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One INCI List, Four Serums

October 13, 2021

I’m still thinking about that ‘turn and learn’ situation. The idea that an INCI list tells tells pretty much all you need to know about a product.

After writing my blog article the other day I felt there was some unfinished business on my part. I’m always telling people that science is a doing word so what better way to demonstrate my point of view than offer up a demonstration. So, sit back and prepare to be blown away by the magic of my one INCI list, four serums experiment! That is a joke by the way, I am always second-guessing myself around this sort of thing – did I come up with the best example I could? Will people see what I want them to see? Is someone going to miss the point entirely and write asking if the Blackberry extract can be swapped for Banana? Do I really need to finish the whole packet of biscuits? You know, that…

The Serums.

I put together what I could in the time I had with the ingredients available in my lab. I feel this does the job of demonstrating at least some of the limitations around the INCI-centric product evaluation strategy which is what I intended and focused on. This serum and its variants are designed for teaching purposes – to illustrate a point rather than to be something people might or might not like.

So here they are:

And here’s an INCI list to cover all four versions:

INCI: Aqua, Rubus Fruticosus Fruit Extract, Glycerin, Niacinamide, Sodium Hyaluronate, Acacia senegal gum, xanthan gum, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Sodium Hydroxide.

What can the INCI list tell me?

That structurally these are a fairly simple, water-dominant set of formulas that contain a hefty amount of fruit extract followed by a couple of other well known dermatology-backed actives (glycerin, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid) in a preserved gel base. There is no fragrance or added colouring, the formulas are fairly natural (except for the preserative) and there aren’t too many ingredients.

Guessing what skin outcomes an INCI list like this might achieve.

I could assume the main function of a product with this INCI list was to re-hydrate and balance the skin with secondary functionality around environmental protection. The ingredients definitely support that with the glycerin, fruit extract and hyaluronic acid.

Then again I could assume this to be an anti-ageing formula with antioxidant protection highlighted and visible wrinkle reduction/ skin tone evening as second and third functionality. The INCI list supports that too!

Let’s not forget that it could also be a brightening formula! A formula optimised for gentle exfoliation and skin glow (fruit acids, Niacinamide).

Or it could be all-round face food product, a daily ‘respect your skin’ serum offering gentle,balanced all-round support.

But wait, it may be designed specifically to tackle pimples, marks and oily skin! The INCI list tells us the formula is oil free so surely it’ll be non-comedogenic. Also niacinamide is a really good option for pimple prone skin and break-out management.

And so we go on.

This, my friends, could be many things to many people depending on how these ingredients have been blended together and what the intentions behind it really were. This detail is often found outside the INCI list in the product description, directions for use, claims and product name.

Moving onto the actual formula versions.

Before we go too deep I wish to point out a few things about my INCI list (this is for anyone who likes reading things with a view to nit picking). There could be other ways of organising and presenting this including ways that would differentiate the variants as I’ll describe now.

Fruit juice powders, Aloe Powder and Coconut milk, water etc are often added to a formula and re-constituted. That is, re-hydrated with water to form their full-strength juice. That juice can then become an INCI ingredient in its own right thus reducing the level of ‘aqua’ (boring old water) or replacing it entirely. As far as I am aware it is not incorrect to list these ingredients either as their extract (refering to the powdered ingredient you added), their ‘juice’ (the power plus water to reconstitute it) or a combination of both. I opted for the former to help me make my INCI list point and also because not all powdered plant extracts have these options available so it’s not always relevant. Some fruit, herb or veg powders are not complete and so you can’t ever really end up with the equivalent of a whole fresh juice from them. I digress but yes there is this…

The second variation to INCI I’ll acknowledge here is in the ordering of the ingredients below 1%. They can go in any order so the one I’ve chosen is not the be-all-and-end-all. That said, it wouldn’t constitute a change in INCI anyway given they are all under the 1% mark.

If there’s anything else that I could have done I no longer care and am moving on (that’s not entirely true but I’ve got to get to the exciting stuff).

The making.

I opted to make these all the same way, cold process with a mixture of propellar and homogeniser mixing before checking and altering pH if necessary then packing off. I purposefully used the same method of manufacture as I didn’t want too many layers in this experiment but I acknowledge that chaging the manufacturing method, using heat, different mixing speeds and times etc would have an impact on the final product aesthetic for better or worse. Again these changes would not have been reflected in the INCI list and are another thing INCI can’t tell us.

The pH.

After just telling you I don’t want to over-complicate things I did do this. I split the batches into two and kept one at a pH of between 4.5-4.8 which is close to the natural pH this formula falls to due to the fruit acids in the Blackberry extract. I adjusted the other half up to 6.2-6.5 using sodium hydroxide (only a few tiny drops or 20% solution were needed per 100g sample) to better optimise the formula for Niacinamide activity. I did this because a) I just can’t help myself and b) you can’t tell the pH from the INCI list and there are plenty of examples where changing the pH can actually change everything with regards to formula stability, aesthetic and efficacy.

The Results:

Top from Left to Right: All pH adjusted to 6.2-6.5, versions 4, 3, 2 and 1.

Bottom from Left to Right: All pH 4.5-4.8, versions 4, 3, 2 and 1.

I haven’t yet had time to formally measure the viscosity but I am sure you can see that there is a clear difference between these versions just by looking at the pictures. This is unsurprising given the variation within the formulas but isn’t something the INCI list would be able to tell you.

You may also be able to see a colour difference. This is not uncommon when the colour of a product is created with natural materials such as fruit powders. The fruit contains a range of naturally occuring pigmented chemicals that respond to shifts in pH by changing colour and that’s what’s happening here – a shift from a pinky purple to a blue purple/ grey. This colour change may or may not signify a change in functional activity of the ingredient on the skin. We’d have to dig deeper into the chemistry of the extract to work that out.

Below are some other details I noted with regards to these same INCI, different outcome formula versions:

