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Activated Charcoal – Particle Sizes

December 2, 2016

OK so I’m going to keep this short and sweet in order to make it easy to read.

Activated Charcoal is VERY popular right now.

People are being encouraged to drink it (in water),  brush their teeth with it and add it to their cosmetics including dry facial masks.

While these are all legitimate uses for this material there is something important that you should know.

Activated Charcoal particles are small, very small and as such they can get stuck deep inside your body, maybe even into your lungs and particles in lungs is not a good thing – think Asbestosis or black lung disease.

Here is a chart of particle size that I found on Wikipedia. It’s a good starting point for discussion as we all know what happens when an allergic person comes into contact with pollen or cat dander.


The grade of activated charcoal I use is from Coconuts and it has a mean particle size of 15 microns.

Mean = middle.

That means that 50% of particles are SMALLER than 15 microns and 15% are bigger.

Please note that this is the grade that I am using currently, there are SMALLER mean particle size charcoals out there and LARGER. It is important to know which one you are using. Very important.

The units in this chart at Microns so the 15 microns level is similar to what you would find in small pollen, cement dust, house dust and dust mites.

People who develop asthma medication need to get their medicine from the nose or throat and into the lungs. They say that particles of 10 microns typically get down as far as the oropharynx. This sits below the soft pallet and before the epiglottis so not that far down but far enough to make you cough and wheeze as your body tries to rid you of these invaders.

At 5-10 microns the particles can make it to the central airways while particles from 0.5-5 microns can get into the alveoli – we don’t want that at all!

I am concerned by two things here.

  1. That people are purchasing activated charcoal online and feeling it is perfectly safe and lovely because it is natural (coconut) and because it is food grade and thus taking no precautions when mixing this.
  2. That people are not accounting for the potential for inhalation of the powder when they are using their finished products – products made that contain dry activated charcoal.

It is reasonable to expect that for every 1% of the above I use in a formula 0.5% will be particles smaller than 15microns and therefore able to get down into the airways.  It is not a stretch of the imagination to think that at least a small percentage of them could be as small as 5 microns and therefore able to make it into the lungs.

I don’t know how much activated charcoal a lung can handle but I do know that once these tiny particles get into the lungs there is no getting them out. They won’t dissolve or dislodge. Aerosol medicine that is given to asthmatics is designed to break down or dissolve at the site of the lung tissue.

My advise is this.

  • Treat your activated charcoal with respect, wear proper protective gear including a face mask that can protect against very fine particulate dust.
  • Do not sell or use a product that contains dry activated charcoal – make sure it is either in paste form or that it is non-dusting by some other means.
  • Do not leave this product anywhere near children.
  • Ask your supplier for the mean particle size of the grade you buy so you can decide if yours is more or less dangerous than mine.
  • Have this conversation with people.

I have had several conversations about this in this week alone with most people saying to me ‘but how come nobody mentioned this to me if it is so dangerous?’   Well the only thing I can say to that is it is because people either simply don’t know, haven’t been told, have never had it occur to them to check the SDS sheet or feel that it must be safe because it’s natural (as I said above).

I can’t see any reason why we can’t all use this ingredient safely once we appreciate the material for what it is.

Lung disease isn’t attractive.





My Essential Oil Brand is Better Than Yours…..

December 2, 2016

I purchased ‘The Fragrant Pharmacy’ by Valerie Ann Worwood along with a few bottles of essential oils back in 1994 when I was twenty. At the time my mother was living next door to a professional Aromatherapist and I was studying chemistry at De Montford University.  I thought it would be cool to pick the essential oils apart in terms of their aroma chemistry and work out which chemical gave rise to which result.  It didn’t take me long to realise that essential oils are more complex and nuanced than that.  My first lesson of how science works in the ‘real’ world.

I took my first ‘home made’ skin care products out into the jungles of Indonesia with me the following year – an aqueous cream base enriched with a blend of Tea Tree, Eucalyptus and Lavender. Smelt rough but I was hopeful that it would prevent my eczema prone skin from becoming mozzie bitten and infected.  Whether it worked or not I don’t know but I did get through the 8 weeks of bush living without issue.

Anyway, that’s just a story, what I want to talk about is the reality of the Essential Oils market today.

We appear to be living through a time of  brand supremacy when it comes to Essential Oils.   This is relatively new to me as while I’ve been operating in the Essential Oil Industry for the last nineteen years or so I’ve never really seen this level of ‘my brand is better than yours’ before.  It’s odd to say the least.

I don’t want to spend the next however many words debating the merits of one particular brand over another, more I want to open you up to the possibility that there is very little difference between ANY brand.  Further, I want to explain where these oils come from, the longevity of the market, its traditions and what is and isn’t  ‘normal’.  The brand you choose to celebrate your love of essential oils via is up to you.

So let’s have a look:

Definition: Essential Oil.

The Quintessence (essential) or ‘life force’ of the botanical. The fifth element (earth, water, fire, air, quintessence (soul)).

