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My Cell, Mycelium, Mycelia. Mushrooms and our Microbiome.

October 13, 2020

Slimy, stinky, dirty, murky. Poison, potent, colourful, yuck.

What words come to your mind when you first think about adding mushrooms to your face cream?

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi and fungi is something that us cosmetic chemists spend a lot of time trying to avoid growing in the products we formulate. That said, we also spend a lot of time formulating with materials that fungi made possible. But we rarely add mushrooms to our products in the way we add say, powdered herbs…

I say rarely because mushrooms are added as feature ingredients to cosmetic products and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years – I’ll have to go back and research that sometime.

When I think of mushrooms and skincare in the same sentence I think of Dr Andrew Weil and the brand Origins. I’ve associated Andrew with mushroomy skincare for years but weirdly enough, considering my obsession with mushrooms and my love of skin care science I’ve never tried this cream or add mushrooms as extracts into my own formulations (I have added them to customers products at their request though, albeit only occasionally). Maybe this is because I secretly suspected Andrew was drawing a long bow with this one (as health gurus whose personally endorsed product ranges span lots of products have a tendency to do) or maybe because products with his name on have always been very expensive.

Before I talk about adding mushroom powders to cosmetics I want to talk a little more about the chemical factory that fungus is.

The mushrooms that we see in the forest, eat, dye clothing with, photograph and use as medicine are only around 1/10th of the whole fungi, the rest, its mycelium network most often lives underground. If we think of mushrooms as the fruits, mycelium are the rest of this thing we call fungi and mycelium and mushrooms are themselves made up of groups of cells called in arrangements we call hyphae.

Fungi ‘eat’ by moving themselves over a potential food source and then sinking into it, breaking it down and transforming it completely. Humans are often told ‘we are what we eat’ which, for me, is often a large bar of chocolate and a smattering of tuna or jam on a sandwich. But for fungi its more a case of the food, rather than the fungi changing and this, it turns out, is a thousand times more interesting!

Practically anything you can think of can be fungi food. They exist at nuclear waste dumps, in soil contaminated by other industrial waste chemicals, in salty sea water and in environments with super low oxygen levels. There is even a type of fungi that eats plastic. I find this exciting as given half the chance it is quite conceivable that fungi can wrap its self around all the bad things us humans have done and poop out metaphorical rainbows!

The fungal digestive process is a chemical factory that can do or give us products from three different pathways. Firstly the fungi its self can be a source of useful ingredients, secondly through its digestive processes it can unpick and untangle the tight threads of a substance that would usually persist forever and re-arrange these liberated chemicals into new materials or it can literally poop new and useful chemicals out as it feeds. Some examples of the results of these three processes include: Xanthan gum, Hyaluronic Acid, Beta Glucan, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Ceramides, Peptides, Carrageenan, Cyclodextrins, Rhamnolipids (surfactants), Preservatives (Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Coconut Ferment), Papaya Enzymes, Bifida Ferment, Alcohol, Carotene, Omega Fatty Acids, Superoxide Dismutase, Chitin and many more besides.

Whether we know it or not, us cosmetic chemists are accessing materials that fungi have made possible every time we formulate natural cosmetics so is it time to add the whole fruiting body into the pot too?

A case for the whole mushroom.

Looks like Mr Weil was onto a little something after all with his mushroom infused facials and that makes a lot of sense given we can now appreciate the rich and diverse chemistry that exists inside these fruits. But first this >

The Ick Factor.

Unlike most herbs we associate with cosmetics (calendula, rosehip, lavender, green tea, witch hazel), mushrooms don’t make the average person feel fresh, outdoorsy and clean. That’s a barrier that has to be overcome emotionally rather than logically and is why we may be better first dipping our toe in with our microbiome.

Our skin Microbiome is something we are becoming increasingly comfortable in considering, discussing and accomodating into our care regimen. Our microbiome includes fungi and fungi includes mushrooms so here we are again people, back at those old things again and here comes the ick but wait, before we submit to our deepest mushroom fears, its worth remembering that when we talk about ourselves as individuals, as humans, that’s not entirely true. We contain more non-human than human cells and at least part of that is fungi. Our skin barrier and immune health depends on this so we know that mushrooms can be the good guys sometimes…

Most of us have a little dark crevice of a brain cell within our minds that is set to equate mushrooms with bad things. So while most of us have never sprouted mushrooms from our ears or belly buttons (or know anyone else that has) I would not be surprised if many of us haven’t, at one time or another, been told they will grow if we don’t wash properly! Trench foot, athletes foot, ringworm, jock itch, thrush and nail fungus are embarrassing (sometimes smelly, always unsightly) infections that we may well have had a (however fleeting) personal relationship with and serve to confirm our suspicions that these things can do us harm.

Then we have the alternative side of the ‘shroom’. I’ve long stopped caring what people think of me after I open my mouth and words come out but often, when I talk about my passions in life, one being mushrooms, I spot the development of a sly and knowing smile, a ‘aha, I knew it’ look develop in the listener. But no, I don’t like mushrooms in a psychedelic way. My ‘weird’ fascination and demeanor are just natural and anyway, my brain cooks up enough weirdness without me adding to it with psilocybin. For some, this slight whiff of the illegal, unconventional, dangerous and devious is enough to have them keep mushrooms at arms length.

So will mushroom cosmetics make us high?

What I was going to write was ‘well, I very much doubt it’ but then I came across the one of the weirdest research papers I’ve ever read. This paper discusses a science experiment of sorts that attempts to measure the impact of a psychedelic substance on a subject who had the substance applied to their scrotum by the oral secretions of another. OK warned you, here it is.

Transdermal penetration is a thing and it may well be that wearable psychoactive patches, massage oils, creams and other things that could fit under the cosmetic banner however tenuously could well become a thing in the future. However, as it is very difficult for chemicals to penetrate the skin, I doubt that this could happen unintentionally meaning that the chemist creating the formula would need to carefully select for and formulate towards this as an outcome.

What about infections?

This is a more valid concern but again it is very unlikely that your cream or potion will grow the mushrooms that you put into it.

Any mushroom material used in cosmetics has to be appropriately processed and typically this renders it sterile. No longer able to breed, grow and colonise your creams and potions, the ingredient is now no different to any other carbon-rich matter you may put into your formula. If you buy mushroom powders, like any other powder they could introduce microbes into your product but this has more to do with their surface area than their mushroomness and is the case for any powdered extract or particulate, including clay.

Any other barriers to entry?

When I introduced the new mushroom powders that New Directions are stocking to the sales team some of the fears resided around how these might colour and fragrance the creams and serums we sell ‘won’t they end up all brown and stinky’ was a common thought. While it is true that most mushroom powders are somewhat tan to brown in colour, their typical use levels are not so high that this can’t easily be accommodated to create a natural looking off-white to cream emulsion. In terms of the smell, this can be an issue but one that is common across a number of popular natural actives: Rosehip, Evening Primrose or Hemp Seed Oil, Seaweed Extracts, Spirulina, Apple Cider Vinegar, Dead Sea Mud and even Tea Tree Oil. Each mushroom species has its own aromatic footprint and this in turn differs between the fresh and dried ingredient and then again after re-hydration. Generally speaking while some mushroom notes will be present in your cosmetic product, when you work within recommended dose guidelines, this background aroma should be something you can work around.

Mushroom Magic – what will they do for me?

As you’ve quite possibly had enough mushroom talk to last you all day I’ve put this last bit into a handy presentation. These are the four skin-compatible mushroom extracts available currently at New Directions Australia. Do make sure you check with whatever supplier you purchase from how the extracts they make or sell are prepared and how strong / concentrated they are as this can vary. Generally most mushroom powdered extracts are placed into your water phase either prior to or post emulsification (if you are making a cream). Most mushroom chemistry is relatively heat tolerant.

I’m going to do a bit more experimenting myself but am particularly interested in the work that’s going on around mushrooms and heavy metal chelation and environmental remediation.

A bottle of intrigue – John Strange Winter Hair Food.

September 9, 2020

Usually when I find old chemistry and product bottles I dream about what would have gone on inside the bottle, the formula, the grand claims, the chemistry.  However, this bottle was different, this bottle was strange…

Mrs Arthur Stannard ne Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Palmer of 25 Charleville Road, West Kensington, London went by the pseudonym of John Strange Winters, or at least she did sometimes. Her life spanned a time when educated women were to be quiet on most things and as such, should one want to make noise, one better do it in somebody else’s skin. She lived from 1856-1911.

This particular name appeared first in a book called ‘Cavalry Life Or – Sketches And Stories In Barracks And Out – In Two Volumes – Vol. I in 1881 when Henrietta was 25, following which she used this name frequently in her business and publishing activities. For a young woman in London society to be writing about battle field life would have caused quite a stir at that time. The suffragette movement was about twenty years off reaching its full potential and men were very much the authority on everything. However, this didn’t seem to deter Hentietta who, I can only suppose, either loved pushing boundaries and causing a stir or was too busy working to pay attention to what she SHOULD have been doing…

Henrietta is listed as a feminist, author and journalist. She was the first president of the Writers’ Club (1892), and president of the Society of Women
Journalists (1901-3). Her books were very popular with one, Bootles Baby selling over two million copies! With that kind of exposure and publications under her control, the world was her oyster and John Strange Winter / Henrietta set out to take over the world!

When it comes to the hair balm it appears that she may have been working with a contract manufacturer to handle this. I don’t know for sure but it seems unlikely that such a proficient writer (and one with four children of her own) would have time to cook up, bottle and distribute cosmetic products on her own.

This advert below which, in keeping with her ‘Strangeness’ featured a cat drawn by fellow Londoner artist Louis Wain (who also has an interesting story), mentions the chemists Burgoyne, Burbidges & Co of London.

