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Get yourself a little assay…..

May 10, 2018

So what is one of those?

One of the things I do (for my sins) is run a stability testing service out of a laboratory in the city.  The testing is quite routine really – just prepare the samples in final packaging and in glassware, place them into their appropriate conditions – oven, room temperature, fridge etc then watch, periodically getting them out, weighing and measuring then putting them back.  Changes do sometimes happen and when they are dramatic such as a huge shift in pH or a collapse of an emulsion everyone agrees that there is a problem, but when something subtly changes it can take a bit more sciencing to work out if the changes are likely to wreck your efficacy or not.  That’s where assays come in.


An assay is the name for an analytical test that is carried out to establish if a chemical is present in a formula or not.  Sometimes the assay can only qualitatively account for your active – tell you if it is present or not – while in other cases it can quantitatively measure its presence too, informing you of how much is still present. This can be very helpful when you are making claims that revolve around a specific active – the product is unlikely to work if said active has disappeared somewhere or changed its chemistry.  I usually request assays be carried out on products that rely on, or feature a particular active in the product name or (of course) in products that have to be assayed such as TGA products or some APVMA formulations.   For cosmetics we are mostly assaying for vitamin A, C and/or E as well as some antioxidants such as Ubiquinone (Coenzyme Q10) or Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) from Green Tea.

Assaying for vitamin activity is usually relatively simple and regularly done by analytical test labs, mainly because these things frequently turn up in food and pharmaceuticals and they are both industries that require formula validation via analytical measures.  However, in cosmetics we don’t always use the vitamins in their simple form.  For example, vitamin C is not always added as Ascorbic Acid, sometimes it is Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate and sometimes it might be Ascorbyl Glucoside.  I have tried to get products assayed for different types of vitamin C and failed. Maybe it is my fault for not asking hard enough but in my experience, most labs testing for vitamin C will assay against Ascorbic Acid so if your vitamin C is in another form it won’t show up. This can be an issue.  This is true for other vitamins too,  there is more than one form of Vitamin A used in cosmetic science.  Understanding what can and can’t be tested for is key to a successful assay.  I’ve had a case once where we wanted to analyse for the presence of retinaldehyde, a very active form of Vitamin A.  I thought this would be simple but it turned out that this molecule is so very unstable (and expensive to buy to boot) that a ‘good’ (as in accurate) result was not easy at all to achieve.

Vitamins and Antioxidants are both generally good candidates for assaying as they are usually put into a cosmetic product as part of the products ‘actives’ and therefore should be present in the formula throughout its shelf life but also these things are quite likely to break down over time.  Antioxidants are natures little soldiers, fighting free-radical pollution  on your skin and in your product.  Just like regular human soldiers these things get worn out and need a break, sometimes they even expire – you can’t go on soldiering for ever, no matter how much you want to.  As such, assaying these things at the end of a shelf life test using the aged 40C sample VS the room temperature sample or the spec (if you already have that established) is a good idea.  So  that’s what I do.

When assays go wrong.

I’ve already mentioned that assays are chemical specific in as much as you set up the test to ‘find’ the exact thing you are looking for.  So if you want to assay for vitamin C you set the machine up to look for Ascorbic Acid and nothing else.  What I haven’t mentioned yet though is the issue that is often faced when a product formula is complicated.  IT is all well and good when there is one distinct chemical to assay in a noiseless base but when you have lots of actives, some of which might look similar on the graphical trace (if you use a GCMS test) you can end up with difficulties in reading your results.  Quite literally the trace can look like peak hour on the main motorway out of the city – chaotic!

Another issue that can be faced with assays is their sensitivity.  Getting a good trace depends on the sensitivity of the machine and how it has been set, so that you get a good, clear separation of the peaks.  If you have a lot of actives at very low levels you might not get a good enough peak to quantify, or the peaks might differ slightly every time you run the trace – analytical labs might repeat the assay 2-3 times to get an average result. This is quite a normal way to approach science.

When they work well.

When things go well you can end up with a fully validated stability study that proves, through the weekly oven/ fridge/ RT samples that your formula is physically stable and proves through the analytical chemistry testing that the product is chemically stable also. You can use your assay results as evidence to back up product efficacy claims, at least to a point, and the results can also help you quantify improvements in stability between successive versions of a formula.  This is one thing I’ve been doing with my high strength ascorbic acid formula – assaying every month or so to gain a better understanding of how it stands up over time.

Assays can also work well when you want to validate the safety of your formula with regards to the potential for it to cause irritation. This is especially so when you have a lot of vegetable oils that could turn rancid and increase their acid values (free oleic acid) or where you have a high level of essential oils that can degrade to release by-products that are more likely to cause reactions.  Assaying to get an idea of the chemical going’s on in your formula can save money on human trials and can also help you hone in on what is and isn’t working in your formula or what is the root cause of instability (as oxidative changes usually have a cascading effect through a formula, once one thing changes, it affects other things too).

Assays can also work well when you’ve extracted or created something – say a vegetable or essential oil or a herbal extract – and want to know if you have captured the ‘essence’ of it.  The assay might be set to look for one particular ‘active’ or might give you a general finger print of the thing.  Your test lab can usually help you choose the right test.  I assay the essential oils that I distill, just to see if they meet the standard for that particular plant.  I also used the assay results to help me identify the type of Eucalyptus I had gathered.  It’s awesome!

But can’t you simply see/ smell or feel when a product has gone bad?

Sure, you can see when something has gone critically bad but it is much harder to just see (or sense) when something is slowly degrading, especially (as with many cosmetics) the product formula is quite complex – it could be any one of a number of things that are causing the visual change for example, some of which are not that critical to the key performance of a product such as chlorophyl bleaching in a cream due to UV.

So what can we assay for?

Quite a few things but my most common tests are:

  • Acid Value of a vegetable oil containing formula.
  • Presence and quantity of named actives.
  • Stability of essential oils (looking for presence of oxidative by-products and/or quantitative analysis of whole oil)
  • Peroxide Value of vegetable oil formulations

And who does these tests?

As much as I’d love to have my own analytical lab I don’t so I use established and NATA accredited facilities.  Just google ‘cosmetic analytical laboratories’ and I’m sure around 5-6 will pop up – there are a few.  On top of that I use a government laboratory for oil quality analysis so when I want to assess the quality or shelf-life changes of a vegetable oil blend or neat oil and I also refer lots of people to the Southern Cross University here in Australia for essential oil assays including oil characterisation (if you want to identify an oil) and herbal extract analysis.

What does it cost?

It really depends on how the assay is carried out (what equipment), how expensive the reagent is, how long the assay takes and how many samples you tend to submit but the tests I commission usually cost between $45 – $250 each so not always cheap but not prohibitively expensive.

And when should I assay my formulations?

Well, that depends. Some brands will go for ever without running a single assay while others will send products off all the time.  I am tending to rely on them more and more as I find the crisp, non-disputable data gleaned form an analytical test very helpful and re-assuring, especially for brands that are making ingredient claims for natural formulations and want these formulations to have a shelf life of 30 months.

