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All About Women – A Weekend of Talks

March 12, 2019

I purposefully spent a good amount of my young life trying not to be too girly while still presenting and identifying  as a biological female.  During the time that I grew up I didn’t really know how to discuss or explore gender in a societal sense, I understood that I COULD be whatever I wanted to be and that I could aim high but had no idea how one could be COMFORTABLE living as a strong,  driven girl or a girl that wasn’t at all interested in the things that the media designated for me.  I couldn’t get my head around how my biological sex could ever be expected to shape and mould my everything and I was absolutely adamant that I would ‘save’ myself, make my own money and do whatever the bloody hell I pleased (as long as it was legal, I have always been respectfully anarchic which makes no sense at all unless you know me well). Anyway,  as a consequence I grew up feeling very detached from what one might call ‘the sisterhood’, even though I had (and still have) two sisters.  Being ‘one of the girls’ wasn’t something I aspired to, in fact it filled me with dread and that dream continued well into my adult life and especially into my business life.

Even now that I’m somewhat more comfortable in my woman-skin I am still  prickly about joining in women-only networking events as they still feel too much like an environment I’ll find alien given that, in my experience, I have quite different feelings and experiences of navigating the big ‘woman’ issues such as mothering, business, life, relationships. While that no longer makes me feel like there is something wrong with me, it still makes interactions with groups of women a little difficult and slightly uncomfortable  for me as inevitably I’m on a completely different emotional page to the bulk of them – see, I’m calling them ‘them’ like I’m not included…

But I still keep trying and that’s why I came along to this talk fest ‘All About Women’ on the weekend following International Womens day.

Women are an important part of my business and while not all of my customers are women, the majority of brands  I end up working with have women as their primary target.  As a cosmetic chemist I don’t have much say in how the formulations get marketed, typically the marketing part is done by the brand owner and is presented to me as a brief which I furnish with chemistry, perhaps (in fact often) suggesting actives and a strategy to help the product sing to that market.  To achieve this task the process of brief development and targeting reduces women down to a few key features, we FRAGMENT her into:

Her Skin

Her Aspirations

Her Self-Esteem

Her Lifestyle

‘Of course a good cosmetic chemist and brand owner will never lose sight of the big picture’ I hear you say but you’d be quite wrong there,  it’s more often than not that brand owners and the brief process strip away the whole in favour of perfecting the parts.

I remember having a conversation with a male chemist years ago who happened to let slip that he sometimes used to forget to actually try what he formulated out, especially the colour cosmetics.  I have to admit that there have been times when I’ve done that too, got so caught up in the game of stability, formula price, how the product looks and how it flows out of the packaging that I too have forgotten to wear it, I too had reduced the woman-dominant target audience to just a canvas on which to display my work. Shameful really!

I set up ‘Realize Beauty’ to remind me and the wider public that beauty deserves to be realised wherever it exists and by that I mean we should strive to deeply and clearly understand and take time to register beauty in all things and all people, to expand our understanding of what beauty is and how it is expressed in all its many guises.  In order to achieve that I feel it is important that we take the time to absorb and appreciate beauty as a whole first rather than approach it in a reductive, fragmented, objectified or commercialised way.  I set up this way to advocate for relationship building based on appreciation and love rather than on something transactional, I think that realising beauty takes time, open minds and a willingness to really see things for what they are, not just how you perceive them to be (although one could argue philosophically about what that means and whether it is ever possible to see things from other perspectives or without our own intrinsic bias).

The talk that I went to at the Opera House was on the ‘Me too’ movement which was interesting but somewhat frustrating for reasons that perhaps aren’t relevant here but nevertheless it was good to be out amongst interested and eager-to-learn women and men of all ages and demographics.  I took my husband, youngest daughter and exchange student along for the ride and I’m pretty sure we all got something positive out of the experience.

Here are some pictures:

Reflecting on this with regards to how it relates to my business life I’m reminded to stay focused on respecting and realising beauty as a source of positive energy in the world.  The politics, legal constructs and societal expectations can all weigh heavily on us whoever we are and wherever we sit but at the end of the day if we focus on creating, appreciating, celebrating and empowering beauty wherever we see it we will be doing OK.  The world sometimes tells us that beauty is all fluff and bubbles but I’d say that’s wrong, it’s everything else that’s superfluous.

So I should just keep on keeping on then…

Amanda x


It’s Time To Switch Up The Narrative on Australian Native Botanicals and Bush Foods.

