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Stars, the chemists toolbox.

January 25, 2021

I don’t know about you but I like to pick at or inquire into a thing until I get to the bit that makes it make sense. Whether that’s a person, a movement (social or physical) or object. For me, studying and applying chemistry scratches that itch, helps me to understand why something does what it does, feels how it feels or is difficult to control (remain stable). I have never mentally struggled with the question of where my chemicals come from because I always felt that completely obvious but it turns out that isn’t the case for everybody and that’s what I want to discuss here. All the chemical elements we find here on earth, the items that make up the stuff of high school nightmares – the Periodic table – all come from space and were born in stars. That very same stuff then becomes everything else.

My interest in space and chemistry have made it hard for me to subscribe to the ‘natural vs synthetic’ dichotomy we care about so much in this industry, especially as it quickly became clear to me that few people if anyone really have the time or inclination to discuss this in any depth. While I no longer get as hung up on those semantics as I used to, I felt it might be interesting just to share with you some of the magic that goes on up there beyond our atmosphere especially given that this, 2021, marks my year of moving towards clarity. Clarity starts with knowing and understanding what you’ve got.

From Sky Gods to Science.

Humans have been looking up and wondering about the stars since time began and I got a potted (mostly western) history of that over the recent holidays whilst reading Stuart Clark’s book ‘Beneath the night. How the stars have shaped the history of humankind’. The book describes how our relationship has evolved from our early cultural relationships and stories through to the time of Aristotle who claimed that the ‘earth was made of divine matter and was different to space’ and on to the scientists of the Islamic Revolution and beyond. One of the largest leaps in our scientific understanding of the night sky came out of the work by Cairo-based polymath Ibn al-Haytham’s from around 1000 c. His work on optics and vision, astronomy, mathematics and the development of the scientific method helped form the foundations for the Scientific Revolution that followed some five hundred years later.

By the 1500’s the idea that the earth was at the centre of the universe was becoming increasingly hard for scientists to ignore or defend although that didn’t mean it was any less dangerous to do so! Copernicus became famous for his mathematically backed model showing how what we observe in the night sky makes more sense if it is the sun, rather than the earth at the centre of our universe – a bold move in such God-fearing times! A few decades later in Italy, Galileo Galilei got into huge trouble with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and was eventually placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for what he did to further develop and publicise the work that Copernicus had started with regards to the order of our solar system.

The wrestling between God and Science continued to shape the work and biases of scientists here in the western world for the next 2-300 years. People like Sir Isaac Newton tackled this by identifying as ‘Natural Philosophers’ which, in a nutshell meant scientists who were using and developing the latest tools and mathematics to study and reflect on the beauty and wonderment of nature without questioning the spirituality of it all. I don’t know whether this was smart diplomacy or heart-felt sentiment but on reflection it totally makes sense to keep some of the magic (or divinity) alive, especially given the awe we naturally feel when looking up at the night sky! But it was the arrival at what we now call the ‘Modern Scientific Revolution’ in the 1800’s that enabled scientists to focus on staying in their lane (what they can observe, measure and test) that really got things moving in terms of space exploration.

Analysing the Stars

Long before we blasted off towards the stars, the stars came to us as meteorites. These stone and metal objects have been making their dramatic entrance into earths atmosphere since time here began and chemical analysis of these objects helped us take the first solid steps in uncovering the material nature of our universe.

Today we don’t have to wait for things to fall to earth, we have telescopes that can scan the skies and pick up signals indicative of different elements and molecules. We have found carbon, the stuff of life, in the Diffused Interstellar Bands (DID’s) that appear as gaps in the spectrum of light from distant stars and galaxies. We also know that these DID’s contain much of their carbon as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, the same ‘nasty’ chemicals that we produce when diesel fuel or other objects are burned. We know there is amorphous carbon (reactive carbon such as we find in coal) in stardust and that these little sooty specs that float around in space are able to form bonds with hydrogen atoms as they float around in space’s super cold vacuum, thus kick-starting the same organic chemistry chain that goes on to give us aromatic ketones and alcohols such that we find in pears and other fruits.

The Nobel gasses, known for their inertness and loner-tendencies here on earth can be found cavorting around with hydrogen in supernovas such as the Crab Nebula while red gassy giant stars seem to be the birthing place for elements such as Iron, Oxygen and Carbon. The heavy element of Silica, which makes up around 60% of the earths crust, Sulphur and Calcium have been identified as forming when supernovas collapse in on themselves as they explode and pretty much everything else on that Periodic Table of Doom has been spotted forming somewhere or other up there.

