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There’s an Orang Utan in my bedroom but… What Iceland didn’t tell you.

November 18, 2018

I remember the supermarket chain Iceland opening up in my home town back in England.  I remember it selling mostly shite  in the form of frozen junk food – cheap frozen junk food. I almost never shopped there, it wasn’t really my demographic which sounds a bit snobby but it’s true.

To be fair on the Iceland supermarket chain, the time I was remembering was the late 1990’s and early 2000’s which pre-dates their financial issues and ousting of their senior management team. Since then they have gone through ownership changes, gone back to the old management and started to grow their business again to the point when it is now a great financial success story.

Iceland supermarket have been involved in what I’d call ‘free from’ marketing since day one so the ‘free from palm’ stance is not out of character.  According to their own website timeline they removed artificial colours and flavourings in 1986 along with monosodium glutamate from their own range (they do sell other branded products),  banned mechanically recovered meat in 1990 (the paste-like rubbish that’s in cheap chicken nuggets and burgers) and stood against GMO’s in 1999.  However,  throughout all of this they have still specialised in selling pre-packaged, frozen junk food albeit junk food that has a bit more thinking behind its ingredients than some other branded junk.

With regards to my use of the term ‘junk’ food what I’m referring to here is food that is processed, much of which may have a low nutritional status compared to fresh produce, un-necessary (treat-like foods maybe), fast (to cook), convenient (to eat) and overly packaged (take-away type and ready meals).  My use of the word ‘junk’ is a personal value judgement. I shouldn’t use personal values when writing as that’s a bias but as I’m writing this from my perspective as an opinion piece then I felt it warranted.

So on we go.

Iceland is to be the first supermarket to be completely palm free by the end of 2018, a date that is fast approaching.  To co-inside with this rapidly approaching deadline comes an advert voiced by the very lovely Emma Thompson and telling the story of a beautiful baby Orang Utan that has turned up in a little girls bedroom.  The Orang Utan gets angry when it sees the little girls bar of chocolate and shampoo (two products that Iceland isn’t famous for selling) and says that there are humans in their forest that have taken its mother and destroyed its home.  The little girl promises to fight to make the plight of this little Orang Utan known.  It’s all very heart-tugging, especially to those of us that are already primed to respond to this message.

The advert was banned from TV for being too political. This has had the usual impact of making it extra appealing and so it’s been shared widely on social media.

But is it presenting a fair argument?  (Does it even have to?)

Is it adding any value to the cause?

Is it actually any good?

As you may have predicted my opinion on all of the above is ‘no’.

Iceland failed to give any real perspective of the real issue here and instead turned it into a ‘compassionate person wanting to save Orang Utans vs Palm’ argument.  I DETEST that argument as it is absolute emotional manipulation but I lost the battle for a more rational approach to this issue a long time ago so instead I’m trying to stay sane in this crazy messed up world by using therapy, bush walking and a quieter, deeper form of activism just so you know…

Chocolate and Shampoo are products that often utilise Palm Oil in their formulations but taking Palm out of these things would be relatively easy as long as we don’t mind paying a bit more compared to items such as biodiesel which is not mentioned in the advert (of course it isn’t, Iceland is a food supplier and they don’t sell biodiesel).   But even if chocolate and shampoo WERE the big issues here when we take palm out, what do we put in instead?

Iceland haven’t made much of what they are replacing Palm with.  I looked into this a little bit and found that they are looking to use Sunflower Oil and Butter as their oil replacements – a move that will save 500 tonnes of palm oil per year. 62 million tonnes were produced in 2015 so while 500 tonnes is something it’s only a tiny little dent of a something.

At this point my chemistry brain starts ticking.

Palm oil isn’t just added as palm oil, it’s a feedstock chemical that goes into ingredients such as emulsifiers, thickeners, preservatives, texture modifiers etc – some of the E number stuff and other interesting ingredients we often find on the labels of pre-packaged food, the types of things you wouldn’t put into home-made fair.

I wonder now if Iceland are talking about palm in its entirety or just as the oil? There is a difference…

In terms of sunflower and butter being alternatives I’m actually somewhat concerned by this.  Oil World figures show that Sunflower Oil produces around 0.5 tonnes per hectare of oil compared to 3.7 tonnes per hectare of Palm.   Now there are lots of things to consider behind these figures but the first big-hitter being the yield per field of crop can’t go unmentioned.   Iceland will need over 7 times more fields to grow its palm alternative than it currently does and that doesn’t come without environmental impact.  Sunflower oil is a crop that can be grown in a wider range of countries than Palm which needs a more tropical climate.   We could argue that it is better to preserve the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia at any cost (to anywhere else) but if we took that view a) those countries would rightly get the shits as they are being told not to ‘develop’ while elsewhere in the world hedges are being ripped out and bush land and residual forest destroyed to make room for more and more non-food use cropping – war is a potential consequence of our ignorance and b) we would feel the effects of this in other areas and would soon have to face another problem of food prices going through the roof as we squeeze more non-food oil crop into our farming mix.   Do you remember what happened when the US wanted to put bioethanol in their fuel?   Once again we are heading for war. 

