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Why are people asking if vegetable oils and butters are vegan?

October 10, 2018

All of a sudden everyone wants everything to be vegan.

I’ve no problem with that and indeed, see many merits to a vegan lifestyle but I am kind of puzzled about how some people get here – to the vegan skin care thing, especially when those people ask me if a vegetable oil or butter is vegan.

I had a question from a client last week about Shea Butter – is it vegan. Another this week about Cocoa Butter.

I am left scratching my head trying to work out how people interested in being vegan cosmetic users/ makers couldn’t answer that. If truth be known I’m left fearing for humanity. Am I over-reacting?

The two butters I was questioned about come straight from the plant – Shea and Cocoa. To coin a Lady Gaga phrase, they are born that way babe. As far as I know no animals get their dirty paws into that process.

But not all butters are born that way – maybe that is a legitimate source of the uncertainty?

Some butters, take Almond butter for example, are made by hardening almond oil up with a hydrogenated vegetable oil – that vegetable oil can be anything, including (but not always – don’t fall into that trap) palm.  At the moment (and possibly forever) palm is still a vegan input being plant-based so even these manufactured butters are vegan friendly.  Further, it is also possible to be vegan friendly if synthetic additives (silicones and/or petroleum oils and waxes) are used so even these things would be vegan friendly.  Indeed the only things that aren’t vegan friendly are animal derived ingredients so let’s have a look at those.

Waxy things that MIGHT creep into manufactured (rather than ‘green’) butters and waxes and therefore MIGHT cause confusion for people looking to be vegan are:


Tallow wax

Tallow Stearin

Spermaceti Wax

However, these ingredients would generally appear on the INCI listing for the material as part of the ingredients.  There aren’t many ways to ‘hide’ the origin of these things, their name gives them away, so it should be quite easy to spot them and single them out to avoid. The only exception would possibly be tallow stearin which could be called ‘stearic acid’  or ‘Sodium Stearate’ if it had been reacted with sodium hydroxide.  However, since the mad cow debacle of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s not much tallow stearin is used in the cosmetic industry. It’s usually palm derived.

So back to the question my clients asked, maybe this is where seeds of doubt come in – the stearin origin?

Shea and Cocoa Butter are known to contain high levels of stearic acid, indeed it is this stearic that helps to give the butters their melting point.  Maybe some seed of doubt due to insufficient trust have built up leading to questions about the origin of such stearic acid.  While it is not impossible that extra stearic, possibly from tallow, could make its way into Cocoa or Shea Butter, the correct way to sell those products would be as mixtures, with two INCI listings, rather than as a whole, single ingredient.  This additional process step, of adding extra stearic, should also show up in a material manufacturing flow chart.  I’ve never seen this information reflected in a flow cart for these ingredients but I am aware that me not seeing it does not mean that it has never happened.  However, I would question the point of doing it a) when the butters contain enough natural stearic anyway,  b) when tallow stearin has to go through several processes before it can be used meaning it’s not just as simple as whacking in some tallow and b) much of the Cocoa and Shea butter produced goes into food applications and they are even more picky than cosmetics for food origin so it would likely cause a riot if this were, indeed going on.

After going through that I can now see how people might come to ask that question.

But I’m not sure that the people asking that question did come to ask it because of that way of thinking.

I anticipate that many people just don’t know any more.

Don’t know who to trust.

Don’t know where to go for information that’s ‘right’

Don’t feel empowered enough to make a call without double and triple checking.

And so once again I’m back to where I started, fearing about humanity…





How many litres of water does it take to grow an Almond and other stories

October 5, 2018

A gazillion to be precise and that’s a lot!

I’ve not been able to get the whole ‘should vegan cosmetics all be palm free’ question out of my head all week. I am annoying like that, I get ideas and they just run circles around my mind until I slap them – usually down on the screen in the form of a blog post.

Anyway, one tangent I walked down was this.

So I was thinking that it’s awfully ‘white privileged’ of me (not that it was my idea) to sit here and demand that palm is off the menu for everyone but especially vegans while drinking an almond milk latte from one of my twenty keep-cups (see, that doesn’t work. People shouldn’t have more than one keep-cup and they should keep it for a long time but that isn’t how it is, is it?)