The Nature of Chemicals.

While we can turn to space to understand the origin of all chemical matter on earth, we must turn our attention inwards to understand the nature of the chemistry we, as humans both employ and generate with intent.

The difference between the chemical element Iron, which is present and useful in all living things and the element Polonium – a deadly but rare, radioactive metal is less about it being made of different, more dangerous matter and more about proportionality and space.

Both Iron and Polonium are made from electrons (-ve charge with a mass of 1 unit), neutrons (no charge) and protons (+ve charge with a mass of 1 unit) just as all elements, but in differing quantities and physical arrangements (shells). If we go back to the stars which give rise to these elements, rather than wonder what made all the different materials that must exist in stars, we’ve now distilled it down to something quite simple – energy, polarity and proportionality. Exposure to different forces as the star explodes creates the conditions that decide how much of each get together, this singular process that spits out combinations of three types of sub-atomic matter generate all of the different elements that go on to form everything else.

If all chemical elements are materially the same, albeit in differing proportions, what we are dealing with here on earth when we talk about chemical elements, chemical compounds or complex materials is not material, it’s potential.

Material = what something is made of.

Potential = What something can become/ cause or turn into.

Cosmetic Chemistry, Nasty Chemistry, Natural Chemistry.

So now I guess we should bring this back to what we are all here for – Cosmetic Chemistry and I feel the above idea of potential is useful here.

Cosmetic chemistry relies on ingredients, ingredients are always chemicals and decisions around the chemicals that are publicly acceptable have, for a while now been shaped by a somewhat arbitrary decision making process based largely on material origin.

What I have attempted to show above, in a long-view origin-story way is that material origin has no baring on material potential and that it is material potential that really matters.

The potential for a material may be innate (inborn/ natural) such as we find with the elements that make up the periodic table and the molecules that form here naturally on earth, this would include cosmetic materials such as clays, salts, plant matter and other mineral, or it can be gained, constructed or acquired. For years now, humans have been able to construct materials based on their own intentions, to design materials that help humans fulfil their potential – this would include cosmetic materials such as silicone fluids, synthetic surfactants, many solvents and more besides. Where humans have often (in my opinion) gone wrong is not so much in what we have constructed but in not understanding its full potential before it got too late! For example, us humans created a durable, long-lasting materials that made the mass-manufacture and transportation of consumable products not only possible but also cheap! This material was plastic and today it is a word that sends many an environmentalist off in a tail spin. However, what I’m trying to say here is the plastic situation of today isn’t a material failure, it is a failure of attention and focus – a lack appreciation for the materials whole potential, something that maybe a life-cycle analysis could have made obvious, could have seen us make changes that made the problem go away. Hindsight is such a lovely thing but just as the scientists observing the stars in our pre scientific-revolution world were hamstrung by God, we too may be hamstrung by arguments over material origin or chemical name.

The future is written in our stars.

The stars, natural and unbothered by our human endeavours gave birth to the chemistry that made us and everything material that we can imagine. For hundreds of years we have played with those star-burst chemicals, arranging it in ways that have helped us fulfil our worldly hopes and dreams, make our lives more comfortable, affordable and fun. But then we saw that in doing this, we were often stealing from our future, leaving the world unbalanced, polluted and poisoned. We sought to remedy this by framing it as a war of origin, pitching natural vs synthetic, focusing only on the material and not on the material potential…

It is arguably impossible to pre-empt the full and complete potential and environmental fate of all chemicals that we construct but if we never account for our role in imagining, shaping and developing that potential, if we never see ourselves as as the ‘stars-on-earth’ chemical soup makers, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes right up to the minute it is too late.

So to conclude, when you are creating new chemistry be that at an ingredient or product level, it is disingenuous to focus entirely or get hung up on the origin of matter because all matter shares an origin. The key place to focus is on its potential. First there’s the potential which we imagine and read about in the material data sheet or its technical data. Second is that bound up in the new material or product – what it does and can affect, and third is the potential which is stored and that may have unhelpful consequences down the track. Essentially this is a life-cycle or cradle-to-grave analysis and yes, it would have just been easier to say that in the beginning but then I would not have been able to tell you about the stars and that would have been tragic 🙂

Reaching our full potential as environmentally savvy cosmetic chemists is easy when you remember that it all starts in the stars.

Here are some useful articles and references that I read when researching this piece.

