Cancer isn’t a new thing, even dinosaurs got it and that, I feel, is relevant.
As a chemist I am patently aware of the fact that I am seen by some as part of the ‘modern life’ problem. We live in a world full of chemicals and as a chemist I have to be a part of that. The pop culture theory goes that modern life is so toxic and it is that toxicity that is making us sick, giving us cancer. Personally I feel that our modern lifestyle possibly does contribute to many sickness, could make us sick. I also accept that some types of chemical exposure would add to that sickness but I am more inclined to think that much of our modern malaise stems from modern life being mentally stressful and that it often leads to us making poor lifestyle choices which then go on to cause disease. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we can prove that modern life is so un-natural that it causes most dis-ease.
But we can’t blame modern life for cancer, well, at least not all of it.
I know this isn’t a cheery subject but I feel it is still important to know that as long as there have been animals, there has been cancer. That cancer is as natural as we are, a side-effect if you like, of being alive.
Let’s have a look.
I was listening to a program called ‘The Health Report’ on ABC radio national last night and was made aware of Lynch Syndrome, a syndrome where sufferers carry a genetic malfunction that affects their DNA repair system and can manifest in a whole cluster of cancers including those of the bowel and stomach. This triggered me to share the above data, data that I’d put together last year when the question of cancer-causing-cosmetics came up. As you can see from the above data, elephants are far less likely to develop cancer than humans and that has been attributed to the fact that they have double the DNA repairing ability of humans. This, along with what we are just finding out about Lynch Syndrome starts to make the world feel less like a cancer lottery – you never know who is going to get what – and leaves it feeling much more knowable – much of the risk is written into our genes. I appreciate that is cold comfort for mutated gene carriers of which I may well be one, I don’t know. But as we pour more and more money into this area and spend more time looking into how the genes affect our cancer risk we can can also take the next leap and work out how to repair those rogue genes. I think that is exciting.
On top of the genetic cancer risk there is also the viral risk. Many melanoma cancer cases have a genetic sub-component to them which again gives us a common thread to grab hold of when looking at ways to help treat or even cure this aggressive skin cancer. Again, I think this knowledge is power.
So where does this leave chemicals, cosmetics and the pursuit of beauty?
It is absolutely true that some individual chemicals are carcinogens. It is also true to say that some manufacturing processes are polluting and damaging to the environment and this being a connected world, that pollution and damage will most likely come back to bite us. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our cosmetic products are nasty, toxic polluters that are the most likely (or even in the top ten) daily habits that could increase our risk of getting cancer. I would hypothesise that in most cases, for most people, the cosmetics you use would be quite low down in the risk stakes, behind sun exposure, diet, genetic risk, sleep habits, stress levels, virus exposure, age, drug and smoking habits, weight, Job, happiness and plus daily exercise patterns. But we like to focus on our cosmetic choices because these are the low-hanging fruits, the easy things to change and that is significant.
Risk Free Beauty?
Given all of the above, my advice to cosmetic brands looking to make ‘safe’ cosmetics would be this -Put the risk into perspective and then aim to work on one aspect that could be improved. For example, you might be a brand or a consumer that has decided that the safest choice is a cosmetic made from ingredients that are all readily biodegradable and manufactured in environmentally responsible ways. You might decide that safety is best served as a Certified Organic product – be sure to point out why. alternatively, you might decide to use only simple plant-based ingredients or make your own products using the rationale that at least people/ you know what these ingredients are and can avoid what they might be allergic to – this philosophy is quite restrictive but could work for very basic products. Or you might decide to use any ingredients that are available to the cosmetic chemist and have all of your products tested by a toxicologist (EU safety assessment style) as evidence that your formulations are safe. You could always advice the toxicologist that you want them ultra-safe so assess the products as if they are being used on babies (from 0-3 yrs). If none of that suits or if you want an extra layer of information/ security you might pursue some real-life panel testing to see how a group of people respond to your products at least in the short-term. Whatever you pick whether customer or brand owner I think it is worth appreciating that cancer came before the chemical revolution and dinosaurs didn’t get their cancers from lipstick. It is also worth noting that in the grand scheme of things your cosmetics are probably never going to be the main risk factor in your life and that maybe, just maybe the most helpful thing of all you can do in this space is to donate some profits back into those uncovering the truth of what causes cancer and ultimately what can help cure the various different types.
Whatever way you pick to engage with the market for safer products my one wish and hope is that it is done respectfully and without hysteria. There is much work to do in this area, we can always produce cleaner, greener and more skin-similar products but nothing is more damaging and dis-ease causing than fear and so selling safe cosmetics using fear as a driver for decision-making makes absolutely no sense at all.
And on that note, does fear contribute to our cancer risk? Is there any evidence of that?
I found this interesting and it seems relatively logical to me:
Although stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not.
Apparent links between psychological stress and cancer could arise in several ways. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer. Or someone who has a relative with cancer may have a higher risk for cancer because of a shared inherited risk factor, not because of the stress induced by the family member’s diagnosis.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the majority of people who I meet who are keen to enter the cosmetic industry want to enter with their very own organic brand. Organics is seen as the epitome of purity, freshness and authenticity in a world of fake news, fake looks and fake promises and I can understand why but I’m not entirely convinced that organics are always the right answer, well not yet anyway.
An aside/ context…..
I like to think of myself as ‘green’ minded, eco-friendly, sympathetically sustainable in my lifestyle choices but the reality is I could do better. Some days I might score a B+ and occasionally there might be an A- in my green living efforts but most days I’d be tracking along as a C – average. I don’t particularly feel good about that either by the way. So what happens? Well, sometimes it’s just my sheer lack of planning, I don’t leave myself enough time to take the train; at other times it is just habit, I happen to like the silicone-light oil-free touch I get from my regular foundation and it’s less than $20 a pop which is welcome; and lastly it is just a lack of head space that leads me to constantly forget my keep cup and recyclable shopping bags. Whatever I feel about this I know one thing is for sure, most people are either as bad as me or a little bit to either side. I am the majority, I am (sadly) normal and in business that is worth thinking about.