If in doubt just ask.

and if you are a complete nerd like me then assay away – it’s like having a little chemical spy peep into your formula and measure stuff for you and that, my friends, is awesome.

So that’s the intel on assays.

Have fun in the lab 🙂


PS: I did my honours degree project in analytical chemistry way back when I had no idea about cosmetic science.  I have always enjoyed the investigative part of science but I’m not really neat enough to do this type of analysis for my full-time job.  I spill too much!







The funny little thing that is Cetearyl Alcohol

May 5, 2018

If you’ve ever tried making a cosmetic cream before you’ll no doubt have noticed that cetearyl alcohol can make it super thick.  If, like me, you’ve wondered how it manages to do such a thing so efficiently, you might well have googled it.  I googled it once and was somewhat meh about the explanations that were forthcoming but that’s what you get when you just google, mostly rubbish.  What we need to do my fine people of the inter webs is ‘Google Scholar’ it or, as I prefer, delve into the DeepDyvve archives….

So of course, you can’t make creams for 20 years without knowing a bit about this ingredient and I sure did but the exact chemistry of it had been something that didn’t command my full attention until now, mainly because it wasn’t particularly necessary until now, a time when I’m getting more and more stuck into complex emulsions, high levels of actives – especially salty things and formulating for top-level results. These types of formula can be pretty dam twitchy and so knowing your chemistry inside-out sure does help. So let’s have a look.

Cetearyl Alcohol is a fatty alcohol. 

Cetearyl = Cetyl + Stearyl.

Cetyl = C16,  Stearyl = C18

Back in the 1960’s there were a few studies done on the effect of fatty alcohols on emulsion stability and it was found that the blend of cetyl and stearyl were the best for the job.  If you are buying ingredients for making creams do keep in mind that cetearyl alcohol is a blend of two alcohols and the ratio can vary between suppliers so your emulsion results might vary if/ when you change material sources.

For those palm free lovers out there this ingredient can be made from petroleum derivatives or natural sources.  Up to the time of writing I’ve not managed to source a single batch of palm free cetearyl alcohol although I know it must exist as there is a company in Italy, Kalichem, making emulsifiers that are palm free and contain this.  So, at present, most palm free emulsions that are also natural are sans cetearyl alcohol unless it comes from Kalichem in the form of a blend.  If you are reading this in the future, this point may have become irrelevant.

Being a fatty alcohol this beast isn’t soluble in water.  The thing holding this dude back from water solubility is that big old carbon tail at 16 carbons long.  Saturated carbon chains are non-polar and as water is polar and as like-dissolves-like this thing ‘ain’t playing.   So expect to find your cetearyl alcohol as a waxy solid that gets mixed in with your oil phase and melted prior to emulsification.

Cetearyl Alcohol in an emulsion.

A simple cosmetic emulsion is usually some oil droplets stabilised (at least to a degree) in water to form a homogenous mixture that looks milky or creamy.  Cosmetic emulsions look milky or creamy because the inner phase is bulky and light can’t pass through it. This is partly because the inner phase is usually quite big in terms of volume (5-40%) but also because cosmetic emulsifiers generally form relatively chunky internal phases (well, chunky when compared to micro emulsions) because of their chemistry and how the congregate around the oil droplets.  In any case the thing you make looks opaque most of the time.

So where does the cetearyl alcohol sit in an emulsion?

You could be forgiven for thinking that cetearyl alcohol just adds ‘waxy’ bulk to the internal oil phase as it is a waxy, oil soluble material after all and that the act of making the internal phase harder will thicken the cream.  While that theory has some merit  if that was how cetearyl alcohol worked it would be pretty damn impressive to change the cream viscosity as much as it does.

I figured this out a while ago by doing some experiments with cetearyl alcohol vs other waxes and butters. It didn’t take long to realise that there was something going on with the water phase for an ingredient to make THAT much difference.  I knew back then it had something to do with the -OH part of the cetearyl alcohol and I knew that liquid crystals were involved but it’s only now that I’ve really got my head (and reading) around what’s actually going on.

Cetearyl Alcohol – queen of the liquid crystal network!

Liquid crystals are structures that fit between…. wait for it…. liquid structures and crystal structures.  Helpful?  I thought not.

So a crystal structure is usually some sort of rigid lattice where molecules interact in a highly ordered and rigid form – like a Jenga puzzle I guess you could say.   On the other end of the scale are liquids which are pretty chaotic and messy – rather like my office on a normal day.  A liquid crystal fits in the middle being structured yet fluid – like magic.  Basically you usually end up with layers of structure that can move over each other to some degree like fluid so you get a nice flowing structure.  This structure has been found to give superior moisturisation to a cream as the liquid crystal layers trap moisture in between them thus increasing the potential for the cream to hydrate the skin.  These structures are usually more stable than a classic oil-in-water emulsion and are more likely to act as skin delivery systems due to the way the cream is orientated – sheets of water and /or oil can be deposited as opposed to just drops.

So Cetearyl alcohol helps build these but how?

This is the bit I hadn’t really got a handle on until now but now I can show you (I think).

So, Cetearyl Alcohol likes to hang around like a moving snake, a bit wibbly but not curled up (some structures online show it bent, it usually isn’t, there is no need for it to be anyhow as the influence of it’s OH group wouldn’t be able to bend it very much).    I’ve drawn it at the top there,  lots of carbons and hydrogens in a slight zig-zag formation with an OH group at one end.  The OH group of the Cetearyl Alcohol (I’ve drawn the cetyl chain here) is the part where all the action happens, the fun end of the molecule.  OH is polar and water-loving so it will be attracted to water and/or the cream emulsifier which has to have some kind of action centre to be useful as an emulsifier – either non-ionic or ionic it doesn’t matter.

To get cetearyl alcohol to work well one needs a slight excess of emulsifier – that is, slightly more emulsifier than you need to emulsify your cream.  If you are trying to work out how to know how much that is you could do this.  Make your cream without cetearyl alcohol then run what I call ‘boot camp’ stability on your emulsion – 5 x freeze/ thaw plus centrifuge @ 5000 RPM for 15 minutes.  If it survives that you have enough and you might want to half the level and keep doing that until you find the sweet spot of ‘a bit too much but not way too much’.  The excess emulsifier floats around in the water phase as micelles (little gangs of free emulsifier).  Have too much and you destabilise your cream out the other end as these micelles will compete with your true emulsion for water and your cream will dehydrate which could look waxy or could look just totally unstable.

So you have a little emulsifier floating in the water which is great, now add some cetearyl alcohol – maybe start with 0.5% then try a bit more and more until you again reach that sweet spot.  Too much cetearyl alcohol and your nice thick but pliable cream will turn waxy – I’ve done that a few times hence me re-visiting my notes on this and applying a bit more thought.

