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The Start-Up Dynamic

October 2, 2019

A start-up in this context is a cosmetic business that is just preparing for, or in the very early stages of its professional launch.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the the brand owner has only just thought of their concept. The concept could have been cooking or in development for years (I think my world record customer cooked their brand idea for 11 years before doing anything to fully launch it), be a brand new idea or an idea borrowed or purchased from elsewhere. Whatever the case, the start-up that I’m talking about is a  business-in-progress, not yet professional, profit-making or scaleable.

As a cosmetic chemist I get enquiries from this type of client all of the time and that’s fine, some people don’t realise they are this until it is pointed out – it’s impossible to know what you don’t know without someone or something shining a light into that darkness.  In some cases it is easy to address those shadow-like spaces, a bit of a tweak here, a polish there,  a re-wording of the legal stuff and voila, you are done.  In other cases there is mostly darkness with no clear way out. It is these clients that are most difficult for a cosmetic chemist like me to deal with and I’m telling you this now so that you can check yourself to see if this resonates with you.

The nearly-there clients have these characteristics.

  • Emerging or clear brand vision and direction which can be articulated or demonstrated to a third party when prompted.  This could be as unresolved as a general mood board or as polished as actual packaging, logos and colour pallet.
  • Comfortable and enthusiastic at conveying their Unique Selling Point or giving an ‘elevator pitch’ when invited. They are prepared to cheerlead their project and are enthusiastically invested in it.
  • Broadly speaking understands their target market and speaks to them albeit that this may often be without realising so not as strategically as it could be (which is OK, that’s fine).
  • Understands the business dynamic and is inclined to just get out there and do it rather than thinking about it for ever and ever and ever and ever…
  • Has some insight into the fact that they could benefit from some expert help or insight, especially around laws, protocols, scale-up and profit margins.
  • Is sufficiently excited and prepared to roll with the punches, put their money (or time) where their mouth is and take responsibility for making this happen.

The in-the-dark client typically has none of the above.

Looking at that it might seem like nobody in their right mind would approach a cosmetic chemist before they had the characteristics of a nearly-there-client but that’s not true.  The magic of Instagram and other social media platforms has meant that many clients think they have all of the above in check when they actually don’t.  Also, it is very easy now to do ‘research’, in fact people come to me after having done SOOOOOOO much research that I am sure they feel they can’t possibly do any more.  I’d like to point out that scrolling through and making Pinterest or Insta-lists of people and brands who you like the look of doesn’t really cut it as a plan but it’s difficult to do that without putting myself at risk of getting punched in the face for my insolence.

So how do you get to nearly-there stage?

Well, the first stage is to know that the things mentioned above are important, they aren’t everything you need to know to be a successful brand but they do cover a bit chunk of it.  I am part of a teaching team at New Directions who run a course on this called ‘How To Start Your Own Business’.  It’s a one-day (Saturdays typically) course that was established by Melinda Tizzone who is a successful trainer within the cosmetic industry. About ten years ago she recognised  that people wanting to start their own brand had lots of the same questions and blind spots and wrote the course. It’s been running ever since and has recently been re-invigorated to reflect the more social-media connected world that business owners find themselves in today. However, essentially nothing much has changed.

While that was a sort of ad for a course I run this article didn’t set out to just be that,  I really want to make sure that new or early brand owners and developers really do think about this as it saddens me when brands fail because of this.

The Start Up and the Cosmetic Chemist.

As I mentioned, many start-up clients find their way to cosmetic chemists like me.  The ones in the first box are relatively easy to work with in terms of understanding what they are asking for.  The problem (if there are any problems) typically comes in convincing these prospective clients of what’s actually possible, practical or scaleable.  This is particularly difficult now that many start-ups make their own formulations or have their own wish list of ingredients to put in.   While none of this is to be discouraged, it’s only helpful in a consulting context when the client is open to listening to a professional appraisal of what they have presented.  In some cases clients have selected ingredients to put in that are not available in quantities that they would be prepared to purchase, are not government approved in the market in which they are planning to sell,  are not compatible with other things in their product or are likely to be unstable, too smelly,  weirdly coloured or otherwise difficult.    While I’m sure some cosmetic chemists will make up 1000 reasons why they can’t do what you asked for because they are lazy,  most won’t as it is absolutely not in their best interests to do so.  Most often what they (and I) am saying is based on experience, often painfully and expensively gained.  We’re trying to do people a favour.  This also goes for manufacturing scaleability, some ideas are just not easy to make on a large scale and this too is best identified early on.   It’s impossible for start-up brands to know this unless they come from a manufacturing background or are prepared to create their own bespoke factory.