I want to delve into the cosmetic example I gave above and really think about this from a cosmetic brand perspective. I also want to say right here and now that there is no doubt in my mind that careful and environmentally considerate farming practices are a great basis upon which to build our consumption habits and organic farming is one way of achieving that. Mostly though, I want to delve into the backstage world of what it means to make an organic cosmetic brand to help illustrate why I feel that it isn’t always the right way to go. Yet.
Building an Organic Brand in Australia.
Here in Australia there is no legal definition of what an organic cosmetic brand should be, there are only private standards and guidelines to comply to and be certified by. Australian Certified Organics and the Organic Food Chain are two local ones and we also have the possibility of jumping into standards such as COSMOS or Ecocert, particularly good for brands looking to export or looking for certification standards that were set up specifically for the cosmetic industry rather than for food and then expanded to cosmetics.
Legal definitions are not the be-all-and-end-all of life but the absence of a legal definition for an organic cosmetic does mean that each standard is essentially free to come up with their own rules and interpretation. Again this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is ‘bad’ but what it does mean for a brand owner is that you will potentially enter into a market which has an uneven playing field. Let me give you some examples.
Organic Vs Made With Organics – ACO Rules.
While some cosmetic products can be made with 100% organically grown ingredients the practicalities of this are limited and as such all cosmetic products that contain 95% and above of Organic inputs can be classified as Certified Organic. Further, there is usually a second tier certification on offer for brands that contain between 70-94.9% of Organic Inputs – in fact this is the most common level for a cosmetic product to aim at.
So what’s the missing 5 – 30%?
This is usually made up of ingredients that meet strict manufacturing and processing requirements and are called ‘allowable inputs’ but that can’t be classified as organic as rather than being directly grown, they are constructed from grown materials. If you are familiar with cosmetic formulating these would typically be your preservatives, emulsifiers, solubilisers, surfactants, emulsion stabilisers, many of your ‘actives’, clays and iron oxide minerals. In short, this is the majority of the stuff that gives a product its functionality and longevity.
Are there any examples of what this 5-30% might look like on an INCI label?
Some ingredients that meet the definition of ‘allowable inputs’ but that might typically be classified by an industry outsider as ‘chemical’ are as follows:
Phenethyl Alcohol – a natural preservative that can be derived from rose and smells rose-like.
Decyl Glucoside – a sugar and palm derived surfactant that is used to cleanse the skin and can also be used as a solubiliser.
Polyglyceryl-3 Palmitate – an emulsifier/ solubiliser for water-in-oil products that is derived from mixed vegetable sources and helps turn oil into a milky consistency or hold honey into a balm.
Cetearyl Olivate – an emulsifier ingredient derived from Olive and Palm that holds a creamy product together.
AHA Fruit Acids -Vaccinium Myrtillus Fruit Extract, Saccharum Officinarum Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Fruit Extract, Citrus Limon Fruit Extract, Water, Acer Saccharum Sap Extract. This is a pre-blended fruit extract with efficacy data for skin brightening and conditioning if you use this from 5-15% in your formula. It is not certified organic but is completely natural.
There are many, many more.
So an organic product can still contain chemicals?
As a chemist I would have to say trot out the line that ‘of course, everything is chemical, even you’ but rather than just leave it there I’ll answer it as the average person on the street wants to have it answered. It is most likely that a range of certified organic products will contain ingredients in it that are entirely plant derived but that don’t exist in nature. What that means in practice is that plant-based chemicals be they oils (triglycerides), alcohols, fatty acids or something else are extracted from a plant in some way and then reacted with other chemicals of plant origin to form ingredients that have a useful cosmetic function – cleansing, moisturising, protecting, solubilising, thickening etc. The certification body gets to decide what level of ‘chemical’ processing is allowed in the transformation of these chemical ingredients and which technology is allowed in their ‘allowable input’ ingredient list. Generally speaking only the cleanest and simplest chemical transformation reactions are allowed and reactions are usually limited to those that can be achieved with purely natural starting points so no silicones or petroleum derivatives.
Any brand looking to make water-containing products must consider the micro-stability of their creation and that means they will either have to add a known preservative or use strategies to make the product self-preserving (sometimes possible). There are no certified organic preservatives so any that are used in an organic product will eat into that 5% of ‘allowable’ space. There are also very few (possibly only lecithin) certified organic emulsifiers so again, if you want to have oil and water combined safely you will need to use something that will a) look a bit chemical on your ingredient listing and b) eat into your 5% of non-organic space. The same dilemma applies to skin or hair cleansing products as there are very few bubbling/ cleaning/ surfactants that are certified organics and those that are not necessarily that effective (soapnuts, natural saponins).
So what if my organic product contains some ‘chemicals’ as long as they are ‘natural’.
So what indeed…..
One of the words that I hear quite a lot by people wanting to enter the cosmetic market as brand owners is ‘authenticity’. I don’t know what it is exactly about the world right now but people feel they have been or are being ripped off and there is a huge appetite for Authentic and when it comes to cosmetics that means ingredients you can pronounce or eat or (hopefully) both.
Where there is doubt there is fear.
If a prospective brand owner or their target customers have to ‘research’ the ingredient list in order to understand it fear creeps in. We have all seen or heard people lamenting the fact that students reference Wikipedia in their degree dissertations these days (and everyone in academia knows that Wikipedia is not a primary source), we might have fallen for the teachings of people like Belle Gibson, purchased her books and headed her every healing word only to find out she lied to us. Even those that missed out on Belle will appreciate how we all now laugh about the rubbish that comes up when you do our google ‘research’ but we still do it. Why? Because for many of us we have no idea what those snobby people laughing at our inability to discern the wheat from the chaff (good from bad) are on about. In short, we feel vulnerable.
There is no easy or quick way to fix this but there is a way to make it worse and that’s to be a brand owner that jumps onto the band wagon and does exactly the same as everyone else.
Science Literacy – A question of trust? Authenticity gap?
I wonder if this is where the desire for Authenticity comes in? If my newbie brand developers read these weird sounding chemical ingredients on their organic/ natural/ regular cosmetics and think ‘I don’t know what these things are, don’t know where to go to find out and I’m worried by that’? I think this is possible and I think this is understandable for a consumer but for a brand owner? I feel this knowledge gap has to be tackled head-on instead of avoided.
