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I want my cosmetics chemical free.

August 11, 2019

It’s 2019 and despite the best efforts of both myself and the many other scientists out there who have continued to shout ‘but everything is chemical’ from the rooftops of labs right across this world, people still want to make cosmetics that are free from chemicals. Clearly something is being lost in translation, something or someone is failing.

While reading one of the many books that I plough through with my ever whirring mind (she says citing an AHA lyric from the 1980s) I came across a bit of Glaucon’s wisdom.  Glaucon was the older brother of Plato and, like Plato he lived in ancient Greece during 445BC.  What he said, that stopped me in my tracks was this:

“People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality”

Now one could argue on the nature and meaning of reality but I want to just indulge myself by following the lightbulb moment that occurred in my brain on hearing that.

What if the word ‘reality’ was replaced by the term ‘best scientifically proven evidence-based guess or conclusion’.   Not quite as catchy but meaningful nevertheless.

What if ‘appearance and reputation’ were seen in the context of a group or market segment…

If that were true, people would sooner reject scientific evidence than leave the comfort and status they have achieved in their group.  As a somewhat more antisocial human than most I find that mind-blowing but I’m guessing that many of you are sitting there like ‘duh, yeh,  but of course’.

I always was a bit weird.

Anyway, this is where I’m going:


Have you ever read George Orwells 1984?  It has seen a bit of a resurgence of late thanks to some of the weird and wonderful ways that life has changed in this social media metropolis we now live in.  The term Groupthink was coined back then, tapping into something that Glaucon recognised just over 2400 years previously.  There is a good and relatively simple definition of it here on Wikipedia   and I think that our propensity for hanging out in specialist groups (or tribes) on social media is ripe ground for fostering and reinforcing this mentality however niche its focus.

For me to apply this to what I see happening in the cosmetics industry is very easy as every day I see and experience more evidence of the way groups shape the thoughts of the customers I interact with.  It started off as a relatively subtle thing, people would read something online in the privacy of their own home and then seek out an accessible professional to discuss it with, hopefully in a way that applied that reading to their situation.  In many cases the idea exchange was interesting and fruitful, I could add some context and value to the exchange on account of my professional experience being outside of the customers experience and the customer could give me some valuable insight in what worried them, what they cared about and what way they wanted to arrive at a conclusion.  This has since changed.  Things are much less enjoyable now that people rely less on solo ‘googling’ and more on group forum input.

These days we have a number of long-standing group spaces online where discussions take place.  In many of these cases the groups were set up by industry outsiders as a ‘self teaching’ resource, in other cases the groups were set up by industry insiders as a way of them forwarding their own businesses and professional opinions while ‘giving something back for free’ in the meantime.

These teaching resources are now intersecting with moral interest groups, groups that are focused on finding good vegan, palm free, organic,  simple and hand-made, artisan or trending skincare.   Teaching resource groups are informed and inform the moral interest groups and vice versa. Two, interconnecting circles that spin and turn around and through each other, setting their own orbit and reaching their own conclusions based on their own biases and world views. Because it is impossibly difficult to know what we don’t know or be able to judge the level of our grasp on a subject we tend to end up with groups being informed in limited and unchecked ways.

The online groups in which people belong have become their tribes. Tribalism is strong in the human psyche and we instinctively try to find everything we need within our own tribe rather than risk approaching others.  This gives our online group immense power, probably too much if you ask me, especially given the generalist and performative nature of many exchanges. However, people love them and feel vulnerable when they are exposed to information (and people) who challenge their group narrative.   Sometimes I’m one of these pesky, challenging outsiders, I’m the one saying ‘ummmmm, no, it might not work that way for you’.  

Social Psychology.

I am NOT a social psychologist and reading just one book that covers this topic does not make me suitably qualified to make conclusions about what I see with any validity other than that of my own experience.  So please, read the following with the naive fascination with which it is intended.

The book I read which included Glaucon’s quote was called ‘The Righteous Mind‘ by Jonathan Haidt and he is a qualified social psychologist.  He talks about how society sets moral standards and how the use of negative marketing and advertising that has been increasingly employed in the world, informs that. I have raised my concerns about this type of marketing  on many occasions but have never understood it like this before.  Now I know why my concerns never cut through…

Negative marketing such as that we see when we sell products as ‘free from’ helps to build two things in the eyes of the public – fear and disgust.

Disgust is a very powerful emotion, a gut feeling and something that is incredibly difficult to overcome.  If I can make you feel that something or someone is disgusting you will hear nothing they say and want nothing to do with their goods or services.  Being aware that some products may be disgusting to you means that we want to spend as little time as possible interacting with them,  this is what leads to the ‘free from’ list being the ONLY thing that matters.  The inner dialogue goes something like ‘I must first check if it is free from everything that disgusts me and only when I see that can I move onto what the product actually is’.  Emotive issues such as those concerning palm oil and veganism tend to trigger our disgust button. Disgust as an emotion tends to then trigger our justice instinct. We want to fight to stop this disgusting thing, we want to do something.

Fear is another powerful emotion that is somewhat sated by ‘free from’.  Fear of dangerous things with nasty consequences, of poisons and cancer and pollution and such.  While disgust mobilises many of us, fear tends to freezes us.  We don’t want to be investing brain cells in working out if a product is safe or not, we want to be told it IS safe.  Free from marketing helps to achieve that, in our eyes at least.  The overwhelm is so strong when fear is on the table and it’s easy to be scared of chemicals. Even as a person who is fascinated in chemistry I have lived on the same planet as you and have lived through very many bad chemical incidents. Nuclear disasters, environmental spills, cancer clusters,  factory malpractice,  environmental destruction, Frankenstein foods,  gross animal experiments, medicines that we thought would do good, that instead do harm. The list goes on.  It is easy to see how people with non interest in science as a whole and chemistry in particular can draw the conclusion that the world would be a better place without chemistry and opting for ‘free from’ products helps us feel like we are gaining some power back, even if we don’t really understand the details.