Now you have a little cetearyl alcohol and a little excess emulsifier in the water the action can begin.  What happens next is a dance between these two things.   Apparently the best interactions occur when the emulsifier has a similar tail group to the cetearyl alcohol.  That’s probably why lots of emulsifiers are ‘cetearyl’ based…..

Basically these things join together in sheets (technically speaking a gel phase is created), hand-in-hand forming layer after layer of fatty chains and -OH group heads – the technical term for the rheology of this is a viscoelastic network.  The emulsifier will have more ‘surface-activity’ or pulling power than the cetearyl alcohol so it will most likely lead the dance if you will.

In between these sheets traditionally dispersed oil droplets become trapped (happily so) and alongside those is the continuous phase, water.  This water lubricates the sheets allowing them to pass over each other but they don’t completely float away because of the -OH bond anchors at the ends of the cetearyl alcohol and emulsifier.  This beautiful structure brings both viscosity and stability if the correct balance is reached.

So what can kill the cetearyl alcohol thickening party?

Well as I mentioned in the beginning, I’ve been working on more active and more salty creams of late and that’s what has caused me to go back and revisit cetearyl alcohol.  Salt of any kind sits in the water of an emulsion and there it exerts its effect, making the water more active (rather than passive) and increasing the conductivity of the emulsion (the amount of electrical current that can pass through it).  We know from various scientific studies that an increase in emulsion conductivity spells a decrease in emulsion stability and so this can be bad news.  Cetearyl alcohols ability to form these interactions with the excess emulsifier are disrupted by salt as the salt competes with the excess emulsifier for bonds.  At low levels this may just manifest in a slight loss of viscosity but as the saltiness increases the thickening you gained from adding cetearyl alcohol is all but lost and its addition becomes almost pointless.  No amount of cetearyl alcohol will help rectify the viscosity drop in a high salt environment as it isn’t the amount of cetearyl alcohol that’s important here, it’s the environment required for bonds to form (it’s like a door has closed on it) and as adding more cetearyl alcohol doesn’t change its chemistry it does nothing more than just waste more material in applying an ineffective fix.

I’m still experimenting with this in emulsion settings but so far it doesn’t so much look like you can’t use cetearyl alcohol in a salty emulsion at all but more like it may not perform as well as you were expecting and may even be almost useless as a thickener in very salty emulsions.   Now I’ve managed to make some very strong emulsions with magnesium salts using emulsifiers like cetearyl alcohol and cetearyl glucoside as a pre-made blend but I’m now inclined to think that the cetearyl alcohol component of the blend is doing nothing much and that it is all thanks to the cetearyl glucoside  that we have an emulsion – so basically I’m wasting my money having the cetearyl alcohol in there.

And what about other things, is there anything else that can do this or is it just cetearyl alcohol?

Any fatty ingredient you add to your emulsion that has some degree of polarity or -OH functionality can form interactions with the water phase and as such may not sit completely within the dispersed oil droplet.   This interesting experiment looked at how adding different fatty esters affect the stability and formation of liquid crystal structures.  Many chemists add things that are amphiphilic to their emulsions, things such as Isopropyl Myristate, Cetyl Palmitate or even Stearic Acid and these could all play a part at that interface.  As I mentioned other fatty alcohols have been looked into as well but the shorter chain fatty alcohols were not as good at stabilising the emulsion or thickening it as cetearyl alcohol was found to be.

So is there anything else we need to know about Cetearyl Alcohol before we go?

Well yes, I think there is.  If you have had the good fortune to have played with this ingredient before you might have noticed that it does take a while for the cream to fully thicken when using cetearyl alcohol as a thickener.  This is because it takes time (and a change in temperature) for this gel-phase liquid crystal structure to form.  To fully orientate the molecules into these sheets can take up to 24 hours and requires the cream temperature to drop to at least room temperature.  Where things sit and line up in an emulsion are influenced by a few things – saltiness we’ve mentioned here but also pH and temperature.  So many things to keep your eye on and test – that’s why stability testing happens over different temperatures and why we take note of pH and water loss over time.

Cetearyl Alcohol has, for me, been one of those sneaky little ingredients that I’ve taken for granted in my formulating up to now but as my formulating work has morphed so too has my understanding of this quiet little achiever.  Used correctly it can transform a simple cream into a multi-dimensional active delivery system.  Used willy nilly it can turn your cream into a waxy mess (and yes, I’ve had more than my fair share of those).

I hope this has helped you understand this fascinating ingredient a little better and ultimately helps you formulate more effective products.

Amanda x

Fitting into a saturated market.

May 5, 2018

The beauty market has been saturated since the day I first stepped foot in it some twenty years ago but brands still come and go. As an aside, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years, that’s insane….

So here’s a little story about why you shouldn’t really give a damn about that. A story of how you should still go out and do your thing anyway.



Everyone wants to be successful, to have a brand that brings them fame and fortune. OK, so not everyone wants the fame!  Some of us quite like the cloak of anonymity that comes with obscurity  but if you could just quietly slide the money under the door and then go away, far, far away that would be just peachy.

So, everyone wants to be successful and most people equate that with money. The amount of money that each of us equate with fame no doubt varies but that’s besides the point. Money is definitely an important thing.

The question now is, how does a brand become successful in a financially viable and relevant way in a market that’s quite literally so saturated that it’s dripping?  The answer to that, I believe, is all about the narrative.

We have become a people hungry for stories, stories about ingredient origin, about the maker crafting their wears with their own hands and hearts,  infusing the brand with their own spirit and enthusiasm.  About far-flung places and wild adventures, foraging, harvesting ingredients under the silver light of the full moon or while still glistening wet with dew.  About gentle manufacturing processes,  sustainability, nature, kind and empowering working environments,  equity, fairness, compassion, purity and love.  These are all things we crave from our products because for many of us our brands have become our totems.

But these aren’t the only narratives, there are also those about inner health and wellbeing, about results, defying ageing, personal empowerment and strength, power and control, winning.   Still further we have the narrative of fun, hedonism,  indulgence, excess,  fashion, art and the narrative that encourages us to ‘fake-it-until-we-make-it’.

Anything and everything goes. 

While most brands feel they have a strong narrative expertly told, many actually suffer from narrative constipation (albeit temporary in some cases), mis-information and execution errors which leave the public wanting.

Nearly all brands have something, some story that got them ‘born’ but in a few cases the brand really doesn’t have much substance.  Rather than see that as a terrible thing,  there  is not necessarily a problem with this just as long as the brand compensates in other ways.  We all know that a pretty face (good packaging, on-trend colour scheme,  fashionable ingredient list) can open doors and that can be enough in some cases.  I can put my hand up to having purchased a product just because it looked pretty and would match my bathroom. Then there’s the brand that’s always available, that’s just the right price or that has that one product that just works for you.  However, many people are looking for a bit more than just that.  They are wanting the type of brand  longevity that requires something more substantial,  more satisfying and that’s where building the narrative fits in and where we must remember that there’s room for all types (and depths) of narrative.


On telling the story. 