While I don’t expect every brand owner to spend 3 years at Uni doing a Chemistry degree before selling their first lipstick I do think that it is essential they challenge their perceptions before joining in the noise. While there are good and bad courses out there, these days there are plenty of good resources available to the newbie brand owner and these include online learning, face-to-face short courses, insider blogs and resources like the cosmetic help desk that I help to run at New Directions. At the very least a new brand owner should understand whether glycerin is oil or water-soluble, what a polyglyeryl ester is and why the best preservative for their product isn’t necessarily the one that sounds like a fruit salad on the label.
OK so that’s the ‘chemical’ side, what about performance of Organics?
When I started out on my journey of Cosmetic Science organic certified cosmetics were not a thing. We had the Body Shop and Lush (I was in the UK at the time) and they were seen as pretty revolutionary even though these days neither of those brands would be seen to be leading the ‘Certified Organic’ charge.
Things have come a long way in terms of performance of organic brands but there are still limits and one of them is the practical limit that the requirement for meeting the 70 or 95% input benchmark sets.
The numbers game.
As a cosmetic formulator I like to focus on how a product feels and performs rather than on what percentage of the ingredient will get me certified. With organics my focus is obsessively on the numbers.
Take making an organically certified shampoo – 70% organic input – as an example.
I’ve only got 30% of space in which to make my shampoo do shampoo-type stuff like cleanse the hair and make it comb-able.
Surfactants are the ingredients that clean stuff and usually a decent shampoo requires an activity level of 10-15% to work well and perform as the average person expects.
Great! So that still leaves us 15-20%, what am I worried about?
The problem with surfactants is that most of them are not sold as 100% active. When you buy your amino-acid derived glutamates or your coco betaine or glucosides they can range from 50% active to 25% active. That means to get 10% of activity I’m typically having to add somewhere in the region of 30-50% surfactant as supplied and none of that is certified organic. So before I even get in the lab I’m reducing the efficacy of my formula so the numbers fit. The best surfactants for hair are the anionic ones such as the glutamates, succinates and sulfates but these are also among those sold in the 25-30% active mark. The most active surfactants are the glucosides sold typically as 50% active but these are hideous on the hair leaving it a tangled messy mess. See my issue? My preferred blend of an anionic primary surfactant, an amphoteric secondary then a non-ionic glucoside tertiary surfactant can only reach an activity of 9% (input 28.7%) before I blow my budget and that’s with no regard to how well this blend actually performs.
But things are getting better, we are making progress but we aren’t there yet.
The shampoo example above is just one example that can be repeated across a whole range of products and circumstances. This doesn’t mean that the organic brand owner can’t create a good brand but more that the organic brand creative chemist has to make compromises in order to fit the formula into the system. This may or may not be to the products detriment.
As the years go on problems like the lack of 100% active allowed-in-organics surfactants get solved, products get better and everyone wonders why everyone else isn’t doing what they are doing and this is a good thing. Understanding this and pushing suppliers for real solutions to real problems is good, tying suppliers up in requests for ‘chemical free’ ingredients or to make preservatives with nice INCI names is ultimately not as productive in the end as we trade functionality and problem-solving for sheer vanity.
And finally what about the price? How much does it cost to go organic?
It’s fair to say that there is the cost of something in dollars and cents and there is the real cost in terms of environmental impact, resource valuing and value-add. Both definitions are applicable in the organic product development life cycle. I am one of those people who feels we should value our primary resources very highly and that should be reflected in the price we pay throughout the supply chain. As such whatever we do buy has to fill the role it is intended to and fill it well – add value to the formula. Sometimes I personally do not see the value in spending 10 times more on a cosmetic preservative that is natural but that you have to use 4 times more of and then back up with one or two other chemicals in order for it to work. Further, I don’t see the value in adding something that is certified organic just to get the numbers up – add it if it adds value and if it doesn’t, leave it out. At the end of the day I see a lot of potential for certified organic formulations to cost more in dollars and even in environmental impact but deliver nothing more than their natural, non-certified cousins. The bottom line for me in this regard is that I do not see Certified Organic as a guarantee that the product has made the best use of natural resources and is representing the best value for money.
So what does being certified organic mean and is it the best (or only) pathway to an Authentic cosmetic for newbies or existing brand owners?
Looking at what is available and what can be created today I see ‘Certified Organic’ as simply meaning that the product contains a certifiable amount of organic ingredients – 70% or more. The certification alone says nothing of the value the product delivers or even whether it represents a better environmental choice. The individual brand owner needs to determine that with evidence and in a way that would satisfy a legal challenge if mounted.
So, achieving an organic certification is not the only and maybe not even the most important way to deliver authentic cosmetic products to the market and I think that is worth mulling over.
While it makes sense at least on one level to provide the market with 95-100% certified organic input facial oil blends, fresh hydrosols or lip balms, it makes less sense at the moment to spend years trying to achieve that level of certification for a multi-purpose anti-ageing cream, a salon-quality shampoo / conditioner combo or a liquid foundation. This is where the 70-95% organic input come in and for many, the cognitive journey to get to being comfortable with a 70% made-with-organic product that ultimately gets its efficacy and safety from ‘chemicals’ albeit naturally derived ones, is going to be the same as for a 100% natural but not ‘certified organic’ product and this, for me is where the real possibilities currently sit.
Authentic Choices that deliver results.
There is no doubt in my mind that organic farming has a big role to play in a sustainable and caring future. When it comes to cosmetics and cosmetic brand creation there is indeed a market for certified organic and we now have the technology to deliver reasonable to very good products using this philosophy but to do so requires the input of naturally derived ‘chemicals’ that look a bit confusing on the ingredient label. This puts the organic 70% product in the same boat as a natural-but-not-certified product but for the formulator or brand owner the benefit is more freedom from calculating inputs and percentages, more emphasis on how much ingredient is needed for a result and more room to adjust supply chain costs. For that reason and because the natural but not organic certified brand can still contain a high percentage of organics I feel that Organic Certification is a valid way to go but is not the only option for those looking to produce or purchase an environmentally ‘cleaner’ product. Indeed people looking to talk to that niche should really work on comparing the fore’s and against’s of certified vs other.
