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When plants are chemical factories.

June 26, 2019

Let me introduce you to another Australian Native plant, Nicotiana Benthamiana and yes, you can smoke or chew it:

This unassuming little plant that grows across WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland is quite the laboratory super-star thanks to its ability to act as a virtual chemical factory.  In fact, it has been put forward as a possible ‘premier plant cell biology model‘ by a number of academics in this field.

I came across this when looking at research into a plant-derived peptide that a customer of mine will be stocking.  On hearing that the ingredient I was reading about, a peptide,  was ‘grown’ using this plant as its factory I was somewhat stunned.  I hadn’t known before today that plants can be used in this way and if I’m honest, I still don’t fully understand how it all works.  It is not really surprising, given the complex nature of the science involved.

Like so many other Indigenous Australian plants, this plant was scooped up in the great white take-over of early settlement.  Seeds and specimens of many botanical species were bagged, labelled and spirited away by boat to Kew gardens and other places.  I never really thought much about this until relatively recently but now I’ve become WOKE (awakened I think it means) it really sucks.  What sucks is the fact that the local people whose interest in, and use of plants like these informed much of the early picking have rarely received anything other than a token mention in dispatches for their time. The fact that Australian Intellectual Property is still trouping out of the country without even saying thank you is a little hard to stomach. But here is where we find ourselves and here is where we need to start making amends so that’s what I’ll try to do.

As the name suggests this is a nicotine plant.  I found a great summary article on the indigenous uses of this in the Australian newspaper by Nicolas Rothwell who describes beautifully how the dried leaves of this plant are ground up with ash (to help release the nicotine) before being shaped into a pellet and chewed – this is the traditional way.  This plant,  Pituri,  formed part of Central Australian and Western Desert culture (the word Mingkulpa is used to talk about cultural significance of the plant and rituals) and is still used today typically by women elders. If, like me, you are concerned about how little thought is given to Indigenous Australia with regard to plant knowledge, this may be useful, it is a submission to IP Australia on this very topic.  It is good to see that people are stepping up and trying to put some protections in place. This review from March 2018 is also very good. 

The Westerners who first ‘stole’ the plant matter in order to study it were quite disappointed to find that the active was only tobacco.  The tobacco from this native Australian plant isn’t quite up to the level of productivity of the plant typically used to make cigarettes, apparently that came from Mexico and South America.  However, this plant has much more exciting things to offer.

Part of the scientific interest in this tobacco plant is its lack of immune system. As I mentioned I’m still trying to get to grips with this but this article states that as a key factor making this plant a useful candidate for studying plant disease and how plants might survive in other climates or even on other planets – useful research given the mess we are making down here…

In addition, the plant is also being looked at for the production of terpenoid chemistry, a chemistry that has many uses in cosmetics for flavours, fragrances and even antimicrobials.

Before I wrap this up I guess it is worth asking the question ‘what do you think about using plants as chemical factories?”  Apparently this work doesn’t meet the definition of ‘genetic modification’ so the ingredients made are GMO free (if that is important to you).  I get asked quite often about the origins of ingredients and where I used to be able to say ‘synthetic’ or ‘natural’ and that would be it, now people want a much deeper answer. I’m usually really fine with giving people answers but some things are beyond our untrained comprehension so I do wonder of the merits in the discussion, especially given the general appetite for ‘if you don’t understand it, reject it’.  Maybe I’m being too harsh…

This really is the tip of the iceberg for this plant and my knowledge of the role it is playing in my cosmetic future.  I am going to carry on reading and if I find anything else out that is worthy of sharing I’ll pop it up here.

Amanda x


P Anisic Acid isn’t soluble.

June 26, 2019

I thought I’d write a little about this ingredient as it is a very good natural preservative, especially against mould but it is quite hard to use so we should explore that.

P Anisic Acid is supplied as a white powder that is stubbornly resistant to solubilising into your cosmetic formula.  I’ve had many a chat about this ingredient and mostly it is about how formulations containing it can look gritty.

Now the ingredient is mostly used at between 0.05-0.3% so not very much, but that little bit can cause people a lot of problems hence my blog post.

If we look at the solubility, we must first remember that the word is an applied term i.e. we must talk about both solvent and solute in order to establish solubility.  In this case the solvent is water and the solute is p anisic acid:

That graph comes from here and relates to an Experchem spec of p anisic acid.  Being an individual chemical other suppliers data is likely correlate well with this.

This graph shows me how solubility of p anisic acid rises as the temperature rises.  The temperature is plotted along the bottom (X Axis), the solubility along the side going up (Y Axis).   Between 30-40C we get what looks like a massive jump in water solubility when compared to temperatures below 30C but in reality we are only talking a big jump in what is a tiny amount of ingredient.  At 40C only 0.03g per 100g (or 0.03% of p anisic acid is soluble. That’s not really enough to be useful in the average cosmetic formula as we require at least 0.05% to be anti-fungal and typically use this up to 0.3% so 10 times more than this!

So what can we do?

First of all we have to think about how a preservative works and whether insolubility is a real problem or not.  Now fungus grows on the surface of a product so it makes sense that a good anti-fungal preservative will sit at the surface of a product.  There are many surfaces within a product that contains many phases. In an oil-in-water product there are surfaces between the dispersed oil drops and the continuous water phase.  It is helpful if anti-fungal and general anti-microbial preservatives sit there.  I like to think of my preservatives as border security guys.  They are no use to anyone if they are asleep inside the centre of the country, they need to be at the borders between countries, ready to check peoples passports and deny entry if needed.  Preservatives are the same, anti-fungal preservatives are most definitely needed on the front line!

So not being soluble may not be such a big deal?

The main problem with this lack of solubility is the ability of the user to detect tiny undissolved particles in their product. This is an aesthetic and maybe a safety problem (blobs of p anisic acid may be more irritating than if it was solubilised throughout the product).  It may also be a preservative problem if the preservative is poorly wetted and therefore has less surface area.  Again if we think of this as like a border patrol person, think of how less effective border security would be if all the guards were huddled into one spot – that’s what not wetting your p Anisic acid would look like, plenty or room to sneak around them!

