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The Chemistry of Shea Butter.

July 13, 2016

Ok so after writing the back story of Shea Butter yesterday, today I thought I’d focus on its chemistry and particularly to the bit that is said to give Shea its  sun protection qualities. So, here we go!

Shea Butter Chemistry


Shea Butter.

Butters by definition melt at somewhere around 40C and in Shea Butter, the chemical that help keep what would otherwise be an oil buttery is Stearic acid.

Stearic Acid has a melting point of 69.3C,  it is a fatty acid and as such is oil soluble and has no pH.

The Stearic Acid content of Shea Butter naturally ranges from 26-48% depending on growing conditions, climate and botanical variant. In some parts of Africa the shea butter is more liquid than others due to lower levels of stearic.  This is important as while stearic acid is essential for forming the structure of shea butter and its butteriness it isn’t such a big deal biologically or in terms of the products moisturising capacity.


The gritty bits that develop in Shea butter products over time are due to the stearic acid beading together. They tend to do this in reaction to both the effects of gravity and of time.  The more variable the storage temperature, the more likely the product will become gritty.  The lower the viscosity and yield value of the formula, the more it is affected by gravitational forces.

As an aside  I’ve just made a low viscosity water-in-oil moisturiser with shea and after standing for a week it too has developed this grittiness so I’ll need to address that!  The gritty bits rub-in very easily but look unsightly. They are an issue in this formula because the oil phase predominates (it is the external phase) and is therefore more mobile than it otherwise would be. Also there is a lot of shea in this formula.

Bottom shea cream with gritty bits

As another aside,  you can reduce the likelihood of shea butter becoming gritty by tempering it.  I carried out a range of experiments a few years ago and found that heating shea to 80-90C and then flash freezing it was best for reducing the potential for grit formation as it acted to smash the stearic beads up so small that it was energetically unfavourable for them to form beads again.  As that isn’t practical for large-scale manufacturing I also tried a homogenise while cooling method which worked very well too. So heat to 80-90C then homogenise until it reaches around 45C, just before it starts to set, then cool it quickly but not necessarily by freezing it.

Some of my results can be seen here. This is when I was experimenting with different heat-and-hold times. I found it didn’t make much difference how long you held it at high temperature for, what mattered most was how it cooled as you can see from the grittiness in the room temperature samples.

tempering shea butter


Like any fatty product Shea butter will go rancid over time as the fatty acids react with oxygen in the air or impurities in the butter and break down.  That said Shea Butter is pretty robust, its biggest problem is that in being a solid (rather than an oil), it is often stored in packaging that allows oxygen to get onto many of its sides – in a bucket for example.  So shea butter suffers for its high surface area possibly more than it suffers from its chemistry.

Shea Butter is actually quite robust chemically because it is almost entirely devoid of polyunsaturated fats (unlike oils such as Rosehip or Evening Primrose).  In fact the majority of its fats are triglycerides of C16:0 (palmitic) with only a few C18:1 (Oleic)  and a small amount of C18:2  (linoleic or Linolenic depending on bonding).   The butters relative stability is confirmed by its subsequent low Vitamin E content – plants make the vitamin E to protect their oil and they will only make as much as they need.

On the point of rancidity I will say that the shea butter does contain a very high level of oleic acid bound as part of a triglyceride. The rancid smell that develops in a fat or oil usually stems from the breakdown of Oleic Acid and Oleic is usually the first thing to break down because it has two double bonds – easy sites of access for oxygen attack (free radical).  However, the smell of Shea is not just down to Oleic Acid. A study carried out in 2009 (Volatile compounds of shea butter samples made under different production conditions in western, central and eastern Africa. Bail, Stefanie; Krist, Sabine; Masters, Eliot; Unterweger, Heidrun; Buchbauer, Gerhard. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, Vol 22 (7) – Nov 1, 2009)  found a good fifty or more aromatic compounds in Shea butter including some that might have got their during processing – tobacco notes, metallic notes, earthy, mouldy, balsamic, mossy, waxy etc.

Vitamin E.

Shea butter typically contains around 100ppm Vitamin E and the vast majority of that is in the alpha form (which is biologically active), by comparison Rosehip oil can contain around 1000ppm – 10 times more.

Another thing that I’ve found interesting in my reading is the heat stability of the vitamin E in the butter.  While shea butter may be cold-pressed, pre-processing of the kernels is anything but!  The kernels are usually boiled up to soften them before being laid out either in the sun or in a dryer to dry out  before extraction.  The heat treatment has been found to reduce the level of vitamin E slightly but not enough for it to be a real problem.  So if you are wondering if your vitamin E content in the shea buter will deminish if you heat it then I’d say probably not!

Unsaponifiables – Sun Protection Factor.

It is this bit of Shea Butter that makes it more tricky for soapers to use but that also makes it insanely interesting for Cosmetic Chemists as it is within this portion that we find our anti-inflammatories!

Most other oils and butters have a unsaponifiable content of less than 1%,  Shea Butter has up to 11%.   This fraction contains the prized and much talked about Cinnamic Acid Esters, the stuff that is supposed to give Shea Butter its SPF.  Well let’s talk about that now….

So the cinnamic acid esters are part of a family of chemicals called Triterpenes and these make up around 65% of the total unsaponifiable content.  So to put that more simply somewhere between 1.3- 7.5% of the Shea Butter is this.

There are a handful of different triterpenes to investigate but of those, the Lupeol Acetate and Amyrin Cinnamate seem to have the highest potential to act as anti-inflammatories in and on humans.

An interesting paper on this is here (Anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive effects of triterpene cinnamates and acetates from shea fat. Toshihiro Akihisa, Nobuo Kojima, Takashi Kikuchi, Ken Yasukawa, Harukuni Tokuda, Eliot T Masters, Aranya Manosroi, Jiradej Manosroi)

These chemicals are also pretty robust in terms of their heat stability so I wouldn’t worry about damaging them by heating your shea butter when making your product.

