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Building an efficacious brand starts with knowing your actives.

August 18, 2017

So I’ve been asked to produce a ‘cheat sheet’ of actives. A piece of paper that allows people, at a glance, to work out what to put into their products to get an effect.  I’ve just finished that work and it’s turned out OK but I feel a bit odd about it.  You see, what I’ve done is enabled the ‘box ticker’ as well as the ‘thorough researcher looking for a starting point’.  I’ve made it easier for people to feel like they are making something good when in reality they may not be.  Maybe it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter…. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it – after all, I do that sometimes.  Maybe it would pay for me to remember that I can’t control what other people do with the information I give them, that all I can do is do the best I can do and leave it at that.  Maybe that’s true but I want to tell you what’s going through my head anyway, in the hope that should you read this, or another of my ‘cheat sheets’ you might take a moment to see what lies beneath and behind this, to see what I’m really trying to achieve and if you are willing to do that, then maybe, just maybe you will go on to make great products that we can all be proud of.

So what’s going on?

I guess to answer that requires a bit of a scene setting as to what I mean by ‘active’ and an ‘efficacious brand’.

In a cosmetic setting the ‘actives’ could be many things but often they are the ingredients that are added on top of the base to make it special, to give it the ability to do something specific.  If we use the example of a sponge cake recipe you can pretty much take that recipe and, with minor changes make a plain or chocolate or lemon or walnut and orange or Victoria sponge cake.  The base ‘product’  is the sponge while the ‘actives’ are  the chocolate, lemon, walnut, jam and butter icing – the things that make the sponge ‘special’.   Now all of this might seem bleedingly obvious to the long-term brand owner but I’m not always convinced that it actually is.  That the ‘actives’ are given the time and attention that they deserve and that’s where ‘efficacious’ comes in.

Efficacy = results.

It is perfectly possible to pop all of your actives into a product and get zero benefit. It is also perfectly possible to pop in your actives and get a right mess. Sometimes that is due to the way the formula is manufactured and sometimes it has more to do with something else.

If we take the sponge cake example again it is logical that you would add some cocoa into the cake batter to turn a plain sponge into a chocolate sponge. Adding the cocoa at the end of the process would not a chocolate sponge make!  Same actives, same concentration, totally different result (cake).  The same could be said for the jam,  add the jam into the cake batter and get an almighty mess probably,  spread it onto the cooled sponge after baking and voila, great success!

And this is where I start to worry about an active cheat sheet.  Just knowing that a plant extract, vitamin, mineral or peptide is known for a particular outcome doesn’t in its self guarantee it. In fact, with plant extracts you can quite often get a whole lot of nothing you expected unless you are in the know so we should definitely explore that more!

In our cake example I talked about cocoa being the active in the chocolate sponge but what do you know about cocoa? The cocoa that would make this happen?  What part of the cocoa plant is it? Why does it work? How come we have to put it into the sponge batter?  How much do we need to add to get a result?  Will it always work or is it sensitive to other conditions?   Again I’m sure that these are questions that go through my students and clients heads when they are weighing up their actives but it is all too easy to miss this detail when faced with an appealing sounding plant active, especially if you can then add heaps of it (such as in the case of a plant hydrosol for example) and then have it listed as one of your key ingredients!  What could be better than that!

Not all plant parts are created equal.

Ok so in order to assess whether your particular plant extract, powder or liquid is going to do what you THINK it will/ should/ could do you need to know its chemistry AND you need to know what it is about that particular plant that gives the action that you are hoping for.  Once you know that it is just a game of SNAP!

For example many people think that carrot oil is a good source of vitamin A because they have heard that carrots are full of vitamin A and may also know the cosmetic ingredient Retinol or Retinyl Palmitate which are oil soluble so assume that carrot oil contains all the vitamin A.  But that is wrong.  Carrot oil is from the seeds and the seeds are not rich in anything vitamin A related, in fact they produce a highly smelly oil which is anti-microbial – still very good for the skin but not vitamin A.   In the case of carrot the vitamin A is in nature’s form as carotinoids and in the carrot they are mostly the water-soluble type.  Carotinoids are a family of pigmented retinol-type chemicals that can be oil or water-soluble, in Buriti oil the carotinoids are what makes the oil super orange so it is no wonder that people get confused.  This may not sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things but for me it does matter, especially if you want your customers to get a good chance of getting the result you are aiming for!   The story of ‘where’s my target chemical’ plays out across all types of plant active, not least because you get very different chemistry from different extraction methods – glycerin extracts will not give the same analytical profile (chemistry) as an alcoholic extract and both will differ from a hydrosol or essential oil.  This sometimes leads people to assuming that the whole plant leaf, twig or bark is better, that adding the powdered whole plant is the bees knees but this is also false most but not all of the time.

When adding powdered botanicals, even super concentrated ones unless it completely dissolves into the water or oil phase, such as Aloe or coconut milk powder does, it is likely that very little of that powder ever becomes bio-available during normal product use.  Many plants hold onto their chemical ‘actives constituents’ with all their might and these actives need coaxing out with either a solvent, heat, mashing or infusion.  So you can easily end up with a product that contains the potential to act but none of the joy!  Rather like me giving you one of my lovely sponge cakes but saying ‘you have to experience it through the tin I put it in’.  Not very satisfying!

The other thing that people often think with botanical actives is that more is better, hence why people like ingredients that they can add to the top of their INCI list – where the higher content ingredients are.  This is also often, although not always untrue.  Many plants that are highly active can also be quite likely to initiate a reaction to the skin.  That’s actually quite an obvious statement because actives have to have an action by definition BUT if that action is to irritate, inflame or otherwise disrupt unhelpfully that is not good.  The saying ‘the dose makes the poison’ is worth remembering but that’s not all.  Knowing your target chemistry and what dose of that is required for a chance at a result helps to insure you have a fair chance of an efficacious formula that doesn’t have  any negative side effects, not least the side effect of having an overly expensive (but not very effective) product!

I guess the bottom line here is that you just have to think much more carefully about what, why, how and where these actives are and need to be to work before just diving in!

And some other little things.

The last bit I want to talk about on here quickly is the stability of the actives themselves and how knowing a little about their character can again help to boost product efficacy.