Not all brand owners are natural story tellers.  Some are quite self-conscious or too unsure to know where to start, others lack the imagination or ability to join the dots in that way and a few have the right idea but struggle with the confidence to command their audience. However, I’ve found that  with the right encouragement their stories flourish once they can clearly see what they have.

It might sound odd but somewhere in the region of 70% of brands I work with lose their way at some point in time with regards to who they are and what they want to attract. It’s important to note at this point that if, as a brand owner, you don’t take control of and understand the message you put out there you won’t attract the right customers for you and you may end up feeling like you are being pushed, pulled and prodded in all sorts of directions, many of which feel uneasy, un-necessary or distracting.  This feeling of ‘the tail wagging the dog’ so to speak is not what most of us go into business to experience so its good to know that gaining an understanding of how your brand is being perceived is a big step towards putting an end to this!

So if we assume that a well though out story (or narrative) is the secret to success (in a deeply satisfying way) how do we make sure we’ve got one and are telling it well?

What about we start with our elevator pitch?

Imagine you are stuck in an elevator with the inventory manager of the store you are just dying to get into.  You need to explain your brand in the one minute or so you have together. No if’s, but’s or could-be’s.  It’s just you, your brand and the opportunity.

When I write for brands the 100-200 word elevator pitch can take me the longest to do. In some cases I have to write everything out long-hand first before I can take it back to bare bones.  You might have noticed in reading my blog that I’m quite verbose at times, that’s because I quite literally use the page to structure my thoughts.  For me it’s the process of getting the words out of my head and onto the page that brings mental clarity of thought.  Without the discipline of having to have it make some kind of sense my brain darts around all over the place.  You may find yourself in that position too or you may find that your brain flows better when you move your body (writing is a very sedentary thing after all),  or listen to music or immerse yourself in the cleaning or even some sketching. Anyway, I’m waffling now but you get the picture….

The elevator pitch when read or said should say it all and say it with gusto.  It should state who and what you are fully but without over-egging it (as that may come across as fake or un-authentic).  While you want to say a lot, you also want to leave the audience wanting more – wanting to experience this for themselves.  So you do need to tease them a bit or at least intrigue them.

Here’s an example of an elevator pitch for a popular Blue Mountains clothing store, (I didn’t write this BTW) that I enjoy shopping at.  I feel this store has got it right when it comes to outlining quickly what they are then living that through everything they do.  They manage to pull walk-in clients from all over Sydney as well as cater for them online.  That’s pretty amazing I think!

Bella Boheme is a lifestyle brand that seeks to curate a range of unique bohemian clothing, accessories and homewares to inspire and support our customers.. We bring the eclectic patterns and colours of the world to the beautiful Blue Mountains, Australia.. Much more than a store, we offer a rich sensory experience that leaves each customer feeling inspired and supported.

We pride ourselves on our attention to detail, and the unique level of customer care we offer. We care about developing genuine relationships with our customers, staff and community and providing each with positive experiences. We know that the Bella Boheme woman wants to feel cared for and appreciated, and we go above and beyond to make sure that’s her experience..

You can visit their website here.

  • The genre of brand is identified (Lifestyle).
  • The exact segment within that genre they fit (Bohemian)
  • The type of products you will find (clothing, accessories and homewares)
  • The intrigue so that you can paint a picture in your head (eclectic patterns and colours of the world)
  • The location (this may or may not be relevant to your brand/ may or may not be a selling point) – (The Beautiful Blue Mountains – this draws off the tourism capital and mind-map people have about the location making visiting this shop more than just an in-store experience, it’s the region too).
  • How you will feel whilst shopping (sensory adventure – inspiring, supportive)
  • Approach to business (attention to detail, customer care, genuine, community)
  • How you fit in (The Bella Boheme Woman – you are invited to become part of this supportive, fashionable and caring womens circle)

Doing that for your brand. 

Easier said than done………

If you are a brand owner maybe you want to give doing that a go and see what it brings up for you.  If you already have your elevator pitch, maybe you want to test it.  Why not get into an elevator for a day (if you can bear it) and just pitch to the people who come in, see what they say.  The key is to try it out on people who don’t know or love you.  Your friends and family will either be hyper critical and try to get you to say what they think you should say or will be ultra-supportive and hear what they want to hear.  To get more customers requires reaching out to new people and convincing them.

One thing that can really stop people in achieving this is that nagging thought that they actually don’t have anything special to say or that what’s special to them might not be interesting to another or that they have a story but they are somehow not qualified to tell it – or that other people tell it better or that other people might criticise or challenge their reality……  Other people struggle because they have this nagging feeling that their offering won’t be perfect enough or isn’t ready enough YET.   I can relate to all of this but to the haters (even if it’s yourself) I say ‘stuff them’, you are entitled to your feelings and your story and there’s never a better time than the present to tell it.

blocking haters

I can also attest to the fact that on one hand I’m still waiting to feel like I’ve got all my ducks in a row so I can start being the professional, efficient, amazing chemist lady that I know I can be but on the other hand I know I’ll always be a bit eccentric- it runs in my family.  I’m not actually joking here – we’ve all been to therapy lol

Ducks in a row

The bottom line is that while it would be awesome to just know everything and have everything under control and organised before we get started on the doing,  It almost never happens and we just have to make the best we can out of what we’ve got at that time.

So once we do that can we really all fit into a saturated market?

Yes and no.  Of course there will be products that don’t really cover their costs, brands that miss the mark in one way or another and businesses that don’t meet the goals of their owners but by and large, if you can get to the point where you have ‘birthed’ your story and are living it with enthusiasm and drive then that will feel like success.  And remember,  yours is a never-ending story and that gives you permission to morph, grow and explore new opportunities and ways of being awesome as you go.

Good luck x

The difference between a cosmetic chemist and a cosmetic product formulator

April 28, 2018

A formulator can follow and build a cosmetic recipe but may not think too much about why these certain things hold together or they might think about it but can’t really elaborate beyond basics.

A chemist can also follow and build a cosmetic recipe but generally can explain how and why these things hold together and may even be able visualise the product they are making on a molecular interaction scale – at least to some degree.

A chemist may be a good or bad formulator and a product formulator may be a good or bad product formulator  –  what I mean here is that the formulations that either person puts together may or may not be successful physically, chemically and commercially.

In either case both a cosmetic chemist and a cosmetic product formulator generally get better at formulating with experience so long as they try new things and challenge themselves.

However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a product formulator will understand the chemistry more with experience.  That depends on a number of things such as personal motivation,  ability to overcome internal and market bias, time and money to run experiments,  access to chemistry education and brain capacity.

I’m a chemist first, a formulator second.  I was a chemist before I was a formulator and as a formulator I’m experienced but I’m not neat and will never be able to produce the artisan amazingness that I wow over with some of the soap and bath bomb makers I have had the pleasure of dealing with.  However, what I can do is work out what is going on and why – but that doesn’t stop me from being able to make some great mistakes, it just means that once spotted, I can tell you why and then face palm myself for being such a dick.

So why am I pointing this out?

