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Is Acne Made Worse By Diet?

January 28, 2018

I have never had great skin, as a baby I was covered in eczema which persisted until early puberty when the pimples started to develop.  As if pimples and teenager hood weren’t enough of a drama my eczema also came back to make my youthful formative years an itchy, bumpy and embarrassing mess.

The hardest part about having acne at that time of my life was the judgement that I felt from other people whether directly or indirectly, that either I or my body was doing something wrong.  The first judgement was to do with my hormones,  that I’d got too much ‘boy’ hormone (testosterone) and that was causing the pimples.  I felt this all to be highly embarrassing as being sporty (as in strong and with lots of endurance), un coordinated and a bit of an adventurer I already felt less girly than I felt society demanded so this outer validation that I was really a female imposter (even though I clearly wasn’t) was mortifying embarrassing.   I now appreciate that girls and boys both need testosterone and that it was more likely that my body was reacting to natural changes that we all have rather than me making shed loads more than a girl reasonably should but that’s not how teenage me read it.  Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about today,  what I want to discuss now is the second equally cringeworthy judgement that I felt about my skin  and that’s to do with food.

The saying ‘you are what you eat’ has always been a bone of contention to me as I have always had such trouble with eating thanks to multiple annoying food intolerances of the ‘not-pleasant-but-not-life-threatening’ variety.  I should have known I was in for a troubled life when my weaning process involved me coming out in a rash every time I ate something.

The fact that as a teenager, my skin started to resemble the pizza that I was quite fond of eating was again mortifying. From time to time people would throw pearls of wisdom at me such as ‘eat less sugar’ or ‘what about you try eating more vegetables’ which is, of course all very sensible and sound health advice but not at all easy to stomach as a sporty and normal weight but stressed-out teen. Sure I favoured cheese on toast and chocolate cake for dinner whenever possible but I also ate a lot of fruit and home-cooked meals and drank only tea and water. To be frank I felt that I was copping more drama on the skin front than my C+ diet deserved.  Intellectually I knew I could do better but I didn’t feel I was quite the abject failure that my skin was making me out to be, I felt like I’d been cheated.  I did go through periods of time when I tried hard with my diet, eating as much fresh fruit and tolerable veggies as I could and cutting out the chocolate – at that time (the late 80’s and early 90’s chocolate was widely ‘known’ to cause acne in certain circles. This was a shame as chocolate was my drug of choice and still is) but nothing seemed to help much or for long so I would always give up.

The trauma of those teenage years  caused by the unruliness of my skin and its inability to respond quickly and positively to any increase in fruit and veg intake or sugar decrease led me to form an internal bias against the ‘you are what you eat’ hypothesis.  My thoughts were further validated when, like most other people, I grew up and my skin woes died down a lot.  Sure I still have some issues but nothing like I used to and no, I haven’t changed my diet much.  My views became set,  that while eating a good diet was ever a bad thing, a great diet can’t ‘cure’ bad skin, that acne is much more complicated than that.

But have I too readily disregarded the food / acne link because of my own failures?


So this morning while catching up on my journal reading I found this recently published article: Acne Vulgaris: The metabolic syndrome of the pilosebaceous follicle .  and I have to admit that it made sense.

Wanting to see if the above article was a one-off or if others had linked diet to acne in this particular way I went googling and found the authors earlier paper (2013) published in Experimental Dermatology here: Potential role of FoxO1 and mTORC1 in the pathogenesis of Western diet-induced acne.

There is also a book: Bioactive Dietary Factors and Plant Extracts in Dermatology. 

and another article by author Bodo Melnik here. 

So first a pilosebaceous follicle is the term used to describe a hair follicle and sebaceous gland unit.  We have these all over the body including the face and on the face our follicles are somewhat atrophied whereas our sebum production has not.  This manifests as hairless but potentially greasy skin, especially in what we call the T-Section.  Acne Vulgaris is an inflammatory skin disease and according to this study increased mTORC1 activity has been detected in acne affected skin.

This mTORC1 thingo is a protein complex that plays an important role in controlling protein synthesis. It does this by managing energy and oxidation requirements.  Among other things, this complex is activated by insulin and it is because of this that the complex is being linked to ‘metabolic syndrome’ – a collection of conditions which include obesity, insulin resistance, high blood triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol and high blood pressure.