Antioxidants are big news in natural (and regular) cosmetics as they help to keep our skin in tip-top condition by helping to mop up the free-radicals that can cause us to age prematurely.  I like to think of antioxidants as our skins army of protectors but like any army, they can’t just keep on working forever, they get worn out and used up if treated harshly or put under too much pressure.  Knowing a little about what ‘pressure’ means for your little skin soldiers will help to ensure they are battle ready for the whole of your products shelf life and not just the first couple of days!  The same can go for botanical extracts whose pigments can photosynthesise, whose aromatics can evaporate or oxidise and whose essential fatty acids can again oxidise (go rancid).  Basically it is best to adopt a mindset where you really have to get to know your actives before you start with your formulation – that way you can formulate FOR them (being as though they are your products big-hitting-benefit-bringers) rather than you just trying to shove everything in at the end while hoping for the best!

Avoiding the Overwhelm.

OK so back to the cheat sheet for a minute.

With a cheat sheet we essentially create a ‘cheat’ or ‘quick’ way to access the information we need to short-cut our R&D process.  Then I’m telling you all of this and opening up multiple cans of worms.  After years of working in a technical help desk capacity for cosmetic clients I understand and appreciate that sometimes this can feel overwhelming and end to a virtual lock-down state where the potential brand owner/ product developer literally can’t move forward for fear of getting something wrong, ruining their product, putting something rubbish on the market and being found out or just causing an explosion.  If you feel like that then let’s pause a minute to think.

The way I look at it my cheat sheets are ‘door openers’ or ‘introductions’ into a complex yet exciting world.  Imagine you arrive at a party where you don’t really know anyone. The host, being a good and thoughtful person, takes your hand and introduces you to a few people (they are our ‘actives’)  now it is possible to have a perfectly nice time for a little while by just exchanging pleasantries with these people,  maybe by talking about the weather, what was on TV last night or a funny cat clip you saw on social media.  You could quite feasibly leave the party feeling that it was an enjoyable experience.   On the other hand you could take a deeper, more intense approach, especially if you happen to be introduced to someone very interesting. You might ask them about their life, their dreams, what makes them tick – who knows you might even end up marrying them – the ‘actives’ equivalent of doing some analytical and efficacy testing I guess 🙂  You get the picture….

And back to the cheat sheet. 

So I come back to the beginning and look at what this piece of work is – a simple, fast-reference resource. An introduction, a starting point,  a guide, a map.  It says very little and yet quite a lot at the same time.  Helping you to hone in on the individuals (actives) that might be able to help in your search for efficacy (results).  It is just the beginning, the rest is up (or down) to you. And I think there is value in that.

Actives Master Data Sheet August 2017

Enjoy x





“I Know That When I Put My Moisturiser On It Probably Does F…All” Helen Mirren.

August 3, 2017

Well what on earth do we make of that statement from L’Oreal brand ambassador Helen Mirren?  Do we hang up our lab coats and spatulas and call it a day?  I wonder……

To be fair on Helen Mirren she went on to finish that sentence with “but it just makes me feel better. I’ve always said to L’Oreal as well that I will only do what makes me feel better” and to be honest, isn’t that fair enough?

Outside of the clear argument about how unprofessional it was of Helen to drop the F bomb while sitting on a L’Oreal panel I think there is some merit to what she says and not in a ‘let’s bag out L’Oreal’  sort of way because I think doing that sort of misses the bigger point.

Helen Mirren is 72 and she’s beautiful.  She has a beauty that has only got deeper and more feisty with age – like a fine cheese (I like fine cheese) or wine (less love for the wine but I’ve heard that wine ages well sometimes) but you get my drift.   Helen was born with a winning hand in the genetic lottery of beauty and whatever she’s doing to maintain that is clearly working, at least from what we see and I’ve no grounds to doubt that what we see is authentic and real. On that basis I feel that it would have been great for Helen to acknowledge her privilege by adding the simple words ‘for me’ at the end of her sentence and yes, I realise that sounds awfully politically correct but I can’t very much help that.

So let’s reword that on her behalf:

“I know that when I put my moisturiser on it probably does f….all for me”

I can get behind that and not in a ‘well maybe she’s using the wrong product’ kind of way.

Let me take this a step back a minute and think about me (sorry) as I really do need moisturiser.

I was not so lucky in the genetic lottery of life, at least when it comes to my skin.  OK so it wasn’t a dreadful tragedy but I have a couple of small genetic malfunctions that mean I have eczema and are prone to chronically dry skin that cracks right through to the bleedy blood bits.  Yuck.   I swear that if I don’t wear moisturiser my skin would fall off or be very painful or unsightly – shedding skin cells as you walk is not a good look.   Now the skin is supposed to create its own moisturiser. If it is ‘normal’ it is perfectly able to create a lovingly balanced water phase and a nutritive oil phase that keep everything as it should be but mine is a bit crap.  I accept that some people have very oily skin and have the opposite problem to mine and I also accept that people have very normal skin and really don’t need anything most of the time but that’s not me.

Maybe Helen is one of those lucky people that doesn’t really benefit from anything much because she’s a freaking freak of nature and has normal skin and an ungodly amount of resilience.  Give that girl a hug in the hope that some of it rubs off on us.

Now maybe I’ve chosen to frame it this way because moisturisers are my life (and my business) but maybe I’ve framed it this way because it actually makes sense once I tried to morph myself into the mind and body of Helen.  I mean Helen clearly knows her own skin by now and is probably right that nothing she slaps on now as a 72 year old will make her look 20 again and unless she’s particularly dry, greasy, pimpled or sun damaged she probably doesn’t need much correcting either.  And while we are at it, why should be pathologize what is in essence a healthy and normal ageing process?

I have spent many a conversation gazing at the other persons wonderfully smooth, pore-less skin wondering why I didn’t get what they ordered.  Maybe Helen is just throwing the grenade right back at us (the industry) and dropping the truth bomb that we all know is out there – that you can’t ‘buy’ naturally good skin, even if you do employ several hundred patent lawyers and come up with secret ingredients, silky textures and yummy smells.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t buy anything.

If I was L’Oreal I’d be a bit miffed at the choice of words, not least because of how easy the grab is to headline but then again I might also choose to use it as a conversation starter – which I have done today on my Facebook page and in my class this morning.  Whatever your views on this larger topic or on Helen’s use of the F word I think we can all agree that if something makes you feel better why not go for it and indulge?  After all isn’t that what cosmetics are all about?