So how do we move beyond these gut feelings and have proper conversations?

Haidt’s book talks about how disgust can’t be diffused by reason and I’m sure that fear can’t either.  I feel that this is a key reason why we, as scientists failed in our attempt to reason the hate away.  Humans just don’t work like that as intuition (gut feeling) comes way before reasoned analysis (which may not come at all):

“Most people would die sooner than think- in fact they do so.” Bertrand Russell.

I have a great deal of sympathy for that as I too am human and I too have had fears and felt disgust towards people, things and situations, often without good logical reasons:

I suspect that Haidt is right when he suggests that the only way to work towards truth is to show love and compassion, to build bridges and strengthen human relationships between both sides of the debate in these cases.   Now this all sounds very nice and loved-up but it’s extremely hard to do.

I have witnessed several situations in the recent past where I’ve been asked a question, in person, and have attempted to answer it with scientific logic and some human kindness and warmth only to be met by a stone wall or even visible head shaking. I kid you not, I had a client the other day who brought in a product to show me that had ‘gone wrong’ in their opinion. When I said  ‘aha, well from my experience what you are experiencing with that mixture is completely predictable and not unusual at all’ the lady shook her head at me.  In that moment I had not only given her an answer that she was completely unprepared for, she simply couldn’t accept it and rather than engage with me further started searching her brain for ways to bolster her pre-conceived idea that she was right, that her product had gone wrong and it was the fault of the thing she’d purchased from me.   Arguing in these situations doesn’t help, in fact it’s pretty challenging to know what to do.  Sometimes seeing is believing and if I’d have had time I would have got out some ingredients and showed the client what I was saying but I didn’t have time and my previous article on this very topic was already unlikely to attract her as in that moment I was disgusting to her. I was one of THEM and she was one of US – disempowered crafter who the industry doesn’t value.  Even in giving the right advice and feedback I had failed. 

Building connections.

Haidt frequently mentions the book ‘How to win friends and influence people‘ by Daniel Carnegie, a book that I have an inner aversion towards reading to be honest.  I don’t want to read it as I don’t want to feel that my interactions with people are anything other than natural, for me.  I am yet to find any other facet of life in which my approach is classified as ‘normal’ so I’m fairly happy to leave the ‘winning friends and influencing people’ to chance too. But maybe I’m being unfair or maybe I’m scared of getting too many friends 🙂

A quick overview of the top tips in the book leaves me feeling that the book may not be as bad and formulaic as I was thinking: Be genuinely interested in people, smile, remember their name, make the other person feel important (sincerely) etc.  All good stuff.  So should all chemists be given this book when they graduate, so that they can spread their love to everyone, even while some of their products are poisoning rivers and causing trees to be burned down?

I think not.

Through writing this blog and doing the work I’ve done I have found many times when the ‘other’ side is, at least partly right and I am at least partly wrong.  The last thing that Haidt talks about is the Yin and Yan nature of both sides of an argument and I truly believe he’s hit the nail on the head there, mainly because it agrees with my bias and my experiences.  What Haidt is saying is that both sides rest on the same coin, both are valid, both are worthy, one isn’t better than another.

For me, I believe that scientists HAVE to engage more in slow, constructivist narrative-based dialogue with their audience about topics both big and small.  It’s important that we don’t just brush off a request for a chemical free product with an eye roll and a ‘but everything is chemical, what chemicals don’t you like today Sir?’ comment.   Maybe we should take a leaf out of Plato and Glaucon’s book and start more philosophical conversations with our customers and students.  Maybe we could all learn something, maybe we could all work together to construct a new and happier reality.

I think the main thing I’ve learned through this batch of reading is that, in humans, Intuition comes first, reason second.  Tapping into the intuitive ideas and feelings of another takes time, patience and love and I think that really is where we have to start.

So next time someone asks me for a chemical or anything free product I’m going to start a conversation along the lines of ‘Ok, that sounds interesting, let’s unpack what that means for you and I’ll help by adding some industry context’.  It may or may not change the world but it would certainly be a whole lot more interesting than arguing don’t you think?

Amanda x



What is better, a serum or a cream?

August 9, 2019

Sometimes I get asked questions like this. I call this type of question a Tardis (as seen in the TV series ‘Dr Who’, scared me to death as a kid but I’m OK now) question because it looks like its only a tiny question when in fact, it’s massive.  Well when I say it’s a massive question, that’s what I hear, the person who asked it still thinks I’m going to give them a quick, one word answer, usually one that starts and ends in the word ‘serum’ but I don’t…

If you are one of those people who come on here and get the shits with my pedestrian thinking-though-a-problem post then the other quick answer to the question is that there is no simple answer to this question as it depends on how you are defining each of the parts – better, serum, cream.

Another quick answer is for me to assume  that by better you mean works better / delivers results more efficiently;  for serum you are talking about a water based gel serum formula and for cream you are talking about a non-ionic or traditional soap style emulsion (soap meaning it has an anionic emulsifier holding it together, like in the good old days when that’s all we had).  With all that in mind I would say ‘well that depends on the active you are trying to deliver and its concentration I guess’.

By now you might be either wanting to punch me or you can start to see how much of a Tardis this question really is.