As for butter being an alternative oh please…

I am currently still a meat eater and I am very aware of the impact that meat has on the environment and how hypocritical I am to be trying to work out how best to ‘save’ the planet while still eating meat.  I am working on that.  However, how any company can claim to be taking the moral high ground on an issue such as Palm while replacing it with butter is beyond me.  Do these people not have vegan customers?  I guess not, probably not their core demographic.

For the record butter coming from milk coming from cows is an environmental disaster. Sure the Orang Utans might be OK with butter as Indonesia and Malaysia aren’t chopping their forests down for cow grazing country but fly over to the other side of the world and voila- they are – bye bye Amazon (not the shop, the rainforest).

I’ve got plenty of articles on this on the blog – pop ‘palm oil’ into the search box if you want to read more that I’ve written, if you are interested. This is simply too complex of an issue to distil down into one article here.

So what should we do?

I know this is harsh but if Iceland really wanted to save the world they would probably close their doors and put their money behind good old-fashioned home cooking but that’s not entirely practical, their brand and product offering does serve a market that deserves serving well.

To my mind the issue behind palm is the same as the issue behind all of our environmental woes. There are too many people taking too many resources and not valuing them enough. We are still a throw-away, indulgent society that sees convenience and choice as our birthright.  Over the last 40 years we have started to feel increasingly bad about that and rightly so as over 60% of all animal diversity has been lost during my lifetime.  We simply can’t go on like this.  But instead of staring the real problem in the face we attempt to placate ourselves by working hard to save cuddly cute animals,  focus on what I call ‘busy work’ instead of putting in the hard yards.  We do this without realising that our efforts and sacrifice amount to next to nothing as far as the natural word is concerned and then we get angry and frustrated.

I think that Ice Cube had it in the bag when he said ‘they put the sheep to sleep and dominate the weak’.  He was talking about a particular situation in California but in my experience this  willingness to be anaesthetised happens everywhere in lots of situations.

My tip?  Stay awake and power through the pain. You can do it and after all, staying awake is what being alive is all about, anything else is just existing and maintaining the status quo.

PS: Sorry about the swears but they’ll be the least of your worries if this situation continues.

PPS: I forgot to mention this earlier but did you know that pre-packaged food, meat and dairy are huge water users. If we haven’t already killed each other over this farming palm oil and other crops issue we’ll all die of thirst.  Nice!

Vetiver – What lies beneath.

November 12, 2018

Sometimes I wonder what is to become of us…

Vetiver grass is hard-working and enduring, much like the people who grow it. It is tough and strong, grows fast and tall and can be used for thatching buildings and preventing soil erosion around river banks and water courses but we don’t need it for that.  Here in Australia, we don’t really think about those attributes when the word vetiver is mentioned, we are only hungry for what lies beneath.

Beneath the soil Vetiver hides its treasure in its roots. These roots contain an aromatic oil that helps fix a fragrance through its dusty, woody, dry and often smoky base notes.  Vetiver is key to natural perfumery and it has been claimed that it is present in around 1/5th of all fragrances created although I’ve no data to validate that other than the fact that International fragrance giant  Givaudan is involved enough to be investing in on-the-ground works to improve supply chain dynamics and secure a slice of this brown ‘gold’.  Another Swiss perfume giant, Firmenich are also involved in a farming co-operative to improve the livelihoods of farmers.

I found myself wondering about this oil the other day when a client asked after it for a natural perfume blend she was making. On discovering that Haiti produces around 50% of the world’s supply of oil (around 70MT-100MT) my curiosity was roused.  I had only really thought about Haiti after having my attention drawn to it through its natural disasters – the terrible earthquake of 2010 that killed up to 316,000 people, the resulting Cholera epidemic followed by a hurricane and then, in 2016 another hurricane.  To me Haiti was a sorrowful lucked-out place facing more than its fair share of chaos and despair.  I didn’t (and still don’t) really understand its colonial history, its politics or its work dynamics – never really had to I guess, it just plods along in the background quietly struggling while I just get on with my life.  Only now do I see how intimately we are connected, connected through roots, soil and of course, oil.