There are many reasons why start-ups shouldn’t engage in working with a cosmetic chemist straight up and I do try to explain these to my clients.  One of the most obvious reasons is that if you haven’t done this type of business before (as a business, rather than as a hobby or game) working with a chemist may end up being frustrating, confusing, expensive and ultimately unsatisfying. This is mostly because of the costs and time involved and the fact that true start-ups often have no prior experience from which to gauge how the dynamic is actually going.

I know of a few brands have hated working with me (which is why I write things like this) and just as I’ve felt my ears burn, sometimes rightly so – you can’t win them all –  I’ve also had to sit there and listen to tales of woe about other cosmetic chemists from other clients, sometimes justified but often not.  The one thing that I do know if that working with brands who have a strong sense of who they are, what they need and what will sell is the best way forward for all parties as even when formulation work fails or clients change tac, both businesses appreciate the learning that happened and move on together.  Businesses that don’t know who they are tend to build up resentment and get stuck, often while looking for someone or something to blame which is mostly a complete waste of energy.

If you come to me for a formula and I say no it’s because I know all of this and feel that either a) I can’t personally help you because I don’t have what you need or b) you are not ready to take that step yet and will most likely not get much out of it.  There are always other chemists if you disagree with my appraisal so usually things work out OK.

Where start-ups get totally stuck.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is when start-ups get totally stuck because they can’t get themselves out of the way.

Starting a business for real is a huge lesson in vulnerability.  You are literally putting yourself on the line and losing control of what could be a very intimate and personal part of you.  That can very, very difficult for people and often that difficulty results in business failure, especially when brand owners seek outside help then rage against it.  For some people their ideas and early brand conceptions are like their children and that’s good in a way, it helps you sustain the energy and investment needed to get you through tough times. However, some ‘parents’ really struggle with letting go.  Any good and experienced parent of little (or big) humans will tell you that your kids are not your possessions, that letting them go is the best thing for them, essential for their development, success and wellbeing and that it’s not always about you, it’s about them.  Brand ownership is no different.

If you are a start-up who feels anxious about letting go of the reigns a little bit in order to move the business on then maybe take some time to really examine that, preferably before engaging cosmetic chemists and other industry professionals. Cosmetic chemists are an easy target to rage against as a large part of our job is to create products that have subjective characteristics.  What I mean by that is it’s easy for a cosmetic chemist to fulfil a brief to make the product that you have identified but it is downright impossible for a cosmetic chemist to guarantee that same product makes you feel exactly the way you want to feel.

So what to do…

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, the first business you commercialise is the business in which you learn how to run a business.  If you are lucky you’ll get past that 2-5 year stage and then start learning how to run THIS kind of business. If you are doing very well you may even push past the 10 year mark and start becoming an expert in your business.

For this reason I typically urge start-ups to keep some things simple.  In some cases I suggest white-labelling instead of formula development,  partnering with other brands to compliment your range rather than developing it all under your label,  contract manufacturing instead of making it in your own factory and so on…

Owning your own formulations is a good idea for a business that has got its act together and is making money. It makes little sense in most other cases.  Making everything from scratch is not essential for all brands and cosmetic businesses and again, it makes little sense for start-ups as it really does spread you too thin.

Overall the best advice I can give a start-up in addition to what has been said above is  this:

  • Seek good, professional advice early and build up a network WITHIN the main industry rather than outside of it.  That way you can make sure you are having your biases and blind spots checked (even if you don’t listen yet) each step of the way.
  • Make sure you focus more time on how and where you are going to sell the product rather than what chemicals you are going to leave out.
  • Really challenge yourself to know who your customers are in detail.  This helps you to keep on track when it comes to choosing brand colours,  expanding your range,  working out price points and even selecting which sales outlets to target.
  • Think hard about what you want your every-day job with this brand to look like. People often say they make their product by hand, at home. When I ask them how that will pan out if their brand takes off they look at me with that ‘huh?’ look…
  • Have fun, remember it’s only cosmetics, you are NOT saving the world but yes, if you do it right you might just make the world a better place.

Best of luck!

Oh, and if a cosmetic chemist says ‘I can’t work with you on this’ don’t worry, they are doing you a favour 🙂






Fixatives for Natural Fragrances

September 30, 2019


Confession time, I am NOT a perfumer.

Here I am talking as a cosmetic chemist who has a couple of years of direct experience of working in a fragrance factory plus many more years working alongside perfumers but not AS a perfumer.

Now I’ll go on.

Many people ask me how they can make their essential oil perfumes last longer, a legitimate request given that most essential oil perfumes don’t last that long at all when compared to your typical store-bought fragrance brands.  Some people even ask for fixatives, maybe with the idea that there are certain chemicals out there (fingers crossed that they are natural) that can magically turn a fleeting essential oil blend into something that lasts all day.  I want to address this from my perspective and knowledge base here.