It looks like honing in on this mTORC1 pathway has enabled scientists to link what we eat with what happens to our skin at a cellular level which is quite exciting and is in keeping with our deeper knowledge of how our bodies interact with the fuel we give it – how not all calories are created equally for example…

Human trials have been carried out looking at how different diets have impacted the skin of acne sufferers including a placebo-controlled randomised study by Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A et al ‘The effect of a high-protein, low glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris’ but while we might see an impact positive or negative in a change of diet, it isn’t until we can map exactly where this impact is being felt that we can truly know what it was that made a difference.  It looks like this work is starting to clarify that.

So Metabolic Syndrome is not something that all acne sufferers would necessarily be diagnosed with.  I wasn’t and have never been obese, had high blood pressure or particularly high cholesterol but that doesn’t mean to say that my diet wasn’t stressing out my system.

I have long since believed that our skin is the first to scream when something inside isn’t right and this looks like being another example of how that plays out.  Further, while this particular research doesn’t particularly look like it has all of the answers as to why some people get acne and some don’t the evidence pointing to specific dietary triggers seems to be to be compelling as much as I didn’t ever want it to be!

Changing your diet is very, very difficult and if you already have a low self-esteem from acne, the thought that your skin is punishing you for having that extra block of chocolate or milkshake is cruel, especially when you no doubt have friends who eat whatever they like and never get a pimple.   I’d say that like most other things that we are finding out about our body, while metabolic syndrome or the components to that, however mild, may be a powerful trigger to developing acne, something has to pull that trigger and that may be enzyme deficiencies, stress, poor barrier functioning, lifestyle choices, your environment and/ or any medication you are taking.

Talking of medication.

As I’m not a dermatologist I don’t want to go into the details of oral treatments for acne but those that we do use topically and cosmetically such as Benzyl Peroxide and Retinol do seem to affect this mTORC1 pathway too which plays into the hypothesis of cause and effect – control the cause and get a better effect.  The fact that we can correct this dysfunction, at least to some degree through topical (or, if severe medical) treatment rather than just relying on diet is a relief and may give sufferers enough of a boost in confidence to see them through a change in diet.

And back to diet – what should be avoided?

The evidence put forward in the papers above shows that a high glycemic load and milk consumption are the greatest aggravators for acne.  High glycemic foods include refined carbs such as white bread and rice; sugar, white potatoes,  bananas, grapes, cherries, watermelon and corn flakes.   Interestingly enough the studies also found Acne to be a disease of ‘Westernised’ countries and it becomes an issues as countries move from their traditional diets too – this is being felt in China right now.

So it turns out that I should have listened to those people who were telling me to change my diet back in the late 80’s and early 90’s only back then we didn’t know exactly how diet affected the skin and as such my change to incorporate more fruit (for vitamins and fibre) and milk (for calcium) was doing the opposite to what I was trying to achieve which is probably why I eventually gave up.

The bottom line for me is that while it is becoming more and more clear scientifically how our food impacts our skin, it is not so clear or simple to implement that as a cure-all.  When we say ‘we are what we eat’ we mean far more than just the sum of the foods nutritional data,  food is emotional, cultural, spiritual even and as such, no matter what we know about what we SHOULD be eating, I feel those of us who do suffer from acne will probably always need a little extra help in the form of a tablet or skin care regimen, especially when we are feeling and looking (to us) at our worst.

How cool that we are finally honing in on this stuff even if it did come around 30 years too late for me!



Are we just too stupid to appreciate that sunscreens have limits?

January 24, 2018

OK so yes, I have gone for a rather ‘gotcha’ headline this time around but seriously people, this issue is serious.

Sunscreens have been in the news a lot just lately and not in a good way.  Several people have been burned, some very badly and tempers have become frayed as these unwitting customers question whether brand owners are just ripping people off, being deceptive in their marketing, not fulfilling their duties or are just ignorant to their products failings.  Whether any of this is true or not is looking likely to be a matter for the courts but my question today revolves more around personal responsibility:

‘Ask not what your sunscreen can do for you, but what you can do for your sunscreen’.

So are we just too stupid to appreciate that sunscreens have limits?

Now before you start throwing things at the screen and shouting obscenities I have to admit that I sympathise with the plight of the general public but being sympathetic and mumsy doesn’t seem to get the heart racing and the habits changing so I’ll just continue with this thought for a bit longer.

Today it wasn’t that hot for a summer’s day in Australia.  I think we topped out at 34C which, while muggy (due to the humidity) didn’t feel as bad as the 42C we had a few days before or the 39C on Monday and it was a bit cloudy at times so one might be forgiven for thinking that today might have been a ‘sunscreen optional’ sort of day in my neck of the woods.