If we allow ourselves for one minute to be transported to  Haiti and into a small rural village, often located in hilly, marginal land where we will be residing on a small holding farm typical of this area.  The farm houses a family who derive their main source of income from Vetiver grass, just like another 30,000 families around them all farming their plots of roughly 3 hectares.  Families also grow other crops which they can trade and use to feed themselves but its the vetiver that’s bankable, the real cash crop.  Vetiver grows pretty quickly taking between 18-24 months to grow enough root to warrant a harvest. The roots grow straight down to a depth of between 2-4 metres, sometimes growing up to 3 metres in only a year!   Harvesting the plant involves digging out the roots then chopping off the grassy tops before cleaning up the roots then taking them to an intermediary which then takes the roots off to the distillery.  As a farmer you can expect no more than 10% of the total money exchanged from field to oil to come your way and you lose sight of your crops early on often because of the cost of and difficulty in accessing transportation. Fuel prices have recently gone through the roof in Haiti and that has been the trigger for rioting as this has also squeezed margins (disproportionately so at the bottom of the supply chain).  Things like fuel prices and access to your own transportation plus a decent road network all serve to keep you, the farmer at arms length from the profit.  The intermediary network that you rely on to get your product to the distiller makes around 13% of the market share of income but they have to use that to cover the trucks and often the wages of the field workers they bring in to help with your harvest.  The real money is made at and after the distillery with oil distillers taking around 32% of the wholesale price and exporters taking 45%. Once the oil leaves the country prices can soar even further. The current price for Vetiver oil is from $700-$1000 per Kg (AUD). In 2011 the export price leaving Haiti was around $300AUD  per Kg so there is a LOT of money not getting back to the farmers.  This isn’t unusual but is it in any way ethical given that farmers often can’t afford to feed and school their families?

While the dynamics of supply chain income distribution are one problem facing the farmer, another is the long-term viability of the industry.  Demand is growing and oil quality is currently high but it may not always be so.  In harvesting the crop the top soil is disturbed and in some cases permanently washed away, especially when harvesting coincides with heavy rains or storms.  Vetivers ability to ‘fix’ soil and prevent erosion is only relevant is the crop is NOT constantly plucked out from its roots.  Some efforts by large multinational fragrance houses such as Firminiche and Givaudan have gone in to help improve farming methods and protect top soil but it is likely that more will need to be done, especially in light of what we now know about soil microbes and the ramifications of aerating delicate soil structures.

Panning back out I see a country that is highly vulnerable and very exposed to both human exploitation and environmental disasters.   While it is pleasing to see big multinationals and NGO’s coming in and looking at ways to invest in and support the local communities within Haiti but there is a big part of me that can see the exploitative side of some of these practices.  Sure they all help but they also help themselves.  Who performs the checks and balances especially when the farmers are vulnerable both from lack of formal education and lack of financial might?   With that in mind I found this project of interest.   This group is looking at using the left-over carbon mass from Vetiver production to produce ‘green coal’ – basically creating briquettes from the biomass to use as a source of energy.  I’m not sure how burning green stuff make ‘green’ energy  to be honest – wouldn’t it be better rotted back into the soil as compost? That’s apparently what happens to the green stuff in other Vetiver countries.

There is just so much more digging (very apt) to do around this subject but I’m still left with more questions than answers when it comes to Vetiver.

If these incoming companies are there to do good then why are these figures still so bad in 2018 after many multinationals have been on the ground for a number of years?

  • 85% of the population live in poverty
  • literacy levels are 61% which is well below average for the region
  • 90% of schools are privately run either by companies or churches.
  • 88% of children attend primary school but only 20% make it through to secondary.

On the plus side it looks like the people of Haiti are not short on feistiness and fight as thousands recently demonstrated when they took to the streets to demand an enquiry into missing government funds.   I think that those of us that value the products that countries like Haiti produce need to take some time to understand the conditions that we are buying into, the lives that are being compromised for our luxury and the inequalities that are being perpetuated.  As I mentioned in the beginning, I had no idea of what life was like to a Vetiver farmer in Haiti until last week but now I’m aware I want to make sure we show them that we hear them and we care and the first step towards us doing that is to understand.

So please, take the time to think on the plight of the Vetiver farmers and their environment a little so that we may at last come up with a solution of how to all profit sustainably from these gifts of nature.



Cosmetic Chemistry, a game of textures, colour, smell and flow.

October 20, 2018

I enter my lab in two minds and come out with one product.

One mind is analytical –  Have I tweaked enough?  Is the formula fully optimise for performance and price?  Did that ingredient hydrate fully?  Is that pushing the density of the water phase too far? How can I compensate for the effect of the salt on the emulsion?  Is there anything more I can do to improve the flow?

One mind is focused on aesthetics – that feels soft, satisfying spread – soothe and yielding,  sweetly aromatic scent,  a subtle tint of yellow to colour,  a happy formula with super-hydrating power.

I often tell my students that while we can measure formulations for their stability, micro and physical, and measure their efficacy we can’t always put a measurement on how the formula makes people feel because feelings are personal.  That said I think it’s easier to for the brand owner to direct the customer to a particular feeling when they capture the essence of it in their formula.

What does that mean?

Brand owners and product developers can set aside some time to imagine themselves with the product they have in mind, not just transactionally but emotionally.  Sounds a bit suspicious and hippy trippy?  Maybe.  However, what people often like about a product is how it makes them feel either before, during or after use.  Before use it’s all about the packaging/ marketing and product promise. During it is all about the embodied experience. After is all about the results.  A successful product is one which can establish a relationship with the user, even to the point of an addiction where the customer just can’t wait to use the product again.  If that doesn’t happen they might buy the product once and pop it on their shelf because they like how it looks.  If it does happen they will buy the product often because they love how it makes them feel.  If you manage to pull off a product that not only feels good but it actually brings results your customers will also continue buying it because they love how it makes them look.