These chemicals work by reducing inflammation which is quite possibly where the SPF stories have come from.  Using anti-inflammatories as sunscreens might seem like a good idea and indeed it is quite a convenient idea (you are likely to look less red and feel less irritated) but is it actually a smart plan?  Well I’d use the analogy here of the anti-histamine and hay fever.  An anti-histamine won’t cure your hay fever but it will take the edge off (or stop) your over-reaction to what is otherwise a harmless natural stimuli.   So people don’t generally get cancer from hay fever although being a fellow sufferer I do understand how disabling hay fever can be and I’m sure it isn’t harmless.  However,  we do know that too much sun IS harmful and that our body alerts us to those signs by turning the skin pink then red,  having it feel prickly, itchy or sore and burned.   If we use anti-inflammatories to by-pass our natural warning mechanisms are we really doing ourselves any favours given that we are still exposing ourselves to a carcinogen?   I’d logically sum this up in the same way that I’ve summed this sort of thing up before by saying that the job of anti-inflammatories is to clean up damage from any source and not to prevent it. Oh and before I get people writing in telling me that sun is good I am aware of that. The skin tells us when we have had enough, we ignore our skin at our peril.

As for the sterols (which include cholesterol, ceramides and squalane) well these are likely to help with moisture retention and barrier functioning if anything.  It is highly unlikely that the <1% of sterols in shea butter would be able to penetrate through the skin and raise blood cholesterol levels so any benefit would be entirely limited to the skin barrier.

In Summary.

While I was aware of the basic chemistry of Shea Butter before writing and researching this I hadn’t gone into any detail and had grown to regard Shea as simply another butter. However, that is simply not the case.  The anti-inflammatory potential of Shea is remarkable as is its relative stability and because of that I think I’ll start valuing it a little more highly than before.

Just one last thing, I have seen a number of websites trying to promote their Shea as a higher quality, containing vitamin A,  being more potent etc.  This ALWAYS happens with ingredients, people trying to push their product over another but in my experience they do this often without any real data to back it up.  What I will say is that in my reading (and I’ve read at least 20 papers in order to write this) I didn’t find one mentioning that vitamin A was present in Shea Butter,  all I found was one study (the cinnamate one) that used vitamin A as a control substance from which to validate their results on.   I would also urge you all to question (politely) any seller that promotes their product as superior in terms of quality to ‘the rest of the market’ and ask them for some data to support that as data is available and all of what I’ve mentioned above can be tested.  If a supplier can’t give you an in-depth chemical analysis of their product that doesn’t mean they are trying to con you, it probably just means they don’t have the data which is fine but then they can’t bang on about how much better than the others their product is.  See what I’m saying?

In a (shea) nut shell, Shea is good.

Go get some on you

Amanda x

Shea Butter, Women’s Gold

July 12, 2016

Shea butter, a cosmetic industry staple that many of us have come to rely on for its rich, creamy texture and skin-kind chemistry. But how often do we think about the story behind the ingredient, the treasure and wisdom that lies beneath Shea Butters glossy, rich veneer?

Shea Tree

The Shea Butter journey begins in Sub Saharan Africa, spanning 21 countries,  4 million square kilometres of land and some 2 billion trees. It has been said  the Shea Tree can live for over two hundred years producing its first batch of oil-rich fruit sometime after its fifth birthday. The trees reach their maximum productive capacity after around 50 years at which point the average  yield is between 15-20Kg of fresh fruit per tree, per year.  Once processed this fruit translates into around 1.5Kg of butter per tree giving us a total market of around 600,000 tonnes of butter per year. 

Shea Nuts

 Fruit collection is traditional women’s business and estimates give the number of women involved as somewhere in the region of 16 million.  Harvesting is carried out in the rainy season from May to September when the ripe fruits fall to the ground with the best quality fruit collected within a week of it falling.  The fruit is then (mostly) dried by the women (some women are too poor to participate in this step and sell collected fruits straight away) before being further processed into butter.

shea butter process

Of all the Shea Butter produced only around 10-15% is destined for the Cosmetic Industry with the bulk of the rest used either domestically or sold to the global food market.  Of the cosmetics portion only 1/10th of that is what we would classify as ‘hand crafted’ again by local women who by this stage are often working via organised co-operatives and that is where I want to take this story next.

I often sit here, in my Blue Mountains home and try to imagine myself walking in the steps of the people whose ‘hand crafted’ rustic and fair trade goods I wish to procure.  Are they happy?  Is it really fair out there?  I wonder.  I also wonder if my industries insatiable appetite for this particular type of natural moral high ground is actually helping or hindering things on the ground.   The Shea Tree is wild grown, not farmed. I wonder about the pressures on the tree, the pressure to keep up with the demands of a market,  the pressure for land, for water for progress?  I wonder if these women we hold up, that we disconnectedly pay to support are feeling supported and empowered after all?  And as I wonder I hope that my shea butter is more than just ‘cosmetic’……..

Shea fruit collection has long been the work of women, long before it was a trendy or marketable concept sell.  I’m not trying to be overly cynical here, more that I wish for us all to take a step back and contemplate these things more deeply. That’s all.  But the picking up of the fruit from the ground is only the first step of many and while important,  it is not the money-making step.  It has become obvious to those on the ground in Shea processing regions that the winds of change have been blowing and that women have not been invited into that conversation.

As far as the cosmetic industry is concerned we have brands such as L’Occitane and the Body Shop to thank for drawing our attention to the hand-crafted segment of this fascinating market.  Back in the 1980’s when the afore-mentioned brands first ventured into the Shea processing world  butter production was very much a cottage industry producing butter of varying quality and availability.  These issues seemed minor to the Body Shop who could see a large opportunity in selling this ‘global adventurer’ type procurement policy to a world of hungry and adventurous consumers.  The door was opened and we all rushed in.   Not that any of this was inherently bad of course,  the demand for product increased and local women who were able, jumped at the opportunity to increase their earnings as anybody would.  But there was and still is another side to this story.

In 2015 a paper entitled ‘The Evolution of Shea Butter’s “Paradox of paradoxa” ‘ was written by the Centre for African Studies et al.  This paper highlighted the fact that while Shea Butter is often sold on the back of it being ‘Women’s Gold’ the women involved have often been locked out of the global market through a lack of representation, education and information.

