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Ferulic Acid is interesting.

September 30, 2019

So the brand Drunk Elephant are being by L’Oreal for a potential patent infringement that involves Ferulic acid! I didn’t know that until this weekend, I mean I knew about the patent but didn’t realise that a brand such as that would be either so naive, bold or oblivious to get themselves into such a position, here is an update from February this year about the case.  It took my thinking off on a completely different direction to what I’d originally planned and one which I think I’ll share at the end of this science piece. But first this…

Ferulic acid is the name for a very powerful naturally occurring antioxidant found in whole grains such as wheat, oats and rice.  Chemically Ferulic Acid is a phenolic acid in the same family as Salicylic and Gallic Acid but with different skin benefits and actions. These acids are commonly used by plants to help them defend themselves against microbes or other environmental stressors and as such are commonly found to have antioxidant and/or antimicrobial properties, both of which Ferulic acid has. However, in addition to that Ferulic Acid has also found to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin which makes it very exciting for anti-ageing or environmental protection applications.

In general, excitement about the application of this ingredient centres on two areas, firstly for its photoprotective role on UV irradiated skin and secondly for its ability to stabilise vitamin C in water-based solutions.


Ferulic acid naturally has a structure that can reduce the energy from the skin before it starts damaging skin cells.  In fact, the synthetic sunscreen active, Ethyl Hexyl Methoxycinnamate takes advantage of the same basic structure but with additional functionality added on.   While Ferulic Acid is not strong or stable enough to be used as a sunscreen filter as it is, it is able to help the skin to protect its self and as such is a very useful addition to day wear products that want to boost the skins natural sun resilience.  In addition to its UV protective qualities, its anti-inflammatory action is useful in helping the skin to recover from environmental stressors.

Vitamin C Stabilisation.

Vitamin C comes in all shapes and sizes but back in 2004, the team at L’Oreal started patent proceedings for a combination of Ferulic acid with Ascorbic Acid after they found a marked improvement in stability of their water-based vitamin C formulations when Ferulic Acid was added. The good news is that their patent and the supporting science provides us with a better understanding of how Ferulic Acid works in this context.  The bad news is that the patent restricts the use of this combination for copy-cat formulations.

The global L’Oreal patent covers a set range of Ferulic Acid and Vitamin C in a single phase, water-based product at a set (and fairly narrow) pH range.   This has left an opportunity open for other brands to formulate with Ferulic Acid and vitamin C outside of the scope of this patent (this global patent is one of a few that is relevant to this W02005070380A1). Opportunities exist to develop multi-phase formulations; formulations where the Vitamin C (as Ascorbic Acid) concentration is less than 5% or more than 40%, and where the product pH is more than 3.5.  The patent also doesn’t cover other forms of vitamin C such Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate, Ascorbyl Glucoside or Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate and as such, one could formulate with these instead (which many brands have done). The only down side to that is the higher price of these alternatives which generally then precludes their higher input into the formula.

Using the concentration of vitamin C as a selling point has long been a key feature of this type of product after efficacy testing showed benefits for use of Ascorbic Acid up to a 20% concentration – thus positioning the 20% vitamin C serum as the best there is.  While technological advances have expanded the scope and efficacy of vitamin C formulations somewhat, the legend of the 20% C serum hasn’t yet died!

So all of that sounds wonderful, like Ferulic Acid is a savour but is it right to think that?

Well no, not exactly.

Ferulic acid isn’t exactly easy to play with on account of its solubility issues.  The most interesting study I found into this was this in the International Journal of Pharmaceuticals from 2010.  I accessed the whole article from the DeepDyvve website if you want to download it all.

This work investigated the absorption of Ferulic Acid into the skin vs other similar molecules, finding that it was poorly absorbed  when compared to Ferulic Acid Ethyl Ether.   In addition and as with many antioxidants, the ferulic acid its self tends to oxidise over time and, could, therefore, become yet another headache for the cosmetic product formulator, especially given its low stability in high humidity environments (such as those found in many cosmetic formulations).   I always find this detail so much more interesting than just the headline, of course science is more complex than just adding one thing willy nilly with another and bam, problem solved!   This is no different.