I’m not well read in philosophy enough to know if this type of thinking is truly reductionist but it certainly feels like it might be to me. I get a lot of questions like this and attribute  it to the fact that people have access to an awful lot of information and seek to distill it down to something simple and easily digestible so they can absorb the data into their mindset and so they can use it in their marketing.  So, you might have a situation where a brand is trying to justify why they are now telling their clients to use a serum and a cream when before creams did it all.  They read online about how good and potent serums are and then decide that the easiest way to sell their new range addition is to suggest that serums are the best way to get fast-targeted results from actives. This relegates the creams to the status of generalists or ‘slower performers’ or something else entirely, most brands find a way to make room and in doing so, some brand owners get the wrong idea about serums vs creams.

So this is how I really go about thinking about this question when it appears.

  1. Identify the active(s) that we are talking about and investigate their chemistry.
    1. Actives are the ingredients in a product that are mostly responsible for the big-hitting results be they moisturising, brightening, colour correcting, tightening or cleansing.  Finding out if the active(s) are oil or water soluble,  their shape and size, their chemistry in terms of polarity, affinity for the skin etc is really important. It is also vitally important to have an appreciation for where the active(s) have to get to in order for them to work.  Are we talking the top layer epidermis or right down at the dermal/ epidermal junction.  Knowing more about the active will help us decide how best to deliver it. For me, this step always includes a review of scientific literature to see if there is any dermal penetration data that I can use to help inform my formulating.
  2. Identify the activity level of the product.
    1. Not all cosmetic actives are easy to formulate with and some will be very hard to stabilise in an emulsion, especially when present at very high levels.  It is worth looking into this early as the answer may not be what is best but what is possible.  I think this is one reason why people automatically assume serums are better,  because they can, in many situations, simply hold more active than a typical cream base.   However, more isn’t necessarily better and so holding this conclusion in mind as an absolute law is not that helpful.
  3. Delve into how the customer will experience the product.
    1. This includes both the packaging you wish to use and the application data – how much, how often, with what?  If you make a serum to deliver a peptide to soothe and restore moisture to chronically dry skin there is a good chance that your customers will immediately apply a moisturising cream over the top of it unless the serum feels sufficiently protective.  This co-application of products may undo your carefully thought out delivery system plans and render a serum-only product a bit of a failure.
  4. Reflect on what your customer are used to.
    1. I’ve said it before and am saying it again (yes I do sound like your mother), you get zero results if the product never leaves the shelf.  Sometimes we have to pull back from the idea-on-paper scientific solution to a problem in order to create something that customers will relate to.  Brand owners need not despair completely at that news, often you can warm customers up by scaffolding your approach – give them something familiar first then add to your range with more interesting and advanced products later.  That’s a good way of building trust.

Serums and creams present different sets of challenges and benefits to the cosmetic formulator. It can be easier to load up a serum with heaps of actives but it can be harder to get said serum to feel moisturising, un-sticky and nutritive.  Creams have the benefit of being able to accomodate both oil and water soluble actives in the same product, often with their own specific delivery systems but active levels are limited by the fragility of the emulsion structure.

In general, my best advice would be to avoid reducing your thinking to this ‘serum vs cream’ mentality as it may well check-mate you in future.  It is far better to talk about why you chose a serum for THIS formula and a cream for THAT and talk to the specifics of each rather than trying to make sweeping general statements.

I hope that has been somewhat helpful.


Pro Tip: Teach (or preach) chemistry, not trade names.

July 27, 2019

I have lost count of all of the times people have come to me with the question ‘is Optiphen really the best preservative’ or something equivalent.

The moment I hear that I know that the person asking the question is lost, disempowered, clueless, un-taught.

I know some of the places that push ‘Optiphen’ as a solution but am probably not across all of them.  Anyway, if you relate to this as a problem or something you do then read on,  if you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about then I’ll explain.

Optiphen is a trade name of Ashland Chemicals. It relates to not one chemical but several combinations of chemicals that we use to preserve products.  I think, but am not 100% sure, that the first Optiphen was just a blend of Phenoxyethanol and Caprylyl Glycol but as I said, that’s just one of a few.  I hear talk of Optiphen Plus quite a lot too and that’s the two chemicals above plus Sorbic acid which helps to boost performance by targeting yeast and mould.

When you teach (or preach – preaching is a way of disseminating knowledge that can’t be challenged) about formulating or cosmetic science, using trade names only is a good way to ensure that your students or readers learn nothing of the true nature of what you are doing.  On that note, it is a pet hate of mine to see cosmetic science students being set assignments that have no explicit need for naming the exact chemistry they will use and instead allow formulations full of trade names. I dearly hope educational providers aren’t teaching chemistry by trade names…

Time for a cuppa and a chat.

When I first started in this industry I literally spent hours of my own time scanning paper documentation and brochures (there wasn’t the level of stuff on the internet then as there is now and even if there was, we hardly used it – very few websites to browse even) checking for equivalence between this trade name and that, noticing little differences in activity, polymer weight, charge density, pH, colour and added preservative (if relevant). This sort of detail gets missed when you don’t critically evaluate your ingredient space. This sort of detail is what trains your brain to be a real chemist rather than a parrot.  This is what and how I teach, this is empowering for both me as a teacher and you as a student because with this knowledge we can unlock the world, save ourselves money and become creative.

When people come to me asking about or looking for a trade name as their only point of reference they often display no capacity for critical evaluation even after hours of ‘research’.  This is frustrating for them and sad for me. It also means that people come with a shell around their brains that I have to crack slowly before we can open up to the real world of chemistry, they already thought they were ‘doing science/ chemistry’ before.