While the global demand for Shea Butter has grown, the role for women has become more marginal and segmented.  Africa is no different to anywhere else in the world when it comes to globalisation and ‘progress’ and land pressures, increasing populations and urbanisation have all contributed to adding pressure and focus on the Shea Butter industry. In some places Shea Butter production has become one of only a handful of viable income streams which has also led to more men taking on the role of fruit collection and where men step in, women have often been the first to lose out.

In addition, as the market for cosmetic grade Shea butter has developed so have industry quality requirements and this knowledge has typically not been passed down the chain to the women participating in the first, crucial steps.  Like all natural products, the quality of Shea Fruit varies depending on how it has been handled and processed.  Fruit spoils and rots when it becomes damp and that can impact on butter quality, as can some traditional drying processes, especially when the fruit is heated too much or cooked for too long.   While many of the larger companies have, over the last thirty or so years invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in researching optimal processing methods for the butter, this knowledge has all too often failed to be passed on to the women, denying them the opportunity to participate in the development of an industry that they are the practical and aspirational heart of.  Ironically, this failure to engage has also helped to fuel the case for large multinationals to come in and take over the processing as ‘locals just can’t produce the quality we need’.  A self-perpetuated breakdown if you ask me!

Another point raised in the sustainability report was in regards to protecting and sustaining the Shea Nut Tree and its habitat, especially in light of the fact that for at least the last twenty years the Shea Tree has been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCR) .  Again, much work has gone into researching how best to propagate new trees – either from seeds or from grafting of superior varieties,  how to protect saplings,  improve the soil and prevent over-felling – Shea Trees are also prized for their wood but once again, the people with the most to lose from failures in this regard are the last to be brought into the conversation and sadly, it is the women stand to lose the hardest.

So is it all bad news?  

Are we indeed being swept away by a romantic notion that we are helping our African sisters by buying Shea when in reality we are just maintaining their poverty for our vanity?

Well yes and no. This report gives a good idea of the status quo. 

Since 2000 fair trade and sustainable sourcing initiatives have stepped up like never before and are now starting to address issues such as those raised above.  While the Fair Trade certification program has, since its inception been focused on a fair deal for farmers the initiative had been plagued by some very real problems and deficits including deficiencies in providing continuous education and development of the industry from the ground up – the system should allow for and encourage progress and evolution rather than see the farmer as always locked in a traditional, subsistence model (not that the Fair Trade certification did that but there is a mindset that exists that perpetuates that).   In more recent times additional certification bodies such as the Union for Ethical BioTrade have sprung up to tackle ethical sourcing and biodiversity protection in addition to workers rights especially in the provision for ‘the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the use of biodiversity’ . This has been particularly helpful in the Shea Butter market as it has placed an emphasis on the sustainable development of the industry as a whole including things like the use of chemical fertilisers,  GMO’s, waste handling, soil quality and erosion while maintaining a focus on education from the ground up so to speak.   So, in summary we now have both Fair Trade type certification bodies that are primarily focused on workers rights with environmental management as second AND Ethical Biotrade certification bodies primarily focused on sustainability and environmental protection with workers rights second.  Together, with both bases covered and with an increased focus on the equitable dissemination of information and education the future for hand-crafted, traditional processing and the women invested in it looks bright!

Shea Butter has, for many of us become one of those essential ‘no brainer’ ingredients we just pop into our balms, butters and creams without much thought.  What this research project has taught me is that we take these ingredients for granted at our peril and that if we do not participate in the conversations around sustainability, fair and equitable trade and the role of women in this quintessentially African product we become part of the problem and I doubt that any of us want that.

Amanda x

PS.  An Aside. 

Those of us who are entrenched in the cosmetic industry know Shea Butter by its INCI name of Butyrospermum parkii but that’s somewhat of a misnomer since the tree was given a new Bionomial name of Vitellaria Paradox a good few years ago. The tree is part of the Sapotacea botanical family, a family that also includes Argania Spinosa (Argan), Synsepalum Dulcificum (Miracle Fruit with a low sugar content that makes sour food such as lemon taste sweet) and Planchonia Careya (Billygoat Plum) native to Australia and renown for its high vitamin C content belong to the same family!  



From Sand To Silicone

July 10, 2016


The above article was brought to my attention this week by a customer that had questioned my response to her and, who most probably felt that I was wrong to dispute this article given that it appeared in an industry focused magazine.

So what and who do we believe?

Well firstly let me say this, not me, well not straight away anyway!  In my initial response to my client I got things only 1/2 right.  Having worked with silicone manufacturers for some years I understood that silicones are anything but natural and immediately interpreted the highlighted sentence as suggesting that silicones were just dug up from sand and as close to nature as you could get.  I let a bit of prejudice get in the way of a decent bit of research for a moment.

So before I go into my investigations I want to remind myself as much as you reading this that ‘belief’ shouldn’t come into this:


If, as a scientist I ‘go’ with my belief system I am acting on what the scientific world calls bias.  This is not at all helpful as bias and belief tends to lead us up to the destination we already knew was right in our head regardless of the proof we find.

As I mentioned,  I reacted strongly to the wording of the article and answered without thinking from first principles.   I offered up a half-baked answer in around 1/2 an hour. This time it has taken me over three hours of reading, thinking and writing.

This is how I should have answered my client all along……

So the first thing I have to do is work out what the article is saying:

‘Manufacturers and consumers often mistakenly believe that silicones are oil-derived petrochemicals, whereas they are actually synthetic products prepared from sand or quartz.’

Before we question what people think it is imperative we work out what we mean when we say ‘silicones’.

In order to fully answer the ‘what is a silicone’ question we need to look at how the first silicone fluids are made and then go from there.  This is something that is relatively easy to do (look up) as the information is in the public domain – see here from Dow Corning.  However, understanding it is another matter entirely.

Silicone fluids – technically known as Polydimethylsiloxanes.

A polymer (lots) made up from silicon, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon.


So how are these silicone fluids made?

If only it was as easy as crushing sand……..

The manufacture of silicone fluids is complex, energy intensive and multi-stepped.  So much so that, even if the starting materials for silicone fluids are natural it is highly unlikely that a silicone fluid could even meet a reasonable definition of a ‘naturally derived’ cosmetic input if indeed that matters.

