Skip to content

Skincare for beginners – Birthing a Brand

February 19, 2017

After being in the business of cosmetic formulating, brand building and product development for just shy of 20 years I do know a thing or two about how it all works. I can tell you know that it isn’t all about sexy packaging, Insta-magic and miracle cures, this industry is bloody hard work, relentless and to be taken seriously.

I’ve been focusing on the new end of town over the last month (hence no blog posts) as I re-wrote and delivered the first of a new range of workshops on the subject.  Deciding what to put in and what to leave out has been the hardest challenge for me as I also teach the advanced courses and as a consequence knowing where to draw the (information) line has been my biggest problem, not least because these days people do think they know a lot more than they actually do because of our good old friend Google.

Google-Goggles Give you Confidence.

What I have found, especially over the last five years or so is a rise in the number of people who come to a workshop already feeling like they know how this industry thing works.  This is not surprising given the number of industry insiders (me included) visible and approachable on the internet.  Plus now you can get qualified online, talk detail with people in cosmetic interest groups and generally turn up to your first hands-on play time fully briefed and qualified as a cosmetic chemist – qualified before you’ve ever set foot in a cosmetic factory or even met someone (face-to-face) that does this for a living.

But it isn’t until theory meets practice that things start to get real.

My instincts tell me that the people turning up with dreams of being the next big brand need to know the nitty-gritty and need to know it FAST.  The instant gratification of an uncomplicated answer is not my job to give.  This shit is about to get serious  – especially if you are about to plough a significant chunk of your life savings, time and energy into it.

The doom merchant.

So I’m sitting here contemplating whether my workshop participants should be introduced to me as ‘Amanda, Mistress of DOOM’…….. Sure I’ll give them some handy tips and hints of how to customise a base formula, select actives and develop a good story but I’m also going to tell them that natural ingredients can still be irritating,  yes you all need to use preservatives and no there are none that sound wonderfully natural that work in all situations and cost less than an arm and a leg.   And while we are at it I’ll make sure that everyone knows who is responsible for the safety of their product (them) and that a safe product doesn’t just begin and end with unpronounceable ingredients.  I’ll tell them that they need to keep a close eye on their budget and that some product ideas and ingredient philosophies haven’t been done before because they are either illegal or un-viable.

Yes I’ll tell them all of that.

But I’ll also tell them that cosmetic science isn’t just about science, numbers, scalability, responsibility and detail.  It is also about creative expression, people and art.

A silver lining?

While I know that for some people this approach will be too much, what I hope is that for those that are serious it will be inspiring.   We are all grown ups here and as fancy and glamorous as the cosmetic industry looks from the outside, on the inside it is still a business and business has rules and responsibility.

But we still have to play.

And that’s why I’ve made sure these beginners workshops are still jam-packed with lovely recipes to try to enjoy!  That we have some space during the day to talk to each other, share ideas, think up questions and get some answers.

Giving birth to a brand is no different to giving birth to a baby.  There’s pain, discomfort, realisation, stress and confusion but there is also immense joy, love and pride – hopefully that will last my students a lifetime.

workshop-1

So let’s do this thing.

Amanda x

 

That ever elusive ingredient. Why you can’t always get what you want (or need)….

January 10, 2017

OK so I’m writing this in Australia but I’ve also lived and worked in Europe.  The markets and access issues are different in both places and I’m sure they are different again across the other continents.

I have been working on a formula and, as sometimes happens, I’ve hit upon a problem.  I won’t tell you exactly what the problem is (it’s to do with boosting the performance of this product) as that’s not that relevant but I will tell you what I learned from this experience as I think it’s relevant to others. Maybe even you!

So my problem is that I can’t achieve the performance I want in my formula without a specialised ingredient or set of ingredients that I don’t currently stock in my lab.

So I come back to my desk and start searching the internet for an ingredient that might just fix this issue I have and I find one!

JACKPOT!

Being forever grateful for my ten years of product management (Supply chain/ tech support) once I’ve found this wonder chemical I know a few of the avenues I can go to access it.  I try them and fail.  NOTHING TO SEE HERE….

Not that I was particularly optimistic in the first place as the supplier that has created this awesome chemical is one I know well and one that rarely has its awesome technology available in neat small packs that can be purchased from a local wholesaler.