BTW I don’t really drink almond milk, call me old-fashioned but  I don’t like the idea of milk that hasn’t come from a nipple.

Where was I?

Oh yes, so basically one of the big reasons that Palm should (allegedly) be off the menu for vegans is because of rainforest destruction taking down natures beautiful forest and putting up a mono-culture plantation. I am, personally very sad, sad beyond words at this but I am still not convinced that making this a vegan issue is a good idea.  That’s why I’m now thinking about almonds.

So Almonds are an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen apparently and that’s also sad as I actually do like eating almonds.  According to the internet, around 80% of global demand grows in California and it grows with the help of a shit ton of ground water.  I am not sure that is sustainable, it doesn’t sound like it should be.

Not only are these things water guzzlers – apparently taking 15 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds (I do need to validate that fact, sounds a bit weird) but they also need a lot of pesticides.   Further, I’ve heard that they even have to truck bees in to pollinate these as the farms, being so large and so otherwise barren are not great environments for our little buzzy friends to hang out of their own accord. That all sounds terribly sad to me.

So basically that’s what I’ve been thinking.  I don’t think there is any ‘right’ answer to this dilemma but I do think there are several big wrongs and there is nothing worse than white people sitting on barren land sipping nut milk and telling other people not to chop down their forest because it’s pretty, they want to go on holiday there one time to pat and take selfies with the wildlife and it’s going to make global warming happen anyway so stop.

Clearly something has to give but maybe we should clean up our own acts a bit first then maybe people will actually listen.  The good old ‘set a good example, be a good leader’ type of thing.  After all, ‘our’ land used to be all trees too and big apex predators – one only has to read George Monbiot’s book “feral’ to validate that fact.

Have a good weekend pondering that one then folks.

Amanda x

PS: As a cosmetic chemist I mostly take my almonds in the oil form. That involves grabbing them by the handful and shoving them while they scream through a screw press. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it 🙂


Let’s talk about Retinyl Palmitate

October 5, 2018

When a client I was talking to questioned me about the efficacy of Retinyl Palmitate as in ‘does it even do anything at all?’  I was perplexed.  I’ve been dealing with vitamin A and its derivatives in skin care for a long time and had adopted a mindset of quietly accepting that the palmitate derivative of this vitamin was a useful compromise for most skin care brands – sure it’s less effective and slower acting but it’s also safer, more stable and when all is said and done it does get the job done eventually (and at a reasonable price point).  For me retinyl palmitate is something that works, albeit to a lesser degree than pure retinol but without the stability headache.

Apparently I was wrong.

Apparently top scientists around the world have dismissed retinol esters as being  ‘of no value in photo protection’.

The more I talked to the client the more curious I became.  I’m always fascinated at how we (humans) form and hold opinions that are, once tested, based on very little solid ‘truth’ as far as what we can actually bring to mind.  This, for me was one such occasion. I resolved to delve in deep as soon as I could, collected the clients email address and could think of nothing else for the next 48 hours. Yes, I’m a science research tragic, especially when it comes to good old chemistry, and that, my friends, is where I started.

Retinyl Palmitate. Stands accused of doing nothing, being no good and faking its own identity as a decent source of vitamin A for the skin.


Here are the two articles that got this thing started.

The first thing to note is that these papers are both ‘scientific’ and written by people with authority, typically a higher level of authority than most (if not all) of my customers and even me maybe.  However, we should never let that stop us digging in and around what they have said, not because we suspect they are wrong but mostly because not everyone has the motivation to dig like you do, in the same spot or for as long.  I am one of those annoying people who has more ‘why’s’ in them than almost anyone else I know and the stamina to boot so I’ll be using that here.

So what do these two papers say?

