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The Evolution of Formulating.

February 14, 2018

mad scientist

I just found that image here: Apparently there is a quiz you can take to see if you are a mad scientist already.  Nice!

Not picking on anyone in particular but here’s a snippet of an email conversation I just had:

Client: “What comes first? Stability or effectiveness?”  after working on applying some formulating fixes that I just suggested and having varying results.

Me: “Both matters, that’s why formulating is so hard”

Client: “Haha. Ok. Touché.”

Of course I tried to be a bit more helpful and to be honest I wasn’t trying to be an arse, I just wanted the client to realise that this thing they are trying to do IS hard, everyone finds it hard, well, everyone that actually explores their concept that is.

Let’s talk about that.  Let’s talk about the evolution of becoming a formulator.

So, you are bored with your life and you notice that everyone seems to be having fun on Instagram, getting tonnes of attention and living a great life by making skin care products.  It looks sooooo easy, there are recipes everywhere, forums, online courses, chat rooms, books, stores and everything. You too could f**king ACE this!!!!!

That’s stage 1:  Believing you are going to be awesome at this, that it is simple and that it is 100% fun.

You get stuck head-down-bum-up in some ‘research’ which I am convinced is now just code for semi-structured web surfing and you come across a recipe.  The recipe looks exciting, lots of people have tried it and you don’t need much in the way of equipment to get started – you start to wonder why you ever spent $100 on an eye cream and develop an unhealthy distrust of big brands their corporate greed and huge packaging and marketing budgets.  Fluff, all fluff you tell yourself, it’s what’s in the pack that matters, it’s all about the sciencing!

That’s stage 2: Knowing that you are going to ace it because you have just done more reading than you did through your entire schooling.  You start to wonder why nobody has tapped you on the shoulder with the offer of an Honorary Doctorate.

Then the time comes to make this freaking awesome recipe – you opted for a cream, many people do. What could be more sciency and impressive than a freaking cream for goodness sake!  It’s going to be awesome.

You mock-up a Bain Marie on your stove top by balancing a bowl in a saucepan and then another. You stop for a minute to try to work out how to cut your block of beeswax, then for another minute to try to work out how to ‘weigh’  1 teaspoons worth and then decide just to guess ‘because it can’t matter too much, this stuff is good for you right? It’s all good.

You have read somewhere (everywhere?) that beeswax is a great emulsifier but your recipe has another emulsifier specified so you feel that this cream is going to be bullet proof, awesome and double-strength.  Once again you debate how to ‘weigh’ your pelletised emulsifier and once again you opt for a hybrid mixture of teaspoons and guessing figuring that close enough is good enough.

The oils and butters go in and it goes into the pot and then it’s onto the water phase.  Water….. Tap water, distilled water, mineral water, holy water or demineralised water?  You decide that rain water blessed by the moon gods is the only authentic water there is and with that your water phase comes to life.  There isn’t usually much else going down in a simple internet cream recipe water phase so you pretty much just stand there and watch the water boil.

And then you wait……

You have a thermometer of the old school type. You check the water phase then the oil phase then water then oil and so on and so forth, trying to get them both to match but you can’t.  You settle when they are both between 75-85C and cross your fingers hoping that in doing so you won’t ruin your chances of forming this emulsion and you don’t.

The oil goes into the water then you whip the shit out of it with your bar mix.  Oh yeh baby, it’s white and creamy and is close to looking like something out of a Mr Whippy Ice Cream van and you are happy.  You stop whipping just before you get RSI from holding down the bar mix button and you are glad you did as the mixer is now awfully hot and looking like blowing up!  You decide to speed up cooling by popping the mix in the freezer for a minute while you have a cup of tea.


Out of the freezer comes the cream and shit, it’s lumpy but still a warm in patches. Back to the bar mix and a bit more whipping seems to bring it back into line.  You add the fragrance and preservative and BAM the job is done.  You are a genius, it was true!

And that’s stage 3 completed:   The Great Success.  You LOVE your cream, it is the best cream you have ever tried. Your friends love your cream, your granny wants you to make some for all of her friends and even your dog loves it. You have literally and figuratively made it and you feel like a champion formulator.

Now stage 3 can last for many years if you are lucky my friends of the internet.  Some people even become formulators when they reach stage 3 – they might even become teachers at this point. I see this sometimes and I run, usually in the opposite direction because I know that it is usually only when something terrible happens that the veneer of your success starts to hit you (or maybe not in some cases).

So let’s fast forward to the person who has completed stage 3 then has a cream that starts to develop a micro or stability issue or they start selling and people start asking questions.  Let’s fast forward to there.

Your Insta-famous and lucky for you, you’re attracting people with your bright labels and sassy style. You are earning money and you feel like the Queen (or King) of everything! Nobody is asking you too much, nobody is questioning you and everything is peachy until one day they do start with the questions.

“Does that contain palm oil” they say.

“Are there any parabens?”

“Is that fair trade”

“Your product didn’t work on me”

“You are too expensive”

“My product separated and I want my money back”

“Is the cream supposed to have black specs in the top?”

“This cream is too sticky”

Welcome to stage 4. The overwhelm. 

Stage 4 of being a formulator is where you feel like you can’t please any-effing-body.  You thought you did ALL of the research but now people are worrying about things you didn’t even think about and all of a sudden your perfect formula doesn’t look quite so bullet proof any more.  You start to lose your confidence and this is where people do either one of two things, 1) look for someone or something else to blame or 2) go back to the drawing board and hopefully get some qualified help.