Sounds obvious but how often do we forget to sit back and evaluate the feeling aspect of our products?

I wonder…

Amanda x

Mathematics for start-up brands

October 19, 2018

Most weeks I talk a client or two through some basic mathematics so that they can scale-up and cost their formulations.  So many people seem to struggle with this aspect of their crafting/ formulating/ business planning that I reckoned it was worth a blog post so here it is.

Note: I am NOT the words most gifted mathematician,  in fact I pretty much sucked at all the math part of my Degree and I’ve hardly touched the subject since but I do know percentages and that’s where we are going to start.

So when you first make your formula (or recipe if you are a crafter) you might use a range of different measurements.  This is a big science no, no but hey, let’s not be too judgy about that.

OK, your recipe might look a little like this for example:

1 cup of  coconut oil

1 cup of water.

10 drops of lemon essential oil

5g emulsifying wax

1 tsp honey

Now aside from the fact that the above would be a pretty crap recipe we also can’t get a handle on just how crappy it is unless we can ‘see’ it properly. The way we see things in cosmetic chemistry is in percentages.  Let’s do this thing.

First we have to unscramble our mixed units.  We have cups, drops, spoons and grams.

So cup measurements do vary so it would be useful to investigate your ‘cups’ before settling on a volume but we’ll stick with the metric as that’s what I grew up with.

1 cup = 250ml

Drops are even more ambiguous than cups as the weight of a drop depends on the oils specific gravity – this term will come up more than once.

Specific Gravity is a ratio of how the ingredient relates to water. Water has an SG of 1.  1 = equivalence.  1g of water takes up 1ml of space. Most liquids are different to that with some liquids being heavier than water (salt water, glycerin, sugar solution etc) and others being lighter (pretty much all the oils).   Vegetable and essential oils all have specific gravities of less than 1 so 1 litre of oil is always less than 1Kg.

Lemon oil has a specific gravity of between 0.849 – 0.855

Sandalwood Oil has a specific gravity of 0.965-0.980

Coconut oil has a specific gravity of around 0.927

Sweet Almond Oil has a specific gravity of 0.91-0.92

Castor Oil has a specific gravity of 0.959

Specific gravity values are usually presented as a range on a product specification as they can subtly change from batch to batch.  Further, specific gravity is temperature dependent with the range values usually relating to readings at room temperature (typically 25C but can be 21C if measured in cold climates).

The ramifications of that are that in this recipe even though there is one cup of water and one cup of oil the weights of the cup contents will differ.

Now it’s time to start writing the recipe in grams so that we can scale-up (no factory measures large batches in volume, it’s always weight).

1 cup of water = 250 g

1 cup of coconut oil is a bit trickier.

So we have 250ml of coconut oil (1 cup).

250 (coconut oil in mls) x 0.927 (average specific gravity of the oil) = 231.75.  So we have 231.75g of coconut oil in this recipe.

10 drops of essential oil.  Drops are quite tricky to convert so we have two choices:

  1. get some mini scales and actually weigh out what a drop (or 10 drops) weighs then just use that number in your formula.
  2. Refer to Tisserand and Young’s book ‘Essential Oil Safety’ which does give a conversion table in Appendix C.  In there it states that 9 drops is around 0.3ml and 12 drops is around 0.4ml so we could guess that 10 drops is around 0.33ml. We then just have to convert that into g using the specific gravity calculation:  0.33 x 0.852 (the average specific gravity) = 0.28g

The emulsifying wax is already in grams thankfully (5g) but the honey isn’t.

The honey is 1 tsp.  A teaspoon in metric is 5ml.

Honey has a specific gravity of 1.035 which means it is HEAVIER than water.  So 5ml is going to work out to be 5 x 1.035 = 5.175g

So now our recipe looks like this:

231.75g coconut oil

250g cup of water.

0.28g drops of lemon essential oil

5g emulsifying wax

5.175g honey


We now add these up to get the very weird total of 492.205g.

So our 100% recipe = 492.205g

We want 100% of the recipe to equal 100g and to make that happen we have to do a bit more math.

It is best if 1% = 1g for the recipe as that’s the easiest and quickest way to scan a recipe for error. You can make whatever batch size you like but we must start from a simple place.  I do that this way:


100 (what we want the recipe to add up to) / 492.205 (what the recipe adds up to now) X each ingredient in turn = …


For coconut oil 100/492.205 * 231.75 = 47.09 g OR % – now they are the same, 1g=1%.

Water: 100/492.205*250 = 50.8g OR %

Lemon: 0.06g or %

Emulsifying Wax 1g or %

Honey: 1.05g or %.