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is called ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘ by Paulo Freire. It’s a teaching book, a book that was written in the 1970’s when almost all education was authoritative and rigid.  These days we are taught to teach in a more equitable and inclusive way, to account for divergence and to celebrate and work with, rather than against that.  This text and the situation I describe above collided in my head this morning when I woke up with the following quote in my head.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”.  Freire, P (1970)

One cannot ‘do’ cosmetic chemistry with any mastery without first understanding the chemistry. The trade names put the chemistry under a blanket and hide it somewhat, making it more difficult to see, feel and know.  Strip away those trade names and look at the naked chemistry in front of you, buy it a drink, take it out for dinner,  get it out in your laboratory and play with it.  This is the only way we will progress from the dark ages into which we have slipped.

Chemistry is the way out of here and understanding chemistry starts by us saying the chemical names, let them be your light dear students and brand owners 🙂


But I sell my product as ‘free from’ because people need to know, to keep them safe…

July 26, 2019

I mentioned in an earlier article this week that the EU is about to crack down on free from claims and have been thinking about this ever since. I hear enough chatter to know that people care a lot about the products they make and the products they purchase and that for many of them, knowing easily that the choices they make or have made are ‘free from’ stuff is key to their marketing or purchasing choices.  I also know that a substantial amount of those same people actually know little if anything about the things they are trying to avoid, where they may find them and what they might do.  I see this as a failure on my part, as part of the cosmetic industry at large.  We didn’t do enough. We weren’t trusted enough.  We still aren’t and sometimes for good reason.  One only has to fall down in life for a moment to know that blind trust in any human construct is a one way ticket to hell…

So how do we reconcile this situation in our minds and on our cosmetic products?  How should we approach this if we are outside of the EU? How do we keep our customers safe?

Safe, now there’s a word.

Whole subsections of the cosmetic industry have built themselves up on the notion that there are safe and unsafe cosmetics.  I’ve always struggled with how people discern safe from unsafe in this space, the logic doesn’t flow for me and the outcomes (the products created) often don’t appear to offer any solutions.

I ran a workshop on this once, I challenged the class to construct a definition of ‘safety’ and, unsurprisingly found that safety meant different things to different people.

For some, safe cosmetics were those that did no harm to the skin.  This is a fairly logical and, at least to my mind, valid definition.  It is something that can be challenged and explored through testing and data, real-life experience and evaluation.  However, most people in the cosmetic industry already know that this is covered in the cosmetic regulations of most countries or regions.  That if the makers of cosmetics are suitably trained, products properly tested and packaged with good instructions and appropriate cautions, that products are safe. But we know from just looking at the market that we didn’t really mean that. That people want safe and then ‘extra safe’…

Extra Safe.

Many people self-identify as having sensitive skin, another section of people have skin issues with a medical diagnoses, others would prefer their cosmetics to be gentle although their skin hasn’t shown any signs of being particularly sensitive.  This sub-section may want to tread carefully on their micro biome, protect their skin barrier and respect nature’s self-managing strategies while just purchasing a few products to help them do that.  This group may identify ‘safe’ cosmetics as being better able to do this than ‘regular’ cosmetics.  So for this group, safe means gentle or ‘do-not-disturb’ rather like a no-dig garden or how we might approach caring for our babies. Soft, gentle, safe.  I identify with this group strongly as an eczema / acne/ hormonal skin break-out sufferer.  I would rather not challenge my skin too harshly because it’s likely to shit its self if I do.

What if there was a way to identify these extra -safe products to clients…

Oh look, there already is.

There is the eczema association certification, the provision to make hypoallergenic claims (which has also been revised),  rankings of ingredients from gentle to stronger (such as we find with surfactants), the Allergy Association of Denmark accreditation and more besides.  All of these things help chemists and brand owners produce products that are extra-safe, just-in-case, for their more delicate clientele.  But we didn’t want that did we?

We actually just wanted to bag out certain chemicals. That’s all we wanted all along…

OK so this isn’t aimed at you, because 99.9% of you out there didn’t come up with this strategy but the 0.1% of you who did can go straight to Jail without collecting your $200.  You guys have had us all running around in circles doing what I call ‘busy work’ that costs time and money but gets you nowhere for far too long and guess what, people will still defend their right to believe you because people are generally stupid.  Sorry, yes I do know that I am a ‘people’ too. I know.

So we now live in a world where ‘safe’ cosmetics are defined only by what they leave out.

Many of my workshop participants stated that ‘safe’ cosmetics to them meant that the cosmetic didn’t contain things like parabens, sulphates, perfume or colour.  Well, there’s a lot to unpick there and I don’t want to keep you all day but I would like to pick on the parabens for a minute.

Before 2004 parabens were up there as one of the most commonly used families of cosmetic preservatives, others being formaldehyde donors and Methylisothiazolinone and Methyl Chloroisothiazoninone.  In 2004 there was a paper published that shook the confidence of consumers about parabens, it was the paper that attempted to link parabens with breast cancer.  It is unlikely that the majority of the people hearing the fall-out from that study, ever read or understood it (rather like the Muller report probably…) However, marking companies jumped on this as an opportunity to sell a solution into this fear landscape by offering ‘safer’ cosmetics i.e: cosmetics that were ‘free from’ parabens.

While the fear of parabens causing cancer hasn’t gone away for some people, the legitimate and widespread scientific research into this that has occurred over the lat 15 years has universally found the fears to be unfounded.  However, this hysteria or the ‘better safe than sorry’ mindset of the public didn’t come without a cost as I investigated here in order to answer my own question:

“did the marketing of products as paraben free make cosmetics safer for skin?”

I found this really interesting report from a Belgium hospital that focuses on dermatology training. They had recorded results of people coming into the hospital with dermal issues caused by contact with a product or substance over a 25 year period.

I also read several other reports about preservative allergens including this one from the UK

and this report from 1986 which shows incidents of paraben, phenoxyethanol, formaldehyde donors and Methylisothiazolinone/Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MIT/ MCIT) allergies from back before we had the wide range of options we have now.  Do remember that preservatives are used in more than just cosmetics so the results in these early studies could have been triggered by contact with paint, coatings and household chemicals.