Time moves on slowly now, you solve one problem, you create another.  You move on from that and customers tastes have moved on too. You then look up to find that your competitor is now doing something weird with coconuts and you want to know how to do the same. You are on a journey and you start to realise that you are still only at the beginning…………

Stage 5: The Humbling.

So this is where I am most of the time I guess.  At the spot when I know all of the very many and varied ways that life can come and shit on your formulation parade but luckily I have been there and done that a few times and usually have a few ideas of what to try to fix it when ‘it’ happens.  But ‘it’ takes time to solve,  requires investment, may not produce a practical solution, may not even be possible in the applied way that the customer wants it and that’s hard, really hard but that’s what stage 5 is all about. WELCOME TO REALITY!  This is the point where you realise that cracking open the Champagne just because your emulsion looks nice is premature UNLESS you have tested it, where you realise you do need a pH meter and not pH papers.  Where you understand  that the first version that looks good enough can probably be optimised and where you can meet your customers genuine questions with applied information and a plan.

This is where I try to help people get to, if I can, at least for their little patch of formulating reality.

The customer that I was talking to is no doubt fast-tracking through this list for THAT particular formula and I’m hoping they reach stage 5 by the end of the week as they really are putting in the hard yards and seem to have the right attitude and inclination so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  But to be at stage 5 is not to have all of the answers, you do realise that don’t you?  No, stage 5 is all about knowing most of the questions and having the tools, the mindset and the stamina to want to go on the quest to answer those questions.  Nobody makes it to stage 6 in this game.

Stage 6: The Grand Master of Formulating Genius.

There ‘ain’t no such thing mate, there is always another issue, another desire, another trend and another innovation and that, my friends, is the beauty of this game.  You are always just practicing and that’s OK.






Planted, not buried. Notes from the dark side of business ownership

February 5, 2018

My business is now 10 years old and it’s been a wild ride, I can tell you…..

I started my business needing it to work and when I say needing, I wasn’t talking about some deep ego-driven longing to be seen as a success, I mean of the food and shelter type. This was never going to be just pocket-money for me although neither was my business set up for the money but that’s another story.  If I’m totally honest that fact, that I needed to be on top of my money game peeved me a bit, mainly because it made things really, really hard, really, really serious and not as creative or freeing as I’d have hoped.  I had no money or time to waste and little lee-way for mistake making or navel gazing.  Even the intellectual understanding of how working ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business could help me out long-term wound me up – long-term doesn’t put food on the table NOW, doesn’t stop my little children needing me or my body needing sleep.

While things did finally work themselves into a rhythm I was reminded only last month of just how relentless  and challenging running a business can be and how lonely and challenging the dark side of business ownership is.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Money – having a little or a lot doesn’t determine your business fate.
    • Becoming a whizz at business accounting isn’t something that many first-time entrepreneurs wish to focus on but the reality is that it is money that keeps your business going around.  Whether you have a little or a lot isn’t so much the issue here, many of the best businesses I’ve worked with over the last ten years have established themselves on next to nothing and worked up from there – this is especially true of first-time businesses.  Being fortunate enough to be able to start a business in a comfortable financial position can be great if you know what you are doing as you can quickly scale your winning ideas but if you are learning the business ropes you can chew through hundreds of thousands and fall short of the mark.  From my experience what matters is that the finances are a focus, that business owners quickly work out where their money is going to come from and where it is going to go and make sure they put more effort on keeping the ‘in’ funnel flowing faster than the ‘out’s’. Of course that sounds blindingly obvious written down but you’d be surprised how often it gets forgotten…..
  2. Selling is the hardest part.
    • So many business owners that I meet can’t bring themselves to sell their products or services, at least not in the early days. This is not surprising really as there is nothing more confronting than having to go and pitch your wears or self to the public only to be flat-out rejected, questioned or worse, ignored. Then there are those that watch and copy you, the people who think you stole from them (when in reality you may not even know who they are) and those that drain your resources by latching on quick and not leaving you alone. All of this is particularly challenging if you have doubts about yourself or your products. I spent two years being rejected in one form or another and it wasn’t until I’d had a chance to do some soul-searching that I realised my original idea sucked and what people wanted was something else entirely which I was quite well placed to offer.  Getting over yourself while not just caving in to others is a big part of selling I think – standing in your power so to speak!
  3. Discipline, you’re going to need it. 
    • Once you hit a winning stride the next issue is maintaining it.  Day after day, month after month, year after year.  Of course, things might not end up being 9-5, you might be able to take each Friday off or loll around in your PJ’s for most of Monday but at some time you have to do the work and that can be surprisingly difficult as not all work you have to do will be profitable, interesting, fun or rewarding and nor will you always feel like doing it.  The businesses that I work with that do well tend to have good stick-a-bility, they just get up and get on with it, even if it does sometimes take them a while.  Basically that ‘to-do’ list needs to keep getting done day after day after day…
  4. Steely Focus.
    • As a follow on to the discipline I also see that successful businesses have a sharp focus on what they need to be doing to bring in the dollars.  I was introduced to the concept of ‘busy work’ by a teaching friend of mine – as in sometimes kids just need to be given ‘busy work’ to keep their bodies moving while their minds have a break, as part of the education process.  Busy work in a classroom might be sorting out books,  making the room look tidy or doing some other non-essential but fairly rewarding ‘nice’ task like covering your books or drawing a title page.  This behaviour acts as a form of self soothing, makes us feel better without stressing us out – it’s like the comfort blanket of work but we need to be mindful of how much of it we do.  As tempting as it is to spend all week re-organising your files, drawing label designs or booking or attending yet another course these things can’t monopolise your 9-5 all of the time.  We all do it and we all need to do this sort of thing as it does help our brains to re-charge and relax but I’ve seen people completely lose focus of their main goal in their business and as a consequence lose momentum and with it their source of income.
  5. Being Realistic.
    • Realising that having your own business/ brand or whatever is a tough gig really helps to lighten the load. People come into business ownership for all sorts of reasons, not least for the freedom, not having to answer to anyone, maybe more flexibility or whatever.  While all of those things are possible they don’t come easy, if they did we wouldn’t be in a situation where the majority of business start-ups fail.  Realising that running your own business is going to involve lots of work is the first step to contentment and success.   I don’t mean that your work  has to feel like  a slog every day – if you plan things well and work hard you can achieve a much more pleasant working environment than you might have experienced elsewhere- but that you do have to make tough calls and put in the hard work when the business needs it and not necessarily just when it suits you (back to discipline again).  I have lots of friends who run businesses and they aren’t all out playing golf all day, every day.  While they do get to choose their holidays and can often take extended breaks when they are at work they are hammering it working long hours at times to create the space for their time out.