  • Essential oil distillation is not new science.

We have Persian chemist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to thank for ‘inventing’ the process of extracting volatile and aromatic oil                 from botanical matter via steam distillation.  His first experiment was on Rose petals. Since then we have gone on to                     perfect the art of distillation and added other methods of extracting the Quintessence from botanicals including CO2                     extraction (still under discussion as to whether these are essential oils), Enfleurage and Cold Pressing. 

  • Essential Oils are farmed globally. 

If we could step back, way back from the brand to the farm and not just the brand’s farm (some brands claim to own all their     own farms. I’m saying nothing on that)  we can see that the Essential Oil market is indeed a global one.  Aromatherapy operates alongside the market for Fine Fragrances, Flavours,  Cosmetics, Household and Industrial Cleaning Applications,  Pharmacy and Industrial Solvents, Agriculture, Animal Health and Pesticides for these farmed crops.  It doesn’t take much insight to work out which of the above markets is the smallest and potentially the least influential with regards to oil quality or farm ownership.

  • Essential Oil Quality Varies From Batch to Batch, Farm to Farm, Plant Variety to Plant Variety.

Farming is an inexact science and one that is subjected to a variety of external influences that can only be partially managed and mitigated for.  Because of that we can experience good and bad years for our oils just like you can for fruit or wine.  As you would expect there are specific regions of the world that have the optimal environmental and soil conditions for growing a particular crop these areas might also become expert at processing the oil and as a consequence become synonymous with the best quality oil – Italy for Lemon,  France for Lavender,  Bulgaria for Rose.   While concentrated ‘locations of excellence’ can be a very beautiful thing, when something goes wrong with the environment the whole global crop can take a hammering.  We saw that quite recently with citrus crops out of California and with Limes in Mexico.  So we have years where there is an oil shortage.

  • The knock-on effect of an oil shortage on the Essential Oil Market.

When oils get tight those that can shout loudest and with the largest wallets usually win out. Some of these players do actually own a stake in the means of production (sounds like Animal Farm). This is called being ‘backwardly integrated’ and we see it most often in aromatics with Rose fields, many of which are owned by fragrance houses.

In ‘bad’ or lean years the top tier players get the best (multinational flavour and fragrance houses and multinational brands) and we all get the rest and the temptation to stretch or alter the oil increases massively.

  • Stretched or Otherwise Altered Oils.

The general thinking behind an aromatherapy oil is that it is the pure, unaltered expression of the plant.  Before I talk about whether this is what we get or not I’ll explain what can happen and why.  As I’ve mentioned before, oils are farmed and farmed products have good and bad years including some years where almost the entire harvest can be ruined by frost, storms, drought or floods.  In those years and during times when pests have altered the quality of the oil an oil might be stretched or otherwise adulterated to meet a standard.  Standardised oils are very important to the pharmaceutical and fine fragrance market who are looking for particular notes of characteristic accords in oils.  These can be bolstered, re-created or enhanced by adding either synthetically manufactured or naturally isolated aroma chemicals back into the oil.  So you lavender oil was short on linanool this year?  Add some from linalool you synthesised in the lab OR saved from last years batch that had too much.  Maybe not a good example but an example all the same.

The take-home point here is that the big end of town like standardised oils, the aromatherapy market not so much although everyone is after the ‘perfect’ oil just like we all flock around a beauty queen or idolise the best singers or actors the world has on offer.  As with those situations, not everyone is lucky enough to get them.

So this process of stretching or altering oils happens and it happens en mass due to the large volume requirements of the big end of town.  That said it doesn’t necessarily happen to all oil and we, the aromatherapy market do try to grab what we can from the ‘other’ pile while still trying to ensure it smells good and meets our expectations for smell – a very hard task indeed!

So can one brand ever really have an exclusively better range of oils than another?

Well yes and no but mainly somewhere in between – not really.

A brand can have really good buyers – noses.

A brand can commit to never altering the oils they buy.

A brand can ask for paperwork to prove the quality and purity of their oils.

A brand can re-test these oils in their own lab.

A brand can have ISO accreditation for their facility including how they handle, store, decant and check their oils.

A brand can visit the plantations.

A brand might OWN some plantations – I don’t know a brand that has a substantial range of oils on offer that owns all its plantations.

A brand might lead research into oil quality.

A brand might have been established by an oil expert.


Even a brand that can and has and does all of that is still at the mercy of farmers and farm-land politics, mother nature, human greed and destruction, global markets, transport companies, intermediate storage companies and often even middle-men that might make it hard to even trace the oil back to its pure origins.

So what does this mean?

In reality I feel that most brands do try to do the right thing by doing as many of the above steps as they can (and more if they can think of it).  But in reality most brands understand that they can’t control everything and that their competitors are no doubt doing as much as they can too.  There are some oil brands no doubt that just started to make money without really caring about the quality or origin of the oil but these companies usually step up their game on entering the cosmetic/ aromatherapy market due to the requirements of this market and the questions that get asked.