March 11, 2019

I don’t know how to start this. I’m suddenly feeling very much the white girl trying to tell a story about black culture and frankly even I’m cringing.   I’m over digging and digging in shallow, monotonic ground with only one underlying narrative that’s passed off as truth.  A narrative born in Europe – the Roman Empire probably (did you know that the reason why it is so hard for Australian law to truly value nature for natures sake is because our law is based on a Roman system of individualism and ownership and backed up by western individualistic philosophy)? A narrative that favours Masculinity,  frames the natural world as ‘survival of the fittest’ as if it’s all just some grand competition. A narrative that related to nature in a tame-and-control/ dominate way.  This way of thinking (and it is only that, a way, one way) permeates every aspect of my reality and while I can see that it is not worthless, it’s as colourless as my own skin. I don’t mind my own skin but let’s face it it’s blank (maybe that’s why we get so many tattoos these days…).  And not like a blank canvas, anticipating the passion, energy and vibrance of an artist, not like that at all.  I mean it’s blank like a shroud that is hurriedly and carelessly flung over a scene we’d rather forget – push it under the carpet darling, keep remembering it’s you vs the world, divide and conquer, if we don’t take it someone else will.  Yep, that’s about how it feels.

And I’m OK with sitting with that, in that and with that history. It’s just that I no longer want to perpetuate that into the future.

It’s time.

Time to switch up the narrative.

And with that in mind I’ll tell my story, the only story I have a right to tell, and will leave the rest to you and your brilliant individual minds to work out what to do next.

So, I was invited to speak at a conference on bush foods/ bush botanicals for Aboriginal Women in Business and I went and participated in that this week.  When the invitation came through, being a privileged white girl I didn’t hesitate to say ‘yes, excited, let me in, I would LOVE to do that’.  I mention this because these things should be laid out on the table for what they are. I’ve had my own fair share of ‘shit-life-syndrome’ but, the bottom line is that it’s likely been easier (note: not ‘easy’ just ‘relatively easier’) for me, compared to many others, to skim over and through that because of how society views me and one of the consequences of that has been that I’ve been able to keep hold of my ego somewhat, enough to feel worthy of opportunity.  That has to be remembered when we are talking about women in business as feeling worthy is only one of the hurdles that women have to traverse and that’s all women and that’s before you start piling on everything else. Some women quite literally have to scale a mountain before they can even say ‘right oh, I’m here now, let’s think about starting’.

Anyway, I went along with my talk and I gave it my all in order to demonstrate that I was happy to be there for them as a deliverer of some information and opportunity rather than being just another outsider/ business person who wants to come along and take things for my own profit.

And that’s what we’ve done before you see, people like me, we’ve gone into these spaces and dominated them, taking ownership of what we’ve been told, taking liberties with precious information, stripping it of its cultural roots and whoring it for profit.

It sounds a bit harsh doesn’t it?  However, it has been my experience too. I remember having a conversation with a client of mine from the past, a client that was happy to sell products that capitalised on the Australian Native Extract story but was adamant that they didn’t want to draw attention to the Aboriginality of that as it ‘was problematic, THEY get all difficult and start restricting what we can do, wanting money and all that.  I remember, as someone relatively naive to that type of racism and cultural blindness just thinking ‘oh, OK then, that must just be how it is around here then. That must be OK’.

But it’s not OK.

At the conference I was touched by one fact, a fact that I couldn’t get over.  Aboriginal business participation in the Australian Bush Foods Industry is 1%.  1% of a $22 million dollar business that just can’t get enough of indigenous food stuff either for its novelty value or its ‘super food’ status.  An industry that is hungry for more but sadly, not more culture by the looks of it, just more stuff that we can shove down our throats.   The Aboriginal population of Australia is currently counted at 3.3% and growing thanks to their stubborn resistance to dying and giving up (thank goodness) so even if we reflected that woeful statistic in this business Aboriginal business should still be taking another $0.5 million directly.

Not all bush foods / medicines are even grown here any more.

Sadly, like most indigenous crops the seed stock left the building long before the local elders had the power to do anything about it and it is now possible to find Kakadu Plum and other ‘big hitting’ bush foods like our Finger Lime growing outside of Australian soil. Not that this is unusual, seeds are spread all over the world and crops have grown far away from their native lands since the beginnings of human trade but it is worth mentioning that it looks likely that while someone benefited financially from this bio-piracy (stolen seed) or bio-trade, it likely wasn’t the people who gave it its value, understood it the best and have a deep connection to it.

That wasn’t the only thing that struck me at the conference as to be honest, that’s just money talking and while it was true that the women at the conference all deserved the opportunity to be part of that, I’m sure that most of them, including all that I talked to, were more interested in the first instance in just gaining a better connection to their indigenous knowledge and building connections and networks around valuing that and being valued in their entirety, not just focusing on making millions.

My fear for those women is that they won’t catch on fast enough, won’t close the gap that’s already excluding them and seeing them as immaterial.   I fear not because I think these women aren’t capable, more because I know what my people are capable of.

The last thing I’d like to say is that the women at the conference were, just like my non-indigenous clients, all looking for authenticity, honesty and realism in a world that has forgotten what it’s here for.   These women all have stories to tell that sit outside of my western narrative, stories that consider and value different ways of connecting to and interacting with nature.   The women remind me of this land, a land so unlike my native Northern Europe with its cold, mossy and damp forest floor and rotting leaves.  These women are hard seeds, protected by a casing that let’s them sit dormant through long dry summers that seem never to end. These woman have a resilience and strength that can only be ignited and germinated by wildfire.