However, a quick check of my Willyweather app shows me that the UV rating for today was off its chops as seen below:

There  is a very good explanation of UV index on Wikipedia if you want to know more, what interested me most was that the original scale went from 0-10 but these days with ozone depletion it’s not uncommon to see readings of up to 16 which is insane!  This PDF is also quite interesting from the USA EPA. 

In a nutshell the UV (Ultra Violet) index gives you an idea of how powerful the sun rays are at any particular time on any particular day.  Everybody tolerates the sun differently and even the same person can have days when their UV tolerance is a bit higher or lower than normal based on what they have been eating and drinking.

The UV index fluctuates across the day and there can be pockets of outdoor space that would read lower UV readings and spaces that would read higher.  Some surfaces reflect the UV rays back to you, intensifying them like a mirror –  snow is one such surface reflecting back around 80% of the rays and that’s why many people come back burned from their ski trip.  In comparison sand reflects back around 15% and water around 10%.   Higher altitudes will read higher UV ratings than lower, trees will prevent some of the UV from reaching you as will other types of shade or sitting on a surface that is non-reflective such as grass.

The UV index colour codes the zones from green to purple to show the risk levels based on an average person. On extreme UV days, at readings of 11 or more the advice is to actually avoid the sun altogether.  If that advice was heeded today, people in my area of the Blue Mountains should have been indoors between 11.30am and 2.30pm but of course people did go out today – some because they had to and others because they just didn’t think about the sun as they weren’t going to be sun baking.   But what happens when you want and need protection?

What can a sunscreen do?

Sunscreen reduces the amount of UV energy that reaches the skin which, in turn, takes some pressure off your own inbuilt UV protection system (Melanin etc).  We probably all know that but we don’t necessarily think through what that really means in a world that gives us varying levels of UV.

We might have an idea that our skin usually burns in about 10 minutes if un-protected so if we use an SPF 30 well we should be able to stay in the sun for 30 longer – 300 minutes or 5 hours – massive!

Only that calculation won’t be accurate if the UV index is extreme as solar simulators don’t use an extreme calibration point.

The solar simulators used by laboratories to come up with SPF data are calibrated to one particular agreed set of circumstances, they have to be in order to rank one SPF rating against another.  Nature doesn’t work like that and can throw up a whole host of different conditions on the same day and even at the same time of the day but in different locations.  In short, it gets very complicated.

I saw this table on a site called ‘The Ozone Hole” which gives some idea of how the UV index might impact burn times. I am not sure it is the best tool to use but it is better than nothing. Basically the higher the UV index, the shorter the time you will be protected by your SPF product. 

Rather than thinking about absolute time I’d look at this as a relationship thing as burning in less than 15 minutes is something of a life long dream for me, I can burn in less than 10!

I’d basically look at this and say that under extreme conditions (say UV 10) at mid day my SPF 30 will act like an SPF 15 if I apply it well.   I’d also assume that if the UV index was 12 or over I might only achieve 1/4 of the stated SPF IF I applied it well.  Remember that sunscreens are not sun blocks, some energy gets through and eventually I will burn, it’s just a matter of time (and UV dose).

Now this might not be accurate but it is a reasonable guesstimate based on the information I have here and if it were true then I could literally fry after only being in the sun for half an hour on a day like today in spite of slathering on the SPF 30.

So, in answer to my question ‘Are we just too stupid to appreciate that sunscreens have limits’ I’d say no we are not too stupid but we are probably not paying enough attention to the fact that their power is relative rather than absolute. 

The science behind sunscreens is complicated and it is very harsh to expect the public to understand and plan for the variability in the UV index, their activity level and the environment they are hanging in.   So, I think it is less of a case of us being stupid and more of a case of us not really being equip to live with such high UV indexes as standard.

Maybe we should all just stay inside and read between 11-2pm on these high UV intensity summer days!

For me the bottom line is that we need to start paying attention to UV ratings and thinking about the activities and environment we are going to be in each day, especially  for those of us with very fair skin but with the ozone hole nobody is immune from the burn here in Australia!  We do need to seriously consider how we spend those long summer days as it does look like there are parts of the day where no amount of slip, slop, slapping will get us through.

Basically SPF figures work under ‘normal’ sunlight intensity but where the UV levels are off the scale (old limit was 10 remember) we need to adjust our expectations down to more realistic levels.


PS: This is a particularly Australian / New Zealand problem, UV intensity varies around the world so please check your own environment before retreating indoors forever.