First off it is important to note that fixative materials that may or may not have or impart an aroma of their own to a blend. Indeed, the most important feature of a fixative is that it reduces the volatility of the fragrance blend which, in turn, helps it to last longer.
Fixatives may make up a small or a large percentage of the overall perfume blend depending on the technology employed and the type of fragrance being created.
A few common examples of these non-smelly fixatives are:
Glucam P 20
Isopropyl Palmitate
Diethyl Pthalate (was very common once but now less so).
Glycerin (not that effective but sometimes useful depending on the application)
Benzyl Benzoate (weak odour, quite balsamic)
Hydroxyethyl Cellulose
Examples of fixatives that are smelly are:
Cinnamic Alcohol
Musk Ketone
Fixative 505
Peru Balsam
Benzoin Resin
Tonka Bean
Amyris Oil
Copaiba Oil
The trouble with trying to stick to essential oil and resins only to make perfumes is that often the fixative aroma elements are strongly smelly by themselves and, potentially very expensive.  The smell of the fixatives (such as Sandalwood or Vanilla) isn’t so much of a problem if you like and want the smell but it is an issue if you don’t.  This can make the exercise of making natural, essential oil derived perfumes restricting (although it is still possible to make some lovely natural aroma blends of course).
People often ask me for fixatives as an after-thought once they have trialled their essential oil blends and found them wanting.  This is probably not the best way to tackle the longevity problem given that natural fixatives have an aroma as inevitably increasing the aromas shelf life ends up requiring a complete re-formulation of the perfume.  So, my tip is to formulate for longjevity from the beginning.
Smell longjevity vs odour intensity.
Another misconception is that if a fragrance lasts longer it will smell stronger.  While there is some logic and truth to that it isn’t completely accurate.  Many essential oils have quite low fragrance strengths when compared to synthetics.  We will look at that here using Sweet Orange Oil as an example:
Natural Sweet orange essential oil has only an odour impact score of 110 (I’m not sure of the units of this so we’ll use it proportionately) and a longevity of 8 hours.
Compare that to a synthetic Orange fixative which has an odour impact score of 250 and a longevity of 60 hours.
We could then compare that to a synthetic blend of orange mid notes.   These may be used to enhance a citrus aroma and make it richer on impact rather than longer lasting.  Here we see an impact score of 83 and a odour life of 7.9 hours so less than we get for sweet orange as a whole.
However, we could also look at an Aldehyde C-10 Decanal This has an orange peel-like waxiness that gives an impact of 500 but a longevity of only 10 hours.
Looking at the four options for Orange-inspired fragrances above you can see that intensity and longevity can be played with to a much greater degree with these synthetic (or isolate) chemical blends vs the essential oil and that as such, a wider range of outcomes is available.
However, most people making natural perfumes don’t want to use these chemicals however they are made and yes, some can be isolated from natural sources, others are made from plant derived starting materials which then undergo chemical reactions and a few are purely synthetic.
So what can the natural perfumer do?
A) Consider the base note as part of the formula rather than something added to increase the life of an existing formula.  The base note may become a prominent feature in your blend but that’s inevitable when using natural materials, work to make it a seamless part of the blend rather than a functional add-on.
B ) Accept that it is likely impossible to create all-natural, whole material perfumes that last as long and have as high an intensity as synthetics.
C) Accept the price constraints of formulating with naturals.
On top of that natural fragrance creators can give themselves another helping hand by managing the oxidative stability of their blends.  Again, because of the natural ingredient philosophy, the choice in ingredients that can help slow down oxidation is less than for synthetic perfumers but there are some things that can help. Natural Vitamin E isomer blends are probably the best bet as they are less smelly than rosemary antioxidant and, in most cases more effective.   Even with antioxidants some fragrances, especially citrus based, will oxidise over time and that could lead to some notes flattening out and the overall blend colour changing.
The bottom line here is that natural perfumery is different and is limited but it is also beautiful, precious and fleeting in its beauty so maybe we should all stop trying to make it something it is not and just accept it’s here for a good time not a long time.
If you are interesting in aroma chemistry this resource is quite useful.


Ferulic Acid is interesting.

September 30, 2019

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

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

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


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

Vitamin C Stabilisation.

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

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

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

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

Well no, not exactly.

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

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

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


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

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

But what about the patent?

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

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

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

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

The bottom line.

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

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


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





Who am I now?

September 30, 2019

It has been quite a while since my last post and I feel a bit weird about that.

In fact I feel a bit weird about a lot of things at the moment, mostly because for the first time in my career I am struggling to know what to write on here. It’s not because I’ve ran out of ideas but because I seem to be losing the battle that I set out to fight. My battle was one that tackled the fast-information and false-news culture that surrounds the cosmetic industry head on, countering  it with the subtle and deep beauty that is proper scientific process and attention to detail.  I have always loved detail and never get tired of peeling back layer after layer, relishing the opportunity to look at something that I thought I knew intimately and realising I knew nothing of it at all. However, when I look at how things are panning out in the world, it feels like nobody’s got time for that anymore and very few people feel they need to reflect, it feels like people are super sure about everything now and that questioning and probing peoples thoughts is both inconvenient and unnecessarily troubling.  Is that really true?