I am of the mindset, based on what I see, know and have participated in for almost the last two decades that there are many reputable brands out there to choose from. Sure one year brand A might have the best rose and a terrible lemon while brand C has excellent relationships with the Sandalwood market but no idea about rose.  To be honest this is the situation I see most often and is often why long-time trained aromatherapists can become a bit obsessive about testing lots of different brands and researching each and every detail.  It becomes an artform – olefactory art🙂

And to the ‘My Brand is better than your brand?’

So let me break this down into two things as a brand is more than the ‘formulation’ or the ‘wet stuff’.

Brand – pure essential oil.

No, I can’t buy this. Given everything I’ve said above and every situation I’ve ever come across I simply can’t buy that one brand has the absolute monopoly on quality and perfection.   It would be a different situation if the product was entirely man-made as systems could be perfectly controlled, the best staff brought in etc but here we are talking about nature, a natural product.  I can’t believe that one aromatherapy/ essential oil brand that is swimming in the same competitive sea as thousands of other brands across the globe can have hit the jackpot 100% of the time for every single oil they sell, every single time.  Highly unlikely.

Brand – Everything else excluding the actual pure essential oil.

Sure, I am willing to accept that there are some brands that are better than others at communicating the features and benefits of essential oils, better at creating blends, at the supply chain, the packaging, the distribution and pricing. Yes I can accept that.  But if that is true, if a brand really does stand head and shoulders above other brands in terms of marketing then surely they have enough to brag about with just that as while I can believe that there can be companies out there with outstanding branding to say that also includes their oil quality across the board would, for me be almost unbelievable.

To Conclude.

I’ve always found the saying ‘if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is’ helpful. This situation is no different.

I’ve also found myself to be naturally suspicious of any brand that uses the tactic of disrespecting other brands OR creating their own standard of excellence then claiming it is above anything anyone else has to sell product.  I can’t help but wonder why they put so much effort into doing that and wonder what they have to hide or what are they scared of?  That may be a cynical approach to business and life but I can assure you it has served me well so far.  But of course, you are free to make up your own minds x

If we can’t trust the RSPO who can we trust? Palm Oil Issues…..

November 14, 2016

The RSPO is the Round Table for Responsible Palm Oil and according to my friends at Palm Oil Investigators we can no longer trust them.

I have to say that while I’m disappointed I’m not surprised.

The RSPO was set up by the very businesses and chemical manufacturers who have a vested interest in the palm oil supply chain. Not that it makes them immediately untrustworthy, it doesn’t, but what it does make them is invested in it via their businesses and as businesses exist to make profit and that’s the problem.  Profit trumps everything, even the environment at the moment and that’s not least because our global accounting system has no provision to value trees unless they are chopped down and turned into ‘product’.  I read a great book on this called ‘Six Capitals, The Revolution Capitalism Has To Have’ by Jane Gleeson-White. It’s a good read and has helped me to put things like this into perspective – stops me just thinking of global multinationals as greedy and careless – maybe they just can’t help it…..


Palm oil could be and should be sustainably sourced.

We should not be sacrificing the forest for cheap oil that goes into cheap consumer goods including pretty much all of the fast food that we don’t need and isn’t good for us. I can’t talk, I love a biscuit with my tea every now and then and a bag of cheesy crisps to chomp down on during my commute home from work.  I’m part of the problem and no doubt you are too but I’m working on reducing my Palm footprint and also working to ensure I value what palm I do use such as the stuff that goes into my cosmetics.

The cosmetic industry relies heavily on palm, not just for the oil its self- we barely touch that in its neat state outside of soaping – but as emulsifiers, preservatives, solubilisers, emollients, thickeners, surfactants and humectants.   It’s hard to think of a cosmetic product that doesn’t require or couldn’t use a palm derived additive and that’s also part of the problem – our problem.

We use palm because it is a high yielding and relatively fast growing crop.  It requires little in the way of fertiliser or pesticide so is much less of a chemical burden crop than say Rapeseed oil which often replaces it (especially across Europe where there is now a bee problem thanks to the chemical use).  I had been worried that the only reason palm is so productive is that it is grown on such beautifully rich, virgin soil but a recent study I read looking into palm yields on secondary forest or existing farm land proved to me that I was barking up the wrong tree.

So, the long and short of it is that Palm is still the best crop for the cosmetic industry, we just need to learn how to value it more and how to have it exist alongside virgin rainforest.  A monoculture palm plantation just can’t sustain the biodiversity of the untouched forest and that SHOULD be valued.

With the RSPO’s trustworthiness being called into question we are all left wondering what to do next.

I spoke to Lorinda from Palm Oil Investigators – a friendly chat rather than an interview so I won’t quote her and came to the conclusion that we should not take this news as a battle cry to boycott palm but more that we should use it as an opportunity to push the market towards full traceability.