For me, running a business for ten years has been a great life experience and one which has provided me with ample opportunity to experience all of life’s emotions – yep, even the really, really dark ones.  It’s fun but it’s tiring,  freeing but also persistent in its neediness,  financially rewarding but only after the hard-yards have been put in. But it’s also been lonely at times – we didn’t mention lonely yet did we?  If, like me, you are planning to (or are) running a business alone it is important to understand that you will face many of your darkest challenges and your greatest triumphs that way.  Your family won’t ever really know what it’s like to be in your shoes and neither will your staff (if you have them).  Other business owners might look like they always have everything under control and it might feel that you are the only one waking up in a cold sweat at 3am and wondering how you will carry on, but you are not alone, we’ve all been there and done that.  The greatest thing I’ve learned over the last ten years is that just when you feel like you’ve been buried you realise that you have actually been planted but even that realisation doesn’t come without a fight.  Be prepared to face that and you will be OK.

Good luck and don’t suffer in silence.


Why the ‘just in case’ preservation mindset is wrong and potentially dangerous.

January 28, 2018

One thing that I hear often said in the hobby and small brand end of town is that they pop a preservative into their product ‘just in case’ or ‘to be on the safe side’.  This is usually said in regards to sugar and salt scrubs with the prevailing logic being that these products are used in the shower and that the shower introduces water into the product and therefore it could become mouldy or contaminated.  Now while that is logical I can, from experience, expand upon that and say that if said product is left in the shower and water gets in, even a little bit (say 2-5%), the sugar scrub will soon become more of a liquid syrup than a scrub and will therefore be rendered useless.  Sugar and salt are very good at taking on moisture and turning that into a brine or syrup both of which, if saturated, are self-preserving due to them being chaotrophic.  I would not, as a rule, pop a preservative into that type of formula unless relevant testing highlighted a need.

It doesn’t just stop there,  preservatives are popped in ‘just in case’ across a range of products including anhydrous and dry formulations and while some will no doubt need a little something, just adding an ingredient like a preservative to be safe is kind of missing the point entirely.

All preservatives are irritating to the skin and some are pretty nasty when you over-dose them and can leave the skin red and inflamed, itchy or otherwise damaged.  We need to get to a point where we realise that over-dosing is often worse than under-doing it.

A Preservative Efficacy Test is a test carried out to challenge your formula. The test involves adding microbes to the product and seeing how quickly it kills them. If it performs within an agreed framework it passes, if it doesn’t it doesn’t.  This test is somewhat of a gold standard test but the standard protocol used is not great for all products, in fact this test is only really good for water based formulations and oil-in-water emulsions.  Other types of formulations will require a different testing strategy to give them a fair go, your micro test house will advise you of what is best for your product. The benefit of this is that it gives you a good idea of how well your preservative system is working, the down side is that it is quite expensive,  several hundreds of dollars.

A Micro Count is quick, easy and cheap.  This must be carried out by a micro lab – don’t try doing this at home, you are quite literally dabbling in biological warfare if you do this and I’m sure you don’t want to expose your family to a whole host of nasty pathogenic bugs.  Micro counts only give you a snap shot of what is growing at the point of testing but this test can be used in a variety of ways to get a decent look at how well your non-standard (in terms of PET) products hold up to life.

One formulation that I put out there back in December was the Honey Mask below.  Usually one would expect something that contained clay and honey to be a hot mess of microbes but I had a feeling that this would be pretty well self-preserving due to the lack of free water.  I made this and another version of this in my Thursday morning class so no gloves, hats or hair nets.  We all gave the samples a try to over the next two weeks I left my jar on my work desk in my hot office and tried the product out a couple more times.  So, by the time the product was posted for testing some three or so weeks later it had been ‘challenged’ somewhat – OK it wasn’t strictly scientific but my philosophy is ‘let’s see were we are starting from then go from there’.