  1. Methyl Chloride.  Produced in a couple of ways but always by reacting methanol with hydrochloric acid. This could use methanol from vegetable sources as in biofuel production and hydrochloric acid from salt.  All natural but the energy required is tremendous and this type of reaction is typically carried out in huge industrial plants typical of the chemical industry natural cosmetic lovers are wanting to avoid.  A 2004 report from the USA told there were 18 Methanol plants in operation most of which were sourcing their methanol from natural gas with the rest sourcing it from coal.  Basically, all things being equal it is price that drives the choice.
  2. Silicon Metal.  Silicon is an element in its own right and in its pure form is a silvery metallic solid (chemically a metalloid).  Even though Silicon is the eighth most common element on earth it is rarely found in metalloid chunks and instead chooses to bond with other things and form silicates (clays, feldspas, zeolites) or silicas such as quartz – the main component of sand.  So, before we can start making polydimethylsiloxanes (silicones) we have to extract the silicon from sand.  As an example, silicon is extracted from sand here in Australia –at the Western Australian based Simco Operations.   The key step in this process is to break the Si-O bonds in the silica (SiO2), this is done by blasting the silica with a carbon rich furnace.  The carbon is usually from quartz, charcoal, coal, petroleum and wood chip.  This reaction occurs at 1820C.

So from the silicon metal and methyl chloride we can start to build our silicone fluids using a method of synthesis called the ‘Rochow’ process.

The types of silicones coming from this process are the dimethicones, cyclomethicones and some silicone elastomers (formed by cross-linking).

Catalysts used to form the fluids are either acidic, alkali or peroxide based depending on the desired end result.

So is the article right?

Well yes on one level it is.

OK but are all silicones made like this?

Yes, all silicones start off this way but there is something in what is left out of this statement that is (unintentionally) misleading.  These basic silicone fluids can have functional groups added onto them to give them special powers!  Some have functional groups to help them stick to surfaces such as the hair (conditioning) or metal (polishes, lubricants etc).  Others are sticky and form adhesives and sealants while others can be designed to increase the SPF of a product.  The possibilities are endless really as outlined in this brochure.   These functional groups can be and are derived from a wide range of starting materials, some of which most probably include petroleum derivatives.

So is there a better way to sum up the origin of silicones?

In my opinion, based on the evidence outlined in the documentation above I would suggest that a more accurate description of the origin of silicones would be something like this:

Silicones, or polydimethylsiloxanes are a diverse family of  synthetic* chemical polymers based on silicon metal which is derived from sand.   

*Synthetic= not natural, not derived from renewable carbon.

It is my opinion that stating as fact that manufacturers and consumers mistakenly believe silicones are petroleum derived adds nothing to the article and indeed serves to confuse the reader.  Especially given the complexity of the reactions required to produce polydimethylsiloxane and the fact that the cosmetic industry uses a wide variety of silicones, many of which are modified and COULD be part-petroleum derived.   Lastly as the cosmetic industry has a vocal ‘free from petroleum derivatives’ marketing element to it I can see this statement as playing to that and potentially leading to brands using silicone derivatives in the mistaken belief that they are both petroleum derivative free AND therefore better for the environment than another option.

But silicones can be petroleum free is that not relevant?

I take the point that it is entirely likely that both the silicon metal as presented and the Methyl Chloride have come from non-petroleum sources BUT (and this is a big but) there is no denying the fact that both the silicon metal and the methyl chloride didn’t just drop from heaven in these usable forms and that their production WAS most likely thanks in part to the petrochemical industry.  I also feel that as the net result, the polydimethylsiloxane is unlike ANYTHING found in nature one can never push the ‘petrochemical free’ tag without it being misleading given that these days people often assume ‘petrochemical free’ to mean natural even though that logic is also flawed.

In summary what I’ve learned from this. 

In my job as a consultant chemist and help desk advisor I am asked all manor of questions from all manor of people. People who are often just starting out on their cosmetic journeys and have a real desire to understand the truth whatever that means.  Most haven’t been around long enough to hold any long-formed views or prejudice but nearly all are receptive to trigger words such as ‘natural’, ‘petroleum derivative free’,  ‘organic’,  ‘nasty’ etc.  I have been around a long time and can pick up on things that might ‘lead us down the garden path’ so to speak but that doesn’t mean I’m immune from wandering down that path myself as this exercise has taught me.  Before reading that article I did ‘believe’ that dimethicones were part petroleum derived because  I had never really looked at how these chemicals were made before and assumed the methyl groups (CH4) on the polymer backbone were of petroleum origin but I was wrong. However, my belief wasn’t so much of a formed and researched position, more of a natural assumption held tentatively until I had time to challenge it.  That said, I let my natural assumption guide me to the wrong answer on first evaluation.

It was only today when I had more time, more peace, more inclination to get to the bottom of this that I’ve gotten the truth.  The truth that I was wrong.  But on carrying out more reading I have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t just me that was wrong.  That all-important sentence that was highlighted at the beginning of the article in question was also wrong.  Not necessarily in what it said but in how it was said and the buttons that it triggered in the reader’s mind.  Now this may seem like me either trying desperately to clutch at straws and not be completely wrong but it isn’t so.  It is always an up-hill struggle to think things through.  It is mentally challenging, exhausting even to have to carry out research on every little word, to chunk down every little thing and to cross check process after process to really find out what happens.  I feel that in saying ‘manufacturers and consumers mistakenly believe…..’ our own ability to work things through is put into question.   Statements like this in an article quite literally turn the brain off – what’s the point, everyone makes this mistake so I may as well not think about it too much and just take what is said as true’.    While I didn’t immediately fall into the ‘well I’ll just believe you’ trap, I fell into the ‘well I believe that is wrong’ trap which is basically the other side of the same coin – I let my bias lead my response.

So what now?   Well now I feel lighter, enlightened even as not only do I now know where the carbon on a dimethicone comes from I also have a new appreciation for how important it is to step back and think, really think about what has been written before running off to answer what you assume has been said.

How very grateful I am!