The on-the-ground mapping of the forest areas has long been a problem when it comes to tracing the crops back to the farm but that has now been addressed at least partially and it is starting to be very possible to pinpoint with great certainty where the palm is coming from, which farm etc throughout the supply chain. This means that no matter what people like the RSPO say it won’t matter because we will be able to see the journey of our palm for ourselves.

As great as all this is it will take time for cosmetic industry suppliers to fully cotton on to the gravity of what just happened with RSPO and to realign their supply chains towards this new, more transparent system.  I think we should support them on this journey and rather than tying everyone up in knots demanding answers to difficult questions now we should just write and show our support for them in investing in this.  The reason that many businesses didn’t go the whole hog of fully traceable palm before was because of business and profit – it cost too much more than the mass balance stuff.  Now there is a greater cost to not doing it – YOU WON’T BUY IT.

So let’s throw our support behind the industry and push them towards doing the right thing so that we can have the confidence in our products and rest in the knowledge that no virgin rainforest died to make our make-up.

That’s worth standing up for isn’t it?

Amanda x

Business musings – Be Patient With Yourself. Nothing in Nature Blooms all Year.

November 14, 2016

On 28th November 2016 it will be my youngest daughters 13th birthday and by businesses 9th.  Nine whole years of doing this.

9 years

3288 days


26,304 working hours

of doing this.

And of course I didn’t start here. Before this I did the same but for a company and I did that for ten years.

19 years of work in total.

Day after day.

Week after week.

Year after year.

And I’m only 42.

I have worked for 19 years and I’m only 42.

Another 19 years and I’ll be 61.

I might not even be half way yet.

I’m often tired.

Brain dead at times.

But never ‘over it’. Well, not yet at least.


I saw that Meme going around the internet this morning – ‘be patient with yourself, nothing in nature blooms all year’ and immediately thought of my work and how I need a break at times.I wonder if you do too?

When you own your own business, a business that you rely on to put food on the table, kids into school and a roof over your head that can all just seem like a nice, fluffy romantic gesture but one which you suspect will NEVER happen.


Tonight is Super-Moon Monday and I wonder if that is why this resonated with me so much. I also wonder if that’s why it is today that it has finally clicked that flow, time and tide should be respected….


Personally I have had my moments.  They have hit me like bricks each time – family issues, personal crisis of confidence and/or focus and/or health,  political issues, work/life balance issues,  customer issues and the list goes on.  Sometimes I can handle it, sometimes I need time away to process it. Sadly (and inevitably) every time I haven’t/ couldn’t/ wouldn’t face the music my finances have gone into free fall leaving me not only to pick up the pieces emotionally but also financially.  While none of these have so far been ultimate show-stoppers  each time has left me shaken and tired. The reality that the show must go on does seem to be at odds with our very human need for ebbs and flows in activity. We are not robots.


The reality that I am not able to just clock on, work on then clock off day after day has got me down at times, I can’t lie about that.  Some days I can’t get my head around it at all. Sometimes a family issue sends me spinning into another dimension, other times it can be a problem I just can’t solve.  I am disciplined enough to be able to plough on through most things but some things just can’t be ploughed through and some times I just don’t have the energy.

And then there’s  all my new ideas, my good ideas, my ‘let’s grow’ ideas. Ideas that excite and frustrate me  in equal measure as I inevitably I realise the logistical, physical and emotional investment that changing my business will take and the knock-on reduction in financial security that might come as a consequence.

I spent some of this year feeling trapped in my day-to-day. Not hating it but not enjoying the vibe and flow like I used to.  That trapped feeling was caused by the realisation that realistically life will go on pretty much like this (all other things being equal) for at least the next five years as my kids move through high school.  Five more years before I can do something brave, big and different?  Five more years before I can really step my business up a level?   That trapped feeling has somewhat past now and my flow has mainly returned. Returned?  No, it isn’t the same, it’s different like the flow of a river over time becomes different within the same river.  The flow is strangely stronger underneath now yet calmer on the surface as if I’ve taken that thrashing about and soul-searching and am using it to deepen my channels, to nourish them while bedding myself in while all the time looking like nothing has changed on the surface.

I realise now that I need to ebb and flow because I’m not a routine girl, that’s just me.  I have always found myself thriving when things get chaotic whereas I’m most likely to languish in safe and predictable environments.  As such I take my working life month by month, trying to cram lots of work into some days while leaving other days open to nothing much more than quiet reflection, bush walks, reading and recovery.  I’ve learned to let go of the guilt of all that.  Guilt will make it possible to switch off, to recover.

I’m fiercely protective over my time and am less likely than I used to be to schedule in meetings away from home or take impromptu phone calls.  I am aware of how this shapes my business and accept that as the pay off is a better working environment for me, better formulating outcomes and a happier yet smaller bunch of customers. Deeper relationships, just like my river analogy.

I try to schedule holidays as far out as I can so that I can do the work needed to make that time off possible before I go.  I’ve discovered that it isn’t so much about how long you take away from your business or whether you go anywhere but the head space that you go with.  My holiday might be only an afternoon but when I go I fully go – no phone, email, Facebook page, blog.