  1. I calculated the price per Kg for each version and there was 196% difference between highest and lowest – so the most expensive was nearly double the least all with the same INCI. Just in case you are interested, the recomended retail price based from the formula ingredient costs for these serums would be between $13.50 and $25.50 per 100ml of product which seems very good value to me – get me some! Oh wait, I already have them..
  2. The products at pH 6.2-6.5 would be best for activating the Niacinamide onto the skin but would definitely speed up the oxidation of any vitamin C present in the Blackberry extract. While the pH 4.5-4.8 samples would still lead to loss of vitamin C I would expect it to occur more slowly. If someone were to market this formula they would need to decide what to optimise the formula around noting the Blackberry extract is more than just a blob of vitamin C of course.
  3. Focusing on the Niacinamide we have a serum with nearly 3 times as much active niacinamide as another with no INCI list difference. It would depend on what I was claiming for this INCI as to whether that was significant or not.
  4. We can’t tell from an INCI list what molecular weight the Hyaluronic Acid is. In a cosmetic setting like this, the molecular weight of the Hyaluronic isn’t as critical as people might believe it to be with regards to its hydration and active delivery capacity. However, the Hyaluronic Acid molecular weight really does change the product aesthetic (viscosity, skin feel, speed to sink into the skin). Too much High Molecular weight HA, especially in a formula that also contains gum, can lead to it balling up on the skin and feeling yucky! Again, you can’t tell that from the INCI but you definitely would notice something off during application!
  5. Glycerin (plus the gum and HA actually) changes the osmotic pressure of the formula and the way it acts as a humectant. I wouldn’t expect the same performance, skin feel and osmolality from a product with 3.5% glycerin vs one with 6% glycerin and that could impact the formulations efficacy around skin hydration.
  6. Acacia/ Xanthan gum responds to pH getting thicker with decreasing pH to the point it can become quite glue-like. As the tackiness of a formula can be strongly influenced by surface-tension, the lower pH sample feels tackier (more sticky) than the sample at the higher pH. This wouldn’t be obvious from the INCi list and people might assume all the stickiness is from the fruit extract alone which would be incorrect!
  7. We can’t tell how stable any of the formula versions are from the INCI. A super trained eye might be able to identify potential problems in some cases and on a few occasions it is more obvious to someone with experience that a formula will perform below par, be unstable or otherwise vulnerable. Even in those situations it’s important to back up the hunches with testing as you actually never really know until you investiate hands on. An unstable product will lead to oxidation or mocribial contamination of the ingredients thus reducing its potential to do good on the skin and potentially making it irritating. So the INCI list can give us an idea around vulnerability but typically not enough to make a solid call. In this case I’d mainly be concerned about UV stability of the fruit extract, the vitamin C degradation impact and any thickening effect over time due to the formula osmolality.
  8. The INCI list tells us we have Blackberry fruit powder in the formula but it doesn’t say how the powder is produced, whether it is solvent extracted, hot or cold processed, how concentrated it is (how much you need to add to create a reconstituted juice, or even if it represents the whole dried fruit or just a part of it). This detail may or may not be critical in working out if the product contains the ingredients needed to deliver a particular outcome for the skin. As the specifics around outcome are usually listed outside the INCI list, those focusing only (or mainly) on INCI could make false assumptions about a product or just miss out on this valuable clarrification.

Summarising the state of things.

While I designed this experiment to point out the limits to the INCI-exclusive mindset I’ve been quite surprised at just how far those limits stretch even in a simple experiment like the one I’ve walked you through here.

To re-cap again, this two-part blog fest was inspired by the catch-phrase ‘turn and learn’ which in turn was something I came across on a YouTube beauty channel. The idea behind the saying being that it’s the INCI list that tells you most about a product’s worth and as such, is what we should focus our attention on.

The risk, when critiquing one tiny part of another persons work is that in removing it from its wider context you inflate or exagerate its importance and change the way it was meant to be received. That has not been my intention here, this is not a critique. What this blog post has been designed to explore is merely inspired by that catch phrase, delving into what might unfold IF we took the ‘turn-and-learn’ approach to extremes and took no notice of any other information about the product.

The last bit.

Most ingredients are active across a reasonably large range of input levels meaning they could appear at the start, middle or towards the end of an INCI list and still be functionally active and useful. Even ingredients with a relatively narrow active range can still fall into different slots in an INCI list depending on what else is in the formula. It’s really difficult to tell how relevant the ingredient placing is unless you are quite a skilled formulator and can de-construct and re-construct (reverse engineer) a formula with high accuracy. This is not as simple as you might think as we have ingredients like the Hyaluronic acid – same INCI, different molecular weight and aesthetics; ingredients like the preservative which is a blend rather than individual ingredient and ingredients such as the fruit powder which could change functionality depending on how it had been extracted and what part of the fruit it came from.

Factors outside of the INCI such as the product pH, viscosity, look, feel, smell even can affect how well a product works – you are less likely to use a product you don’t like than one you do and you might use more of something you love than something you don’t have a strong opinion over.

Then there’s the compliance side – has the formula been tested, does it make any specific claims or give you any clues as to what it was formulated to focus on, does it appear stable – how would you tell? Is it likely to have been made to good manufacturing practice standards, does the person who formulated it know what they are doing? So many questions.

Then theres the symphony side. I said in my original piece that cosmetic chemistry is like a symphony with many moving parts, something that’s alive, changeable and responsive to your touch. That type of detail is the X factor in many a formula and can never really be captured in words.

So that, my friends, is that. I hope I’ve made my point somewhat clearer and given you a few things to think about.

INCI is something, not everything and let’s work to keep it that way hey!

Amanda x

PS: I actually made this serum with the fruit powder because I wanted something colourful to look at. The other benefits are interesting too of course and the pH colour change is always a good thing to consider.

INCI Lists: Examining the ‘Turn-and-Learn’ mindset.

October 11, 2021

As much as I’m fascinated by cosmetic chemistry and the beauty industry I’m not really one for seeking out said content anywhere I can find it. I don’t tend to watch other creators YouTube chanels, read their blogs, hang around their schools or follow them on Instagram. I mostly read science papers and old-fashioned books (the ones with the pages that smell of libraries). If you are starting to think this may be because I look down on those ‘peasants’ that’s not true, well not entirely…

Sure, I do sometimes see and read things that leave me struggling not to bang my head against the wall and occasionnally I’m compelled to channel that energy into something constructive such as a blog article. On that, there have been times when my tone has been more ‘look here people, you are just wrong’ than it should have been but by far the most dominant thoughts and feelings that drive me are coming from a place of ‘I can see why you think that but I wish to draw your attention to this’…

Yes I’m definitely becoming more calm-blue-ocean as I age, but only time will tell if that’s because a) I’m all out of adrenaline and can no longer be bothered to fight or b) because I’ve ‘seen the light and it’s beautiful’.

With that in mind I want to talk to you about a promising young woman I’ve seen on YouTube called “Cassandra Bankston”.

I don’t know how I first came across Cassandra but I did and her words have been going around in my head like an ear worm for months now.

The early Cassandra tapes I saw were laid out as her providing ‘expert’ commentary on celebrity skincare regimen videos – a sort of video-in-video dissection service. As an aside, this style of content is something I enjoy and regularly watch Mama Doctor Jones do the same thing for ObGyno content. I put the word expert in commas in relation to Cassandra as while I don’t doubt she has suitable and even extensive qualifications I am not sure they run across all the topics she covers (Dermatology, Cosmetic Chemistry, Cosmetic R&D and Legislation, Beautician, Aesthetician etc).

It was interesting watching celebrities describe their skin type as they understood it (and some did seem very well educated in that regard) before explaining, often in great detail why they use and like the products featured. Most had clearly thought through their skin care routine in great detail – unsurprising given most make money from their looks – but this felt much deeper and more intimate than superficial and transactional.

In each video Cassandra put the celebrity on pause then shared her thoughts around what whas being said and done. It was all very interesting, a delayed call-and-response routine served up as a spicy dish of education, intuition, self-knowledge, pseudoscience, (potential) sponsorship or financial interest, opinion, best-guess, vulnerability and enjoyment. It all felt like harmless fun until I came away and couldn’t stop hearing these three words ‘turn and learn’. Noooooooooooooooo.

INCI Lists – The Turn and Learn Mindset.

Firstly yes, I do acknowledge the power of a good one-liner, saying or headline and secondly, I appreciate these things are often the tip of a much bigger iceberg and so we should always dig deeper before drawing any conclusions.

