipated, but this is not the kind of thing I feel the need to tell an astrologer. It is also decidedly better than diarrhea or nausea. Since Nico and I got cut off the night prior, I use a few spare minutes in the morning to finish our conversation. This time, Kelly is the astrologer on the other end of the app. (Clark tells me that, ideally, the app will one day be able to match up people with one “personal” astrologer who will get to know their clients better.)

Kelly and I get back on the subject of Mercury retrograde. “When Mercury goes retrograde, everyone’s communication breaks down, which is very hard for you to handle because you rely heavily on information and dialogue and expression,” she says. “Moreover, this current Mercury retrograde is in Pisces—your opposite sign. In other words, this is creating an extreme tension in your chart, forming an opposition across the axis that governs local community and far-reaching interests, respectively.” This makes more sense to me than what I was told last night (and feels somewhat contradictory), as I have been feeling what some might call “extreme tension.”

“When does it end?” I ask.

“March 28,” she says. Kelly continues, “Retrograde is actually a great time to practice all of the ‘re-’ words. A few of my favorites: reset, restore, reconsider, retreat, review, remember, recall, rewind, renew, reminisce, return, release, remind, reevaluate, respond, reset.”

“We live in a society that doesn’t really want us to slow down and take a moment to reconsider our journey, so that’s why retrograde times are especially difficult,” Kelly goes on. “But if we’re always ‘doing’ and ‘manifesting,’ how do we even know we still have the same goals? Or, how can we confirm whether they’ve actually been accomplished?”

This sounds about right. “I’m definitely feeling like I’m starting to lose track of my progress in pretty much every aspect of life,’” I admit. “So retrograde will help me, in a way?” I ask.

“100 percent,” she writes back immediately. “That’s exactly what retrograde does.”

That night, I have dinner with two childhood friends and text my astrologer mid-meal. I am in a pleasant mood, so I am not sure I have much to chat about. My two friends are excited and huddle around my phone as I call an astrologer, who turns out to be Nico. “Mercury Rx at play,” he says immediately, using astrology shorthand to refer to yesterday’s disconnect.

“So true,” I type back. Tonight I decide to ask Nico about my dating situation.

“With Gemini in your 7th house, you may be somewhat of a marathon romantic,” he says. “Gemini is the right brain to Virgo’s left brain. Both ruled by Mercury, there is a strong emphasis on clear communication in your chart.”

My main concern here is that I do not know what a marathon romantic is—I’d imagine it could be a compliment or insult depending on how you look at it. I tend to have nothing to do with marathons, generally. I ask Nico what it means. “Someone who can’t quite keep their mind on one person,” he says.

“Interesting. I don’t really know if that’s me,” I say.

“In your love life, this is a great time to reconnect with who you are personally,” Nico continues. “If you find yourself overcommitting in relationships, take this moment to reacquaint with your personal needs in and out of a relationship.” My therapist said the exact same thing.

Wednesday

I connect with an astrologer named Sterling. He pulls up my chart. “What questions do you have this morning?” he asks. As I begin to type my response, the app shuts down. Mercury Rx, I sigh.

Second go with Sterling. For a Wednesday, I am feeling not so bad. I feel quite different than I have in a while, actually. I have been ruminating on the “re-” words Kelly brought to mind. Reset, restore, reconsider. Renew, return, release. Reevaluate, respond, reset. All together, I feel less drained, more energized. I am swimming in the mess and trusting it will take me somewhere.

“I’ve been thinking and learning a lot about Mercury retrograde,” I tell Sterling. “I feel like I’m starting to come out of a fog, and I think that’s because I’m starting to change my perspective.”

“You’ve got Jupiter in your first house, igniting energies of personal freedom and optimism. It’s currently in Sagittarius, and will be until November. It’s an especially lucky time. :)”

Sterling asks if there’s anything specific I’d like to discuss, so I mention my “creative energy.” I am highly aware of the fact that I will have to, at some point, write a piece about this very conversation, so I figure I may as well ask if, when, and how that will happen.

“I haven’t been able to understand why I haven’t gotten myself to sit down and do the thing,” I lament. “Part of me is interpreting it as laziness, but also maybe fear?”

“Let me share the best thing I’ve ever heard about laziness,” Sterling says. “It’s sometimes fear of failure dressed up in slippers and pajamas.”

Thursday

Nico told me that this retrograde is a “great time for undertaking any sort of meditative or spiritual healing practice,” so this morning I go to yoga. I have a very difficult time balancing on my right foot. I am mad for a minute and then blame it on the moon.

Friday

I get to the office, make a bowl of oatmeal, and start my reading. Kelly answers. We discuss more about Mercury retrograde, and how my energy this week has felt the opposite of last—uncontained and frenetic. I can tell our conversation is coming to a close, but I jump back in to ask her something I’ve been wondering.

“Do our charts say things that we don’t know about ourselves? In other words, once we learn about our charts, have access to them, and understand them, do they serve more to explain what we already know, or to offer information we didn’t have before?”

“Absolutely!” she writes back.

I go to therapy in the afternoon. I do not tell my therapist I am cheating on her with three astrologers.

Later Friday night: I’m on a date and am extremely fascinated by my date’s extroversion. “What sign are you?” I ask him halfway through. I am always concerned about the sun signs of people I’m even vaguely attracted to, though I know now that figuring someone out requires much more information. (You’ve got to know their rising.) Usually, I look up sun signs by finding people’s birthdays on Facebook—even if you aren’t friends, birthdays are often public, probably because people do not realize that a slew of others, like me, spend hours utilizing them.