Also and importantly I’ve learned not to compare myself or my business with anyone or anything else.  As a small business owner my business is me and for it to work I need to understand and nurture me and for my business to understand and support me.  The ability to shape your business to suit you was an alien concept for me until about three years ago. I just thought you had to ‘be a business person’ and that’s that. I was wrong.

Most of all I’ve learned that while we often say that life is short when it comes to your working life and sustaining a viable and productive business it doesn’t feel short at all so trying to cram everything in like it is all going to end tomorrow is pointless and somewhat counter productive. Pace yourself Amanda, you’ve still got time.

For me my work is intricately woven into my life- a perfectly imperfect blend of business, family, personal growth and recovery – that balance is my success, what I’m most proud of, what I work towards.  Some days I rule the business world and everything is amazing, on other days like today I sit writing while feeling guilty for not being in the lab, terrible for not doing the washing up and tired because of the weight of the responsibility of it all. As I said guilt is bad but I still have it. I’m working on that.

So when I see Memes like that what I take away is the importance of building a business that allows space for flow, your flow. That I’m not weird for needing to work like this and that the world won’t fall apart if I take a few minutes out every now and then to re-centre myself and breathe.  So while it is true that running a business does require some discipline, structure and predictability it isn’t so rigid that it can’t be moulded around your own unique wants and needs.

Be brave and let the moon push and pull you into shape tonight.


Nice x







The Cellulite Allergy Link.

November 13, 2016

As a scientist I know that studying ones self does not a scientific trial make but that doesn’t stop us doing it does it?

I am lucky enough to have several allergies. When I say ‘lucky’ I mean that from a professional standpoint – personally it sucks and can be rather bothersome, snotty and itchy.

My professional luck centres around my personal experience of and empathy for those whose skin seems to rebel against them – to feel like bugs are crawling all over you, to swell up, to become red and blotchy, to be dry, flaky and porous.

But it’s not the surface of the skin that I’m focusing on today.

Today I’m looking at the skin from the inside out, starting with the gut.

As well as being allergic to things topically, I’m also sensitive to things internally. I try to keep to a low FODMAP diet although I did forget that today and yesterday as it’s Mango season and I just love mangoes.

FODMAPS are a bunch of sugars that some people find difficult to digest. I’m one of those people.   I keep the Monash ‘Low FODMAP diet’ ap on my phone as an easy reference guide to food but if I’m out and about a lot as I have been the last month my good ‘clean-for-me’ diet can go out of the window and I bloat up like a puffer fish, usually putting on a good 2Kg in extra water and rubbish to boot.  Very attractive….

FODMAPS are hard to avoid, not least if you are trying to eat less or no meat (I’m giving this a go now for the good of the environment).  There is Fructose in fruit and honey, Lactose in milk and milk products, Sorbitol and Mannitol in artificial sweeteners and some fruits, Fructans in wheat, rye, onion and garlic – YES ONION AND GARLIC!!!!!  Eat out and these are almost impossible to avoid😦 and Galacto-Oligosaccharides  in legumes.

Boo-fricking-hoo hoo.

Anyway this is not that interesting for anyone who isn’t me but hopefully what I say next is.

When I eat these foods not only do I bloat up but I also see a noticeable increase in Cellulite!

More importantly than that, when I eat well for a few weeks my cellulite practically disappears!

This interests me greatly.


As a cosmetic chemist I’ve taken a keen interest in the dermal microcirculation so that I might better understand how ingredients penetrate into the blood stream and also how toxins might spill out via this and through the skin.


The skin is the largest organ yes but we must not forget that the skin is an organ of EXCRETION.  It gets rid of all the little toxins that don’t go out down the lavatory.

I’ve researched to the limit of my medical knowledge a thing called the ‘histamine’ link. Being an allergic person I’ve had a lifetime of anti-histamine use so this chemical has been on first-name terms with me since I was very little.  I have always appreciated that histamine makes my nose run, eyes itch and skin red but didn’t, until the last year or so, realise that histamine also makes my dermal microcirculation leaky.

Leaky Dermal Microcirculation?  What could that mean?

Histamine production is triggered in the body when an allergen is present. For me that allergen may be external – pollen, cats etc – or internal – FODMAP ingestion.  When the allergen comes from outside I see the visible signs of the histamine with runny nose etc. When the allergen comes from inside I get more cellulite and feel swollen.


I know from reading that histamine does make the microcirculation leaky and as the microcirculation is transporting toxins so that they can be released through the skin I know that the microcirculation is likely to be containing all the things my body perceives as toxins.  If they leak before being excreted (sweated out) they will leak into my soft tissue, into the fatty layer under my dermis.   I am not saying that the toxins are what gives the cellulite its orange-peel appearance but what I am saying is that the flood of leaky fluid into the cells is triggered by histamine that is caused by this toxin overload.