PPS: I found this article from 2010 on Solar Simulator variance very interesting.  Sunscreen SPF’s are relative to the UV spectra they were tested under and when that differs significantly from reality on any given day, the gap can mean a difference in real-time protection, maybe up to 50% less in some cases.


Be wary of brands that claim an allowed cosmetic ingredient is too toxic for them to use but provide no evidence as to why.

January 23, 2018

A question came up yesterday and without giving too much away I will tell you a little story about it.

So apparently there is a brand out there with a brand owner who is a well qualified (by the looks of it) scientist. This scientist has a whole list of relevant credentials and they are displayed on their website in the ‘about me’ section, as you would.  After reading this section you would be forgiven for thinking they are ‘Da Bomb’ with regards to what is and what isn’t good for your skin.

Now the question that I got came from a client of mine for whom I am formulating.  I’ve popped an ingredient into my formulations that this other brand think is toxic and now there is concern that someone is wrong.  Usually when there is concern that someone is wrong,  the person with the lowest level of confidence about the ingredient wishes to take it out ‘just to be sure/ just in case’ – a kind of ‘precautionary principle’ attitude which could be fine if the ingredient in question was performing no role in particular, but in other cases it could change the entire formula.  My client had that thought going through their head but they wanted to check with me anyway and they did.

When I get a question like that, rather than assume I’m always right (as I too have some impressive credentials hahahahaha), I assume I am wrong.

Assuming you are wrong has an amazing effect on the mind as if I’m wrong I could end up in trouble and at the very least have to re-think and re-do my work which is costly in terms of time and energy so being wrong is something I wish to absolutely avoid.

In this situation what I tend to do is detach my emotions for a bit, put them on the shelf and not worry about what I might find, and go off in search of what I guess you could call ‘the truth’. Below is an example of where not to start searching for the truth……

OK so we are dealing with a potentially toxic chemical, I need to work out quickly if this is or isn’t true. My first stop (the easiest place) is the Safety Data Sheet.

So I googled the safety data sheet for this material, yes GOOGLED it. It took all of one or two seconds for me to locate and open said document and lo and beyond it contained no dire warnings that would lead me to conclude that yes, this is indeed the sporn of the devil and something to be avoided at all costs. I also went on to check the listing for this material on the EU database (COSING) and again, found no issues, checked the supplier data and my formula and found that I’d used it appropriately so I felt happy enough with this material but I wanted to go back to the original nay sayer’s website and try to work out where they were coming from and, more importantly, whether they had found an even safer way to formulate than me- continuous improvement is very important to a cosmetic chemist.

Onto the brand in questions website I go and in a few more minutes I find a couple of products that contain ingredients that I know are dermal irritants.  Now dermal irritants are allowed in cosmetic products as long as specific usage limits are respected.  The most common ingredients to be irritating are surfactants, emulsifiers, essential oils and preservatives just to give you a bit of an idea.

What I did next is look for the Safety Data Sheets for the two ingredients that this brand does use so that I could compare the risks between these and the ingredient that this brand strongly suggested to avoid.  The comparison was interesting as based on that data alone it clearly showed that the ingredients that this brand DOES use were more irritating on balance than the one ingredient this brand suggests leaving out.  All things being equal I’d be advising neither brand to make a song and dance about any of these ingredients as, if used correctly they pose no problem to the consumer and all perform useful jobs in the formula.

So I went back to my client and told them all this and most importantly advised them to be wary of brands that claim an allowed cosmetic ingredient is too toxic for them to use but give no evidence as to why and to be especially wary when, that same brand actually uses ingredients that are, on balance, more problematic than the ingredient you are using.  This is especially important when customers want to change the formula after reading things like this because sometimes, in changing the formula we may replace something that was relatively safe with something that is relatively less so or take something out entirely and leave the formula worse off for it.

Toxicity is always relative and should be qualified with some context and evidence. Without those things it is just another bit of marketing spin!

Essential Oils and Pets – A bit of what we know and don’t know.

January 21, 2018

Last week I saw this in a friends new feed:

Diffusing essential oils and cats

It’s hard to go past a headline like that without feeling alarmed and wanting to know more but finding out more wasn’t to be that easy.

It didn’t take long before an email was received at work questioning the presence of essential oils in pet products and accusing the manufacturers of reckless and dangerous behaviour.  Understandable given this meme but I still needed to know more before I could give a thorough, or at least reasonably so, answer.

So what’s the story behind this meme?