  Me staring down the bottle of life 🙂

I want to write my way out of this box I’ve got myself stuck in. I want to wake up and realise that it isn’t about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ this battle because it isn’t a battle, it’s a process, a rhythm. Maybe the way I look at things should be content sitting in the background like the base track that nobody notices until it’s the only constant left. Maybe this blog never was about anyone else but myself?  Maybe what I’m trying to do here is convince myself of its value all over again? Maybe that’s true…

I guess, when I think about it, there are two things that I am now a problem for me that weren’t before.  First is the level of my investment in this game and second is are the outcomes.

It was easy to be all gung-ho and up-for-it as a newbie.  When I set out to write this blog there was nothing but blank pages waiting to be filled and connections (any connections) waiting to be made.  Now I’ve got an archive, history.  Information is coming at my audience from many different platforms and by many different types of people, some suitably qualified, some less so, none of which we as individuals can necessarily discern.  That audience has a completely different relationship with information than I do. I am old hat now and the value I attribute to information, ideas and process is out of step with this world. I guess that’s somewhat inevitable as I’m not exactly ‘young’ any more (I’ve just turned 45 BTW, in case you were wondering).

It is true that some of my customers and many of the people I talk to each week were young children when I started my business. They came of age in an era when formulations, information, mis-information and dupe brands were everywhere. Setting up a business to sell the products you’d made or curated was as easy as whipping up a virtual shop window and then promoting yourself or your goods through it, where literally anyone could become famous.  Truly enlightening really,  perfectly equitable maybe, but I do wonder about whether that’s actually true.  I, on the other hand, still have the mindset of someone who grew up in a bricks-and-mortar world where the financial stakes were high and business was generally entered into for life.  I struggle with the idea that people now establish brands and businesses without proper qualifications or industry experience, things that were needed in my day in order to convince the bank, your family or even just yourself that you could do this.  Now that’s not a thing…

So, I find myself invested in this blog and my business which is one centred on professional education and business services, in a way which no longer seems that relevant to anyone but myself. Now that even I’m questioning that mindset I’m feeling rather vulnerable which isn’t a problem for me per se, but it is rather unsettling as I honestly don’t know what to do next. Do I change how I reflect my values (refresh my mindset, move with the times) or do I stand firm in my roots and just grow new branches?

Second are the outcomes and for me these centre on how fully I feel my ‘mission’ is being achieved and I guess this is another area where I feel, rightly or wrongly that I’m (personally) losing it.

I feel that the tide of misinformation and bullshit has just kept coming and coming and coming to the point where it has often felt like it is drowning me out.  The work I did a while ago on sunscreens and specifically on the dangers of not making your own is still relevant, I still receive and answer comments on that both on the blog and via email and phone.  However, rather than me receiving most feedback saying ‘aha, thanks I suspected it was harder than it looked and I am glad I now know how to responsibly pursue this or dump the idea’,  I mostly still get people who read the articles I have written and contact me with their version of them finding what they think is a chink in my armour or a weak spot in my argument.  What I mean is that in spite of me being a chemist, of spending time and money on doing the actual testing, on presenting lots of information and evidence in a way that is ONLY invested in education most people still feel that at the heart of it I’m wrong and they are right, even when I didn’t set out to be right, I set out to be sensible, logical and realistic.  In the beginning I’d take this as a challenge, that I had to try harder and see things differently again and I did, I still do mostly. However now I’m increasingly finding that my dominant response to such challenges is for me to say ‘stuff it’, and ‘let them hang themselves’ which basically amounts to a realisation that no amount of evidence or counter information will be sufficient to put some people off doing stupid things so I should just accept that and let them.  Bit like being the parent of teenagers really, actually it is JUST like that. Again I feel old.

That’s just one example and not necessarily the most important one (to me) but it’s one that is most representative of the dichotomy that I feel we live in – drowning in information while starving for wisdom.

Side note: I don’t think of myself as wise, I think of myself as passionately invested in pursuing scientific wisdom so I’m really a tool that’s employed in the process of creating wisdom rather than the vessel of wisdom its self – I think that matters. 

Anyway, that’s over 1000 words of self-pity now and I’m quite sure that’s enough.

So why did I share this and where to from here?

Ummmm, look, who knows.  I am a business owner, this is part of my business and as such, maybe writing this will be the death of me but hey, that’s the price you pay for being honest.  I shared this because I am 100% sure I’m not the only person to have a ‘mid life crisis’ of sorts in their business, of questioning if it is all worth it, if it is cutting through, if the goals we set are being met or if they were ever worth pursuing anyway.  So that’s why.