I would love to have the time and money to look into this further but for now my hands are tied and I need to keep doing what I’m doing BUT what I can do is keep an eye out for more work in this field.

In terms of cellulite addressing skin care I think that this potential insight does lead me to want to address this in a different way.

Massage has always been the way that cellulite is addressed – massage the skin ‘releases’ toxins by increasing the dermal circulation by giving it a helping hand.

Drinking plenty of water has also been seen as a way of reducing cellulite – probably because that dilutes the toxin effect thus slowing down its build up in the hope that your body can deal with it before it gets deposited into the fatty layers.

But what about diet – about looking at individual food triggers?

Also what about we as the cosmetic industry look at what we can do topically to both stimulate the circulation and avoid adding to the histamine burden – low allergy skin care?

I think that things like this are very interesting and if nothing else at least I know that my cellulite will get back under control once the mango season has passed.

Amanda x

Who Picked Your Coconuts?

November 13, 2016

Who would have thought the question of ‘who picked the coconuts that make your coconut oil’ would come up as we discuss the pros and cons of using coconut oil in skincare?   It wasn’t something I saw coming even though researching the stories behind our cosmetic industry supply chain is what I do and yet here we are, looking into this very thing.


‘Who do you THINK picked our coconuts?’ Is my immediate response wondering if we are about to uncover another child labour or workplace safety issue? Coconut harvesting is dangerous business, these things grow on trees, tall trees, 25-32 metres high with relatively shallow roots that allow them to be blown clean out of the ground on blustery days.   We also know that coconuts are heavy and very solid, natures bowling balls suspended upon high just waiting for the right moment to come crashing down to earth and onto your head with a force equivalent of a one tonne weight after the height and speed of the fall have been factored in. Ouch!   Coconuts can kill but my customers are not worried about the number of people that might have died while harvesting this tasty drupe, no, they are asking me about monkeys.


I’m not sure how I feel about this to begin with, about how captive monkeys are trained to climb up trees and handpick the coconuts thus saving humans the job. Having not seen this with my own eyes I can only think this through theoretically and use what I can see online as evidence of what goes on in order to think this through and hopefully bring my conscience to a conclusion.

It goes without saying that monkeys climb trees better than humans, they have evolved that way whereas humans have evolved brains that enable them to think through all the millions of ways to avoid doing things that other people or animals can do for them. So in terms of monkeys actually undertaking this activity I can’t see a problem as such but doing it for a job? What is the morality of that?

Animals and humans have been working together since we lived in caves. If we take dogs as an example, relatives of our modern pooches lived in our caves with us as hunting companions and mutual ‘friends’. But we all know that humans can be cruel and sometimes use our power to restrict or control others, companion and working animals included. As such there is always that nagging question of whether the relationship between working animal and boss animal is equitable.

Many of us feel comfortable with the idea of animals working in the police force – sniffer dogs, guard dogs and police horses.   We have also heard of using pigs to sniff out truffles although few of us have probably experienced them. Cats may not know they are working but they do serve the purpose of chief rodent control officer on many a farm or dry goods store.   Elephants, camels, Reindeer and donkeys are used as transport; thousands of dogs are employed by the vision-impaired community and to help round up sheep and seals that are used to detect mine fields by the Royal Navy. In fact there are around 300 million working animals across the world, which is a heck of a lot of animals!

But there is employment and there is slavery and with animals one can never be too sure how the animal feels about all of this and whether, if given the choice they would continue on with their human-serving existence.

So where do monkeys fit into this?

As far as I can see monkey harvesting is mostly practised in Thailand and Malaysia. I’ve not been able to find evidence of it elsewhere although I’d be foolish to think that means it can’t possibly happen in other countries, especially given that coconut and monkey habitat is one in the same. For this reason I’ll focus on Thailand but with the mindset that this could happen anywhere. Keeping monkeys as pets and training monkeys to work in a farming environment are both culturally acceptable in Thailand with many farmers claiming to love and care for their furry friends. As it would be impossible for anyone to know if that is indeed true and it would be difficult to monitor if things remain as friendly one can either decide to take that at face value or not. In terms of the philosophical argument I think it is important to look more closely at the type of monkey involved in this in order to establish their mindset and suitability for this level of captivity.

How suited are Pig-tailed macaques to picking coconuts?

According to primate information net from the National Primate Research Centre, University of Wisconsin Pigtail macaque’s live off a mainly fruit diet (74% of their diet) and that includes coconuts. They live in large family groups of between 9 and 81 individuals and spend lots of their day on the forest floor foraging. They typically cover large areas each day and have home ranges between 1-8Km2 – that’d be the equivalent of us humans walking between 2000 and 10,000 steps per day.   As farmland has encroached on their forest these monkeys have become adept at stealing crops and are often the targets of farmers wrath especially given their love of raiding crops during rainstorms when farmers are not looking!   These monkeys have an average life span of 26 years and are about the size of your average one year old.