I have a feeling he is a Capricorn or Cancer; it simultaneously seems as though he is the most intense, hard-working person I’ve met (Cap) and that he is the type that a) is a crier and b) loves his mother more than anything else in the world (Cancer). “I’m a Cancer!” he gushes after a suspenseful pause, throwing his hands in the air.

“Of course,” I mumble back. He does not know his rising, but asks me to explain what the different parts of astrology mean. I tell him that I am actually working on a story about all of this. He says he loves talking about space.

“You see, Mercury retrograde is affecting me so much because it began in 29 degrees Pisces, which is exactly opposite to my Virgo sun because I was born with the sun in Virgo at 29 degrees, and Virgo and Pisces are polar signs,” I say, tracing galaxies in the air with my hands, regurgitating Kelly’s words as if they were the bible.

He is fascinated. “But the sun never moves,” he wonders. “We move around it.”

“I don’t really know how that works,” I admit. “But I think it’s all about perspective.”

Saturday

I wake up. I make coffee. I go to yoga. I go straight from yoga to brunch with a friend. I am supposed to go straight from brunch to a birthday party in Brooklyn but also somehow shower in between. I am also supposed to text my astrologer.

I spend 16 minutes trying to decide whether I should take an expensive Uber to Brooklyn so I can have my reading on the way, do the reading in my apartment and go late to the party, or risk the underground cell service and do the reading on the subway. After contemplating all of this, I discover the subway I need to take isn’t even running. I decide to sit back down on the couch and just do the reading now. I accept that I will be late to everything. Mercury Rx.

I realize I’m having something like an epiphany: When we make the effort to carve out time for ourselves—whatever that looks like (for me, it is…this)—and, for what may be the first time, we stick with it, it is impossible to do more than one thing at a time with 100 percent of our effort. In other words, I shouldn’t really do the reading in the subway or an Uber. I should take the time to devote my attention to it on its own. That’s what self-care is, after all.

After my reading, I go to the party in Brooklyn, then grab a drink with a friend at a dive bar that only plays heavy metal. I go back home to Manhattan, I change my shoes, I meet another friend for tapas—for which I am two hours late—and I go out on another date. It is, incidentally, the worst date I have ever been on. Not even astrology could have explained that.

Sunday

This is my last day of living astrologically and also my first day with no plans for the first time in 10 days. I make plans because I am bad at doing nothing.

I’m supposed to write with my friend who is also a writer and realize that I’m probably anxious about these plans because I am trying to avoid writing, not because I am trying to avoid the friend. I spend 15 minutes waiting in line for a bagel and wonder what is wrong with me.

Later, when my friend and I sit down to write, I text my astrologer. “Something significant about your chart that I haven’t reflected on until now is that you were born with Saturn retrograde,” I am told by someone who I think is Sterling. (At some point, the astrologers stopped introducing themselves at the beginning of our chats.)

“There should be something comforting about this Mercury-Saturn alignment despite the fact that Mercury is retrograde. In a sense, you understand this retrograde territory. It is written all over your chart. There is an aspect of your psyche that is equipped to deal with the confusion and obstacles that come from various different planets stationing retrograde.”

“There is an untapped spiritual mind seeking some sort of output in your chart,” mystery astrologer says. “Finding the right paths to unleash this power is going to be one of your life’s challenges.”

We wish each other best and sign off and I’m reminded that, no matter how much I want it to, a week of astrology isn’t going to spiritually “cure” me. And as long as I have problems and questions, spirituality—in any form—will claim to have answers and solutions.

Three days later

I no longer have my on-call astrologer and have gone back to alternating between a 10-minute meditation on odd days and a yoga class on even days. The meditation is fun; I use an app and do it in my pajamas. An Australian man whispers a mantra through my AirPods. Yoga is also fun. Still sometimes have trouble balancing.

I’ve stopped reading a weekly horoscope that gets delivered to my inbox every Monday. It seemed too vague and I’d usually forget it by lunchtime. Sometimes I check my daily horoscope on Sanctuary, because all I have to do is press a button and it gives me a sentence in return. Plus, I do it when I want to, or when I feel like I need to—it doesn’t arrive in my email on autopilot along with Williams Sonoma promotions and Page Six newsletters.

The biggest lessons I learned had nothing to do with astrology.

We have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips, yet many of us feel ceaselessly lost. Like we have Google for the small questions, it makes sense that we would turn to mysticism for the big ones.

But there was something far more comforting about regularly speaking to an actual human about who I am, as dictated by an individualized chart, than reading a generic weekly horoscope.

Maybe it’s because when we sense that time with someone is valuable, we tend to be more thoughtful about the process as to not waste a single second. (Before my weekly therapy appointments, I often make bullet-point lists of what I want to talk about.)

Whenever we’re required to do this regularly—to consider how we want to spend a set period of time talking about ourselves—we might actually learn a lot about the things astrology claims to tell us. Things like: how you organize your personal narrative, what you think are the most pressing issues in your life, and how you interact with others.

And if you’re not getting those answers from the stars, then you’re getting them from, well, yourself.

Related:

Scalp Psoriasis Vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis: What’s The Difference?

How does a doctor tell the difference between scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp?

Answer From Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D.

Your doctor can usually tell whether you have scalp psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, or both based on an examination of your skin, scalp, and nails.

Scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis are common conditions that affect the scalp. In addition, they share some similar signs and symptoms, such as red, scaly skin.

Most often, the scales of psoriasis are thicker and somewhat drier in appearance than are the scales of seborrheic dermatitis. Psoriasis has more of a tendency to extend beyond the hairline. In addition, psoriasis usually affects more than one area of the body. If you have scalp psoriasis, you may also have mild psoriasis on your elbows, knees, hands, or feet or may notice subtle nail changes, such as pitting.

Compare signs and symptoms

Scalp psoriasis

  • Red skin covered with flakes and silvery scales
  • Patches that may extend beyond the hairline or appear on other parts of the body
  • Itching or soreness

Seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp

  • Red skin covered with greasy-looking white or yellowish scales
  • Skin flakes (dandruff) that may attach to the hair shaft
  • Possibly itching

Scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp share some similar treatments, including medicated shampoos and topical corticosteroid or antifungal solutions. Scalp psoriasis is often persistent and more difficult to treat than is seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp. Additional treatments, such as phototherapy, may be required to bring psoriasis under better control.

Updated: 2017-11-03

Publication Date: 2017-11-03

How to Be There for Someone Who Survived a Horrible Trauma

A recent series of tragic deaths has underscored how traumatic events can claim lives years after the fact. Three people affected by mass shootingsthe father of a girl killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 and two students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018—have died of apparent suicides.

In the wake of these incomprehensible losses, it’s clearer than ever that trauma can lead to years-long suffering. If somebody you love has survived a traumatic event, be it public (like a natural disaster or terrorist attack) or private (such as a sexual assault), you may not be sure how best to be there for them on this journey. While survivors can have very different responses to trauma, interpersonal support is one of the core pieces of recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Here, several trauma counselors and one trauma survivor explain how to help a friend or family member who has been through something horrible. Exactly what they need from you will depend on your relationship and evolve throughout their recovery, but the suggestions below are a good place to start.

1. Validate their trauma.

“Acknowledge that what has happened to them is terrible,” Daniel A. Nelson, M.D., advisory board member of the USC National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) and medical director of the Child Psychiatry Unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, tells SELF.

You can do this by saying something like, “This is a truly horrible thing that has happened. I can see you’re in an incredible amount of pain.”

It might feel like you’re saying something obvious, but this affirmation can be reassuring. “It’s about articulating that you see they are in pain and that you are OK with holding that pain,” Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D., a Washington, D.C.-based psychotherapist in private practice and adjunct professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, tells SELF.

This was helpful for Manya C., 53, who was sitting in the bleachers across the street from where the first of two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in 2013. She appreciated when people confirmed that it really was a devastating event. “Just letting me know that they [understood] that … was validating,” Manya, who advocates for and speaks about those who are psychologically impacted by trauma, tells SELF.

2. Listen.

You might feel a natural urge to fill the silence when you want to help but don’t know what to say, says Dr. Nelson, who has counseled survivors of traumatic events including the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the September 11 terror attacks, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. This typically comes out of wanting to “fix” the situation, Dr. Nelson says.

But you can’t “fix” someone’s trauma, especially not by talking non-stop. It’s better to be present as they work through their feelings. “It’s really hard to mess up if you’re just intent on listening,” Dr. Nelson says.

Manya remembers breaking down sobbing, seemingly out of nowhere, while at dinner with a friend a few weeks after the bombing. Her friend remained calm and stayed with her until she was done crying before asking Manya where her tears were coming from. “She didn’t tell me, ‘Don’t cry,’ or offer me advice. She just listened and was present,” Manya recalls.

3. Admit that you don’t understand.

Survivors are often reluctant to open up because they’re afraid a loved one will not have the emotional capacity to understand, says Marshall Woods, who has counseled active military personnel and their families in the Middle East and natural disaster survivors through the American Red Cross. Unless you’ve been through a very similar trauma, you don’t get it. And that’s fine. What matters most is that you’ll be there anyway.

Say something like, “I cannot begin to imagine what you’re going through right now, but I am here for you whenever you are having a hard time.” This kind of statement acknowledges the reality—that you don’t understand—while reinforcing your willingness to be there. “It’s a piece of security that can really help them feel safe,” Marshall Woods says.

Manya remembers how helpful it was when a friend expressed this. “Hearing her honestly say, ‘I don’t know what to do to help you, but I’m here’ was huge for me,” Manya says. “I didn’t know what I needed either. But I knew she was there to listen, and that started a really great conversation.”

4. Accept if they don’t want to talk.

It’s not unusual for survivors to prefer not to talk about their feelings, even with some of the people closest to them. Discussing trauma with someone who doesn’t understand can be draining. “There are things I don’t have to say to a survivor, for example, because they get it—things I would have to explain to a friend,” Manya explains.

While it’s OK (and encouraged) to ask if your loved one feels like speaking, respect that they may not want to, Dr. Nelson says. Part of being a good support system is being there for them regardless of how much they will or won’t share.

If your loved one is still navigating how much they’re comfortable sharing, Marshall Woods recommends figuring out a verbal or non-verbal cue they can give you to back off when they need space, no questions asked.

5. Keep checking in.

Survivors often get a lot of support immediately after the traumatic event, but attention from the media, the public, and loved ones tends to dwindle soon after. “It feels like other people have gone on living their lives normally as if the trauma has not even happened, when it’s still very much alive for them,” Marshall Woods explains.