Amanda x





An Example of how ‘Truth’ In marketing can so easily be False.

July 3, 2016

Ok so I got quite a lot of feedback on my ‘Truth, you can’t handle the truth’ post about the move towards bullshit as a legitimate brand marketing platform (basically it doesn’t so much matter if what is said is scientifically valid or not as long as it is believable and in keeping with the brand ‘voice’).  As interesting as it was to write that article,  what tit has highlighted for me is just how few people realise that they have no solid evidence to back up what they say either!

Now before you say ‘what a bloody cheek, I read up on everything I publish, I read for MONTHS at a time when I do my research’  Let me explain WHY and How that happens.

Why do most people find it hard to know the truth?

Because finding really good, solid scientific evidence to support almost any position we want to take for our cosmetic brand is very difficult, not least because there are precious few people doing the kind of research to address the philosophical positioning statements that brand owners want to make.

So yes, I’m pointing out this inconvenient truth, calling out a lot of what is said as ‘bullshit’ but I am not (AND I REPEAT NOT) calling the whole lot of us bullshit artists purposefully misleading to gain profit. No, I feel that for the most part we are confused and under-nourished in the science department.

Let me work through a real-life examples to try to illustrate this point.

Positioning – That Cold-Pressed vegetable oils are better for our skin and closer to nature. More wholesome, pure, balanced, natural, organic, healthy, good etc.

Evidence – While there is no shortage of blog posts by health guru’s to re-enforce that position the science to support much of what is said is lacking.

  • Cold Pressed – Oils can reach temperatures of 60-70C due to the friction generated in crushing the seeds or nuts in order to extract the oil.  The term ‘Cold Process’ its self was created as a marketing term by an American Pharmacist wanting to create a point of difference for his oils over the oils of the neighbouring pharmacist.  That said there is one good reason for heat treating in the vegetable oil extraction process and that is usually carried out on the fruits, seeds or nuts prior to extraction.  A prior heat-treatment helps to de-nature any proteins or enzymes (globular proteins) present. If left, these enzymes and proteins contaminate the oil and result in it degrading (oxidising) more rapidly than it otherwise would.  Reducing enzymatic contamination of a vegetable oil makes it more suitable for those with food allergies and other allergic conditions as it is often these ‘biologically active’ components that trigger an allergic reaction in susceptible populations.
  • Refining vegetable oils –  The refining process can be chemical, physical or a mixture. Many cosmetic oils are refined physically using carbon type filters to reduce the oil colour (and thus extend the shelf life of the oil as light-reactive pigments are removed),  Steam is often used to reduce the aroma in smelly oils. Refining can also involve the use of chemicals such as acids to help reduce FREE FATTY ACID contamination in the oil. This is particularly important in some food oils as FREE FATTY ACIDS can affect the odour and taste profile of an oil  giving it an ‘off’ note. In skin care high levels of the Free Fatty Acid Oleic Acid can make the oil more able to penetrate the skin as Free Oleic Acid is a well-known skin penetration enhancer.
  • Better for the skin –  As a scientist (and pain in the arse) when someone tells me that something is better for the skin I ask ‘than what’ followed by ‘how’?  These two little questions are actually very hard to answer and even harder to get some solid scientific evidence to support.  The position centres on the idea that we all know what the terms ‘better for the skin’  and ‘cold pressed vegetable oils’ mean and that there would be some clear defining measurable criteria with which to make this judgement. The reality is that it is pretty much never that simple!  The majority of the benefit we get from a vegetable oil is its ability to re-grease the outer layers of skin when our own grease has either come off or is inadequate for the conditions).  This function is a feature of the occlusivity of the barrier that the oil can achieve – occlusive barrier products prevent the skin from drying out and from microbes from getting in, thus keeping it in good condition.  One could mount a robust argument that some petrolatum or heavy mineral oil would actually fulfil that job equally well (if not better in some cases) than a vegetable oil (coconut is the example in the link) but as that doesn’t fit with our natural, cold-pressed narrative we pass it over.  We might also say that vegetable oils contain trace vitamins, essential fatty acids and other phytonutrients that a synthetic (silicone) or mineral oil can’t provide. That would be true but that isn’t what has been proposed, what has been proposed is that the Cold Pressed, Virgin or whatever oils are better for the skin so we would have to seek out studies that had selected different processing methods for the oils and compared skin benefits between them.  This type of study is very specific and I must admit I haven’t found anything like this in my reading (I’d welcome studies that you know about). What is more common is to find studies looking at the chemical composition of oils produced via different refining methods. We can take Rosehip Oil as an example here. Rosehip Cold Pressed vs Rosehip with solvent extraction– in the example given here  the study found that cold pressing resulted in a much higher yield of tretinoin (Vitamin A) ‘goodness’ from the Rosehip than the solvent extraction method trialled although the overall yield of oil was low.   However, along with the higher level of Vitamin A in the cold pressed oil comes a significantly higher level of Free Fatty Acids and a higher iodine value – both factors that decrease oil stability.  It would be reasonable to assume that the increase in the oil instability would have a detrimental impact on the usable vitamin A content of the oil, that the higher level of vitamin A might end up being reduced by an increased risk of oxidation. By comparison this study achieved the highest yield of Vitamin A using a supercritical Co2 extraction with propane – a solvent extraction of sorts.  See this is where sweeping statements of ‘this is better than that’ get caught out.  There is more than one way to solvent extract, the pre-treatment of the material BEFORE the extraction matters – how small it is cut up, if it is treated with enzymes, if it is warmed, if it is fresh or dried.   It can all end up being very complicated and you can easily end up comparing apples with oranges.

Putting this little article together has taken me a good few hours and to be honest, if I was using this ‘research’ to launch a brand would bear my name I’d have spent plenty more time making sure that the references I’ve cited are the most relevant and trustworthy (yes, just because it appeared in a scientific journal doesn’t mean it was great).   I would also seek lots more references to enable me to gain a better breadth and depth in my understanding of what I am proposing and what evidence exists to support such a proposal.  I’d also consider putting at least some of my budget into running my own tests to make sure that MY product stands up to scrutiny as, after all, oils all start off as something that grows and yields, quality and quantity of oil can and do change from batch to batch, supplier to supplier.  In short I would spend a significant proportion of my time and budget testing my claims before launching a business based on them.