Looking at this snapshot of preservative allergy and irritancy data a couple of truths stand out for me.  Paraben blends have always caused a small amount of people to develop reactions and some of those people may develop contact dermatitis from them. However, on the scale of things, the paraben blends were always responsible for a lower number of reactions than the chemicals that replaced them for a big part of the 2000’s namely MIT/ MCIT. Further, now, instead of less than 2% of people who develop a reaction being able to trace it to their preservative now, the figures are up in double digits, maxing out at nearly 25%.  This is a terrible outcome for people I feel.

But not all cosmetics that removed parabens used MIT/ MCIT.

This is true and is especially true now, in the 2010-2020 period as we now have a wider still range of preservatives to choose from.  However, what benchmark for ‘safer’ do we use?  Human bodies can tolerate a lot but not everything.  What happens with contact allergens is that the more popular a chemical becomes, the more we use it in everything. The more we use it in everything, the higher our exposure. The higher our exposure, the more likely we are to react to it.  Because parabens were a bigger part of the preservative pie pre 2004, the incidence of allergy was higher than it is now, when parabens are a smaller fraction. That said, the incidence was always low, it’s just now it’s lower.  Some of our newer strategies haven’t showed up yet but some will.  One that has is Ethylhexylglycerin which I’m surprised about as I thought that was quite unlikely to cause issues but there you go…

Ethylhexylglycerin, going by the Belgium hospital report, was responsible for 4 reactions out of a group of 145 that were tested. That amounts to 2.76%, more than double the peak percentage occurrence for paraben allergies.  If we look at a typical combination used in organic cosmetics we see that Sorbic Acid caused 1 reaction in 278 (0.36%) and Potassium Sorbate 2 in 146 (1.37%) which, overall give an allergy rate in percentage terms that is below the maximum allergy rate seen for paraben blend in the old data but above the rate we see in todays data.

If we step out of preservative land and look at a couple of other materials we see that the darling of the Organic surfactants market, decyl glucoside caused reactions in 11 out of 245 people (4.49%) and its cousin coco-glucoside 14 out of 82 (17.07%).  If you are thinking of just giving up ‘chemicals’ altogether and going for essential oils and water you’ll be distressed to learn that many of the aroma chemicals naturally present in essential oils and some whole essential oils caused more reactions still.  Limonene hydroperoxides (that is oxidised limonene), caused reactions in 92 of 465 people tested (19.78%).  Limonene is a large component of many citrus oils, particularly the orange family plus Bergamot (another orange family), Pepper, Pine, Thyme, May Chang, Fennel, Neroli and Fir.   That wasn’t the only one either, there are over 30 naturally occurring aroma chemicals on this list, each of which have allergy causing rates of between 2-18% approx.

This link takes you to a video that’s just over 6 minutes long. It is a chat between two dermatologists about contact allergens and was recorded in 2016. It is a very useful summary of contact allergens and the state of affairs at that time.  It may help readers of this blog post to realise that the list and relevance of contact allergens is not static, it is in constant flux. It also helps us to realise that the origin of the material, natural vs synthetic, has no baring on its ability to cause a reaction. Sadly, neither point is news to me.

If you have made it to this below the line point then thank you. This is my summary.

Many, but not all, free from claims are failing to make cosmetic products safer in terms of protecting the skin.  Some, but not all free from claims are helping to make cosmetics more unsafe by taking away valid ingredient options without adequately considering the impact of the alternatives.  None of this is anyones individual fault but together we all drops in the same ocean.

Yes people are scared of other things-getting cancer, environmental impacts, the health and wellbeing of our waterways etc-and our fears are always valid and always need to be considered. However, it is unlikely that just saying the same old unqualified ‘no xxx’ is enough information to achieve that.

There is still so much to say about this law enforcement but I’ll leave it here for today.  I just hope that this renewed focus on not just what we leave out, but also what we choose to put in, creates an environment where we, as individuals, brand owners, industry people and humans, can find a way to invest and be rewarded for investing our energy into results-based cosmetics rather than in propping up empty marketing slogans.  If just one brand takes a stand towards that I’ll be a lot happier, no pressure x


PS: I developed a contact allergy from exposure to MIT/ MCIT and it really does suck. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone actually. I also have eczema (as if I haven’t told you that before) so I was more likely than the average human to become sensitised.  All this means that I do, quite literally, has some skin in this game 🙂


Peptides are getting very interesting.

July 23, 2019

As far as cosmetic chemists go, I’ve always been less interested in the headline actives and more focused on getting the base right.  I didn’t adopt that position strategically, it was just a natural fit given that, after careful analysis, I felt that most of the cosmetic actives people were getting excited about were typically 80% hype and only 20% scientifically valid.  However, it looks like that balance is finally shifting, at least in the peptide space and if the recent flood of R&D papers is anything to go by, peptides could soon be helping us to re-grow all sorts of damaged tissue.  The era of the bionic person is nigh.

Without going into a complex lesson in biochemistry (which I’m not qualified to do), peptides are signalling molecules, made of amino acids (the same stuff that makes up proteins, the stuff that makes up around 20% of your lean body mass, another 60% being water and the rest a mix of stuff including your bone minerals). Amino acids arranged in certain shapes and sizes can act like keys for a range of biological processes. In the cosmetic space some of these processes include the key to unlocking collagen synthesis, elastin arrangement, melanin production, inflammation and barrier protection.