  1. Last day of the dinosaurs’ reign captured in stunning detail. National Geographic magazine article that looks at the impact of the Yucatan Peninsular Meteor that fell to earth here, in Mexico, some 65 million years ago and wiped out the last dinosaurs. This article helps explain how scientists are discovering more about the chemistry of space.
  2. Chicxulub Impact Event – more information about the massive meteor in Mexico.
  3. The Raw Materials in Space. Scientific American article looking at where chemicals come from and what is being found in space.
  4. What is the origin or Iron. A quick review of where Iron is formed in space.
  5. The discovery of Nobel gas molecules in space. An article outlining what we know about nobel gas space chemistry and abundance.
  6. Silica in space, where it comes from and how space glass is formed.
  7. Chemistry World – A chemical account of Evolution.
  8. Beneath the Night. How the Stars have shaped the history of humankind. A great book by Stuart Clark.

Vegan Beeswax? What is that?

January 18, 2021

There is no singular alternative to beeswax, rather there are a variety of options one could try when formulating vegan-friendly products and I want to dive into that.

Interest in vegan cosmetics has grown substantially over the last few years due to a number of factors, the factor most interesting to me (if that matters to you) is sustainability – land use, land change and carbon footprint.

Now I can’t pretend to be vegan or lead you to believe that I find the farming of animals wrong because I don’t. I grew up in a market town, come from a family for whom farming was in their DNA (at least for as long as has allowed me to search) and can lead you to the home amongst the fields, somewhere in the English countryside, that has my name on it (Foxons Lodge). Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t move with the times, challenge my own believes, see things through a new lens but so far, I’m still more of a farming/ hunting/ circle-of-life kind of girl than one who hunts tofu in suburbia. However, what I can clearly see is that a) animals deserve to live more natural lives (as do we) and b) eating meat every day or possibly most weeks, especially red meat is problematic on many levels.

With that explained some of you may now be wondering what cow burgers have to do with beeswax given that bee farming is quite a substantially different endeavour. While I’m sure the vegan community will explain this to you better than I can, the practice of keeping bees for human gain – so we can harvest ‘products’ from them be they honey, wax or propolis, is seen as bee slavery and an interruption of their natural lives. Avoiding any kind of sentient being slavery is a goal of veganism and as such, bee products are out.

So now to beeswax and what it usually does for us cosmetic chemists.

Many products benefit from a bit of wax. Balms are an obvious starting point as it is difficult (although not impossible by any stretch) to turn an oily or buttery substance into a stick balm (like a Chapstick for example) without using a high melting point, oil-compatible ingredient, for example a wax. But they aren’t just for thickening, waxes are used in hair styling products including beard balms where they can help hold a style or smooth down the hair. They also help stabilise oil-in-water emulsions, form ointments (another type of emulsion, typically water-in-oil), provide water-resistance in hand creams, sunscreens and long-wear make-up and make make-up such as mascara possible. Use of waxes in a cosmetic formula can range from 0-30% and even more in some cases depending on what is being created, the viscosity (thickness) required, the rheology (flow) you are aiming for and the products wear resistance and functional requirements.

Beeswax is one of the best known cosmetic waxes and is something that many hand-made or local-provenance brands like to use as it is completely natural, often smells great (sweet like honey but with heavier tabacco and woody back notes), can have a beautifully rich yellow/orange colour and is very, very versatile.

Beeswax behaviour.

If I had to describe the physical properties of beeswax in one word I’d say ‘flexible’. Unlike the majority of plant waxes available, beeswax is rubbery, maleable, absorbent and stretchable. We have its chemistry to thank for that but it is its purpose in the world that answers the ‘but why’s’. In an ever-changing and moving world, brittle building materials are problematic and can easily fracture and lose form. Flexible materials, materials that can absorb, contract and expand with the nuances of the day, are far more likely to last and easier to mould, grow and fix should they be stretched too far. Now while I do remember having a bee talk at primary school, I also remember feeling it lasted far too long for my liking. I remember very little of it thanks to me zoning out (and then getting into trouble for not moving off the mat when the talk was over – I was still AWOL) but I do remember coming away with a new found appreciation for the intelligence of bees. What I didn’t appreciate until more recently though is just what amazing material scientist bees are given the complexity of the wax they produce.

Beeswax chemistry.