Cassandra uses the phrase ‘turn and learn’ not only to focus viewers attention to the back rather than front of the cosmetic product packaging (where the INCI list is) but to emphasise this as the most valuable information available to the general public. In the embedded video Cassandra explicitly advises people to completely ignore the front of the pack (which is something I didn’t know she had said when I first saw her videos). The idea is that once you have educated yourself on how to read and interpret the INCI list you can focus on that and in doing so avoid getting sucked in by sales consultants and marketing; avoid buying rubbish products; products that are not right for your skin and those that might irritate.

I use the ‘turn and learn’ strategy in both my personal and professional life. I have allergic reactions to a couple of ingredients and always check the INCI for them. I also check the INCI to get a feel for how the product has been put together (formulated) and I can gain some but not all insight into that from the ingredient list. On that last point, it’s worth noting that having formulated cosmetics for 23 years I have earned a level of insight that’s not normal.

What I find concerning.

The message that ABOVE ALL ELSE, it’s a products INCI list that tells us the most and uncovers its worth.

This is not just an over-simplification, it’s a complete dismissal of cosmetic science!

The cult of the ingredient.

These days, not a week goes by without an email that goes something like this:

‘Hi there, I’ve been doing some research and I want to formulate a cream for my clients. I know the ingredients I want in it (goes on to give me a list) and just need you to tell me how much of each I need for this to work’.

I NEVER used to get emails like this before social media and share-all edutainment became such a thing.

Emails like this show me a significant number of people who would otherwise be interested in cosmetic science think a ‘good’ cosmetic is just one that contains some well-known or cutting edge ‘good’ ingredients – the rest is just minor tick-the-box stuff you can cut-and-paste on. It’s like once you’ve identified and read all there is to read about the ingredients, you’ve done the hard yards and have hacked the skin science genome!

I don’t blame Cassandra for this, I doubt it’s something she’s even considered. She came way after the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ campaign and they came after the whole ‘did you know, there’s SLS in the cleaning products they use in industrial car garages?’ faxes. There’s simply not a person alive who is powerful enough to change the collective mindset with one phrase or message. This, my friends, is an example of a slippery slope – an example of how cute little somethings, simple catch phrases and call-outs build on each other. They are like those single rogue hairs that fall out and land in your bathroom plug hole. Before you know it you’ve got a hair-berg blocking your plumbing and you had no idea how that could even possible!

Beyond INCI – Realizing the Intangible

It’s often easier to describe what something is not rather than what it is because you don’t have to understand a things essence to achieve a compelling ‘free from’ style analysis.

Cosmetic Science IS based on chemistry but being a great chemist doesn’t automatically guarantee you’ll make great formulations. Following best scientific practice is fundamental to cosmetic science success, but scientific precision alone doesn’t win hearts and minds. What about art? Cosmetic Science is artistic in the way it captures our imaginations and feeds our hopes and dreams! But again no, rely entirely on art and all you’ll get is a hot mess, broken dreams and a law suit…

When asked to describe what Cosmetic Science is in my classes I answer that it’s a relationship-building process, that it’s something we do and something we must apply!

Feeling this may still be a little too abstract I’ve sat here all day trying to come up with a cozy acronym that sums up what I feel cosmetic science is. I’ve persisted mainly because if I’m going to sit here whinging that the INCI list isn’t everything I’ve got to make visible this invisible ‘extra’ stuff – the special sauce. Doing this has really given me a numb bum so I do hope it’s useful. I ended up creating an acronym around my blog name ‘Realize Beauty’ which was definitely not my first choice and is at risk of coming across as corny but having brain stormed what cosmetic science meant to me this was the only remotely industry-linked word pairing I could muster and it sort of works.

In true me style, it’s not as concise as I’d like but it’s done:

The End Part

I once heard that art should make you feel something and it doesn’t matter if those feelings aren’t all good. I find myself in agreement with that and do see Cassandra’s work as art -she’s very good at what she does, I could never be as polished and professional sounding / looking as her and I really love that about her content and personality! There’s just something incongruous about this INCI situation which I don’t feel is at all intentional.

I’ve ended up being surprised by how much time I’ve invested into thinking about this ‘turn and learn’ situation. I’d not realised just how much each layer of a cosmetic product means to me and how much each layer contains its own opportunities and delivers value.

When I step back and look at a cosmetic product I see it as a symphony, something that’s complex, layered, alive and changeable rather than the one-dimensional and static. Something that starts in your imagination before guiding you towards a safe and helpful reality where the likelihood of you experiencing something good and worthwhile is heightened! Something that responds to the way it is moved, packaged, applied and then removed. Something that responds similarly but differently to you vs me because we are unique. A product-shaped relationship-building opportunity and one that is meaningful inspite of it being one that others might not fully appreciate or understand. If cosmetic science was just INCI list and fancy packaging there’s no way I’d be able to keep doing it.

So that’s it but before I go I want to make it crystal clear that I am not arguing against the usefulness of the INCI list and the insight that learning how to read and interpret them provides. Neither am I advising against watching Cassandra’s video’s or questioning her credentials. We all have blind spots (me included of course) and there’s no shame in that.

What I am trying to do is remind both myself and you out there that INCI lists are something not everything. A word of possibility awaits those who can see past the cult of the ingredient.

Amanda x

PS: Check out my next article where I share what I’ve done to make what I’m talking about visual. The article will be called ‘one INCI list, four serums’ and it’s ready now.

Amino Acids for pH Adjustment?

October 1, 2021

I question the wisdom of normalising the use of amino acids for pH adjustment...

Arginine is an amino acid and amino acids are famous for reacting together to build peptides and proteins. In a cosmetic sense, amino acids can be added into a formula individually to increase skin hydration or condition and strengthen the hair. In addition, they are frequently used as key actives in Mesotherapy cocktails where they are injected under the skin as anti-ageing and restorative agents. 

Despite their family name,  some amino acids act as bases (raising the pH) in a cosmetic formula. This fact has become increasingly interesting to formulators looking to raise the pH of their formulations in a ‘natural’ and biocompatible way, a way that avoids ‘fillers’ or ‘harsh ingredients’ or,  in a way feels/ sounds more natural or organic.  While the idea of utilising  ‘basic’ amino acids for this purpose isn’t new and is, in fact indicated by some major cosmetic ingredient manufacturers, my concerns remain and have their origin not in the big picture but in the detail, the chemistry and that’s what I want to dive into here.  

The problem of equivalence.

In terms of teaching, the promotion of Arginine as a drop-in alternative for Sodium Hydroxide for pH modification should stop.  Chemically speaking, arginine has the capacity for introducing to the formula a level of chaos and vulnerability that sodium hydroxide simply doesn’t possess as we shall soon see.

The curious chemistry of Amino Acids.

Behaviour in solution (water)

 Amino acids such as Arginine and Leucine behave mostly as bases in a cosmetic formula, increasing the pH of water when they are added.  Arginine sends the pH to 12.5 while Lysine takes it to 10.5.    This, and the fact both amino acids are quite stable in their structure across the typical cosmetic pH range of 4-8 are what make them suitable for considering as pH adjusters in the first place.

pKa value = A concentration-independent way of expressing the strength of an acid (or base). The lower the number, the stronger the acid, the higher the number, the more likely the ingredient will perform as a base.   Ingredients can have one or more pKa values depending on their chemical structure and complexity.  Ideally cosmetic pH adjusters would have either one pKa value only OR have more than one pKa but that they exist in a close pH band.

