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Pro Tip: Teach (or preach) chemistry, not trade names.

July 27, 2019

I have lost count of all of the times people have come to me with the question ‘is Optiphen really the best preservative’ or something equivalent.

The moment I hear that I know that the person asking the question is lost, disempowered, clueless, un-taught.

I know some of the places that push ‘Optiphen’ as a solution but am probably not across all of them.  Anyway, if you relate to this as a problem or something you do then read on,  if you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about then I’ll explain.

Optiphen is a trade name of Ashland Chemicals. It relates to not one chemical but several combinations of chemicals that we use to preserve products.  I think, but am not 100% sure, that the first Optiphen was just a blend of Phenoxyethanol and Caprylyl Glycol but as I said, that’s just one of a few.  I hear talk of Optiphen Plus quite a lot too and that’s the two chemicals above plus Sorbic acid which helps to boost performance by targeting yeast and mould.

When you teach (or preach – preaching is a way of disseminating knowledge that can’t be challenged) about formulating or cosmetic science, using trade names only is a good way to ensure that your students or readers learn nothing of the true nature of what you are doing.  On that note, it is a pet hate of mine to see cosmetic science students being set assignments that have no explicit need for naming the exact chemistry they will use and instead allow formulations full of trade names. I dearly hope educational providers aren’t teaching chemistry by trade names…

Time for a cuppa and a chat.

When I first started in this industry I literally spent hours of my own time scanning paper documentation and brochures (there wasn’t the level of stuff on the internet then as there is now and even if there was, we hardly used it – very few websites to browse even) checking for equivalence between this trade name and that, noticing little differences in activity, polymer weight, charge density, pH, colour and added preservative (if relevant). This sort of detail gets missed when you don’t critically evaluate your ingredient space. This sort of detail is what trains your brain to be a real chemist rather than a parrot.  This is what and how I teach, this is empowering for both me as a teacher and you as a student because with this knowledge we can unlock the world, save ourselves money and become creative.

When people come to me asking about or looking for a trade name as their only point of reference they often display no capacity for critical evaluation even after hours of ‘research’.  This is frustrating for them and sad for me. It also means that people come with a shell around their brains that I have to crack slowly before we can open up to the real world of chemistry, they already thought they were ‘doing science/ chemistry’ before.

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is called ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘ by Paulo Freire. It’s a teaching book, a book that was written in the 1970’s when almost all education was authoritative and rigid.  These days we are taught to teach in a more equitable and inclusive way, to account for divergence and to celebrate and work with, rather than against that.  This text and the situation I describe above collided in my head this morning when I woke up with the following quote in my head.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”.  Freire, P (1970)

One cannot ‘do’ cosmetic chemistry with any mastery without first understanding the chemistry. The trade names put the chemistry under a blanket and hide it somewhat, making it more difficult to see, feel and know.  Strip away those trade names and look at the naked chemistry in front of you, buy it a drink, take it out for dinner,  get it out in your laboratory and play with it.  This is the only way we will progress from the dark ages into which we have slipped.

Chemistry is the way out of here and understanding chemistry starts by us saying the chemical names, let them be your light dear students and brand owners 🙂

Amanda

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