Let the person you love know that you’re still continuing to think of them by checking in accordingly. “Knowing that someone has their eyes on them can be a real source of support and security,” Marshall Woods says. She also suggests offering to sit in silence with the person if they don’t feel like talking but don’t want to be alone.

Manya’s family members called her every day for longer than she expected after the attack. The conversations weren’t long, but the constant reminder of their presence and concern was comforting. “It meant a lot to me just to get those calls,” she says.

6. Offer to help limit news coverage.

If your loved one has been through a highly publicized trauma, such as a mass shooting, the early deluge of media coverage may continually retraumatize them. If you think they’re having this problem, you can ask if they want help limiting their media exposure. You can do this by changing their news alerts and muting certain hashtags or words on Twitter, for instance. This helps some people feel safer throughout the recovery process, Marshall Woods says.

But it’s possible your friend may want to stay up with the news coverage because it helps them feel less alone. “They [may be] grateful that people are taking notice of the pain they’re experiencing and that people are grieving with them,” Marshall Woods explains. So, even if your friend is visibly upset by news stories about what happened, keep in mind that this may be a part of their healing process.

7. Avoid clichés.

Looking for a silver lining can be great in many situations. The aftermath of a trauma usually isn’t one of them. “When someone is feeling this pain, you need to meet them there,” Marshall Woods says. “You want them to feel better now, but that is not the reality of where they are.”

Urging your friend to be optimistic or not “dwell” on the tragedy communicates that you’re not accepting how they’re feeling. What you mean as an expression of hope (“Things will get better!”) can come off as a dismissal of their suffering and make them feel misunderstood. “Usually when the individual hears something like that, they think ‘You’re trying to fix me, and you don’t know the first thing about what’s wrong,’” Dr. Nelson explains.

8. Help them find mental health support.

If you’re concerned for your loved one’s well-being—like if they are struggling to eat, get out of bed, go to work, or otherwise function months after the event—you can offer to help connect them with some professional resources like a therapist or support group, Dr. Nelson says. (Even if they are currently receiving mental health treatment, if it doesn’t seem effective, you may be able to help them find a better option.)

This is also a good idea if you begin to feel overwhelmed with the level of support they need from you. “Sometimes it’s really hard to hear these stories,” Dr. Nelson says, “and it’s important to have the proper tools to metabolize it.” Friends and family of survivors can even experience secondary trauma, according to SAMHSA. It’s OK to be mindful of your limits and communicate those needs in a compassionate way.

In that situation, Dr. Nelson suggests saying something like, “What you’re telling me sounds like it really deserves the appropriate level of support, and it may be more than I know what to do with. I would love to know you’re with somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Can we hit pause and work on finding you that help?”

9. Be patient.

The aftermath of trauma is complex, evolving, and inscrutable at times—not just to outsiders, but also to the people who are in it. “Trauma generally is an experience of something that is so chaotic that our brains really struggle to … make meaning out of what has happened,” Marshall Woods explains.

Be prepared for emotions to be intense and fluctuating, Dr. Nelson says. Also keep in mind that your loved one may struggle to understand why they are feeling the way they are, or to even know what it is they’re feeling. This was Manya’s experience in the first few months after the bombing, before she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “At the time, ‘I was thinking I should be better, I shouldn’t feel like this,’” she says.

You can’t speed up the recovery process for your loved one, but you can remain a steady, patient, and adaptable source of love throughout. “It can be a rollercoaster,” says Manya. “But people should understand it’s normal to feel this way and that they can heal.”

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Here’s How Emergency Contraception Actually Works

There are plenty of reasons why you might be in need of emergency contraception, but they basically all come down to one main goal: preventing an unintended pregnancy. What’s less clear, however, is how emergency contraception actually works to prevent that pregnancy.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to realize that there are a few different options for emergency contraception. When you think about the morning-after pill you’re typically talking about two different methods: a pill with levonorgestrel (like Plan B One-Step) or a pill with ulipristal acetate (ella). But there’s also a third option for emergency contraception that’s not exactly available at your pharmacy: the copper IUD.

Now, let’s get into how each one works to prevent an unintended pregnancy.

This is how levonorgestrel-based emergency contraception works.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the most commonly used emergency contraception in the United States is levonorgestrel, a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone. You probably know this by the brand name Plan B, though it’s technically called Plan B One-Step as it’s just one pill (as opposed to the original version of Plan B that included two pills taken 12 hours apart). Plan B One-Step and its generics are made up of a single pill containing the full 1.5-milligram dose. Levonorgestrel is available over the counter without age restrictions, according to ACOG, and is advised for use up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

Interestingly, levonorgestrel is the same ingredient that’s in a few other methods of birth control, like certain birth control pills and the hormonal IUD. The difference, of course, is the dose.

This medication works by delaying or preventing ovulation. So, let’s say you have sex on Saturday and you have no idea if or when you’re ovulating, but you do know that you don’t want to risk an unintended pregnancy. If you ovulate around the time that you had sex, your body will release an egg, and that egg might get fertilized by the sperm that’s hanging out in your body from the sex. But what if you could delay ovulation so that there’s no egg around for the sperm to fertilize?

That’s where levonorgestrel emergency contraception comes in—if it can delay ovulation for long enough, any sperm in your system will die before there is an egg available to be fertilized, Holly Bullock, M.D., M.P.H., an ob/gyn and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and fellow for Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells SELF.