One only has to take a momentary glance over a paper on beeswax chemistry to know that you are looking at a very complex material. This fact, as always, amuses me immensely given that we are living in a non-science world where anything that can’t be pronounced is shunned. Well there is somewhere in the region of 300 chemicals in beeswax from many different family groups including Fatty Acids, Alkanes, Wax Esters, Alkenes and Fatty alcohols and some of these things have names that I’d definitely struggle to fit on an ingredients label. But rather than get into the fine details of each chemical the important thing is to appreciate that it takes many, many otherwise quite stiff and boring chemicals, combined in just the right ratios to make this amazing material. Mimicking it was never going to be easy…

So what is vegan beeswax?

New Directions (who I have consulted for since time began) have just launched a new ingredient called ‘beeswax alternative’ or something of that ilk. I’ve been paying around with it in my lab over the last week or so and have also been doing a bit of a nosy around in its chemistry to see what it actually is so I can compare and contrast it to real beeswax. I’ll get to all that in a minute but what I can confirm is this is all natural, all plant derived and sans palm – palm oil is still a thing to avoid in some circles.

There are many alternative waxes a cosmetic chemist can choose from but the wax I am talking about has been specifically designed as a beeswax alternative. With that in mind I tested it expecting a similar capacity to thicken or firm up a balm, similar plasticity, emulsion stabilising power, water-resistance and hold capacity (for styling or colour cosmetics). What I didn’t expect was for it to look, smell and feel like beeswax and other than the look of the pellets, my expectations were correct and it doesn’t.

INCI name: Helianthus Annuus Seed Wax, Olea Europaea Oil Unsaponifiables, Rhus Verniciflua Peel Wax, Shorea Robusta Resin

So this is a blended wax made from more than one plant material, intentionally chosen to re-create the type of chemistry found in beeswax. The Helianthus (sunflower) wax gives it its wax-like melting point, the Olea Europaea (olive) unsaponifiables provides a source of open chain hydrocarbons thanks to the presence of squalene, the Rhus Verniciflua (Varnish Tree wax or Sumac or Japan wax or berry wax) adds water-resistance and oleogel stabilising power while the Shorea Robusta (Sal Tree/ Dammar) Resin brings the flexibility.

Each one of the four components have their own distinct chemistry containing many different components but when brought together they form one wax pellet with a melting point of 68-74C which is actually higher than beeswax not that I’ve been able to tell from my trials.

How does it feel?

My experimenting thus far has left me concluding that this isn’t as able as beeswax to create the hardness that is typically associated with stick products when used on an equivalent basis.

I started off trying to thicken Caprylic/ Capric Triglyceride (MCT Oil) as that just happened to be something oily I had around in excess quantities. The resulting softish balms are below. 80% MCT, 20% Wax for both.

The resulting beeswax balm (LHS) had an obvious homogeneity to it straight away, spreading easily across the skin or surface and feeling smooth and ointment-like. The vegan beeswax balm didn’t quite behave that way and looked rather lumpy, also failing to spread evenly when pressed and instead yielding in chunks that meant some bits of skin and/or surface were missed while others received a big dollop.

Now I have to confess that this lab work of mine was undertaken with my ‘rough-and-ready’ approach which basically means you get bored of mixing and cooling quickly and whack the thing into the freezer to cool quickly. Anyone who knows anything about balm science and formulating appreciates how important optimal method is. Balms will structure differently if exposed to different levels of heat, mixing stress/ time, cooling conditions and even the cooling container. So, with that in mind I’m looking at this as a ball-park comparison only and will, when I’m feeling more detail-orientated, try a few more methods of production out to see how that alters the balms crystalline structure.

Now as MCT oil can be a bit of an odd beast, the second thing I tried was Olive oil. These are the results when I did my 80:20 test:

Beeswax is on the left and the vegan alternative is on the right. Again I did my ‘chuck it in the freezer’ move on these ones so yes, there are some chunky crystals in both but to be honest, I don’t care because it was clear to see that both of these waxes really liked olive oil soooooo much that they married it!

Chemistry wise, Olive oil is far more complex than MCT oil and that absolutely could account for the difference – the more complex structure better able to ‘fit’ tightly with the interruptions in structure the wax makes. Both resulting balms were semi-solids, had very similar viscosities and appearances and were equally lovely to feel. If anything I actually preferred the feel of the vegan beeswax one.

From there I started playing with a few more things but I’m not yet ready to share any of that work as I’ve got to focus (grasshopper) on some other work. However, what I can say is that this vegan friendly wax definitely has its place.

But why bother when you can use plant waxes such as Rice Bran, Candellila and Carnauba?

True, true. There are many other plant-based waxes around and it’s perfectly feasible that one or another of these would be a better fit for your formulation than this constructed wax. However, the is one thing these plant-waxes have in common is their lack of ability to form flexible films and that’s something that I have to say, the vegan beeswax alternative can do albeit in a clunkier way than beeswax proper.