It turns out that on 7th January this year a woman in Michigan, USA unintentionally poisoned her cat by diffusing Eucalyptus essential oil in her home to help her ward off a winter cold.  I found out that much by following the google results, posts and comments that were related to this meme and as the dates, time and location matched up it seems legit.  According to the story Ernie the cat got progressively sicker over four days, what I’m not sure of is whether the Michigan lady diffused Eucalyptus oil during that whole time, thus exposing the cat to a four-day-dose of oil infused air or whether she diffused less than that.  What we also can’t tell from the public facts online is how big and well ventilated her house was, the age of Ernie,  Ernie’s general health prior to this poisoning incident, whether Ernie goes outside or not, whether this family smoke or do any other ‘aromatic’ activities in the home or whether Ernie is the only cat (or even pet) in the house.   These things might seem irrelevant but they are not really, as having answers to these questions would enable us to gauge whether this situation was just one of those terrible combination of unusual circumstances or something that even the occasional diffuser household should be worried about.   The meme looks to have opted to err on the side of extreme caution and warn people of the worst possible outcome regardless of all other facts.

The above meme was shared by three cat rescue places that I could find as well as at least one alternative healing centre.  From there it was shared widely by subscribers of those pages, reaching my eyes in Australia on 12th January, five days after the event.

And is there any scientific evidence to support the toxicity of Essential Oils?

I am neither an animal health expert nor an essential oil toxicological specialist so I won’t try to delve into the specifics of cat metabolism but suffice to say that cats can have problems with essential oil and other poisons and there is plenty of literature on that.  Dogs seem to have a completely different digestive system to cats – turns out that just because cats and dogs share the feature of being great human companions it doesn’t mean that these two animals share much in terms of biochemistry.  Again, this is fairly rudimentary ‘fact’ that can be validated with a decent google search.  But beyond that it gets complicated.

While I am not an expert in this field I do have experts within my close network and animal health with relation to essential oils is something that has been discussed between us in a professional realm.  The fact of the matter here is that decent, thorough test data is NOT available for a wide range of essential oils on a wide range of animals in a wide range of conditions. Much of the information we have is anecdotal (rather like the tale above) with more in-depth studies mainly carried out on the most commonly used oils, Eucalyptus would be one and Tea Tree another.  It doesn’t take much searching before you come across other anecdotal stories of cats being poisoned with these Myrtaceae family of oils but generally speaking the cats involved have been treated with doses that would, to most people seem excessive!

Here are some scientific papers on this topic:

Ethylene Glycol and  Benzalkonium Chloride,

So what is the verdict?

I’m going to leave a link to Robert Tisserands answer on this too as not only is he an Essential Oil Specialist, he is also much more of a cat person than I am. 

The verdict based on the evidence that exists so far is that in most cases the toxic outcomes for people’s pets is mainly due to overwhelming the pet and exceeding a reasonable dose or application method rather than the pet being absolutely 100% unable to handle the item in question.  i.e, as with all toxins, there are doses and application methods that can be safe, and those which are not.

So this means is the meme is somewhat over-the-top.

Essential oils are frequently used in pet products these days instead of synthetic fragrances as that better meets customers expectations of natural and/or organic skin care.   As chemists like myself have said time and time again, ‘it is the dose that makes the poison’ and ‘natural doesn’t always mean safe’  and yet, again we find ourselves here in a panic.

It turns out that some of the most toxic essential oils for pets (The Eucalyptus types) are also the best for natural flea and mite control.  It also turns out that most reputable brands understand that the benefits of flea control come with a risk of toxicity and as such an appropriate dose is selected.  Most Vet professionals that I could find who commented online on this topic agreed that in many cases essential oils are a useful addition to a pet treatment product but only if used within guidelines.

It also turns out that some humans have gone a little essential oil crazy over the last few years with them being used in all sorts of applications from natural cleaning to infusing for beauty and even in food (although that can be even more dodgy).  In fact, essential oil use has become so normalised that it is possible a false sense of security that they are always ultra-safe has come up.  The reality is that any volatile oil that can kill microbes, cut through the grease around your home and deodorise your environment is clearly potent enough to do harm if over-used.  The grease cutting ability often means great dermal penetration,  antimicrobial can mean topically irritant and deodorising can mean respiratory irritant.

Should we avoid specific oils on cats though?