TOTAL 100 g / %

Let’s write that again without all the background noise:

Coconut Oil 47.09%

Water 50.8%

Lemon 0.06%

Emulsifying wax 1%

Honey 1.05%

TOTAL 100g


Once the recipe is in this format it is easy to see what’s what. I just made this recipe up and it would not work because there is not enough emulsifier (I suspect although I haven’t specified what the emulsifier is in my fictitious cream).  Also there is no preservative AND the oil:water ratio is very close and that can often cause a bit of an issue.

But this is about math not formulating.

If you did get to this point and decided you wanted to add a preservative (as you absolutely should) you might be thinking ‘well how can I do that now, I have 100%, I can’t add preservative and then have a recipe totalling 101% now can I?

What you would do is this.

Your preservative selection information should outline how much preservative is recommended.  Let’s say it’s 4% so you know you have to end up with 4% preservative in your formula.

You have a couple of options.

Either you can reduce the water or oil phase by 4% and then use that gap to place the preservative. That is as simple as just changing the figure of the water or coconut oil -4 then adding the preservative to the bottom of the recipe. I’ll adjust the water:

Coconut oil 47.09%

Water 46.8%

Lemon 0.06%

Emulsifying wax 1%

Honey 1.05%

Preservative 4%

TOTAL 100% 

The downside to that method is that now you have changed the ratio of oil phase to water phase. This may change the overall stability of the formula and/or the look and/or feel.  Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

Another way to do it is to scale back the whole formula.  This is more math but still worth it as it maintains the ratio relationships while still making room for the preservative.

To do that we just pretend the mixture now adds up to 96% rather than 100% (or 96g instead of 100g.  That is  done using the following calculation:

Ingredient current % / 100 * 96 =

Coconut Oil 47.09 / 100 * 96 = 45.21

Water 50.8% = 48.77

Lemon 0.06% = 0.058

Emulsifying wax 1% = 0.96

Honey 1.05% = 1.008

TOTAL 100g = 96g or %

Now there is room to pop the 4% of Preservative in making the formula.

Coconut Oil 45.21%

Water 48.77%

Lemon Oil 0.058%

Emulsifying wax 0.96%

Honey 1.008%

Preservative 4%

TOTAL 100%

If you are buying base products from a supplier and adding your stuff to them you are, in effect, diluting down the base evenly with your new inputs and making room for your new ingredient.

Rather than scaling back the formula mathematically you could do it the other way and just add more on, the net result may be a little different but that may not matter too much, it depends on how much stuff you are adding.

Say we started with our original formula in and just added 4% of preservative to it to give us a total of 104%

Coconut Oil 47.09g

Water 50.8%

Lemon 0.06%

Emulsifying wax 1%

Honey 1.05%

Preservative 4%

TOTAL 104%

Only doing it this way we don’t end up adding 4% of preservative, we end up with our additional preservative being LESS than 4% as a recalculation of our formula back to 100% shows us.

Coconut oil 47.09 / 104 * 100 = 45.28%

Water 50.8 / 104* 100 = 48.85%

Lemon 0.06 / 104*100 = 0.058%

Emulsifying wax 1/104*100 = 0.96%

Honey 1.05/104*100 = 1.01%

Preservative 4/104*100 = 3.85%

So what we thought was a 4% addition was only a 3.85% addition, not a dramatic difference here but still, it’s not the same.  The reason for this is that when you add something to the recipe everything gets adjusted as a recipe ALWAYS has to be back-calculated to 100%.

You can see in this example that the calculation totals from making the base 96% to pro-actively make room for the preservative at 4% resulted in slightly different ratios for some ingredients vs the example where we reactively back-calculated the totals.  It’s important to be aware of that and also to the fact that the more you add to a formula, the larger the impact will be.

I hope that makes some sense for you but if it doesn’t don’t worry, it might make more sense when you look at your own recipes or if you even go through the motions in your own lab.  The bottom line though is that you can’t accurately cost a formula that isn’t in a single set of units and it is easier to trouble shoot, cost and scale-up a formula when the ingredients all add up to 100%.


Why does melt and pour soap ‘sweat’

October 19, 2018

Good question!

It’s been really wet around the Sydney region of Australia lately and as such many people have noticed a strange thing happening with their melt and pour.

I decided to tackle this in a video which you can view below.

If you are more of a word-lover you can read all about it below too. I just want to clarify that making videos is a bit more off-the-cuff than writing so I might say a couple of things in a not 100% perfect way.  A melt and pour soap recipe isn’t majority humectant but the humectants are the part of the formula that gives the majority of the problems.

Anyway, let’s carry on and sorry about that first-frame-face I’ve not perfected the art of looking cool on camera yet…

And the transcript notes:

Typical melt and pour INCI list:

Aqua Glycerin Sodium Stearate
  Sorbitol Sodium Laurate
  Propylene glycol  


  • Heavy in humectants.

Humectants are water binders.

They also like to share water evenly between the formula and the environment.

When the environment is very wet (high relative humidity) they may sweat as there is more water outside the soap than it can handle. It attracts the water but the humectant can’t accept the water because it’s already swollen full like a soggy sponge.