How soluble is enough?

One could argue that the best outcome for p anisic acid is for it to be adequately wetted and partially dissolved without being fully dissolved.  That way it stays at the border, nicely spread out and ready for action while being harder to detect (on account of it being finely dispersed) and less likely to irritate (for the same reason).

So how do you achieve that?

Heat is an imperfect tool.  Sure if you heat the formula, the p anisic acid becomes more soluble but cosmetics are not stored hot, they are typically stored at room temperature and we’ve already seen that it doesn’t help us.

Changing the solvent helps.  Adding some alcohol will help boost p anisic acid solubility because this chemical is soluble in alcohol.  We could play around with the ratio of alcohol to p anisic acid in the formula to get it to just dissolve rather than become fully incorporated in the water phase.  Doing this can lead to crystallisation later down the track for the formula as crystals of the partially solubilised p anisic acid find their friends and start to migrate together but this may not be a problem for a long time – i.e. after your product shelf life has run out.  You’d need to check.

Another thing that can help is to alter the chemistry of the active.  P Anisic acid is not water soluble but sodium anisate is.  You can make this chemical change by altering your product pH with Sodium Hydroxide or equivalent.  Again you don’t want to make the p anisic acid folly comfortable in your water phase but you can encourage it in a little, lubricate its passage somewhat.  You may want to experiment with this.  Both p anisic acid and sodium anisate are antimicrobial, the p anisic works best as anti-fungal because it stays at the interface (that’s physics) rather than because of its chemistry so keep that in mind and you should still be ok.

Hopefully that gives you some tips of how to work with P Anisic Acid, a great naturally derived preservative that is good at preventing fungal growth in water based cosmetics.

Amanda x

I do believe in fairies but I don’t believe in that.

June 26, 2019

I’ve always believed in fairies and by ‘believed’ I mean I can feel the magic of the world everywhere. Every time I go out on a bush walk (which is quite often) I see little faces in the rock formations, the clouds, the trees even. I smell the signs of a world that hides its self from me;  taste the soil, rain and decaying leaf litter in my mouth as I breathe. I feel the worlds layers open and close like a pulse with every step.

I feel it is a wonderful gift to be able to see and feel the world this way, to be able to weave a narrative into the threads of spiders webs and be able to see the rays of light that filter through the branches as kisses from an all powerful star.  But my ability to see the world like that does not mean that I will believe everything or anything I’m told without first examining it scientifically.

This blog is an exploration of the world of wellness and wellbeing and how people elevate the personal testimony to godlike status.

“I cured myself therefore I can cure you”

I’ve written about this before but it has recently come to the front of my mind again and so I felt compelled to examine it again.

You are a science experiment but in your own science lab.  Your science lab doesn’t just consist of flesh, blood and bone, it’s also got shelf upon shelf of prior experiences, feelings and thoughts.  All of these exist on complex laneways that lead to shelves that only you have, organised in a way that only you can make sense of.

You may remember a time when you tried to untangle a ball of strings. Maybe they were shoelaces, bits of wool or thread, necklaces even.  How hard is it to spot which goes with which and just pull that?  How hard is it to follow one thread and one thread only all the way to the end? How often do you just want to get the scissors and chop the part you want free?

Your science lab is constantly changing. It’s changing position, content and capacity. Some days it is huge and well organised with every bit of equipment you ever dreamt of needing organised in neat, shiny rows.  However, on other days it is a tiny broom cupboard-like space where everything is piled up, twisted and somewhat broken.  In between those two extremes is a lab that is pretty much OK for you as long as you take the time and effort to clean in properly and care for your equipment. Sure you dream of a new this or that, extra something and a few more hours in the day to get on top of it all but you manage, mostly you manage.

This is the lab in which you do your experiment of one.

Everything you do in your life shapes this lab.

Your lab is not my lab. I recognise some of the things you have and follow why and how it is organised to a point but I don’t ‘feel’ it like you do.

And so it goes with your personal ‘cure’.

I can see it and feel it, if I’m lucky it will do something but it won’t ‘fit’ me like it ‘fits’ you because it can’t.

What is wellness and wellbeing?

I’m pretty sure that the wellbeing industry is all about staying well rather than treating illness.

So the medical industry is all about treating illness so we can get well again maybe?

Wellness seems an absolutely worthwhile life cause and one that we probably should take on as our personal missions — stay well, grow, have boundless energy and vitality, clear skin, shiny hair and nails and all our own teeth.  Some of us find it relatively easy to stay well as we are born with a robust genetic blueprint, are nurtured in safety and love with the right amount of resources, including time, and we manage to maintain that throughout adulthood. However, most of us aren’t quite that lucky.

As humans, all of our bodies work fundamentally in the same way whatever life has thrown at us and in that regard we undoubtedly feel we should be knowable, measurable, diagnosable and curable, at least to some degree.

But is wellbeing as knowable and illness?

Can wellbeing be achieved in a prescribed way?

Is feeling well the same as being well?

I actually doubt it.

Wellness and Illness are not opposites. 

I introduced this blog post stating that I believe in fairies.  Now I believe in fairies like I believe in wellness. I believe ( ‘believe’ being the term I feel most appropriate for such a dialogue), that wellness is easier to feel than to map and measure, but just like a belief in the supernatural, the power of this belief lies more in the abstract than the analytical. One of the big issues with some cancers is that you can’t feel them until it is too late.  So you can report feeling well and healthy (and even measure well in all the usual tests) even when you are carrying and growing a cancer. On the other hand, some people feel terrible in spite of any measurable or immediately knowable reason why.  Us humans are funny like that and I wonder if that’s something we don’t really like to admit.

So maybe the wellness industry is more about helping you feel like you are doing all you can to stay well in spite of all of the above? That at least you tried…

But tried what, that is the question.

Trying something that worked for someone like you.

Testimonial Time.

I think that most of us know, deep down, that the control we have over our lives is a bit of an illusion and that this reality makes us feel somewhat vulnerable.  I see this vulnerability played out in the wellness industry of which the beauty industry is a part, well, at least some part of it is.