From this we can see that these are active and sociable monkeys with a taste for fruit although they might naturally spend more time on the floor than in the trees. In terms of animal welfare I’d want re-assurance that these monkeys were having these basic needs met and respected before we look into everything else.

Training the monkeys.

What is clear is that these monkeys require training, as they wouldn’t naturally keep scaling coconut trees hour after hour, selecting the right fruit then delivering it to someone else. Also they wouldn’t be ‘hunting’ alone. Much of the controversy over the monkey harvest starts with how these primates come to be trained and then the methods used to train. There are stories of monkey babies being ripped away from their mother then beaten into submission but there are also reports of Buddhist training schools that breed the monkeys and train them through positive re-enforcement. To me this sounds very much like the situation we get with any agendered human/domestic animal interaction. Exploitation on the one hand vs. careful and loving interaction on the other. The questions are, is the worst-case scenario avoidable and is the best-case scenario ethical?

Those are big questions and ones, which require a much closer relationship with the issue, an understanding of local laws, sentiments and workplace dynamics. We might feel it reasonable to treat the monkeys as you would treat any other worker, give them rights, rewards, rest and variety but that means nothing if human workers are not afforded those rights or frequently have them discarded. Suffice to say the situation is complicated and while it looks possible that these monkeys could enjoy a life as good as any other domesticated working animal we are no closer to knowing if that is probable and enforceable.

So what to do?

Well do we want to save ourselves or dig deeper into the problem?

1) Avoid the issue.

The easiest short-term solution is to ask all of our coconut oil suppliers if monkeys are used in the collection of coconuts and if they do dump them. Looking at the data sheets for our current coconut products information around how the nuts get from the tree to the processing plant is never given, the process flow diagram typically starts from the factory where the whole, felled coconuts are treated as step one. This says to me that the question of how the coconuts get off the tree is not widely asked yet so challenging that is a good first step.

However, moving (if necessary) to monkey-free plantations would not necessarily mean our coconuts come with a clean conscious. One thing I’ve learned through my research is that monkeys are attracted to the plantations and are often shot or trapped and killed if caught stealing. With no incentive to train them maybe they will be hunted into extinction or at least dramatically reduced populations. Also there is the issue of human working conditions. Humans employed to pick coconuts face many risks including falling out of the tree, being bitten by snakes that live in the trees waiting for bats to roost or having coconuts fall on their heads. ‘But humans have a choice’ you say. I ask ‘but do they?’

2) Engage with the issue.

The next possible course of action as a coconut product buyer is to get involved in understanding the situation a little better then putting our dollars in to supporting and encouraging ‘best practice’ – rewarding the great! The thing to keep in mind here is that this type of action is usually more long-term and does not necessarily mean we become a ‘monkey free’ or ‘happy monkey’ zone straight away. At this point we’ve still got to establish how big this money picking issue really is and if it even can be improved upon.

3) Minimise the issue.

As I mentioned in option one the suppliers that I have been working with don’t currently give us information on how the coconuts are harvested. I also know that the vast majority of these coconut supplies come from countries not known for being monkey hot spots. Doing nothing could be an option here but I feel that once the subject is out in the open minimising concerns do tend to come back and bite you!

Next steps.

I feel that by far the best thing that can be done at the moment  is embarking on option 2. If there is a problem with monkey labour and /or human labour and we know about it, we can at least make a conscious choice to affect it, hopefully in a positive way. As with all supply chain issues it is likely to be a while before I have a full set of data back from each of the many suppliers coming into this market.

So, what started as a rather odd and left-of-field question has ended up in a moral and ethical dilemma of mass proportions but I’m sure, with your help we can work together to make the world a better place.

For the love of coconuts and monkeys!

A Closer Look At Bicarb

November 13, 2016

Sodium Bicarbonate


Bicarbonate of Soda?

I’m not entirely sure (or sure it matters) but one thing I am sure of is that the moment you step foot in a natural cleaning or natural cosmetic making workshop you’ll be told all about how wonderful this is!

Bicarb is indeed a wonderful thing as I mentioned on my blog back in 2011 but this time I want to look at it from a different angle, a chemical angle.  I want to delve into how it comes into being. How do we ‘make’ bicarb and do we even make it at all?

So Bicarb.


It occurs naturally and can be made synthetically.

One way of making it is this:

  1. Heat Salt (Sodium Chloride) with Sulfuric Acid to make Sodium Sulfate and Hydrochloric Acid.
  2. Take the Sodium Sulfate and heat it with limestone to form soda ash (Sodium Carbonate).
  3. Take the Soda ash and dilute it into water to make a soda ash solution. Then add Carbon Dioxide to the soda ash solution and increase the pressure until the Bicarb crystals form.
  4. Centrifugal force is used to help separate the bicarb crystals from the liquid/ gas.


Another way of making it is the Solvay Process (the most common industrial process used)

  1. Pass CO2 (carbon Dioxide) and NH2 (Ammonia) through a concentrated solution of NAOH (sodium chloride or salt).  This produces Crude sodium bicarbonate as a precipitate.
  2. Heat the crude Sodium Bicarbonate to form soda ash then proceed to step 3 as above.