Amino Acids Vs The Rest.

Sodium Hydroxide is the gold standard for pH adjustment moving up (from acid to alkali).

When you increase a formula pH with Sodium hydroxide you are using a chemical that is very small and nimble (molecular weight 39.997g/mol).  It neutralises to a salt and water, requiring very little addition to your formula (in most cases) to adjust a formula pH in the majority of cases.  It is readily water soluble and has a predictable titration curve for the most part, although that will of course depend on what in your formula is making it acidic. As we will talk about pKa values in a moment, Sodium Hydroxide has a pKa of -1.8 and a pKb of 15.7 (correction, thanks Perry) meaning that in a cosmetic setting it will ALWAYS act as a base. The fact that it is a small molecule means it’s less likely (compared to Sodium Bicarbonate with a molecular weight of 84g/mol)  to weigh down or salt-out (destroy) your formula. That the chemical reaction it undergoes in a neutralisation setting is simple (it literally makes water), highly predictable and efficient make worthy of a gold star!

When you use Amino Acids to adjust the pH of your formula you are using a molecule that is heavier, takes up more physical space and is more temperamental than Sodium Hydroxide.  Arginine has a molecular weight of 174.2g/mol, Lysine 146.19g/mol and both have three pKa values plus an isoelectric point. 

Isoelectric Point: A pH at which the Amino Acid (or other ingredient) carries no charge and so won’t act as a pH adjuster. In some cases we can put this to use as a pH buffering agent.

The three pKa values occur because the amino acids have three functional groups  – the parts of the chemical that can participate in acid / base reactions.  For comparison, sodium hydroxide and Triethanolamine have only one pKa value each (-1.8 and 7.74 respectively) while  Sodium Bicarbonate has two (6.4 and 10.3).

On the amino acid, each group has its own discrete pH value where it becomes active (the pKa). The whole amino acid also has a pH point or range where adding more won’t budge the pH at all for a good amount of time (the Isoelectric point).  This makes using them as pH adjusters quite complicated.

Having more than one pKa is not the end of the world.  On the lowering-pH side we have  Citric Acid, a commonly used adjuster with three pKa values (3.1, 4.7,6.4). Comparing that to other acids we might use to adjust pH down in a cosmetic setting there’s Lactic with one pKa (3.86) and Acetic (vinegar) also with one (4.76).  Remember the lower the number the stronger the acid so in this case, for pH adjustment citric is strongest.

With regards to molecular size, Citric Acid is a good example of a common pH adjuster that’s also relatively large,  sitting at 192.124g/mol.  This is significantly heavier than the amino acids we discussed earlier, throwing doubt on the relevance of molecular weight as a measure of whether a chemical is fit-for-purpose as a pH adjuster.  For reasons that will become more obvious as we go on, it’s fair to say that while molecular weight is worthy of consideration, it’s not the most important feature of the chemical.   

Unlike Amino acids, Citric does not have an isoelectric point. It’s three pKa values are very close together and this is because its three functional groups share the same chemistry (-OOH or carboxyl groups). By comparison, Arginine and Lysine Amino Acids contain two types of Acid/ Base curious functional groups – the Ammonium group: NH4 > NH3+ and NH2+ plus the carboxyl group -OOH.   Not having an isoelectric point makes Citric a much easier molecule to work with for pH adjustment. The absence of nitrogen containing functional groups is also a big winner as we will explore next!

The Chemical Reactivity of Amino Acids

Ammonium Ions and Nitrogen.

Amino acids contain ammonium functional groups. These are chemical bonds in which nitrogen is surrounded by hydrogen and bonded to carbon.  In our amino acids, these nitrogen functional groups exist in what we call a primary position. Other options include having the nitrogen in a secondary or tertiary position.  The naming relates to how many carbons the nitrogen is bonded to.  Another nitrogen containing neutraliser that’s common to cosmetic science is Triethanolamine only this is a tertiary rather than primary amine.

Nitrogen chemistry is involved in one of the persistent ‘nasties’ issues in cosmetic science and that’s the presence or formation of Nitrosamines:

While amino acids, being primary amines are not the most likely nitrogen-containing molecules to form nitrosamines in a formula, their presence does create an opportunity for nitrogen-centric chemical reactions and not all of those are desirable.  Again, I must point out that nitrogen is not ‘nasty’ or to be avoided – it’s abundant in our skin as I’ve already said.  What I’m talking about here is the potential for a nitrogen-rich functional group to cause formula troubles and I’m particularly talking about this in the context of it only being in the formula to adjust the formula pH. 

Here is a thorough assessment by the CIR review into nitrosamine formation.

Vitamin C goes brown faster with Amino Acids.

One common and simple reaction that can occur in your amino acid adjusted formula is the Maillard Reaction. This is where vitamin C reacts with the amino acid turning it brown and basically breaking it down.

Vitamin C is difficult to work with at the best of times as it is highly reactive and vulnerable to oxidation.  Adding amino acids to your formula, especially those  that aren’t strictly necessary introduces  an added problem  or layer of complexity in this regard.  There are some interesting papers around  vitamin C / amino acid interaction in the food industry:

Non-enzymatic browning in citrus juice

Non-enzymatic browning reaction in L-ascorbic acid/basic amino acid systems

Sugars break down with Amino Acids.

Many cosmetic formulations contain sugars and both glucose and fructose react with amino acids under normal storage conditions to form bi-products that go on to discolour the juice. While this is more an issue of aesthetic than safety it is still something most brands would prefer to avoid or at least minimise.  

Your amino acid may form a Schiff base

Schiff bases happen when a nitrogen-containing compound forms a coordinate complex with a metal ion.  I guess it’s similar to a chelation complex only more colourful and potentially less helpful.

Metal ions are not uncommon in natural formulations. They can come in on the back of your herbal extracts, your clays or your colour pigments.   Should they find themselves attracted to and then bonded onto your pH adjusting amino acid your formula may change colour, become lumpy or granular or otherwise turn into a shit storm.  Then again, this may not happen at all but as it’s possible, it should could be worth keeping in mind if your formula starts looking like a rainbow. You are not hallucinating!

Weird things happen when Arginine meets Citric Acid.

While I must confess to not yet being able to fully articulate what happens when Arginine and Citric acid get together, it is clear that in an aqueous environment they react in a way that’s non-linear and therefore somewhat harder to manage and/or fully predict in terms of pH response, formula aesthetics and stability.  Citric is present in most fruit extracts and some herbal preparations meaning it might be in a formula even when you didn’t intend for it to be:

Unravelling the nature of citric acid:L-arginine:water mixtures: the bifunctional role of water

pH Adjusting with Amino Acids – A Problem of Extrapolation?

Amino Acids are OK or even preferred in some (specific) settings.

A great example of where the pH adjusting benefits of an amino-acid are preferable is Innolex’s Emulsence HC – a palm-free cationic conditioning wax  that sends your formula pH to around 3 prior to neutralisation.  I’ve used this ingredient in many formulations and can attest to the benefits of neutralising this particular ingredient with the suggested Amino acid  vs Sodium Hydroxide or even bicarbonate of soda (which is pretty much always a dud choice).  The amino acid doesn’t just work better, it is the only common option that works well, improving all aspects of the formula both in-use and in-pack.