I was also sort of meh about it because living in Australia the chemicals we use for cosmetics (and for anything else for that matter) have to come through a regulatory board called NICNAS and I pretty much assumed straight off the bat that this little beauty wouldn’t have got through that door.  Sure I could arrange a low volume permit but that would set up hassles for my customer and I don’t want to do that.

SO CLOSE YET SO FAR AWAY.

During my internet searching I came across a thread on a cosmetic science discussion where someone was asking for the exact same thing as I needed and yeh, they got no joy either.  However,  that did make me think and that is why I’m writing now.

The person asking the question was a self-confessed newbie asking after this ingredient with all of the optimism of a person who hasn’t tried for months to get the paperwork together for a NICNAS permit,  try and get a new ingredient sponsored through the system or put their 10kg pack speciality order into a supplier only finding it still not here 15 weeks later (got to wait for a consolidated load and sea freight it) OR had to pay almost double to get the stuff in via air.

AWESOME……..

So the moral of this story is this.  Professional chemists and newbies alike are sometimes faced with finding the most awesome life-changing solution-bringing chemical online only to find it impossible to access.

Things have got a little better over the years as more small lot wholesale companies have sprung up but it is unlikely that the market will open up completely given that being able to purchase something once is only half the battle (regulatory, testing, re-order etc).  I’ve known many a large ingredient manufacturer drop products from their local range because they became too expensive to support – not the market for them.  So just as you get hooked on something it becomes impossible to re-order.  Not good.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

Everyone is different and everyone’s needs are different but what I do is this.  I formulate for clients (I don’t have my own brand) so I have to think about the ease of access to the materials I formulate with so I screen out all the problems I can before we get too far.  You might not care about that.  How I then go about solving my problem is by using my knowledge of chemistry and my creativity.

THERE’S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT!

Gross saying BTW but anyway….

So what I’ll do is to think carefully about what I am trying to achieve then see if other ingredient combinations that I can more easily access can help me get there.  This involves more time, more failed attempts in the lab and more fiddling than just buying one thing and whacking it in the pot but on the plus side this also improves ones chemistry skills,  artisanship, problem solving and increases the likelihood that the resulting formula will be unique and interesting.

SO SHOULD WE GET EXCITED?

Well as a teacher type of person I think this is just wonderful as it creates the perfect environment for innovation and further learning but if your focus is on fast results then probably no.

AND AS FOR MY PROBLEM.

That is waiting for a couple more ingredients that are easier to access (and NICNAS registered) to come in so I can play with them and failing that I’ve got a more clunky ‘fix’ in the bag.

 

 

Thinking: The importance of staying flexible.

January 8, 2017

I saw this today and it made me think.

sometimes-we-are-wrong

Have we become so delicate and embattled that we can no longer see that we are sometimes wrong?

Let’s have a think focusing only on the image and not the writing in black or red.

This shape happens to be on the floor and we can’t tell everything about it from just looking at the picture – is it drawn on or is it placed there?  What is it made from/ created with?  Is it one or multi-dimensional in real life?

There is a tendency to assume that the symbolic people, the characters in this narrative feel they have sufficient evidence, from their point of view, to loudly declare it a 6 or a 9.   There is also a tendency to assume the pair are arguing or at least holding their opinions loudly and somewhat unwaveringly due to the body language (stiff bodies, pointing, apparent shouting, distance) that’s described in the drawing.   But these are mere assumptions.

We might also assume more context to this narrative, that neither one of these people is responsible for creating this situation and that they are both just faced with dealing with it as they found it.

I don’t know about you but I tend to reach that conclusion because if one of them had created it then surely the caption would be ‘no, I put that there and it is a ….’.

But again we are making assumptions.

Whomever created this situation, be it one of these or a third party (and it could still be one of these people who just happens, for the moment to be playing a shouting game) could have intended a number of things including but not limited to:

  • The intention is that it the number 6 and that the viewers will interpret it as such and understand its meaning because they understand western numerals
  • The intention is that it is the number 9 with the same context as above.
  • The intention is that it is purposely ambiguous so as to leave the interpretation up to the viewer and that it can therefore be either a 6 or a 9 or whatever the viewer wants it to be.
  • It is neither 6 o 9 it is just a curly shape that happens to remind people of a number.
  • It is a kids train track.
  • It is a road map.
  • It is a failed attempt at drawing a @ sign.
  • A trace of the journey that a snail made when plucked from the garden and left on the ground while being observed.
  • It is the letter g.