So the earlier paper from 2010 (how much do we really know, written by dermatologists) sets the scene really well, identifying a problem (it’s likely there isn’t much evidence behind our favourite cosmeceuticals) then proceeding to break down the ‘evidence’ based on good scientific rigour and protocol.  The paper has all of the right words in all the right order but it does make one glaring mistake to my mind and that’s when it dismisses retinyl palmitate early in the piece. This article dismisses retinyl esters based on this article here and this one here.  If you have a subscription to the scientific paper database DEEPDYVVE you can download the whole papers.

One of the papers that is used to dismiss Retinyl Palmitate (Antioxidants and vitamins in cosmetics) is quite odd in that the paper doesn’t its self dismiss the ingredient at all.  It merely points out the obvious that, for Retinyl Palmitate to work it has to be relieved of its palmitate tail and then has to undergo other chemical conversions in the skin to release the dragon (so to speak).  The paper acknowledges this and acknowledges that retinol (which also needs further converting) needs to be present in concentrations of 0.25% or more to illicit a positive response. With Retinyl Palmitate being only somewhere around 1/2 as effective as Retinol that would mean adding 0.5% of it to a formula to guarantee an effect.  That’s very do-able.   This paper found retinyl palmitate to increase epidermal thickness and collagen levels which confirm its ability to act as a skin normaliser which is what it is supposed to do.

The other paper is largely irrelevant to my mind as for a start it focuses on Retinyl Propionate and not Retinyl Palmitate and for second it only used 0.15% of the molecule.  Chemically Retinyl Propionate has a molecular weight of 342.51g/ mol whereas Retinyl Palmitate has a MW of 524.86g/mol so you could be forgiven for thinking that Retinyl Propionate should be much stronger and better than the palmitate as the retinol part accounts for a higher percentage of the overall molecule. However, weight isn’t the most important thing when it comes to dermal penetration – I’ve said this before but it does seem to me that lots of people love to cling to the notion that size is super important.  Anyway, with these molecules what matters is how easy it is for the body to rip the tail off these things.  The main reason I quickly began to suspect that the first two papers had missed the point is because Retinyl Palmitate is naturally found in the body, indeed, it is the molecule that the body converts retinol to and from in order to transport it around and store it.   The article ‘working with retinoids for anti ageing skin formulations’ mentions this but emphasises a conversion reaction of retinyl palmitate that happens in the liver, this may lead the reader to think that all conversion happens there but that isn’t true.  Retinyl Palmitate can be cleaved in the skin (epidermis) and it can also be created there too depending on the needs of the cells at the time.   Surely a molecule that the body can make and convert is going to be better than a molecule that came out of nowhere (un-natural)?   I think so.  Weight or size isn’t relevant here.

So basically, with that I started to build up a picture that Retinyl Palmitate had been more mis-judged, the victim of an unfair trial if you will. Rather than it being guilty of being useless, it was just guilty of being slow (compared to retinol or  retinoic acid) and more clunky.

While it looks like Retinyl Palmitate is useful for the skin in general, is it fair to say that it is useless in photo protection, another key claim against it?

That may well be somewhat true, signs that something protects against photo ageing are:

  • A reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Decreased hyper pigmentation.
  • Decreased skin roughness.

Cosmetic trials can last for any length of time but it is most likely that a trial of significance run for at least one skin cycle – 28 days.  They may go on for up to two before becoming too expensive.  During this time any active should have soaked into the active layers of the skin to influence whatever it is supposed to influence, with retinol its the growing of new cells – keratinocytes.

Retinoic acid, the form of retinol that is immediately active can jump into action at the site of application straight away and put 100% of its effort into righting the wrongs that it finds.  Retinyl Palmitate has to shape shift and then stay where it was rubbed to work.   I am not totally sure about this but I would hypothesise that sometimes retinyl palmitate might end up either being transported away by the body to other places or might be rubbed off with normal wear-and-tear of the day if it doesn’t penetrate relatively quickly.  Retinoic acid has to be built-up to retinyl palmitate in order to be transported anywhere – a biological cost or effort.  Further,  photo ageing is caused by free radicals that are released due to the sun’s energy,  retinoic acid has its hands free to act as an antioxidant and PREVENT the free radicals causing trouble whereas Retinyl Palmitate has baggage and can’t do that until it is cleaved and it won’t get cleaved on the surface, where the free radicals are.  A similar situation exists with vitamin E, vitamin E acetate can be cleaved in the skin and act as an antioxidant but will not act as an antioxidant in your cosmetic pot. So vitamin E acetate is useless at holding back oxidation of oils for example but it would be foolish to say it is of no value.