There are lots of different humectants, common ones being.

  • Glycerin most common in cosmetic MW 92 g/mol
  • Very popular in M&P Soap. MW 182.17g/mol
  • Propylene Glycol. Often cheapest and best at binding water 76 g/mol
  • Honey – mix of fructose and glucose mq 180 g/mol

Smaller MW = higher water binding capacity. That is because in every gram of product there are more molecules of humectant each with their teeny tiny hands out waiting to grab the water!

The higher the MW = lower water binding capacity so sorbitol holds less water per g than glycerine.

If you are the formulator of a melt-and-pour base you can create a more humidity tolerant product by playing  around with different humectants to get the best skin feel, price and humidity resistance while not affecting the cleansing power of the bar or its appearance.

If we graph the relative humidity of different percentages of glycerine solution we see, somewhat weirdly, that the lower % of glycerine solutions have a higher relative humidity. A 10% solution graphed at around 98% RH whereas a 50% glycerine solution was at 84%.  Most of the time the relative humidity of the air is between 40-80%.  Humidity less than the soap will not lead to beading, it is only when humidity is higher, so if we formulate with that in mind we should keep our glycerine (or glycerine equivalents) at 50% of more of the formula.  Practically that could be quite hard hense the reason that more powerful humectants such as propylene glycol are used,  so the percentage of humectant can be low but the formula relative humidity can remain high.

Glycerin action

Manufacturing / melting proceduce influence.

When making melt-and-pour if you over-heat your mixture you evaporate off some water, this concentrates what’s left thus making your humectants a higher percentage weight of your formula than before.  This can make your soap MORE likely to bead so don’t over heat!

The weather.

The air can hold different amounts of water at different temperatures but that’s more of a bother to us than the soap!

As the temperature goes up so does the airs capacity to hold moisture.  A 20C day  at 80% relative humidity has 13.8 g water per m3 on average whereas at 30C, 80% humidity air contains 24.3 g per m3 water even though the relative humidity is the same.  This temperature difference and heavy air can make us feel more yucky as the temperature rises but it doesn’t necessarily bother the soap as the soap is only interested in % relative humidity.   When the relative humidity inside the soap is less than the air humidity outside of the soap the soap will attract moisture to it and you see this as beads. These beads don’t necessarily damage the soap but do make it feel slimy and wet and look unattractive.

For a product seller or formulator, it’s the relative humidity that’s important as that’s what triggers the soap to bead, not the temperature.  The only other thing that a higher temperature can do is (perhaps) make the soap more prone to mould due to the higher amount of water around. But that’s another problem.

Most melt-and-pour soaps will attract moisture at some point and while unattractive, this is quite normal.  If you don’t have the time or lab space to do any experimenting you can either seek out a humidity tolerant ready-made melt and pour base or you can shrink-wrap your finished soaps.   Another last thing you could try if you are in a high humidity area all the time is popping the ready-made soaps in a dehydrator after manufacture as this will help take out any excess moisture that has been introduced to the soaps by the environment.  The soap should then have a little excess capacity to deal with a bit of outside moisture, at least for a little bit.

So there we have it!

Amanda x

October is mental health month.

October 15, 2018

Owing your own business and going through a mental health crisis is hard.  Having that be your life for a prolonged period of time is excruciating.

Keep that in mind if you are planning to give up your day job and venture into self-made-person-territory.  To survive it you need a bucket full of resilience, some close family support and maybe even an external councillor.  Working for yourself you are performance paid and performing when your brain is exploding, AWOL or otherwise engaged is quite possibly the most difficult thing you’ll ever do. I know that feeling.

So I have an ADHD type brain. I found this out as a 37-year-old when I thought I had early onset dementia after my ability to keep up with my crazy active brain and ride out the highs and lows started to falter as the adrenaline of youth started to fade away and the pressures of adulting started building.  The brain specialist chap I saw interviewed me a bit then got me to fill out some forms. He also got my husband to fill out a few and I had to talk to my mother about how I was as a child.  The process of diagnosing someone with something mental seemed to me to be a bit hit-and-miss.  I was un-convinced that my husband knew what was going on in my mind any better than I did. I mean sure, he can see the consequences of my absent-minded phases – forgotten appointments, lost keys and wallet, zoning out in conversations, things turning up in weird places etc – but how would he know why I was doing that, I could have just as easily done those things because I didn’t value paying attention to that small stuff/ drunk and disorderly (unlikely being as though I don’t drink)/ tired or just dumb.  Did he really know that I did value it and tried 110% but still couldn’t get it right?  Probably not but it didn’t matter because when all was said and done the diagnosis came back as me ‘probably’ having ADHD.

I didn’t buy the report.

I didn’t go to the doctors for medication.

I didn’t need it. I was fine now I knew what was ‘wrong’.

Nothing was wrong. I was just different and I was ready to embrace that!