From further research I see that the Ferulic Acid is found in the plant cell membrane. It’s not hard to find that out, it’s plastered all over the internet really, but what is harder to work out is why that matters.   While this doesn’t matter if Ferulic acid is added as a discrete chemical into a formula, what it does mean is that people wanting to use ‘food-on-the-face’ ingredient philosophies won’t be able to gain the benefits from Ferulic acid by topical application of things like oat, wheat or rice bran oils or extracts due to the Ferulic acid being tied up and in-accessible to skin cells (as skin cells lack a digestive system to liberate the acid).   I mention this because I’m quite often asked the origin of the discrete chemicals that I talk about, especially the vitamins and minerals so I’m anticipating similar questions about this.  Once I mention that most Ferulic Acid is synthetically produced (as with many vitamins too) there is a tendency to try and find a natural source (quite understandably). This is then followed by a real trouble in understanding how and why a natural source may not be as good as the synthetic.


But we don’t want to leave it there do we?  It turns out that Ferulic Acid is one half of the chemical Y-oryzanol (the other bit being a triterpineol ester) and that this chemical exists in Rice Bran Oil and IS biologically active on topical application, YAY!  However, rather than being an antioxidant, here the Y-Oryzanol has sebum production altering properties which could also be useful to the cosmetic chemist or pharmacist, you can read thepaper here. It turns out that other than sex hormones, this weird chemical, Y-Oryzanol, found in rice bran oil, has the ability to increased blood flow and sebaceous secretions.  That could be useful!

So, to summarise Ferulic Acid is indeed interesting and has some value in the areas of  photo protection and general antioxidant functionality but it isn’t without its formulation challenges. These benefits of Ferulic Acid are best achieved with the synthetic isolate that has been skilfully  formulated or as Ferulic Acid Ethyl Ether if you can find it.   Rice bran oil does give you some access to this chemistry but in a way that gives different results, this time as a sebum promotor and blood flow booster, so maybe in skin healing applications or for post-menopausal women who have a tendency towards very dry skin.  Nice!

But what about the patent?

Oh yes,  so while I was looking into this I came across a video where a young woman called Cassandra Bankson was reviewing ‘Dishonest Beauty Companies’  that actually make good products,  her video is here. 

I didn’t get far into it when I started eye rolling so much that I ended up falling off my chair. I started to wonder if this Vlogger had any idea or appreciation for what a ball-ache and investment it is to create innovative new products for her to crush on…  And yes, the businesses with money DO seek to protect their science via patents, why? so that they can keep on being technically innovative, pay their scientists and give you new products to fawn over.

I felt really confronted by the fact that here was a seemingly intelligent and articulate woman professing in public at being pissed that this ‘Dupe’ (another word for ‘rip off’ or ‘fake’ or ‘low-priced-alternative’ to a well known and popular product) may potentially be taken off the market for doing the wrong thing.  Has the world really come to this?

If you read the other article I published today, a self-pitying piece on how life sucks now that people don’t value or respect the scientific process, you might now appreciate why I feel as I do or maybe you’re like ‘huh? wait, what?  Dupes are great, it means I get stuff that works for way less money and that’s awesome’.   Whatever way you fall believe me, patents aren’t just there to help companies print money, they are there to help protect science, innovation and progress (and yes, that does also include the development of things that are natural, palm free, animal cruelty free and all that other stuff).

The bottom line.

I quite liked the look of Drunk Elephant before I read this  (mainly and shallowly because I like the packaging and the name, even though I’m not a fan of drunkeness myself) and would have personally bought some of their products to try out. However, after seeing this and realising what the above transgression stands for I think I’ll give them a miss.

Support for good science 1 (even if it is L’Oreal):  Drunk Elephant 0


P.S: You don’t need to be a big brand to be innovative, you just need to value, pay and respect scientists and the scientific process. If you don’t, you should accept that you are doing your bit to kill us and with it a part of yourself.





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