I would surmise from this that Retinyl Palmitate is not an antioxidant (or not a good one anyway) so it can’t prevent photo ageing or mop up the inflammation that comes from irradiation.  I would surmise that Retinyl Palmitate is likely to be very slow to act compared with retinoic acid and that some of it may well end up somewhere other than the skin when applied, especially if the body needs it elsewhere (because of its mobile form).  Lastly I would surmise that neither of these points really matter as we have already shown that this ingredient can and does have some benefits for the skin, can be used safely at a level that will elicit those positive responses, is stable enough, affordable enough and cosmetically acceptable enough to be of value in daily (or nightly) long-term skin ‘normalising’ or ‘optimising’ formulations including anti-ageing products.

My final conclusion therefore is as follows:

That rather than their being no evidence to support Retinyl Palmitate as a good skincare active, there is evidence of its benefits, backed up by scientific logic (its chemistry and biochemistry) and in-vivo results.  The main issue being that the studies are small and the dose rate used is not always fair.  Pair that with the fact that a number of experts have discounted this molecule and you have the situation we have today.

I would be comfortable in saying that it probably isn’t fair to expect Retinyl Palmitate to be a good photo protective molecule based on its lack of antioxidant capacity as supplied, but it is fair and beneficial to see it as a valuable input into a well-balanced anti-ageing formula for long-term use. It is proven to boost collagen production and to thicken the epidermis which is a desirable.

Overall I see no reason to not include retinyl palmitate into a cosmetic formula, it might be slower and less dramatic than retinoic acid or even retinol but it does work and like the hair and the tortoise race taught us, as long as it gets there in the end it succeeds.

Rimba Raya is holding back the palm in Indonesia.

October 2, 2018

Rimba Raya Reserve

The September edition of the ‘Personal Care Ingredients’ magazine Asia-Pacific edition contains a small story on page 6 about a couple of manufacturers, Sederma and Crodarom, part of Croda International Plc,  that have become carbon neutral. I  read on, my eyes scanning towards the word ‘Indonesia’ and ‘Biodiversity Reserve’ and I started to get excited as I realised that this was the area that I’d worked in all those years ago! This was a project in Central Kalimantan, a regenerative project that is actually turning the Palm Oil story into a story of Forest protection, Indonesia. A project that is showing that standing forest can produce an income for a country. A concept more radical than you might at first appreciate.

The reserve above incorporates 11 off-the-grid villages which are now solar-powered, are supplied by clean water and are able to produce their own incomes via a series of community farming initiatives. The villages are also involved in schooling scholarship initiatives for boosting local education levels and producing a model that is not only sustainable but is also progressive and doesn’t lock the people involved into a life away from opportunity and progress. Outside of that, the main purpose of this reserve is to provide a buffer between the ever encroaching palm plantations and the virgin forest.

The webcast explained the problem of palm plantation creep very well.  Standing natural capital has next to no value in our current economic model.  If you are interested in the economics of what this means I do recommend the book “Six Capitals, Can Accountants Save the Planet” by Jane Gleeson-White.  Todd Lemons, the Chairman of the Veridium Foundation and Rimba Raya, mentions this frequently during the talk and really hammers home the need for a change to the way we value our natural resources.   Todd also makes it quite clear that projects like this HAVE to pay their way and that means they need to bring in as much revenue to the government as a palm plantation would.  That really is the bottom line.

It’s really good to have a concrete example of what needs to be done on the ground to save our forests. However, what is blatantly obvious is that there is no way this can be sustained if we, the public continue to consume more and more resources, either through our greed or through our increasing success with breeding (population growth). Todd also reminds us that demand for palm oil is still growing at around 8% per year. Sadly he also offered up an opinion of the RSPO’s efforts to protect the forest, it wasn’t very favourable.