For me, the quest for authenticity is more about first understanding and then delivering on that knowledge than on outsourcing that thinking to one or another third-party certification. Part of the reason why there is no legal definition for organic cosmetics here in Australia is because of the difficulty in agreeing to what the 5-30% ‘allowable inputs’ should be made up of, when does a chemical become a chemical? What reactions are and aren’t allowed? Does biodegradability or toxicity come into it? Oh, on that note, just because an ingredient is allowed or often used in organics does not mean it is the mildest choice either and neither does it mean the ingredient readily and completely biodegrades – as I said all it tells you is how the ingredients feedstock has been farmed.
The bottom line in all of this is chemical literacy and comfort level. I believe it is the brand owners responsibility to educate their target market about the brands ingredient philosophy and to do that they first need to educate themselves using credible sources and by challenging their own thinking. Finally I believe that if we all step-up and explain the ingredients we use, why we use them and what they bring to our formulations we will actually be contributing to what we all want anyway and that’s a progressive, more creative, safer and more truly sustainable cosmetic industry that we can all be proud of.
So, to finish I do want to remind everyone that I am not bagging out Certified Organic but that I am saying that just jumping through those partially made-up hoops without fully understanding why is potentially costly to your sanity and your brand. You can change the world and create an authentic brand but there is more than one way to do that today and long may that choice and variety continue.
PS: Sorry for the ultra-long essay but there was a lot to get through.
OK so I talk about this from time to time and while I don’t want to sound like a raging Mrs Angry Pants I sometimes just have to let off steam and this last couple of months have left me in that head space so here goes.
The world of cosmetic science has opened up A LOT in the last 19 years and I do believe that this has been a great thing as formulations have evolved faster, becoming more natural, versatile and creative in less than half the time we used to work to. But (and there is always a but) there is one part of the opening up of the industry that makes me want to bang my head against the wall and that’s the steep slide in understanding of and respect for the scientific process.
You used to have to spend years (and I mean years) in a company before you would know what the shampoo, moisturiser, shaving foam and lipstick formula your company made looked like. The first year or two of your working life would be mostly spent testing things for stability, wiping down benches, sitting in on supplier meetings and testing pH. Now this is all replaced by Google, free recipes and an abundance of online forums swapping notes and lab stories. The bad thing about this is that there is no process, no 10,000 hours of practicing one thing and no overbearing laboratory Over Lord to come and slap you over the metaphorical wrist with a spatula for being tardy, jumping to conclusions, failing to try other options or question the information that you were just given by that overly enthusiastic 20-year-old sales rep. It really is the blind leading the blind most of the times.
As much as I do want to stay positive and embrace this brave new world I do want to share my biggest note of caution and that’s this – DO NOT RUSH, DO NOT TRY TO OVER-SIMPLIFY, DO NOT BELIEVE WITHOUT TESTING.
I’ve met far too many well-meaning people over the last couple of months who feel like they should be able to create anything they want, find any answer to any problem (or have it told to them) in an instant and create products that are somehow magically better than what already exists BEFORE they have even stepped foot in a lab (even their kitchen labs) and that, I think is dangerous. These people can become easily frustrated, disillusioned and even angry when they finally stumble across people like me who burst that ‘it’s so simple’ bubble by telling it like it is and bringing up a whole lot more things to think about (if they want to actually make a great, cost-effective, safe and authentic product as opposed to something quick and natural sounding off google).
The best bit of advice I can give to anyone who is starting off or is even in the cosmetic industry is to not lose sight of what we are doing (or at least trying to do) here. We are Applied Scientists first and foremost and that means we need to conduct experiments and not just cook up a cake-mix style recipe and say ‘that will do’. Science takes time and the investment of both our energy and some physical resources – we can’t know if something is good without making it and testing it. Results may be theoretically achievable from the reading you’ve done but there’s nothing like testing it for real to really know how that product turns out.
Let’s enjoy this amazing burst of enthusiasm, creativity and passion that’s come from open sourcing, internet sharing, chat rooming and online networking but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it takes 10,000 hours to master a thing and cosmetic science is not just one ‘thing’……
Don’t try to over-simplify
Don’t believe without testing.
Of all the things I do in my work, stability testing teaches me the most and that’s why I find it a shame when companies don’t really want to pay for it to be done properly, such a wasted opportunity. Anyway, it was one such experience that highlighted an issue to me, an issue that I’ve seen to varying degrees over a range of organic products.
I got the above picture from here as I really like the way they have explained the Kombucha process and thought you might like that too!
The pH of Organic Products often shifts downwards over time but not always to a point that one would consider alarming. Why is that?
Some organic (and some non-organic) emulsion based products get gassy and thin at the same time when they degrade? Why is that?
I’ve got my theories, they are based on observations of stability test results and trends carried out over several years (I’ve been running a stability lab since 2011).
My theory is one of fermentation and it goes something like this.
Fermentation works well when the following conditions are met:
- Sugar is present, specifically monosaccharides.
- The pH is acidic, pH 4-4.5 is good.
- The formula is potentially under-preserved for the conditions. Not necessarily enough to warrant a PET fail but enough to allow some ‘good’ bacteria and especially yeast to thrive.
I see these conditions quite often in organic and some natural formulations, mainly because these are most likely to include a large amount of Aloe in the water phase (to increase the organic percentage while at the same time capturing the benefits of this sugar-rich juice).
So as extracts go Aloe derives almost all of its benefits from sugars both monosaccharides (simple sugars) and polysaccharides (complex sugars of the type found in cellulose). The natural abundance of these simple sugars makes it a prime candidate for fermentation, a process that requires the presence of glucose and simple sugars to commence.
Fermentation but first glycolysis.
Glycolysis is a potential first step in this two-step reaction and is where the sugars in the product are broken down to form Pyruvic acid which then goes on to catalyse the fermentation reaction.
This part of the reaction is as far as I think most cosmetic products get as to start fermenting a few more conditions are required. But this part of the reaction is enough to account for an ever decreasing pH.
Pyruvic acid has a very low pKa which means it could potentially see the pH of the product drop to 2.5 if it was able to build up to high enough levels. I’d suspect this was happening in any product that displayed a consistent drop in pH throughout the stability testing where no other contributing factors were present (dehydration, concentrating the acids etc).