It might just be time to light the match.

Amanda x

PS: Want to be part of the solution?  Ask about Indigenous business ownership when buying your extracts and take an interest in and support Indigeous Business Initiatives, Culture, Cultural Workshops and Cerfied Merchandise. Let’s stop selling our people short.

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The slide show includes pictures of two species of Davison Plum, a Finger Lime and Warrigal Greens, Australia’s Native Spinach equivalent.

The Rise of the Bland

February 27, 2019


The Brand vs the Bland…

Instagram is full of blands.

Sure these blands look pretty and they sure do know how to market themselves. They are all coordinated colour schemes, pleasing to the eye, blank space between content, content curated ahead of time to look just so, staged and perfected.  Bubble gum food, eye candy, beautiful but strangely bland, unsatisfying and with little in the way of longevity.

Blandness isn’t just about how things look either, it’s about the feel and philosophy of the product.  All the cool kids are now vegan, palm free and organic even though most of the cool kids can’t work out without asking someone whether that avocado oil they just bought ticks all the boxes or not.

The bland that I’m talking about here isn’t a slight on prettiness or those who ‘get’ and ‘work’ social media and it’s all-too-easy-to-play followers.  Having that, by its self as a goal is a goal and in business if it gets you sales then it’s enough.  No, the bland that I’m talking about is the bland that is band wagon bland, because-everyone-else-is-doing-it bland,  the FOMO AKA Fear Of Missing Outness of it all. That’s what I’m talking about.

I know, I’m sounding all cynical again.  Lo Siento.

When you stand for nothing you fall for everything.

I vaguely remembered that, or a version of that quote from sometime in my past but a google search now left me none-the-wiser of its origins nor proper form but the form that I’ve got there highlights what I’ve got to say perfectly in this case.

For me a brand becomes a bland when it does this.

By falling for everything I mean the mindlessly ticking of boxes without really knowing or (worse in my opinion) caring about the detail.

This mentality breeds angry brand owners who ask questions but don’t want to hear any nuance in the answer ‘just give me a yes or a no’.

It creates promises that it can’t necessarily keep as it doesn’t understand its role in keeping them because it never thought to ask ‘why am I doing this’ or ‘how is this helping’ or ‘what benefit does this bring to the world’

and, worst of all, this bland mentality can actually derail legitimate causes by diluting or even making a mockery of the message because it was always misunderstood – for example being a vegan skin care brand but sending out your samples in little silk purses.  I don’t know a brand that does that but that’s just an example of the lack of joined up thinking that can exist in the bland space.

The solution?

I think it’s as simple as considering these three steps.


And no, I don’t mean google or your best friends blog (unless I am your best friend xxx)

Invest some real-time and real money into investigating why there is a growing trend for vegan skin care when skin care isn’t something you eat.  What does it mean for people, what do they want it to be, how different is vegan vs other skin care, does being a vegan brand constrain your brand at all and if so how will you tackle that. You can’t really build this into your authentic brand story if you have either no idea or a very shallow notion of why you are doing it.


I often find that people who go for the prescriptive way of doing things because ‘that’s how you get on, that’s what they are teaching you to do in Instagram school’ have no imagination of their own.  Now not having an imagination is not a crime but it does make you a prime bland candidate and to avoid falling into that you need to plan.  Everybody is unique and has their own little point of difference that got their brand started, do yourself a favour and pop a little drop of that into your marketing whether it be your face or another legal and suitable body part (hands, feet, back of head etc), your location or your actual products in action is up to you but do SOMETHING to avoid becoming 100% blended out.  Don’t be afraid of who you are and the brand you are creating. It’s not all about glossy pre-purchased lifestyle images.


When I formulate for someone I don’t take their ideas and turn them into my own product. I try and grasp their flow and develop what they want. This approach ensures that people get something they relate to when they finally walk off with their formula rather than something that I just wanted to do. This approach only ever goes wrong when the client coming to me had no real clue of what they wanted on a deep and personal level anyway. If I have to guess you’ve lost me.  Same I think it true of Instagram.

The trend in having curated feeds that are very professional and set out like an art gallery is lovely and soothing to look out but it can quickly become bland if your audience can’t spot YOU in there.  Sure pick a colour scheme, filter and visual ‘voice’ but make sure you relate to it and that it’s authenticity filters through to your branding or else you might win a customer once but you’ll fail to keep them for that all-important follow up and ongoing sale.

So to sum up. 

Life is too short to create a bland make what you do count by investing in understanding more about what you are doing.

Go for broke, back your individuality, build your story and share it your way.

and if you fear you can’t because you are a weirdo just do it anyway, we are all weird!!!


Where did it come from?