Is the future O’Right?

August 2, 2017

I do not get paid to promote brands, certification standards or products on this blog. I just write about what I like – as free as a bird 🙂

So I purchased a shampoo from Taiwan manufacturer O’Right while at the Hair Expo the other month off the back of their claims of being the first ‘Carbon Neutral’ Shampoo brand (in Taiwan maybe, I actually can’t remember the detail on that but it did get my attention).

O’Right have won many awards for innovation in the green cosmetic space and I was super keen to give their products a try as one thing I’m not a fan of is products that tick all of the environmental boxes but don’t deliver – I see that as the very definition of unsustainable as the products are likely to not sell (and be dumped) or bought but not used (and end up being dumped).  I needn’t have been concerned though, the shampoo I bought was lovely,  worked really well on my hair and left it pretty soft and manageable even without conditioner.  The only down side for me was the fact that I’m sensitive to the preservative used in the blend so I did end up with an itchy head – it’s the Methylisothiazolinone which seems to still be popular across Asia and is in most commercial shampoo products to be honest but I just can’t handle it.   So sadly this isn’t a product that I can keep buying 😦


What I was taken by is the way that the company have taken a ‘big picture’ view of their environmental impact.  Looking at their factory,  manufacturing methods, packaging, biodegradation and performance. I was super excited to find out that their headquarters, where they manufacture their products is powered by renewable energy –  a combination of solar and wind!  Did I mention that my dream is to run a solar-powered chemical factory?????  I have to go back to Taiwan and see this for myself,  how exciting!

For many years I’ve wondered why this type of thinking has taken a back-seat from the heavily ingredient focused approach that brands more commonly take.  Focusing on INCI lists and whether it reaches an organic certification percentage rather than looking at the brand and business as a whole and asking ‘does the product make sense? Does the product perform?  Is the product a good use of resources?  How will the product affect the environment during and after use?  What about the packaging?

I was watching a You Tube video by Cosmetics Europe earlier this week which puts things into perspective.  The video mentions that only 5-20% of a shampoo’s environmental impact comes from the ingredients, manufacture and distribution with the majority of impact coming from the water used with the shampoo.  I wonder if in spending a disproportionate amount of time focused on whether a shampoo contains parabens or sulfates has distracted us from the fact that there is much more we can collectively work on. I also wonder if the brands that focus exclusively on this realise that the big end of town are moving with the times and making some big strides in ‘Greening’ their operations and reducing their impacts?   Maybe we should all start working together…..

With that in mind this Taiwanese brand has got out there, put its money where its mouth is and created an award-winning brand as you can see below:

  • Taiwan’s first shampoo received “Carbon Footprint Label”.
  • World’s first shampoo to be certified as “Carbon Neutral” under PAS2060 framework.
  • “National Outstanding Small and Medium Enterprises Award”, the most glorious award among SMEs “Taiwan EEWH Green Building Gold Certificate” “Environmental Sustainability Award” by SGS
  • “National Sustainability Development Award” by Executive Yuan
  • “Industrial Sustainable Excellent Award” by Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA)
  • “Enterprises Environmental Protection Award”, the most glorious award in environmental protection
  • “Excellent CSR among SMEs in Taiwan” (2011 & 2012) by MOEA
  • “Xue Xue Awards“(2011 Specialty Award & 2012 Creativity Award) by Xue Xue Institute
  • “Excellent Eco-Friendly and Green Energy Enterprise” by Taoyuan County Government
  • “The Model of Taiwan Entrepreneur Award”, the most remarkable award among entrepreneurs Invited to deliver a speech in 2012 Beijing cross-strait Brand Forum MOEA’s First
  • “Taiwan Green Classic Award”
  • “Golden Pin Design Mark”, the most honorable award in design field
  • The first place of “Green Brand” survey conducted by Taiwan Business Next Magazine MOEA’s top 100 Taiwan Innovative Enterprise On behalf of Taiwan SME to deliver a speech,
  • “Green Transformation”, at 2011 APEC conference held in USA SGS ISO 9001:2008 QMS Certificate
  • “Taiwan Superior Commercial Service Brands” by MOEA


The shampoo comes packaged in a Polylactic Acid bottle – completely biodegradable within a year apparently. I am trying this out for myself here.  In addition the shampoo that I purchased also comes with some little seeds squirreled away in the bottom compartment of the bottle – I’ve planted those today too, let’s keep our fingers crossed that they will grow (I wonder if this is part of the carbon offset calculation?).

The company also use Soy based ink, recycled paper and Taiwanese Bamboo caps which look great and function really well in the wet shower environment.  The company also engage in ‘giving back’ via a number of charity initiatives and are also keen educators which is all very nice and feel-good friendly.

But is this all just box ticking or will brands like this make a difference?

Ok so the cynic in me would recognise that some of these awards and programs and even the whole idea of carbon off-set is prone to being abused or used purely for a market advantage but that’s the same with anything that is done anywhere – some people will always do it just to make money and other people will do it because it is the right or logical thing to do.  The people behind O’Right are young, innovative and motivated to make a difference and the fact that they have gone to such meticulous detail to measure their product range is something – you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.   They have also gone for a much more complex marketing proposition than purely ‘does my label look good’ which is no easy feat. Maybe they have been able to do this because in Taiwan and China, their local markets, there is less concern over things being 100% natural and free-from a thousand things than there is over here.  Maybe that has created the space to look at the environmental impact of a product more holistically and without the need to prioritize appeasing the ingredient-focused marketing department over all others. Or maybe they haven’t quite got that bit right yet and that they do, in fact need to ‘clean up’ their INCI list further – maybe that’s an improvement and if it makes the product 2-5% greener so be it. After all, just because we aren’t making a huge difference or impact doesn’t mean we don’t bother at all.

With that let’s look at the ingredient list of the variant I tried.

The full ingredient list is here:

96% Natural Ingredients. 

Aqua, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Lauryl glucoside, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, laureth-2, Fragrance, Polyquaternium 7, Menthol, Camelia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Niacinamide, Citric Acid, Methylisothiazolinone, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate.