In cosmetic science we use peptides that are synthetic or man-made, the exact shapes and sizes we use don’t exist naturally. Peptides are manufactured this way to give them a better chance of reaching the target tissue (don’t forget that in real life, peptides are produced close to the site of action whereas ours have to be able to penetrate the rather tricky epidermal barrier as a minimum), of being stable outside of the skin environment (to that they can be supplied), to better control delivery over a period of time and to reduce toxicity.  The down side about all of this work is that it is expensive. Peptide synthesis requires lots of high-tech science equipment and knowledge, refining the molecule shape and running testing is also time consuming and costly and coming up with novel anti-ageing technology is financially lucrative and is therefore always protected by patents and other instruments.  So all up you typically pay (todays prices) at least $1000 AUD per Kg for a cosmetic peptide, as supplied, and most manufacturers supply them in presentations that require a dose rate of between 0.5-3% in a formula, that means a per-formula cost of at least $5 per Kg from one ingredient but more typically $15-$30 per Kg on top of other costs.  To put this into perspective, a smallish to medium-sized brand with a cosmetic night cream that contains some natural ingredients typically comes in at around $40 per Kg for ingredients.  In that scenario it isn’t un-heard of for your peptide input to account for between 50-80% of your overall formula costs.

If we focus back to the structure again we can think of the peptides we use in cosmetics as having two regions to do two different jobs. There is the functional ‘key’ part which is the bit that interacts with whatever biological process we wish to influence, then there is the tail part which is the man-made ‘motor’ part if you like, the bit that gets the peptide to where it has to go.  Typically this ‘motor’ part has been a fatty acid onto which the amino acids that form the peptide can be attached.  These fatty acid chains can be sourced from any feedstock, vegetable or mineral with saturated C16-C18 chains likely coming from palm (although not always).

Here is what Matrixyl 3000 look like. Chemically this is now known as Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4.Palmitoyl pentapeptide-4.svg

Image by: Ed (Edgar181) – Own work, Public Domain,

Palmitoyl – palmitic acid tail, the ‘motor’. The name palmitoyl doesn’t mean it comes from palm, it means that it is a 16 carbon fatty acid.  Lots of vegetable and mineral origin materials have this configuration.

Penta – means 5. Because this is referring to the number of amino acids that make up the peptide chain, in this case, a lysine rich blend.

The number 4 at the end is an arbitrary number that is assigned by INCI regulators when the molecule is first listed so lower numbers were most likely registered earlier than larger numbers – this way of attributing numbers is not unusual, many (but not all) numbers you see in INCI names are about when the ingredient was registered. This is one reason why I find it amusing when people say they don’t want chemicals with numbers on them as that means something bad.

Matrixyl 3000 came onto the market in 2000 and it has remained popular because it does work quite well as long as it reaches its target tissue – it stimulates collagen, fibronectin, elastin and Glycosaminoglycan production. It also has a high level of market acceptance and awareness and is relatively widely available.

So where does it need to get to?

Collagen and elastin synthesis happens in the dermis but can be triggered by signals from fibronectin. A dermatologist will give you a more thorough explanation of this.

Fibronectin is part of the extracellular matrix and is synthesised, in part by keratinocytes (whole story is here )

Glycosamionglycans include hyaluronic acid and this chemistry helps to support collagen and elastin health by, amongst other things, trapping moisture.

And does it work?

Having been in the industry for a while now I see what people buy and what they don’t and this is one ingredient that is still purchased with some enthusiasm.  If you were to ask a dermatologist if this works they would probably say ‘no’ or ‘maybe a bit’ because that’s quite a valid science-based response but from where I’m sitting, as a cosmetic chemist I do see people get results with this, maybe not measurable collagen boosting (I don’t know as I haven’t had anyone share those type of results with me) but it passes the visible-check test which means that a substantial amount of people feel it does something good.  The gap between dermatologist and cosmetic efficacy is the evidence gap.  While cosmetic peptides have to go through some testing, that testing is typically carried out in small trials (20 people or less most often), by the ingredient manufacturers in short term trials (up to 60 days).  Dermatologists have medical degrees and as scientists we are taught to look for more robust evidence than this, especially when it comes to mapping cause and effect.  What I think is happening with this peptide is that it is helping to really boost moisture levels and take some of the stress that dryness brings away.  At least here in Australia where there are a lot of crispy skinned white people, that’s quite welcome and does give visible improvements regardless to how well the molecule penetrates or not.

But that’s old, what’s new?

If I put the rather clunky term ‘peptide skin’ into DEEPDYVE, an online  scientific paper resource, I get 322 papers pop up that were published in 2019 alone, many of which have some direct relevant to the cosmetic space.

Hot areas of research include the use of peptides to re-construct badly damaged skin such as full-thickness burns and other traumatic injury.  Some particularly interesting advances have been made in using self-assembling peptide nano fibre hydrogels to help stimulate the growth of bone and cartilage, heal complex wounds and better deliver drugs.  Some research is even looking at using peptides to help repair the type of nerve damage that results in hearing loss!  Now while not all of these applications relate to cosmetics, the technology is transferable.  The use of peptide infused hydrogels is particularly interesting to me as that’s essentially a super-powerful serum, the type that we commonly use in cosmetic science. It is likely that the learning from this type of research into partial thickness burns, ulcers and surgery wounds will filter up into cosmetic science and inform peptide manufacturers of the technology needed to get results at a ‘maintenance’ level in the cosmetic space.

In terms of the peptides that are currently available to the cosmetic chemist, there’s lots on offer with 344 results generated from a ‘peptides’ in ‘cosmetic ingredient’ search on the 2019 ‘In Cosmetic’ site alone.  Now I haven’t looked in detail at all of these but I know, from what I have seen, that some of these options have evidence that is a little light on scientific rigidity while others are a bit more robust.

How can you tell if the evidence behind a peptide is good?