I have limited experience of cats as pets myself (had 2 as a teenager but I always preferred the dogs) but from what I have read and discussed with people better qualified than me, they are more sensitive toxicologically than dogs in general. They also tend to have a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio and can lick more of themselves than the average dog so I’d say that yes, some caution is warranted and that would include being mindful of what you burn or vaporise around the home that your cat lives in, especially if the ventilation is poor or the cat is a 100% indoors companion.

With respect to individual oils such as Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Citrus, Mint or Lavender as per the meme I would actually see sense in talking to your pet care specialist about your specific situation before ruling it in or out.  The meme mentions a lot of different oils with a variety of chemistry and gives no reference material to back-up their advice.  While you could argue that it is not necessary to expose a cat to ANY essential oil during its lifetime, there might be occasions where you wish to pursue a natural alternative either for yourself, your home or your pet and it seems unnecessary to completely deprive yourself and your pet of the benefits of essential oils when there are most likely opportunities to use them safely.

Moving Forward.

It is often only when something terrible happens that we realise what we do and don’t know and this, to me, feels like one of those times.  Given the rise in popularity and use of essential oils in and around the home (and not just in direct pet care) it would be great to see more research in this area.  That said,  research on animals is not often something that many pet lovers will wish to get behind.  However, we can all increase our understanding of how pets react to and respond to our change in habits by being switched-on citizen scientists and rather than experimenting on our animals, just observing, noting and reporting what we see and don’t see in a scientific and observant way.  It might be that your local Vet practice can play a part in helping us to get a better overview of how pets interact with essential oils and how they ‘cope’ so that we might be able to develop better guidelines in future.

For me the bottom line is always evidence, evidence, evidence.  I want to know why, how, when and where.  For now I’d still be inclined to enjoy my essential oil blends around the house but I’d make sure I diffuse infrequently, keep the home ventilated and use oils diluted when pets are around.   I can’t see there being any major problems in using essential oil infused pet wash-off products (shampoos and washes etc) as long as they aren’t over-used and the same for leave-on’s which tend to be formulated with lower doses of Essential Oils anyway.  So in general, I’d just switch on a little common  sense, remember that Essential Oils ARE poisons and should always be used with caution and if in doubt I’d talk to my vet just in case.

And a final word.

As is so often the case with essential oils these days some brands wish to be seen as the only ‘safe’ brand to be used on pets.  Let me just remind you that the safety profile of an essential oil is due to its naturally occurring chemistry and NOT its brand.  While older oils or oils that have been distilled poorly can be a bit ‘off’ the bulk of the oil profile is going to be the same from brand to brand if like we are comparing the same botanical species of oil.  So please don’t fall for that ‘only use THIS brand’ stuff, it is probably not worth it.

So, yes, take care when using essential oils around your feline friends but there’s probably no need to turn your back on them completely.


PS: The best book covering Essential Oil Toxicity is a book by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young – Essential Oil Safety.






The Googlesphere.

January 12, 2018

Somedays I sit here wondering why I can’t achieve the same level of certainty from a google search as my clients can. Why it is that they find answers while I just find more questions………

I am a cosmetic chemist and not a psychologist but I can understand why some people happily devour articles from Mercola, David Avocado Wolf, Gwyneth Goopy Paltro, Young Living and others besides.  These online spaces look safe, inviting, professional and compelling. They are super popular (so they must be right, right?)  and  they write like they have our best interest at heart and I’m sure that they all do in a way (well, I’m not entirely sure but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt).

But I can’t get no satisfaction from any of the above.

I remember reading a book called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow”  by Daniel Kahneman.

Thinking fast and slow

The book explains why and gives examples of how the brain prefers to make decisions quickly and take on information that already confirms existing beliefs rather than challenging its self.  That makes so much sense really when you think about it, that we are really quite conservative creatures.  You only have to watch the popular kids show ‘Horrible Histories’ and seek out the segment they call ‘Stupid Deaths’ to be reminded of all the many and varied ways we can meet our demise while going about our daily business.  Life is fragile and there is so much to be uncertain about so better take care where we can!

The chemical industry of which I am a part is prime ground for triggering our fear receptors. Not many people understand or care for chemistry in its pure form. It’s difficult to learn, lots of chemicals can hurt you even if you do nothing to them, some chemicals can make us feel and act funny and others can kill us slowly and silently as they fester away invisibly in the environment or in our bodies where they slowly mutate our cells.  It’s all rather nasty business to the uninitiated and there is no denying the dangers that chemicals and the chemical industry can and do present.

But in spite of that I still can’t leave it alone. I have a passion for chemistry and generally find chemicals quite fascinating. So what is going on with me?