Sodium Cocoamphoacetate:  An Imidazoline based  amphoteric of the type made famous by Johnson and Johnson’s ‘No More Tears’ baby shampoo.  These surfactants are mild and biodegradable but you wouldn’t classify them as completely natural as while they are built on a fatty acid (possibly lauric which is the predominant fatty acid in coconut oil hence the coco part of the name) the additional steps in the manufacturing process are quite involved and result in a complex but interesting range of structures. Looking at the bigger picture though, this surfactants is a pretty good choice when it comes to its in-use and post-use attributes being unlikely to bioaccumulate and having a relatively low aquatic toxicity so it definitely stacks up well when compared against Sodium Laureth or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.


Lauryl Glucoside:  This is a non-ionic surfactant that isn’t particularly great at cleansing the hair as it tends to tangle it but in a combination it can facilitate the formation of mixed-micelles which both thicken the shampoo a little and help to improve the foaming and cleansing characteristics.  This is one of the most natural (100%) surfactant options being corn and palm derived mainly. It is also biodegradable and has a reasonable aquatic toxicity profile although it can be irritating to the skin.

Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate: This is an ultra-mild anionic based on an amino acid. Very good skin profile and equally good environmental profile with excellent biodegradability and low aquatic toxicity.

Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate:   This surfactant has been developed to fill the gaps that SLS/ SLES/ ALS leaves in a shampoo formula namely good foamability and cleansing power.  It is a modified polyglucoside so like the lauryl glucoside but with a funky carboxylate group attached.  Carboxylates are salts of carboxylic acids which are functional groups found on amino acids among other things.  They are found all over nature so while adding one of these onto the end of a glucoside isn’t necessarily going to happen by its self in nature it results in what could be described as a surfactant of natural origin.  Again great biodeg and aquatic tox figures for this one.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine: This is probably one of those that will be stripped out of a formula like this in future mainly due to it being one of the least naturally derived (petrochemical content) and also due to the potential for it to contain contaminants which can be irritating.  CAPB is often added to a formula to increase and improve foaming behaviour and to help make the overall blend milder.  It is possible to buy high quality CAPB that has been vacuum stripped of any impurities but it isn’t possible to strip it of its petrochemical fraction.   Cocamidopropyl Betaine is classified as readily biodegradable but there are some concerns over its aquatic toxicity as this paper highlights.  

Laureth-2: This is a thickener, it is ethoxylated and as such is usually something that ‘natural’ and especially ‘organic’ cosmetics stay away from mainly because the ethylene oxide has traditionally come from petroleum sources but also because ethoxylation can give rise to 1-4 Dioxane residues in the surfactant and 1-4 Dioxane is a human carcinogen.  Again, that said, this contaminant can be vacuum stripped off leaving a clean product behind but you can’t vacuum strip off the petroleum derivative and I would have thought that a non-renewable input would increase the products carbon footprint to a greater degree than a renewable input would.  But we can’t let ethoxylation go without mentioning that you can generate ethylene oxide from plant matter!  I am not sure if O’Rights ethylene oxide was plant or petrochemical derived but if it was plant then that’s one box ticked.  In terms of environmental impact this chemical is not winning any awards. While it is likely to be present in pretty small quantities in this formula (0.5-3% possibly), it is not good when you look at its MSDS.  The high aquatic toxicity would have me thinking twice about using this in a shampoo like this but in the grand scheme of things it probably isn’t going to make the product a big no-no and really one must look at whether there is a better alternative in existence before calling for its replacement. Remember that only 5-20% of a shampoo’s environmental impact is from the ingredients….

Below that we are into smaller fish territory with this being likely to be the less than 1% spot. There is a fragrance which may or may not be of petrochemical origin and may or may not contain pthalates – many cosmetic fragrance houses do disclose now if pthalates are part of the mix as most people do want to know.  The Polyquaternium 7 is a commonly used conditioner for shampoo formulations. This is non-natural for sure and most quats are pretty toxic to the environment but do remember that when it comes to toxicity the dose does make the poison.  The guar gum is quaternised so that is also a conditioning thickener and will likely be part petroleum derived, the Vitamim B3 (niacinamide) is probably fine, nature-identical rather than natural, citric acid is usually natural then the preservatives in this case are petroleum derivatives.

To Sum Up.

Overall I wouldn’t say that this is the greenest ingredients list I’ve ever seen but  it is certainly going in the right direction. Weighing  up the ingredients list while considering the likely impact of the products in-use on the environment, against the fact that the product does work very well and that the overall offering from O’Right is definitely a step in the right direction I’d say that these guys have had a great stab at putting a really good eco-story product that works out there.

In my view focusing on the ingredients list is important and is something that we have all become accustomed to doing – a sort of habit really – so it FEELS natural and look, I’ve just done it too.  But I’d just caution against using that as the ONLY measure of a product and further I’d absolutely caution against elevating it above all else when evaluating a products eco footprint.

In my opinion O’Right has opened up a very important conversation here about sustainability,  sustainable brands, green cosmetics, environmental footprint and impact and life-cycle analysis. They have shown that creating a truly ‘green’ brand should include all parts of the process and not just the ingredient selection. They have opened up a conversation about power generation, carbon accounting, business management,  manufacturing, packaging design, material science, shelf-life and product functionality and I’m sure that as long as they keep innovating they will have a bright and green future ahead of them.

I didn’t tell O’Right that I was writing about them and have had no contact with the brand other than my conversation with them at the Hair Expo. Just so you know.

Amanda x



An Experiment With My Polylactic Acid Bottle.

August 2, 2017

Got a bit distracted in the most delightful way today.

So I bought a shampoo by O’Right (Taiwan innovative brand) at the Hair Expo in Sydney the other month and having just finished using it (very nice BTW) I wanted to test out if the Polylactic Acid bottle really is biodegradable – it is supposed to break down to lactic acid, Co2 and water pretty much….

Anyway, I cut the bottle up and stuck some into soil which I’d placed into an old jam jar. I did this so I can watch it degrade (or not….)

I also kept some aside to put into my new compost bin when it arrives. I want to see how that degrades in a normal compost situation. My only issue with this is whether I’ll be able to track where it is in the bin.

I kept another bit to put on my windowsill as one of the down sides with most PLA is its ability to be broken down with UV light. I want to see if it lasts longer than my pegs – Australian sun is a bugger for breaking down pegs and the Bower birds take the blue ones.