February 26, 2019

People want to know where ingredients originate from and in general, I am more than OK with that. In fact, I’m fascinated too and often love nothing more than delving through a process to uncover the detail and origin of a bit of chemistry.  But then it all got too much…

Let’s take Alpha Lipoic Acid as an example:

Molecular Breakdown: Carbon=8, Hydrogen=14, Oxygen=2, Sulphur=2


AKA: 1,2-dithiolane-3-pentanoic acid, Thioctic Acid and more besides.


Alpha Lipoic Acid  is found naturally in our bodies and is both partially soluble in water and in oil (as a cosmetic chemist I can tell you now that this is a pain of an ingredient to solubilise in any phase, it seems to prefer to be at the interface which is good for antioxidant activity but makes it hard to formulate oil only or water only products with this ingredient).  Chemically, it was first described as a vitamin-like chemical (was placed in the B vitamin family early on) although now we think of it as more of a co-enzyme with antioxidant qualities, similar to COQ10.  It helps to protect the cells from damage and replenish other antioxidants such as vitamins E and C by chemically rejuvenating them in a cyclic reaction quite typical for bodily antioxidants.

In a world full of pollution, bad habits and a fear of ageing antioxidants are seen as manner from heaven for skin care brand owners and as such, this little baby has become quite a popular thing to add into your anti-ageing product range.

But where does it come from?

So in days gone by I’d just take a look at the manufacturers data sheets and they usually have a box to tick that says either natural or synthetic.  For this one the synthetic box is ticked 100% of the time as while this antioxidant exists all through our body naturally it is very impractical to harvest it from living creatures so instead, since its discovery in 1930 and its isolation in the 1950’s we’ve mostly made it in the lab and then scaled it up in the factory using ‘synthetic’ chemicals.

But now that’s not enough.

So where do the synthetic chemicals come from?

Many brands have taken to using ‘free from’ lists to describe what is NOT in their products.  I’ve always had an issue with this way of marketing as it forces brand owners to spend an awful lot of time focusing on what they are not going to use anyway rather than perfecting what they do have.  In cases like the one above I even think it becomes slightly absurd but you may disagree and as per usual I accept you are perfectly entitled to do so with or without my permission.

So where does it come from?

Well the most common pre-cursor to alpha lipoic acid is a chemical called 6,8 Dichloro-octanoic acid.

That particular chemical does not exist in nature so it has to be manufactured.  It is not always the case for this to be manufactured by the manufacturer making the Alpha Lipoic Acid and that’s where my first problem comes.  I can ask my manufacturer to disclose their manufacturing flow chart but that’s where our relationship stops.  They then have to go ask their manufacturer where the raw materials they buy come from and that’s where things get tricky.

An aside – relevant for everything but especially palm these days.

When manufacturers give people like me a manufacturing flow chart they are making a declaration about what they do at this time, that is UNLESS they also make a declaration that this is what they intend to do until some particular time point in the future.  What this means is that the information given to people like me is not infinitely relevant.  Chemical processes change, manufacturing processes change, supply chain agreements change and material origin can change.  The further back through the chain we go the more chances for change there are and the less secure any conclusions we build from that will be. When I ask my manufacturer how they make Alpha Lipoic Acid they tell me based on their starting points, not on the ultimate cradle starting point (in a cradle-to-grave style analysis). They do this because this is how it has always been done and this is the only thing they often truly have control over.

Now say that my manufacturer accepts my question of ‘yes but where does the 6,8 Dichloro-octanoic acid originate from’ and furnishes me with an answer.

Another Aside, Sorry…

At this point we might check WIKIPEDIA to see what Alpha Lipoic cid is made of being as though we are now bored of scanning patents that contain weird sounding chemicals that we have never heard of.

Wikipedia says that Alpha Lipoic Acid is derived from caprylic acid (octanoic acid) and that this particular acid typically comes from animals.

Ok so now we have the origins of the ‘is ALA vegan friendly?’ question.

Caprylic acid is found in butter, milk and vegetable fats so if, indeed Alpha Lipoic Acid does start off as Octanoic Acid/ Caprylic Acid it’s going to take a few more Q&A’s before we find out if this came from milk,  butter, coconut or palm.

And with that we have the origin of the ‘does this contain palm?’ question.

Simple questions, complicated to answer.

Not least because it is entirely possible that Alpha Lipoic Acid did not just derive from Caprylic Acid, at least not all of the time.

Back to it.

So I found a patent that discloses a synthetic method of making ALA (Alpha Lipoic Acid) by using 6,8 Dichloro ethyl caprylate as a raw material. I found a few more patents to but I’ll use this as an example.

This method takes 6,8 Dichloro ethyl caprylate and reacts it with methanol and tetrabutylammonium bromide.  The resulting chemical is then hydrolysed and acidified.

Tetrabutylammonium bromide looks like this. This diagram uses simple chemical structure shorthand so the wiggles are carbons and off each carbon that isn’t holding its neighbour would be hydrogens.  This is the catalyst so it is important but it isn’t the thing that ends up in the end chemical.

I’ve also found another report stating that the 6,8 Dichloro ethyl caprylate can be reacted with sodium sulphide, sulphur and ethanol although that’s not a commercially successful route.