This reaction doesn’t generate any gas so the product would look and feel as per the control until the pH dropped below 3.5 ish or was applied on damaged skin.
My worry with products displaying this type of action is that the pH drop might cause the product to become irritating over its shelf life due to this low pH. How much the pH was felt on the skin would depend on how much Pyruvic acid was produced and the ratio of the oil and water phase but needless to say it could get messy.
If you were to have a product that was thickened only by these susceptible polysaccharides you could end up with a very thin product. We often see this with Hyaluronic Acid gels (predominantly disaccharides to start with) and it certainly happens with pure Aloe gels or gels created using guar – some sugars are more resistant to glycolysis than others.
But some products don’t stop there.
After glycolysis comes fermentation and this is what generates the bubbles.
Fermentation takes the pyruvic acid as it moves to create alcohol. In doing so Carbon Dioxide gas is produced which can make a product look very bubbly.
A consequence of the pyruvic acid being used up in the fermentation process means the pH slide is halted as fermentation tends to produce acids with a higher pKa so it is more likely to end up with a product with a pH around 3.5-3.8 which is still low but nowhere near as low and irritating as 2.5 which is classed as too low for a commercial cosmetic product.
So what can be done about this?
While it is likely that this type of degradation is somewhat inevitable in this type of formula the question is can we slow it down and meet a reasonable shelf life? I think we can. Organic products are often preserved using more gentle microbiostatics rather than microbiocidals. To illustrate the difference I’ll give you the example of my cockroach problem at home. A cockroach happened to walk its self into my pantry moth sticky trap on Wednesday and while it couldn’t get off because its feet were stuck, it did eventually die – after 2 days – and that’s called a humane trap….. Contrast that with the cockroach that got a whiff of my national parks friendly creepy bug spray and died within minutes. A microbiostatic stops bugs in their tracks so they can’t feed or breed and eventually die of boredom I suppose – it would be quite boring not being able to do those things. A microbiocidal basically nukes the hell out of the bugs, killing them quickly but potentially being more toxic to the surrounds. So organic products with their more humane preservatives are an easy target for yeast – even good yeast- to start the fermenting process. Organic products are less likely to use chelating agents (in my experience here, this is probably not the case overseas) as they don’t want to use anything that reduces the organic content. A chelating agent can really help boost preservative efficacy and would be helpful here. Starting pH in some organic formulations is low due to the desire to make the preservatives work better and the fact that natural preservatives often work by acidifying their environment. A move from pH 4.5 to 5.5 might be just enough to stack the odds in your favour without ruining your preservatives life. I am sure there are more things that could be tried too but the preservative free hurdle technology is going to be less helpful in this type of formula as the presence of sugars is the start and end of the problem, not how much free water you have, especially give the fact that irradiation is banned for organic products so some microbes including yeasts are bound to be in your product to start with.
How do I find out if I’m affected by this Kombucha affliction?
Stability testing is the way to go, organised multi-temperature stability testing over a period of at least 12 weeks.
And could anything else cause these symptoms or are you sure its fermentation?
Well as I said at the beginning this is a theory so there could well be other things at play but the observations I have made across a number of products do seem to stack up with these well-known and well documented processes. Having said that products can become bubbly through other things too and viscosity can drop in gels for other reasons so it is more that the whole picture is pointing me to this conclusion than any single sign.
And is there any analytical test that could back this theory up?
That is what I’m currently looking into as I’m as keen as anyone to get some data to back this up. I can’t see why levels of Pyruvic acid, lactic or acetic acid or alcohol can’t be measured. That should be easy. Oh and of course we can do another micro test to see how the yeast levels are looking compared to at the start of the testing.
To be honest I’m not sure what I’m going to do next with this but if I do invest in some more testing I’ll be sure to let you know!
I looked at putting Ubiquinone, the naturally derived Coq10 into a TGA listed skin care product a few months ago and found that it wasn’t possible, the ARTG only allows CoQ10 in oral preparations and not in skin care. This is because of a lack of efficacy data to support deliver of this active via that route. I thought that was interesting.
When dosed orally Coenzyme Q10 is said to help keep the heart healthy. It is essential for cellular function as it is used by the cells to generate energy – no COQ10, no energy – sounds legit.
Apparently it doesn’t quite work that way when applied topically.
After hearing that one would be forgiven for feeling that COQ10 is a bit of a dud, another fad that the cosmetic industry comes up with in order to sell products but to think that would be to do COQ10 a great dis-service. It is, in fact very helpful but not as an energy booster, instead COQ10 acts as a powerful and quite useful antioxidant and every skin care guru needs a bit of that in their life!
Ubiquinone is the name for the COQ10 that is naturally produced, us cosmetic chemists sometimes extract it from plant material, the rather un-sexy Japanese Knott Weed is a particularly reliable and cost-effective plant source that is widely used. The wonderful world of pharmaceuticals created their own super-potent version of this COQ10 when they made Idebenone. This is a slightly smaller molecule with better solubility and efficacy, at least when it comes to pharmaceutical applications but for cosmetics it has proved to be a little too risky an ingredient for most thanks to its ability to induce dermal allergic reactions – possibly due to its enhanced skin penetration ability? I am not sure….. In any case the cosmetic world now favours Ubiquinone and uses it as an antioxidant while the pharmaceutical world favours Idebenone and uses it as both an antioxidant and a cellular energy booster.
Here are the molecular diagrams so you can see the structure of the two chemicals:
So what do we know of the antioxidant properties of Ubiquinone?
I found this table in an article I was reading about the antioxidant efficacy of the COQ10 (Idebenone: A new antioxidant. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Vol 4 (1) – Jan 1, 2005). As you can see from this, in this round of tests the Ubiquinone scores 55 out of 100, Idebenone 95 and Tocopherol (Natural Vitamin E) scores 80. 55 out of 100 doesn’t look great but numbers can be deceptive in these things – as you can see Ubiquinone scores about the same as Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) and Alpha Lipoic Acid, another popular Antioxidant in cosmetics comes in last with 41. When it comes to dosing your product up with antioxidants I like to think of it like this. Say you want to give your house a good clean, protect it from dirt and grime, you would be best sourcing a variety of implements – duster, vacuum cleaner, broom, mop etc – rather than just getting in 4 x vacuum cleaners. Antioxidants are the same, they work to keep your product protected from the ravages of free radical pollution. Free radicals come in different shapes, sizes and amounts and so it makes sense to try to tackle them in a variety of ways. If you are lucky your variety of tools will work synergistically creating a combination that is better than the sum of its parts. It is worth trying for that. So, when I look at the table above that’s what I see, a set of antioxidants with different levels of ability but also different chemistries, chemistries that might prove better suited to something outside of this test criteria. After all, Idebenone might perform the best here on paper but what use is that when some people react to it?