Lastly and my favourite I kept some for a chemistry experiment. I’d read a report here saying that you can break down PLA with sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid so I wanted to try. I did try (although I didn’t quite adhere to the rules laid out but I got the gist) and I can safely say that I made the bottle disappear (sort of). What the lab report didn’t account for is that cosmetic bottles usually contain pigments and ink which have to be filtered out. That done I’m left with a yellow solution which, when acidified with the Hydrochloric Acid becomes a clearish mixture of lactic acid and salt (including some sodium lactate I suspect). I set the final pH at around 4.6.

If you are going to try this at home do be aware that boiling up high strength lye solution is pretty dangerous as it is very highly alkaline and you have the bubbling/ boiling factor so do take precautions of your eyes and skin.  Also the Hydrochloric Acid is much stronger than the acids we typically use in a cosmetic formula so don’t go sloshing that around too.  Also be aware that the pH is very slow to reduce at the beginning but when it starts to drop it drops very quickly so it is easy to over-shoot it. If that happens just add more Sodium Hydroxide until you reach your desired pH. Basically all you’ll end up with is a more dilute solution with more salt in it.

So why bother doing this?

Well, firstly because I can (I have the chemicals on site) but mainly because it stops it going into the bin or the garden for years….

There is currently a  lack of recycling facilities for PLA here in Australia and I’m sure that’s the situation in other parts of the world too. PLA is still quite a boutique plastic, not least because it breaks down almost too quickly for most consumer goods. The O’Right company that make the product that uses this bottle give their formula a 3 year shelf life but the packaging only a 1 year shelf life.  That might not be so convenient for them over time unless their sales are pretty fast and thorough.

That aside though I thought it would be pretty damn neat if people could deal with their packaging on-site rather than pop it into a bin for collection and transportation to an off-site facility.  Practically speaking this self-disposal may end up being more energy intensive than sending it by truck to a facility off-site as the water has to be heated and the chemicals – NaOH and HCl – have to be purchased.  If you could run your facility from solar and rainwater the environmental impacts would be even less – this is one of the plans I have for my property out west – I’ve often dreamed of running my own solar powdered chemical factory, sounds like an oxymoron but I think it has legs……  Anyway what was I doing. Oh yes,  In any case I thought  that softening the plastic up with a bit of cold lye solution prior to composting might just speed up the process without adding too much energy cost to the disposal so that’s an idea too.

The bottom line is that it is possible to take a shampoo bottle that you just finished with that morning and make it disappear leaving in its place a nice acidic liquid that would be used to clean your house before ultimately flushing it down the sink with a clean conscience.  The solids filtered out of the mix would probably have to be disposed of in the garbage unless you could identify the chemicals present and ascertain whether they can also go onto your garden (titanium dioxide might be OK for that) but you are talking a few grams left over and way less space.

That’s what I call waste-to-art and I for one am looking forward to seeing more of this in the future.

Bring on the Polylactic Acid.

Amanda x


A Blue Oil For The Blue Mountains

July 26, 2017

It has been super breezy up here this week so I decided that I’d take advantage of that and collect up a mixture of gum leaves that had fallen into my path on one of my many bush walks (yes, when I’m not in the lab I am hugging trees, exploring new tracks and trying to spot birds up here in the Blue Mountains National Park).

I’ve just bought myself an essential oil distillation kit and have been super-keen to distill anything I can get my hands on, it’s bordering on an obsession to be honest and the only thing stopping me getting a ladder and stripping my own trees is the fact that I don’t want to hurt them (I read ‘The Hidden life Of Trees“. Trees do have feelings 🙂 )  So, the chance to get my hands on their leaves without having to do the stripping myself was too good an opportunity to let up so I got out my backpack and went on a little walk to the end of my garden and this is what happened next.

This is one of the trees that I collected from. It’s in my garden and I think it’s either a Eucalyptus Oreades (Blue Mountains Ash)   but I could be wrong, there are so many different Eucalypts.

Essential Oils

Anyway, according to my vintage copy of ‘The Eucalypts and their essential oils’ by Baker and Smith this tree produces an oil with a 1.2% yield. I got nowhere near that this time but that could have been because many of the leaves I collected were pretty dry and old and some of them weren’t even from that tree 🙂  It ended up being a bit of a mish mash but I didn’t mind because it was fun doing it and put a different and interesting spin on my bush walk.

Anyway, after the usual wait to boil water and build up pressure I got some hydrosol come off and then the magical blue oil!  They say that the Blue Mountains is blue because of the haze from the Eucalypts in the summer and after seeing this oil I would have to say that it may well be true!  It is strange but I fully expected that to just be one of those sayings that was not really based on anything measurable but here we have it!

Sadly the oil didn’t smell particularly yummy. It wasn’t bad but wasn’t as crisp and distinct as the other oil I distilled, the Eucalypt from our Cowra property.  In any case that didn’t matter because there wasn’t enough of it to bottle and get analysed this time.  Maybe next time I’ll be more careful about choosing my sample and will pick it fresh so as to (hopefully) get a better oil yield and quality but I didn’t feel too disappointed because the colour of that little bit of oil was just beautiful to behold.

Oh I love my job x


People are Petrified of Preservatives. Discuss.

July 25, 2017

‘Which preservative should I use to give me a three-year shelf life?’

It’s a question that I get time and time again but that I can never answer simply nor neatly. In fact, the question opens up a can of worms that, if not addressed logically and thoughtfully can end in tears.

Brand owners are right to be concerned over the long-term safety and micro stability of their creations and most of them know that using too much preservative might well lead to problems of irritation and even sensitization while too little, or using the ‘wrong’ one can lead to micro contamination which, in turn might lead to product recalls, product failure, skin irritation and even illness.  It seems like a no-win situation.  But we know that people do ‘win’ at this, that there are answers and options if only ‘we’ could unlock the know how, we too could be winners.  Let’s see what we can do….

Preserving a cosmetic product. The big picture. 

It is important to recognise straight off the bat that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ preservative. Indeed if there was one it would quickly become imperfect as over-using one preservative exclusively can set you up for in-house bugs, over-dosing and other such delights, best to use a mixture across a range or factory but that’s another mater….

There are lots of different options with different features and benefits that must marry up to the product you are trying to create or look for.  That said, one thing is for sure, your average cosmetic product requires a strategy to protect it from mould, yeasts and gram negative and gram positive bacteria.  We call this ‘broad spectrum’ protection and it might take more than one preservative  to achieve that.