I’m telling you this because I often get asked about the courses I teach and specifically asked if I can teach how to make organic products or some other niche type of thing.  My general answer to that is that I could but I won’t (at least not straight off the bat).  What I teach is chemistry to people who want to become better cosmetic product formulators. They might also want to become cosmetic chemists and if they study a bit more chemistry and take some more science qualifications then maybe they can be that but they won’t be that after taking a basic cosmetic science course. Well, not in my opinion.

I’m telling you this because while I understand and appreciate that you don’t NEED to be a chemist to be a good formulator, nor do you necessarily need to understand the chemistry behind your products you will do better and be more efficient if you at least appreciate the science a bit.

Cosmetic formulators with little chemistry understanding either need a good memory and lots of time for trial-and-error experimentation or they will be limited to just sticking to what already exists.  Again, that’s not a major problem unless you want to be truly innovative in some shape or form. So here’s a list of times when knowledge of Cosmetic Chemistry really does save your bacon.

  • 1. When the shit hits the fan.

When a formula is not stable,  an ingredient is not solubilising,  you are getting crystals form, you have cloudiness in your product or you can’t make your product ‘set’ or your actives stable.  Just being a chemist won’t automatically solve these problems – its not a super power – but what it can do is help you investigate the problem, develop a theory and instigate an experiment to test that.  Then, hopefully (fingers crossed) you will fix the issue once and for all and life will feel a whole lot less random and unpredictable.

  • 2.  When you’ve got a tight deadline. 

Rather than just line up ten ingredient combo’s and diligently work through each one it is so much better when you can hone in on one or two potential fixes straight away.  This may not mean that you come up with a perfect customer-lovably formula straight away but that you will overcome the basic issues of stability, price and product philosophy much sooner leaving you more time to work on getting the softer elements of the formula perfect.

  • 3.  When you are trying to combine awkward or delicate actives.

Not all things play well together and if you have an understanding of chemistry you can predict this and once again short-cut R&D time.   You may say ‘well supplier data does also help here and reading that saves you time’ and it does to a point but there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve read through what the ingredient supplier/ manufacturer has written, understood the underlying science and pushed the boundaries of what they’ve said.  Remember that manufacturer and supplier data is there to sell the ingredient and make using it easy. Just like with many drugs, there are ‘off script’ ways of using these thing too.

  • 4. When you have to make the formula cheaper.

Understanding what you can and can’t pull back on in terms of percentage input or ingredient choice is something that you can gain from experience (just doing) but is made more efficient by chemistry knowledge.  This is what I call ‘formula optimisation’ and generally a good cosmetic chemist should be able to do this and maintain the results of the product while saving ingredients and money.

  • 5. When you need to substitute one thing for another.

These days so many briefs come with long ‘free from’ lists.  Having a handle on chemistry can be really key when working with the longest ‘to-don’t’ lists and saves endless google ‘research’ looking for a pre-done recipe that fits – that’s not chemistry that’s just cooking.

  • 6. When you want to boost product efficacy.

There’s a lot of science that goes on behind skin penetration of actives and while trial and error can get you so far, it’s chemistry that will get you there faster and more effectively.

  • 7. When you want to answer customer questions properly rather than just regurgitating what’s been said before.

I’d say that around 90% of what is shared on the internet is un-original, repeated, half-information with only a tenuous link to science.  I’ve had many a person say things to me like ‘as you know, raspberry seed oil is widely reported as a  UV active’ to which I usually say ‘yes, widely reported but all stemming back to one small scientific paper so basically it’s just a red hot gossip piece’.  A chemistry background does help one to read and interpret the scientific paper(s) that underpins this internet noise and it can stop us banking on something that’s actually quite tenuous.

  • 8.  When you want to assess risk. 

There are a couple of good examples of this that keep cropping up.  One is the reaction between Sodium Benzoate and vitamin C to liberate benzene, a carcinogen. This was big news in 2006 with the soft drink scandal in the USA.   

This rang alarm bells in the cosmetic world as we do use sodium benzoate as a preservative and also use vitamin C, either adding it directly as ascorbic acid or as part of natural extracts (Kakadu Plum being a popular one here in Australia).  Natural cosmetics are most likely to have this preservative and vitamin C present.   A a chemist though instead of running to the lab to re-formulate everything,  I, along with others like me, were able to run to the research and quickly ascertain that the above reaction progresses best at pH 6-7 and that it can be quelled with a cheating agent.  Cosmetic Chemists know that they can’t put ascorbic acid into an aqueous product for long without it disappearing (via oxidation) anyway, let alone if it was at a pH of 6-7 so generally these products are at a pH of 3.6-4 and utilise chelating agents.  Even in formulations that don’t have chelating agents there are other steps we can take to mitigate the risk of this, plus the fact that in the canned drink any benzene produced was trapped, whereas with most cosmetics, even in airless packaging there is opportunity for gas to escape.  So the risk profile for cosmetics is quite different.   Without chemistry knowledge it would just be a case of perpetuating the myth that these two ingredients can never be used together and that could ultimately lead to way more expensive formulations (As sodium benzoate is a cheap preservative).

I’m sure there are many more examples but these are some of the ones that sung out to me.

As a chemistry teacher I am passionate about people gaining a better chemical and general scientific literacy in order to help them become better formulators and smarter brand owners.

So when a client asks me if I can run a ‘making organic skincare’  chemistry class and I say no, I go on to explain that once you understand the structural chemistry that goes on behind a formula, you won’t need me to show you how to make an organic product (as mostly that’s just a calculator / desk top exercise), you’ll just know and how liberating would that be!

That said, I do teach using naturally derived additives as chassis ingredients as a gateway on to organic or back to synthetic so all bases are somewhat covered.

Well, I hope that’s inspired you to become a chemist.  We need more in the world so we can stop spreading rubbish fake science news.




The Problem with being Palm Free

April 24, 2018

Here’s the thing,  You look around for ingredients that are being sold as palm free, I’m not talking your Shea butter or coconut water, I’m talking the stuff that will hold your emulsion together, stop it growing microbes and make your essential oil disappear stuff.  The nuts and bolts so to speak.  So, you gather your palm-free tools and formulate a product.  It works out well so you launch it.

palm free Dr Straetmans

A year or so goes by and then, Lo-and-behold you find out that one of the ‘palm free’ ingredients you have in your formula is no longer palm free.  This sucks for you but not only is it a big headache, if you have been dealt that killer blow by a competitor or customer ‘hey brand x, I was wondering if your Y is palm free and think you should check’, it could also damage your reputation.

Now some of you might be thinking ‘fair enough, should have done your research’ and I’d want to whack you but that would not be very politically correct.

Welcome to the world of ‘Palm Free’.

To create a palm free range today is easier than it was a year ago but nowhere near as easy as it might be in the future.  Right about now we have several ingredient manufacturers marketing ingredients as palm free which is great (if that’s what you are looking for) but these ingredient ranges are usually small and may not meet your requirements.   Formulators and brand owners do typically do their research on ingredients and will ask for manufacturing flow charts for their natural and synthetic inputs to ensure they meet their brand requirements but what happens when the manufacturer changes the goalposts?  That seems to be happening in the palm free world.