I wonder if personal testimonies are given so much power because they help us feed some important parts of ourselves:

1) the part that wants to help give others comfort


2) The part that makes us feel empowered and in control.

Undertaking some positive action to address these two instincts helps us feel less vulnerable.

The personal testimonial feels like the ultimate gift to give another. We open ourselves up (become vulnerable) by sharing our troubles and struggles with others. In that way we become accessible, approachable and trustable.  Sharing how we overcame a problem, especially one that our audience either has or fears getting, is arguably much more powerful, relatable and wholesome than hearing how a medicine can ‘cure’ a specific disease.  With the latter, it is the pill or maybe procedure or practitioner that has the power, with the former the power is in your hands.  That is both highly desirable and commercially valuable.

As a human I get this in the same way that I ‘get’ how people, myself included, believe in things like fairies. However,  the scientific part of me finds it disconcerting that these personal testimonials get confused with and placed above things like real scientific evidence. I find this hard because I actually believe that the two things can exist together, not as equivalents but as complementary parts of the whole human experience.


Throughout this mind-dump of a blog post I’ve been playing with what I see are two sides of my human character, the science side and the in-awe side.  The science side of me can’t really understand how people can ever believe that their experiment-of-one produces transferable knowledge in the type that can be used to treat others. I can’t understand how people don’t recognise their own biases and how these often lead to them jumping to conclusions.  Testimonial experiential experiments are often uncontrolled and have no capacity to ‘blind’ the test subject in the way we do with scientific studies in order to minimise bias. Often still, results are extrapolated out far beyond the scope of the experiment are are Un-repeatable so you basically get one shot and that’s it. Scientific research more typically involves repeating an experiment several times while making small, measurable changes to the conditions.

On the other hand I feel that we’ve often got it wrong with science.  My scientific training has been done in a westernised way.  As such, I’ve been taught to break complex systems down into parts that can be measured, known and then sold independently from the whole.  This is how pharmaceuticals work and how most western doctors go about diagnosing and treating humans.  I absolutely can see the flaws in that way of thinking, how it may win a battle but fail to win the bigger war.  I see how this approach makes it very difficult to give nuanced, holistic care and consideration, and how the things that us humans really need can be left wanting in this model.

But it doesn’t have to be an either /or scenario.

It turns out that what I don’t believe in is pitching ‘this’ against ‘that’.

I believe and am therefore invested in the gentle and quiet art of observation which includes paying attention to your testimonial but not raising it to godlike status.  I believe in the value of taking something apart in order to learn more about the value of each cog, wheel and system. However, I also believe that it has less power in its orphaned state and therefore always has to be returned and viewed as part of the whole.

A scientific approach doesn’t have to mean that anything intangible or personal flies out of the window just as a wellness approach doesn’t have to deny or ignore science.  They are two hands clasping the same heart and they both empower us to survive, live and die well.

So I will continue to be that scientist that believes in fairies as that’s what gives my life meaning.

Amanda x



My bush supermarket adventure and the lab work that followed it…

June 21, 2019

It’s not every day that you get to work in a laboratory on Groote Eylandt, a place that I only heard about  during my Help Desk duties at New Directions.  On that point I have to remind you all that as a professional cosmetic chemist I can’t always talk about the exciting things I do, you all must think me super dull. However, thankfully this isn’t one of those ‘ssshhhh’ times and so when the call for ‘HELP’ came in, both myself and the NDA team were onto it because helping businesses grow is what we are all about! That said, this isn’t an advertisement piece I just thought it would be useful for you to know why, how and who was involved, not least by way of showing gratitude.

So off to the bush I went but first a diversion…


I didn’t really plan to get into the cosmetic industry, have never really been a cosmetic ‘girl’ and being something of a tree hugger feel a groaning awkwardness about the waste and consumeristic nature of the industry I’m a part of.  That said, I stuck at it because I also recognised ‘it,’ this industry, as holding a special type of power over people.  No, not the power that tells women that they are saggy and wrinkly when they are not, that they need fixing, plucking, whitening and scrubbing.  More the side of the industry that helps us express our desires and goals, that invites us to care for ourselves and others, that facilitates some down time and pampering, that reminds us to touch ourselves and others with care and love.  That’s the side that I love and that’s the side that keeps me going.

In order to do that you need ingredients from which to make the products. It is there, in that supply chain, from the soil to the soul that I’m fascinated, obsessed even. It is there that this story goes.

The cosmetic industry is a hungry beast. Hungry for novelty it chews up and spits out any NEW ingredient it can get its hands on in a bid to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than all the others.  I see this all the time and to be honest, it’s hard not to get caught up on it, at least some times.  One year we saw an insatiable appetite for Dragons Blood Extract, next it was Kakadu Plum and then Hyaluronic Acid,  Rose Skincare, Topical Botox Peptides, Papaya Ointments and then Vitamin D skin infusions.  If it sounds exotic, great, if we can get some data behind it from which product claims can be made, even better. Brands are like kids in a candy store just salivating to dive in and taste what’s next and in many ways that’s understandable.

But what are we missing out on when we rush like that?

The market for Australian indigenous ingredients, especially those with ‘bush knowledge’ behind them is strong both here and overseas. Australia is seen as a country of extreme weather and unforgivingly rugged landscapes and as such, our plants have a reputation for being super-potent super-foods (and cosmetic actives).  One could argue that this commoditisation of our landscape first became a ‘thing’ in the early days of white settlement when boats would sail into Western Australia empty and out with a heavy cargo of Sandalwood.  Meanwhile on the other side of this vast island was Eucalyptus which was studied, squeezed, pressed and traded with equal zeal.  Thinking about it, that’s always been ‘our’ thing — we came, we stayed, we stole it.  Too harsh maybe? But really, has much changed?

You can’t ‘own’ Groote Eyelandt, it owns you or at least it feels that way.  The moment you step foot on the shores of this beautiful tropical island you feel part of another time and space, it reminds me of that song…

….And just like this song, the island means something and has a rhythm and a story that’s as rich and alive as it ever was, either in spite of everything or because of it, I’m not sure that’s for me to say.