Plants produce wax as sunscreen and water-proofing. Rather than it being a building material, it is a protective cover and as such, doesn’t have to be as flexible. Indeed, some plants find it beneficial for their leaves to be stiff and as luck would have it, plant waxes help make that dream come true!

Formulators have long known that combining waxes together gives a better, more flexible and forgiving film than just using one but even so, you are still ending up with what is potentially a lot of wax. The downside of wax-heavy formulations is just that – heaviness. Waxes can retard flow across a surface, make a product feel heavy and hot to wear, even crack an emulsion or pull moisture out of it (in which case the product becomes rubberised). What the vegan beeswax does is allow you to use more wax without using more wax – because it contains a range of chemistry, some of which is less waxy than your typical natural waxes provides.

And it is with that rather inelegant sentence that I make my conclusion for now. This constructed beeswax alternative may not be able to harden up a formula to the same degree that regular beeswax can but that’s actually to its benefit. For those formulations where you want stiffness without too much waxy residue (I’m thinking solid moisturising sticks, bi-phasic lip products etc) it is a benefit to be able to build your viscosity using other formulating strategies thus reducing the potential for an over-waxed product. This isn’t possible with binary or multi-wax formulations built around just what nature gives us.

I am looking forward to exploring this material and wax chemistry further as there is sooo much more to explore but in the meantime I’ll leave it at that.

This paper was interesting by the way…

Beeswax production.

Where to in 2021, a personal (& possibly boring) reflection of where I’m at.

January 12, 2021

First I’ll start by reiterating what this is, mainly because that’s how my brain works. It starts at the beginning (each and every time) and builds from there, never assuming, never bolting on. This is, indeed a tiresome way to be but it’s how I am…

This is a blog about cosmetic chemistry. More specifically it is a blog about my experiences, interactions and research as a scientist in general and a cosmetic chemist in particular. I am a cosmetic chemist who has a formal education in chemistry plus a long history of applied field work as a hands-on cosmetic chemist (factories, brands, laboratories, test facilities, consulting, speaking, teaching etc). I’ve been writing this blog since 2007 and up until the last two years I was quite prolific and enjoyed the process of sharing my ideas and seeing them form in real-time as I typed (yes, that’s how I write, there’s no plan and not much editing which some of my readers have, over the years, pointed out as annoying. Their loss). I knew that in time, the thrill of sharing all of this for free, for the shear joy of doing it, would wear off a little as things do when you keep on. However, I hadn’t anticipated just how that joy might be eroded and what it would do to me, how it would leave me feeling.

Turns out it would be eroded by my lack of ability to cope with and adapt to how people now interact with it, it being the information, insights and research I pump out, now being 2019-present vs then which was when I started…

Back in the beginning there appeared to me to be a real appetite for deep thinking and real investigating. Now it feels like opinions are all that matters and they who dress it up in the sexiest clothing or that look the best on Instagram, You Tube or Facebook win. That to me requires a different skillset. That to me doesn’t matter as much as what I have always tried to do and aspired to be. This has frustrated me forever but it finally became too much…

Also turns out that when it comes to fight, flight or freeze I do the latter and that goes on for a long, long time sending ice-cold ripples through my muscles, leaving me tense and with no blood supply to my extremities (brain being one of them). Once I’ve thawed (if indeed I do) I prefer to fight rather than flee but with so many perceived fights to pick from, the exhaustion sees that instinct turn inwards, leaving me questioning the point of everything. I know, I think I’ve said this all before but I guess us humans are doomed to walking around in circles until we notice the small detail that marks a way out.

Like many people 2020 threw up some outside-of-work challenges, a significant and persistent one being the changing and increasingly fragile health status of close family members. This plus Covid after a torrid 2019 which saw epic drought turn into flame meant that my limping brain and body gave up completely come October, since which time I’ve been hanging on by a thread to both my sanity and physical health (physically I can’t praise proper Chinese medicinal acupuncture highly enough, it’s really helped get that Chi moving again). While life remains somewhat complicated outside of work, as 2021 unfolds I do feel slightly more capable of tackling things again after having taken a solid break this Christmas period – the first full break in over 10 years.

But my crash in enthusiasm and stuckness wasn’t just caused by the environment be that the weather or my family, it was also about me.