Ok so I don’t want to give you an analytically perfect way to do this as for most of you, that won’t be practical. Instead, what I want to do is just show you what you can do to discern information about peptides a little better. Here is my list of what I do when I’m checking.

First I have to assume that the chemistry is relatively stable and able to release the peptide into the ‘skin’. I say the word ‘skin’ very deliberately as I don’t think we can assume that the peptide will get anywhere very deep unless we formulate very specifically for trans-epidermal delivery, something that we can only really know we’ve done if we measure it (and that gets expensive).

Once that’s acknowledged I do this. 

  1. In vivo is better than in vitro.

In vitro is the test tube testing.  Skin cells in a petri-dish or equivalent are a useful medium to test if a peptide can do something on the cells it is targeting.  However, just because it can do something in a test tube or Petri dish doesn’t mean it will do it in a biological system. Further, the ingredient MAY be able to do something to these target cells in real-life but if you can’t see any benefits from that action it is not very useful cosmetically, at least not in the short to medium term.   What I do is look to see how many of the ingredients claims have been seen on real people during normal or typical use.

2.      Sample size, duration and type.

How many people were tested on, for how long and using what type of product?  I mentioned in an article I wrote the other day that the EU is now tightening up on product claims and then I focused on ‘free from’. They are also tightening up on claims made by brands  based on the ingredients they are in the formula, the actives.  If you are looking to use a peptide in your product so that you can piggy back on the data the manufacturer has put together for your claims, you must make sure that your product is equivalent. That means a very similar base formula, active at the same level and same in-use protocol.  If I’ve got a customer who wants a peptide spritzer I can’t use the data generated by the supplier using a cream and claim equivalence.  Also if I only have the budget to add 0.5% of peptide but the manufacturer formulated with 2% I can’t expect the same results.  It’s not rocket science but in the thrill of it all, this type of thing can get lost.

3.    How the peptide claims to work.

Peptides can claim all sorts of exciting things but what I do is have a pragmatic look at what they are saying, focusing on where the active has to get to do what they claim.  Topical botox type claims are very, very tricky to achieve via a cosmetic due to the action of the peptide needing to affect muscle contractions.  Hydration claims only have to get as far as the epidermis,  pigmentation claims only have to get to the keratinocytes in the epidermis.  The site of action gives me some idea of how critical my base formula design is in achieving the promised action.  If the action is expected on the surface, I only have to get my product to sit their, if it is at the muscle layer, I need some heavy duty skin penetrating boosters to even have half a chance. Some ingredient philosophies identified by the brand owner may make it very difficult for me to achieve a base product that can even attempt to deliver this active correctly.

4. Price per dose.

Yes, it’s exciting to come across a new ingredient with the promise of a peptide but does it stack up financially?

5. Time to act.

This is another thing I carefully look at.  If the brand I’m working on is the type of product range you take home and love forever then a longer action time may be OK, especially if the claims are not over-sold.  However, if I’m working with an attention-deficit brand that you stack high, sell bucket loads of then move on, the action has to be faster.

6. Availability legally and practically.

There is no point in getting excited about a chemical that you can neither purchase in pack sizes that you can afford or it is not approved for use in your country.  I have to check both and as these things can both be show-stoppers its good for you to check this also.

Peptides – wrapping it up.

As a scientist I used to be very skeptical about cosmetic peptides as I saw a lot of companies launching a lot of products that had not a lot of transferable data behind them.  In addition, many were going for that ‘topical botox’ type angle and failing to live up to it in real life.  However, nineteen years have passed since Matrixyl, a peptide that is still going strong, and in that time, our scientific understanding of the value and application of peptide technology has grown, our ability to synthesis functional peptides has improved as too has our ability to formulate for better results.  So while it may not always work out that the peptide you purchase for your skin care brand works in the optimal way as highlighted in the glossy brochure, there is every chance that it will do something good and that you will see some level of results if the ingredient is used properly.  Now whether it is worth it depends on many factors but I am now of the opinion that at least it is now worth a try.  As for the non-cosmetic use of peptides, that’s got me really excited.  How cool would it be if we could re-grow our own tissues after sports or age related injury or stress?  I think that would be wonderful and if cosmetics can piggy back on some of that, why not!


The herbs that tell our stories: Stinging Nettles

July 21, 2019

When we choose an extract to put into our cosmetics it brings with it a story and if we are lucky, that story means something to us.  One extract that holds meaning for me is the not-that-sexy and actually quite painful stinging nettle, a plant that I’ve had the pain and pleasure of getting up-close-and-personal with all too often including several times when, as a child, I fell into a pile of them while wearing my swimming costume. Ouch!

The reason for sharing this with you now is because I quite often get customers who think about the herbal extracts they want to use as a bit of an after-thought, an add-on, bonus or even the ‘fluff and bubbles’ stuff. I understand that mentality and have been prone to viewing the extracts a bit like that myself sometimes but all that changed for me when I recently met three different groups of people who truly know and have deep connections to their country. It made me think about where my bones come from, my country (in the ancestral sense)  and that’s when this came up.

I was brought up with my family on my fathers country, in a region of England known as the Midlands because… it was in the middle of the country (landlocked). Here in Australia I’d be known as a freshwater person and I’m happy with that, I feel like that’s me and it was around the fresh water that these things used to grow and I used to play.

In the cosmetic sense, the stinging nettle,  Urtica dioica is something that my mum taught me about. She was my connection to the forest, its plants and its magic.  She told me that stinging nettle was a good source of vitamin C but as a child I could never imagine tasting such a painful vegetable, I didn’t realise then that when you cook this the sting goes away!  She also told me that this plant used to be used to treat eczema, a condition that I struggled with a lot as a child. Again, I could not imagine this plant in that way and as such, never begged to try it and stuck instead to my steroid cream and thick moisturisers.