Most decent sized ingredient manufacturers have some relationship with palm oil so, they would rather manufacture with that than anything else (cheaper, more reliable supply, easier to work with, better fatty acid composition etc). However, when the RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil) came in for a hammering over the last few years  for its apparent lack of action in protecting and preserving virgin forest some ingredient companies started to offer palm free ingredients to capitalise on the move to palm free. Fast forward to today though and after a sustaining a severe bruising of their egos and reputation the RSPO is starting to pull up its socks, at least in part.   Fully traced and mass balance palm oil is now available which means that for a bit of extra money palm oil feedstock buyers can get their palm fix AND answer those pesky environmentalist questions in the affirmative ‘yes madam, I am not being an environmental vandal and here’s my certificate’ etc.  Of the two, fully traceable is ideal but mass balanced (where you pay a premium for sustainable oil and thus encourage the market to produce more) is more widely available and is what most ingredient manufacturers are opting to support.

This change has shifted the sands of ingredient supply again and now we are seeing a rise in ingredients sold as ‘mass balance palm’ or ‘RSPO sustainable’ or whatever wording they are entitled to – you get the picture.   While this all sounds jolly good it isn’t necessarily so as I’ll explain.

As ingredient suppliers are now able (in some cases) to provide ‘good’ palm, normal palm and synthetic ingredient options (the usual three) there is less perceived need to offer palm free.  For the small niche clients that want palm free they are now going to be less likely to benefit price and availability wise for these palm free options  as the mass market take the position that now everything is fine we don’t need to avoid palm.  On top of that you have a situation where companies who were buying an ingredient as palm oil free because it was the only form that ingredient came in may now have to pro-actively request that theirs is from the palm free pile rather than just relaxing in the knowledge that it could be nothing else.  Again, you might think ‘well that’s no big, manufacturers should do that’ but how do they know?  Who keeps an eye on these things every day?  Not me.


In the last three months I’ve had two occasions where Ingredients  sold as only coming from palm free sources now contain palm unless a special request and more money is paid.  I’ve also had one occasion where a palm-only ingredient has now been made available in palm free and mass balanced options.   I found out about one of these when a client double checked everything as part of their launch process and another when I just happened to be browsing through a supplier catalogue. In two cases the changes had been made a while previous which means that there was room for error and potentially mis-selling – selling a palm-free product that contains palm.   In both of the scenarios above the range hasn’t yet launched so we’re good but I know that these projects aren’t the only ones out there that will be affected by this type of thing.

So what can brand owners and developers do?

Well, it all comes down to paperwork and promises.

Brand owners can only make promises that are equal or lesser than the ingredient supplier. So you can only safely claim palm free if your ingredient suppliers are happy to stamp and promote their ingredients as such.  This may seem like a no-brainer but lots of ingredients are incidentally made with other feedstock but wait until that other oil goes short in the market and BOOM, you might find that your coconut surfactant is now made from palm too!  See, it isn’t that simple.    The best you can do is get the paperwork from the ingredient supplier who must have that backed up by the manufacturer.

Once that’s done the next job is to keep checking back.  An annual paper audit of any ingredient that could have palm snuck back in may be appropriate and for some brands it may be a good strategy to blanket order or forward buy (into your warehouse) critical raws if practical.   It’s all a bit of a stress but if you are selling a palm free brand I would definitely take the control back and limit your risk of not being able to supply or having to quickly re-formulate out of an issue – yes, often (but not always) a change in the material spec will require you to re-run your stability, micro and manufacturing process and in some cases it might require a full re-formulation which is costly and time-consuming.

So is palm oil free worth it?

I’ve always been an advocate of being ‘in it to win it’ which basically means that I would rather people force change by supporting and promoting good behaviour from within than opting out.  But that said, the RSPO did have a bad reputation for a long time trust takes a long time to re-build so I can totally understand why people want to keep doing this.  So, I think that yes, palm free is still worth it from the perspective that it really does scream ‘what you are doing isn’t great’ and encourage people to think about what they are purchasing but whether it’s a good long-term strategy or whether it is a more sustainable choice now is highly debatable in my opinion.

Before I go I’ve shared a couple of pictures (above) from Dr Straetmans who have been active in palm-free and sustainable palm derivatives for a long time now but they are not above moving the goal posts as you might see if you look through their current vs past brochures.  In general Dr Straetmans have sought to increase their offering of sustainable palm which is a good thing that I congratulate but as I’ve mentioned above, palm free for once doesn’t necessarily mean palm free forever and you and I would be wise to keep our eye on that 😉

Happy shopping, formulating and selling guys whether it be palm free, mass balance or fully sustainable I’m sure it ROCKS x



Can Sunscreen Cause Cancer. An article review.

April 13, 2018


Ok so I’ve been a bit slack in getting to this but I’ll try and make amends now. A customer of mine requested that I address this article and so I will.  I was wondering how to address it but felt that the best way is possibly to just write a response to each point raised.

The original article is here. 

And here is my attempt to address each point as far as I can, as a scientist with experience in sun protection chemistry.  I’ve highlighted the bits pulled from the article and written my response in italics below.

For most people, this means covering themselves in sunscreen, which corporate marketing campaigns encourage at every turn

Ok so start with the premise that there is some vested interest/ an unsavoury element to the sunscreen market. That it may be a conspiracy…  

Yet, while we do indeed need protection to prevent sunburns, blocking out the sun entirely is not ideal. Rich in vitamin D, it offers a number of other health benefits, including, oddly enough, cancer prevention.

The sun is not rich in vitamin D, the vitamin D production process is activated by the reaction (or interaction) or UV rays on the skin.  

Sunblocks are no longer a thing that can be marketed as there are no sunscreens that 100% block the sun and that was deemed to be false advertising and counter productive. I agree that blocking out the sun 100% is not ideal. 

We’ve been made to fear the sun

I do not agree with that and don’t subscribe to the notion that we (as humans) can be made to fear anything if we don’t want to be afraid.  It is often just a question of self-confidence, good information, logical thinking and evidence. Our initial emotional response on hearing of bad news or potential issues with a thing can be worked through given time and the right resources. 

Science has long shown that what we put on our skin ends up in our bodies, and quickly.

No. Science hasn’t shown us that at all.  In fact, that is a terribly misleading statement. It is much more complicated with that, some chemicals will not penetrate the epidermis at all while others will pass right through it and dissolve bone. Our skin is there to protect us from the environment, a fat lot of good it would be if everything we came into contact with ended up swimming around in our bloodstream.  Alcohol is a good skin penetration enhancer but never in the history of people getting drunk has anyone done so by keeping their mouth shut and merely bathing in it.