This company is still in business today in India but during that time was a wholesaler, exporter and producer of many pharmaceutical preparations and patented medicines so maybe the strange hair food was one of them!

http://www.angelfire.com/pr/perfinsoc/articals/2010_02/burgoyne.pdf

In terms of tall tales and fanciful claims the cat-advert above seems playful and innocent enough, especially given that during this time people were selling all kinds of weird stuff. However, we should not be thinking of Henrietta as a straight-laced advertising prude. Nope, the more I looked into her, the more I started to think of her as the late 1800’s and early 1900’s answer to the Kardashians albeit with a better developed grasp of the English language! She inserted herself into books, magazines and cigarette packets proving to everyone that in business, a women’s place is IN YOUR FACE wherever that might be!

Now I’ve only got the one antique bottle from this collection and it dates to roughly 1903-1910 but her brand didn’t stop there. I found this advertorial which talks about her Temple Cream in pretty out-there fanciful ways! It must have been quite common to have hair and scalp issues back then as hair tonics, creams and lotions to prevent balding were quite the buzz! I guess someone like Henrietta with her head full of brown curls would have been rude not to capitalise on her doubly blessed life (creative writing and natural hairiness).

In the extract below I love how here she’s fiercely defending the fact that she makes these at her own home. I do doubt the truth of that but admire her for trying to be a woman who has and does it all!

The above is an advert in a publication called ‘Truth‘ which has its own interesting back story too. It is through this that we find out the social and personal circles of Henrietta include Henry Labouchere (1831-1912), a homophobic writer, politician, theatre owner and publisher responsible for the UK’s laws that resulted in homosexual acts being a crime. Not content with just homophobia, Henry was also an anti-semite and hated the idea of feminism with a passion, so much so that he would ridicule the Suffragettes in his papers. The fact that Henrietta was allowed to publish her advertorials in his magazine meant either he loved money more than his principals or he was a complete hypocrite. Maybe though Henrietta was just very good at playing people to get what she wanted! Henry was friends with another author and news publisher George Augustus Salsa who happened to be married to Henrietta’s sister in law. Both Henry and George were foreign correspondents of the day and as such, crossed paths a lot and to this day, their partnership is known in the trial of Richard Pigott – another interesting back story. Granted much of this information seems neither here nor there for a cosmetic chemist but I do like to place a broader social context around the products we buy and the people who convince us to buy them. After all, these people end up getting into and onto our skin thanks to the products they make and on that note we move to the last piece of this puzzle for now.

It seems that our dear Henrietta was quite the viral marketing expert and was fishing for contact details with every opportunity! Here’s a postcard that is either totally fake or proves that this lady really did go all out to build her empire and become famous!

So did she make it? Did Henrietta build a vast fortune and become one of the leading lights in cosmetic entrepreneurism? Yes and no I guess. As far as writing goes and the role she played in progressing women’s representation in literature I would say she was a success on many counts. However, given that she lived out her life during the time in which women were fighting for and winning the right to vote across different countries of the world AND she had such a visible and powerful platform at her disposal she didn’t use it. She publicly stated that she wasn’t supportive of the womens sufferage movement and had ‘got everything she needed without it’ and in doing so possibly displayed both her privilege and her ego-driven ambition. As for cosmetics well I’m not sure how much of those she sold during her lifetime or how much of her home was overrun by bottles and boxes but she was pretty penniless when she died so maybe she did just lend her name to things, maybe her business acumen wasn’t as good as her skills in self-promotion or maybe she had all the fun and freedom she wanted and didn’t really care much beyond that.

Whatever really went on inside Henrietta’s mind and business during her life, her alter ego, John Strange Winters, persisted way after her death immortalised in bottles of hair food, Lakshmi Face Cream, non-oily hair food and toilet preparations and no, I’ve still no idea what actually was in this bottle but when I do find out I’ll tell you.

Chemists, Con Men and Conspicuous Claims

September 9, 2020

A gentle meandering through cosmetic science’s history books brings up some inconvenient truths about my professional peers of yesteryear. I feel it’s fair to say that some of these early chemists were full-on shysters (disreputable, unethical, unscrupulous), peddling cures and potions that ranged from outright dangerous to straight-out morally wrong. MY people (and yes, I feel obliged to ‘own’ them as part of my story) exploited Indigenous medical knowledge (biopiracy), said that your black skin could be ‘remedied’ with diligent scrubbing, that your thinness was unbecoming of a woman and your fatness slovenly. Oh and let’s not forget those who let their grey hair and wrinkles show. You, my dears have you let the side down and let yourself go. Damn those emotionally dead shit heads for the role they played in cementing our feet in self-loathing and enslaving us in this prison-of-the-self. Damn me for making my money in an industry that continues to do this.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-poisonous-beauty-advice-columns-of-victorian-england

In the west and countries into which westerners sought influence during the 17th and early 20th century (yes, not that long ago) something weird was going on. Chemists (aka Pharmacists/ Cosmeticians) and medical doctors competed with one another for patients, especially around daily gripes such as issues of the skin, digestion and lungs (?). During this time medically trained doctors were often too expensive or simply unavailable to the average person. There was no over-arching and legally regulated health care or pharmacy system and as such potions, ointments, creams and balms were largely unregulated, a situation that may sound attractive and freeing to some but also provided an opportunity for exploitation and quackery. This competition for hearts, minds and bodies spawned a whole industry based on ‘nostrums’ or patented medicines, goods that have now largely been replaced by OTC medicines, cosmetics and herbal preparations (loosely speaking). As you might expect during such a ‘wild west’ period, not all of these ‘cures’ were helpful and some were downright outrageous!

I love reading history and have a brain who’s joy is sparked Marie Kondo style when investigating both the origin of our ideas about ourselves and their rate-determining-step (how quickly they evolve and change). Now I can understand the desperation that comes with feeling physically ill or dis-harmonious and given the times, can see how easy it would be to fall for the slick advertising of yesteryear and slip some snake oil into my handbag – what other choices did most people have? That side, the truly medical side did start to get cleaned up pretty early in the 1900’s but the more cosmetic side of this story remained as outlaws for much, much longer, some might even say that it’s still the used car salesman of the science world today.

So, if I’m honest, the reason I enjoy doing this historical digging so much is because I just can’t understand why anyone would buy into a marketing scheme that insinuated the way their bodies present was somehow un-whole, in need of ‘fixing’, unworthy, unequal or unlovable. For me, cosmetics and personal care is an art space- an ‘icing-on-the-cake’ type of affair, a practice that facilitates and prioritises self-care and respect, something that restores and supports balance rather than fixes or erases reality. Why layer that over with somebody else’s crap?

When I say ‘I can’t understand’ I want to emphasise the word ‘can’t’ as a defiance rather than an intellectual or attitudinal deficit.

Oppositionality = The refusal to conform to the ordinary requirements of authority and a willful contrariness.

I want to stress that this is less about anarchism of society and more absolute freedom of self – a strength rather than deficit mindset. So, with that in mind I read history knowing that coded within these pages just as within ourselves, lies the key with which to break this lock.

In the meantime why not pop yourself over to the website of Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor who has been studying this subject for many more years than me and who has uncovered some corkers including this below:

http://thequackdoctor.com/index.php/eat-eat-eat-those-notorious-tapeworm-diet-pills/

White Girl Medicine – The Anglo-Saxon/ Celtic Leech Woman.

September 2, 2020

Step 1: Know who you are and call yourself your proper name.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I don’t come from around here. Where I come from is way over there, up in the Northern Hemisphere where Cod swim through icy waters, moss and blue bells cover forest floors and you are faced with choices like whether to go with the itchy-but-warm wooly socks or no socks but suffer chill blain prickled feet later.

Yes I’m a cold-climate earthling whose blood has a tendency to run thick and slow thanks to my genetic propensity towards inflammatory disease as coded into my DNA (83% English/ NW European). But it’s not that I like or don’t feel the cold as such, I have terrible circulation (or internal central heating as I like to call it) for someone who is supposed to be designed for THAT type of weather. However, I’m accustomed or habituated to it, even after 16 years in Australia. I can cope, feel at home, enjoy the snugglyness of a colder day. My bones grew strong and thick in spite of it I guess and where my circulation failed to get an A grade, the stout frame that I got from my grandma more than made up for it.

And then there’s my skin. My skin is what you’d call white but it isn’t a pink white, not like the white of those who came to the north many generations before me. Those, the Celts only are only 17% of me. Their skin, their white skin is the type that goes almost Blue in the cold – a Blue not quite as deep as the Woad they traditionally used to paint themselves up for ceremony, but one that becomes almost transparent in the cold. A thin skin? Maybe but thin and strong – these people lacked no life force! Theirs is a skin that pulses with a visible vitality, offering only a very slight obscuring of the veins below. I carry this skin only as a hint but my skin is not white like that, my white skin is yellow. My skin still remembers how to turn brown (or at least mildly orange or Golden if you are being nice about it) when the sun shines for long enough, but when it doesn’t shine it turns sallow and if it shines too much it turns red.

This skin, my skin appears thick, strong and clean. It obscure most signs of pulsing life while young, presenting us with an opportunity -a blank canvas on which to write our own narrative. But skin is dynamic and that ‘perfect’ skin doesn’t last. This skin, our skin, softens and sags under its own weight as it ages and it ages fast. It crinkles and folds our stories into layers and we carry those layers, the ones we curated and controlled during our yesterdays, on the outside, reminding us of our fragility and encouraging us to dive into our depths.