So how much Ubiquinone should you use to access its antioxidant benefits?
Well, the beauty of an antioxidant is that any amount you do is better than nothing – like cleaning up the house, just picking up one pair of socks from the floor makes a difference and is worth it (yes children, I hope you are listening…). That said there is an optimal level that insures efficacy without a high risk of irritation or product instability or expensivity (I just made that word up). The amount most commonly used is 0.01-0.5% – quite a wide range but again that does reflect the fact that each formula will have a different level of need for an antioxidant both as product protection (to prevent the formula from going rancid) and in terms of claim substantiation (to protect the skin from free radicals).
The ingredient is oil soluble although it is fair to say it is poorly soluble and often needs filtering before adding to a base as it won’t fully dissolve into most oils. I’ve found success in dissolving it into vegetable squalane and that solvent has the added benefit of being skin-like and something of a skin penetration enhancer because of its ability to spread the ingredient out evenly.
Anything else to keep in mind when using CO Q10?
Well it is expensive when compared to Vitamin E (somewhere in the region of 8-10 times more) so you would tend to using less of this than your tocopherol. Also it is a bright yellow in colour and that colour will run through into your base product, especially if you are using 0.5% of this active. Otherwise it is pretty much odourless which makes it quite easy to add into most formulations and because the addition rate is low it can also be dispersed through a gel (water-based) serum if needs be.
And one last thing, what is Kinetin? It also appears in that antioxidant test result table.
That is a plant hormone that stimulates growth. Apparently it is also used in skin care along with vitamin A (Retinol) to help fight ageing although I’ve not come across it myself (but that doesn’t mean much to be honest). Just a quick Google of products containing this show up Almay Skin Soothing Foundation, Pro Therapy MD Cream and Garden of Eden tissue growth cream – high-end products. This antioxidant is listed as an unrestricted ingredient in the COSING database (EU ingredient database) and looking at Special Chemicals for Cosmetics it seemed to be quite popular in 2010-2014 with nothing much since and no suppliers listed so I’ll have to dig around a bit more about why that is.
So there you go. Ubiquinone, CO Q10 is a good antioxidant for skincare and is probably worth adding to your regular round-up of antioxidant heros if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, it looks like tried and trusted Vitamin E is better on a weight for weight basis anyway so don’t feel like you are missing out too much.
In December 2012 I wrote a little article advising people not to make their own Zinc based sunscreen. That post still attracts lots of eyeballs and comments which is interesting and why I’m following it up with another post. I’m happy to say that I have dissuaded some people from making and selling their own zinc sunscreen either because they didn’t realise the testing costs involved or that actually there is more to this than just adding zinc into a cream and hoping for the best but I haven’t put everyone off. Some of those enthusiastic people feel that there is always the potential for a stone I’ve left unturned (maybe there is) or a solution I didn’t spot (again, possible) but to date I’m yet to read a comment that has me going ‘aha, they are onto something’ and the zinc-only products on the market are still largely as they were when I wrote this – a mixture of not-that-great to quite nice and wearable but not as invisible or flexible as some other options out there.
But that’s not what I’m wanting to talk about here, here I want to talk about Raspberry Seed Oil.
So while some ‘make your own sunscreen’ enthusiasts are off playing with zinc, others are out picking raspberries……
It has been said, once or twice on the great Googlesphere that Raspberry Seed Oil is a fab natural sunscreen. Now while there is some scientific basis behind that statement a sunscreen it is not and I think it’s time I explained why in the best way I can and for me that means starting with the science of what we know and what we don’t.
Scientific Study: Characteristics of Raspberry Seed Oil, B Dave Oomah, Stephanie Ladet, David V Godfrey, Jun Liang, Benoit Girard. Food Research Programme Canada Published in Food Chemistry issue 69, 2000, page 187-193.
Finding: Raspberry Seed Oil showed good absorbance in the UVB – UVC ranges with potential for use as a broad spectrum UV protectant.
NOTE: The oil extracted for this test was done so using hexane, a food-grade solvent.
Snipped of the above paper talking about Sun Protection.
I don’t want to be the biggest party pooper on the planet but WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT HERE?
Crude Raspberry Seed Oil showed some absorbance in the UVC and UVB range.
OK so UVC is is not a concern for the skin as it is filtered by the ozone layer whereas UVB and UVA are as they are the more energetic ‘skin damaging’ rays – well, damaging if you get too much. Therefore I’ll ignore the UVC bit.
UVB is interesting though but how did they test this? I’m suspecting it was using a labsphere machine because of how the data is presented. Labsphere machines can give a theoretical SPF/ result to make sure a product is safe to then start using on real people, they are often used in sunscreen testing for that purpose and to give an idea of where testing should start (what SPF).
I’m feeling OK about this until I see the next sentence: In the UVB range, Raspberry Seed Oil can shield against UVA induced damage by scattering as well as by absorption.
What? How can they now jump to what the oil will do in the UVA region when they are not measuring it? What do they mean by shielding against damage by scattering and absorption I wonder? These terms are simple enough – scattering light is what Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide do – they bounce it away from the skin so the energy doesn’t get in and burn us. Absorption is also easy, that’s what chemical sunscreens do, they interact with UV rays and chemically disable it by reducing its energy. I can’t accept that Raspberry Seed Oil can do either without evidence and I see no evidence here.
With regards to results for UVB that’s fine but if you shield the skin from UVB without considering UVA you actually leave the skin in a situation that is worse than if you used nothing. Our skin has evolved with the UVA and UVB in proportion, not one or the other. To treat the UV spectrum as a set of boxes that you can either take or leave is to not understand how it works, it is a continuum, a spectrum and rather than chopping it up one needs to just dim it evenly like you would dim the lights in a room.