Here’s a formula from Inolex showing how Emulsence HC is used to create a conditioning spray and how much Arginine is added to make the adjustment.

Lubrizol have also been known to mention amino acids in their technical documentation, listing them as one among many ‘neutraliser options’ for their carbomer family of polymers. While that appears on first glance like evidence for treating amino acids as just another pH adjuster that’s not quite the case.  In this technical documentation  Lubrizol are focused more on what can work for their polymer than what will work safely in your formula.

As we have seen above, Amino Acids can and do react with other commonly-found cosmetic ingredients so while it is correct to state there are amino acids that can adjust a formula pH upwards, extrapolating that to assume they work in all (or even most) cosmetic formulations likely problematic.

The Summary.

As much as we call cosmetic science ‘chemistry’, in many formulations we are actively trying to avoid chemistry happening!  I mostly teach people to think of what we mainly do is closer to  physics  than chemistry – we help things exist physically together and share space without changing each other.  We go to great lengths to avoid chemical reactions happening most of the time, adding preservatives, stabilisers, antioxidants, UV protectors and packaging appropriately.  While pH adjustment is one of the chemical reactions we need, accept and invite, it is counter-productive to introduce an unnecessary layer of chaos at this point.

Do Amino Acids Even Delivery What We Want?

The fact amino acids are being widely considered for pH adjustment is a function of their perceived naturalness, gentleness and multifunctionality.  While this is sometimes true, with some amino acids made via biofermentation, we can’t overlook the fact that many are synthetic in origin.   Synthetic amino acids may or may not meet the criteria for addition in an organic or natural formula. 

Price is another consideration for the cosmetic formulator albeit perhaps only a minor consideration. Amino acids are significantly more expensive than the alternatives (Sodium Hydroxide or Triethanolamine – although TEA has its own issues, some but not all of which are common to amino acids) and that’s without considering the extra R&D costs that could be incurred to thoroughly evaluate formula, packaging and micro stability after using this chemistry to adjust pH.

A third take-home point is the dose.  The best pH adjusters are the ones that do their job very efficiently and at low addition rates. pH adjusters add complexity and ionic activity to the water phase and that, in turn can destabilise emulsions and de-solubilise solutions.  For those reasons it is best practice to use the pH adjuster that does the job in the most invisible way and that is why we must consider aspects such as pKa, isoelectric point and molecular weight when weighing up our options.  

Fourth is the reactivity – Amino acids are chaos when compared to the other typically used options.  It is entirely possible that in adopting this pH adjusting strategy you are creating a  formulations that has a lower shelf life than it otherwise might have. It may be more irritating, less aesthetically pleasing, less efficacious and less physically stable.  Then again it may not. It’s all in the detail!

All in all, brands and formulators, teachers and workshop facilitators who are promoting  amino acids as a more natural, safer or gentler alternative than Sodium Hydroxide for pH adjustment would be wise to think more deeply and adopt an applied rather than absolute mindset.   I could be wrong, but I feel it likely amino acid pH adjustment could, in many cases, be a bum move.

Butter behaviour is more about triglycerides than fatty acids.

September 26, 2021

In 2016 I wrote two articles about Shea Butter and felt that I’d totally aced the subject! There was this one on the role of women in the Shea story and this one about its chemistry. While I still look back at these articles and think they are pretty OK, I’m now kicking myself that I let another, bleedingly obvious fact about the chemistry of Shea (and other butters) slide right through my fingers.

The value of viewing butters by their triglycerides rather than fatty acids has only just become apparent to me after I’ve sat here for a few weeks evaluating different butters, oils and waxes under the microscope and comparing that to their usual, eyeballed selves. Even in writing this I’m cringing at how little attention I paid to this, mostly likely because I have a tendency to dive deep and miss the shallow water until I’m done down there and am on the way back up. Anyway, let’s have a look.

We (meaning the royal ‘everyone and their mother ‘we’) tend to talk about oils in terms of their fatty acid chemistry. An oil, butter or wax is said to contain lots of oleic, palmitic or stearic acid and that’s why it feels like this, looks like that or behaves how it does. The only trouble is, for the most part these fatty acids are not floating around behaving in their fatty acid way. They are bonded to glycerin and exist in gangs. We call these gangs triglycerides as I’ve mentioned before no doubt and as you probably already know by your internet reading.

Triglycerides have their own ways of occupying space and time and while they do relate to their component fatty acids in many ways, viewing them only as that misses something interesting.

Let’s explore this first by focusing on three fatty acids that are commonly found in butters as examples: Stearic, Oleic, Palmitic.

As, out of those three, I only have stearic acid as a stand-alone ingredient in my lab at this point in time I can only show you this but I’ll do my best to describe the others with the data I can find. I’ll then share with you some information about triglycerides of these three fatty acids and the experimental data I’m gathering.

Stearic is a C18:0 fatty acid so saturated (no double bonds). On its own it has a melting point of 69.3C

Oleic Acid is a C18:1 fatty acid that has one double bond. It has a melting point of 13-14C

Palmitic Acid is a C16:0 fatty acid (no double bounds) that has a melting point of 62.9C

When I melt Stearic Acid onto a microscope slide and magnify it to 800x I see a jagged, dense crystalline structure which look all sharp and pointy:

Combining 20% Stearic Acid with 80% Caprylic Capric Triglyceride creates a pot-set balm with buttery, snowflake-like texture with a frosted, icy appearance. While it feels quite nice it’s not got enough structural integrity to be useful like this. I chose this as it was the simplest and purest triglyceride I had to hand to use as a model oil phase for these binary systems. It is a C8, C10 saturated triglyceride of known structure. If I was to use a whole vegetable oil as my model oil phase the triglyceride composition would be more variable and there would be other chemicals present (free acids, unsaponifiable fraction including vitamins and maybe plant pigments such as carotenoids). This is what that combination looks like under the microscope:

This is what MCT and Stearic Look like in the sample:

My un-tested assumption or hypothesis would be had I swapped Stearic for Palmitic I would have achieved a very similar outcome albeit a little softer and less formed perhapse. This guess takes into consideration the lower melting point of palmitic and my prediction that its shorter chain length (but same orientation) may potentially pack even more tightly than the stearic which is a little bulkier.

As for Oleic with its very low melting point, I’d expect that to remain fluid, potentially even when frozen upon which I’d expect at least some of the oleic to wax-out to the bottom of the sample.

Next we should move onto triglycerides as chemical entities and explore those.

Triglycerides of Stearic, Palmitic and Oleic.

My first step was to hunt down some science papers that already appreciated the glory of the triglyceride and found this paper on cardiovascular disease which, I must say doesn’t sound relevant at first glance.

Berry, Sarah. (2009). Triacylglycerol structure and interesterification of palmitic and stearic acid-rich fats: An overview and implications for cardiovascular disease. Nutrition research reviews. 22. 3-17. 10.1017/S0954422409369267.

What I appreciated about this article was its triglyceride information table which you can see for yourself here:

This table showed me two things:

  1. That triglycerides containing the same fatty acids could have very different physical properties and
  2. That the triglycerides could exist in different crystal shapes and forms.