Now as a chemist I look at the plant with different eyes again. I see that this is a good source of chlorophyl, (a green pigment that can be used to colour anything from food to clothing),  gallic acid (powerful antioxidant),  vitamin A (skin repair) and mineral salts (barrier functioning), including sulfur (prevents skin infection) and magnesium (lowering cortisol which can reduce acne inflammation).  In addition to its use in managing skin conditions the herb also has a history of use in hair care as a hair growth stimulant and scalp soother.

If I come back now into my present I am reminded of the white history on these shores.  I picked a bunch of these nettles from Fox Hill Hollow, our home out west, and with every snip of the scissors I thought about how these might have got here.  Maybe they came on boats with the first fleet? Maybe they were deposited as stray seeds in the heavy boots of the most brutal of early colonisers? Maybe they in the feed that the new ‘free men’ brought in to feed their cattle as they dreamed of their new life with all of its possibilities out here on the frontier.  However these seeds got here they took room and are now flourishing on a disturbed piece of woodland on our patch of Cowra-shire in New South Wales. They are as foreign as I am but like me, they have made themselves comfortable and are thriving. Like me, they have a job to do.

My job, this time, was to take my haul of nettles and turn it into an extract for a shampoo that I wanted to make for the family. I prepared this by infusing it in water (rather like you would a cup of tea).  This wouldn’t necessarily be a good way to preserve the vitamin C concentration but I wasn’t worried about that. If I wanted vitamin C I might use glycerin or another method of extraction entirely.   The extract was strained and then preserved before it was used in my shampoo formula.  The shampoo contained a range of mild surfactants, a conditioning quat and some eucalyptus hydrosol that I’d just distilled also.

The exact details of my formula aren’t the focus of this blog piece, what is the focus are the stories that came pouring out of me once I sat back and gave them space to flow.  I’ve been a bit stuck recently on account of the age and stage of life I’m at, not so much a mid-life crisis (there is no crisis), more of a mid-life reflection and re-directing of the precious resource called energy we all have.  Walking through my own personal history and relationship with this plant and then harvesting and using it in a tangible way has really helped me to join some dots.

I don’t expect all of my customers to run through this process with all of their herbs but maybe, just maybe, taking the time to listen to the stories that the herbs we choose hold within them, whether personal or not, would help bring a deeper connection and more solid appreciation for these precious materials to the table.  I kind of think that’s what the world needs more of these days, don’t you?

Amanda x

Europe Moves To Tighten ‘Free From’ Guidelines

July 21, 2019

Cosmetic brands have been selling themselves as ‘paraben free ‘or ‘sulphate free’  for years now but that may be about to stop in EU based markets in a move that for once, sees (un) common sense prevail.

This article came out in April 

Basically there has been, in place since the EU cosmetic laws came into force, a provision for brands to be challenged for making claims that undermine the law. This includes brands that make ‘free from’ claims about ingredients that have been assessed as generally safe such as is the case with parabens and sulphates plus many more chemicals (mineral oils, silicones, PEGs, perfumes etc).  The provision for prosecution due to breaching the current guidelines hasn’t been widely utilised up to now as far as I know because of a lack of guidance as to how it should could be used. This year, guidelines and training have been rolled out so it is easier for brands to now be formally challenged and, on the other hand, easier for brands to know exactly what is and isn’t legal.

The document that was part of this training process is here.

If you are a brand that operates outside of the EU market then maybe you feel you don’t need to even look at these laws, I can see the point. However, for once, in law (in my opinion) there are some pretty good things in this, things that I think all of our cosmetic buying public will like and appreciate, especially when it comes to truthfulness.

Here is a snippet of what the EU law says on truthfulness of product claims: 

  1. Truthfulness
    1. (1)  If it is claimed on the product that it contains a specific ingredient, the ingredient shall be deliberately present.
    2. (2)  Ingredient claims referring to the properties of a specific ingredient shall not imply that the finished product has the same properties when it does not.
    3. (3)  Marketing communications shall not imply that expressions of opinions are verified claims unless the opinion reflects verifiable evidence.

A link to the full EU cosmetic law can be found here (in English). It is also available in other languages to download from the Eu website and I’d always recommend you go back to the EU law site before making business decisions in case this link gets old and outdated.  There is quite a bit more said on how products selling in the EU should be labelled and presented so it is worth a read.

After reading through this new legislative push I have to say that I’m quite glad that the EU have stepped up here.  Making ‘free from’ claims about ingredients that people FEEL unsure about or HAVE HEARD are unsafe has long been a bug bare of mine as it is actually selling on fear, a false fear and as such, it is deeply dishonest.   This type of behaviour has been contributing to what I’ve seen throughout my career and that is a denigration of science, a complete break down in the general publics ability to discern good science information from bad, respect for scientific process and thinking (and that’s not the same as respect for scientists as a group or as individuals by the way) and a lack of ability to separate our emotional response from a more calculated, pragmatic one.  That said, some ‘free from’ claims will be allowed.  The information makes a case for brands wanting to claim that their products are free from animal derived ingredients, this makes sense, Vegans deserve to have this information easily available without them needing a science degree.  Also, in some cases claims such as ‘alcohol free’ make sense, for example when products such as mouthwash are to be sold for children (this is an example given in the documentation).

If you are reading this article from anywhere outside of the EU I’ll remind you that you don’t have to comply with this but I will also remind you that this law actually makes a lot of sense, is focused on the consumer and their access to honest, science-based information and is not actually that hard to implement.  I’ll definitely be advising my clients to take heed of this if they want to be as honest as they can be.

Happy reading!