The recipe is below and so are the micro results (The scrubbing is just other customers results – I sent a few things in the same parcel): 

As you can see from below I got two tests done, an overall micro count and then a specific look for pathogens. It is important to do the pathogen look as while you can have some microbes in your cosmetic, you can’t have any pathogens.  This formula showed a micro count of less than 10 colony forming units per gram which is well below the 1000 required for a clean cosmetic and more importantly there were no pathogens found.

The above recipe was designed for quick home-use, home-made fun.  While it is possible that this formula would stand up as it is to commercialisation I would wish to do a few more checks before going to market with a formula like this, just to be sure that during a prolonged pack-open time and use it would remain clean.  However, as it stands I’m happy that this formula is good enough for the purpose it was designed for.

If your formula doesn’t need an additional preservative and you use one at the maximum dose, 100% of that preservative is in excess to requirements and that might make your formula very irritating.   If you use the maximum dose and your formula only needs a half dose, you have a 50% excess. This adds up in excess material costs and skin risk.  Sure there are also risks in under-cooking it and I don’t advocate for that but all too often people don’t appreciate the issues of adding too much!   Also you could have a terrible situation where you use the maximum dose of a preservative in a product and it still fails because of another issue.  Just having a preservative present is no guarantee of a safe or effective product.

So, to summarise you need a preservative strategy for each and every product and the strategy should be based on scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking or worry, a total viable count is usually no more than $150 per product  and can be substantially less.  As well as putting your mind at rest that your product is clean, a TVC also ticks the box that you have carried out your due diligence requirements to the public AND that your product was made ‘clean’  so please, do the testing, you might even be pleasantly surprised by the results!

Is Acne Made Worse By Diet?

January 28, 2018

I have never had great skin, as a baby I was covered in eczema which persisted until early puberty when the pimples started to develop.  As if pimples and teenager hood weren’t enough of a drama my eczema also came back to make my youthful formative years an itchy, bumpy and embarrassing mess.

The hardest part about having acne at that time of my life was the judgement that I felt from other people whether directly or indirectly, that either I or my body was doing something wrong.  The first judgement was to do with my hormones,  that I’d got too much ‘boy’ hormone (testosterone) and that was causing the pimples.  I felt this all to be highly embarrassing as being sporty (as in strong and with lots of endurance), un coordinated and a bit of an adventurer I already felt less girly than I felt society demanded so this outer validation that I was really a female imposter (even though I clearly wasn’t) was mortifying embarrassing.   I now appreciate that girls and boys both need testosterone and that it was more likely that my body was reacting to natural changes that we all have rather than me making shed loads more than a girl reasonably should but that’s not how teenage me read it.  Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about today,  what I want to discuss now is the second equally cringeworthy judgement that I felt about my skin  and that’s to do with food.

The saying ‘you are what you eat’ has always been a bone of contention to me as I have always had such trouble with eating thanks to multiple annoying food intolerances of the ‘not-pleasant-but-not-life-threatening’ variety.  I should have known I was in for a troubled life when my weaning process involved me coming out in a rash every time I ate something.

The fact that as a teenager, my skin started to resemble the pizza that I was quite fond of eating was again mortifying. From time to time people would throw pearls of wisdom at me such as ‘eat less sugar’ or ‘what about you try eating more vegetables’ which is, of course all very sensible and sound health advice but not at all easy to stomach as a sporty and normal weight but stressed-out teen. Sure I favoured cheese on toast and chocolate cake for dinner whenever possible but I also ate a lot of fruit and home-cooked meals and drank only tea and water. To be frank I felt that I was copping more drama on the skin front than my C+ diet deserved.  Intellectually I knew I could do better but I didn’t feel I was quite the abject failure that my skin was making me out to be, I felt like I’d been cheated.  I did go through periods of time when I tried hard with my diet, eating as much fresh fruit and tolerable veggies as I could and cutting out the chocolate – at that time (the late 80’s and early 90’s chocolate was widely ‘known’ to cause acne in certain circles. This was a shame as chocolate was my drug of choice and still is) but nothing seemed to help much or for long so I would always give up.

The trauma of those teenage years  caused by the unruliness of my skin and its inability to respond quickly and positively to any increase in fruit and veg intake or sugar decrease led me to form an internal bias against the ‘you are what you eat’ hypothesis.  My thoughts were further validated when, like most other people, I grew up and my skin woes died down a lot.  Sure I still have some issues but nothing like I used to and no, I haven’t changed my diet much.  My views became set,  that while eating a good diet was ever a bad thing, a great diet can’t ‘cure’ bad skin, that acne is much more complicated than that.

But have I too readily disregarded the food / acne link because of my own failures?


So this morning while catching up on my journal reading I found this recently published article: Acne Vulgaris: The metabolic syndrome of the pilosebaceous follicle .  and I have to admit that it made sense.

Wanting to see if the above article was a one-off or if others had linked diet to acne in this particular way I went googling and found the authors earlier paper (2013) published in Experimental Dermatology here: Potential role of FoxO1 and mTORC1 in the pathogenesis of Western diet-induced acne.

There is also a book: Bioactive Dietary Factors and Plant Extracts in Dermatology. 

and another article by author Bodo Melnik here. 