NB: Ammonia is found in nature but in small amounts, in most cases it is manufactured using the Haber-Bosch process, a process that converts the nitrogen in the air to ammonia (NH3) by hydrogenating it under high temperatures and pressure using a nickle catalyst.  The hydrogen usually comes from methane which is sourced from natural gas.

A third way of making it is to mine for it.

In nature we find the most cost-effective sources of bicarb in the mineral deposits of Nahcolite or Trona. By far the largest natural reserves of Nahcolite/ Trona mineral are in the USA with others found in the lava tunnels of Mt Vesuvius, Italy;  Around Naples, Italy; Across East Africa (ICI have a plant there), Anchara, Turkey and Mexico City plus a number of others around the world.

I’ve found out through writing this that the USA has enough natural mineral to be able to produce its bicarb naturally rather than using the Solvay process whereas Chinese Bicarb is almost entirely made using the Solvay process.

Nahcolite Mineral:NaHCO3


Trona Mineral:Na3(CO3)(HCO3)·2(H2O)



What about mineral waters?

Bicarbonate salts are also found occurring naturally in mineral waters. In Australia the Sydney-Gunnedah basin water is enriched with sodium bicarbonate with a high concentration between Gunnedah and Narrabri. The same is true for parts of the Murray – saline water.  Studies have been conducted into the viability of extracting the bicarb from this water source and found it, to date to be commercially unviable due to it being in an unconcentrated form.  It may well be ethically unwelcome too given the environmental impact this might involve.

So having discovered we can mine for it the next question for me is just how clean and green is Nahcolite / Trona mining (the two minerals can exist together or Nahcolite alone). 

There is a patent for the Nahcolite mining process here.

Basically it looks like you just pump hot water into the hole, increase the pressure and wait for the water to become saturated with the bicarb before removing it and washing and drying it.  In terms of mineral processing that’s about as clean as you can get I guess so the next question is where exactly is this happening and is it sustainable?

Piceance Creek Basin in Northwestern Colorado is where  some of the action is at.   Here are some images from Google:



I haven’t been to America let alone set foot in Colorado but from looking up the area online I can see that this really is oil shale country with Colorado producing around 5% of the USA’s natural gas production. On top of that the economy is also enriched by Uranium interests, farming and renewable energy production including a robust and rather large wind farm – Cedar Creek!

But that’s not all. There’s more action in Wyoming where Trona is the main Bicarb-rich mineral. The Wyoming Mining Company manage that has mined over 17 million tonnes and at current rates has reserves that will last another 2350 years!


A patented process of producing Bicarb from Trona can be found here. 

Obviously any mine site disturbs the natural environment but as far as mining goes I’d tentatively suggest this is a pretty clean process and one that is preferable to the synthetic, Solvay process which is definitely quite environmentally impacting.

So when we buy Sodium Bicarbonate how do we know whether it is naturally mined or Synthetically produced being as though that does appear to matter environmentally speaking?

Well I can’t speak for all bicarb manufacturers but this is what I do know from looking at the packets I’ve got in my kitchen and from what I’ve found on the internet.

  • Glitz Green brand of Cleaning Bi-Carb from Pascoe’s has got ‘made in china’ on the packet. Now whether the bicarb is Chinese or not can’t automatically be deduced but as this product is clearly pitching to the green market (easy green cleaning solutions) I’d want to be sure. The website does say ‘natural’ ingredients but as there is no legal definition of the word natural I’m not sure about that either.
  • McKenzies Bicarb  – 100% Australian Family Owned, Made in Australia, Aluminium Free.  Also says ‘made in Australia from imported and Australian Ingredients’.   This leads me to wonder ‘what is the imported ingredient?’ and ‘how many ingredients are in a box of bicarb?’.   On their website they do talk about mining and bicarb being natural but I’m not 100% confident in deducing that this bicarb is of mineral origin. The wording isn’t quite strong enough for me to draw that conclusion so I will ask them.
  • Arm and Hammer – naturally mined bicarb from the USA. 
  • Bob’s Red Mill Bicarbonate of Soda.  Mined mineral.  and aluminium free apparently….

Hang on.  Aluminium free?  When does Aluminium become an issue?

OK so this is a bit of a non issue for Sodium Bicarbonate because it should NEVER contain Aluminium. However baking powder is another issue and contains aluminium in the form of Sodium Aluminium Sulfate as part of the leavening agent.  Whether this is a problem or not (for those who are of the opinion that aluminium is always bad and adds to the risk of developing Auzheimer’s) is for another day but not for the day that we are looking at Bicarb processing.

So that my friends is that.

Mining from Trona or Nahcolite is natural and relatively low impact environmentally.

Manufacturing using the Solvay process is environmentally impactful and utilises petroleum derivatives as well as producing toxic by-products.