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Emulsification 101: When things don’t look right.

April 26, 2021

Setting the Scene.

I am insanely curious about and focused on cosmetic chemistry. I use the word ‘insanely’ purposefully as there is almost no way a ‘normal’ person could be consumed by the subject in the way and to the depth I am – it is not ‘normal’ but it is also not bad.

Etymology of the word:

In = Not (latin)

Sanus = Healthy (latin)

While I do find the idea that my personal attachment to cosmetic science is not healthy a bit perplexing (how can that be?) I also agree with it. I shall never be financially rich or mainstream famous – two things I really wanted to be once upon a time. Why? Because to become rich requires prioritising money above almost everything else, being famous requires loving yourself while making other people feel good above other things. Meanwhile I prioritise cosmetic chemistry above everything else, prioritising it at all costs. This leaves the already a little socially awkward me more vulnerable as in this realm I’m raw and open.

So, in a state of being incapable of massaging other peoples ego’s, or take them on as sporty competition or even (often) cunjoring up enough executive function to put a value to what I’m doing and then write up an invoice I’m left on my island of one, bemoaning the fact that people don’t take the time to look, really look at things any more and don’t value those of us that do. That, my friends is why I’ve come to the conclusion that I am insanely curious about this subject and I don’t mind it one bit. So it’s with that in mind that I share this.

The starter.

A few weeks ago I received an email about a problem a client was having with an emulsifier. In short, they were observing something within their oil phase that was different to what they were expecting and had come to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the ingredient.

Long story short, I put forward my suggestions, gave a few tips on how to experiment further and then mentioned that if they were still struggling to bring the product into me and I can look at it and maybe that will help us find the answer (I can look at chemicals in the same way as Beth Harmon (The Queen’s Gambit) looks at chess pieces.

Side dish.

At this point I thought I’d made it clear that by ‘product’ I meant the emulsion that they were trying to make given that I had the ingredient here already. The customer didn’t hear me that way and instead turned up with the ingredient a week or so later which left me face-palming myself and feeling like I’d wasted my breath with my earlier tutoring but I took it, tried it, found no problem so sat on my results until they called again.

The main course.

Roll on a few more weeks and I got another email almost identical to the first but from another person. This person was more game to take me on and didn’t disappear back into their lab to try any of the things I suggested and instead called me straight back after receiving my email. I quickly became audibly frustrated as on hearing this person I realised that what was going on here was a logical fallacy of the type ‘conspiratorial thinking’. The plot thickens…

Navigating the plate.

I have laid out some of what was presented to me below, in a series of dot point summaries. I won’t say all the points as I don’t want to embarrass anyone or make it easy to identify anyone, emails are confidential after all:

  • The emulsifier in question wasn’t performing as expected.
  • When compared to an alternative, familiar emulsifier this one was doing something different and it wasn’t a good different.
  • This difference was being discussed in a group.
  • Another comparable group had not experienced this problem thus leading to the conclusion that this group had the wrong material of the right material but something was wrong with it.

Chewing and digesting.

After my initial frustration and rebuttals (mostly frustration at the questioners not having interpreted my information in the right way or taken the carrots I’d dangled for them) I calmed down and became interested. This is interesting but also not the type of interesting that wins me friends, fame or fortune. I knew that in taking this on I was going to ruffle some feathers and trample on some ego.

From my vantage point of now having the input from two different but connected people, having ‘the material’ and my chemistry seeing eyes I constructed a plan. So as to be fair and transparent I verbalised that plan to the complainant, giving them another task to complete, making sure this time they had ‘heard’ me properly (I actually still can’t be sure of that but I tried to labour the point enough). I then went off to do my thing, this time slowing down my thinking to match their pace…

Pause for detail.

So this is what was going on. An emulsion was being prepared by the two in the usual way, water phase, oil phase, heat, mix, cool and finish. However, the oil phase wasn’t going well. Instead of the emulsifier disappearing or turning the oil phase just a little hazy it was forming little precipitate wax bits in the bottom of the beaker and that was completely perplexing to my pair.