So first a pilosebaceous follicle is the term used to describe a hair follicle and sebaceous gland unit.  We have these all over the body including the face and on the face our follicles are somewhat atrophied whereas our sebum production has not.  This manifests as hairless but potentially greasy skin, especially in what we call the T-Section.  Acne Vulgaris is an inflammatory skin disease and according to this study increased mTORC1 activity has been detected in acne affected skin.

This mTORC1 thingo is a protein complex that plays an important role in controlling protein synthesis. It does this by managing energy and oxidation requirements.  Among other things, this complex is activated by insulin and it is because of this that the complex is being linked to ‘metabolic syndrome’ – a collection of conditions which include obesity, insulin resistance, high blood triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol and high blood pressure.

It looks like honing in on this mTORC1 pathway has enabled scientists to link what we eat with what happens to our skin at a cellular level which is quite exciting and is in keeping with our deeper knowledge of how our bodies interact with the fuel we give it – how not all calories are created equally for example…

Human trials have been carried out looking at how different diets have impacted the skin of acne sufferers including a placebo-controlled randomised study by Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A et al ‘The effect of a high-protein, low glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris’ but while we might see an impact positive or negative in a change of diet, it isn’t until we can map exactly where this impact is being felt that we can truly know what it was that made a difference.  It looks like this work is starting to clarify that.

So Metabolic Syndrome is not something that all acne sufferers would necessarily be diagnosed with.  I wasn’t and have never been obese, had high blood pressure or particularly high cholesterol but that doesn’t mean to say that my diet wasn’t stressing out my system.

I have long since believed that our skin is the first to scream when something inside isn’t right and this looks like being another example of how that plays out.  Further, while this particular research doesn’t particularly look like it has all of the answers as to why some people get acne and some don’t the evidence pointing to specific dietary triggers seems to be to be compelling as much as I didn’t ever want it to be!

Changing your diet is very, very difficult and if you already have a low self-esteem from acne, the thought that your skin is punishing you for having that extra block of chocolate or milkshake is cruel, especially when you no doubt have friends who eat whatever they like and never get a pimple.   I’d say that like most other things that we are finding out about our body, while metabolic syndrome or the components to that, however mild, may be a powerful trigger to developing acne, something has to pull that trigger and that may be enzyme deficiencies, stress, poor barrier functioning, lifestyle choices, your environment and/ or any medication you are taking.

Talking of medication.

As I’m not a dermatologist I don’t want to go into the details of oral treatments for acne but those that we do use topically and cosmetically such as Benzyl Peroxide and Retinol do seem to affect this mTORC1 pathway too which plays into the hypothesis of cause and effect – control the cause and get a better effect.  The fact that we can correct this dysfunction, at least to some degree through topical (or, if severe medical) treatment rather than just relying on diet is a relief and may give sufferers enough of a boost in confidence to see them through a change in diet.

And back to diet – what should be avoided?

The evidence put forward in the papers above shows that a high glycemic load and milk consumption are the greatest aggravators for acne.  High glycemic foods include refined carbs such as white bread and rice; sugar, white potatoes,  bananas, grapes, cherries, watermelon and corn flakes.   Interestingly enough the studies also found Acne to be a disease of ‘Westernised’ countries and it becomes an issues as countries move from their traditional diets too – this is being felt in China right now.

So it turns out that I should have listened to those people who were telling me to change my diet back in the late 80’s and early 90’s only back then we didn’t know exactly how diet affected the skin and as such my change to incorporate more fruit (for vitamins and fibre) and milk (for calcium) was doing the opposite to what I was trying to achieve which is probably why I eventually gave up.

The bottom line for me is that while it is becoming more and more clear scientifically how our food impacts our skin, it is not so clear or simple to implement that as a cure-all.  When we say ‘we are what we eat’ we mean far more than just the sum of the foods nutritional data,  food is emotional, cultural, spiritual even and as such, no matter what we know about what we SHOULD be eating, I feel those of us who do suffer from acne will probably always need a little extra help in the form of a tablet or skin care regimen, especially when we are feeling and looking (to us) at our worst.

How cool that we are finally honing in on this stuff even if it did come around 30 years too late for me!



Are we just too stupid to appreciate that sunscreens have limits?

January 24, 2018

OK so yes, I have gone for a rather ‘gotcha’ headline this time around but seriously people, this issue is serious.

Sunscreens have been in the news a lot just lately and not in a good way.  Several people have been burned, some very badly and tempers have become frayed as these unwitting customers question whether brand owners are just ripping people off, being deceptive in their marketing, not fulfilling their duties or are just ignorant to their products failings.  Whether any of this is true or not is looking likely to be a matter for the courts but my question today revolves more around personal responsibility:

‘Ask not what your sunscreen can do for you, but what you can do for your sunscreen’.

So are we just too stupid to appreciate that sunscreens have limits?

Now before you start throwing things at the screen and shouting obscenities I have to admit that I sympathise with the plight of the general public but being sympathetic and mumsy doesn’t seem to get the heart racing and the habits changing so I’ll just continue with this thought for a bit longer.

Today it wasn’t that hot for a summer’s day in Australia.  I think we topped out at 34C which, while muggy (due to the humidity) didn’t feel as bad as the 42C we had a few days before or the 39C on Monday and it was a bit cloudy at times so one might be forgiven for thinking that today might have been a ‘sunscreen optional’ sort of day in my neck of the woods.