In terms of where to from here for me I have to say that reflecting on how I’ve been feeling has helped me so thank you for reading (if you did), the writing has done its magic again and I now see more clearly why I feel so discombobulated and potentially how I can get through this (by exploring this void more deeply maybe?).

I realised late last year that teaching is valuable to me and that as such, I should probably invest more time in learning the academic side of the craft. To that end I commenced a Masters Degree in Chemistry Teaching at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst earlier this year.  The University is on Wiradjuri land, the synchronicity of which is perfect for me as I see the Wiradjuri people as strong, brave, resourceful and passionate defenders of their truth. Maybe I could draw from their strength when I’m out at Fox Hill Hollow (our Cowra Box Woodland retreat)? Maybe they can help me find my next path?

So there, I was questioning my level of investment and look, I’ve gone and invested more!  That says something.

As for the outcomes I absolutely know that the only person you can change is yourself and that setting out on a business mission to change other people was and still is foolish.  So while it was always meant to be more complex and involved than just telling people what to think, I am recognising that I’ve got so hung up on the numbers here – how many people can I set on a path of enlightenment vs how many get away – that I’ve put myself in danger of missing my own point entirely, especially if that leads to me giving up!

And that’s where I’ll end this, without solid answers but no longer flailing out at sea.

I will keep working on this and while I do, I’ll keep up the science writing because guess what, you and I are worth it 😉

Amanda x


I want my cosmetics chemical free.

August 11, 2019

It’s 2019 and despite the best efforts of both myself and the many other scientists out there who have continued to shout ‘but everything is chemical’ from the rooftops of labs right across this world, people still want to make cosmetics that are free from chemicals. Clearly something is being lost in translation, something or someone is failing.

While reading one of the many books that I plough through with my ever whirring mind (she says citing an AHA lyric from the 1980s) I came across a bit of Glaucon’s wisdom.  Glaucon was the older brother of Plato and, like Plato he lived in ancient Greece during 445BC.  What he said, that stopped me in my tracks was this:

“People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality”

Now one could argue on the nature and meaning of reality but I want to just indulge myself by following the lightbulb moment that occurred in my brain on hearing that.

What if the word ‘reality’ was replaced by the term ‘best scientifically proven evidence-based guess or conclusion’.   Not quite as catchy but meaningful nevertheless.

What if ‘appearance and reputation’ were seen in the context of a group or market segment…

If that were true, people would sooner reject scientific evidence than leave the comfort and status they have achieved in their group.  As a somewhat more antisocial human than most I find that mind-blowing but I’m guessing that many of you are sitting there like ‘duh, yeh,  but of course’.

I always was a bit weird.

Anyway, this is where I’m going:


Have you ever read George Orwells 1984?  It has seen a bit of a resurgence of late thanks to some of the weird and wonderful ways that life has changed in this social media metropolis we now live in.  The term Groupthink was coined back then, tapping into something that Glaucon recognised just over 2400 years previously.  There is a good and relatively simple definition of it here on Wikipedia   and I think that our propensity for hanging out in specialist groups (or tribes) on social media is ripe ground for fostering and reinforcing this mentality however niche its focus.

For me to apply this to what I see happening in the cosmetics industry is very easy as every day I see and experience more evidence of the way groups shape the thoughts of the customers I interact with.  It started off as a relatively subtle thing, people would read something online in the privacy of their own home and then seek out an accessible professional to discuss it with, hopefully in a way that applied that reading to their situation.  In many cases the idea exchange was interesting and fruitful, I could add some context and value to the exchange on account of my professional experience being outside of the customers experience and the customer could give me some valuable insight in what worried them, what they cared about and what way they wanted to arrive at a conclusion.  This has since changed.  Things are much less enjoyable now that people rely less on solo ‘googling’ and more on group forum input.

These days we have a number of long-standing group spaces online where discussions take place.  In many of these cases the groups were set up by industry outsiders as a ‘self teaching’ resource, in other cases the groups were set up by industry insiders as a way of them forwarding their own businesses and professional opinions while ‘giving something back for free’ in the meantime.

These teaching resources are now intersecting with moral interest groups, groups that are focused on finding good vegan, palm free, organic,  simple and hand-made, artisan or trending skincare.   Teaching resource groups are informed and inform the moral interest groups and vice versa. Two, interconnecting circles that spin and turn around and through each other, setting their own orbit and reaching their own conclusions based on their own biases and world views. Because it is impossibly difficult to know what we don’t know or be able to judge the level of our grasp on a subject we tend to end up with groups being informed in limited and unchecked ways.