As I mentioned earlier, I had received a sample of this ‘bad’ batch and tried it in my lab. On being able to form an emulsion with no problem at all I had dismissed their concerns as maybe them not heating the mix up enough, heating too much, not mixing well enough, having an oil phase that was too concentrated for the emulsifier to fully solubilise or something of that nature. For me, the appearance of the oil phase was less important than the ability of it to form an emulsion. It is this ‘fact’, this difference in perspective that got my interest piqued. As an ‘expert’ it is sometimes easy for ‘us’ to miss the things that trip up industry newbies because we have already pushed some detail to muscle memory. While this is somewhat essential so we can make way for new things in our working memory, it can also mean we aren’t the best teachers for newbies as we simply don’t see things the same way or experience the process as they do. However, this is where we have to remember that I’m insane in this domain 🙂

Because of the way my brain works I tumble out of that trap very easily. My insane curiosity for detail, for understanding, for visualising what is going on inside that beaker overrides everything else and while sure, it still takes a trigger to snap my brain out of my bias for higher thinking, once that trigger is pulled I’m all in.

Finishing off the main course.

The trigger for me was the second phone call and the pile-on of (to my mind) irrelevant and misguided conclusions that had been drawn. The oppositional chip in my brain had been triggered, I knew these people were wrong but now just had to prove it. When I say ‘had to’ I actually had no obligation to do what I did next but this ‘had to’ was coming from my own insane curiosity. What comes next is what I did.

So after an initial trial in the lab to get a visual ID on the problem and a quick, almost flippant discussion with a fellow chemist the problem was solved. This was a solubility situation – something I had mentioned in my initial and follow up email and phone call but hey, whose keeping score…

This weekend I went to work recording what happened at different temperatures, with different heating methods and with different oil phases. This work took me about an hour or so, mostly because I was trying (and mostly failing) to film it rather than anything else. It would have cost me around $20 max in ingredients, probably more like $5 plus a laboratory beaker and a drinking glass that I smashed as I can’t seem to do any lab project without smashing something (my fine motor skills are shockingly bad). Bottom line, this didn’t take a lot of cash or equipment come to think of it. Anyone could do this.


Oh the sweetness!

My insane fascination with cosmetic science has its rewards and with this one, slowing down and really looking into this has kept my neurons singing for the last 24 hours.

What was going on in the beaker of my troubled question askers was both chemical and physical. The emulsifier in question has two parts to it, under most conditions they are holding hands (bonded) together via hydrogen bonds brought about by a smattering of water bound in the waxy mesh – a seemingly inconsequential little ‘spice’ that actually makes it all possible.

When this particular emulsifier is placed in the company of an oil phase that it likes but isn’t in ‘love’ with and the temperature is turned up a little too much, waxy precipitates appear. I imagine this as a scene from the film ‘Promising young woman’. Her sitting there uncomfortable but ready to do her job, the guys circling, turning up the heat and then boom, things get too hot and one way or another she is split apart (I was talking metaphorically but it works on all levels I guess and if you haven’t yet seen the film I really do recommend it).

The presence of these waxy blobs signify the breakage of the hydrogen bond that exists between the two halves of this emulsifier. One half of the emulsifier is readily soluble in oils, almost without exception. The other half is poorly soluble in oils and thus forms the crystalline waxy lumps that can then be seen. This bond breaking isn’t fatal at this point (around 80-85C) but it doesn’t look that good and can even become foamy. The waxy blobs increase as the temperature rises because the water that’s providing hydrogen for the H bonds is evaporating off, releasing more of the insoluble component of the emulsifier into the hostile environment. When you place something that’s insoluble in a solution into that solution it will try to stick together, another analogy that comes to mind when I describe this is the penguins looking after their egg or sheltering from snow storms. They try to reduce their contact with the ‘evil’ outside phase, thus forming agglomerates (which we see as waxy white blobs).