However, a quick check of my Willyweather app shows me that the UV rating for today was off its chops as seen below:

There  is a very good explanation of UV index on Wikipedia if you want to know more, what interested me most was that the original scale went from 0-10 but these days with ozone depletion it’s not uncommon to see readings of up to 16 which is insane!  This PDF is also quite interesting from the USA EPA. 

In a nutshell the UV (Ultra Violet) index gives you an idea of how powerful the sun rays are at any particular time on any particular day.  Everybody tolerates the sun differently and even the same person can have days when their UV tolerance is a bit higher or lower than normal based on what they have been eating and drinking.

The UV index fluctuates across the day and there can be pockets of outdoor space that would read lower UV readings and spaces that would read higher.  Some surfaces reflect the UV rays back to you, intensifying them like a mirror –  snow is one such surface reflecting back around 80% of the rays and that’s why many people come back burned from their ski trip.  In comparison sand reflects back around 15% and water around 10%.   Higher altitudes will read higher UV ratings than lower, trees will prevent some of the UV from reaching you as will other types of shade or sitting on a surface that is non-reflective such as grass.

The UV index colour codes the zones from green to purple to show the risk levels based on an average person. On extreme UV days, at readings of 11 or more the advice is to actually avoid the sun altogether.  If that advice was heeded today, people in my area of the Blue Mountains should have been indoors between 11.30am and 2.30pm but of course people did go out today – some because they had to and others because they just didn’t think about the sun as they weren’t going to be sun baking.   But what happens when you want and need protection?

What can a sunscreen do?

Sunscreen reduces the amount of UV energy that reaches the skin which, in turn, takes some pressure off your own inbuilt UV protection system (Melanin etc).  We probably all know that but we don’t necessarily think through what that really means in a world that gives us varying levels of UV.

We might have an idea that our skin usually burns in about 10 minutes if un-protected so if we use an SPF 30 well we should be able to stay in the sun for 30 longer – 300 minutes or 5 hours – massive!

Only that calculation won’t be accurate if the UV index is extreme as solar simulators don’t use an extreme calibration point.

The solar simulators used by laboratories to come up with SPF data are calibrated to one particular agreed set of circumstances, they have to be in order to rank one SPF rating against another.  Nature doesn’t work like that and can throw up a whole host of different conditions on the same day and even at the same time of the day but in different locations.  In short, it gets very complicated.

I saw this table on a site called ‘The Ozone Hole” which gives some idea of how the UV index might impact burn times. I am not sure it is the best tool to use but it is better than nothing. Basically the higher the UV index, the shorter the time you will be protected by your SPF product. 

Rather than thinking about absolute time I’d look at this as a relationship thing as burning in less than 15 minutes is something of a life long dream for me, I can burn in less than 10!

I’d basically look at this and say that under extreme conditions (say UV 10) at mid day my SPF 30 will act like an SPF 15 if I apply it well.   I’d also assume that if the UV index was 12 or over I might only achieve 1/4 of the stated SPF IF I applied it well.  Remember that sunscreens are not sun blocks, some energy gets through and eventually I will burn, it’s just a matter of time (and UV dose).

Now this might not be accurate but it is a reasonable guesstimate based on the information I have here and if it were true then I could literally fry after only being in the sun for half an hour on a day like today in spite of slathering on the SPF 30.

So, in answer to my question ‘Are we just too stupid to appreciate that sunscreens have limits’ I’d say no we are not too stupid but we are probably not paying enough attention to the fact that their power is relative rather than absolute. 

The science behind sunscreens is complicated and it is very harsh to expect the public to understand and plan for the variability in the UV index, their activity level and the environment they are hanging in.   So, I think it is less of a case of us being stupid and more of a case of us not really being equip to live with such high UV indexes as standard.

Maybe we should all just stay inside and read between 11-2pm on these high UV intensity summer days!

For me the bottom line is that we need to start paying attention to UV ratings and thinking about the activities and environment we are going to be in each day, especially  for those of us with very fair skin but with the ozone hole nobody is immune from the burn here in Australia!  We do need to seriously consider how we spend those long summer days as it does look like there are parts of the day where no amount of slip, slop, slapping will get us through.

Basically SPF figures work under ‘normal’ sunlight intensity but where the UV levels are off the scale (old limit was 10 remember) we need to adjust our expectations down to more realistic levels.


PS: This is a particularly Australian / New Zealand problem, UV intensity varies around the world so please check your own environment before retreating indoors forever.

PPS: I found this article from 2010 on Solar Simulator variance very interesting.  Sunscreen SPF’s are relative to the UV spectra they were tested under and when that differs significantly from reality on any given day, the gap can mean a difference in real-time protection, maybe up to 50% less in some cases.


Be wary of brands that claim an allowed cosmetic ingredient is too toxic for them to use but provide no evidence as to why.

January 23, 2018

A question came up yesterday and without giving too much away I will tell you a little story about it.

So apparently there is a brand out there with a brand owner who is a well qualified (by the looks of it) scientist. This scientist has a whole list of relevant credentials and they are displayed on their website in the ‘about me’ section, as you would.  After reading this section you would be forgiven for thinking they are ‘Da Bomb’ with regards to what is and what isn’t good for your skin.