Throughout my career as a cosmetic chemist I’ve been challenged both by people who do have more knowledge and insight into what I’m currently working on and those that don’t.  Both groups can have a tendency to come at you with equal ferocity and confidence in the ‘fact’ that they are correct and have something to teach you.  Rather than shout and become defensive first up I’ve tried to remain open minded and to seek further information on the other persons perspective:

“What is it that they can see that I can’t”  is a favourite question of mine.

So we look for more information, do our research and in this case it involves reading the small print….

So let’s look at the rest of the information we have to hand. 

If the small print under the Meme above is correct the drawing on the floor is a 6 or a 9 (we should assume the author of the piece does have sufficient information to draw that conclusion but as a scientist it is always OK to note that assumption in your summary) we can conclude that one of the people is wrong and we can also conclude that the advice given to look for other clues as to the orientation of the number is sound.  Further, the caution at the end of the piece also rings true, that an uninformed opinion is dangerous although I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it is ruining the world and that nobody wants to do any research.  I’d be more inclined to say that people simply don’t appreciate the position that they are in.

After all, how many other people would have looked at that shape and thought it could be a snail trail?

Maybe it’s just imagination we lack.

Amanda x

PS:  Scientists call our own in-built desire to interpret something in a particular way as BIAS and as a science professional we have to be aware of the bias trap at all times.  How can we find out anything new if we only look for confirmation that we are right all the time?

 

Vitamin C Halts the Oxidation of Melanin giving the appearance of a brighter, more even skin tone.

January 5, 2017

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with skin brightening/ whitening actives over the years, I love to help people feel better about themselves and look younger and fresher but hate the idea of people feeling that the only way they can look beautiful is to have whiter skin.  But putting that aside for a moment it is worth looking into the chemistry of how these actives work and one of my favourite actives that fits the ‘skin lightening’ claim is Vitamin C.

So Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour and vitamin C is an anti-oxidant. 

The cosmetic chemist has, at their disposal various incarnations of vitamin C, some oil soluble, most water soluble, some highly stable, some very prone to oxidation, some long-acting some instantly reactive.   But the important thing is that all these types of Vitamin C have the ability to act upon that which attacks the melanin to halt oxidation and prevent it turning a deeper shade of brown.

Melanin is an interesting group of chemicals that derive their name from the Greek word for Black/ Dark (Melas).  It is the major pigment present in the skin of vertibrates and the one responsible for giving us a tan.  But that’s not all it does,  the melanin pathway is also involved in producing an antibiotic action on the skin and in plants and insects melanin helps to give strength to cell walls and cuticles. In addition Melanin is a powerful chelator of cations (positive ions) and as such acts as a sink for free radicals.

Chemically speaking Melanin is a Indolic Polymer  – this structure is typical for eumelanin:

eumelanin

Indole is an aromatic (smelly) chemical that looks like this:

indole

You can see this unit repeated through the above melanin polymer.

Indole is pretty common in nature and can be produced by a variety bacteria.  It is found in human poo and (yuckily) smells exactly like that – eugh – when concentrated. Apparently in small doses it smells floral (her poo smelled like roses? No, more like Jasmine actually).

I digress…..

So there’s more than one polymer of melanin in a human.

We have Eumelanin – the brown and black stuff.  This is also the pigment that gives rise to grey hair when it is present in small quantities and when other pigments are absent.

There is also Pheomelanin – These are pink/ red and are heavily concentrated in the lips, nipples and private parts as well as being smattered through the skin, especially in redheads who tend to have more pinky tones in their skin whereas those with brown, black or blond hair can tend to have more yellow undertones.

Then there are Trichochromes which are similar to the above but smaller in structure.

And then the Neuromelanin, a dark, insoluble polymer that resides in the brains of humans.

 

When we are talking about skin brightening we are primarily concerning ourselves with the Eumelanin structure as this is the pigment with the potential for the most dramatic darkening.

Melanins absorb a broad spectrum of light energy including that from the UV range (sun burning rays). Much of this chemical reaction happens at the carbonyl group (the double bond between the carbon and the oxygen) and eumelanins have these a-plenty making them the most receptive to this UV oxidation.  The consequence of this reaction is an oxidation of the melanin, scientists call this the IPD reaction (Intermediate Pigment Darkening) but cosmetic chemists and the public know this as the tan.

And that brings me neatly to why I love Vitamin C as a skin brightening active.