The online groups in which people belong have become their tribes. Tribalism is strong in the human psyche and we instinctively try to find everything we need within our own tribe rather than risk approaching others.  This gives our online group immense power, probably too much if you ask me, especially given the generalist and performative nature of many exchanges. However, people love them and feel vulnerable when they are exposed to information (and people) who challenge their group narrative.   Sometimes I’m one of these pesky, challenging outsiders, I’m the one saying ‘ummmmm, no, it might not work that way for you’.  

Social Psychology.

I am NOT a social psychologist and reading just one book that covers this topic does not make me suitably qualified to make conclusions about what I see with any validity other than that of my own experience.  So please, read the following with the naive fascination with which it is intended.

The book I read which included Glaucon’s quote was called ‘The Righteous Mind‘ by Jonathan Haidt and he is a qualified social psychologist.  He talks about how society sets moral standards and how the use of negative marketing and advertising that has been increasingly employed in the world, informs that. I have raised my concerns about this type of marketing  on many occasions but have never understood it like this before.  Now I know why my concerns never cut through…

Negative marketing such as that we see when we sell products as ‘free from’ helps to build two things in the eyes of the public – fear and disgust.

Disgust is a very powerful emotion, a gut feeling and something that is incredibly difficult to overcome.  If I can make you feel that something or someone is disgusting you will hear nothing they say and want nothing to do with their goods or services.  Being aware that some products may be disgusting to you means that we want to spend as little time as possible interacting with them,  this is what leads to the ‘free from’ list being the ONLY thing that matters.  The inner dialogue goes something like ‘I must first check if it is free from everything that disgusts me and only when I see that can I move onto what the product actually is’.  Emotive issues such as those concerning palm oil and veganism tend to trigger our disgust button. Disgust as an emotion tends to then trigger our justice instinct. We want to fight to stop this disgusting thing, we want to do something.

Fear is another powerful emotion that is somewhat sated by ‘free from’.  Fear of dangerous things with nasty consequences, of poisons and cancer and pollution and such.  While disgust mobilises many of us, fear tends to freezes us.  We don’t want to be investing brain cells in working out if a product is safe or not, we want to be told it IS safe.  Free from marketing helps to achieve that, in our eyes at least.  The overwhelm is so strong when fear is on the table and it’s easy to be scared of chemicals. Even as a person who is fascinated in chemistry I have lived on the same planet as you and have lived through very many bad chemical incidents. Nuclear disasters, environmental spills, cancer clusters,  factory malpractice,  environmental destruction, Frankenstein foods,  gross animal experiments, medicines that we thought would do good, that instead do harm. The list goes on.  It is easy to see how people with non interest in science as a whole and chemistry in particular can draw the conclusion that the world would be a better place without chemistry and opting for ‘free from’ products helps us feel like we are gaining some power back, even if we don’t really understand the details.

So how do we move beyond these gut feelings and have proper conversations?

Haidt’s book talks about how disgust can’t be diffused by reason and I’m sure that fear can’t either.  I feel that this is a key reason why we, as scientists failed in our attempt to reason the hate away.  Humans just don’t work like that as intuition (gut feeling) comes way before reasoned analysis (which may not come at all):

“Most people would die sooner than think- in fact they do so.” Bertrand Russell.

I have a great deal of sympathy for that as I too am human and I too have had fears and felt disgust towards people, things and situations, often without good logical reasons:

I suspect that Haidt is right when he suggests that the only way to work towards truth is to show love and compassion, to build bridges and strengthen human relationships between both sides of the debate in these cases.   Now this all sounds very nice and loved-up but it’s extremely hard to do.

I have witnessed several situations in the recent past where I’ve been asked a question, in person, and have attempted to answer it with scientific logic and some human kindness and warmth only to be met by a stone wall or even visible head shaking. I kid you not, I had a client the other day who brought in a product to show me that had ‘gone wrong’ in their opinion. When I said  ‘aha, well from my experience what you are experiencing with that mixture is completely predictable and not unusual at all’ the lady shook her head at me.  In that moment I had not only given her an answer that she was completely unprepared for, she simply couldn’t accept it and rather than engage with me further started searching her brain for ways to bolster her pre-conceived idea that she was right, that her product had gone wrong and it was the fault of the thing she’d purchased from me.   Arguing in these situations doesn’t help, in fact it’s pretty challenging to know what to do.  Sometimes seeing is believing and if I’d have had time I would have got out some ingredients and showed the client what I was saying but I didn’t have time and my previous article on this very topic was already unlikely to attract her as in that moment I was disgusting to her. I was one of THEM and she was one of US – disempowered crafter who the industry doesn’t value.  Even in giving the right advice and feedback I had failed. 

Building connections.