My hair joins this narrative with its golden-cum-mousy flecks that are now turning grey. This is Anglo hair – a contradiction, being both thin or fine and thick or plentiful at the same time. It still remembers how to curl and does so in knots on a bad day, ringlets, bounce or body on good. My hair is always preparing a water-proof layer in case of rain storms which is less useful now the keeper of this hair bathes daily (Anglo Saxons were’t big on bathing unless it was for medicinal use) and instead leaves me looking quite the greasy biker! Lastly it remembers its value as a potential scarf or blanket, defying me and my dislike of trips to the hairdresser by growing fast and long, long enough for plaits which it can easily be woven into on account of the central highway shaped parting that my hair respects as it grows.

My body shape, my skin, my hair tell me what my DNA results and family history already confirmed, that I am a mix of Anglo Saxon and Celtic blood. I was right when, aged 8, I felt I was really a fairy and that I should be living in the forests…


Step 2: Know your playing field.

During my time working as a cosmetic chemist, teacher and researcher I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent researching and re-creating products and services based on the practices of ‘others’.

An aside: using the term ‘others’ to refer to people outside of your ‘in’ group is not the best phrasing but in this case, a personal reflection it seemed apt as one is something, even if that ends up being many ‘somethings’ it logically follows that one is also ‘not’ things as well…

One such ‘other’ project centres around Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Medicinal Plants, especially their potential for use in cosmetics. I love doing this work (Australia is my home by choice) and it’s something I do very often both with and without the direct input of Aboriginal people. However, it’s not something I feel in my bones, it’s something I feel through my bones. What I mean is that I approach and learn about this history and present through eyes that are rooted in an Anglo Saxon/ Celtic tradition. When I read about Australian magic, Dreamtime stories and the Spirit world I’m experiencing it through my ‘woodland fairy’ lens. When it comes to finding patterns in how plants were or are used or digging deeper into different ways to use plants in new formulations I’m using my ‘hands on the land, gotta learn from this and survive’ instincts.

I guess that sounds obvious and is not exactly groundbreaking – anyone who has ever been through therapy would know that we are a product of our histories and that we have inbuilt preferences and bias, likes and dislikes but what I’m suggesting is something a bit deeper than that, something that doesn’t really ‘fit’ the ‘underneath it all we’re all the same’ narrative. I don’t think we are all the same underneath it all actually and further, I think that’s why we’re all so awesome and interesting.

Outside of that example I’ve dived into other realms of research too such as Organic farming, Vegan friendly, Palm free, Chinese medicine-inspired, Ayurvedic tradition, Honey and bee products, African oils and grown ingredients, Mediterranean inspired, Hemp based, Punk rock inspired, Middle Eastern, French Aristocratic, White Witch Inspired and Old English Country Garden but not ever THIS.

Illustration for the Dandelion Fairy from Flower Fairies of the Spring. A boy fairy sits beside a dandelion flower. 300.1.7 FF Spring 7 1923

Anglo Saxon/ Celtic cosmetics anyone?

Cosmetic brands inspired by English flora and folk exist or at least have existed over the years. Generations of us English people have experienced Yardley, Crabtree and Evelyn, Moulton Brown and Penhaligons Perfumery. Then there are the traditional herbalists which promote English botanicals – Baldwins and Culpepers Herbal shop – the latter seems to have changed its business structure more recently but when I lived in the UK and was working as a cosmetic ingredient sales representative I’d visit them sometimes. Modern brands that still thrives from promoting some aspect of Englishness include Rimmel with it’s “London Look” and Jo Malone with her inspiring scents-of-England fragrance ranges (although she doesn’t just stick to English stuff). Then, inspired by a financial crash followed by the experience of living with BREXIT hanging over ye olde English people’s heads we have the return to Post War Pride with the brand Soap and Glory

Two things that ‘googling’ brands steeped in Englishness highlighted for me:

  1. The ‘English = Western’ thing.

I noticed when scrolling that Indigenous English herbs are mostly categorised as ‘Western’. This makes sense when you pan out and see that there are then ‘Chinese’ and ‘Ayurvedic’ herbs for sale but makes less sense when you think about what that term means. Now without going down a ‘call things by their proper name’ rabbit hole it may be worth remembering that ‘Western’ is a politically loaded word:

Western is used to describe things, people, ideas, or ways of life that come from or are associated with the United States, Canada, and the countries of Western, Northern, and Southern Europe.

I feel weird about seeing this. I’ve been travelling happily down a path that feels like it’s opening up to me then BANG, I’m hit by a catch-all phrase which feels heavy and reductive. I make a mental note to explore this further but later.

2. That a products Englishness can be sold as an attitude, a historical time-point, a lineage or a botany.

This is no doubt the case for any product, that it can market its self based on one or another aspect of its origin but I am noticing the power of that more strongly with the English products because I know this subject best. I’m also noticing the privilege that exists in this example and the pitfalls that privilege brings with it.

England takes up a lot of space in word history and as a consequence lots of people know her stories – World Wars, Royal Families, Edgy London Fashion and the fact that this is a ‘green and pleasant land’. It’s easy for a brand to come across as very English while doing very little – we, the audience have enough education to fill in the gaps for you – you can’t really say that about every country or even every region and still expect to pick up a global following. This up-side quickly turns to a down-side when you realise that the stories we tell over and over again are basic and behind those stories sit quiet folk-based histories and nuances that are being lost. Again, lots to think about.

https://flowerfairies.com/the-dandelion-fairy/

Step 3: Know your ancestors, grow your roots.

Behind the big history, the pomp and ceremony, the noted dates and places, the attitudes and chaos sits the everything…

When I refer to myself as Anglo Saxon I’m referring to the ancestors of mine that most likely moved into Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire as part of two peoples- the Angles and the Saxons. These people came from what is now Germany, possibly via Denmark and then across to the English Midlands (where I’m from). They came at the same time as the Jutes and Frisians. The Celts came much earlier, between 750-12BC and so were already there when these other folk arrived! In addition to the above were the Picts (Scotland) and the Britons (still under Roman influence) and together they did a good job of arguing amongst themselves until the Vikings joined in (between roughly 800-1150CE). While still under attack from Viking raids England also got taken over by the Normans, signalling the end of this period of history and the start of modern Britain.

Bald and his Leechbook.

During this historical period a chap called Mr Bald set about collecting recipes and charms (spells) from the good folk of England and writing them down. His book – Bald’s Leechbook – translates to ‘physicians book’ – Leech being a derivative of Laece which in turn is a derivative of Laki – Physician. This compilation is dated at around 900 CE and gives us great insight into how the people of England looked after themselves and kept well.

The Angles, Saxons and Celts came to Britain holding mainly pagan religious beliefs but these were gradually overlaid with Christianity due to the powerful role the Christian church played across the nation- it being at the centre of Royal life. This combination of what would become an organised state religion, affecting taxes, business, language and civic life blended with at least 6 different local traditions and languages and interrupted by frequent wars from both inside and outside your home lands would have been quite something to experience!

Medicine and self-care for the common folk was rooted in nature and applied with more than a little dash of mysticism and ritual. Bald’s book uncovers this in great detail and makes for fascinating reading now that it has been translated into modern English. I mentioned Chill blains in my opening and these, it seems, could be remedied by applying a honey balm infused with meadowsweet, cuckoo flower and oak bark! Now that sounds like a rather pleasant and somewhat logical way to treat cold and itchy feet but that can’t be said of all the recipes. Animal bile was often used as an emulsifier and it wasn’t uncommon for recipes to call for pigeon blood, bears grease, weevils, faeces, spittle, snails or urine! Then there’s the magic part, some herbal tinctures were to be taken only after singing out a spell or performing a ritual, it’s all quite fun to sit an imagine now but at the time I’m sure it felt like quite a mental burden to get all of these aspects perfectly right in order to avoid your own demise!

Deeper into the forest we go…

There’s more to being a white girl than just being western and there’s more fun to be had examining Anglo Saxon and Celtic medicine than what I’ve shared here.

Illustration for the Shephard’s Purse Fairy for Flower Fairies of the Winter. A girl fairy stands, slightly turned to the left, holding a frond of shepherd’s purse. 300.4.7 FF Winter 7 1923

Hopefully wherever you are from, wherever you are now, you’ve had your appetite sufficiently whetted to stay with this journey. Next we’ll go deeper into the ingredients cupboard of the Anglo Saxon medicine woman as we attempt to re-thread the relationships between plants, place and people.

Is it really true that Hyaluronic Acid holds 1000 times its weight in water?

August 16, 2020

It’s funny, you see something repeated often enough that you start to accept it as true, without question. Maybe it’s because life gets busy, maybe it’s because it doesn’t really seem that important anyway or maybe it’s because you really believe it to be true. But then, one day something changes and all of a sudden that well known truth falls short of the pub test. Let’s look at that…

Hyaluronic Acid is definitely a water binder. It occurs naturally throughout our bodies including our skin (dermis and epidermis – mostly in the epidermis). In the skin it makes up part of our extracellular matrix and functions as part of our water management system. Here it helps keep cells hydrated so that they can talk to each other, stay plump and ensure the barrier stays sealed.

Chemically Hyaluronic Acid is made from a type of sugar, in this case a disaccharide.

Disaccharides are sugars that can be broken down further into monosaccharides a common example of which is Sucrose. Sucrose is made from glucose and fructose bound together by a sugar bond (glycosidic link).

Hyaluronic acid isn’t made from sucrose, instead it is made from D-glucoronic Acid and N-Acetyl-D-glucosamine.

Humans make D-glucoronic Acid in our livers and use it to help our bodies remove toxins. Chemically this is a glucose-type sugar with a twist. Instead of the last carbon being CH2OH it is COOH thus turning it from an alcohol group to an acid and changing its functionality. I put this in just to give you a bit of context and possibly an idea of where future water may bond (or stick) to when we get to that bit).