The oxidation of melanin occurs naturally with UV exposure at the surface of the skin (ish) and as such is 100% cosmetic in nature.  When there is no UV, there is no oxidation and the melanin remains light – we see this in the winter or on the skin that we keep covered up – no sun, no tan.   Vitamin C has the ability to intercept the energy from the UV light (sun) before it reaches the melanin thus preventing the darkening and maintaining a lighter complexion.  It does this in a ‘hands-off’ way compared to other more dramatic methods of skin lightening which typically attempt to intercept the melanin production by either attacking or down-regulating the production of tyrosine or other precursors before they become melanin.  While this latter method is arguably more likely to produce a dramatic result, it is also mildly more invasive bordering on therapeutic as the body chemistry is being altered by the action of the topical product.

The down side of vitamin C skin brightening is that it is unlikely you will end up with skin lighter than your natural base colour.  What this method will do is keep a lid on further darkening and correct over-pigmented areas such as scarring.  On top of that there is the added benefit of vitamin C being an all-round anti-oxidant so to speak.  It doesn’t just target melanin, it will protect the skin from oxidative damage of all types including pollution.

So if I’m asked to develop a gentle daily brightening cream or a cream to address patchy pigmentation from scarring (acne scars for example) then I’d look to vitamin C to do the hard yards while adding a few other ingredients to perform supporting roles.

If people want more dramatic whitening I’d typically explain the implications of that (which include making the skin more vulnerable to UV damage) before showing them through the vast array of tyrosine type inhibitors which include but are not limited to Bearberry extract.

Don’t you just love chemistry!

Amanda

PS: I always refer to scientific reference papers and books to check my chemistry but I don’t always publish these links.  I am always more than happy to discuss providing a fully referenced article based on what I write on the blog to clients but this will come with a cost.  Typically in these situations I will also add a section focusing on the desired outcome of the client, looking at how they might achieve the product they have in mind or explaining how the product they currently have works.  Prices for this start at $300 plus GST and you can contact me on amanda@realizebeauty.com

Hello 2017, now what shall we do with you?

January 5, 2017

Every time one year rolls over to the next I silently high-five myself for another year in business.  I’m now into year 10 of what I hope will be a business that continues to inspire me to get up and get on with it for at least another 10 (by which time my youngest will be 23 years old bless her) years.  I generally mark the collecting of another notch on the business age belt with a mixture of relief and reflection rather than a big party because for me by business is perhaps the most personal part of my life – where I’m most vulnerable and raw. It’s the part of my life that I expect to win at, have always expected to succeed in (unlike marriage, general happiness, parenting, education, personal nutrition and work-life-balance which, by the way, aren’t going too badly either 🙂 ).  For me that comes back to my childhood where teacher after teacher applauded my work ethic, told me ‘I could achieve anything’, gave me great grades and generally made me feel like the world was my oyster.  And indeed it has been but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy – that bit was sort of missed, nobody warned me – I don’t hold a grudge but neither do I want that repeated for others…..

my-sit-spot

 

So running a business is STILL not easy hey?  Big frigging deal!

I don’t need to remind myself that, I live that, but I do like to scatter that message through the pages of this blog because you, my reader often look to me, your teacher for guidance and support, possibly feeling that your life will be so much easier once you have got where I’ve got.  I want you to look after yourselves, pace yourselves the best you can, believe in yourself through the darkness and most importantly of all JUST KEEP ON WITH IT BUT (and this is a big BUT)  do be honest with yourself.  The main reason why this business has been so tough for me is because while I’ve largely dismissed the negativity of others I’ve still had to deal with plenty of stuff I’ve created for myself or for the thoughts and opinions that others threw at me and I put into my backpack.  Being honest, being self-analytical, wishing to grow, facing the darkness, willing yourself to get to the bottom of this is, I think key.

I had forgotten that people laughed down my idea of becoming a consultant when I first announced it, people who I really wanted to be able to look up.  That had something to do with my age, something more to do with the fact that I was still a recent immigrant and a further ‘thing’ that these people really hadn’t seen what I was capable of.  I largely ignored them hence why they became forgotten, I had too many of my own issues to work through anyway.

So where does that leave me in 2017?

Well for the first time in a long time I feel clearer in my head about my business direction, about what I want to do next and how I am going to achieve it.

I’ve got a plan A and a plan B this year.  Plan A is dependent on others so while that is critically important to me and my long-term goals I’ve learned not to put my emotional and financial future hopes into someone else’s basket – even if that basket is a shared one.