Now the question that I got came from a client of mine for whom I am formulating.  I’ve popped an ingredient into my formulations that this other brand think is toxic and now there is concern that someone is wrong.  Usually when there is concern that someone is wrong,  the person with the lowest level of confidence about the ingredient wishes to take it out ‘just to be sure/ just in case’ – a kind of ‘precautionary principle’ attitude which could be fine if the ingredient in question was performing no role in particular, but in other cases it could change the entire formula.  My client had that thought going through their head but they wanted to check with me anyway and they did.

When I get a question like that, rather than assume I’m always right (as I too have some impressive credentials hahahahaha), I assume I am wrong.

Assuming you are wrong has an amazing effect on the mind as if I’m wrong I could end up in trouble and at the very least have to re-think and re-do my work which is costly in terms of time and energy so being wrong is something I wish to absolutely avoid.

In this situation what I tend to do is detach my emotions for a bit, put them on the shelf and not worry about what I might find, and go off in search of what I guess you could call ‘the truth’. Below is an example of where not to start searching for the truth……

OK so we are dealing with a potentially toxic chemical, I need to work out quickly if this is or isn’t true. My first stop (the easiest place) is the Safety Data Sheet.

So I googled the safety data sheet for this material, yes GOOGLED it. It took all of one or two seconds for me to locate and open said document and lo and beyond it contained no dire warnings that would lead me to conclude that yes, this is indeed the sporn of the devil and something to be avoided at all costs. I also went on to check the listing for this material on the EU database (COSING) and again, found no issues, checked the supplier data and my formula and found that I’d used it appropriately so I felt happy enough with this material but I wanted to go back to the original nay sayer’s website and try to work out where they were coming from and, more importantly, whether they had found an even safer way to formulate than me- continuous improvement is very important to a cosmetic chemist.

Onto the brand in questions website I go and in a few more minutes I find a couple of products that contain ingredients that I know are dermal irritants.  Now dermal irritants are allowed in cosmetic products as long as specific usage limits are respected.  The most common ingredients to be irritating are surfactants, emulsifiers, essential oils and preservatives just to give you a bit of an idea.

What I did next is look for the Safety Data Sheets for the two ingredients that this brand does use so that I could compare the risks between these and the ingredient that this brand strongly suggested to avoid.  The comparison was interesting as based on that data alone it clearly showed that the ingredients that this brand DOES use were more irritating on balance than the one ingredient this brand suggests leaving out.  All things being equal I’d be advising neither brand to make a song and dance about any of these ingredients as, if used correctly they pose no problem to the consumer and all perform useful jobs in the formula.

So I went back to my client and told them all this and most importantly advised them to be wary of brands that claim an allowed cosmetic ingredient is too toxic for them to use but give no evidence as to why and to be especially wary when, that same brand actually uses ingredients that are, on balance, more problematic than the ingredient you are using.  This is especially important when customers want to change the formula after reading things like this because sometimes, in changing the formula we may replace something that was relatively safe with something that is relatively less so or take something out entirely and leave the formula worse off for it.

Toxicity is always relative and should be qualified with some context and evidence. Without those things it is just another bit of marketing spin!

Essential Oils and Pets – A bit of what we know and don’t know.

January 21, 2018

Last week I saw this in a friends new feed:

Diffusing essential oils and cats

It’s hard to go past a headline like that without feeling alarmed and wanting to know more but finding out more wasn’t to be that easy.

It didn’t take long before an email was received at work questioning the presence of essential oils in pet products and accusing the manufacturers of reckless and dangerous behaviour.  Understandable given this meme but I still needed to know more before I could give a thorough, or at least reasonably so, answer.

So what’s the story behind this meme?

It turns out that on 7th January this year a woman in Michigan, USA unintentionally poisoned her cat by diffusing Eucalyptus essential oil in her home to help her ward off a winter cold.  I found out that much by following the google results, posts and comments that were related to this meme and as the dates, time and location matched up it seems legit.  According to the story Ernie the cat got progressively sicker over four days, what I’m not sure of is whether the Michigan lady diffused Eucalyptus oil during that whole time, thus exposing the cat to a four-day-dose of oil infused air or whether she diffused less than that.  What we also can’t tell from the public facts online is how big and well ventilated her house was, the age of Ernie,  Ernie’s general health prior to this poisoning incident, whether Ernie goes outside or not, whether this family smoke or do any other ‘aromatic’ activities in the home or whether Ernie is the only cat (or even pet) in the house.   These things might seem irrelevant but they are not really, as having answers to these questions would enable us to gauge whether this situation was just one of those terrible combination of unusual circumstances or something that even the occasional diffuser household should be worried about.   The meme looks to have opted to err on the side of extreme caution and warn people of the worst possible outcome regardless of all other facts.

The above meme was shared by three cat rescue places that I could find as well as at least one alternative healing centre.  From there it was shared widely by subscribers of those pages, reaching my eyes in Australia on 12th January, five days after the event.

And is there any scientific evidence to support the toxicity of Essential Oils?

I am neither an animal health expert nor an essential oil toxicological specialist so I won’t try to delve into the specifics of cat metabolism but suffice to say that cats can have problems with essential oil and other poisons and there is plenty of literature on that.  Dogs seem to have a completely different digestive system to cats – turns out that just because cats and dogs share the feature of being great human companions it doesn’t mean that these two animals share much in terms of biochemistry.  Again, this is fairly rudimentary ‘fact’ that can be validated with a decent google search.  But beyond that it gets complicated.