Both of these explanations still leaves us hanging though because we don’t know how the main star of the show came into being – 6,8 Dichloro ethyl caprylate.

But by now we have established that some petrochemical bi-products are required to facilitate this reaction (Methanol and the Bromine derivative) thus rendering the ALA synthetic.  Synthetic is pretty much just another word for petroleum derived and given that petroleum was probably formed at the same time as clay then it’s all a bit odd. Petroleum being just very, very old oil which probably came from plants and animals that died a long time ago and got squashed by the world…

Anyhow, I found our missing chemical for sale by this company. This company also go on to make Alpha Lipoic Acid which, as I’ve stated above, is not always the case. I emailed them to ask if the material originates from palm or animal derivatives. I only did that about 2 hours ago and yet no response so if/ when I do get an answer I’ll let you know.

Interjection: By this stage I’ve been researching this for 2 days and now I’m DONE…

The question ‘where does xxx chemical come from’


After being told a product is synthetic, going on to ask

‘yes but if it is synthetic what is it made of? Is it still vegan friendly etc’

Is quite tricky and that’s putting it mildly.

Trying to follow the origin trail for this chemical, alpha lipoic acid, has proved to be quite a challenge for many reasons, not least because once that ‘synthetic’ box is ticked that used to be the end of the conversation and as such, suppliers are not accustomed to digging deeper.

One can sit back and say that all this extra knowledge and investigating is making us smarter, making us make better choices,  giving us more power to our elbow etc but I question that.

After spending a good two days fruitlessly (so far) search into a definitive answer as to where things come from I’ve got stuck. Better people than me would continue, I might too as I’m also very curious and not a fan of being left hanging, even if I did hang myself…

Stuck and can no longer see the point.

I can see the point when it’s something like Decyl Glucoside – made from reacting glucose from corn with a palm fatty acid as the reaction is quite simple, requires the use of no weird catalysts and retains much of the character of the chemicals of origin in its structure.  However, Alpha Lipoic Acid is much more complex in its manufacture, much further removed from nature and, importantly as far as I’m concerned, used in a completely different way to Decyl Glucoside.  I’ll quickly expand on that.  ALA is an active, typically used at 0.1-0.5% in a formula if it is used at all.  It performs a specific ‘restorative’ function that helps protect the skin from oxidative stress.  It is biologically active and has no substitute in terms of how this specifically works in the body. Not that it can be used instead of a sunscreen or other more environmentally burdensome active but it’s use on the skin will somewhat strengthen it and make it more resilient which, in turn makes it less needy in terms of maintenance, thus reducing the need to use lots to repair it.  On the other hand, decyl glucoside is a surfactant (cleaning agent) that just helps you get rid of grime from the skin.  You could use natural plant saponins or a bar of soap instead. While a bar of soap has gone through a chemical process it’s simple and can be done without palm or animal bi-products if that’s important to you.  Decyl Glucoside is typically used at 1-15% in formulations as supplied (usually 50% actives in water) so it is a much larger part of your formula.  Decyl Glucoside, while naturally derived does not occur in nature.

Is there a case for not acting as if every chemical is worthy of the same in-depth origin analysis?  I certainly think so, in most, but maybe not all cases.

Is there a case for stating ‘Synthetic’ and being done with it?  Again, I certainly think so, particularly for ingredients like this that are so minuscule in their usage compared to other things.

And with that I sign off.

I will let you know if I do get an answer from anyone about the definitive origin of Alpha Lipoic Acid but for now, suffice to say that it could be animal or vegetable with an absolutely guaranteed slice of mineral (petroleum derivative).

Beyond that, for tonight, I have had it with this chemical.

Oh, and if any of you write in and tell me that you have an answer and it’s from X, Y or Z, that’s lovely but do make sure your manufacturers have signed off on it always being from that source/ origin as without that we are only as good as their present word and can make no guarantees into the future.

Amanda x







February 26, 2019

Basically it isn’t.

Whatever you are thinking,

However you do it,

It’s probably not,

and it’s most likely to be that way because we are greedy.