From my viewpoint I can see that the islands narrative is complex, not for the feint hearted. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to get here and stay here. There’s the croc infested waters, the stingrays, box jelly fish and death adders.  The lively tradition of settling disputes by spears and the black gold that is manganese.  And then there’s the people,  the ‘locals’. People who I recognise instinctively and yet don’t know at all.  People who came here on song lines long ago, who became part of the soil and who grew strong in the shade of the trees they were born under.  They speak Anindilyakwa, a complex rhythmic language that I can’t even pretend to understand but you can feel it when you hear it. It feels like the words sing you home, weaving threads with each sentence that remind you who you are and why you came.

But none of that matters when you just want to capitalise on a bit of the bush.

We drove out onto lands that are under Aboriginal control – that’s true for much of Groote thanks to a 1976 land rights were granted to the people.  The path was dusty,  the corrugated road shook the truck and plants tried to invade our space every time we slowed down, popping a limb or leaf through the open windows. It was warm but not hot on account of it being the dry season, something I was quite grateful for – I feel that humidity is something to be endured rather than enjoyed!

There is no doubting the beauty of the landscape out here and on the day we went, the bush supermarket was quite full!  We picked, scraped and gathered a few bits and pieces to go into the Bush Medicine inspired balms that Bush Medijina are becoming famous for.  I won’t tell you what we picked because that’s not for me to say but suffice to say, every species has its story to tell.

Shopping like this really does ground you. I’m not a fan of shopping usually but if this was my supermarket, I’d be popping down here for a look every day!  However, I’m reminded of another way of seeing ‘this’ as just a series of opportunities for money making.  The proverbial cash-cow.

Some people don’t feel anything much. They can come in, take a sniff around and walk off with everything you value without a second thought about their impact. I know people like that and the worst part is that you often don’t even know you are being fleeced until it is too late.  It feels like this place could easily become that, there’s enough here to attract the sharks.

We took our goodies back to the laboratory and set up for the next day, a day where we would put the plants to work again, but this time in the form of their extracts, juices and infusions.  I shared some of my knowledge and invited them to play and run their own experiments with the test products I took along.  There was no lack of creativity or pride in seeing something so familiar transformed into something new, something ‘other’.  There’s so many layers here to explore, so much potential but I think it’s best if they tell you that.

I trained as a cosmetic chemist in the western tradition of being, doing and thinking.  Before that I trained as a chemist under the same thought regimen.  It may seem like nothing to many people but to me that isn’t nothing.  My nature and nurture only ever match up when I’m out on the land.  What I mean by that is that science, chemistry, education doesn’t make sense to me in its abstract ‘orphaned’ state.  The western way is to divide things up into knowable chunks of power that can be exploited in one shape or form.  It isn’t all bad, this way of dissecting provided a pathway for much closer observation of each individual part than can be seen otherwise.  However, I am constantly reminding myself in my head that we can’t know the true nature of a table by just observing one leg. This feels like that.

My western ways provide me with an ‘unnatural’ perspective on the situation be that ‘situation’ a plant, product or market opportunity.  But another way of knowing dominates here and that is a way I FEEL rather than KNOW.  It’s a way of being that requires you to step into the space fully, surrendering your individualised ego until you breathe as part of the whole.  Now all of this might be sounding a bit ‘oh my goodness woman, did you SMOKE something’ but I don’t mean it like that. Anyone who has met me will know what a blunt speaker and practically minded beast I can be.  However, this is a ‘thing,’ you really can FEEL it.  When you stop trying to take a plant away from its environment, stop trying to pull it apart into this part and that part you get a better insight into it as a whole dynamic being.  OK, OK Hippy Trippy again.  I don’t mean like that, I just mean that things start to make more sense, measurable things like the vitamin C concentration, the presence of antioxidants, the potential oil yield, the plant colour and smell, the reason that this tree is better than that tree and so on and so forth.  Sure we can communicate this in discrete scientific packets but we won’t truly value it until we let it tell its own story.

And it’s there that I leave this.

This place has many stories to tell and the best placed people to tell its stories are the people who grew here and are growing here.

I don’t want Groote to be seen as a trophy place where someone can come and do a drive-by plant heist, a ‘grab-and-run’ cowboy, a bio-pirate.  I don’t want THESE people to have to be satisfied with wild harvesting their green gold while some other fella gets rich on the up-stream. I want THESE people to swim all the way and swim so strongly against the tide of the modern world that they carve their own new song lines if that’s what they need to do. Song lines that bring with them ingredients, products and a sense of value that is so lacking in the world that sits outside of this magical place.  Let’s help them do just that.

Bush Medijina balms are beautifully made (and no, I didn’t formulate them) and have aromas that will make you yearn for some ‘me’ time in this great backyard we call Australia.

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Material Girl – If you stink, it’s probably your clothes fault.

May 22, 2019

It has come to my attention that the deodorant you choose and use is only part of your war-on-stink arsenal and that it possibly isn’t even the most important part.  With that in mind I turned to fabric in my bid to understand why I can create  a deodorant that works on me one day but not every day OR that a product works on me perfectly but then doesn’t work on anther person.  Sure, there are many variables here but isn’t it time we spoke about fabric?


This, for me has been one of those ‘aha’ moments that I felt like I knew all along but didn’t know at the same time. Like I get that there are fabrics that wick away moisture (sports clothes, those cool undies that my hubby loves) and fabrics that make even the most demure of us sweat like a pig (100% polyester I’m looking at you).  I have observed on me that I have some tops that seem to stink almost the moment after I put them on (cotton, elastane mix) and other clothing that I can do a 10 mile hike in and still smell of roses (merino wool, you are my friend).  What I hadn’t realised, the penny that hadn’t dropped (an English saying) was the impact that this may have in my work as a deodorant creator. How can I test and accept test critique from people when I don’t know what material their clothing was?  Is it time for me to dictate a test protocol that includes choice of fabric? I think so.

Much of my job involves knowing and appreciating how things are tested in a lab / controlled situation but then throwing that out and just coping with the wild and unruly reality that is every-day life.  That’s how I’ve arrived here really, at a junction that is made trickier to navigate due to the complexities of our human habits and preferences.  Very interesting but very tricky nonetheless.