Haidt frequently mentions the book ‘How to win friends and influence people‘ by Daniel Carnegie, a book that I have an inner aversion towards reading to be honest.  I don’t want to read it as I don’t want to feel that my interactions with people are anything other than natural, for me.  I am yet to find any other facet of life in which my approach is classified as ‘normal’ so I’m fairly happy to leave the ‘winning friends and influencing people’ to chance too. But maybe I’m being unfair or maybe I’m scared of getting too many friends 🙂

A quick overview of the top tips in the book leaves me feeling that the book may not be as bad and formulaic as I was thinking: Be genuinely interested in people, smile, remember their name, make the other person feel important (sincerely) etc.  All good stuff.  So should all chemists be given this book when they graduate, so that they can spread their love to everyone, even while some of their products are poisoning rivers and causing trees to be burned down?

I think not.

Through writing this blog and doing the work I’ve done I have found many times when the ‘other’ side is, at least partly right and I am at least partly wrong.  The last thing that Haidt talks about is the Yin and Yan nature of both sides of an argument and I truly believe he’s hit the nail on the head there, mainly because it agrees with my bias and my experiences.  What Haidt is saying is that both sides rest on the same coin, both are valid, both are worthy, one isn’t better than another.

For me, I believe that scientists HAVE to engage more in slow, constructivist narrative-based dialogue with their audience about topics both big and small.  It’s important that we don’t just brush off a request for a chemical free product with an eye roll and a ‘but everything is chemical, what chemicals don’t you like today Sir?’ comment.   Maybe we should take a leaf out of Plato and Glaucon’s book and start more philosophical conversations with our customers and students.  Maybe we could all learn something, maybe we could all work together to construct a new and happier reality.

I think the main thing I’ve learned through this batch of reading is that, in humans, Intuition comes first, reason second.  Tapping into the intuitive ideas and feelings of another takes time, patience and love and I think that really is where we have to start.

So next time someone asks me for a chemical or anything free product I’m going to start a conversation along the lines of ‘Ok, that sounds interesting, let’s unpack what that means for you and I’ll help by adding some industry context’.  It may or may not change the world but it would certainly be a whole lot more interesting than arguing don’t you think?

Amanda x



What is better, a serum or a cream?

August 9, 2019

Sometimes I get asked questions like this. I call this type of question a Tardis (as seen in the TV series ‘Dr Who’, scared me to death as a kid but I’m OK now) question because it looks like its only a tiny question when in fact, it’s massive.  Well when I say it’s a massive question, that’s what I hear, the person who asked it still thinks I’m going to give them a quick, one word answer, usually one that starts and ends in the word ‘serum’ but I don’t…

If you are one of those people who come on here and get the shits with my pedestrian thinking-though-a-problem post then the other quick answer to the question is that there is no simple answer to this question as it depends on how you are defining each of the parts – better, serum, cream.

Another quick answer is for me to assume  that by better you mean works better / delivers results more efficiently;  for serum you are talking about a water based gel serum formula and for cream you are talking about a non-ionic or traditional soap style emulsion (soap meaning it has an anionic emulsifier holding it together, like in the good old days when that’s all we had).  With all that in mind I would say ‘well that depends on the active you are trying to deliver and its concentration I guess’.

By now you might be either wanting to punch me or you can start to see how much of a Tardis this question really is.

I’m not well read in philosophy enough to know if this type of thinking is truly reductionist but it certainly feels like it might be to me. I get a lot of questions like this and attribute  it to the fact that people have access to an awful lot of information and seek to distill it down to something simple and easily digestible so they can absorb the data into their mindset and so they can use it in their marketing.  So, you might have a situation where a brand is trying to justify why they are now telling their clients to use a serum and a cream when before creams did it all.  They read online about how good and potent serums are and then decide that the easiest way to sell their new range addition is to suggest that serums are the best way to get fast-targeted results from actives. This relegates the creams to the status of generalists or ‘slower performers’ or something else entirely, most brands find a way to make room and in doing so, some brand owners get the wrong idea about serums vs creams.

So this is how I really go about thinking about this question when it appears.