Ok but then we have another sentence that in light of the above makes me even more confused:
The optical transmission of Raspberry Seed Oil, especially in the UV range (290-400nm) was comparable to that of titanium dioxide preparations with sun protection factors for UVB and UVA between 28-50 and 6.5-7.5 respectively.
That sentence above has been enough to have a whole barrel load of people think that Raspberry Seed oil has an SPF of up to 50. I would hesitate to get so excited and this is why.
- I can see no evidence that this test was validated on people – what something appears to do on a labsphere machine may not happen in-vivo. It would make sense to test this on people and I have seen that happen with far lower results than these ( A potential SPF boost of between 4-5 possibly).
- Again the UVA and UVB are separated which makes no sense when we are looking to apply this to real life. It is a falsehood to think that human SPF testing ONLY focuses on UVB, the human SPF testing exposes people to a simulated sunshine which includes UVA as well as UVB. While we can induce the sunburn with just UVB whereas UVA doesn’t do that to think that an SPF is ONLY UVB is outdated for the reasons I stated before. The red reaction is what we measure because it is the first visual sign that the skin is in trauma and that trauma is a signal for both UVA and UVB, the body doesn’t care to assign such arbitrary limits.
- Titanium Dioxide at what concentration and particle size? The way this is written shows a lack of understanding for how sunscreen actives are sold. It would make more sense to report an approximate SPF range per unit used. Titanium Dioxide generally gives around 2 and up to 2.5 ish SPF units per 1%. Zinc Oxide is somewhere in the region of 1-1.5. We are none the wiser as to the concentration of Raspberry seed oil needed to get this amazing result OR do we just assume we put it on neat?
- Neat oil is a possibility but what about the lens effect of the oil film? Oils that leave the skin shiny can actually accentuate the suns rays thus making it more likely rather than less to burn. It is likely that this physical phenomena would reduce the SPF potential of this oil somewhat, especially if one needs to apply it neat to get a result.
- The UV spectra range of Titanium Dioxide is only broad spectrum if the particle size is small (towards nano) and even then it doesn’t have the broad UVA coverage that Zinc does so will this Raspberry Oil leave us wanting in the high frequency UVA range?
Let’s have a closer look at the graphs:
At the bottom of these it does say that the Raspberry Seed Oil was diluted to 1%
And here are some typical absorbance curves.
We are focusing on the Absorbance as that’s what matters. To be like Titanium Dioxide we would want to see absorbance above 1 in the 290-340 wavelength. What we do see is weird. The top graph only goes up to a wavelength of 290, anything before that is kind of irrelevant as we only start counting UVB from 280. At 280 the Absorbance is looking to be somewhere around 0.2 which is not really that good. Absorbance usually ranges from 0-2. O = no absorption and 2= 99% absorption. So if we just extrapolate that and say, for argument’s sake that an Absorbance of 1 = 50:50 (1/2 of rays are absorbed), 0.5 = 1/4 of rays absorbed and 0.25 = 1.8th of rays absorbed or 12.5% so more is getting through than being mopped up or diverted.
We have to come down to the second graph to get the interesting data but suddenly the Raspberry seed oil has jumped from absorbing only 0.2 at 290nm to absorbing nearly 0.9 at 290nm – how can this even happen? It then drops off reaching around 0.1 absorbance at the 350 wavelength which means that even if we can trust these numbers it is running well short of being broad spectrum.
Then on the last graph we again see what looks like a miraculous jump from an absorbance of close to 0 at 400 wavelength to an absorbance of………less than 0.1 – yes, they changed the gradient to make it look more exciting maybe or maybe just so we can zero in on how not good this is at protecting from these high wavelengths.
By contrast we see the graph below. We can see that Titanium Dioxide does quite a good job in the UVB region (280-320) absorbing in the 1.2 region (60% absorbed) but by the time it gets to 400 we only have about 0.3 or 15% absorbed, 75% getting through.
So what’s the verdict?
If I had to base my sunscreen formulations on this one paper I’d not be relying on Raspberry Seed Oil. The study has some deficits that make me wonder if the people involved had much experience in sunscreen development – why should they after all, they are publishing in a food journal about a food by-product.
But I don’t just read journals I also do lab stuff.
I have seen raspberry seed oil in action and being tested in sunscreen formulations and in the tests I’ve seen it might add a bit of a boost to the SPF – in the order of 4-5 SPF units for a product containing between 1-5%. Aha, I hear you say, but what about a product with JUST Raspberry seed oil???? Based on the above I’d not rely on the Raspberry seed oil to give me anything like the broad spectrum protection that Zinc Oxide or smaller particulate Titanium Dioxide can give so no, I don’t see that as an option.
But what we haven’t talked about is the oils antioxidant content. Quite a few fruit oils do contain antioxidant chemicals which can help mop up the damage that excessive UV radiation can leave behind. Dousing the skin with antioxidants every day sounds like a very good idea to me and could strengthen the skin making it less likely to succumb to UV induced damage. However, this mopping up doesn’t mean the skin hasn’t been exposed. One would have to weigh up the benefit of having a good cleaner in a house full of slobs. Sure the cleaner will work like mad but if there are too many slobs in the house the cleaner will get tired and die of exhaustion, your antioxidants are no different.
My advice to those looking to substitute ‘chemical’ sunscreens with antioxidant rich oils and extracts is yes, do it but also do yourself a favour and modify your sun behaviour too so that you are at least giving your antioxidants a fighting chance of keeping up.
I see no reason for these antioxidant rich oils to not be part of a natural approach to sun protection and for some people it may indeed be enough, but for everyone else I’m still going to be advising some good old-fashioned ‘chemical’ sunscreen.
I really like this picture that I found on ‘On Health’ here.
Apparently the twin on the right smokes and likes to sunbathe whereas the twin on the left doesn’t.
Pictures like this do help me to set customers expectations with regards to what a cosmetic product can and can’t do and for me, that’s a beautiful thing!