N-Acetyl-D-glucosamine is a bit more fancy. This is also built from a glucose structure but this time it has turned into an amide (as in amino acids, proteins etc). This molecule is commonly found as a structural brick in the cells of many things including fungi, insects, bacteria and crustaceans. For those who have heard that much of the Hyaluronic Acid we use in cosmetics is made by microbes you may now have a bit more of an insight into how that can be so given that they already have access to these bricks.

So when those two exciting monosaccharides join together they make a disaccharide. When these disaccharides find other identical disaccharides they can use their functional groups (hands) to hold onto each other thus forming chains. These chains can be very long, very short or somewhere in-between and it is now we call this combo ‘Hyaluronic Acid’. We typically express the weight of Hyaluronic Acid polymers in a unit called the Dalton which for the purposes of cosmetic science is taken to be equivalent to another unit of measure chemists use (g/mol) so 1Da (dalton) = 1 g/mol.

Being as though we are now going to talk about water binding capacity it may be useful to know that water has a weight of 18 Da while the Sodium Salt of a Hyaluronic acid disaccharides weighs 401.30 Da. However, when you make a polymer from the above you lose the Na+ (Sodium ion) and it is replaced by a hydrogen. This makes the weight of each disaccharide 391 Da although I really don’t think it is vitally important to get this exact in this case as cosmetic HA polymers are so variable in their weigh anyway – any figure we come to will only ever be approximate.

Holding Water.

It turns out that when you look and really think about it, talking about Hyaluronic Acid being able to ‘hold’ x amount of water isn’t a clear cut as it seems even with respect to the word ‘hold’.

As a chemist the first thought I had of how to confirm or deny this internet ‘truth’ was to work out how many water-bonding sites (hydrogen bonds) exist in hyaluronic acid. My theory being that if you know how many water molecules a hyaluronic acid disaccharide unit can hold (as a maximum), and you know (roughly, as an average) the HA’s molecular weight, you could get a number that gives you an approximate Water: HA ratio. If that turned out to be 1000:1 we have a winner – the internet is right! So I set out to do that.

Looking at the disaccharide I could see an easy 10 bonding sites in each monomer. This paper, which looks legit and has probably spent more time thinking about this than me confirmed that there are between 10-15 sites for water to attach to – happy to accept that range.

We now have all the information we need to do some calculations.

In finding this out I have my first answer to my water holding question. If water holding = water bonding (hydrogen bonding) then each disaccharide unit of the HA polymer (we also call these individual units Monomers) can hold up to 15 water molecules. or 15:1.

If I know the molecular weight of the HA that I’m planning to use I can work out how many monomers that contains (as an estimate as the MW of polymers used in cosmetics is typically an estimate). So if my HA was 1,000,000 Da it would contain approx:

1,000,000 (total weight of HA) / 391 (monomer / Disaccharide weight) = 2557 disaccharide units per polymer chain.

Each unit holds (H Bonds) with up to 15 water molecules so:

2557 x 15 = 38,363 water molecules attached to this polymer.

We also know that each water weighs 18 Da so now:

38,363 x 18 = 690,537 Da water weight in total for the water attached to that polymer chain.

So what do we end up with?

After doing that I can see that for every 1 x 1,000,000 Dalton weight of HA polymer it can hold (Hydrogen Bond with) 690,537 Dalton weight of water.

That is not 1000 x its weight, that’s not even equivalent to its weight. In fact, that’s less than 70% of its weight in water. How odd!

What is going on?

A couple of things spring to mind, firstly it’s more likely that I’m interpreting the word ‘hold’ differently to that which is quoted online. Secondly I could have got my calculations wrong – but is it likely they are so far out given the fairly logical way I’ve tried to approach this (I feel?). Thirdly, the internet is full of shit so why should this be any different!

Being the eternal optimist I am going with one, also that’s more interesting a thing to think about.

Holding – a different definition.

I started to consider that holding could easily mean something else here. I know from my general chemistry that water molecules can each hold onto another four water molecules without any other chemicals around to incentivise them so it quickly became imaginable to me that what the Hyaluronic Acid is doing is providing a starting point framework from which hundreds if not thousands of water molecules can be anchored. Then I realised that HA is not necessarily existing in neat regimented lines that behave independent of each other, that they flow, create three dimensional structures, latices, meshes, networks and maybe even water traps. Before I knew it it seemed not only possible but logical that HA could be a mega water binder, a binder that far exceeded its structural hydrogen bonding confines – after all, HA is not making a bucket that has a known volume, it’s more like a fishing net, something that has the opportunity to expand and hold water in a whole range of ways.

But where is the evidence?

I found this paper which confirms HA as a structure maker – one that is influenced by both pH and concentration. This to me is interesting and it is this detail that can help us cosmetic chemists make the most out of the HA that we formulate with. In simple terms the paper points out that we should always think of HA in an applied sense, considering and allowing for how it interacts with the environment in which we put it. In cosmetic science this would mean that I can’t expect the same from my HA serum formulated at 0.5% activity and pH 3 as you can your cream that has 0.1% HA and a pH of 5. The HA will structure its self and bind water differently in each situation. This is deeply interesting, this is the detail that we chemists strive to master and we haven’t even mentioned the potential for molecular weight to play a part yet (and that’s seemingly ALL the internet focuses on).

I found a few other papers too including this very old one that talks of HA as an adhesive or water-glue. Then this one which talks of its ability to deliver drugs through the skin- something I often talk about in my classes. It’s clear we’ve had an intellectual relationship with HA for a long time but have we really imagined it as well as we might have? Have we instead just reduced it to something basic and in doing so forgotten to look for its beauty and nuance?

But hang on, we still need to know where these numbers came from. Any ideas?

So the last thing I want to share in this post is this. During my reading (which took in a few more papers that those listed above) I found many references to another ‘fact’, that 1g of HA can hold up to 6 litres of water. This was something I did manage to trace back and I found it in a paper that has been cited over 750 times since:

Novel and established applications of microbial polysaccharides by Ian W Sutherland published in 1998.

You have to pay to read this paper and you can do that by following this link and then going to the publishers page (I did this, cost me $36 I think). To give you an idea of his research one free paper he wrote in 2001 is available here.

Now Ian doesn’t give a reference in this paper as to where that figure comes from but he does give a lot of other interesting references in this and other papers he’s written, is an expert in cell biology and has spent a considerable amount of time studying biopolymers such as these. Then there is his book on the subject (which I am yet to read). In spite of the fact that I’m convinced Ian knows what he’s talking about I still find it odd (to say the least) that he didn’t elaborate on this figure in this much-quoted paper. I’m also weirded out a bit by the fact that hundreds of other people have just quoted this paper without (from what I’ve read and I haven’t read them all) explaining where this figure came from), this has even been observed in patents.

I feel inclined towards the idea that HA could indeed hold 1000 times its weight in water or even more but I would prefer this to be stated as an idea rather than a truth until I either find some more evidence or create some myself. In any case, believing it as an idea makes more sense given that HA is not one thing, it’s a family of things (things being cosmetic ingredients) that could all subtly differ in their water-binding capacity. Further I’m less concerned about the actual number now, it seems far less important somehow.

My conclusion so far is that this is less likely a case of internet exaggeration and more likely one of over-simplification. We seem so often to be encouraged to turn our attention and focus onto simple, measurable and singular somethings rather than creating ourselves space for pondering the details of the everything.

Just one more thing…

On my troll around the internet I did find one person who’d taken up the challenge of trying to investigate whether this 1000 x weight thing was true by focusing on what happens to the HA when you add water to it. This person concluded that if HA can bind 1000 x its weight in water it would mean that 1g of it would turn 1 litre of water into a gel (or a more gel-like substance than just watery water). That didn’t happen of course and that lead to the conclusion that the internet and cosmetic brands are lying. I admire this person for trying and feel the experiment had merit but it is important to note that while a polymers molecular weight has been found to correlate positively with its water holding capacity, we now appreciate that water holding and water gelling are not one in the same. To measure how HA influences water requires spectroscopy rather than our eyes – with chemistry there’s always more than what we see.

And with that I’ll say goodbye for now.

I

How annoying it is to be a cosmetic industry professional these days.

June 28, 2020

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and turn your phone on for a social media browse? I sometimes do and this week one particular middle-of-night episode left me feeling really pissed off with life, the universe and everything. Damn I wish I had chosen a career that you can’t just learn at home from your own research and become an expert at something just because you wanted that for yourself…

What happened was that I scrolled down and found a story on Facebook from a page that I follow. The story looked interesting enough that I started to read it. See that was the mistake – reading. I do it all the time, I read this and that and then I go off and read more and challenge my ideas and then re-orientate myself before trying to get to the bottom of whatever. Anyway, this reading confirmed what I’d been suspecting over time, that yet another resource that I’d enjoyed and had thought quite scientific and thorough was not doing their due diligence and was promoting laypeople as experts and, therefore signalling to the world that these two things are equivalent.

Laypeople and experts are not equivalent.

Just like your doctor and Google are not equivalent.

Or your Michelin Chef and your good home-baker are not equivalent.

Fucking hell…

It took me two hours to calm down after reading this. I would like to say that I don’t know why I get so wound up about this. Heck, I’d like to say that I don’t get wound up about this but that would be to deny my reality. Turns out I am not ZEN about this, I quite literally want to write to all of these people and tell them to pull their heads in!