From a business perspective I changed a few things. I stopped taking on any form of checking for customers.  I had, before this point, checked off INCI labels for ingredients and done final label checks for customers wanting to sell in the EU.  I’d come a cropper on that before, missing important things that once resulted in a label reprint and a hefty bill for me.  I also stopped taking so many unscheduled phone calls after realising that I found the constant interruption excruciatingly difficult to manage. In fact, I moved most of my clients towards email communication with scheduled catch ups – I didn’t realise that I could actually do that – take control of my communication flow without coming across as a control freak (which I’m actually really not)- but I could, I did and everyone seemed to be OK except for the people who left and that was Ok too. I realised that I’d got some customers that wanted me to be less ‘me’ like, customers who were trying to make me something I wasn’t.  I was finally ready to excuse myself from them and to this day I’m still fine with not being everybody’s cup of tea! Who is?

When it came to phone calls I had found that I could be too impulsive – a bit too ‘can do’ and someone who found it hard to say ‘no’  and set firm boundaries. I’m much better at that now, I learned how to be but I still prefer to make commitments off the phone, just in case my Impulsive brain drops me in it again!   Finding out that I could run a much better business and find my place much easier when everything was in writing was a game changer for me.  I can lay everything out in a way that makes sense to me, craft my response so as to cover as many parts of the problem as necessary,  make a reasonable and measured proposal and be more efficient.  As well as having my ADHD style brain I’m also what I call a ‘whole body learner’. I don’t know if that’s a thing but it’s not unusual for me to go grab all of the samples out of the sample room, surround myself with them plus the online spread sheet of formulations and just dive back into the exact head space I was in when I did the work. Getting into that space mentally and physically takes a bit of doing and a bit of time but it is so worth it and I’m sure that’s how I’ve managed to get some good work done in the past (although not all my work works out…)

So that was the simple stuff.  ADHD brain can’t do checking, can’t be distracted by randomly timed phone calls and appointments, can’t make quick on-the-spot decisions that are in my best interests and reflect my best self and can’t focus on mundane detail work but that’s OK because I can manage that.

The hard stuff was the other part of ADHD and that’s still hard for me.

I’m a chemist but not a brain chemist so while I can describe my symptoms and have a general theory of what might be causing them (from a chemical perspective ) I am not qualified to theorise on that so I’ll keep the brain chemistry talk out of this and just describe how my reality feels.

ADHD and energy flow.

Imagine a computer, one computer that is attached to one operator.

That computer has 10 screens attached.

The operator can call up 10 different tasks on the 10 different screens and through that one computer the operator processes them all.

The operator has days when they can view, take in and process all ten screens brilliantly and quite quickly.

The operator also has days when some screens are blank,  others have the whirling ball of death going and the remainder are stuck but the ‘quit process’ button isn’t working.

In other news, the operator sometimes realises that while they were sat there working on the screen physically, mentally they went somewhere else, not a daydream place but a nowhere place, an absence. In these times it takes a moment or so to re-orient the operator and pick up the pieces.

Throughout all of this the operator (me) remains emotionally neutral for the most part, feeling only ‘normal’ emotions – like being quite pleased with themselves and ‘in a state of flow’ when they are managing the 10 screen juggle and ‘quite frustrated or even a bit angry’ when none of the screens want to respond.  The biggest frustration and worry comes with the absent state as that can lead to experiments having to be started again, especially if I’ve carried on measuring things physically while not mentally there.  That’s one reason why I make every recipe at least 3 times and always try to do a scale-up batch before sending things off to a manufacturer.  It’s my triple plus check!

Some days the operator gives up on the computer and opts to spend some time doing other things that you don’t need a computer for.

Sometimes that phase can last for a few days because things just aren’t working right.

On other days the operator is so enjoying all 10 screens and their state of flow that they forget to cook the kids dinner and nearly pee their pants because there’s just so much exciting stuff to do.  Being interrupted in these moments feels like a huge drag but of course, it has to happen…

This can last a while too but eventually the computer fan comes on, the computer threatens to die and the operator gives it a rest.

I never get to the point where I don’t sleep, eat and act fairly normally albeit a bit more energetically and with only 5 rather than 8 hours sleep!

Now all of this is hard to schedule around because I’m still not 100% sure what causes the flow from one end of the spectrum to the other but I am trying to work on that.  What usually gets me through is that whole ‘adulting’ thing again. I just know I have to do certain things and I just keep telling myself to ‘put one foot in front of the other and do what you can’ rather than letting it get the better of me.  I am lucky that none of this dramatically changes my emotional state – I might swing around in energy and focus but not in emotion.  I am quite happy about that if truth be known, I feel it’s a sort of super power even though the ability to detach emotion from things like this is only ever learned through trauma but that’s another story.

With regards to this and my business I’m actively trying to get a better handle on this side of the ADHD experience and am trying a few things out now but am yet to try medication.   I’m lucky that my ‘working-like-a-machine’ days are plentiful enough to keep me out of dire trouble and my years of experience help underpin that but I’d really like to have a more even and smooth sailing experience of life from an energy perspective, I feel ready for that.  I also feel ready for being able to stick to more of a schedule without having to drag myself around some days and go crazy fast on others. I just want to happily plod a bit. I don’t know how that feels yet.