Of course cosmetics are not all alike and nor do all cosmetics have the same vulnerabilities when it comes to choosing a preservative strategy.  Oil only products might not need a preservative at all, oil and pigment or clay products might well need something to help with mould but are less at risk from bacteria contamination (though there may still be some risk) while oil products containing salts and/ or sugars are possibly self-preserving.  On the other hand we have water containing products which, always need to be carefully looked-over for their microbial risk potential.  Sure, you might have heard of the theory that you can ‘keep the level of free water low’ but as I’m yet to find a laboratory here in Australia that can test a cosmetic for that it is a risky guessing game without testing.  Water and alcohol products might be self-preserving as might water and glycerin just as long as the alcohol and/or glycerin are at high enough concentrations.  But then again it depends on what else you put with these.  Herbal extracts,  botanically derived exfoliant particles, clays and iron oxide colours or even mica can push the micro risk up high as can the presence of sugars (honey,  aloe,  milks), proteins, peptides and amino acids.  I can totally see why people find this whole thing very confusing.  But it doesn’t have to be paralyzingly so.

The best way to find out if your product is preserved well is to test it and the first step to testing is actually getting into the lab and making it. Just do it – my first advise.

Drilling Down, Evaluating Your Product. 

The best place to start when considering a preservative for your product is to look at your formula so far with these questions in mind:

  1. What is my product philosophy?  Natural, Palm Free, Organic Certified, Mass-Market, Cost-effective, Luxury etc.
  2. How much can I afford to spend on my preservative input?  Preservatives can add anywhere from $0.65 per Kg to nearly $15 per Kg.
  3. Is my product to be left on or rinsed off the skin?  Some preservatives are limited to rinse-off only or have stricter guidelines on the amounts that can be added in a leave-on product.
  4. What packaging am I using – does the packaging make the product more or less vulnerable.  Include pack size in your thoughts too – how many times will it be squeezed, dipped into or pumped in its lifetime (estimates).
  5. What pH is my final product to be?  Most preservatives have an optimal pH range to work in.
  6. Do I mind if the preservative has a smell or a colour?
  7. Will the preservative work with my product?
  8. Can I get hold of this preservative in the pack sizes appropriate and convenient for me?
  9. Is my choice of preservative legally allowed for my application/ in my country/ for my market?
  10.  How vulnerable is my formula on paper?

That’s probably enough to get us started and get us most of the way to a decent preservative choice.  I’m sure I can think of more but let’s not get too crazy….

Getting those questions answered.

OK so I recognise that it will be difficult for a beginner to answer all of the above with confidence and that help might be required and that’s fine.  The best thing about the internet now is that cosmetic chemists are much more visible than they ever have been so you can always shout out for help or a second opinion on the hard bits.  But you can see from the list that some of these are questions that only the brand owner can answer and answering those is a great place to start.

For the tricky ones I’ll try to give you a bit of a head start here.

Product pH.

You can only measure the pH of a product that contains water and products that contain water go straight to the more vulnerable list so that’s significant for a start.

If yo are a product developer making water-containing products that doesn’t own a pH meter you should really get one right away as you can’t make a safe formula without one.

Knowing which pH to set your formula at is a matter for another day but when it comes to preserving your product it is fair to say that the most vulnerable pH range is around pH 5-7.  Acidic and Alkali pH’s have a slight advantage in that some bacteria don’t like the harsh conditions of an AHA type formula or a soap although that’s not to say that you can ditch the preservative altogether at lower or higher pH, more that your product just got a tad less vulnerable.

Once you have worked out what pH your product will be  you can then use that to help you select a preservative.  Preservatives are sold with pH usage ranges and as a beginner it is definitely best to just operate within those guidelines.  As you get more experienced you might be able to push your luck a bit more.

Will the preservative work with my product? How to tell. 

So this is the bit where you are wise to go into the lab and check but only after you’ve had a read of the supplier data first.  Some preservatives are rendered less active or even inactive when certain other ingredients are present.  High levels of anionic or non-ionic surfactants and zinc oxide are common trouble makers but as with any trouble makers, there are ways of making them compliant.

So once you have established that you have nothing obvious in your formula that might deactivate the preservative the only thing to do next is try it out.  There are some obvious issues that may arise when trying a preservative out for the first time.  If you are making an emulsion you might find it goes either to water or a cottage cheese consistency after adding the preservative – the main reason I advise people to add the preservative at the end even if it is heat stable is so you can observe these changes, again once you are more established you might want to add the preservative sooner or add half into the oil and half into the water which some preservative suppliers  recommend.  If you are making a spritzer or water-only type formula you will see immediately if your preservative struggles to mix in, the last thing you need there is a floating preservative!

In terms of chemistry the ideal place for your preservative to sit is at the interface between the oil and water phases. If you have no water but need a preservative then it is still important that your preservative isn’t completely fixated on the oil phase as if it is it might be so embedded in the bulk of your product that when moisture does come into contact with the formula, the preservative won’t give a damn! That said, it does make sense to choose a preservative with a large affinity for oil in an oil-dominant formula as it will need to sit and wait there.  In water-heavy formulations the same applies in reverse.  You still want your water-soluble preservative to show some interest in the oils as it is here that the microbes thrive.

Oil (food) + water (drink)  + Oxygen (fuel) = Microbe Heaven.

For beginners and long-timers alike it can be difficult to evaluate and account for all of this perfectly before hand and so micro testing or preservative efficacy testing is always recommended.  Sure a bit of prior knowledge and some careful planning will stack the odds further in your favour but there is always something there to surprise you!  The main thing to take-home is that you should try your preservative of choice in your formula and then run some freeze/thaw tests (if your product is an emulsion) just to test it out and make sure it hasn’t become less stable.  If it looks to be OK, smells OK and seems to be compatible based on the reading you’ve done then you should move on to testing.

Assessing a formulations vulnerability.

I mentioned the main culprits that increase the bio-burden (or risk factors) of a formula at the beginning of this article but to re-cap basically anything that is botanically or particulate based is likely to increase your risk when compared to a very basic product with none of those actives.  That’s a bit of a pain as many people who I deal with are looking to pack their products full of botanical extracts, natural colours, minerals and the like so I guess the main thing to keep in mind is that a risk that you know about is a risk that you can manage.