Levonorgestrel appears to make this happen by mimicking the increased levels of progesterone that normally occur in the days after ovulation. This effectively tells your brain to decrease its production of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which is responsible for developing a follicle to release an egg in ovulation. This also prevents an increase in luteinizing hormone (LH), which typically surges around day 14 of your menstrual cycle to cause ovulation. Without sufficient levels of these hormones, your body doesn’t get the message to release an egg when it usually would.

Worth noting: Some research shows that levonorgestrel may be less effective for people with high BMIs. However, the FDA has maintained that there is not enough research to require a change in how the drug is labeled or prescribed in the United States. Also, as previously reported in an in-depth SELF article on the subject, “less effective” doesn’t necessarily mean “not effective.”

The most crucial factor when it comes to effectiveness is how soon you take levonorgestrel after sex. Despite the nickname “the morning-after pill,” you should take levonorgestrel as soon as possible after unprotected sex. “Hormonal methods are more effective the sooner they are administered,” Tina Raine-Bennett, M.D., M.P.H., an ob/gyn and senior research scientist at Kaiser Permanente department of obstetrics and gynecology and division of research, tells SELF. That way, if the hormonal changes that induce ovulation are impending, the levonorgestrel has more time to stop them before an egg is released.

Since the timing of ovulation is so important here, levonorgestrel is less effective in cases where that LH surge has already begun. At that point, the release of an egg is imminent, which increases the odds of pregnancy. “If people could know exactly when they ovulate each month, it would be much easier to determine if emergency contraception is needed,” Wing Kay Fok, M.D., M.S., clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University, tells SELF. “But since most people’s menstrual cycles are not perfectly regular, we recommend emergency contraception after any unprotected sex, and as soon as possible.” And, because levonorgestrel just works to prevent or delay ovulation, it won’t do anything to stop an existing pregnancy.

When you do take levonorgestrel, you may experience side effects such as irregular bleeding, abdominal discomfort, fatigue, headache, nausea, and vomiting. “These side effects are generally mild and go away on their own,” Kelly Cleland, M.P.H., a research specialist at Princeton University, coordinator of the American Society for Emergency Contraception, and consulting associate at the reproductive health advocacy organization Gynuity, tells SELF. However, if you vomit within two hours of taking levonorgestrel, you may need to take another dose. Call your health care provider to ask their opinion.

This is how ulipristal acetate works to prevent pregnancy.

The other main type of morning-after pill is ulipristal acetate (ella), which is taken as a single 30-milligram pill. It also works by hampering ovulation, but in a different way than levonorgestrel.

The mechanism isn’t entirely understood, but it appears that ulipristal acetate modifies progesterone receptors in the follicle that surrounds the developing egg in the ovary, ultimately barring the release of the egg into the fallopian tubes, meaning ovulation is delayed or prevented.

Ulipristal acetate is designed to be taken within 120 hours (five days) of unprotected sex. Unlike levonorgestrel, its efficacy does not decrease significantly over that time period. “Ulipristal acetate … continues to delay follicular rupture closer to the time of ovulation,” Dr. Raine-Bennett explains.
Its apparent mechanism (preventing the rupture of a follicle containing a mature egg) is capable of working even after LH has begun to rise, so it can be effective closer to the time of ovulation than levonorgestrel.

The most common side effects of ulipristal acetate are generally the same as levonorgestrel, including headache, stomach pain, wonky bleeding, and nausea. Vomiting within three hours of taking ulipristal acetate warrants a call to the doctor for the next steps.

One really important thing to know here: It can be harder to get your hands on ulipristal acetate than on levonorgestrel. Firstly, you need a prescription. “There’s really no good medical reason,” Dr. Fok says. “The best explanation is that ulipristal acetate is newer to the market.” (The FDA approved levonorgestrel as emergency contraception in 1999 and ulipristal acetate in 2010.) Another issue is that health care providers are often less familiar with ulipristal acetate than with levonorgestrel, Cleland says. If you are specifically in need of ulipristal acetate (like if it’s been four days since unprotected sex), Dr. Bullock recommends trying a resource like Planned Parenthood.

This is how the copper IUD works to prevent pregnancy.

Finally, we can’t talk about emergency contraception without discussing the copper intrauterine device (IUD). The copper IUD is a small, plastic, T-shaped tool with copper looped around the outside, which is inserted into the uterus. This is not a DIY deal; to get a copper IUD as an emergency contraceptive, you’ll need to make an appointment to have a medical provider do the insertion.

You probably know that the copper IUD can give you pregnancy prevention for up to 10 years, but it can also be used as emergency contraception if it’s inserted within five days of having unprotected sex. Weight also doesn’t impact its efficacy, Dr. Bullock adds.

The copper IUD is just as effective at preventing pregnancy on the fifth day as it is on the first. Instead of using temporary hormones to prevent or delay ovulation, the copper IUD creates a long-term toxic effect in the uterus that physically damages sperm’s ability to work properly. “The IUD releases copper ions which impair sperm function … to prevent fertilization and may also prevent implantation,” Dr. Fok explains. However, copper IUDs do not disrupt implantation of a fertilized egg that has already occurred, according to ACOG. In the medical field, implantation of a fertilized egg is viewed as the starting point of pregnancy, ACOG explains. If the copper IUD could affect implantation that had already occurred, it would be categorized as an abortion method, but it’s not.

