"Vanity, Vitality and Virility: The Chemistry Behind the Products You Love to Buy" (Oxford University Press, $28) is a sort of "why things are" look at the chemical mechanisms underlying a range of popular consumer products, with a particular focus on those designed to enhance our appearance, vigor and sex lives.


John Emsley is a British chemist who enjoyed a lengthy career as a researcher and lecturer at London University before launching a second career as a writer of popular science books such as "Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements" and "Molecules at an Exhibition, Was It Something You Ate?"


Emsley clearly loves his subject, and writes in a lively style that enhances the fascinating tales he tells, like how castor oil -- the object of great disdain in another form -- became an essential ingredient in lipstick, or how Viagra's future may include being sold in the form of chewing gum.


In the interest of reader friendliness, Emsley largely steers clear of technical terminology except in places where he deems it unavoidable or where it serves his "ulterior motive": re-familiarizing general readers with chemical formulae beyond those for water, salt and carbon dioxide.


Emsley's mission, thinly disguised throughout, is fully revealed in the postscript, "Chemophobia, its Causes and Cure." In it, he aims to rehabilitate the image of chemistry and chemists, who he says ranked with used car salesmen in a recent U.K. survey of public opinion survey of most trustworthy occupations.