able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
“sustainable economic growth”
able to be upheld or defended.
“sustainable definitions of good educational practice”
We recently ran out of a particular type of Australian clay. When I say ‘we’ I don’t mean a particular company or household, I mean the BIG ‘we’, the collective, Australia.  Australia simply had no more of that type of clay to economically mine so the mine closed.
Now up until that point I doubt that many people had stopped to think about life post clay apocalypse.  Clay is natural, natural is better, natural is renewable, natural is sustainable.
Do you know how long it takes to form new clay?
Me neither until I googled it.
Then, with my appetite for facts and detail not sated I actually had to go on and read a lot to confirm my suspicion that clay takes thousands of years to form:
Here is the opening paragraph from a paper entitled ‘clay mineral formation and transformation in rocks and soils. 
“Three mechanisms for clay mineral formation (inheritance, neoformation, and transformation) operating in three geological environments (weathering, sedimentary, and diagenetic-hydrothermal) yield nine possibilities for die origin of clay minerals in nature. Several of these possibilities are discussed in terms of the rock cycle. The mineralogy of clays neoformed in the weathering environment is a function of solution chemistry, with the most dilute solutions favouring formation of the least soluble clays”
Basically, in layman terms that means ‘it’s complicated and takes a while’.
This data sheet from the Australian government outlines things in simpler terms and eludes to the fact that the kaolin deposits that we mine today date back from the Jurassic and Permian period (the Permian period was around 299-251 million years ago, Jurassic was 199-145 million years ago).
If you have taken some time out of your life to read the links that I’ve posted above you will probably be sitting here thinking ‘but the NSW chaps said that there are still thousands if not millions of tonnes of kaolin out there to mine, we’ll never run out!’  That, of course is correct on many levels – when we mine and use clay we don’t destroy it, we just move it, change its shape a bit, maybe it’s chemistry a little then eventually it gets back to the earth either in land fill or by settling to the bottom of one water way or another – however, it is also incorrect.
While mining is often possible, it’s not always practical or desirable.
I think that we sometimes lose sight of that just like we often lose sight of the fact that mining involves digging, digging involves environmental change and environmental change has its own set of consequences which we may, or may not be OK with.
I wanted to see what mining for Kaolin looked like, just as an example, so we can all ponder that when we purchase our next batch of clay.
Kaolin mining Western Australia
The above pictures were found on the website of a company based in Taiwan called Choko which had listed these pictures as examples of where their high purity kaolin comes from. I can only assume that is correct. Here is the link. 
I found this pamphlet which was also very interesting and helped confirm the process of Kaolin mining to me, plus there’s some more pictures which do agree with those above.  Like any mining, kaolin mining is quite an energetic process involving moving vast amounts of earth, sifting and grading, then distributing the product.  This also involves water, usually quite a bit. The kaolin deposits may be located in a water way or not but either way,  washing of the kaolin is all part of its process.
So that’s that.
And with that I’m back to my opening title in a neat fruit-loop thought.
I’ve been pondering the sustainability of kaolin ever since hearing about the closing of the mine that I talked about.  I wondered how we, as humans could be so detached from what it actually means to mine clay. The energy and intent that goes into its exploration and subsequent liberation. The land change, the movement or earth and people, the scarring it leaves, the remediated ‘nature’ that gets created afterwards.  I ended up finding myself wondering what people actually think about when they purchase their clay.  Where do they think it comes from? What do they think makes it what it is? How do they think it formed?   I’ve not particularly written my exploration, this,  in long-hand this time. Instead,  I’ve left you some links to explore yourself, like all good miners, the initial exploration has to be deep, detailed and personally worth the gamble of investing further.
As a chemist I’m feeling a strange sense of satisfaction at the level of chemistry that has gone into creating something that we tend to think of as so simple, so basic.  It turns out its not simple at all and indeed, it leaves me wondering that if us humans had set up a factory to turn rock into kaolin it would probably be deemed too chemical a process to ever be called natural, such is the weirdness of life these days…
Looks like as long as we are not obscenely greedy and as long as we appreciate that the simple Kaolin that we slap on our faces is a result of millions of years of chemical reactions that have crushed and reacted together animals, vegetables and minerals then we might just be able to enjoy it forever – as long as we accept and appreciate that to do so requires some land change and subsequent remediation. After all, ‘we’ don’t create clay, nature does and nature lets us borrow it and accepts it back (albeit into a different space and time).
Clay – to be known from now on by me as ‘dust of Pangaea’. May contain Dimetrodon, gluten and traces of nuts.
Sustainable unless you are very greedy and let’s face it, most humans are.

Does Sodium Benzoate react with Vitamin E to form Benzene?

February 8, 2019

Feliz Viernes Mi Amigos!

I’ve got a couple of half-finished posts to put up but this one question flew up this morning and as I had to answer it I thought I’d may as well make that today’s post by sharing it.   Just an aside, for those of you that don’t know, I’m a consultant chemist. I get questions all of the time, I can’t share all of the conversations I have as some are very brand specific and sensitive to their IP. Others though are more generic and I do draw on some of those conversations for my blog posts, when I think there is a shared learning to be had that benefits everyone and yes, I include myself in that.

So here we go.

I have a customer who has been asked to ‘please explain’ why they have vitamin E and Sodium Benzoate in their formula together? Apparently the inter webs state that this is not good, that this will react to form benzene and that we will all die of benzene cancer if the brand doesn’t cease and desist.  Something like that anyway…

So is it true?

In my typical style I could answer that with a quick answer, yes or no, or I could go on a verbal rampage through the chemistry laboratories of history. I prefer the latter but for all of you time-poor people I’ll tell you now that the fact that this information even persists on the internet feeds my theory that humanity is becoming increasingly stupid and that we are all going to die – I have it on good authority that the latter part of that statement is 100% pure and unadulterated 🙂

Let’s dive in.