The main points of consideration for a copper IUD are the price, insertion process, and side effects. Depending on your insurance, a copper IUD can be more than $1,000. (Ulipristal acetate and brand-name levonorgestrel both cost around $40-$50; generic levonorgestrel or the brand-name version with a prescription may be cheaper.) IUD insertion can also be quite painful for some people, and you might experience heavier periods and more intense cramps for at least the first three to six months, Dr. Bullock says.

However, Dr. Bullock adds that one of the great benefits of the copper IUD is that it offers long-term contraception, as it is recommended for up to 10 years. If you do want to get pregnant, you can get the IUD removed and quickly return to your age-dependent level of fertility.

A few final notes on emergency contraception:

“Emergency contraceptive pills are not as effective as ongoing contraceptive methods,” Cleland says. “If emergency contraception is the sole method [of birth control] for someone who has sex frequently, the pregnancy risk may be relatively high.”

That’s because the success of emergency contraceptive pills is so dependent on one instance of delaying or preventing ovulation. In contrast, the various mechanisms involved in long-term contraception are designed to make your body less hospitable to pregnancy in a continuous, less fallible way. Birth control may do this with estrogen to (much more reliably) suppress ovulation. There’s also progestin-only birth control to thin your uterine lining so it’s harder for a fertilized egg to implant, along with thickening your cervical mucus so sperm have a harder time moving. Some modes of birth control have both estrogen and progestin, making use of all of these mechanisms. In any case, long-term birth control is a much more effective way to avoid pregnancy than simply relying on emergency contraception.

Also remember that aside from the copper IUD, these methods work after unprotected sex, not before it. “Oral emergency contraception only works to prevent pregnancy from an act of intercourse that already happened,” Dr. Fok says. “If you have sex after taking oral emergency contraception, you are still at risk of getting pregnant.” It’s also worth noting, she says, that none of these methods protect against sexually transmitted infections.

But, listen, things happen. And, fortunately, emergency contraception exists for those moments. With a better understanding of how emergency contraception actually works, you can make an informed choice that works for your body and your life.
Related:

Gender parity: Not a foregone conclusion in all fields

Women constitute approximately 47 percent of the workforce yet they are still underrepresented at the highest levels of business, government, medical and academic hierarchies.

Many explanations have been proposed to explain this so-called leaky pipeline effect including family responsibilities, biological differences and unconscious bias in the workplace.

A team of researchers led by Sara Clifton from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has developed a new mathematical model to study the ascension of women through professional hierarchies, described in the journal Chaos, from AIP Publishing. The model factors in the relative roles of bias and homophily (the tendency of people to seek others similar to themselves) in various fields. Unlike prior work, their new model predicts that gender parity is not inevitable and deliberate intervention may be required in various fields to achieve gender balance.

To validate the model, the team analyzed a new database of gender fractionation over time for 16 professional hierarchies. They quantified the impact of two major decision-makers as people ascend through hierarchies: those applying for promotion and those who grant promotions. Earlier studies have looked at how gender bias can affect those who grant promotions. “But few prior models have considered that people do self-segregate by gender,” said Clifton. “If I am applying to a job and the interviewing committee has no women, I might feel uncomfortable and look for another organization that’s more balanced.”

The researchers found that fields with particularly strong homophily such as engineering or nursing are expected to become male- or female-dominated. Fields with apparently strong bias against women, such as academic chemistry, math or computer science, may never reach gender parity at the highest levels of leadership without outside intervention.

“One of the major surprises,” said Clifton, “were the fields where gender bias and people’s homophilic instincts don’t have a big effect such as medicine and law. We predict they will move towards parity about as fast as turnover will allow.”

These findings could help target resources to these fields where gender parity is not inevitable. “If you can identify what the main bottlenecks are, you can target those bottlenecks to reach gender parity,” said Clifton.

For instance, in fields with a strong bias against women, hiring committees could be trained in unconscious bias, or policies could mandate that the number of promotions offered to women match the applicant pool. For fields with strong homophily, hiring committees could actively recruit women to apply for promotion or make the underrepresented gender more visible within the field.

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Materials provided by American Institute of Physics. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Face-to-face workshops increase household preparedness for disaster

Face-to-face workshops based on the psychology of behaviour change and disaster preparedness can be used to prompt households to take action to protect themselves against disasters such as earthquakes, fires and floods, a new UCL-led study has found.

The study, published today in Nature Human Behaviour, found that by engaging households in evidence-based, face-to-face workshops, researchers could engineer change in householders’ natural disaster preparedness that would last long term, potentially saving lives.

Although vulnerability to natural disasters is increasing globally, even in high-risk regions few households have measures in place to protect and prepare themselves. Ill-preparedness tends to lead to larger post-disaster losses and greater loss of life, injury and displacement.

“There is evidence that even small measures can save countless lives,” says Professor Helene Joffe (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences), leader of the study.

“Being prepared for multiple hazards makes households more resilient, especially given that hazards can occur simultaneously or in rapid sequence, such as the recent cyclones followed by floods in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.”

UCL researchers and their local counterparts ran workshops to empower people to make small household adjustments to prepare for disasters, such as securing TVs, computers and cabinets to the walls and ensuring objects are not placed above beds regarding protection from earthquakes. They also showed the importance of keeping exits clear of obstruction and having functioning smoke detectors and in-date fire extinguishers, regarding fire protection.

The workshops were comprised of two three-hour training sessions, after which the researchers observed whether households had adopted disaster preparedness behaviours. Half of the households in the sample were given the training, and half were not.