When I mentioned above that the joy I had found in my work had been eroded because I couldn’t cope with people (that’s it in a nutshell) I knew that I had to dig into that further. The first truth of adult life is learning that you can only control yourself and the only real choice you have is in how to respond. Turns out that freezing is not a great business response and on that note I decided to turn my science mind inwards…

Somewhere between 2019 and early 2020 I was formally diagnosed with ADHD. ADHD is often thought of as the ‘naughty kid’ mental problem. The stigma around ADHD exists in a soup of skepticism where many un-labeled people seem permanently pissed off because everyone else has a mental health label which somehow excuses them from taking full responsibility for their actions and inaction. Further, this weird label fetish seems to make some un-labelled feel their life is harder and less fun because they have to change/ do more/ miss out because of it. Well I’m now part of that problem.

But that’s not all. Turns out I’m also very likely Autistic too.

The autism part is still being probed into but the odds are looking high for me hitting the double whammy of ADHD and Autistic by the time this year is through by which time I’ll be 47. That is quite late in the day for such a revelation but on balance it is not surprising given I’m a high IQ girl for whom ‘people’ and ‘being human’ are special case-studies.

Not wishing to jump the gun on the autism diagnoses I wish to fully acknowledge where I’m at currently so I can move forwards with the tools I already have at my disposal:

  • My time outside of family commitments which is still highly variable and less than it has previously been.
  • My intellect and access to resources which, in many ways continues to broaden and deepen.
  • My mental wellbeing and processing capacity which is influenced by both my neurodivergent (ADHD) way of attending to and processing input plus my limited ability to understand and manage interactions with people (this is what the autism may help me explain and if it isn’t that, the process I’m going through will still enable me to access some skills workshops to improve my capacity here).

With that acknowledged it is pointless for me to say ‘2021 is going to be an awesome year, a big year of change, just watch-this-space while I prepare to take over the world’. It won’t be that, it may even be harder than 2020 on the family front but that’s out of my direct control. What I can see is I am entering this year with eyes that are starting to re-adjust to a new way of relating to myself and the world. I am starting to feel a new energy pulse through me and it feels free and vibrant.

Over the last few months I have been keeping myself physically and mentally alive (basically) by slowing down and noticing more about the land on which I work – the trees, animals, mushrooms, flowers, rivers and human history. I’ve been planting seeds and watching them grow, travelling by foot and seeing relationships between things evolve and change as they go through their life cycles. I’ve re-tuned my ears to the vibrational energy that exists in and connects all things and realised that I interpret that as chemistry, living chemistry, life-giving chemistry. I have returned to my roots, the roots that had me lay on my stomach for hours as a child as I observed every little thing about the lawn in front of me, every little stary twinkle in the sky. I acknowledge that I lost this energetic sparkle somewhere between 2019 and now but am ready to welcome it back in its new, older and hopefully wiser form. That I can now use this energy as a light to guide my writing, research and lab work and as a source of power to push me to address and change the things that no longer serve me.

So 2021 will see Realize Beauty change because I’ve changed but hopefully it will all work out for the better. For those of you who need to know practically (rather than metaphorically) what this will look like I expect to be re-focusing myself on deep topics such as tracing where chemicals come from, why ingredients behave as they do (in formulations vs alone) and how products interact with the skin (cosmetically rather than from a dermatology perspective – not qualified for that).

I want to spend some more time modelling what scientific joined-up thinking actually looks like, how experimenting works and explaining why ‘you just can’t google that’ and other such jolly things. If COVID permits I will be doing some more out-of-state field work, if not I’ll be concentrating on, and talking you through how I’m growing cosmetic ingredients and birthing ‘chemicals’ at home on our 50 acre woodland called Fox Hill Hollow. I will also be spending more time researching how the communication of cosmetic science has changed through history and in particular, exploring the balancing act between truth and great story telling (creative marketing/ lying/ fake-news…). As always I’ll be teaching (maybe in person, definitely in our live, online classes via New Directions); stability testing products, distilling my home-grown essential oils and chemistry and manning the technical help desk for New Directions. But I’ll be doing all of this in a way that allows me enough head space so I don’t become overwhelmed and so that I have enough time to address the challenges that being me throws up both mentally and physically (so that means highly managed social contact, I’m not the type of person you’ll find hanging around just waiting for a chat).

So that’s that.

I’ll be posting some cosmetic chemistry content on the weekend probably but until then, stay as safe and as healthy as you can out there.

Amanda x

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!

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.

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:

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.

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.


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 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 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.


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

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

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)

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

5) Nature Publishes Secret of Abalone Shell Strength

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

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:

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

Lesley Kennedy