I feel the need to interject here and state (for my own vanity I presume) that while neither of these things were surprising in and of themselves, my aha moment came from finally seeing this data in front of me and having it clear away my assumptions once and for all. This is why the cooling and setting process for butters matters, this is where the many crystaline forms of chocolate originates from, this is why butters often have a wide rather than narrow melting range, this is why some are prone to grittiness while others are crumbly. This is more important than the individual fatty acid chemistry OR the unsaponifiable fraction data, both of which matter but neither of which matter more than this!

Triglyceride Short-Hand.

Rather than write out the name in full, the nutrition and food industries (which appear to have more data on triglycerides than any others I’ve yet found) use shorthand which I’m finding as amusing as I am helpful.

These are my favourites although I’m willing to accept that I’m probably writing them in the wrong order just so they look funnier and are more memorable to me:

POP = Palmitic-Oleic-Palmitic

POO = Palmitic-Oleic-Oleic

SOS = Stearic-Oleic-Stearic

Many more orientations exist and while Oleic is commonly found in position two, it isn’t always. Physical property wise, the exact position of the fatty acids in relation to each other matters as this determines the shape of the triglyceride and, subsequently, how close (or far away) it can get to other chemicals when present in a formula or even when in the stand-alone raw material. Again, what this means is you don’t know everything about a fat just by knowing its fatty acids, further, that you don’t know everything about a triglyceride just by knowing the names of the fatty acids it contains. Oooohhhh I’m excited now!

Applying this view to cosmetic butters:

I put this table together using information I found across a number of scientific publications outlining the structure, typical composition and melting points of the triglyerides. Referencing more than one paper gave me a higher level of confidence that the information I was finding was typical rather than a one-off. Presenting the data this way was something I decided to do in order to help in me work through how the internal triglyceride structure influences the external appearance and performance of the butters in question.

Looking at this I can see why Shea is such a bugger to work with at times.

I can also get an inkling as to why cocoa butter is smoother than shea and mango and more likely to feel dry over oily.

As for mango, this table seems to provide evidence as to why this tends to be harder and feel less greasy than shea.

The analysis as I see it so far.

Shea is the only butter of the three to have a significant proportion of triglycerides present in a permanent liquid state. It is also the butter with the largest range in triglyceride melting point. Taking it further we can see it has big chunks of triglycerides existing as high, medium and low melting point chemistry at room temperature. If you are thinking that these different triglycerides will bond together and form a new homogenous blend, that’s not the case. Sure they might tangle up together a little but it’s more likely they just swim (swim being the operative word thanks to that liquid) around in their oily pool prefering their own company to that of ‘others’, just waiting for the temperature to change a little so they can melt or solidify some more and cause more chaos.

In terms of crystal chaos I’m not entirely sure how to read this in terms of relating it to what happens in real life but it looks like Shea has the least choices when it comes to crystal structures. It contains 52% of its triglycerides in orientations that can take on three crystaline forms and 27% or nearly 1/3 that exists as just one. Compared to Cocoa which has 3 triglycerides each capable of 3 different crystal structures accounting for 80% of its chemistry it seems quite tame. Mango reads similarly to Shea but we must keep in mind that mango is less likely than Shea to have some liquid fats at room temp so while the potential for crystal morphing is there, the opportunity is more limited given the lack of room to ‘swim’.

NOTE: The greater the potential for movement in a chemical blend, the more opportunity there is for chaos. That’s one of the reasons thickening a product helps to keep its form stable.


The potential for symetry to play a role in butter properties is one of the things that becomes clearer once you look at the triglycerides.

POP and SOS are symmetrical, POS is so close to being it can almost be thought of as so.

OOO is, of course symmtrical but it’s also liquid so it can’t play this game.

OOS is, quite frankly a mess.

I’ve still got more to research in this regard but the physics around it intrigue me and others by the looks of it. There have been several papers published that evaluate the crystalline behaviour of fats and lipids, linking them to their triglyceride symetry or otherwise. Here’s one.

The fact that 80% of the triglycerides in cocoa butter are symmetrical or close enough to it is most likely the reason it can be so smooth. That they are comprised of mainly saturated fats is likely the reason they feel dry rather than greasy.

In terms of butters, Cocoa wins the symetry wars, not because it has the most symetrical triglycerides- these three are actually very similar in proportion that way – but because it doesn’t contain the unsymmetrical or low melting point chaos that the other two butters do. So, it can let its symmetry shine un-interrupted.

So can we see this under the microscope?

Above are pictures taken at 800x magnification of pure butters. While it can be hard to work out what we can see here, it’s easy to see the three butters have their own unique structural arrangement.

Mango butter forms little flower-shaped crystals, cocoa is dominated by long curly swirls which I think is beautifully fitting given its African heratige and then there’s shea. Shea also has a curly structure but it’s fibers appear shorter and more C than U shaped. They are also interrupted by crystals every-so-often.

I would be lying if I tried to make out I can tell you exactly what we are seeing yet but feel confident enough to suggest these slides demonstrate perfectly how three simple fatty acids: Stearic, Oleic and Palmitic can come together to form triglycerides with their own unique characters which go on to create butters with their own unique internal structural richness and complexity. One that goes way beyond that of the individual fatty acids.

And with that I’ll leave this article.

This little piece of butter loving is part of my humungous Oleogel project. A project that is keeping me engrossed while I remain mostly working at home thanks to the COVID outbreak. I can’t say I’ve minded that at all and have instead felt transported to so many places both microscopically and real-worldly thanks to the threads of imagination this project has twanged.

I hope you’ve found that both interesting and helpful and that like me, you are sciencing the shit out of this pandemic (reference from The Martian BTW).

Amanda x

What if science is to neurotypicals what life is to autistics…

September 17, 2021

Scientific thinking comes naturally to me. The way I sit back and observe in order to form a hypothesis to test. The way I listen more than I talk. How I experiment broadly and (often) wildly, off-script even rather than seek to be guided into safe spots with boundaries and expectations. And finally,how I interpret and accept failure, the drive within that keeps me going, lapping up every opportunity, every lesson. Noticing everything, testing everything, accepting everyting. This is the art of paying attention.

Being autistic means I process language and thought differently to neurotypicals (most people).

This doesn’t automatically mean I don’t or can’t undertstand things that people say, it’s more that I have to think about it more. I seem to have come without an ‘assumption’ or ‘instinct’ button in that department, or more accurately that I do have one but mine came without the software (I have to build the software). Anyway, over the years I’ve been teaching science I’ve noticed just how much some basic (in the fundamental rather than judgemental way) concepts struggle to be understood. That no matter how many different ways I try to explain, demonstrate and encourage, these concepts are met with a puzzlement that locks down the bit of the brain that adopts new information.

Anyway, after another two of these moments this week something finally clicked to me. What if science is to neurotypicals what life is to autistics…

Example A: When water isn’t water.

Often I’ll ask a client if their formula contains water. I might phrase this in different ways depending on what other information I’ve been given at that point (water phase, diluted surfactants, extracts that are not oil based) etc. Often the client will say no.

Sometimes the answer is no and they are correct but quite often their formula does contain water, they just didn’t think of their ingredient that way.

Common thinking roadblocks I’ve come across include:

  • Thinking that Aloe Juice or Gel is not water.
  • Same for Milk, fruit juice, extract-only water phases or honey.