Managing the risks using other non-preservative strategies.

For very vulnerable products relying on the preservative alone is probably not going to cut it.  There are other strategies that you can use to help decrease your bioburden/ increase your chances of success and one of the most practical in most cases is to use a chelate. Chelating agents help to bind up the microbe food that your botanical and other ingredients introduce.  They don’t kill microbes directly but do help to starve them which, at the very least limits their rate of reproduction which is very useful!  Chelates are things such as EDTA (no often used in natural cosmetics),  EDDS (Good for naturals),  Sodium Phytate (Derived from basil), Sodium Gluconate and a few more. I’ve written about them before here.   Adding a chelating agent gives your preservative a big helping hand!  It goes without saying that good manufacturing practice is a winner in the well-preserved product stakes.  If you make a dirty product, your product is fighting with one hand tied behind its back from the get-go.  Hot processes where the water phase and/or final emulsion are heated to just above 72C for a snap period help to pasteurize the mixture whereas cold processes don’t get that advantage.  Other than that making sure your materials are clean before you start by storing them correctly and using them cleanly is a good idea.  Water is severely overlooked in all of this by new brand developers. Using demineralised water is highly recommended, hydrosols and rainwater are less so.  Again, it might be possible to use these things safely once you get your formula right and you are testing your products regularly but I wouldn’t start off with ‘active’ water as it could introduce more than just moonbeams and sunshine.

In other news I’d remind people who a physically stable product is going to be more micro resistant than an unstable product (relatively speaking).  This is probably where the false idea that vitamin E is a preservative comes in.  Vitamin E is a commonly used antioxidant and oxidative degradation is a common problem in natural products.  Adding a little bit of antioxidant be that vitamin E or something else can help slow down oxidative degradation and thus increase the robustness of your formula both physically and microbially.  It goes without saying though that no amount of antioxidant can prop up a formula that is physically unstable so making sure a product is physically stable before going for a preservative efficacy test is not a bad idea if budgets are tight – even doing your quick stability testing at home is a good start.

The last thing I’m going to mention here is packaging choice.  So it is pretty obvious when you think about it that a huge open-mouthed jar is going to present with more micro problems than an airless tube so if in doubt, use your packaging to help you out 🙂

Working out how much to use.

For beginners I generally advise choosing one preparatory blended preservative and using it at or around the maximum dosage. This is not an optimisation strategy by any stretch, more it is a strategy that should enable the brand owner to pass the starting point, to get a product that stands a good chance of being micro-clean all things being considered.  We can start with the optimisation work once the product concept has been proven to work.  Ingredient retailers generally give use levels, stick to them and don’t get too fancy about it.

Ok so back to chemistry – the daunting INCI names of preservatives and how to ‘sell’ them to clients.

We live in scary times apparently.  Many people steer clear of water in their cosmetics because they don’t want to have to tackle the preservative issue. I’ve lost count of how many people ask me for a preservative with a ‘nice, edible sounding’ INCI name.   The good news is that there are a few out there, the bad news is that these few may not work for you.  Sad but true.  Beyond the coconut, radish, honeysuckle and olive we have another range of inputs,  preservatives that are naturally derived but sound like chemicals.  As a chemist I do secretly wish that everyone loved chemicals like I do but they don’t and I accept that. But I accept it reluctantly because hating on ingredients just because they sound like they might be chemicals is illogical.  After all the inputs that sound like you could eat them have to, by definition (as preservatives) be pretty ‘nasty’ in order to kill things, microbes and the like.   It takes a lot of exposure time and teaching for people, brand owners, cosmetic buyers and product marketers to accept and love the ingredients they don’t automatically relate to but hopefully one day these natural-but-chemical-sounding-preservatives will gain the global acceptance they deserve.

On top of that are the ‘safe’ synthetics. I say safe like that because all preservatives have the ability to irritate as they will all mess with our natural microbes if present at high enough concentrations for long enough so what I mean here is that these aren’t parabens or formaldehyde donors, two families of preservatives that have achieved mythical villain status that no amount of chemistry knowledge seems able to breach.

So what can I say about this?  Basically I just want brand owners and the rest of you to know that the cosmetic ingredient world has moved on, got creative and can now offer a range of options from nice sounding naturals to chemical sounding naturals to semi-synthetics to fully-synethetic-but-not-terribly-nasties to help you preserve your product.  Isn’t that jolly nice!

The only other way I can think of selling a preservative system is to test it and prove that it is safe and effective, especially if you can prove that it is safe at a low dosage.  Surely the best sales pitch for an essential but not headline grabingly sexy ingredient is the results to say that it works?  I think so anyway.

So how do you test?

There are two main options that we use in the cosmetic industry, micro counts or preservative efficacy tests.  Micro counts just count (and characterise if you pay for that) the number of microbe colonies present in your product.  Cosmetics do not have to be sterile (microbe free) but they do have to be relatively clean and free from pathogens.  Microbes can be introduced into your formula via your packaging, your filling line, your manufacturing method, your ingredients or your nutrient broth of a formula.  Large manufacturers and some contract manufacturers will micro count their raw materials, packaging, bulk and filing line products as part of their quality control their process and GMP/ ISO accreditation requirements.  Smaller, hand-made, boutique product makers can’t afford to do that but they must do something – legally you must! How else will you prove that your product is safe and fit for purpose?

Preservative Efficacy Tests are also known as challenge tests and are more challenging and costly. They run for 28 days usually and your product is innoculated with microbes a number of times to see how it reacts. Hopefully it pretty much knocks out the bacteria, yeast and mould meaning that during repeat use the product will remain clean.

Preservative Efficacy Tests work best with oil-in-water emulsions and water based formulations. Oil rich formulations and waxy products such as mascara are often too compromised by the sample preparation process to gain any meaningful results from the testing and may, instead undergo repeat micro checks over their stability testing.  The best way to get an accurate and relevant result for your product is to talk to the micro testing lab who should be able to advise if their protocol will make it hard for your product to receive a fair go in the test.  An alternative protocol might be in order.

And what if I fail?