I haven’t written to this page yet by the way. I mean I could do, how easy is it to be a keyboard warrior? The only trouble is that I’m just so tired, so fed up with this, so sick of feeling like the kill-joy at the party, the sober boring one, the pedant, the one who just takes everything so seriously and can’t lighten up. Do I want another in-your-face confrontation or should I just leave this here and wait…

I’m leaning towards doing something asI can’t stand passive aggression. I’d much rather be punched in the face than stabbed in the back. Ouch. But do you know what happens when I post a comment in a hobby skin or personal care product group (and I don’t do it very often and I don’t do it to get kudos, followers or pats on the back)? Nothing. That’s what happens, nothing or next to nothing. Sometimes people engage, maybe listen or click some acknowledgement of my effort. But mostly people don’t seem to care or prioritise my comment above or even alongside anyone else’s – I am equivalented (put on the same level as the ‘rising star’ of the group (code for the new person who keeps asking dumb ass questions or commenting on everything with their new found enthusiasm).

Do I sound arrogant? Maybe I am but I don’t want to be and do try to avoid that. I do not think of myself as the person to whom everyone should listen, but I do know (with evidence) that I bring a special and fairly rare skill for problem solving to the table. My special skill is my ability to unpick a problem in a way that will lead you to the answers that you need – this is not the same as giving you the answer (or an answer, there is rarely just one), it’s a fundamentally different approach and this is why I’m mentally exhausted, because nobody gives a shit about this anymore (or so it seems). Why? Because years and years of making laypeople equivalent to scientists or true industry experts has meant that people don’t even know what I’m talking about – can’t even imagine what they are missing!

When I infrequently leave a comment on social media it is with a hope that it empowers someone a little more than they have felt to date. That the insight or different perspective may give them a hint. Hints are useful, I’ve been delving on that White Privilege website Ancestory.com to find out how important I really am (turns out not very) and without their hints I’d have got stuck by about 1905. With them I’m back to the 1700’s on all sides of the family which is amazing! I am that Ancestory.com hint to the world of cosmetic chemistry, that’s exactly what I am.

Wikipedia gives this as a definition for an expert:

An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study. Experts are called in for advice on their respective subject, but they do not always agree on the particulars of a field of study.

I’ve explained before the difference between research and reading and can’t be bothered to long-hand explain the rest but suffice to say that there’s oodles of detail within those words that help us work out if a persons expertise stands up to scrutiny.

Note: Expert doesn’t mean good/ liked/ popular and neither does it mean automatically right.

Typically the layperson thinks they are an expert because they have done something for a long time, have got a lot of followers on social media, have been featured on some important other social media sites (see, we are creating our own monsters here) or have had some commercial success (there are poor and rich experts just as there are poor and rich laypeople by the way). But these are all poor metrics for expertise and are instead mere chewing-gum for the ego.

Damage to science.

Real experts are trained to not just solve this or that problem, but to think in ways that are novel and creative rather than prescribed and incremental. We don’t need a starting point or AN answer, we just need a scenario – where are you now and where do you want to get to – and a project plan (time, money, philosophy). We are taught to think through problems both in an abstract and applied (typically when industry focused) way. We are also aware of the ways we can test our findings and avoid bias and false positives. Laypeople may have some of these skills (they don’t get born in an expert, they are born in us, the expert just spends time honing these skills in a measurable way) but as they are under-developed they can typically only approach and solve problems based on their direct experience. In summary an expert can solve, test and otherwise investigate problems that the layperson doesn’t even see yet. You can see how this bothers me and how this limits our potential for future innovation.

What I take from this and what keeps me doing what I do (only just sometimes as it is bloody depressing to be honest) is my thirst for DOING, TESTING and DISCOVERING. What made me write this is my frustration at having my opportunities for engaging at this level cut off, not by laypeople who think they are experts – these are annoying but believing your own hype is a classic human failure- no my frustration is at the people who should know better, who could try harder and who could afford to pay for and support more primary research into their field. This feels like Willful Ignorance to me, either brought on by laziness or by carelessness, neither of which are things to be proud of.

So that’s that, I did sleep well last night by the way and most nights I do but if you care (and I mean really care) about cosmetic science, personal care, aromatherapy, herbal skincare, beauty and other aligned sciences please do spend a bit of time thinking about this thing that I’m calling ‘equivalencing’ as sometimes I think it will be the death of me and I actually care about that even if you don’t (and why should you, it’s Ok, don’t feel bad).

Amanda x

When does a plant become poison? Our Chemical Romance…

June 22, 2020

Maybe I’m weird.

I can’t help but look at a plant and wonder about its chemistry and in particular, how I can extract it…

I wonder if it is nature or nurture that has made me this way.

Did I get trained to see each plant not only as what it is as a discrete and knowable thing and what it is as part of an ecosystem but also what it could yield if only its chemical potential was unleashed? As a child I was always encouraged to think scientifically and test out my ideas so it could logically be assumed that I’ve developed a skill in this area. However, I still wonder if there is more to it, could my ability to ‘see’ a material from a chemistry perspective be in-printed on my DNA? Could this thing way of viewing the world that we now think of as elite, niche, somewhat detached and synthetic actually be inherently human…

If I’d have pondered these thoughts twenty or so years ago, I’d have most likely concluded that my perspective was one that I’d had trained into me. These days I’m more likely to lean the other way especially now, in an age when I and many others like me are quite literally questioning everything.

I guess I was lucky, my mum wove her love of the outdoors, of gardens and bushland, fairies and forests into my heart. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood involved trips to local woodland with my mum and her brother (my uncle). We spoke of how my ancestors would use nettles for soup and soothing itchy skin (I was fascinated by this having both eczema prone itchy skin and a propensity for falling into the nettles and getting covered in itchy stings). How could a plant that itched so much be used to stop you itching? What weirdness was that? I learned how moss was used to line the nappies of babies, how dandelions made you wet the bed and how Milk Thistle strengthened a tired and sluggish liver. I remember being particularly interested in how Foxgloves could stop your heart, thinking ‘how could something so beautiful and innocent looking (and that grew in many a friends garden) be so deadly? I learned of how some mushrooms could ruin your mind forever and make you see things that weren’t there, how buttercups could be used to predict whether you liked butter (OK, so I always suspected this was just a bit of fun) and how four leaf clovers could be a sign that good luck was just around the corner (I did believe this for a long time, probably because I so wanted it to be true).

For me these were not just stories to be accepted, they were theories to be tested. While I was not encouraged to try the mushrooms, I was encouraged to develop my inquiring mind in a way that could find out why, how, when and where these ‘magical’ plant powers came from. I say magic in quotation marks as I’m still surprised at how that word is used. I hear it still, used to describe phenomena that may well either be too hard for one to get their head around or that one consciously chooses not to try and demystify. To be honest I still don’t get the latter as for me the magic comes back ten-fold when you know how a plant or material works either by itself or when in combination with others. It is quite literally genius how chemistry works in the world!

My theory of chemistry being a basic human instinct is built on a series of logical assumptions that have at their basis the fact that I exist today. I am only here now because my ancestors knew how to successfully read and adapt to their environment. My ancestors were clearly not the type of people who chowed down on a Foxglove salad, well, at least not until after they passed on their DNA. Mine, like yours were people who knew the natural world in a way that was far beyond the comprehension of most of us modern folks. While they may not have understood chemistry in the way that the Greek’s of Wikipedia or the Gentlemen of 1600’s Europe deconstructed and reconstructed it, these every-day humans would have had a feel for it in an ‘in your bones’ way that is necessary when you depend on it, not just for your survival but for your ability to thrive!

Our modern narrative of chemistry being a relatively new and elite area of study seems to me to be less and less of an accident when viewed through the 2020 lens. Many popular folk law tales of foods, potions and treatments lead us to assume that no chemistry was done at all prior to the chemical revolution of the late 17’s and early 18th centuries (average Jo type idea) or that the chemistry done was hap-hazard and by accident rather than planned (supporting the ‘primative man’ view of the world, perpetuated by many an archeologist or anthropologist back in the day). I know many people who want to go back to the days when ‘plants were taken whole and then put into a pot or ground up and then voila, you have your thing’. But did that really happen, was that really all there was to it? Were our ancestors really limited to whole foods and whole medicines? For a long while I’ve wondered if the devil has been lost in the detail but now I fear that I it has been lost on purpose. You can’t ‘save’ people who were never lost or enlighten people who never lived in the dark…

Wikipedia is not a good primary source but it is a popular one (note the distinction). As expected, it presents a fairly Eurocentric (or at least Western Hemisphere) view of the origins of chemistry, placing emphasis on the role that Greek philosophy played in our understanding of matter before keeping the bulk of our attention focused on a fairly recent past. While I have no basis on which to dispute or discredit the role that the Greeks or other learned European men (and probably the odd woman) played during this time, I feel that this well-worn track is not the one I need to take if I want to understand the human-chemistry connection on a deeper level. To understand that, I feel I need to go back thousands more years…

The same Wikipedia entry that jumped our brains to ancient Greece begins with a story that’s 100,000 years old, of how caves in South Africa (Blombos) were found to be painted with pigment that had survived this long because of their intentionally prepared chemistry.

The practice of taking natural pigments, usually Ochre, and using it to make paint is the subject of an intense amount of scientific study some of which I’ve read to inform this piece. Ochre is found all over the world and Ochre-based art is likewise, widely distributed. Rather than being a simple single chemical, Ochre is the common name for a whole range of naturally pigmented clays that contain sand (silicone dioxide), kaolin (aluminium silicate) and iron-rich pigments (iron oxides). It is easy to think of these mineral clays as chemically inert (unreactive) but they are not. They can be changed through heating, mixing with a range of binder chemicals, reacting with acids or even using as an acid to react with other materials.