I think I summed it up best in the  second sentence of this blog post.  I just keep finding more questions where others find answers.  I want to understand why, how, where, when, what and who.  I get my comfort from the journeys that the questions I ask take me on rather than from the fast destination that those other sites deliver me to. To me those sites feel fake, like a trap almost or certainly like a veneer has been painted over everything so that it all looks manageable.  Maybe I don’t like manageable?

I don’t feel good or smug about thinking like this, in fact it is pretty exhausting and often unsatisfying to sit down thinking that I know something for sure only to find that after a few hours of research I now feel that I know less than I did before.  However, when something finally clicks it changes me right to the heart, as if I’ve grown taller or deeper….Probably deeper.  Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the hard work and discomfort does eventually seem to pay off, thank goodness!

So why tell you this?

Well it’s that time of year, being January and all, where we might be thinking of starting something new, being bigger better people, challenging ourselves or whatever and I need as much encouragement as the next person so I’m sharing this to remind me of how I think and what I get out of it.  I’m also putting it out there in case you too want to challenge yourself to think differently about things too.   By the way, thinking differently does not necessarily lead to thinking different things or to put it another way coming to different conclusions.  Rather it gives you the opportunity to examine your thoughts in a more complete way, from different angles and, if you like, to test them.  In short, it takes you from thinking like a layman to thinking like a scientist.

So if your new year resolution is to think slower and deeper, to challenge yourself and develop your ideas further then please do drop me a line as I’ll always be happy to entertain you and your ideas.

Amanda x

Farc out Palm In. What lies ahead for Columbia.

January 10, 2018

I remember watching a documentary about the women of the revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, better known as ‘The FARC’ some time ago.  Over its latter years of operation women made up around 40% of the rebel force and watching these women take the lead in battle, living in the forest and taking on their government felt conflicting and unleashed a torrent of different emotions within me. I was both awe inspired and saddened that for these women, guerrilla warfare was a better, safer option offering greater life opportunities than their regular life.  How coddled and lucky I felt sitting at home in my comfortable home with my university education and my independent income.

I didn’t know much about the FARC then and still don’t really but what I do know is that since 1964 the rural areas and jungles of Columbia have been FARC territory and as such big business and government has been locked out.  But all of that changed in 2016 with the signing of a truce and now, 18 months on, the forests are open for business which begs the question, ‘will it be a case of FARC out, palm in’ I wonder……

Columbia has a the right climate for palm, well, at least much of it does, and as such it is already the largest Palm Producer in South America and is currently the fourth largest supplier globally behind Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.   According to this article on Mongo Bay there is currently 466,000 hectares of palm plantations in operation, some of which have been there for fifty or more years.  However, now with the FARC gone the is thought to be as much as 16 million hectares of land suitable for palm!  If that’s true the current palm production of Columbia is less than 3% of total capacity so what’s being grown there now and how will this change things?

This article here acknowledges that land-clearing slowed in Columbia since the 1960’s, most likely because of the FARC influence I’m guessing but I’m sure there were other issues too.  While land clearing slowed under The FARC, it didn’t stop. Now this isn’t entirely surprising as while the FARC had some influence and control they didn’t cover all of the land but even some of the land they did cover was cleared and it is probably this land that is most likely to be evaluated for palm first.

The Coca Habit.

This report here suggests that  Coca production grew by 18% between 2015 and 2016 to 188,000 hectares.  Now this is still tiny when you consider how much land is said to be suitable for palm but if turned over to palm it would increase the palm production of the country by 34% which is huge really.

Coca crop was favoured by the FARC as a means to fund their activities.  Coca can be turned into Cocaine and sold on for ready cash and other goods via what you could call an ‘alternative’  or ‘unofficial’ economy typical of such guerrilla groups.  While there is no doubt more cash to be made in Cocaine versus Palm oil it is unlikely that the farmers on the ground saw much of that and that’s something the Columbian government is now using to its advantage as it seeks to bring this farmland under its control.   While I support a move away from Coca (and certainly cocaine) to Palm or at least another legal crop it has to be mentioned that this crop swap will not be without impact.   An unofficial Coca plantation that you are largely trying to keep ‘invisible’ is a very different beast to that of an organised palm plantation where you want the crop to move and be processed quickly and cost-effectively.  I’m thinking less fly-in-fly-out as we saw in the film American Made and more super-highway-through-the-forest plus oil processing factory and effluent.   So, it is likely that this 34% increase in the Palm production capacity of Columbia may well represent a much bigger deforestation footprint than one might first imagine.