So, to sum up I’ll repeat again that I’m not accusing anyone here of not caring and not trying.  What I am saying is that it is hard to get good information to support the kind of claims we have come to see as commonplace.  The things we FEEL we should be able to say about our products are actually quite complex and potentially expensive to prove.

My main aim in writing this and my last blog post is to highlight what is going on in the world of cosmetic marketing in order that we, as a group of interested people, as fellow professionals, as scientists, as brand owners and as an industry can pull together and lift our collective games.

My point is that if nobody ever tackles this we will slide further and further away from legitimacy and closer to blatant, ridiculous Bull Shit that means nothing, provides no value and offers no real solution.  I don’t want that to happen and I’m sure you don’t too.

So, let’s all put our heads together and find a way of putting the real science back into cosmetic science so that we can make products that are better and more profitable for everyone.

Now that’s exciting!



Truth? You Can’t Handle The Truth. Cosmetic Marketing 101

June 29, 2016

This year has been tough for me professionally, something is changing and not in a good way.  I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on the end of this thread in order to weave it into a story but that all changed on Sunday.

Let me explain by taking you back to the beginning.

I started my consulting business in 2007 when blogging about cosmetic science was still something that very few people did. Sure there were the health food/ natural home-made skin care ‘gurus’  but very few people getting down and dirty with the science.  After leaving my corporate shell I felt adequately qualified to take on this task – ten years in the cosmetic industry including time active in the UK’s Society of Cosmetic Scientists,  The Australian Society Cosmetic Chemists and BACS (British Association of Chemical Specialties).  I’d worked with everyone from multi-nationals to back-yard start-ups across Europe, Australia and into Asia and had received and given training to and with some of the largest chemical companies in the world.

While I never thought I was entitled to write what I wrote (and continue to write), never held the view that I should go unchallenged, be bowed down to or put up on a pedestal but I did think that my perspective, backed up as it was (and continues to be) would count for something and that my efforts to share this perspective would be somehow useful.   That has proved to be the case and to this day I enjoy a large following of readers, readers who bring no direct benefit to my personal wealth (the way I have chosen to continue to act).  I don’t offer advertising space on my website, don’t hide content unless people pay, don’t ask for donations and don’t write endorsements or advertorial.  So basically I have very little reason to write anything other than what I see, experience and learn in the hope (active hope) that in doing that I might inspire debate, thought and action – actions that result in the advancement of cosmetic science as a legitimate scientific discipline.  So there you have it, my motive is and always has been to be an enabler of science.  Really sexy that.

So all of the above is just context, so you guys know where I’m coming from when I say what I’ve got to say next…..

Over the past year and a bit my interaction with wannabe brand owners has been changing a little as I alluded to above.  In previous years I’ve been solicited for my opinion by many people eager to discuss real problems with a view to learning, exploring new avenues and producing better solutions for the market. These days I’m frequently being approached by people who have a different agenda in mind.

It has not been unusual for a prospective client to come to me with their mind already made up after hours, weeks or occasionally months of ‘research’ on the internet.  I am only sounding slightly cynical about this at the moment because of what happens next.  Researching on the internet or anywhere else for that matter is an absolutely fine thing to do.  I’d do it, everyone does, there is nothing wrong with that.

So what does happen next?

Well I’ve been under the false illusion that my passion for the subject, the hours of work that goes into growing my own knowledge and the intricate understanding of ‘how the cosmetic industry works’ leads people to come to me for a learned (dare I say ‘expert’ opinion).  Has their research lead them to the most scientifically valid conclusion,  is their proposition as truthful as it could be, is there evidence to support their position,  does their thinking stand up to scrutiny.

NO, that’s not what they are after.

So this is what’s happening.  I’m finding that more and more people are not liking my ‘truth’ and would prefer bullshit.


Yes Bullshit.

My lightbulb moment came when listening to ABC Radio National on Sunday.  The program was ‘Future Tense’ and the Subject was ‘Are our perceptions of honesty changing?’.

I kid you not, there is a Philosopher called Harry Frankfurt that works at Princeton University who has written a paper on Bullshit!!!!!  He sounds like my kind of philosopher.

Basically the gist of the argument is this:


We no longer expect truth from people in power as they have a) often been found to have lied and b) believing them and then finding out it was a lie all along is upsetting and it is better to expect the worse and be less disappointed.


Lying involves an acknowledgement of the truth.  People who choose to lie often do so while caring about the truth but wishing to hide it somehow.


The truth is irrelevant.

Bullshit becomes a brand philosophy, either consciously or not.  People like Donald Trump are the epitome of Bullshit artists whose brand of public speaking relies on him spending more time in behind authentic to BRAND TRUMP than actually caring about the truth.  So the fact that a larger than reasonable amount of statements he makes are factually incorrect is irrelevant just so long as he says them in his branded way.  He is being an authentic bullshitter.

So how does this manifest in a cosmetic brand Vs Amanda scenario.

Firstly I don’t believe for one minute that the 99.5% of people I speak to are pure bullshitters that chose that in spite of knowing the truth.  What I believe is more likely is that when in doubt people tend towards a ‘gut feeling’, being honest to their inner selves, intuition, what they FEEL is right.  This is human and we all do it but it is the very thing us science people are taught to question and work through.

So the brand comes to me with a story that I immediately notice has some level of bullshit surrounding it.  I point out the scientific truth (with reference data) as far as is possible,  the brand screws up their face and then engages in some cognitive discourse over how this new and potentially conflicting information might actually fit into and support their pre-held views (Bullshit).  I go on to explain that there is nothing wrong in theory with the brand ignoring some of what I’m telling them and BRANDING their products in the way that they currently favour but to at least acknowledge that what they are doing is MARKETING rather than SCIENCE.  So, if their brand is to be scientifically authentic and their claims are to stand up to scientific scrutiny then maybe they should re-consider their positioning.