Micro testing costs money. I can’t say how much it will cost you because I have customers reading this from all over the world but here in Australia you are looking at around $150 ish for a micro count and around $700 for a PET.  At those prices you don’t want to fail.  But people think of failure as a nothing, a pointless exercise, a non-result. I look at it differently.  A failure may not be welcome but it is something. It is evidence that what you did didn’t work, evidence that you can use to make improvements next time.  A few failures teaches more than a lifetime of passes and will ultimately make you a better formulator. That said, none of us can afford to lose money so if you fail just make sure you know what you did so you can work from that.

Common reasons for failing a micro count or PET include:

  • Incompatible pH
  • Preservative not strong enough or quick enough acting for the formula.
  • Product bio burden too high to start with either due to manufacturing method or starting ingredients.
  • Preservative encapsulation into the internal phase so not available at the interface.
  • Preservative knocked out by incompatible materials (see supplier data as they always list known issue ingredients, abide by that).

Contrary to popular opinion no preservative fails the micro test because its INCI name is not sexy enough.

So there is a lot to think about and people were right to be worried!

Well yes and no.  There is a lot to think about throughout the cosmetic process but people worry less about things like whether their actives will work, if they are in at the right level (right as in evidence based),  if their factory or garden shed lab is slowly becoming a microbial holiday house,  if their packaging is really helping or hindering them or if their product is really stable for as long as it should be and focus instead on preservatives.  It’s not that I think people should worry about everything, on the contrary, I think people should worry less and do more starting with learning and experimenting really.

Getting the right preservative for your cosmetic is daunting but that’s only really because the very real issue of visible mould growing on top of your creams focuses the attention.  Use that fear to your advantage to learn, plan, experiment and ask questions.

So where to from here?

If you are a cosmetic brand owner, developer or otherwise involved in this I would sit down with a pen and paper and really think about what you want to achieve here in the cosmetic market.  The skin needs moisture and moisture can only come from water so at some point in time every brand needs to think about preservatives (whether they use them or not is a different matter but a strategy must be made).  Yes there is a lot to think about but you are smart enough to think.  Sure you can make some mistakes but as long as you take the suppliers advice, ask for help if necessary and manufacture  and pack with care the odds will remain in your favour.  The one thing that I don’t advise you to do is avoid the issue, avoid preservative, avoid water-containing cosmetics because giving into fear is never smart.  Never let your fear decide your fate – it’s a motto of mine.

Please don’t be scared of preservatives, embrace this science and give a few things a try to if you need help, ask for it.

Good luck

Amanda  x









I bought myself an Alembic Still and I now smell like Eucalyptus Oil :)

July 17, 2017

You cannot believe the excitement in my house right now. I honestly didn’t think that I’d get essential oil so fast and for it to smell so divine (maybe I’m a little bias) but Oh My God it does and I’m in heaven!

I have wanted an essential oil still for a long time but as is often the case with life, there was always something else to buy before I could justify this but this year I just thought, stuff it, this is going to be super cool.

The set-up I’ve got is fairly basic, portable and relatively cheap at under $700 for the whole shebang.  There is a 30 litre water boiler with a hidden element (very important),  the Alembic dome to increase the pressure in the still and the copper condensing arm along with pipework to cool the vapours ready for collecting.  I got mine from  the Country Brewer in case you are interested.

With regards to finding material to distill I am lucky enough to have our 50 acre property Fox Hill Hollow as a resource.  I am currently working on turning the place into an education and writing venue for my customers but as with all major infrastructure projects, this is taking a bit of time and so while I wait for the buildings to be finished I thought I may as well start working on the educational products of which Essential Oil is one.

Our little piece of heaven is chock-a-block with a variety of Eucalyptus species, most of which I’m yet to identify. In fact I am still not sure what I’ve just been distilling, think it’s Blakelyi Red Gum (The tree is just in the picture) but I will be sending it off for analysis to see if a bit of chemical fingerprinting can help me in that regards.  In any case these leaves smell good and we’ve got lots of them!

Last weekend I collected a bag full of Eucalyptus leaves, harvesting them from a tree that was being eaten from the inside by termites and had to be felled.  I ended up with around 3Kg of leaves which doesn’t sound like much weight but it did look to me to be a lot of leaves.

I still have a lot of questions with regards to the best way to collect, handle and pre-treat (if any) the leaves prior to distilling them – is keeping them for a week after picking the best idea? Is 3Kg enough?  What should the water to leaf litter ratio be?  How much pressure is best?  But as with most things I do, I decided to just give it a go first then look into the details later – I do advise most of my clients to do the same to a certain degree,  learning by doing seems to work well for me.

Anyway, I set the still up, opting for 25 litres of water and my 3Kg of leaves dropped straight into the still, then I left it a while as I had to go out (for a cup of tea with a friend) hence the set up picture being in the day and the distillation process being at night.

Basically once the vat reaches around 55C the condenser needs to be activated by turning on the water. The temperature then rises quite rapidly towards 99C with the first oil coming off somewhere around the 65C mark and continuing throughout.  Again I have so many questions including how long the distillation process usually takes (when do you give up?) and whether the oil quality changes over time during distilling – is the first ‘press’ best etc.

It took around 30-40 minutes or so for the temperature in the still to go from 20C to around 55C when the action starts to happen.  I didn’t quite know what to expect but once the liquid started to condense in my vintage milk bottle I started to get quite excited.  I totally did the happy dance when, around 15 minutes later the air was filled with a sweet and aromatic eucalyptus oil aroma, an aroma that I’d created and was now collecting!  AWESOME.

This was my first glimpse of the sweet nectar coming off and below I sit like an excited little kid in my old PJ’s and raincoat. I just wish I’d have done my hair and make-up…..

I could not believe how quickly the oil started to come and how much there was!  I was fully expecting to get 1-2 grams of difficult-to-collect oil  and have so far got 18g and probably have the same again left to collect.  That’s an approximate yield of 1.2% which isn’t too bad considering the average yield for essential oils is around 1-2% and I haven’t exactly got this mastered yet!

As per usual with me I hadn’t really thought through what I’d do with the oil or this equipment other than use it as a teaching tool but on seeing and smelling the oil and realising how exciting and rewarding the whole process is I might just put ‘become an essential oil farmer’ onto my ‘to-do’ list. After all, with all of those trees it would be rude not to.

What I am sure of though is that I’m going to send some of the first batch to my mum, dad and sister back home and give another bottle to my sister here.  Fox Hill Hollow Eucalyptus has landed and I couldn’t be happier.

Amanda x