Plan B involves working hard, staying focused and saving for the long-service leave that I will fund myself!   My eldest daughter is off on exchange to Finland for the whole year as of next week so I plan to take the rest of the family to visit her, to also see Lapland (and meet the REAL Santa), experience the Northern Lights and spend Christmas 2017 with my mother in Scotland.  Plan B doesn’t sound all that bad now does it?

As far as the blog goes I’m wanting to ramp that back up again as 2016 was a little more hit-and-miss than it has been before on account of me being to head-down-bum-up in formulating work.  While that is great it is the writing that keeps me looking forward, thinking of new ways to solve problems and generally growing and challenging myself and my mind. We can’t afford to let that slip!

So that’s me folks, I’m back at work proper on Monday 9th January this year and will be kicking off the new year with new client meetings,  posting samples (that are a bit late thanks to my brain closing down for Christmas) and a few new stories on the blog.

Here’s to a successful 2017 for each and every one of you and if any of you do have topics you wish to have delved into on this blog then I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for your continued support!

 

Amanda x

 

Activated Charcoal – Particle Sizes

December 2, 2016

OK so I’m going to keep this short and sweet in order to make it easy to read.

Activated Charcoal is VERY popular right now.

People are being encouraged to drink it (in water),  brush their teeth with it and add it to their cosmetics including dry facial masks.

While these are all legitimate uses for this material there is something important that you should know.

Activated Charcoal particles are small, very small and as such they can get stuck deep inside your body, maybe even into your lungs and particles in lungs is not a good thing – think Asbestosis or black lung disease.

Here is a chart of particle size that I found on Wikipedia. It’s a good starting point for discussion as we all know what happens when an allergic person comes into contact with pollen or cat dander.

particulates-wikipedia

The grade of activated charcoal I use is from Coconuts and it has a mean particle size of 15 microns.

Mean = middle.

That means that 50% of particles are SMALLER than 15 microns and 15% are bigger.

Please note that this is the grade that I am using currently, there are SMALLER mean particle size charcoals out there and LARGER. It is important to know which one you are using. Very important.

The units in this chart at Microns so the 15 microns level is similar to what you would find in small pollen, cement dust, house dust and dust mites.

People who develop asthma medication need to get their medicine from the nose or throat and into the lungs. They say that particles of 10 microns typically get down as far as the oropharynx. This sits below the soft pallet and before the epiglottis so not that far down but far enough to make you cough and wheeze as your body tries to rid you of these invaders.

At 5-10 microns the particles can make it to the central airways while particles from 0.5-5 microns can get into the alveoli – we don’t want that at all!

I am concerned by two things here.

  1. That people are purchasing activated charcoal online and feeling it is perfectly safe and lovely because it is natural (coconut) and because it is food grade and thus taking no precautions when mixing this.
  2. That people are not accounting for the potential for inhalation of the powder when they are using their finished products – products made that contain dry activated charcoal.

It is reasonable to expect that for every 1% of the above I use in a formula 0.5% will be particles smaller than 15microns and therefore able to get down into the airways.  It is not a stretch of the imagination to think that at least a small percentage of them could be as small as 5 microns and therefore able to make it into the lungs.

I don’t know how much activated charcoal a lung can handle but I do know that once these tiny particles get into the lungs there is no getting them out. They won’t dissolve or dislodge. Aerosol medicine that is given to asthmatics is designed to break down or dissolve at the site of the lung tissue.

My advise is this.

  • Treat your activated charcoal with respect, wear proper protective gear including a face mask that can protect against very fine particulate dust.
  • Do not sell or use a product that contains dry activated charcoal – make sure it is either in paste form or that it is non-dusting by some other means.
  • Do not leave this product anywhere near children.
  • Ask your supplier for the mean particle size of the grade you buy so you can decide if yours is more or less dangerous than mine.
  • Have this conversation with people.

I have had several conversations about this in this week alone with most people saying to me ‘but how come nobody mentioned this to me if it is so dangerous?’   Well the only thing I can say to that is it is because people either simply don’t know, haven’t been told, have never had it occur to them to check the SDS sheet or feel that it must be safe because it’s natural (as I said above).

I can’t see any reason why we can’t all use this ingredient safely once we appreciate the material for what it is.

Lung disease isn’t attractive.

 

 

 

 

My Essential Oil Brand is Better Than Yours…..