Without turning this into a lesson in fabric science suffice to say that some materials are less likely to leave you smelling bad than others.  The materials used to make the fibre matter, the weave of the fibre matters and then how you manage the fibre matters too – do you use fabric conditioner or not, air dry or tumble dry, damp home or dry home, old clothes or new clothes etc.

Let’s stop there for a moment, fabric softener/ conditioner…

Chemistry wise, your fabric softener/ conditioner is rather like a hair conditioner for your clothes. It makes the fibres feel all silky and smooth which is lovely BUT it does that via a chemical reaction between the product and your clothing that deposits a cationic ‘conditioner’ onto the fibre.  This has many tactile benefits but one down side can be increased odour from you when you wear them, especially when you ignore the washing instructions on your gym wear and dose up the conditioner.  This article is quite helpful. Fabrics that are already quite water-resistant become more so thanks to a dose of fabric conditioner and that can spell trouble for your pits, especially where the fabric conditioner interferes with the way the weave wicks away moisture from your body.   I’ve been a mum for 18 years and a chemist for 22 and like I said before, I kind of knew this intellectually but have always been too lazy to separate my washing. Everything gets exactly the same treatment – more fool me!

So what about the fabric?

Generally speaking, fabrics that absorb moisture well perform better in reducing the formation of body odours than fabrics with little to no moisture holding or wicking capacity – see, there are two points there. Wicking and Holding can happen together or apart.

Moisture holding fabrics.

Many natural fibres have good moisture holding capacity but it is wrong to think that all do.  Silk is particularly bad at holding moisture but wool is really good.  I tried to find comparative data on exactly how much moisture different fabrics could hold but a) I lost my notes and b) the information I did find varied so dramatically that I felt it best just to focus on the ‘big picture’ being as though this isn’t really my science are of expertise. Within the natural realm there are also some other stand-outs such as hemp and bamboo. Hemp is a particularly good fibre for clothing as it has good moisture absorbing properties and has some anti-microbial powers. This is a huge advantage over cotton which can rot over time and during that rotting process can also discolour and stain more easily.

Many synthetic fibres have very poor moisture holding capacity on their own and fibres such as polyester, Nylon and elastane blends are well known culprits – elastane is the technical name for lycra and spandex type fibres.  These modern fibres were created to make clothing more durable, flexible, light-weight, longer-lasting and, believe it or not, breathable.  To vilify the fabric just for its chemistry is to not know it.  Not all clothes with lycra content will be sweat-inducing, it’s a matter of balance (isn’t everything), application and care.

Modern clothing is usually a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres that help our clothes last longer, require less ironing, hold their shape longer and feel more comfortable.  Sweating and end-of-life environmental impact are, however, two down sides we have to contend with.

What can we do as brand owners, developers and product buyers to counter this issue?

The main thing that I’m feeling empowered about is to know that the fabric that my clients and their customers are wearing matters in how they perceive my formulations/ their products or their competitors products.

One thought I had that I found quite interesting was about deodorant pricing and the impact that might have on these less controllable co-factors.  If you create a deodorant that is $20 per tube in a market that can buy deodorants for $3 per tube you are only going to attract customers with a) expensive tastes or b) with big budgets.  It is quite possible that these people have greater access to higher quality materials and as a consequence of making larger investments in clothing they may also care for these better (not just sticking them all in a mixed wash like I do).  This could mean that a more expensive deodorant is perceived better than a cheap one not because its chemistry is better but because its customers have ‘better’ clothes.  I actually feel this is significant.

As brand owners sitting anywhere along the value chain this is also important.  We can empower our clients at all points along the continuum with information that will help them get the most out of their deodorant after purchase, that may include advice on how best to care for their clothing (even if they can’t afford higher quality threads).

An aside – my wardrobe basics.

I had a very quick look at some of the things I wear regularly and this is what I found:

Cotton/ elastane – these feel quite sweaty for me (tops and bottoms, more top than bottoms). I have a feeling that the sweatiness is related to the amount of elastane present and the weave of the blend.  This fabric definitely traps sweat close to the skin for me.

100% viscose – (viscose is also known as Rayon, also known as artificial silk). This is a semi-synthetic fibre that I find fairly OK and good for all but the most sweaty of days.  As a fabric it is apparently fairly OK for sweaty people.

98% cotton 2% elastane – These are my slightly stretchy jeans. I’ve not found these to be very sweaty at all, well, for jeans.

Viscose/ nylon cardi-  This is a very sweaty piece of clothing for me. It seems to make me sweat even when I’m cold. Nylon is good at repelling moisture so while that sounds good, it repels it from its self (the fibre) and back towards the skin.

Moving the chemistry on with this knowledge.

As a cosmetic chemist I still have to focus on what I can bring to the party – designing fabrics is not one of those things. So, with that in mind what I can do is create formulations that work as well as they can to reduce any negative impacts that different fibres may bring. This may mean that I have to make more breathable formulations or formulations that can absorb more moisture.  It may mean that I need to have anti-microbials and antioxidants in their to help reduce staining and mould related damage to clothing as well as thinking about how these ingredients interact with and counter sweat.

Overall every challenge is an opportunity and I feel it is always important to focus on those who face the greatest challenges. That way, I feel you capture the main essence of the problem and hopefully solve it for the greatest number of the population.  That said,  in these days when everyone wants natural, pure and simple formulations it is important that we do run fair comparative in-use tests so that us cosmetic chemists aren’t running ragged trying to solve problems that we alone can’t solve.   My formula, your product can only do so much.

The bottom line.

A deodorant can only do so much on its own.  The fabrics we choose to put next to our skin can help or hinder our quest to be pong free.  Choosing and promoting fibres that keep our sweat-prone areas dryer for longer and then looking after them (proper washing and drying) is key to achieving great outcomes.

And that, my friends, is something that I’m quite excited about!

Amanda x


Should you keep your nuts off your face?

May 20, 2019

It was hard not to be affected by the keyboard warrior backlash Kylie Jenner got last week after announcing that her new skincare line would include a walnut facial scrub. Being a 90s teen I didn’t really think too much of it at first. I came of age in an era before political correctness, when nobody questioned where you put your nuts but hey, times have changed and so have I!