Me in my polite writing voice:
Thanks for the question.  I’ll answer it as best as I can below.
Firstly I have not come across this concern before.
There has been a long-running ‘warning’ on health blogs etc about sodium benzoate and vitamin C.  This warning is grounded in science and there is a risk of reaction between sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid to liberate benzene. Benzene is a carcinogen.  However,  just because this reaction is possible it doesn’t mean that it is always inevitable.  It can be possible but not probable,  probably but not situationally likely, likely but preventable, highly likely but insignificant in effect (due to it being so small a reaction/ wrong delivery system/ bodies ability to process etc…
In the case that first brought this to the public attention a solution was applied and the problem ceased to be a problem but like the proverbial elephant, the internet never forgot the problem and, more importantly, never moved on with the facts.
Here is what I wrote about that:
And here is the reaction – it is a REDOX reaction – oxidation/ reduction – that’s relevant as that’s the extrapolation that puts vitamin E into the equation.
So back to Sodium Benzoate and Tocopherol. 
A very quick google search brings up a couple of blogs that do make the statement that vitamin E can also react with sodium benzoate to form benzene.  I know some of the writers of those blogs and it is safe to say that they don’t have a background in chemistry.  Others I think may just have copied and pasted.
Taking a step back it is worth noting that many natural and organic certified brands hate the idea that others in their demographic can use sodium benzoate and/or potassium sorbate and still gain certification/ kudos in their space.  These are cheap, effective preservatives that are common to many raw materials that need preserving too so it opens up a world of opportunity that some brand owners can’t access because they can’t get past the reality that is that these chemicals are synthetic.
Now that may be an over-simplification and me projecting what I’ve seen, discussed and read with/ about these people but you can take from it what you will.
Sodium Benzoate is the salt of benzoic acid. Benzoic acid occurs widely in nature in fruits and benzoin resin and it from here that we (the scientific community) first noted the anti-microbial effects of this chemistry.
Sodium Benzoate vs Benzoic acid – I discuss this in this blog post here:
There is a scientific journal article here that also explains how we can use ‘green chemistry’ to convert Benzoic acid to benzene so you can see that the sodium benzoate is not unique in being able to turn into benzene – so it isn’t a case of human interference that has taken something natural and safe and made it less so.

An Efficient Production of Benzene from Benzoic Acid in Subcritical Water Using a Copper (I) Oxide Catalyst

ArticleinGreen Chemistry 17(2) · October 2014 with 302 Reads
A method combining subcritical water technology and a commercially available copper (I) oxide catalyst has been performed for the production of benzene from benzoic acid. The benzene yield reached 91 mol% with 100% selectivity at 350°C and ~25 MPa in 90 min. This is the first time to realize the reaction from benzoic acid to benzene environmental-friendly, efficient and economical. The proposed reaction mechanism indicates that Cu2O was an effective and stable catalyst, and the process was driven by the unique properties of subcritical water: high ion product, the high solubility of products and high diffusivity.
So back to the question:  Vitamin E plus Sodium Benzoate – will they react to form benzene.
The answer to this is no, highly unlikely.
Ascorbic acid is very reactive, low pH, water-soluble.
Ascorbic Acid acts as a reducing agent in this reaction so it takes something away from the sodium benzoate (the sodium) and kick-starts a reaction that leads to benzene.
Tocopherol is a reducing agent, all anti-oxidants are, this is REDOX chemistry and involves the swapping of electrons between chemicals.
But just because something is a reducing agent doesn’t mean that it will want to play with everything that can be reduced.  You must find the right partner for the job and in the case of sodium benzoate, it isn’t the right partner.
This is tocopherol – no  Na group – sodium functional head group. 
Vitamin E will not readily react with sodium benzoate because sodium benzoate is not on its radar (in the oil phase/ right chemistry).  What vitamin E will react with is peroxide and that is formed when fats oxidise.  Vitamin E basically neutralises the peroxide radical thus taking the sting out of its tail and preventing it from going on and turning the whole fatty phase rancid.
The final piece of the puzzle is the vitamin E/ Vitamin C link.
When an antioxidant reacts is is ‘used up’ somewhat.  Some antioxidants can be recycled if they have a little help.  Vitamin C helps vitamin E to recycle by chemically interacting with it to bring the vitamin E back to it’s relaxed state, it’s a chemical pacifier 🙂  
In a formula it is normal to have vitamin E and C together in some shape or form to help maintain product integrity.  
Sodium Benzoate is sometimes part of a formula as a preservative.  It can be kept ‘safe’ by using it at or below the specified levels, using a chelating agent to help prevent it from premature break down and by taking steps with packaging to maintain good stability.   It is not necessary in my opinion to avoid sodium benzoate, especially not as it is one of the most natural options for product preservation, is low-cost,  is used  widely by ingredient manufacturers and is readily available.
Just one other note,  any formulation that contains fruit extracts (water based) and / or the following aromatics has a formula that contains vitamin C and benzene precursors.  Any formula that contains natural oils contains vitamin E.  So, most natural formulations contain all three whether they were formulated in as separate ingredients or brought in by virtue of their natural presence.  
Ylang Ylang
Tolu Balsam
Peru Balsam
Ginger Lily
I hope that helps somewhat.
Before I sign off I want to say a huge Gracias to all of my readers who persist in grappling with this stuff.   We are often talked down to in modern-day society, the media talks to us like we are 12 years old as does politics, we need to stand up for our thinking space and that’s often right slap bang in the middle of a situation.  Things are rarely 100% right or 100% wrong, there is much detail and beauty that is missed by falling into those types of thought pattern.  I hope you continue to hang with me in this middle space as I have personally found much here to be joyful about.
Adios x