Progressing from there we have:

  • That glycerin extracts don’t count as a ‘water phase’ (Ok, this one I can understand to a point but remember, I’m talking to people who call themselves formulators/ crafters of cosmetics or whatever and lets not forget that many people still think glycerin is oil, oily or oil-soluble).
  • That many ingredients are blends that include water as supplied (again, definitely something that takes a bit more looking into but again, these are formulators)

Example B: The ingredient can only take one form.

While my customer base is global, there is a concentration of people to whom I interact that are on the same seasonal weather pattern as me. Every time the weather gets cold here I get people calling up worried about their oils going cloudy or gritty, their preservative ‘frosting over’ or their waxes being ‘so hard they can’t get them out of the container’. The most common conclusion to these dilemas I get are that the material has expired, is the wrong material or has somehow ‘gone wrong’. The same thing happens in reverse when the weather warms up.

Sometimes a change in form of an ingredient, especially separation in ingredient pre-mixes, can be a sign the ingredient has expired but in these cases it’s just your regular melting, freezing, evaporating or condensing. The same process most adults accept with water (steam, liquid, snow, ice) but struggle to apply in other settings.

My reflections

As a teacher I welcome these misconceptions as teachable moments. These are moments where you can explore the current conception with the student / brand owner or whatever and walk them through a thought process that (hopefully) opens their eye, granting them an ‘aha’ moment. Often that does happen but it doesn’t always. Sometimes when it doesn’t happen I have to accept that I may not be the teacher for them and that I’ve failed, at other times it may just not be ‘their’ time to discover that – their brain may have the capacity but not the receptivity.

So how is this like being autistic?

When observing these interactions in detatched ‘scientist’ mode while actively participating in them , it seem to me as if the student/ brand owner has tried to make sense of the situation at hand by scanning their brain for an answer among the things they already know. Only the ‘already know’ box doesn’t encompass their whole lives, it only stretches to THIS part of their life. It looks to me like they have a brain cupboard for cosmetic science stuff – a silo or bucket I guess you could call it, a place that is in no way connected to any other information or experience they have.

This situation is also common in teaching, they call it ‘classroom smart, life challenged’ or something like that. An example of which may be the student who can do the math calculations in the classroom with ease because they have their ‘school’ mindset on but put a money sign in frot of the numbers and send them out shopping and they can’t figure out how much change they should get from a 50.

In autism terms this is also quite common. In my personal experience (the only one I’m qualified to share) it has two key underlying causes:

1) my monotropic mindset. This is similar to the silo or bucket mentality above but in this case rather than not being able to de-contexturalise (I can easily do that), I can get stuck on one idea or track and have trouble stepping outside of that zone to gain a broader perspective. In this context I could also call this hyperfocus or flow for me, in the neurotypical type scenario I’m comparing it to, the thought origin may be the same or may well be that no other options are within the frame of reference/ can be imagined. This is often the case when the experience level is low – in that case, it would be a case of jumping to a conclusion.

2) The Overwhelm. Being autistic for me means being easily overwhelmed by the possibilities and input that is all around me. If I’m not in a state of flow, I’m like a boundary-less sponge, soaking up anything and everything, often struggling to work out what is useful and what is not. For many students/ brand owners I talk to in this context, I have to keep in mind that the cosmetic science world is all unfamiliar to them. It’s a world where many act confident on the outside but are actually very vulnerable on the inside. Being overwhelmed for me is made ten times worse when I am in an environment in which I feel alien (which is most places). This is not a state of mind that is condusive to ‘best self’ thinking and again may be driving some of the struggles I observe.

So what next?

As always I’m sharing this with you in the hope it serves to open up thought processes and conversation that may help us all communicate better and be kinder to each other. While it is sometimes frustrating for me as a teacher and mentor to be confronted by these situations it is not (and I repeat NOT) because I think of these questions and/or situations as stupid or pointless. It’s more because I don’t always have the time or buy-in from the people asking to dig deep enough to help resolve this misconception and empower the individual.

I also want to make it clear that I am not implying all neurodiverse people can ‘do’ science and no neurotypical people get it, that’s just the thread of thought that gave me this ‘aha’ moment, affording me a compassion boost and an energy injection to tackle these questions in another way.

Whether my clients are really stuggling in similar ways to my autistic self or whether that’s just my misconception (or projection) I don’t know and don’t know that it matters. What does matter is that we carry on encouraging people to think of their cosmetic science endeavours both more critically (scientifically) and more broadly as that should allow the mind to expand and relax.

And with that I’ll leave you for today.

Break Point – What happens when you squish your balm to death!

September 10, 2021

As some of you may know I’ve been conducting lots of experiments on Oleogel strength. One of the fun things to do with oleogels is to get them naked then squish them. Here is a video of just that.

These oleogel lumps do vary in size a little but are roughly 2.5cm cubed. I’m re-running these tests with less variable sample sizes and will also make some adjustments to reduce the potential for the pressing to cause a slip and slide action to happen.

In the meantime please enjoy the squishing and I hope you find this filter helpful in highlighting the changes in force type and direction.

When your preservative prefers your packaging to your product

September 10, 2021

Preservatives are surface-active.

What you are hoping (or aiming) for is them prefering the inter-face (or surface) between your oil and water phases but that isn’t always what happens.

Behold, exhibit A:

A couple of weeks ago a help desk client sent an enquiry about a preservative they wanted to use but that was causing issues in their formula. I could see the current problem was one of solubility as the preservative that had been chosen was just not mixing into the main formula. I confirmed my suspicions with a few lab tests and also tested out a couple of formula adaptations to provide it a more accomodating environment but then kept the original samples to evaluate over time.

On returning to the samples this week I noticed that a couple of the samples had developed etchings on the side of the bottle, the rest of the formula being crystal clear now and with no sediment. Clearly in these samples the preservative was prefering the packaging to the product and had found a way to precipitate out onto the side of the bottle. I do see this behaviour from an ingredient from time to time and it can happen with other ingredient types too such as essential oils, fragrances and colours.

This situation takes a bit of time to develop. In this particular case we could immediately see the preservative was not in solution so the etching effect developed quickly. However, this situation can and does happen more slowly and quietly, showing up as stability issues down the track either in terms of microbial failure (when the offender is a preservative) or a premature loss of colour or fragrance of a product (for dyes or aromatics).

I often hear people talking about solubility as if it is an absolute thing but it is not. Solubility is always relative: this compared to that. It’s also applied – solubility of ingredients in the formula vs in the packaging, solubility under optimal storage conditions vs under stress. These are some of the reasons we take our time when developing new formulations. This is why stability testing is important and why on-shelf vigilance, especially of the first batch of new products comes in (as not all cases of packaging interaction happen during a standard shelf life test or in standard test conditions).

It can be daunting to know of all the ways your formulations can fail, especially when it’s to do with microbial stability. However, it’s also interesting and empowering when you can spot and fix a problem.

The key is to give yourself enough time and develop enough curiosity and knowledge to turn these unfortunate events into opportunities.

Amanda x

Oleogel Testing Experiment Update – The First Round of Data is in!

September 10, 2021

While it’s fair to say I’m not always the best at reading the room, I would put a good deal of money on me being right that most of you have NOT been joining me in my excitement driven sleepless nights waiting for this data. That said, this project is turning out to be very interesting and likely to provide insights that can spread further and wider than my oleogel under pressure!