So what’s going on?


Picture from here. 

Walnuts, that’s what.

If you read even a handful of the comments online it leaves you with the impression that there is nothing worse for your skin than a dollop of walnut face scrub.  As a cosmetic chemist that is often asked to incorporate natural scrub particles into cosmetic products I wanted to dissect this backlash a little, flesh it out, play with these ideas a little, work out where the truth lies.  I did this first from my perspective as a cosmetic chemist and then by chatting to the lovely Amy Erbacher, facialist-to-the-stars and someone with heaps of up-close-and-personal insights into what people do to their skin and how the skin takes it.  Chemists don’t really have that sort of insight you see.

The backlash – a semi-scientific appraisal.

So what people seem to be upset most about are these things called ‘micro tears’ that allegedly form on the skin after you scrub it with walnut particles.

After thinking on this for a moment, I found myself wanting to form a mental picture of how ‘this’ rates against ‘that’. What that means is, if I assume that the people are right, that Walnut does form micro tears on the skin and that they are bad, how does that compare with other exfoliating particles, with harsh towelling of the skin,  with environmental factors (sand, wind, dust etc) and with other things we might do to our skin (needling, microdermabrasion, lasers etc).

Walnut particles are abrasive. They are abrasive because they are hard and un-yielding (they aren’t squishy like a sponge) and they also have some jagged rather than smooth edges. It is likely that these jagged edges could cause tiny skin tears.

Here are two microscope images of some Walnut scrub particles that came out of St Ives Apricot Scrub. The left side is at 4 x magnification and the right side is 10x. You can see some big particles and some small, some clumps and some individual particles. You can see the rough edges but generally these are just bulky and woody with little spiked bits.

A while a go, I looked at a whole bunch of other exfoliant particles. They are shown below. Looking at this you can see a range of natural and an un-natural particle. The Jojoba beads are round and soft-edged. These also melt at around 45-50C which is face-wash temperature.  The micro-plastic is somewhat round but with little jagged bits in the background.  The other materials, sugar excepted, are quite jagged and un-even.

Exfoliant particle line up

How can looking at this help with understanding micro tears?

If it is true that walnut particles cause micro tears to the skin, looking at the above range of exfoliant particles it would seem reasonable that at least some of the above could also cause the same.  This to me is interesting as the response online to Kylie Jenner’s launch was very emotional and ultra specific about Walnut shell.  Some early responders also cited a law suit brought against St Ives that got into the USA court system late last year.   As fairly typical of people trying to drive home a fast point, they neglected to inform their readers that the law suit application failed. Maybe looking at the above gives us some idea of why…

desk scrub

So what does using scrubs like this do to the skin?

This is where I couldn’t really answer and is why I got Amy Erbacher involved.

About Amy

Amy came to me a few years ago when she wanted to develop her own range of skin cleansers based on what she had learned from years in the beauty trade.  Amy explained that she often picks up visual signs that a clients skin has been treated too harshly during her practice as a facialist. Typical signs of past trauma include hyper pigmentation, irritation, adult acne and/or hypersensitivity.  Of course, being a facials Amy doesn’t give any medical diagnoses but it is her job to attempt to bring the skin back to looking and feeling good.

So they are the symptoms but what about the causes?  

Amy thought it entirely possible (even probable) that the habitual use of harsh abrasives, especially when applied vigorously and often to the skin,  could be contributing  to the symptoms she sees.  However, she felt it unlikely that physical exfoliant of the type purchased over-the-counter are the only cause of clients woes with  UV exposure, lifestyle habits such as smoking and a poor diet,  over-use of AHA’s and Enzymes and our addiction to instant results also playing a part.  On that front, as a facialist, Amy has observed clients growing appetite for cosmeceuticals as a potential double-edged sword.  Demands for stronger AHA products, faster-acting serums and deeper dermal delivery have (potentially) pushed the skin barrier to its limits for some clients resulting in various symptoms of premature ageing. When talking to Amy there was a clear vibe coming from her that the best approach to skin care was to take it gently and…care for it.

Stopping there for a moment there are clearly some subtleties to the case of ‘nut gate’ that we must address. Maybe it’s time for a little self-analysis and therapy?

Going back to my teenage years I just could not get enough facial scrub into my life. I had acne and part of that was blocked pores and blackheads. I was convinced that a good old scrub was the best way to get that dirt out.  Coming into modern times I’ve had more than one client send back the scrub samples I sent them for a bit of ‘toughening up’ when I went a bit too easy (gentle) on the physical exfoliation.  So while Amy is clearly telling me to calm it down in one ear, my other ear is hearing ‘give it to me hard baby’.  Who do I listen to!

Balance, perspective and application.

Amy clearly has a point.  The skin (and remember, we are talking facial skin here) is delicate but it is not pathetic.  This report looks at how skin resists tearing  and by looking at that we can clearly see that a little exfoliation isn’t likely to cause long-term damage when used sparingly and with care.  As we have eluded to above, there are many cosmetic procedures and practices that leave our skin slightly traumatised, indeed, that’s often how we get fast results.  Acids, needles and microdermabrasion treatments all stimulate the skin, instructing them to repair, re-build and restore the skin hopefully to its brighter, smoother and more youthful self.  In that way we could say that our trauma led to personal growth  – what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  So maybe the only trouble when it comes to exfoliating our skin is knowing when enough is enough…

When exfoliation has to stop. 


In Amy’s professional practice she recommends only the gentlest of scrubbing in all cases  and never for skin with live acne pustules – see that’s where I used to go wrong. I had the mindset that the scrub would set the pimple free and leave my skin clean and un-clogged. Looks like all I was doing back then is spreading the germs around!  So that’s one down-side of physical exfoliants – spreading microbes around the skin.  Are there any more?

Sensitive types. 

Amy points out that another down-side of harsh scrubbing is the disturbance of the micro biome. We are only just starting to learn how our few Kg’s of microbes that live in and on us keep us safe and well.  While exfoliants won’t damage the microbiome per se, they do ‘clean’ a bit more thoroughly than a product without them and for some people this can leave their micro biome a little scattered and when that happens, the skin can become more sensitive.   Again, it is a case of ‘less is more’.