December 2, 2016

I purchased ‘The Fragrant Pharmacy’ by Valerie Ann Worwood along with a few bottles of essential oils back in 1994 when I was twenty. At the time my mother was living next door to a professional Aromatherapist and I was studying chemistry at De Montford University.  I thought it would be cool to pick the essential oils apart in terms of their aroma chemistry and work out which chemical gave rise to which result.  It didn’t take me long to realise that essential oils are more complex and nuanced than that.  My first lesson of how science works in the ‘real’ world.

I took my first ‘home made’ skin care products out into the jungles of Indonesia with me the following year – an aqueous cream base enriched with a blend of Tea Tree, Eucalyptus and Lavender. Smelt rough but I was hopeful that it would prevent my eczema prone skin from becoming mozzie bitten and infected.  Whether it worked or not I don’t know but I did get through the 8 weeks of bush living without issue.

Anyway, that’s just a story, what I want to talk about is the reality of the Essential Oils market today.


We appear to be living through a time of  brand supremacy when it comes to Essential Oils.   This is relatively new to me as while I’ve been operating in the Essential Oil Industry for the last nineteen years or so I’ve never really seen this level of ‘my brand is better than yours’ before.  It’s odd to say the least.

I don’t want to spend the next however many words debating the merits of one particular brand over another, more I want to open you up to the possibility that there is very little difference between ANY brand.  Further, I want to explain where these oils come from, the longevity of the market, its traditions and what is and isn’t  ‘normal’.  The brand you choose to celebrate your love of essential oils via is up to you.

So let’s have a look:

Definition: Essential Oil.

The Quintessence (essential) or ‘life force’ of the botanical. The fifth element (earth, water, fire, air, quintessence (soul)).

  • Essential oil distillation is not new science.

We have Persian chemist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to thank for ‘inventing’ the process of extracting volatile and aromatic oil                 from botanical matter via steam distillation.  His first experiment was on Rose petals. Since then we have gone on to                     perfect the art of distillation and added other methods of extracting the Quintessence from botanicals including CO2                     extraction (still under discussion as to whether these are essential oils), Enfleurage and Cold Pressing. 

  • Essential Oils are farmed globally. 

If we could step back, way back from the brand to the farm and not just the brand’s farm (some brands claim to own all their     own farms. I’m saying nothing on that)  we can see that the Essential Oil market is indeed a global one.  Aromatherapy operates alongside the market for Fine Fragrances, Flavours,  Cosmetics, Household and Industrial Cleaning Applications,  Pharmacy and Industrial Solvents, Agriculture, Animal Health and Pesticides for these farmed crops.  It doesn’t take much insight to work out which of the above markets is the smallest and potentially the least influential with regards to oil quality or farm ownership.

  • Essential Oil Quality Varies From Batch to Batch, Farm to Farm, Plant Variety to Plant Variety.

Farming is an inexact science and one that is subjected to a variety of external influences that can only be partially managed and mitigated for.  Because of that we can experience good and bad years for our oils just like you can for fruit or wine.  As you would expect there are specific regions of the world that have the optimal environmental and soil conditions for growing a particular crop these areas might also become expert at processing the oil and as a consequence become synonymous with the best quality oil – Italy for Lemon,  France for Lavender,  Bulgaria for Rose.   While concentrated ‘locations of excellence’ can be a very beautiful thing, when something goes wrong with the environment the whole global crop can take a hammering.  We saw that quite recently with citrus crops out of California and with Limes in Mexico.  So we have years where there is an oil shortage.

  • The knock-on effect of an oil shortage on the Essential Oil Market.

When oils get tight those that can shout loudest and with the largest wallets usually win out. Some of these players do actually own a stake in the means of production (sounds like Animal Farm). This is called being ‘backwardly integrated’ and we see it most often in aromatics with Rose fields, many of which are owned by fragrance houses.

In ‘bad’ or lean years the top tier players get the best (multinational flavour and fragrance houses and multinational brands) and we all get the rest and the temptation to stretch or alter the oil increases massively.

  • Stretched or Otherwise Altered Oils.