Columbia’s more official ‘cash cow’ was indeed a cow and as such much of the non-urban deforestation of the country was to make room for massive cattle ranches. Not just because of our global (and growing) appetite for beef but also for the leather and other bi-products.   Here is a PDF file outlining the environmental impacts of cattle ranching in South America.  It is likely that, just like our cattle running ground here in Australia, the land turned over to cow raising is significantly degraded versus that still under forest or other crop and as such it may not be as high yielding as other land if turned over to palm.  Additionally, land used for ranching may be less well suited for palm anyway depending on its location, climate and soil type.  This may well end up to be a double whammy for Columbia now that the FARC influence over the countryside has gone.  If the country becomes richer it is likely the demand for meat will increase and so more land will be needed for cattle and with it more clearing.   If the land is changed from cattle to palm and it is degraded, it is likely that more land will be needed to produce the same yield as could be got in more pristine soil.  This will also lead to more clearing.  Maybe going veggie and sticking to the Cocoa would be more environmentally friendly if not a little erratic.

Population Growth.

I don’t know what the political changes of Columbia will do the its population but if the country does become safer and better funded (through official channels) it seems reasonable that its population will start to climb or at least thrive.   It doesn’t take much imagination to work out that increasing the population increases demands on the land and could easily lead to greater levels of deforestation both directly and indirectly but that’s pretty much what’s been happening everywhere I guess.

So what will  become of Columbia?

I really don’t know, of course I don’t know. I have never been there and have only fleetingly met citizens of that nation through work so I can’t really comment.  But what I can say is that it is likely that Palm Oil will play an increasing role in the country’s future, just as it has played a minor role in the countries present and past.  How that grows and the price we all pay because of it is yet to be fully realised but one thing is for sure, we have to wake up to the value of this and all natural crops as good soil quality and suitable land does not come without consequences and while I wouldn’t exactly say that the FARC can add ‘forest saviours’ on their resumes, it is probable that they did play a part, however unintentional in keeping the wild jungles of Columbia just that.  Now if only we could put our heads together and find a better, more peaceful way I’d be happy.


Amanda x

PS: If you follow this link you will see that there are many outside forces with interest in the Columbian Palm industry including German company Henkel. Now that didn’t take long…..

Happy 10 year birthday to Realize Beauty

November 30, 2017

10 years……  Wow.

I can’t quite believe that I’ve been running this little old business for ten whole years, I have to say I feel quite proud of my achievements given that ten years ago I’d only been in this country for three years, had two very young children and not a dollar to spare. I was and still am the main breadwinner, something I had been determined to be since the age of around 3 when I realised that money meant power and power meant self-determination and the ability to help others. The pressure of juggling that with everything else in life has, at times been all-encompassing, it has stretched every fibre of my being and made me grow to levels that I never even knew existed.

I left my corporate job to set up this consulting business so that I could be more present for my children and pursue a more creative and freer career away from the frustrations of corporate life but I also set this up because I was brought up as a girl in a time when being a girl meant hearing that I was somewhat second-rate and not likely to amount too much. So, I guess I sort of set this up as a bit of ‘I’ll show you guys’ rebellion and like all rebellious energy it led me into some good places and some bad.  I’m proud to say that I’ve swapped my rebellious energy for a seriousness and depth that only a battle that has taken every last ounce of your energy to fight can leave behind.  I feel like the winner in a contest that was always pointless and completely disheartening but I’m a winner nonetheless and I’m proud of that and determine to use my winnings to help bring others up with me wherever I can. I’ve been lucky enough to be here for my children who are now amazing young women with their own ideas and futures planned, women who will make the world a better place.  I’ve also been blessed with the unrelenting support and level-headed steadfastness of my husband and best friend, someone who has never shirked away from me and my hair brained ideas, who didn’t flinch when I lost us close to $50,000 in a bad business venture and who was there to dance with me when things were going well.

Running a business is hard but it is wonderful and while I’m tired now from what has been a very, very tough year emotionally I just know that I’ll get up and get on with it again and again and again just like I have before.  So here’s to the next ten years of writing passionately,  formulating with curiosity and a thirst for discovery,  consulting with compassion and a steady hard-fought wisdom born from personal experience and  helping each and every one of you to grow your dreams whatever they might be.

Thank you for joining me on this journey so far.  I appreciate your support, I really do and don’t forget you can always catch me in person on a Thursday at New Directions if you want me to have a look at your problems (Chemistry only)