We go on like this for a while.  I’m questioned thoroughly,  I get the feeling that they think I’m lying or being awkward or somehow out of touch with what the market wants.  I remind them that these days we go into a coffee shop for a single origin hand roasted coffee bean because we want good solid evidence that it is what it is and nothing more.  They don’t make the mental link between the coffee bean and their brand.   I respectfully explain that it is difficult to find really good information on Google because often it is the un-scientific opinion pieces that come up first,  written by people who have no more experience than them but that still doesn’t cut through.

The conversation ends.  Them leaving it confused and conflicted though (hopefully) not insulted.

I leave the conversation feeling as flat-as-a-pancake.

What is going on with the world?

And that’s why this year has been a tough one for me professionally.

To finish I’ll say this.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have these conversations with people starting their cosmetic brand journey and I as much as this general move to Bullshit (and I’m not immune, believe me) pains me I fully understand that the only choice we have in life is how we respond.  I choose to respond to Bullshit with my definition of truth which is as follows:

My Truth (with regards to questions about cosmetic science):  An appraisal of scientifically verified data relevant to the clients situation given the application and the market that the client is wanting to operate in.

I will then follow that up with my opinion which will take into account the human ‘touchy feely’ nature of the cosmetic market in order to make suggestions that are not only scientifically valid but that are also marketable and in keeping (at least to some degree) with the brand story.

Whether people choose to take that on or not is not up to me but the least I can do is give it my all.

Amanda x

Brexit and the Beauty Industry

June 27, 2016

Even though I’ve lived in Australia for the last 13 years and recently become an Aussie citizen I have retained a keen interest in what the UK is doing.  Hard not to when you have an office there specialising in EU Responsible Person work AND the majority of your family.  So BREXIT was very much on my radar and I feel it is important to weight up what this may mean for both me and my customers moving forward.

The short answer is I don’t know.

The long answer is much more interesting.

The Realize Beauty EU Office opening

Before I go into details I’ll give a (very) potted history of Europe.  

Club Europe seemed like a jolly good idea after the second world war and was originally designed with the idea that if we play together, we stay together.  As we all know Money Makes The World Go Around and that plan sure did have merit.  The club started off in 1952 as three international organisations or European Communities covering coal, atomic energy and economics.  Britain wasn’t directly part of this in the beginning but in 1973 it joined along with Denmark and Ireland and became part of the EEC (European Economic Community) taking the number of member states to 9 (the others being France, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, West Germany and the Netherlands) .  As an aside before 1973 Britain was trading  strongly with its commonwealth brothers and sisters and its decision to join the EEC affected Australia and New Zealand very strongly  sending many farming industries into a tailspin.

By the 1970’s the focus of the EEC was to facilitate trade between the nations and reduce the costs of doing so and that’s pretty much where the focus has been ever since with each country that joins agreeing to put some money into the pot for EU wide projects and basically work towards making trade between the nations easier.

The EU came into being in 1993 (when I was 19) when the Maarstricht treaty was enacted.  This treaty centred around three pillars:

  1.  Supranationalism (political communities made up of multiple nations which make decisions together as one) and intergovernalism (unanimous agreement between governments rather than majority voting by the populace).
  2. Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). It is the official Foreign Policy of the European Union, which deals with issues such as commercial, trade, security, policies and dealings with third-party countries.
  3. Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters (PJCCM)

Another aside.  There has been much talk in the BREXIT coverage about the fact that only 30% of young people voting in this referendum and that out of those 30%, 70% voted to stay in Europe.  Looking back I remember talk of the Maastricht treaty, I remember the channel tunnel project and I remember various stories about the EC changing to the EU.  At that point in my life I read the paper and watched the news every day and was reasonably interested in the whole thing but I can’t remember having an opinion on whether I agreed with what was happening or not.  I doubt I had the capacity at 19. I  was in my first year at Uni, had just been sick and was saving to go travelling.   I just thought that was interesting……

Anyway, the Maastricht treaty is where things get interesting for the UK in Europe.  The UK never completed the process by adopting   the Euro (Denmark hasn’t either) or its social charter (you know, the bit where everyone gets treated nicely) but the UK has still had to abide by many of the other clauses in this treaty including keeping deficit under control.    This became a big deal in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s while John Major was in power in the UK. It continued to be a big deal with Tony Blair who was more keen than Major for us to adopt the currency.   We never did (see, I still say ‘we’. I can’t help it).  What the Maastricht Treaty started was a move towards greater powers for Europe. The treaty has been amended over the years by many others including the Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties  (Lisbon was implemented in 2009 and the UK wasn’t happy about some of that either).   I’m not confident at this stage to interpret the Lisbon treaty but it centred around the treatment of immigrants into the EU, Britain opted out of that.

So while it is right to say that Britain has been in a structured political alliance of Europe for over forty years the size, shape and reach of that relationship has changed over the years and resulted in what we now have which is BREXIT.   Rather than see BREXIT as something that has come out of the blue, I’d turn your attention to a paper published by Chatham House in 2011 entitled ‘The Future of the European Union: UK Government Policy’.  

European Cosmetic Market.

Before 2012 cosmetic regulation was just a set of industry regulated guidelines, a  suggestion , but since then cosmetics have been regulated in a tough but reasonably fair process.  This process includes proving your products are safe for use (toxicological review),  are stable (physical and microbiological stability), have suitable and sensible usage instructions,  are labelled correctly and consistently,  are measured correctly and have in-market controls in place via a responsible person.

When these laws first came into place many small, boutique or home-made cosmetic brand owners simply gave up due to the huge financial burden they faced in complying with the new regulations.   That said, the vast majority of cosmetic industry participants welcomed the changes in the law as it meant a new, all-inclusive and legislative process that would eventually raise the bar for the whole industry in terms of product quality and safety.   One area that has constantly come in for criticism though is that of the interpretation of fragrance risk and the characterisation of fragrance allergens.  This has been particularly contencisous in the area of essential oils, especially given that an essential oil is treated no differently (in terms of fragrance regulations) to a synthetic perfume.   There are debates as to the validity of treating essential oils and fragrances the same and arguments about how ‘known’ allergens are tested and regulated.

So what will happen in a post-BREXIT Europe?

I’m sure that the cosmetic law is not going to be the first thing on people’s minds so for now I think that the best advise I’d give my customers is to keep calm and carry on.