Rimba Raya is looking good and at 65,000 hectares, just under the size of the whole of Singapore, it’s also doing a lot of good to offset the carbon emissions of companies, like those in Croda’s stable, all over the world. However, we’d be really kidding ourselves if we were to sit back now and feel that we’ve done enough.  We’ve not even scratched the surface…


Help, I’m sick of stuffing up and it’s your fault I can’t do it because I’m not a chemist and you are!

October 2, 2018

So part of my job is to help people and I quite like doing it most of the time. However, there are some times when it just sucks balls…

I don’t want to be rude but I am going to be so I may as well own it.  Some people just don’t seem to understand that science is as much about the failures as it is about the success. Sure it SUCKS when you get the experiment wrong again and again and again but as long as you are keeping your little lab book up to date, recording your changes and making sequential and logical tweaks to your experiment you might just get there in the end. Either that or you will learn that the whole idea was shite and you shouldn’t ever go there again.

Can I just interject here and say that none of this is my fault oK?

I cannot even begin to tell you how much time and energy I’ve spent on making batches of absolute rubbish.  Formulations that fell apart, ideas that looked great on paper but then grew mould, split into two or stung my face off.  The more you experiment, the more you fail but also (and this is the good part) the more knowledge you get – with any luck!

Science is a practice, we are all practitioners.  We think up an idea (hypothesis) and test it in the lab.  The more outlandish and complicated the idea the more time-consuming the experiment and the more likely it is to fail, at least at first. Most things can be worked out in the end – as long as you have the patience and budget.

Now everybody has to start somewhere and as a consultant with over 20 years of lab work under my belt I am starting a fair way ahead of some of my clients.  This thing is called ‘experience’ and it is what I use to help people.  I know I’m talking like an arse hole again but I am doing it here so that by the time I get to you I will be all sweetness and light, like that teacher from Matilda – Miss Honey.   Now I use my experience like a database and after listening to the problem that a client has I scan my database for matches – times when I’ve tried similar or even the same experiment, come across the same ingredients or tried to achieve the same sort of outcome.  I don’t always have a close-enough reference point to work from but my database also has plenty of resources in the ‘general advice’ box which helps me dish out advice such as asking  ‘did you check the pH’ and then ‘what was it?’  or ‘what temperature did you heat it all up to and for how long?’.  There’s usually a fair bit of cross-over in most people’s problems although the detail is always different and always needs a careful ear to hear (and I’m all ears, even though I’m actually a bit deaf in both of them).

It turns out that helping is a two-way street, a dance  if you will.  An interaction where we come together and share for a bit, bat around some ideas, formulate a plan then retreat off to our own spheres and do what needs to be done next to get to the bottom of this thing.  It also turns out that sometimes the reason that the product of your imagination doesn’t already exist and can’t come into being  is because it’s an idea without a market or because it doesn’t technically work or isn’t practical for the scale you can achieve or something else.  Again, these things aren’t my fault. Don’t shoot the messenger.

It also turns out that sometimes, in the process of investigating something, one (either me or the other person) finds out that they don’t actually have what it takes to do this, to finish it successfully and ‘win’ at the project.  That sucks too but I do try to remind people who again, this is all part of being a scientist, that the work is experimental by nature and experiments help you find out new things including the fact that you can’t actually do this.  If this happens we all have to just take a deep breath, put the time invested and frustration accumulated in a box marked ‘experience’ and move on.

The last thing I want to say is about that line ‘because I’m not a chemist and you are’.  Sometimes people seem quite upset that I’m chemistry trained and they are not.  I get it, that it is easy for me (now) because I have this understanding that most other people don’t but I didn’t get born with this and neither did I purchase myself the privilege of knowing the chemistry I know. I earned it and am happy enough to pass on my short cuts, insights, experimental learnings and failures as and when the situation warrants it but while that information comes freely to clients, it didn’t come free to me so it’s nice when people don’t try to whack you over the head with it.  I really don’t like that.