  1. Identify the active(s) that we are talking about and investigate their chemistry.
    1. Actives are the ingredients in a product that are mostly responsible for the big-hitting results be they moisturising, brightening, colour correcting, tightening or cleansing.  Finding out if the active(s) are oil or water soluble,  their shape and size, their chemistry in terms of polarity, affinity for the skin etc is really important. It is also vitally important to have an appreciation for where the active(s) have to get to in order for them to work.  Are we talking the top layer epidermis or right down at the dermal/ epidermal junction.  Knowing more about the active will help us decide how best to deliver it. For me, this step always includes a review of scientific literature to see if there is any dermal penetration data that I can use to help inform my formulating.
  2. Identify the activity level of the product.
    1. Not all cosmetic actives are easy to formulate with and some will be very hard to stabilise in an emulsion, especially when present at very high levels.  It is worth looking into this early as the answer may not be what is best but what is possible.  I think this is one reason why people automatically assume serums are better,  because they can, in many situations, simply hold more active than a typical cream base.   However, more isn’t necessarily better and so holding this conclusion in mind as an absolute law is not that helpful.
  3. Delve into how the customer will experience the product.
    1. This includes both the packaging you wish to use and the application data – how much, how often, with what?  If you make a serum to deliver a peptide to soothe and restore moisture to chronically dry skin there is a good chance that your customers will immediately apply a moisturising cream over the top of it unless the serum feels sufficiently protective.  This co-application of products may undo your carefully thought out delivery system plans and render a serum-only product a bit of a failure.
  4. Reflect on what your customer are used to.
    1. I’ve said it before and am saying it again (yes I do sound like your mother), you get zero results if the product never leaves the shelf.  Sometimes we have to pull back from the idea-on-paper scientific solution to a problem in order to create something that customers will relate to.  Brand owners need not despair completely at that news, often you can warm customers up by scaffolding your approach – give them something familiar first then add to your range with more interesting and advanced products later.  That’s a good way of building trust.

Serums and creams present different sets of challenges and benefits to the cosmetic formulator. It can be easier to load up a serum with heaps of actives but it can be harder to get said serum to feel moisturising, un-sticky and nutritive.  Creams have the benefit of being able to accomodate both oil and water soluble actives in the same product, often with their own specific delivery systems but active levels are limited by the fragility of the emulsion structure.

In general, my best advice would be to avoid reducing your thinking to this ‘serum vs cream’ mentality as it may well check-mate you in future.  It is far better to talk about why you chose a serum for THIS formula and a cream for THAT and talk to the specifics of each rather than trying to make sweeping general statements.

I hope that has been somewhat helpful.


Pro Tip: Teach (or preach) chemistry, not trade names.

July 27, 2019

I have lost count of all of the times people have come to me with the question ‘is Optiphen really the best preservative’ or something equivalent.

The moment I hear that I know that the person asking the question is lost, disempowered, clueless, un-taught.

I know some of the places that push ‘Optiphen’ as a solution but am probably not across all of them.  Anyway, if you relate to this as a problem or something you do then read on,  if you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about then I’ll explain.

Optiphen is a trade name of Ashland Chemicals. It relates to not one chemical but several combinations of chemicals that we use to preserve products.  I think, but am not 100% sure, that the first Optiphen was just a blend of Phenoxyethanol and Caprylyl Glycol but as I said, that’s just one of a few.  I hear talk of Optiphen Plus quite a lot too and that’s the two chemicals above plus Sorbic acid which helps to boost performance by targeting yeast and mould.

When you teach (or preach – preaching is a way of disseminating knowledge that can’t be challenged) about formulating or cosmetic science, using trade names only is a good way to ensure that your students or readers learn nothing of the true nature of what you are doing.  On that note, it is a pet hate of mine to see cosmetic science students being set assignments that have no explicit need for naming the exact chemistry they will use and instead allow formulations full of trade names. I dearly hope educational providers aren’t teaching chemistry by trade names…

Time for a cuppa and a chat.

When I first started in this industry I literally spent hours of my own time scanning paper documentation and brochures (there wasn’t the level of stuff on the internet then as there is now and even if there was, we hardly used it – very few websites to browse even) checking for equivalence between this trade name and that, noticing little differences in activity, polymer weight, charge density, pH, colour and added preservative (if relevant). This sort of detail gets missed when you don’t critically evaluate your ingredient space. This sort of detail is what trains your brain to be a real chemist rather than a parrot.  This is what and how I teach, this is empowering for both me as a teacher and you as a student because with this knowledge we can unlock the world, save ourselves money and become creative.

When people come to me asking about or looking for a trade name as their only point of reference they often display no capacity for critical evaluation even after hours of ‘research’.  This is frustrating for them and sad for me. It also means that people come with a shell around their brains that I have to crack slowly before we can open up to the real world of chemistry, they already thought they were ‘doing science/ chemistry’ before.

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is called ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘ by Paulo Freire. It’s a teaching book, a book that was written in the 1970’s when almost all education was authoritative and rigid.  These days we are taught to teach in a more equitable and inclusive way, to account for divergence and to celebrate and work with, rather than against that.  This text and the situation I describe above collided in my head this morning when I woke up with the following quote in my head.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”.  Freire, P (1970)

One cannot ‘do’ cosmetic chemistry with any mastery without first understanding the chemistry. The trade names put the chemistry under a blanket and hide it somewhat, making it more difficult to see, feel and know.  Strip away those trade names and look at the naked chemistry in front of you, buy it a drink, take it out for dinner,  get it out in your laboratory and play with it.  This is the only way we will progress from the dark ages into which we have slipped.

Chemistry is the way out of here and understanding chemistry starts by us saying the chemical names, let them be your light dear students and brand owners 🙂