Multiple studies from across the world have examined sunscreen in particular, evaluating its ingredients and how it penetrates and absorbs into the skin after application

Show me these multiple studies (or at least more than one). I’m not suggesting that this is 100% false, I’m quite sure that some sunscreen ingredients can penetrate into the skin but I’d like to see the studies so that I can evaluate what this means.

When you read this sentence more fully you note that it is phrased so the first thought might be that this is terrible, that these ingredients penetrate and absorb into the skin (leading us to think possibly of toxification of our livers, kidneys and brains). But then we sit back and say ‘skin’, penetrate the skin….  OK, so these chemicals absorb into the skin (rather than just sit on the top).  To what level do they do that – the first few layers of skin are dead – do they just stop there?  Also wouldn’t it be fair to say that if all sunscreen chemicals absorbed into and through the skin quickly they wouldn’t be available on the surface to protect us from the skin so they wouldn’t work?  Sunscreens can’t capture and reduce UV irradiation from within our dermis can they?   Neither can they reflect it from there?  In any case, should they penetrate where do they go next?  It is just as reasonable to suspect they are excreted via one or another mechanism as it is to expect them to accumulate.  Can we have more details please? 

As an aside, the one study (here) that was linked to was a method for analysing four different UV filters via HPLC.  Sure enough some Oxybenzone was found to have penetrated into the body and into the urine – 1% of the applied dose.  While this doesn’t sound awesome it is a bit of a leap to suggest that this means that sunscreens are or might  giving us cancer, especially given that there are plenty of sunscreen actives out there and that the formulation of the base will influence penetration of actives.

Results demonstrated a significant penetration of all sunscreen agents into the skin, meaning all of these chemicals are entering multiple tissues within the body.

This is an example of over-reach or bias in my opinion. The first phrase about all sunscreen agents penetrating into the skin is a quote directly from the study summary but to interpret that as meaning that all of these chemicals are entering multiple tissues within the body is a bridge too far.  How did that conclusion get reached?

Conversely, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed a significant drop in hormone-disrupting chemicals that are commonly found in personal care products after participants switched to ‘cleaner’ products.

Ok so going straight into this may lead the reader to add extra power to the previous statement, now not only are all sunscreen chemicals entering all tissues in the body but they are also hormone disrupting which is clearly terrible.  What’s more we now have a solution – use ‘cleaner’ products AKA ‘free from’s’.

Again this is over-reach and highly emotive but without adequate logic and fact to make the connection scientifically.  Again we are potentially trying to link the presence of chemicals in the skin (could be the epidermis) with chemicals in all body tissues and affecting hormones.  This is simply outrageous in my opinion. 

So, the next question becomes, are the ingredients used to make sunscreen, which are entering into our bloodstream, something to be concerned about? The science given to us by the corporations who profit from the sale of sunscreen says no, but I think by now we have established how trustworthy such corporately-funded ‘science’ is.

OK so let’s play devils advocate here and assume that we do have all of the ingredients running through our bloodstream and that all corporate scientists give no shits about peoples health because all they can focus on is money. I’d like to ask who should be doing this science and making our sunscreens then?  I wonder if the author would be happier if everything was run by government?  Are governments 100% trustworthy? Are Corporations 100% untrustworthy?  What about NGO’s, don’t they have agendas too? What is the issue with profit, should companies operate at a loss? Is profit always bad and if so should we consider communism? 

It wasn’t long ago that Johnson & Johnson, for example, was found guilty of knowingly putting a cancer-causing baby powder on the market.

What has talcum powder got to do with sunscreen for one, and for two, this legal case would ONLY get up in America.  I’ll say no more about that though as it will send me off on a tangent. 

This is precisely why we wanted to bring attention to an article published by the Huffington Post titled “Excuse Me While I Lather My Child In This Toxic Death Cream.” In it, mother Sarah Kallies shares how exhausted she feels trying to navigate today’s world and do the best for her children when everything, everywhere, seems to be killing us.

Excuse me for a moment but isn’t this a problem that you are contributing to I ask myself! I think by now we have established that the author places no faith in science unless it is science that validates their bias, even if it does have to be stretched out a bit. They also have no trust in the market and little trust in government given that it is currently government that draws up the regulations that shape our (cosmetic chemists) ability to create products that are deemed to be safe if used as directed. So, it is no wonder that people feel the world is going to kill them.   I am not hysterical and neither am I or my children or anyone else I know or their children dead after using toxic death cream every day for the last 13 years (since coming to oz with my Lilly white family).  Maybe the author should go to the coroner and research how many people have been killed by toxic death cream lately.  OK so I know that it would’ t show up that way (sneaky) that it would be just an increase in cancer, deadly incurable cancer.  Maybe look at that then and the age of onset and the type etc.  I’m willing to bet that most people are more at risk from their drinking, smoking, drug taking, sun burning, fat and sugar indulging, sedentary, stressed-filled lives than they are a sunscreen but that’s a bit harder to get mad at I guess. OK so that did get a bit emotional – I’m stooping to their level now and will stop. 

For every purchase she makes for her children, there is science telling her it’s great on the one hand and toxic on the other

Ok so first, science isn’t a person and second, if science could talk it would be duty bound to give all of the evidence so as not to be displaying bias.  That typically includes an appraisal of the costs and benefits.  There are very few things in life that boast only an up-side. 

We are dished a wealth of information that differs from source to source, on a variety of different topics, making it difficult to make even the simplest of choices without second-guessing ourselves.

OK so by now I’m getting a bit over this and this sentence just about sums up why.  I don’t know if it is the internet or the fact that our gut microbes have gotten all depleted as we no longer eat dirt and sleep with our dirty livestock and pets but the problem is spelled out right here.  Articles like this are feeding the narrative that we can trust nobody except ourselves.  Since when did we all become educated in science, law, biology, photobiology, chemistry, cosmetic science, corporate psychology and the environment? The answer is NEVER. We can’t know everything and figure everything out ourselves without some trust. Society doesn’t function without trust and while I get it, some degree of skepticism and questioning is healthy,  going to extremes is not. Plus, most of us are blind to our own bias – BLIND! That means we can’t even SEE that we are being led down the garden path, that we are being taken to a conclusion that is not our own, that we didn’t freely choose.  Instead of being enslaved by our own gullibility we are being entrapped by our own bias and are in danger of going mad because of it.  It is sad. Truly sad really. 

So I won’t go on analysing this article and giving my thoughts on it as quite frankly I’ve seen more than enough.  As a cosmetic chemist I am well aware that there are some chemicals that exist and are used in cosmetics including sunscreens that are not making the world a better place.   Some are marine toxins, some do penetrate the skin and may not be excreted in a timely manor, some get into the waterways and do act as hormone disruptors and others bioaccumulate and cause environmental harm.  There is always a thread of truth in an article like this and I don’t deny that, in fact, working through the science and reality behind ingredients and products is why I started this blog. But what I can’t abide are articles written in a way that lead people into hysteria and, more importantly encourage dangerous behaviour.  Not a week goes by when I don’t talk to someone who has decided to make their own sunscreen because they don’t trust the industry.  This is not a solution – home-made sunscreens often go un-tested in terms of SPF and that, in its self is a problem, especially given that we know that too much sun is a carcinogen.