If we just consider the act of using ochre pigment for painting this takes more than just a little digging up of dirt and then applying that to the cave wall. Ash, blood, plant tannins and acids, limestone, Seashells and even other fluids such as bone marrow or cerebral fluids were used to help these pigments apply neater and smoother and withstand the test of time.

Through studying Ochre and the caves in which our ancient ancestors painted, we gain an insight into the rich and complex cultural practices that were in existence thousands of years before us. Our ancestors were not just randomly chucking things into a pot and going – wow, no idea how that worked but yay for me – instead they were fermenting, grinding, distilling, pH changing, pyrolyzing and distilling. These people knew how to make wood burn wood hotter (by producing charcoal), how to change the colour of natural pigments to produce different shades for nuance, effect and context (both through physical and chemical reactions). It is even hypothesised that our knowledge of chemistry helped us to migrate so far by helping us produce the best natural sunscreens! Ochre is still used today for sun protection but again, rather than it just being a matter of rolling around in the Ochre pile, ancient humans consciously prepared their sunscreen taking care with particle size and creating a base to provide both optimal skin adhesion and SPF enhancement-maybe some of my readers could benefit from taking a trip back in time and paying attention to this.

Chemistry requires reagents and as a chemist I often use strong acids or bases change one chemical for another. For example, I use Sodium Hydroxide for saponification and Sulphuric acid to turn fatty alcohols into esters. It would be easy to assume that chemistry proper didn’t exist until these chemicals were available by the bottle load but that ignores the fact that Hydrochloric acid is available in the stomach of the animal you just ate and its cerebral fluid is full of powerful chemicals that can be used for, among other things tanning leather. Then there are the plants including fruits (citric and malic acids) and insects (Formic acid) and pee (Urea). For alkali we have pot ash which is the stuff we get when we burn wood down ash and then let some of the chemicals from that seep into water. The other common reagent for a budding organic chemist is alcohol which is easy to get via fermentation — a chemical reaction humans have been enjoying for millenia.

Chemistry also requires mixing vessels, preferably ones that resist change themselves. Here too we find evidence of intentional choosing based on careful observation and experimentation rather than just good luck or circumstance. Abalone shells were found in that cave in South Africa, they seemed to be the vessel of choice for the Ochre pigment. On the surface of it that sounds unremarkable until you read a little more and discover the Abalone shells are incredibly chemically resistant compared to other seashells due to a particular natural adhesive compound they contain. Now even if our prehistoric brothers and sisters did just happen to live in Abalone Valley, it would be ridiculous to think that someone one day didn’t try using a different shell only to find it dissolved, cracked or otherwise failed in its duty.

I started this piece with a mind to focus on plants and plant chemistry but have ended being on a journey centred on ochre and art. This, I feel, is probably just as well, in fact it may be better than what I originally imagined. My original motivation for writing this was to help me answer my own question ‘when does a plant become poison’. That question came to me when I was browsing my 1949 copy of the ‘British Pharmacopaea’ while trying to separate saponins from pine bark. I had not got the book when I did my experiment and had gone off my own feel for chemistry to come up with a method that seemed by all accounts to work. Acquiring the above by pure fluke really (having spotted it at a soon-to-be-closing-down antique shop) I discovered that the method I’d made-up was about right (yay for me) and that got me thinking about life, the universe and everything…

For me there is no difference between taking a plant and working with it to isolate and concentrate different components and working on Ochre to improve its performance and produce a wider variety of colour options. Both are examples of ‘doing’ chemistry. The main difference, I’ve observed, from a lay-persons perspective is that the former evokes images of anything from Breaking bad drug dealing or lofty towered university dons dressed in white coats through to ancient alchemists obsessed with turning every-day materials into gold while the latter doesn’t feel like we’re talking about chemistry at all. After writing this essay I’m now inclined to believe that our common conception of what chemistry is and who does it are a product of how we’ve chosen to write and read history. I feel that has done our ancestors a great disservice and disempowered us.

So, it is with that thought that I decide I am not weird at all. That I should celebrate my scientifically minded ancient relatives as normal people trying to find the perfect paint recipe by ‘doing’ chemistry and that I should carry on looking at plants the way I naturally do. The evidence does point to it being in our nature to think scientifically and to explore the chemistry of the natural world. This pursuit has helped us express our hopes and dreams and communicate our conceptual understanding of the world around us. We are here today in part because our ancestors found ways to enhance their lives by harnessing the power of chemistry and I’m glad to have inherited eyes that can clearly see that.

Now if only we could broaden the narrative to show everyone that chemicals aren’t a dirty word, that doing chemistry isn’t a modern invention and that being a chemist isn’t just for Europe-centric men in white coats the world would be a better place.

As for the question of when does a plant become a poison, I guess that all depends on what you do with it.

Amanda

Some of the interesting references I used to research this Essay.

1) The colourful History of Paint, Earth Date Episode ED 058. Contributors Juli Hennings, Harry Lynch

https://www.earthdate.org/colorful-history-of-paint

2) Evaluating the Photoprotective Effects of Ochre on Human Skin by In Vivo SPF Assessment: Implications for Human Evolution, Adaptation and Dispersal

Riaan F. Rifkin, 1 , 2 ,* Laure Dayet, 3 Alain Queffelec, 3 Beverley Summers, 4 Marlize Lategan, 4 and Francesco d’Errico 3 , 2

Michael D. Petraglia, Editor

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4564224/

3) ACID-BASE INTERACTIONS AND THE PROPERTIES OF KAOLINITE IN NON-AQUEOUS MEDIA D. H. SOLOMON C.S.I.R.O., Division of Applied Chemistry, P.O. Box 4331, Melbourne, Australia and H. H. MURRAY Georgia Kaolin Company, Elizabeth, New Jersey 07207, U.S.A. (Received 2O August 1971)

http://www.clays.org/journal/archive/volume%2020/20-3-135.pdf

4) What the Ancient Pigment Ochre Tells Us About the Human Mind

Archaeologists are learning how we evolved our cognitive abilities with the help of ochre, an ancient pigment used for everything from body paint to sunscreen.

By Gemma TarlachMarch 16, 2018 11:00 AM

https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/prehistoric-use-of-ochre-can-tell-us-about-the-evolution-of-humans

5) Nature Publishes Secret of Abalone Shell Strength

By Gail Gallessich,Wednesday, June 23, 1999 – 17:00 Santa Barbara, CA

https://www.news.ucsb.edu/1999/011245/nature-publishes-secret-abalone-shell-strength

6) DECOMPOSITION STUDY OF CALCIUM CARBONATE IN COCKLE SHELL MUSTAKIMAH MOHAMED, SUZANA YUSUP*, SAIKAT MAITRA Chemical Engineering Department, Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS, Bandar Seri Iskandar, 31750 Tronoh, Perak DR, Malaysia *Corresponding Author: drsuzana_yusuf@petronas.com.my

http://jestec.taylors.edu.my/Vol%207%20Issue%201%20February%2012/Vol_7_1_001_010_SUZANA%20YOUSUF.pdf

7) The Prehistoric Ages: How Humans Lived Before Written Records

Lesley Kennedy

https://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-ages-timeline

Say My Name – Australian Native Botanicals

June 8, 2020

Life unfolds in layers,  a therapist once told me it was like peeling an onion. She left it at that but I then went home and peeled an onion realising that there are far more layers to those things than it appears at first glance and, more importantly, if you keep on peeling you eventually get to the heart of it – or nothing – either/ both are significant and gave me the ‘aha’ moments that I’m sure the therapist intended.

After moving to this country from England just over 16 years ago now I’ve found the same to be true of the bush.  In the first few years it was just greys, browns, muted greens and yellows under an azure blue sky that never seemed (to my English sensibilities) to give us rain.  Over time these blocks of colour which at times (I must admit) looked totally dead to me, have sprang to life, sometimes so much so that even in the middle of the scorched earth droughts that we are more frequently having here I am able to see opportunity and hope – well, I have to admit that sometimes that does take some doing.  In any case, the long and the short of it is, the more I’ve paid attention,  invested in this land, watched it and been interested in it, the more it has opened up to me.

I’m not good at remembering the names of things or people to be honest. I’m often quite distracted and somewhat ‘away with the fairies’ when details that I must feel are somewhat less important a use for my brain capacity are offered up.  Plant and Tree names also fall into that category and as such I have to look everything up a thousand times, write it onto my photos and in my journals before I even stand half a chance of internalising it and keeping that data attached to its subject.   I had been wondering why this was when I stumbled across a plant in my garden – a weed really but something I’m quite fond of – Shepherds Purse:

Apparently this is Capsella Bursa- Pastoris, a plant belonging to the mustard family (Brassicaceae).  This plant grows well in the UK and as a child I used to collect the little heart shaped ‘purses’ and try to figure out (using my imagination) why and how shepherds used them as purses.  I can’t remember ever coming up with a logical reason so ended up believing them to be fairy purses instead…

If you would like to hear more about the English Folklore remedy side of this plant this link is helpful.

Anyway, the moral of this story (for me) is that it didn’t really matter to me what this did, what it was (botanically) or what value it had (outside of my head), I’d formed an attachment to this that meant I would never, ever forget it and would always spot it when it was within my presence).  How would I with my now part logical and task-orientated, part ‘away with the fairies’ brain form similar life-long attachments in this new country where I have to make up my own names and stories?  How indeed…

Say My Name.

I realised later on that I didn’t make up the name ‘Shepherd’s Purse’ I’d inherited it from my mother just like she had and so on and so forth.  The name I know this plant by has history and culture, my culture attached to it and while I have never (until this point) looked any further into that side, I had an unspoken understanding that it was there and that it was bigger than I was, that I could tap into it and un-peel another layer of this story whenever I was ready.