Damaged Skin.

Amy points out that it is really tempting for those with sun-damaged thickened skin to go crazy with exfoliants but again this isn’t recommended.  The skin is thickened due to sun damage and so scrubbing that off won’t really help long-term as you are just layering more stress onto already stressed skin.   From my perspective these probably are the clients that ask for harsher scrubs.  From now on I’ll be talking to them more about cosmetic retinol products and gentle chemical exfoliants as safer alternatives.

When you have an addiction to harshness.

I have had several conversations with Amy over the years and there definitely does seem to be a section of the population that just can’t get enough when it comes to beauty treatments.  I think I was semi-addicted to the ‘freshly scrubbed’ feeling I used to get from my walnut exfoliant even though it was probably not doing me any good.  This behaviour is definitely going to result in long-term skin complications if it is kept up but it pays to remember that this is NOT, I repeat NOT the nuts fault.

The bottom line in nut-gate.

Amy is clearly in the ‘treat it ultra gentle’ camp whereas I like it a little rough (probably based on my earlier facial abuse) so who is right?

Amy is coming from a strong evidence-based mindset that over-exfoliating is one of the contributing factors leading to skin issues down the track. Because of that she strongly warns her clientele against harsh scrubs.  This advise is backed up by many other facialists, dermatologists and skin professionals.

When I look at the St Ives Apricot Scrub I see that it suggests using it 3-4 times a week, the Kylie Jenner product is apparently gentle enough to use every day or, as the pack suggests, 2-3 times a week.  I don’t know if the exfoliation rate is equivalent for these two products but having worked with Walnut exfoliant as an ingredient for many years it is unlikely to deviate much from the general shape, size and hardness typical of this ingredient.  What could vary is the dose,  the cushioning effect of the base and potentially the formula pH, perfume and preservative, all of which can contribute to the overall harshness or gentleness of a formulation.

Do we do what the packet says?

Looking back to my most addicted period I think I used the St Ives scrub 1-2 times a day in my bid to ‘clean my pores’.   Clearly it would be reasonable to expect a difference in results between people that over-use a product and those that follow the  normal/ recommended use pattern. That said, Amy was strongly of the opinion that 2-3 times a week would be too much, in general for skin to handle and I feel inclined to agree.  Maybe the days of exfoliating the shit out of our faces should be resigned to history, like the Spice Girls, Shell Suits and Cherry Coke…

So where does that leave nut-gate?

Ummmm, I think it is all a bit more nuanced than the good folks of the inter webs would like us to believe.  There is a clear ‘OMG NO, are you trying to kill us Kylie’ vibe going on online at the moment but maybe that’s all a smart publicity ploy, one never knows.

Traumatising the skin is a strategy that some cosmetic products and procedures use to their advantage so to single out walnut scrub as the worst thing to have ever happened to the skin is a bit silly really and does nothing to progress the conversation.  Micro tears are a type of trauma that a scrub could produce, but physical exfoliants won’t tear up your skin to any noticeable degree unless you scrub like a daemon, have skin that is already damaged or use the product in excess (and excess is going to differ for everyone) – all things being equal. If you are an abusive scrubber then you should not just be wary of walnut scrubs, you should be wary of any hard-particulate scrub agent that can generate sufficient friction.  There is nothing inherently worrying about walnut when compared to other natural exfoliants unless you are allergic to nuts and nut products.

I think the last word has to be to plead to our sense of balance.

If, like me, you like exfoliating scrubs then use them carefully, sparingly, gently and in a way that doesn’t damage your skin or spread infection.  I can see why the skin professionals hate them and I do agree that a gentle approach to skin care is most likely the best plan.

Most of us don’t know how to ‘do’ moderation but that’s not Kylie or the professionals fault, that’s ours.  That said, in telling us that she uses this product (which I haven’t tested) 2-3 times a week but that you COULD use it daily to achieve a skin like hers (which is kind of perfect) is somewhat irresponsible especially given that her audience is quite young, potentially acne prone and highly susceptible to celebrity marketing messages.

So should you keep your nuts off your face?


Amanda x









Titanium Dioxide in food, cosmetics and your gut AKA ‘E171 gut gate’.

May 14, 2019

So this morning I logged onto Facebook and almost immediately fell down a science-ing worm hole (I have no idea how that should be spelled).  It was catalysed by on line discussions about the safety of Titanium Dioxide as used in cosmetics (and foods) as a colourant. It turns out that this interest was sparked by a scientific report published by the University of Sydney last week and discussed on popular TV show ‘The Project’ which I didn’t see. I have since read the article, the scientific report abstract (which is all there is so far, and, (nerd alert) I spoke to the lead author, Professor Wojtek Chrzanowski PhD. So let’s see what all the fuss is about shall we…

Titanium Dioxide.

So, it turns out that while this was the molecule of study, the E171 food additive that has grabbed the headlines. It is the size of this molecule that is more interesting than its chemistry. That said, we should investigate its chemistry.

Titanium Dioxide is an inorganic chemical (it contains no carbon) that exists in nature. It forms in nature  in blocks or lattice structures where several Ti’s and O’s get together and don’t let go. These are the primary particles.  Titanium Dioxide can also be manufactured to make purer, more even grades with more marketable features and so it is important to note that the way you manufacture Titanium Dioxide will determine how big (or small) these primary particles will be.   Different manufacturing methods create materials that are better suited to certain jobs – sunscreen particles are different to food particles for example.

In addition to the particle size, there are also the 8 ways that titanium dioxide likes to get its self together – think of there being 8 different ways you can combine the same few lego bricks.  The most common of these are Anatase and Rutile.

Titanium Dioxide as a chemical is pretty un-reactive in the body and most bodies will poop it out. However, with any particle you get a particle size distribution which means that you buy a bag of titanium dioxide with an average particle size of 200 nm it will have some particles that are bigger and some that are larger. Their distribution will usually look like a camel hump on a graph.  Better quality products generally have a steeper hump as the particle distribution is smaller.