“We found that behavioural changes were most likely where there was home ownership and high outcome expectancy — that is, when individuals had a sense of agency and believed their actions would have an effect, they were more likely to make changes,” says Professor Joffe.

“An unintended consequence of the study was that even the control group — which did not receive training — improved its preparedness behaviour. This suggests that when risk-related behaviours are simply being observed, householders will change their behaviours to become more prepared.”

Professor Joffe concludes that face-to-face training, or even simply home observations, by external sources such as a fire department, could be a way to ensure that measures are put in place by householders across a population to prepare for natural disasters. The very idea of a disaster being ‘natural’ obscures how much humans can do to protect themselves from such events.

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Materials provided by University College London. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Brain growth inhibited by heavy alcohol use

Heavy use of alcohol among adolescents and young adults is not only dangerous in its own right, but new research in nonhuman primates shows that it can actually slow the rate of growth in developing brains.

The study, published today in the journal eNeuro, shows that heavy alcohol use reduced the rate of brain growth by 0.25 milliliters per year for every gram of alcohol consumed per kilogram of body weight. In human terms, that’s the equivalent of four beers per day. The research involved rhesus macaque monkeys at the Oregon National Primate Research Center.

“Chronic alcohol self-intoxication reduced the growth rate of brain, cerebral white matter and subcortical thalamus,” the researchers write.

Researchers measured brain growth through magnetic resonance imaging of 71 rhesus macaques that voluntarily consumed ethanol or beverage alcohol. Scientists precisely measured intake, diet, daily schedules and health care, thus ruling out other factors that tend to confound results in observational studies involving people. The findings in the study help validate previous research examining the effect of alcohol use on brain development in people.

“Human studies are based on self-reporting of underage drinkers,” said co-author Christopher Kroenke, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the primate center. “Our measures pinpoint alcohol drinking with the impaired brain growth.”

The new study is the first to characterize normal brain growth of 1 milliliter per 1.87 years in rhesus macaques in late adolescence and early adulthood. And it further reveals a decrease in the volume of distinct brain areas due to voluntary consumption of ethanol.

Lead author Tatiana Shnitko, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the primate center, said previous research has shown the brain has a capacity to recover at least in part following the cessation of alcohol intake. However, it’s not clear whether there would be long-term effects on mental functions as the adolescent and young adult brain ends its growth phase. The next stage of research will explore that question.

“This is the age range when the brain is being fine-tuned to fit adult responsibilities,” Shnitko said. “The question is, does alcohol exposure during this age range alter the lifetime learning ability of individuals?”

This study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (U01 AA013510, P60 AA013510 and U24 AA025473.

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Materials provided by Oregon Health & Science University. Original written by Erik Robinson. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Be the change you want to see in the world

Individuals have as big a role to play in tackling climate change as major corporations but only if they can be encouraged to make significant lifestyle changes by effective government policy, a major new European study co-authored by a University of Sussex academic has found.

The study notes that voluntary lifestyle choices by well-meaning individuals would only achieve around half the required emission reductions needed to hit the 1.5 C Paris Agreement goal. But the authors suggest that Paris targets could be achieved if voluntary choices were combined with policies that target behavioural change, particularly around eating meat and using fewer cars and airplanes.

The study’s authors say the international climate policy debate has so far focused mainly on technology and economic incentives, relegating behaviour change to a voluntary add-on. This is despite the fact behavioural change has the potential for far greater emission reductions than the political pledges made under the Paris Accord.

The study, written by academics from 11 institutions including the University of Sussex, investigated the preferences for reducing household emissions, responsible for about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It involved hundreds of families in four European cities using a specially-designed simulation tool to indicate carbon and money savings from 65 lifestyle choices combined with in-depth surveys with household members.

It found public support for policy initiatives that encouraged more sustainable practices around food production but resistance to initiatives that restricted personal mobility and transport options. The study also found that ironically the areas where greatest lifestyle changes were required and the largest carbon footprints produced, such as aviation and changes to diet, had received the lowest policy attention to date.

Lead author Ghislain Dubois, founder of the TEC Conseil in France, said: “Our research proves that if supported by adequate policies, households can have a decisive contribution to the Paris agreement objectives. This is largely ignored by current climate policies and negotiations, which rely only on macro-economics and technology. We should dare envisaging and doing research on taboos like consumption reduction or sobriety. When you consider the impacts on CO2 emissions, but also on households’ budgets and the potential co-benefits, it is worth it.”

Professor Benjamin Sovacool, second author of the study and Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex, added: “Our study underscores the contradictions we all have in balancing climate change with other priorities. We want to fight climate change, but stick to eating meat and driving our cars. There are certain changes we can make voluntarily but beyond that we need policy to step in.”

The study, published in the upcoming June edition of Energy Research and Social Science, found that the greater the potential actions have to reduce emissions, the less households were willing to implement them. In these areas “forced” solutions such as a considerably higher carbon tax on fuel and regulations encouraging food producers to reduce packaging or increase local and organic farming in addition to voluntary measures will be needed, the academics warn.

Carlo Aall, co-author of the study from the Western Norway Research Institute, said: “There is political room for taking a tougher stand on supporting economically and regulating household consumption to become more climate friendly. Meat consumption and long air trips in particular need to be addressed.”