So, now I’ve got that off my chest I just want to re-assure you (all) that I do like helping, being helpful and generally discussing all things cosmetic science with you all but what I don’t like is to be your scape goat (or escape goat as my husband often says).  Most of what I’ve learned has come the hard way and I’d appreciate it if you could just come with the understanding that I’ll do the best I can to answer fully and openly but I can’t do magic and if you can’t make it work then C’est La Vie!





Did the Chemical Industry Cause Cancer?

October 2, 2018

I have known for a long time that some people avoid some chemicals that are used in some cosmetic products because they worry about getting cancer from them. I first came across this as a real and present fear with the paraben scare, no, SCANDAL of 2004 but of course  the fear existed before then and persists to this day.  That was the first time it really stuck in my head, that people actually thought like that.  However, as I wasn’t bothered by what, to my mind, was a small pimple of a risk on the bottom of the elephants arse hole that was my life I let it go.  To my mind the biggest risk sitting between me and that 100 year birthday telegram from the Queen was a) that the Queen would be dead before me and would have probably been replaced by a lizard or cockroach queen from another galaxy by then that wouldn’t value such trivialities or b) my ADHD would get the better of me and I’d absent mindedly cut or acid burn off my own hand in the lab, fall down a mountain while admiring the view (this is still plausible) or die of chocolate and sugar poisoning after a particularly sweet and uncontrolled bout of feasting. It seems I was one of only a few to be so nonchalant to the big C…

So what’s the deal with cancer then? Did science and chemicals  invent it?

Cancer seems to me to be just one of the many natural things that can happen to a complex being whose cells divide and multiply – mitosis (non reproductive cells) and meiosis (reproductive cells).

On any given day our cells, around two trillion of them are dividing away while we work, drink coffee or play fortnite  on the Playstation.  Sometimes shit happens and this process goes a bit wrong, these errors usually have a trigger,  that trigger can be anything from a  gene malfunction through to an injury, virus, other microbe or  environmental pollutant.  Sometimes our good little soldiers can clean it up before we notice and sometimes they can’t.  Our own little soldiers get a bit tired and slow sometimes and can become more easily overwhelmed at other times,  this can lead to times of heightened cancer risk and times when our risk is lower.  The biggest risk factor, outside of literally doing all the bad things to excess,  is living a long time.  It’s fair to say that if you live long enough you’ll probably get some form of cancer although it may not grow fast enough or be aggressive enough to kill you.

I know this isn’t very exciting or comforting, that by just being alive we can get cancer but that’s the way it seems to be.  There are things we can do to place more odds in our favour such as not smoking, drinking only in moderation if at all, eating a healthy diet, sleeping and resting well, avoiding too much sun and being mindful of the air quality in our environment but none of that guarantee us a cancer free existence and that’s exactly why some people who seem to do all the right things get cancer regardless.  It’s just one of the many ways we are reminded that we are not perfectly able to control our destiny, even if we do feel we deserve better than we get and even if we rack up thousands of frequent buyer points at our whole food coop in the process.

So how do we know that chemists and the chemical industry didn’t create it? 

Ever the defensive (evil) chemist I have long-held the desire to not be responsible for all the toxicity in the world and so I went looking to see if I could pass the Cancer buck onto someone or something else.  Lo and behold I found my answer in the palaeontology store and some mangy old dinosaur bones.

The simple answer is because even dinosaurs got it. 

It turns out that a team of scientists found 29 tumours in bones from the skeletons of 97 individual herbivorous Duck Billed Dinosaurs who lived in the Cretaceous period.   In addition, a 700,000 year old skull of a person named ‘Kanam man’ (or woman) was found to have a tumorous jaw bone. An ankle bone tumour was also found on Swartkrans man from 1.8-1.2 million years ago plus a rib bone tumour on a 120,000 year old Neanderthal skeleton.  Now that might not seem like a lot of cases compared to what we experience these days but keep in mind that there are not that many dinosaur skeletons left and that the only types of cancer that would register would be those affecting bones and not any soft-tissue origin tumours.