Names unlock stories.

When it comes to Australian Native Botanicals I’ve found myself buying botany books, checking LUCIDCENTRAL or the EUCLID database for clues (Eucalyptus Identification Key) while cross referencing back to the common names like ‘blue gum’ or ‘green hood’ or ‘spear grass’ etc.   As a cosmetic chemist I could be forgiven for thinking that these are the only names that matter – damn, I could even go so broad as to group a whole family of essential oils under the convenient banner of ‘Eucalyptus’ and get away with it but I don’t want to do that, it doesn’t fire my imagination or open up new layers for me.  I sometimes think that the world has let its layers grow thick and old, that the layers that once could be peeled away with a careful fingernail now need a bulldozer to dislodge.  Losing the nuance, the detail, the connection makes for a harder, duller and less exciting world and that’s why I’m back to the names again but this time it’s not the fancy names, its the other stuff.

A little on the fancy latin names.

For me, identifying as white is identifying with being ‘white washed’ or culturally detached. I see that most clearly in botany with the use of Latin names.  I’m not from Italy, my bones never came from there.  Even if they did, my story didn’t start and end with the Roman empire so why wholeheartedly adopt it?  Clearly there are reasons why Latin is littered through ‘our’ culture, I couldn’t have got this far as a scientist without sucking big chunks of it up and sure, it’s useful but it isn’t all there is, it isn’t even the half of it and (as I’m finding out more and more) it is often the case that the eyes that first categorised nature using this whitewashed language didn’t ‘see’ the whole picture and as such, have disregarded part of its story. As a very short aside here I’ll mention ‘microbiome’.  Not at all a tangent I want to explore in this blog post but relevant nonetheless – that we can describe the skin without thinking of the microbes that are not us but that help us thrive.

Aboriginal Land, Aboriginal Names.

There isn’t one Aboriginal language, there are many.  Languages attached to each of the 500 or more nations that Australia was before becoming what it is today.  Finding the appropriate Aboriginal name for a particular plant is not an easy task as a plant can grow across many nations and have many names, a large proportion of which are not written down or recorded in a western way (because these are oral traditions based on stories).  This fact has made it challenging for Aboriginal elders and custodians to gain recognition for the body of evidence behind the therapeutic qualities of their plants.  Historically it has been much easier to gain TGA listings, develop international markets and collate bodies of evidence when using ‘white words’ – Latin names and ‘white’ processes – scientific analysis.  As a scientist I see a value in the process in which I’ve been trained and naturally adopt in my own investigations, however, one doesn’t do everything scientifically just because you can – eating, drinking, loving, art making etc require a little more than that.  On that theme it has also been easier to start trends within the cosmetic market when using ‘White’ common names – Kakadu Plum vs Gubinge or Murunga? I think that should stop now.

I am concerned at the growing level of detachment that’s crept into Australian Native Bushfood use, indeed it isn’t even the case that brands wanting Australian Native Ingredients care if they are grown here and many aren’t.   Captain Cook brought Joseph Banks, a botanist with him and from that moment the secrets and natural world intellectual property of Australian plants were exported all over the world without a glance back at their bigger history or cultural significance.  This has, of course, been the case the world over. It’s part of the ‘white wash’ narrative of our history but we don’t have to continue that into the here and now or future.  We do have a choice about what we do next.

Re-connecting plant with place, seed with story.

The first steps towards knowing the name of a botanical you have or wish to get to know/ use in your cosmetic is to work out where it is from/ on whose nation does it grow?  I live on Dharug land when I’m in the Blue Mountains and the language around here is either Dharug or Gundungurra. It’s Wiradjuri country that I live on when out near Wyangala Dam in the Central West, NSW.  So for me I have to look to two or even three languages for names – already harder than just going ‘what’s the latin name’ but worth it.   From my limited work with Aboriginal women who are still actively connected to country the value of keeping these ‘real’ names alive is immense and the pain of reducing them to their ‘white’ names is unbearable.  That said, sometimes it is inevitable that this happens given the history of Australia and where no local name is known we can at least leave some space for it to sit in when it is ready, when that layer is peeled.

Becoming aware of Aboriginal Australia and investing time in re-connecting plants to place, seed to story in a way that is respectful and humble is something I feel we should all do.  Sure those of us who are used to just jumping in and giving it a go, ego’s boosted by our whiteness and ‘oh she’ll be right’ attitudes may get it wrong sometimes but if we at least try, if we stay open to learning, if we open ourselves up to the possibility of this then we can’t go far wrong.  Hopefully, over time we can all encourage those that still hold the language of the plants we enjoy to share some of their stories with us, either  in language or using ‘white speak’ as a medium.  That would be amazing as one can only truly broaden the narrative if we let everybody tell their own stories.

For my part I’m now combining the common, botanical (Latin) and Wiradjuri or Darug names on my plant species I distill and extract from and will be investigating how I can connect with the people who know these names best to help tell their story either on this blog or on a platform of their choice.

Quick Summary take-home tips.

  • Plant Names =  place + plant (botanical name/ species) = Appropriate Aboriginal name.
  • Cultural use = there isn’t one, there are many so try not to refer to ‘traditional use’ of a plant as a catch-all, go further and see how the people you sourced it from used the plant.
  • Supply Chain = Check that what you are buying is Australian Grown, further check if it was grown and supplied by an Aboriginal owned business, few are)
  • Fair Trade =  Australia doesn’t necessarily have a fair trade system for its Native Australian Botanical supply chains but be aware that those who wild harvest the plants as part of their traditional practice may not be fully briefed on the true value of what they are doing and what happens up the supply chain.  Only the individual nations Elders can speak to that and that data isn’t always available.
  • Value your resources = Try not to reduce Australian botanical ingredients to just ‘fluff and bubbles’ let your product be an access point for a deeper, more connected relationship to country.

Eucalyptus Blue Gum – Eucalyptus Deanei.  The Dharug word for Eucalyptus/ Gum Tree is Yarra. The Gundungurra people call Eucalyptus trees Yerradhang.

A good Dharug word learning website is this.

The story goes that the blue mountains are that way because of the evaporation from the gum trees.  As you can see, the oil from the gum tree that grows in my garden does confirm that story to be true.  It’s just a shame that the oil sold in the mountains is not this species so you can’t come here and take this home with you, you just have to keep coming back 🙂

NB:  Interestingly enough after writing this I have spent the day searching for the correct names for a number of essential oils I’m working with.  In doing so I found this blog post.  Looks like I’m not the only one with this idea- they even got there first 🙂

 

 

 

 

Colours from nature.

May 26, 2020

So another little thing I like to do is to find colours in natural materials – plants, minerals or whatever.

Not all natural colourants are safe or good for use in cosmetics.  Take these mushroom dyes for example,  I’d want to do a whole lot more chemical analysis on them to make sure they were safe before putting them anywhere near my face, especially as a) I’m very amateur at picking the safe shrooms from the ones that will blow your head off and b) mushrooms can easily carry bacteria on them, not all of which is the good stuff.  However, it’s nice to play around and these dyes can always be used to colour fabrics (which is what I’ll do with them).

If you wish to use natural colourings for your cosmetics do make sure you check on their safety – are the extractions you make clean?  Are the chemicals that make the natural colour or anything else present in the brew potentially irritating to the skin?  Will the colour fade over time or when you change the pH of the product?  Will the colour stain the skin?

I once sat cutting up green walnuts with the view of making a dye out of them for use in fake tans (as that was and still is something that is used).  Unsurprisingly after sitting for a good hour or so and processing my nuts I looked at my hands to find them stained all over.  Sure Walnut is a great skin stainer and yes, that’s good for self-tanning solutions that want an instant skin tone but damn it makes you look like you have a nicotine habit if you get the dose and exposure time wrong.

The key with anything is to check, check and check again.  Do your stability testing, send things off for chemical analysis,  do a micro check and check for INCI/ botanical name data that could give you any clues as to where, how and when this has been used before.

On another note, as I was processing these mushrooms I did find that some of them do soap up pretty well, producing quite long-lasting bubbles.  Many plants contain natural Saponins and some of these can be harnessed by cosmetic chemists and used as surfactants.  I will have to do a lot more reading before I can ascertain whether what I’ve found has leg as a stand-alone mushroom soap agent but you never know!  Unsurprisingly some mushrooms also contain glutenous, gelling agent type chemicals (long chain sugars usually) which may be useful in thickening cosmetics.  Finally there’s beta glucan, a moisturiser and skin soothing agent, in mushroom cell walls and that’s already extracted by some cosmetic ingredient manufacturers.  I wonder how hard it would be for me to isolate it?  Maybe that’s a project for another day too!

I’ve put up my project pictures here- the blank spaces bug me, they really do but I can’t get a grasp on what these ones are yet so there you go!

No doubt my attempt at identifying some of the species has gone a bit off-track so if I do become aware of any errors I’ll let you know. I used a local field guide,  my notes and links from my local landcare group whose Fungi identification course I just attended on the weekend plus the powers of my own mind (hahahahaha) to ID these babies.   I also had much better pictures of the key features to refer back to from when the shrooms were fresh plus the now partially dried-up samples that I kept to refer back to.  Hopefully over time these little babies will teach me more about themselves but for now I’m just going to leave this right here.

No mushrooms were smoked or otherwise ingested in the making of this exciting blog entry  I don’t do drugs, I am drugs (a saying that I relate to and one first said (if the internet is true) by Salvadore Dali). Also all of these were found on our Fox Hill Hollow property.  Mushroom picking in natural parks requires a permit and is not really a good idea as if you take all the mushrooms the fairies become homeless.