At this point, if the oil phase is then mixed with an equally hot water phase (or if both are cooled a little first) an emulsion can form as the two halves of this emulsifier combo re-configure themselves into their happy places. It is because of this that I didn’t pay too much attention to this before – I want an emulsion, I get an emulsion, who cares if the oil phase stage isn’t ‘pretty’? Anyway, that’s why I didn’t think too much of it at first and also why I was so frustrated at the people asking the question, neither of which readily volunteered up an answer to my simple question ‘yes, but does it still form an emulsion’. That perplexed me but then again, a juicy mystery of a story that’s wrong is better (neurologically speaking) than a more intellectually complex and strenuous story that’s right unless you are me.

What are we having?

We are having an investigation into solubility and, more specifically how it changes and what that looks like in this applied setting (the oil phase)

  • Different emulsifiers have different chemistry.
  • Different oils (in your oil phase) have different chemistry.
  • Some oil: emulsifier combinations are very soluble in each other (melting to crystal clarity)
  • Some oil: emulsifier combinations are miscible (melting to cloudy but smooth)

Throw in a little heat.

Solubility is relative not absolute. Temperature changes things whether than be going up or coming down. Your oil phase will be looking different at 40C vs 60C, 60C vs 80C, 80C vs 90C etc. This is important.

A Little vs big slice.

Solubility is relative not absolute. Put a lot of emulsifier into a little oil and you have created an environment with different solubility outcomes to when you have a little emulsifier in a little oil or a little emulsifier in a lot of oil. Simple really but often overlooked. Remember your oil phase is not the whole formula so when you have a formula that asks for 20% oil and 5% emulsifier, on preparing your oil phase you have 25% of your formula of which 1/5th of it (20%) is the emulsifier…

Turn up the flavour.

Solubility is relative, not absolute. Every oil or oily emollient, wax or butter has its own chemistry. This chemistry may be more or less amenable to solubilising or mixing with the emulsifier you’ve chosen. Some oil phases may make your emulsifier melt to crystal clarity, others may leave it hazy, some may produce those little waxy bits that we are trying to identify.

The after-dinner coffee and mint.

All of the above was confirmed with evidence after doing some experiments and taking a little time out to reflect and research the physical properties of the emulsifier components. Not hard to do once you know where to look but knowing where to look and what to do is hard when your brain is filled with conspiracies around the material just being wrong. I see this often enough to know it’s a thing and more often than not the people most likely to jump to conspiratorial conclusions are the ones who haven’t yet grasped what science actually is. Science is not a mastery of chemistry facts or a mathematical genius. Science is a way of thinking, of deconstructing a problem, of creatively mapping out all the many roads one could go down to investigate this odd situation they find themselves in. Sure, having some years under your belt, formal training, understanding of what’s happening in the beaker etc helps but without curiosity and a creative mind that’s all pointless.

Paying the bill.

The cost to the people I gave this answer to was, I assume very little not least because they didn’t have to pay me anything and the answer when they finally got one that made sense was easily accepted.

The value to me was both huge and less than nothing which is another nod to this insanity.

On the up side I learned another little detail to pay attention to and teach, to explore and get to know better. I enjoyed doing what I did and am still keen to explore more.

On the down side I was again reminded of the huge gap that exists between me and what I value and am prepared to do to get answers, and ‘them’. ‘They’ are not the individuals involved in this exchange, ‘they’ are the hundreds of others, including the people making money from teaching crap courses, or those selling themselves as consultants when they haven’t the slightest clue how to investigate or create anything, those thinking they know more than they do. I struggle with that, I wish I didn’t but I do.

So I just pay the bill and focus on what I can control while working out either how to turn everything else into a positive or to turn it into dust and blow it away.

I know my articles are long and people don’t have time for long but I don’t have time for people who think that so I’m going to carry on regardless.

Lots of love


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Micaela permalink
    May 5, 2021 6:05 pm

    I enjoyed reading this and appreciate you writing ‘long’ articles! I have seen this effect in emulsifiers and have never thought of it as something wrong. But you’re right it’s interesting to get queries from newbies – makes you think of things in a totally different way! Emulsification is a bit of a dark art and so easy to assume you’re doing something wrong when you’re starting out.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      May 5, 2021 7:12 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, yes funny how many little details go unnoticed. Noticing them reduces the ‘dark arts’ aspect I think.

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