Yes guys, even dinosaurs got cancer so it wasn’t my fault!

So what does that mean for chemists and the chemical industry?

There is no doubt in my mind, as a reasonable person who values the earth, clean water and fresh air, that us chemists should always strive to be and do better.  It is true that there have been many chemicals produced that do severely increase the risk of people getting cancer and it is perfectly reasonable for people to seek information on those and to avoid them where possible.  But it is also fair to say that there are many naturally occurring carcinogens too that we would be wise to be aware of and take precautions around. A materials origin doesn’t determine its carcinogenicity.  Go figure…

In many ways the cosmetic industry is just the ‘low hanging fruit’ of this ‘toxic/ cancer scare’ argument. It is an easy target because it is fuelled so readily by emotion and, due to its more trivial nature, light on much of the scientific scrutiny that other industries enjoy(and sometimes abuse).  That said, it is something, it does come with some risk attached and its chemistry should be approached with long-term, joined-up safety in mind. I’m just not convinced that it deserves quite the frenzied fear storm that it tends to generate.

So what’s next?

Keep calm and carry on I guess.   I mean, the only way you can stop your cells from multiplying is to die and that’s not really a sustainable option now is it?   Other than that you should participate just as much as it makes you happy as after just being alive, being alive and stressing over it is probably the next most likely way to get sick and we don’t want that do we?

Cancer, 100% natural god damn it.


Lab Girl.

October 2, 2018


Have you ever had that feeling of reading something that someone else has written and find a little bit of yourself in those words, sentences and pages?  I’ve always been a lab girl, always. This book has helped me to view that reality from a different perspective and put it into my own words. I thought I might share that with you.

A lab girl isn’t made in a lab, isn’t the sum of her qualifications or awards, no, a lab girl is born.

I was born curious, energetic to the point of being hard-to-handle, wondering and with an imagination that could conjure up a thousand questions and directions out of one starting point – rather like branches and leaves off a tree.  Not that this way of thinking and being was always a blessing/ positive attribute of course.  I could be as wild and out-of-control as a hungry wolf or as studious, deep and focused as a hawk but what I couldn’t be was uninterested. Still can’t. Never.

I funnelled my curiosity into the natural world, in the woodland near to my home, the tiny pond in the corner of our tiny garden, into the frog spawn that my uncle would deliver most springtime, the leaves that I’d crunch on my weekend dog walks and the hours that I’d spend trying to memorise the name and purpose of every bone, muscle and blood vessel listed in my pop-up ‘Human Body’ book.  I didn’t know how to be anything other than fascinated by stuff and I didn’t need any motivation to be so.  There were no prizes, goals or financial rewards propelling me forward, no, just a deep and insatiable appetite for understanding why.

I’m still like that only now my ‘why’s’ have had to become more disciplined thanks to the financial realities of adulthood which include mortgages, school fees and business tax.  That said, I do still find myself falling into rabbit holes of intrigue from time to time, rabbit holes that lead me off the beaten (and budgeted for) track  of a project and into the as-yet-unknown realms of creative discovery and innovation. Sometimes customers even appreciate it 😉

Anyway, I just wanted to share the joy that I found seeing my way of being in the world played back through another’s eyes. It makes me feel a little less odd and obsessive in my desire to explore.  It also helps me to formulate an answer to the retort ‘well, of course, I’m not a chemist like you’ that some clients throw my way when I attempt to answer their challenging technical question in bite sized chunks, trying to make it relatable and palatable but still, occasionally missing the mark.   ‘No you are not’ I’ll say, ‘But chemists are not ‘made’ or churned out of university only when they have their qualification papers, chemists, like all scientists are born.

I’d like to say that the similarities between Hope Jahren’s achievements and mine just keep going on and on but the truth of the matter is that she wins that one. Her science obsession game was (and still is) way deeper and narrower than mine and she’s got the qualifications and lab to justify that. I, on the other hand, will continue to juggle my passion for all things on a shallower ‘cosmetic’ level, only delving down those rabbit holes when I think I can get away with it.

Amanda x