Many  brands use the UK as a base for Europe (including me and my office). This may no longer be relevant in future and a new head office location would have to be sought. In that case the next closest English-speaking Euro Port would be Ireland who is remaining in the EU.   So one might have to re-locate a UK-based responsible person but not until any exit had been fully facilitated which would be in another two years.

In terms of brands selling in the UK now there is no telling how the post-Europe UK will handle imports.  Will there be tariffs applied to protect UK manufacturing?  Will there be new labelling laws?  Will there be a whole new cosmetic law?  I really don’t know but again I’d keep close to current distributors and stockists and continue building your brand as it is unlikely that the UK will build a Trump style wall to keep the foreign lippy out.  Just be aware that there might be a UK recession and that might spread outside to the rest of Europe and impact sales forecasts,  citizens of the UK might also become much more patriotic in a bid to grow stronger and shun foreign-made goods.  If the UK is an important market for your brand you could start investigating UK manufacturers in a bid to do your bit for the UK economy but if you do that be aware that if money is very tight your UK manufacturer might struggle with raw material sourcing (although this is less likely.  It is however a possibility that manufacturing in the UK would become more expensive due to rising costs of transport and imports).

If you are a brand that is still going through EU registration and wants to sell in the UK has all been a waste of money?

To that I’d say no.  The testing required by the EU is very similar to that required by all major cosmetic markets including the USA, China, Japan, India, Malaysia and Thailand.  In addition, the testing is still a great basis for finding out if your product is robust and relatively safe.  So, while you may decide that Asia is a safer bet the testing done will still add to your brand Intellectual Property and further more it will give all other potential stockists and business partners faith in your products.

In terms of labelling regulations etc I’d say don’t worry.   The labelling requirements for the  are so thorough and organised that if is unlikely any new UK laws would be more stringent.  It is also highly likely that brands will want to re-brand before any of the changes become legal anyway so I’d carry on as if nothing has happened.

Will there be a lipstick effect in Europe/ the UK?

Cosmetic products generally do well in a recession environment as long as they are affordable (so out go the super-lux items).   The psychology of ‘a little treat for me’ is perfect for affordable, daily wear cosmetic brands (such as lipsticks which add a bit of glamour) so yes, if a recession happens cosmetic sales could rise (along with chocolate, tea and biscuit sales probably).  The only caveat on this is with regards to nationalism,  be sensitive to the mood and ‘buy local’ sentiment.

What things are likely to change about doing business in the EU/ UK?

Again its crystal ball territory here but you can bet your life that the costs of doing business will go up rather than down and that will favour brands that have some margin to play with (but don’t make margin by putting prices very high, people will be generally less well off).   I’d expect transport costs to go up as there will be more time wasted at borders and potential for tariffs, there will be banking cost changes and potential interest rate rises as the risks of doing business during this period increase,  there may also be tax hikes to factor in although none of this is guaranteed.

So what’s the bottom line?

As of today  while the people of Britain have voted out of Europe, article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is yet to be triggered so even though everyone is talking of how Britain has left Europe it still may not happen.

One thing I will say is that if you are/ were a believer in the Europe ideal then Europe would want you to continue to invest your money in it.  If you were always a bit Euroskeptical then don’t worry,  Europe will still accept your money.  If you had no idea before and are still confused then maybe you would be best to stick to the Australian market.

Have fun my little cheesy baguettes

Amanda x





So Sodium Benzoate is going to kill us but Benzoic Acid is ok……….

June 4, 2016

So Sodium Benzoate is produced by reacting Benzoic Acid with Sodium Hydroxide to form the Sodium  SALT of the Benzoic Acid.  It makes no sense for the Natural News article (September 2011) to claim that Benzoic Acid is OK as it appears in fruits in low levels but Sodium Benzoate is bad because it is man made because when used in a formulation Sodium Benzoate actually becomes Benzoic Acid and Sodium Salt.

So either Benzoic Acid is bad in this situation or it isn’t.

Here is my advice to customers who have brands and are confused about whether Sodium Benzoate is right for them:


If Benzoic Acid is bad then there would need to be a health warning on fruits and vegetables, especially berries and apples (which naturally contain around 0.05-0.1% of this).


It is true that the ingredient is man made rather than being extracted from fruit but with such a simple chemical as this there really would be no difference in risk factor or biological activity.

With regards to its potential as a carcinogen that is unlikely given its GRAS status (generally regarded as safe).  There were no adverse effects found in humans at doses of 647-825 mg/kg per day when trialled.

If a person were to use 100g of moisturiser per day they would be exposed to a maximum of 0.5g in total all over their body.

If they weighed 50Kg this would equate to an exposure of 10mg/ per Kg.

If the person weighted 100Kg the exposure would be 5mg/ per Kg.

The average apple weighs 150g and 0.05% of this is Sodium Benzoate giving an exposure of 0.075g so they would need to eat the equivalent of 6.6 apples to get the same exposure to Benzoic Acid per day via that fruit.   However, given that when we eat a product everything gets into the body vs a hugely variable (and usually much lower) percentage of ingredient passes into the body through the skin there is a very good chance that just eating 1-3 portions of fruit a day would put you at higher exposure level to  Benzoate than the cosmetic.

It is very difficult to avoid the use of preservatives in cosmetics because cosmetics are just so nutritious for microbes.  I generally suggest to customers that are wondering about preservatives to try leaving a yoghurt or milk based product out on the kitchen table for a few days and see what happens.   Mould generally grows after 2-5 days depending on the environment, bacteria is less easy to spot but is still there.  It only takes 48 hours of being un-protected for a cosmetic to become unsuitable to use in terms of micro.  We expect our cosmetics to last for months if not years (2.5 years is the recommended shelf life for a cosmetic).

Clients don’t have to use benzoates and it isn’t as if they are without their risks.  Benzoates can be irritating to the skin because of their microbial activity and can make a product feel tingly if there is no oil phase.  That said they have been used safely for many years and are a low-cost broad-spectrum option available to the Organics market.  There are guidelines of how much we can use in a product to avoid irritation and we do stick to that.


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