Any particles that are 100nm or smaller are in the nanoparticle range and in this study the average primary particle size was definitely less than 100nm.  There is another part to the cosmetic definition of ‘nano particle’ which talks about ‘intentionally made’ so as to differentiate manufactured nanoparticles from  naturally occurring ones but I’m not sure that will be relevant in this case.

The Study.

The study here found that nano titanium dioxide was affecting the gut microbiota.

I found that immediately interesting and used my Deep Dyvve subscription to look for other papers in this area. I found a few including this one that confirmed an affect on the intestinal brush border.


I’ll just stop here and show you a bit of a mind-map of how I start interacting with new information that comes across my desk.  This very brief diagram shows you that I consider the original paper, play around with it in my mind, evaluating it against my prior knowledge to see how well it addresses or confirms what I know about Titanium Dioxide and/ or nanoparticles – at this stage I also have to check and note any bias I have. I then look to the wider context and for more papers, develop my own questions and finally call the author!


My Big Question.

So one thing that confused me after reading this paper and comparing it to other papers was whether it was the titanium dioxide chemistry or the particle size that was causing changes. I put that question to Professor Chrzanowski and he set me straight.  I won’t quote him verbatim as it wasn’t that kind of chat but this is the crux of it in laymen terms.

Answer: It’s the size. The Titanium Dioxide is likely not an issue per se.

Before we go into that I was reminded that titanium (and zinc) particles are usually in agglomerates when they are purchased.  This basically means that the product contains loosely bonded clumps of particles that are lots bigger than their specified primary particle size.  The first step of the scientific process is to de-agglomerate them and then to identify the particle size distribution. Apparently this is typical of what would happen in our digestion anyway and is how our gut will eventually see the particles. The situation in sunscreens is somewhat different which again reminds me that what we put in the body isn’t dealt with in the same way as what we put on the body.

The nanoparticles enter the body naked but don’t stay naked for long. The body dresses them up with a protein coating as part of the digestion process.  I got the feeling that the body dresses up all of its food that way if it gets a chance so this is just standard procedure.

Once this protein wrapped nano particle gets into the gut, the gut tries to eat it but it finds it can’t because it doesn’t like eating titanium dioxide.   The down side in this case is that in attempting to eat the wrapper, the gut unleashes a nanoparticle and that’s when the trouble starts with the nanoparticle then causing some disruption to the micro biome and brush border.

The exact dynamics of this process is actually quite hard to study as Professor Chrzanowiski mentioned that this is a good example of where there is almost no correlation between animal studies and humans.  I did notice that many of the other studies I read through used in-vitro methodology – cell culture and models.  There is quite a bit more work to do to correctly map cause-and-effect from this understanding in terms of how much, for how long and how damaging this type of upset to the gut turns out to be.

The last step is excretion and titanium dioxide has been found to pass through the body happily via either toilet route depending on its size, dose and solubility I presume.

We know from lots of work in the pharmaceutical area that titanium dioxide in large form does pass out via the poo and this work helps to pinpoint particle size as the real issue to focus on.

So why mention Titanium Dioxide when it’s Nano that is at fault?

Basically in this study, the titanium was just the nano particle that demonstrated the concept, it wasn’t the problem, it was just the gimp…

The reason that Titanium Dioxide is grabbing the headlines is:

Titanium Dioxide is a potentially unnecessary source of unhelpful nanoparticles in our diet.  

Titanium Dioxide is used to make food whiter or more opaque. It may be mixed with other colourants to produce pastel colours or used on its own.  It has a similar function in cosmetics plus it can be used as a sunscreen. It does appear in lipstick formulations which, I feel, is important to note and why I, as a cosmetic chemist, am particularly interested.

More Details about this study.

I don’t know, at this point, whether any damage seen or suspected from the nanoparticle ‘hit’ is permanent or recoverable, how long damage might last or even how the dose used in this study compares to what we would be exposed to in ‘real life’.

In ‘real-life’ applications food grade titanium dioxide has been found to have somewhere in the region of 15-35% particles in the nano range. In the USA Titanium Dioxide is permitted as a whitening agent at levels up to 1% in food. France is looking to implement a ban in using this as a food colourant from 2020.  France has banned things before that other countries have not. Whether this is good governance or something else is up for debate.

The answers to these, my supplementary questions, will come out when the full data is published, when more work is done and when further funding for more detailed investigations become possible.  As Professor Chrzanowski said to me, this is fundamental research and as such it acts as a scaffold upon which more applied research can be built but we are not done yet, we haven’t finished with the fundamentals yet. We don’t yet understand everything.

So what does this mean for cosmetics?

I must say that this research has resonated with me as being a) interesting b) representing a new level of understanding. c) potentially game-changing when it comes to how we think about and handle man-made nano materials.

I wish to iterate that this is NOT about titanium dioxide as a chemical molecule and that banning or being ‘free from’ that will NOT guarantee you a formula that is ‘free from’ nanoparticles, especially if you just swap this with any old alternative that may also be particulate and contain some nanoparticles.

We don’t eat our cosmetics but there are times when we incidentally ingest them, especially lipsticks and sometimes sunscreen. Maybe we should be looking into ways to make our cosmetic nanoparticles easier to pass through the body (and, while we are at it, easy to digest by the right microbes once they get into the environment).

What I was heartened by is the fact that the team behind this research do seem excited about the potentials that understanding this brings.  We now have more insight on one thing that causes gut damage (ingested nanoparticles that reach this part of the gut), now we can start forming ideas about how we might engineer a solution. Whether we need,  want or can afford to or not is another matter.

In terms of what to do as a cosmetic manufacturer/ formulator, I feel I want to  keep my eyes peeled and doing some more reading into the fate of nanoparticles  in our water treatment plants and in the soil/ on soil microbes. I would be focusing not only on our own health and safety but also of the product life-cycle as a whole.

I  feel it is important to reflect on what this, and other studies have found and work  to limit the potential for cosmetic nanoparticles to be ingested so claims like ‘food grade’ on cosmetic products are probably a bit reckless and maybe use directions could be tightened.

So my take on this is that we should keep our eyes on the science, our minds open wide and keep those nanoparticles on the outside!

See you another day

Amanda x