The cosmetic industry is full of hype and to be honest some of it just does my head in. I am not a fan of ingredient companies that sell their actives on the basis that they worked In Vitro – basically on cells that they made up in the lab in a test tube. That isn’t real life, the cosmetic chemist can’t just grab the exact cells they need and dab their product onto them. We have to go through layer after layer of Keratinocytes before we even get to the live cells (Keratinocytes are dead and are what covers all of our outer skin except for our lips) and that’s not easy when the whole point of the skin is to keep stuff out. We really do have to swim against the tide!
As someone who does read through the efficacy data with a fine tooth comb before going to a site like Deep Dyvve (you have to pay to subscribe) to read other scientific papers to see if the results the ingredient manufacturer got stack up in the world outside of their imaginations I do sometimes find myself a bit lacking in the enthusiasm department for some shiny new cosmetic ingredients because of this In Vitro issue. But this stuff isn’t going away any time soon, ingredient manufacturers aren’t so much lying when they tell us about their in-vitro awesomeness, more that they are potentially over-stating the facts or drawing conclusions as to the how’s and why’s while trying to provide this insatiable market place with a little bit of something that isn’t BAD for you.
So what’s the deal with these In Vitro wonder kids? Do they do anything? Should they be avoided altogether?
OK so if something can be proven to do something good in vitro while at the same time doing nothing bad it may be worth the gamble don’t you think? In vitro testing does tend to help answer the ‘is this going to be toxic?’ question and that is quite important don’t you think….
Then there is always the possibility that the cosmetic chemist will manage to reach these viable cells if the base formula is right.
Lastly and not insignificantly most these ingredient companies do go on to run some real-life efficacy tests and see some visible improvements in the skin of their test subjects. Even if the visible results are not directly linked to what the ingredient can do in-vivo does that really matter if it makes you look better and the ingredient meets your marketing expectations? I think not.
OK, so let’s get back to the picture and what cosmetics CAN do shall we?
The picture above shows a number of skin-based processes that have been accelerated due to lifestyle choices and environmental exposure – extrinsic ageing. Properly formulated cosmetics can help either to prevent this damage and/or correct a little of what’s gone wrong but only up to a point.
- Fine lines and wrinkles – Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. Cosmetic emulsions (Creams) can excel in this area delivering by delivering extra oil in a breathable and pH balanced watery soup to the skin in a comfortable and easy-to-spread way. Never under-estimate the role of a bit of strategically placed moisture on the skin!
- Deeper lines – Prevention is the only thing a cosmetic can help with. Deep lines, once formed can only be removed by a face lift or fillers – surgical intervention.Where a cosmetic can help is in boosting moisture (to plump up the skin), reflecting light away from the wrinkle (so the lines look like they have diminished) and topically tightening the skin with the aid of a shrink-to-fit polymer that physically tightens the skin by tightening onto it. While there are a selection of ‘topical botox’ type ingredients (typically peptides) around that can affect the muscle contractions the ingredient does have to get right down past the dermal-epidermal junction in order to work and while this isn’t impossible, it isn’t easy and results will not be as dramatic and permanent as you can achieve with fillers or botox.
- Pigmentation is something that a cosmetic product can affect. Bearberry (uva Ursi) extract is very commonly used in brightening formulations in order to capture the benefits of the Arbutin that it contains. Arbutin is structurally similar to Hydroquinone (same molecular family only arbutin is glycosylated. Glycosylation is a reaction where a carbohydrate (sugar) is attached onto a molecule so Arbutin is hydroquinone plus this carbohydrate part) and works in a similar way by blocking the melanin pathway. If melanin can’t be ‘grown’ and deposited in the cell a discolouration won’t develop. Hydroquinone is a prescription only ingredient in Europe, the USA and Australia whereas Bearberry extract is not regulated that way. The reason hydroquinone is restricted is because of outstanding questions and concerns over its potential carcinogenic status. It is thought that because of the slight difference in chemical structure Bearberry is a safer option. One study looking into the amount of Arbutin in Bearberry found concentration ranges between 6.3-9.16%. One patent for a topical lightening cream containing Arbutin specified an active Arbutin concentration of between 0.05-5%. On that basis one would be looking at adding the Bearberry active at between 0.55% – 79.3% of the formula to get a result. This may or may not be possible depending on the type of product you are trying to make. Anyway, enough of the detail, the bottom line is that one can decrease pigmentation by topical application of a treatment or cosmetic product as long as the actives are the right ones and present at the right concentration.
- Uneven Skin Tone can also be addressed cosmetically. We have the make-up option and we also have at our disposal a range of anti-inflammatories and soothing agents that can help address redness and skin marks. A common and popular soothing agent is Bisabolol from Chamomile and a great anti-inflammatory is Allantoin from Comfrey. Together they can help to even things out while the other ingredients get to work.
- Sun damage and the general lack of vitality in environmentally aged skin can be prevented or slowed down by the application of antioxidants. Popular antioxidants are Coenzyme Q10, Resveratrol, Vitamin E, Vitamin C and Alpha Lipoic Acid. Antioxidants are common to many fruit based extracts and vegetable oils, ingredients which are growing in popularity amongst those looking for active natural skin care. It is relatively easy for the cosmetic chemist to deliver these to our clients skin because oxidation occurs where there is oxygen – on the surface – so as long as we have a good range of ingredients at concentrations that won’t irritate and they are spread well across the skin we should get results and slow down that extrinsic ageing and boost the skins natural capacity to protect its self from the sun at the same time! Bonus!
So cosmetics do work!
While there are some things that a cosmetic product just can’t do there is much that they can. It often surprises my students when I tell them just how many things can be achieved on or close to the skin’s surface – I think most people assume ingredients have to almost get into the blood stream to work. When it comes to moisturising, protecting, strengthening, re-surfacing, smoothing, ‘feeding’ and brightening our products only have to soak into the top few layers which is great as that’s pretty much as far as most cosmetic products get, even with the aid of delivery systems.
But cosmetic product do have their limits.
In the case of these twins, no amount of cosmetic product will have the twin on the right hand side of this image looking like the twin on the left although the right products might get her somewhere close (if she even wants that, after all, we don’t know). What is also important is that neither twin looks to be in their twenties, thirties or even early forties and that is significant. A good cosmetic product may do as much as help you look a good few years younger than your age but the only thing that can take decades off you is either surgery, good genes, good life-choices or good fortune (a stress free life).
Expectations set, let’s get into the lab and try some stuff out.