Alina Herrmann, co-author from the Heidelberg Institute for Global Health said: “Strikingly, people were very open to climate friendly solutions in the food and recycling sector. We have found strong support for less packaged food, more sustainable food production and moderate reduction of meat consumption in our study population. Many participants even wished for external support to make such sustainable choices easier for them.”

However, in areas such as mobility, the authors recommend limiting the availability of greenhouse gas-intensive consumption through regulative instruments such bans, restrictions or increased taxes; balanced with making low-carbon alternatives more readily available.

Dr Hermann added: “Changing mobility behaviour was seen as incredibly difficult. To gain acceptance for reduced mobility as part of societal transformation in the face of climate change, and entirely new public discourse would be needed.”

Responses from the study revealed household carbon footprints are not static but can fluctuate significantly with major life events such as having children, experiencing illness or retiring.

The authors recommend that targeted interventions at these milestones could be highly effective in bringing about long-lasting change and suggested that intermediaries at these milestones, such as estate agents, car sales staff and retirement planners, could all play a much more active role in identifying carbon-reducing options.

New ‘blue-green’ solution for recycling world’s batteries

Rice University researchers literally have a solution to deal with the glut of used lithium-ion batteries left behind by the ever-increasing demand for electric vehicles, cellphones and other electronic devices.

The Rice lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan used an environmentally friendly deep eutectic solvent to extract valuable elements from the metal oxides commonly used as cathodes in lithium-ion batteries. The goal, researchers said, is to curtail the use of harsh processes to recycle batteries and keep them out of landfills.

The solvent, made of commodity products choline chloride and ethylene glycol, extracted more than 90 percent of cobalt from powdered compounds, and a smaller but still significant amount from used batteries.

“Rechargeable battery waste, particularly from lithium-ion batteries, will become an increasingly menacing environmental challenge in the future as the demand for these through their usage in electric vehicles and other gadgets increases dramatically,” Ajayan said.

“It’s important to recover strategic metals like cobalt that are limited in supply and are critical for the performance of these energy-storage devices,” he said. “Something to learn from our present situation with plastics is that it is the right time to have a comprehensive strategy for recycling the growing volume of battery waste.”

The results appear in Nature Energy.

“This has been attempted before with acids,” said Rice graduate student and lead author Kimmai Tran. “They’re effective, but they’re corrosive and not eco-friendly. As a whole, recycling lithium-ion batteries is typically expensive and a risk to workers.”

Other processes also have drawbacks, she said. Pyrometallurgy involves crushing and mixing at extreme temperatures, and the harmful fumes require scrubbing. Hydrometallurgy requires caustic chemicals, while other “green” solvents that extract metal ions often require additional agents or high-temperature processes to fully capture them.

“The nice thing about this deep eutectic solvent is that it can dissolve a wide variety of metal oxides,” Tran said. “It’s literally made of a chicken feed additive and a common plastic precursor that, when mixed together at room temperature, form a clear, relatively nontoxic solution that has effective solvating properties.”

A deep eutectic solvent is a mixture of two or more compounds that freezes at temperatures much lower than each of its precursors. In that way, she said, one can literally obtain a liquid from a simple combination of solids.

“The large depression of freezing and melting points is due to the hydrogen bonds formed between the different chemicals,” Tran said. “By selecting the right precursors, inexpensive ‘green’ solvents with interesting properties can be fabricated.”

When Tran joined, the Rice group was already testing a eutectic solution as an electrolyte in next-generation high-temperature supercapacitors.

“We tried to use it in metal oxide supercapacitors, and it was dissolving them,” said Rice research scientist and co-corresponding author Babu Ganguli. “The color of the solution would change.”

The eutectic was pulling ions from the supercapacitor’s nickel.

“Our team was discussing this and we soon realized we could use what was thought to be a disadvantage for electrolyte as an advantage for dissolving and recycling spent lithium batteries,” Ganguli said.

That became Tran’s focus, as she tested deep eutectic solvents on metal oxides at different temperatures and time scales. During tests with lithium cobalt oxide powder, the clear solvent yielded a wide spectrum of blue-green colors that indicated the presence of cobalt dissolved within.

At 180 degrees Celsius (356 degrees Fahrenheit), the solvent extracted nearly 90 percent of lithium ions, and up to 99 percent of cobalt ions from the powder when certain conditions were satisfied.

The researchers built small prototype batteries and cycled them 300 times before exposing the electrodes to the same conditions. The solvent proved adept at dissolving the cobalt and lithium while separating the metal oxides from the other compounds present in the electrode.

They found that cobalt could be recovered from the eutectic solution through precipitation or even electroplating to a steel mesh, as this latter method potentially allowed for the deep eutectic solvent itself to be reused.

“We focused on cobalt,” said Rice alumnus Marco Rodrigues, now a postdoctoral researcher at Argonne National Laboratory. “From a resource standpoint, it’s the most critical part. The battery in your phone will surely have lots of it. Lithium is very valuable too, but cobalt in particular is not only environmentally scarce but also, from a social standpoint, hard to get.”

He noted the Department of Energy is mounting new efforts to advance battery recycling technologies and recently announced a center for Li-ion battery recycling.

The path forward will require continued efforts.

“It’s likely we won’t be able to recycle and replace mining completely,” Tran said. “These technologies are relatively new, and there is a lot of optimization that needs to be done, such as exploring other deep eutectic solvents, but we truly believe in the potential for greener ways to do dirty chemistry. Sustainability is in the heart of the work I do and what I want to do for the rest of my career.”