The general thinking behind an aromatherapy oil is that it is the pure, unaltered expression of the plant.  Before I talk about whether this is what we get or not I’ll explain what can happen and why.  As I’ve mentioned before, oils are farmed and farmed products have good and bad years including some years where almost the entire harvest can be ruined by frost, storms, drought or floods.  In those years and during times when pests have altered the quality of the oil an oil might be stretched or otherwise adulterated to meet a standard.  Standardised oils are very important to the pharmaceutical and fine fragrance market who are looking for particular notes of characteristic accords in oils.  These can be bolstered, re-created or enhanced by adding either synthetically manufactured or naturally isolated aroma chemicals back into the oil.  So you lavender oil was short on linanool this year?  Add some from linalool you synthesised in the lab OR saved from last years batch that had too much.  Maybe not a good example but an example all the same.

The take-home point here is that the big end of town like standardised oils, the aromatherapy market not so much although everyone is after the ‘perfect’ oil just like we all flock around a beauty queen or idolise the best singers or actors the world has on offer.  As with those situations, not everyone is lucky enough to get them.

So this process of stretching or altering oils happens and it happens en mass due to the large volume requirements of the big end of town.  That said it doesn’t necessarily happen to all oil and we, the aromatherapy market do try to grab what we can from the ‘other’ pile while still trying to ensure it smells good and meets our expectations for smell – a very hard task indeed!

So can one brand ever really have an exclusively better range of oils than another?

Well yes and no but mainly somewhere in between – not really.

A brand can have really good buyers – noses.

A brand can commit to never altering the oils they buy.

A brand can ask for paperwork to prove the quality and purity of their oils.

A brand can re-test these oils in their own lab.

A brand can have ISO accreditation for their facility including how they handle, store, decant and check their oils.

A brand can visit the plantations.

A brand might OWN some plantations – I don’t know a brand that has a substantial range of oils on offer that owns all its plantations.

A brand might lead research into oil quality.

A brand might have been established by an oil expert.

BUT

Even a brand that can and has and does all of that is still at the mercy of farmers and farm-land politics, mother nature, human greed and destruction, global markets, transport companies, intermediate storage companies and often even middle-men that might make it hard to even trace the oil back to its pure origins.

So what does this mean?

In reality I feel that most brands do try to do the right thing by doing as many of the above steps as they can (and more if they can think of it).  But in reality most brands understand that they can’t control everything and that their competitors are no doubt doing as much as they can too.  There are some oil brands no doubt that just started to make money without really caring about the quality or origin of the oil but these companies usually step up their game on entering the cosmetic/ aromatherapy market due to the requirements of this market and the questions that get asked.

I am of the mindset, based on what I see, know and have participated in for almost the last two decades that there are many reputable brands out there to choose from. Sure one year brand A might have the best rose and a terrible lemon while brand C has excellent relationships with the Sandalwood market but no idea about rose.  To be honest this is the situation I see most often and is often why long-time trained aromatherapists can become a bit obsessive about testing lots of different brands and researching each and every detail.  It becomes an artform – olefactory art 🙂

And to the ‘My Brand is better than your brand?’

So let me break this down into two things as a brand is more than the ‘formulation’ or the ‘wet stuff’.

Brand – pure essential oil.

No, I can’t buy this. Given everything I’ve said above and every situation I’ve ever come across I simply can’t buy that one brand has the absolute monopoly on quality and perfection.   It would be a different situation if the product was entirely man-made as systems could be perfectly controlled, the best staff brought in etc but here we are talking about nature, a natural product.  I can’t believe that one aromatherapy/ essential oil brand that is swimming in the same competitive sea as thousands of other brands across the globe can have hit the jackpot 100% of the time for every single oil they sell, every single time.  Highly unlikely.

Brand – Everything else excluding the actual pure essential oil.

Sure, I am willing to accept that there are some brands that are better than others at communicating the features and benefits of essential oils, better at creating blends, at the supply chain, the packaging, the distribution and pricing. Yes I can accept that.  But if that is true, if a brand really does stand head and shoulders above other brands in terms of marketing then surely they have enough to brag about with just that as while I can believe that there can be companies out there with outstanding branding to say that also includes their oil quality across the board would, for me be almost unbelievable.

To Conclude.

I’ve always found the saying ‘if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is’ helpful. This situation is no different.

I’ve also found myself to be naturally suspicious of any brand that uses the tactic of disrespecting other brands OR creating their own standard of excellence then claiming it is above anything anyone else has to sell product.  I can’t help but wonder why they put so much effort into doing that and wonder what they have to hide or what are they scared of?  That may be a cynical approach to business and life but I can assure you it has served me well so far.  But of course, you are free to make up your own minds x