So what’s been going on and what am I talking about?

If you didn’t watch the part 1 video go do it now as that will get you on the right page. For those that watched it but can’t remember it (or would rather forget) I am investigating the strength of oleogels both ‘naked’ (unpackaged) and in different types of packaging – plastic, glass, metal and cardboard. I’m doing this for many reasons, not least because many brands are trying to reduce packaging waste by choosing eco-friendly options such as cardboard over plastic. As a formulator, teacher and science communicator I want to explore these consequences in an applied way. So often when you look for science data it’s talking about a single component – say oleogels as a thing or packaging as a thing. By investigating the relationship under stress (some might say all relationships are stressful…) between both the packaging AND the contents I’m producing APPLIED data. Applied data in this case means data that we can APPLY (or use) in our real-life scenarios so when we are trying to work out the pro’s and con’s of choosing this over that container.

Why Oleogels?

Oleogels are weird, that’s why. They have no continuous structure to them which should mean they are floppy, sloppy and leaky but they are generally not, well not all the time. It’s this complexity and weirdness that fascinates me. Their structure changes over time, when you make them different ways and as they respond to stresses and strains. It’s almost like they are emotional little flowers!

In all seriousness oleogel physics are just very interesting. I am leaning towards using Ice (not the drug, no need to panic mum) as a comparrison model as that seems to have similar properties. Oleogels have a crystaline internal structure that can be described as fractal in nature. They also have fluid regions that can leak when the crystals grow big and/or numerous enough. They have regions that generally stay quite fluid thus creating a constant shift in the internal landscape that us cosmetic chemists try to control, often unsuccessfully.

I don’t know about you but I’ve looked back on some of the oleogel formulations I’ve made over the years and found samples that have developed a gem-stone like crystaline structure to them as the balm aged. I’ve also had balms that became so hard over time that you couldn’t use them at all. Balms that split into oily and waxy parts and balms that bounce! When does an emulsion ever give you that much entertainment and confusion?

I also like oleogels because it’s a chemistry that beginners make because it seems simple – just blend wax and oil and you are done! I quite like the way nature has of sticking its fingers up at us and saying ‘you may think I’m simple but I’m going to kick your ass’. Sure, not every oleogel is as tempremental as a teenager with no internet but I’m not interested in those ones, I want these 🙂

Where I’m at with testing.

This round of testing is still in the process development stage so while I’m collecting statistically significant data it’s taking rather a lot of tests to reach that point – ideally I’d be doing 20 rounds of testing per variable rather than 40-60. I will repeat these tests with a slightly modified process to reduce the variability in my data while maintaining its significance (just in case you were wondering). That ‘optimisation’ will then make it possible and practical to run this sort of testing on your products should you want it.

The rest of the information is in this video including some more information about how I’m handling the data I’m producing and how I’m making sure my strength comparrisons are fair and as accurate as possible. There’s a lot of maths involved and I’m just hoping I chose the right equations for this data – I am also going to check that with a physics expert before moving to the next stage.

My hope in sharing this journey with you is that you will start to understand and maybe value the process of ‘doing’ science a bit more. That you may invest more of your own time in running controlled experiments and analysing the data you produce. Finally and importantly given that this is a business, I’m hoping that in sharing this I can demonstrate to you the value of knowing the applied strength of your oleogels and how this data can help you with your own R&D.

Thanks for watching.

Developing a method for press/ squish testing balms and oleogels.

September 2, 2021

Hello people,

Believe it or not I’ve had a lot of cosmetic sciency things going on in my mind and all over my house (mostly thanks to COVID lockdowns) over the last month or so and I’m just about ready to share them with you. I say ‘just about’ because in my head there’s always more to learn and invetigate and that’s as exciting as it is annoying (because nothing ever feels finished).

Anyway, I decided to share this content with you via the wonders of video because… Why not! In summary what you will find in this 20 minute video is a walk-through of a new testing method I’m developing that YOU (yes you) will be able to access for your balm, pomade, gel and waxy solid style products when the time is right and the crystals are fully charged.

I thought it might be quite nice to share what I’m doing at this, the R&D stage to help you get an appreciation for the science that’s involved in a project like this, the amount of testing that gets done, the time that it all takes and the fact that at the end of it all you have to sit down and do a lot of math homework (oh the joy!)

So come along on this process with me and (hopefully) learn a little more about the science of squishing.

Also note, you can’t submit your products for squish testing (a type of application testing – how your products will perform in-use or in different containers maybe) just yet. I am trying to speed the project up and will introduce this new service on my website as soon as I’ve fully validated my method and worked out how many millions of dollars this service is worth mwahahahahahahaha.

Another note: I didn’t do my hair or make-up for this video because I forgot and it’s likely I end the last frame with an oilier than usual face because I have a habit of touching my face a lot and balms are oily…

Getting INDI brands to class.

August 4, 2021

Warning, I am going to sound very old and set-in-my-ways in 3, 2, 1…

There is no doubt that social media, especially visual platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok have created the perfect environment for small, start-up brands to thrive. In the cosmetic industry we call these ‘Indie’ brands and we worship them like Gods. Well, I don’t but that’s because the only thing I worship generally is trees and chocolate.

These Indi or ‘independent’ brands birth themselves into the world, growing from strength of their own ideas, sense of entitlement and magnificent aesthetic. Ok, bit harsh but you get the picture.

Some of these Indi brands do eventually realise they need to attend a course or two or seek some professional help (collaboration darling, they seek collaborations – a meeting of minds) but only after their usual research tricks – searching You Tube, the blogs and social content of other Indie branders for free tips and recipes or asking their followers for feedback on each brain fart they have – draws a blank.

Their reluctance to go outside of their Indie bubble doesn’t stem from fear of them finding out they actually don’t really know enough to own a brand by themselves as that thought would never cross their minds. No, this reluctance is based on a lack of tolerance for anything deemed borning and non-goal orientated. They want to launch product X so they want to lean HOW to make product X because only they have what it takes to make things for their brand.

As a teacher (sorry, ‘collaborator’) Indi brands will tell me without telling me they don’t want to waste time exploring the science and reality that product X will be built on, they also aren’t that interested in learning how to formulate X from scratch although it will shit them when it turns out you can’t easily match a multi-national brands top selling anti-ageing cream when only using whole food type ingredients sourced from your garden. Who’d have known…

Yes these Indi brands have high standards, lots of ideas and zero tolerance for my shit and there’s nothing wrong with that is there ladies and gents?

Thinking a little skin science may be a good place to start I bring that up but that falls flat on its beautiful face also. The Indie brand has already got skin science nailed and not just because they have been hash-tag ‘genetically blessed’ and are still under 30. They learned everything they need to know about problem skin (which they don’t have) from Dr Pimple Popper and gleened from (you guessed it) You Tube and that Netflix series ‘Skin Decision’ (which is actually very good). My cosmetic science take on the dermis and how to facilitate better dermal penetration just can’t compete.

But they finally come to school, mostly to teach me how good they are, create some memories for their Insta feed and take selfies in a lab coat (there will be lab coats right?).

I’m mostly joking of course and while some of these things are definitely true some of the time, on the whole, Indie brand owners are as interested in cosmetic science and learning as the rest of us and a little background meandering never did anyone any harm.

Happy formulating.