 

The finished dyes tested on silk.  The darker one on the far end is made from Eucalyptus Red Gum (E.Blakelyi) which is the dominant species on our block. Well it’s either that species or it is the Camaldulensis (River Red Gum).  After thinking it was the latter for the last three years I’m not inclined to change my mind but I’ve got to wait until the buds and flowers come out to really get an better review done.  Anyway, it makes a lovely light pink to purple tone dye.

This is a great resource for people in Australia who are wanting to make dyes from Eucalyptus tree parts.  I used the bark to make this so it’s turned out pinker than the leaves.

The Quest for the Perfect Leaf. Eucalyptus leaves and essential oil production.

May 26, 2020

I am not an expert at producing essential oil, maybe one day I will be as I’m spending a lot of time practicing the art of distilling,  experimenting with different leaf-picking, prepping and stuffing strategies and, when I get the time and manage to post them off, evaluating the chemical analysis (GC traces) from the few ml’s of oil that represent the fruits of our labour (the tree and I).

My husband and I purchased (white words) a 50 acre patch of beautiful box woodland out in the central west of NSW about six years ago and because of that I have access to a range of different gum (Eucalyptus) trees and hopefully once our bush regeneration efforts have really kicked in, we may also get some interesting tea trees and acacias (wattles) to experiment with.  As interesting as essential oil production is to me I am not looking to become a scaled-up oil producer. My aim in this venture is both personal and profession and centres around my core life purpose which is to elevate (maybe only inside of myself as I have limited influence over others) the value we as humans attribute to nature, the natural rhythm of life and the relationship between the resources it provides us and that which we give to it.  I just choose to apply that value to cometic science and as such, use that platform as a way to interpret what I see, feel, hear and learn.

Personally I’ve always found my mind becomes both quieter and sharper when immersed in the natural world.  I have both mind (very, don’t worry) vision and hearing impairments plus an ADHD wired brain which do contribute to the overwhelm and  palpable disadvantage I feel when placed in rushed, man-made spaces.  However, out amongst the woodlands of the central tablelands of New South Wales I tap into a whole other set of senses that see me pick up on the tiniest of fungi, the slightest whiff of an animal in the distance or the subtle changes in bird song as a predator (usually me unless I stay still long enough) comes closer.  This feeling of heightened awareness is addictive and is rewarded when nature opens up its arms and shows you more and more of its secrets.  What was once brown and green becomes different Eucalyptus species, what used to just be a stringy bark all at once becomes an ecosystem in its own right with soil fungi, birds, bees and echidna scratchings digging up the ants nests.  It is this level of attention and intent I bring to my essential oil practice and it is with the whole ecosystem in mind that I pursue this phase of my cosmetic chemistry journey.  As temporary custodians (much better word than owners) of this tiny patch of the planet I feel that interpreting this land through my cosmetic chemist eyes is the best way for me to protect it and share its value with the world.

The Quest for the Perfect Leaf. 

So recently I’ve become more interested in understanding how the age of a Eucalyptus leaf affects oil yield, understanding that the answer may be anywhere from ‘it doesn’t’ to ‘hugely’ of course.  What I’m finding out so far, and there is a lot of reading, comparing and looking for gaps and cross-overs (research, that’s the research part), is that it is likely not so much of a question of how old the leaves are but at what development stage they have reached.

I am no plant specialist either so bare with me while I excitedly share the rudimental understanding of where I’ve got to on this quest to identify the perfect leaf.

Eucalyptus leaves through their growing stages and ages. 

These leaves come from the same tree, one of the Eucalyptus trees that is growing on our driveway at Fox Hill Hollow.  The tree is currently about 2 meters tall and is in pretty good condition.

Eucalyptus trees grow all year round which is something that took a bit of a while adjusting to as I come from a place where trees have a natural break each autumn/ winter, dropping their leaves and going to sleep – maybe Australia is the land of 24/7 partying after all.  The top left are the tiny baby new growth and the bottom right is the fully-grown leaf shape.  According to this page in the book ‘Eucalyptus Ecology’ by Jann Williams and John Woinarski (and I don’t know if it applies to all Eucalyptus species) the average life span of a leaf is 18 months so maybe these leaves represent a 2-3 month development stage? If they do that would be great (but would also be a fluke as I’m only going by feel here).

As you may have noticed either just in these leaves or with Eucalyptus in general, their leaves can change remarkably between their baby and adult state.   While it is not uncommon for plants to have a juvenile and adult state, Eucalyptus really do take it to extremes at times.  When I first moved here I used to spend ages staring at trees trying to work out if some weird hybrid was developing, if maybe two trees were entwined to look like one or if I was just going crazy. Turns out that this leaf metamorphisis is just what Eucalyptus trees do and there are some important features attached to that ‘coming of age’ process when seeking out the ‘perfect’ leaf.

So, while you can see a change in size, shape and colour, you may not be able to tell that the leaves on the top row are all soft while the leaves on the bottom row become progressively stiffer due to a process called lignification.  Lignification is something I know very little about but it’s basically where a higher plant such as this Eucalyptus species produces an organic polymer (family of chemicals) called Lignin.  Lignin is a carbon-based chemical and is found across many plants, usually in their woody material where it helps to strengthen cell walls and keep the plants circulation functioning well.  The Eucalyptus tree starts off with very soft leaves but doesn’t take long to toughen them up in its bid to survive.  From what I’ve read so far, rather than the laying down of Lignin being just a biological-clock triggered process, it can also happen in response to trauma.  A good article on this can be found here.

Australian plants have to deal with lots of things nibbling and attacking them from fluffy animals right through to creepy crawly things and microbes.  They also have to deal with a rather harsh sun for long periods of time.   One of the tools the tree has to defend its self is its ability to lay down this hard polymer and stiffen its leaves up.  Stiffer leaves are harder to eat and are more resilient so it makes sense to invest in this protection.  However, for the essential oil hunter, this defence mechanism does seem to make it slightly harder to access the essential oil meaning that the perfect leaf for essential oil production may well be one that is fully grown but not fully lignified (as stated in the article I’ve linked to just below).

Here is a really good overview of the way different ages and stages of leaves have influenced essential oil yields. I do wonder though if the study that found younger leaves to contain more essential oil (as a percentage yield) were actually finding that or was it just a case of the oil being more accessible? I say that because other papers I’ve read have found the oil yield to be similar throughout the tree’s age.  As essential oil is produced by the plant for its benefit – it’s often designed to be bitter to the taste so animals give up eating it and contains anti-microbial actives so again, pests either die or are put off attacking it.  It makes little sense to leave your soft fresh leaves vulnerable on two counts – less pesticide (essential oil) and less lignification/ cuticle wax.  Anyway, that’s what I’m trying to dig into more deeply now.

Cuticle or epicuticular wax is another thing that may reduce the ability of an essential oil distiller to access the oil within the cell.   This paper is about floriculture but it does look into the variability of waxes between Eucalyptus species and how the wax levels vary with leaf age.   This paper is also very interesting as it looks at the chemistry and differences in thickness of wax between two common Eucalyptus types.   

Maybe I’m looking to find the wrong word but I can’t quite work out yet if the amount of wax (percentage wise) changes form young to older leaves, I have read that the structure of the wax develops over time but that’s not quite the same thing.  To me, so far, it looks like the epicuticular wax is performing a role similar to either a raincoat or sunscreen or both for the leaf.  The chemistry of this wax is definitely determined by the species of Eucalypt but I feel it likely that the amount of wax expressed is there in response to the environment rather than age although I may be wrong. Further, over time, these waxes have been shown to change.  Maybe the waxes get a chance to polymerise…  This happens sometimes with essential oil chemistry, some compounds react with each other over time, turning what was a liquid essential oil into a thick resin-like substance.  Anyway, the long and short of this part is that I don’t feel at this point, that the wax protection layer is as much of a barrier to finding the perfect leaf as the lignification is – as odd as that may seem given that wax is waterproof and we distill essential oils using steam to which the waxes may be somewhat resistant… I feel the waxy layer could be a barrier to distillation of some species, but within a species less of factor in choosing to distill young, middle-aged or old leaves.  What looking at this has given me an appreciation for is the potential role that a solvent other than steam/ water could play in improving oil yield in some species.  Maybe leaves could have a cold wash with a surfactant to remove some of the wax before distillation?  I’m not sure how that would go,  solvents like hexane are often used in the papers I’ve linked to but most people don’t want mention of that in their oil distillation and I completely understand why.

So where are the perfect leaves then?

When I consider waxiness, leaf size and leaf stiffness I’m edging towards the perfect leaves being those that have just taken on their adult form and are well developed although not fully grown but still retain the softness and flexibility of their youth – pre lignified leaves.  I don’t know what age that is for the trees I have but I know how they look and feel – probably top right and/or bottom left (just getting harder). Another thing to consider is leaf physical condition – as stress toughens the leaves up, maybe prematurely, I feel it is important to stress that undamaged leaves that haven’t been too stressed by sun, wind, frost or nibbling things are going to be easier to work with than less pristine leaves.

Testing my theories. 

The next step now is for me to try and collect enough of the leaves at those intermediate stages to distill in a meaningful and scientific way (or as much as possible) and then compare that with a fully grown leaf distillation round.  A rough go at that may give me a bit more insight into the perfect leaf or it might just send me batty. Either way, I’ll end up with a bit more essential oil and a good amount of hydrosol to play with which doesn’t sound too bad at all.  This may take some time to do but I’ll see what I can come up with.

In the meantime the perfect leaf for oil distillation is not too soft or too hard, not too big or too small and hopefully in great condition.  My guess is that it is also probably around 9-11 months old (well, for my type that is, yours may be different).