While I don’t really know what it’s like to be any other way, I do know, from observing and talking to my family, that my ADHD does throw up some challenges for me that others don’t have and sometimes I just have to take a step back.  That said, it also throws up some benefits that others just can’t access – such as my super quick days.   The bottom line for me has been that knowledge of how my brain is wired has been a source of power for me.  I believe that in tackling my mental health when I did I enabled myself to build a consultancy in a way that gives me the best chance of success and if I’m a success, my clients will be too.  It’s still a work in progress but I think it would be safe to say that that’s true for everyone, even the neuro typical.

Happy Mental Health October.

Amanda x







The Saga of Sustainable Palm – The Wilmar Chapter.

October 12, 2018

In 2013 Wilmar, the largest publicly listed palm oil company founded in 1991 promised the world ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation. News out back in July looked like that promise may well have been broken as two executives quit the company after an investigation led by NGO Greenpeace questioned their supply chain.  Letters between the two were published on Wilmars website in late September, you can read those here. See, even though Wilmar has their own, sustainable palm farms and processes they don’t make enough to cover the needs of their customers and have to buy more.  The problems seem to stem from here if these investigations are proven to be true.

Looking into the Wilmar group, its board – executive and non – we see a network of companies not unusual for such a big venture.  The group of interests sitting around the Wilmar table include property developers, at least one premium hotel chain and more besides. While this isn’t directly relevant it does remind me that it can often be very difficult to really get to the bottom of who owns what, who influences what and what is going on in these massive beasts of companies and that includes their supply chains. Establishing ownership, actions and consequences is extremely tricky,  I don’t envy Greenpeace to be honest.

Coming back to palm we see an operation with its fingers in the palm oil pie across various locations including Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and Indonesia further reminding us that while the bulk of palm oil does indeed come from Indonesia and Malaysia that’s not the whole story. It also reminds us that we need to remain mindful of what’s happening everywhere this crop grows especially in light of transparency issues.

The fact that Wilmar ticked the ‘tell them what they want to hear’ box back in 2013 and is now having to defend themselves in light of some evidence seemingly to the contrary it sure can feel like Palm will NEVER be a sustainable option but I’d urge caution before coming to that conclusion.  Companies will often get away with what they can, sometimes because they don’t care but often because they can only move so far and so fast.  A mega-tonne sized company with many arms, legs and roots is not going to be able to shift gears as quickly as a small mum-and-dad operation in one location. This isn’t me offering up an excuse by the way, this is just the reality of the beast. I remember the reality of this hitting me like a brick when I used to work for the Corporate company Orica.

Anyway, here’s the Wilmar website page as of today clearly showing their desire to be (or at least look) sustainable.

While there may or may not be any substance behind these allegations for Wilmar and while the fact that two execs left what appeared to be a rush looks related, it might not be, one thing is for sure,  the Palm Oil story is still captivating us. In fact, it is so interesting and so globally relevant that it’s been all over the news since July.  Here are some snippets:

While we, here in Australia might tend to focus on the animals put at risk when forests are ripped out and replaced by palm these articles show that there is more than one story out there.  Of course the plight of the Orang Utan is absolutely important but so are all these other things.  I’m particularly curious about how this is affecting local people, for good or bad. One consequence of expanding palm plantations is that Indigenous people all over palm growing regions are being moved by this issue and I mean physically moved here (relocated), not just emotionally moved.  When we take away the eyes and ears of the forest it dies.  I feel that we need to tell their stories.  We need to talk to the humans of the forests, to let them help us find a balance between our many competing priorities.

Here’s some more news snippets from the last few weeks.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the palm oil situation is complex, it is also pressing.  If we don’t find a way of managing palm farming sustainably we run the risk of losing what little rain forest the planet has left. We also run the risk of destroying Indigenous culture, habitat for countless species of flora and fauna, many of which I’m sure we haven’t even discovered yet. We also risk losing good top soil and our ability to prevent run-away climate change.  For all those reasons I am continuing to encourage people to think of the whole story of palm so that our brains can be inspired in many hundreds of ways to help make this industry sustainable.  I see the protest vote of going palm free (especially for cosmetics) as part of that story but only as part, not as the only way we can get on top of this issue.

I, for one, hope that Wilmar and all the other companies that are saying they are working towards better sustainability keep doing so and keep closing down whatever loop holes that exist. I also hope that the plant scientists do persist with their research and find other ways of making the land already cleared for palm more productive and easier to farm. I hope that the farms can provide safe and lucrative jobs for all that work on them and that Indigenous people of whatever land is being encroached on get their rights recognised and retain ownership over their land – their own Mabo moment.  Finally, I hope that we do all of this quickly so that we can protect the diversity and habitability of this planet.

Goodnight x