Solubility is relative, not absolute.

January 18, 2019

In spite of the dramatic rise in people making their own cosmetic products over the twenty years or so that I’ve been in business I haven’t really noted a comparable increase in science literacy. This is in spite of many people completing online or face-to-face courses.  Now I’m obviously part of the problem, being as though I’m an educator and I teach some short courses myself but I have to say that while I’m willing to try to push myself and my teaching harder, I am not prepared to take the whole blame for this and anyway, there’s no blame required as long as everyone stays open-minded, we’ll all learn as we go. Together!

So solubility…

Solubility is the art of disappearing one chemical into another.  It could be salt or sugar into water (where does it go?),  olive oil into avocado oil (do they combine into a new super-oil or do they stay separate?),  a food dye into water or some (but not all) essential oils into alcohol.

Is this magic or what?

To me chemistry IS magic,  a magic that only gets more magical on deeper understanding. There is no need for the slight-of-hand trickery, even when one knows exactly what is going on the reality is just magical and other-worldly. Solubility is one bit of the chemistry magic and this bit is relative.

Relative:  Considered in relation or proportion to something else.

We can only really have very meaningful conversations about solubility when we understand both the solvent and the solute.

Solvent: The medium that the ingredient is to disappear or dissolve into – it may not even disappear, colours don’t disappear do they? They merely integrate and spread out!

Solute: The thing that you are trying to solubilise or make disappear.

Us humans have a very large tendency to over-simplify everything in order to get things processed in a way that is as energy-efficient as possible – turns out our brains are super hungry and we don’t like churning through the calories just thinking.

So we tend to just stick to two categories of stuff in cosmetic science:

Oil or water. 

The question I get asked frequently is ‘is it soluble in oil or water’ and that’s a reasonable question but it is only a first step.

Finding out if something is generally oil or water-soluble helps us to understand the main nature of the ingredient, to visualise where it might sit in a formula and/or what type of issues we might face in using it.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

Once we get into the lab we might find that what we thought was going to be an easy job of disappearing our ingredient has turned into a nightmare.

This is what I mean about solubility being a bit more complex and with it being conditional.

Here are some of the conditions that can come into play with solubility:

  • Temperature
  • Concentration
  • pH
  • Molecular weight where a molecule has a variety of weights or sizes
  • Ionic strength of solute
  • Ionic strength of solvent solution.
  • Chemical interactions within the rest of the formula.

The above may mean nothing much to you until (or unless) you’ve been in the lab or your kitchen and things have’t gone to plan in the solubilisation realm.

The ionic strength part is actually quite a big thing in cosmetic chemistry, especially these days where people like putting all sorts of wonderful things in their water phase so people’s water phase is rarely just water.

If you have a formula that contains aloe powder and you next want to dissolve Sodium PCA, your water phase is no longer just water, it is aloe water.  This probably won’t stop the Sodium PCA from mixing in with your water but it might affect other things like, for example, how easy it is to solubilise essential oils into that ‘water’, how easy it is to form a stable emulsion with that ‘water phase’ or how readily the preservative dissolves through.

The other main thing is concentration.  Everything has its solubilisation limit and if you exceed that you may end up with sedimentation in your product, graininess, full product instability or crystallisation.   Published solubility data for water-soluble things is talking about pure water and not water that already has five different actives added so do keep that in mind too!

The bottom line is that things aren’t always infinitely soluble in each other so just because a chemical is soluble in water or oil doesn’t mean they will always be soluble in your water or oil phase or product, your product may have changed the solvent characteristics significantly enough to make the ingredient insoluble at the concentration you want to use.

Chemicals have their preferences and their limits.  If you are having issues with solubilising or stabilising something then do take a helicopter view of your formula and check that you are not over-loading the phases.  What I often do in that case is pair back and re-build one step at a time to see what kills it.

And don’t forget pH, pH can make the difference between something disappearing forever or staying stubbornly separate.


PS: When you combine oils, they generally just get tangled and co-exist rather than becoming a new super-oil. This is why some oil blends can soften in a non-even way so you get some liquid forming on the top while the bulk is still solid – well that has something to do with heat transfer too but wide and separate melting points also play a part.