While I am not an expert in this field I do have experts within my close network and animal health with relation to essential oils is something that has been discussed between us in a professional realm.  The fact of the matter here is that decent, thorough test data is NOT available for a wide range of essential oils on a wide range of animals in a wide range of conditions. Much of the information we have is anecdotal (rather like the tale above) with more in-depth studies mainly carried out on the most commonly used oils, Eucalyptus would be one and Tea Tree another.  It doesn’t take much searching before you come across other anecdotal stories of cats being poisoned with these Myrtaceae family of oils but generally speaking the cats involved have been treated with doses that would, to most people seem excessive!

Here are some scientific papers on this topic:

Ethylene Glycol and  Benzalkonium Chloride,

So what is the verdict?

I’m going to leave a link to Robert Tisserands answer on this too as not only is he an Essential Oil Specialist, he is also much more of a cat person than I am. 

The verdict based on the evidence that exists so far is that in most cases the toxic outcomes for people’s pets is mainly due to overwhelming the pet and exceeding a reasonable dose or application method rather than the pet being absolutely 100% unable to handle the item in question.  i.e, as with all toxins, there are doses and application methods that can be safe, and those which are not.

So this means is the meme is somewhat over-the-top.

Essential oils are frequently used in pet products these days instead of synthetic fragrances as that better meets customers expectations of natural and/or organic skin care.   As chemists like myself have said time and time again, ‘it is the dose that makes the poison’ and ‘natural doesn’t always mean safe’  and yet, again we find ourselves here in a panic.

It turns out that some of the most toxic essential oils for pets (The Eucalyptus types) are also the best for natural flea and mite control.  It also turns out that most reputable brands understand that the benefits of flea control come with a risk of toxicity and as such an appropriate dose is selected.  Most Vet professionals that I could find who commented online on this topic agreed that in many cases essential oils are a useful addition to a pet treatment product but only if used within guidelines.

It also turns out that some humans have gone a little essential oil crazy over the last few years with them being used in all sorts of applications from natural cleaning to infusing for beauty and even in food (although that can be even more dodgy).  In fact, essential oil use has become so normalised that it is possible a false sense of security that they are always ultra-safe has come up.  The reality is that any volatile oil that can kill microbes, cut through the grease around your home and deodorise your environment is clearly potent enough to do harm if over-used.  The grease cutting ability often means great dermal penetration,  antimicrobial can mean topically irritant and deodorising can mean respiratory irritant.

Should we avoid specific oils on cats though?

I have limited experience of cats as pets myself (had 2 as a teenager but I always preferred the dogs) but from what I have read and discussed with people better qualified than me, they are more sensitive toxicologically than dogs in general. They also tend to have a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio and can lick more of themselves than the average dog so I’d say that yes, some caution is warranted and that would include being mindful of what you burn or vaporise around the home that your cat lives in, especially if the ventilation is poor or the cat is a 100% indoors companion.

With respect to individual oils such as Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Citrus, Mint or Lavender as per the meme I would actually see sense in talking to your pet care specialist about your specific situation before ruling it in or out.  The meme mentions a lot of different oils with a variety of chemistry and gives no reference material to back-up their advice.  While you could argue that it is not necessary to expose a cat to ANY essential oil during its lifetime, there might be occasions where you wish to pursue a natural alternative either for yourself, your home or your pet and it seems unnecessary to completely deprive yourself and your pet of the benefits of essential oils when there are most likely opportunities to use them safely.

Moving Forward.

It is often only when something terrible happens that we realise what we do and don’t know and this, to me, feels like one of those times.  Given the rise in popularity and use of essential oils in and around the home (and not just in direct pet care) it would be great to see more research in this area.  That said,  research on animals is not often something that many pet lovers will wish to get behind.  However, we can all increase our understanding of how pets react to and respond to our change in habits by being switched-on citizen scientists and rather than experimenting on our animals, just observing, noting and reporting what we see and don’t see in a scientific and observant way.  It might be that your local Vet practice can play a part in helping us to get a better overview of how pets interact with essential oils and how they ‘cope’ so that we might be able to develop better guidelines in future.

For me the bottom line is always evidence, evidence, evidence.  I want to know why, how, when and where.  For now I’d still be inclined to enjoy my essential oil blends around the house but I’d make sure I diffuse infrequently, keep the home ventilated and use oils diluted when pets are around.   I can’t see there being any major problems in using essential oil infused pet wash-off products (shampoos and washes etc) as long as they aren’t over-used and the same for leave-on’s which tend to be formulated with lower doses of Essential Oils anyway.  So in general, I’d just switch on a little common  sense, remember that Essential Oils ARE poisons and should always be used with caution and if in doubt I’d talk to my vet just in case.

And a final word.

As is so often the case with essential oils these days some brands wish to be seen as the only ‘safe’ brand to be used on pets.  Let me just remind you that the safety profile of an essential oil is due to its naturally occurring chemistry and NOT its brand.  While older oils or oils that have been distilled poorly can be a bit ‘off’ the bulk of the oil profile is going to be the same from brand to brand if like we are comparing the same botanical species of oil.  So please don’t fall for that ‘only use THIS brand’ stuff, it is probably not worth it.

So, yes, take care when using essential oils around your feline friends but there’s probably no need to turn your back on them completely.


PS: The best book covering Essential Oil Toxicity is a book by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young – Essential Oil Safety.