I don’t own a sunscreen brand and have no financial interests in any sunscreens or sunscreen manufacturers on the market.  I also don’t make money from this blog, I make money from consulting, giving my opinion and creating products for people, most (but not all) of whom do subscribe to the notion that natural is better, ‘free from’ is ideal and environmentally safe is a given.  So I don’t really mind or profit from how people take this or any other blog article I write, I just put them up here as a stream of consciousness, a way of me sharing my experience and technical knowledge with others in a way that they can take or leave for free.   The only thing that I would like to think is that some of what is written here does get people thinking more critically about articles that use fear and one-sided logic to push an agenda. Surely the best way to make the world a better place is to lay it all out on the table. The good, the bad and the indifferent?

So, for what it’s worth, that’s what I think. Take it or leave it but please, don’t die from a stress-induced heart attack because you have information over-load and no longer know who to trust.

Amanda x

Can you get high sniffing essential oils?

April 13, 2018

Disclaimer: Yes I’m a chemist but no I don’t take drugs, make drugs or deal drugs.

Ok, phew now where were we…..

This week I have been talking to a client who was looking for confirmation of the Beta Caryophyllene content of the Copaifera Multijuga Resin Oil that was on sale.  I looked this up and dutifully found the batch we had in store to contain 45% of said aroma chemical.  Curious to know why this particular chemical was of importance I asked a few questions and soon discovered that this chemical is thought to be able to bind to a particular cannabinoid receptor that we have in our bodies.  I am guessing that people were then drawn to the conclusion that the presence of this chemical must mean that Copaifera resin oil can get you high….. As usual that led to me having more questions than answers, especially given that quite a lot of people look to essential oils as mood enhancers.

So let’s work through this as I see this.

Copaifera Multijuga resin is extracted from the trunk of the Copaiba tree which grows in tropical Latin America. The picture below comes from Wikipedia. 

The resin is used in traditional medicine and has been studied for its anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and wound-healing properties. It can assist in tissue repair making it good for damaged and problem skin when topically applied but is that all it has to offer?


First cab off the ranks is to establish a chemical fingerprint of this oil.  One of the big issues with natural ‘medicine’ or even ‘cosmetic actives’ is that nature doesn’t do things exactly, it does things approximately or in a range. Resin and Oil quality can vary from batch to batch and year to year depending on nutrition, competition for resources and climate, plus with some botanicals there is species cross-over and that is one thing happening here.  It appears that, according to this article, there are at least three species of Copaiba tree producing resin and oil of the same name so that does add a level of uncertainty to things that doesn’t exist with a single-chemical pharmaceutical active.   The article I’ve linked to there also confirms that this hasn’t yet been adopted as a ‘drug’ or ‘active’ in pharmaceutical terms and that’s mainly because of uncertainty as to its toxicology (animal testing is happening on this now) plus its chemical variability (hence work such as is being done in this paper).

So here are the results of the analysis of 11 Copaifera Oils – there is another page too with minor components but I didn’t share that as this has everything we nee for now.  These are all of the same type as I mentioned initially. 

What stands out to me here is that the level of ‘active’ we are interested in ranges from 10.58% up to 62.70% so my oil, with 45% is pretty average-ish in that regard but if that is a psychoactive ‘active’ then I’m not sure what impact such a vast range in activity would do to a person, if anything.

So is that likely to be the only ‘active’ in this oil?

Quite frankly no, but I’ll leave any postulating about that for now as I really want to focus on the simple and rather intriguing cannabinoid receptor link only for now.

Ok so how do Cannabinoid receptors work?

Apparently we have these little receptors all throughout our body that are activated when triggered by cannabinoids.  In our bodies these receptors influence our appetite, how we sense pain, our mood and our memory.  From my reading it looks like there are two main classes of receptor, CB1 which operates in the brain (central nervous system) mainly but also affects the liver, kidneys and lungs.  Then there is CB2 which is expressed primarily through the immune system.  Evidence also seems to be mounting for their being more receptors in the blood and lymphatic system which leads me to conclude that cannabinoid activators should be able to have a pretty big impact on us biologically as long as the activator was able to reach its target.  But more importantly and interestingly for me is that it doesn’t take much reading to realise that these cannabinoid receptors are not just about mood altering, one process that involves cannabinoid receptors is the development of keratinocytes (skin cells) – something I found very interesting to discover.  But more than that, this article here tests the hypothesis that CB2 receptor activation stimulates release from keratinocytes of the endogenous opioid β-endorphin, which then acts at opioid receptors on primary afferent neurons to inhibit nociception (nociception is the sensory nervous system’s response to certain harmful or potentially harmful stimuli).  So basically it looks like the topical application of actives that can bind to these CB2 receptors can reduce pain sensations in the skin – this could be really useful in post-laser treatments and other healing or soothing skincare balms and with no mind-altering in sight!

Now all of this is very new to me so I really don’t want to start talking as if I know all about this type of biology but I do think it is important to at least try to understand how these things come together to at least be able to answer my initial question as to whether sniffing an essential oil (or resin) can get you high.  I’m asking for a friend….. No honestly I am 🙂

So what’s the verdict?

It turns out that Beta Caryophyllene IS a CB2 receptor agonist so it does work with cannabinoid receptors but in a non-psychoactive way (so no high).  I found several studies looking at this particular molecule and its effect on the biology of the test subject (usually mice or rats but sometimes people) of which none referred to administering this via inhalation (sniffing).  This paper references many experiments that have been carried out and summarises that this active has been administered orally, intraperitoneally (animal studies) and topically where it has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects as well as having some pain relief properties.

So the answer to my question, at least with regards to Copaiba Oil Resin is no, it probably can’t get you high, but it can reduce inflammation and pain and to those people in pain, that can feel like one in the same thing.

In case you are interested, this fascinating aroma chemical is also a key component in these other oils:

Rosemary, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Cananga, Catnip, Ylang Ylang, Hemp, Melissa, Camphor, Clove, Myrtle (bog), Basil and Sage.

For those interested in how this compares to Cannabis being as we are talking about Cannabinoid receptors here is a bit of information.

Cannabis contains more than 100 cannabinoids of which 60 are psychoactive with THC being the most mind altering and having hallucinogenic properties.

So is there any case at all for any essential oil to leave you feeling ‘high’ after sniffing it?

Absolutely yes, I think only I feel we would need to define ‘high’ a little more loosely.  Even if there was nothing in any essential oil that could trigger a CB1 receptor via sniffing (or any other psychoactive receptor), it is accepted by most of us and backed up scientifically that smell can and does alter our mood but we should probably look at that separately.

So, by all means go out and give this oil a sniff if you want to but if its activation of your cannabinoid receptors that you seek, I’d be rubbing a bit into your skin (in a suitable massage base) and letting those keratinocytes feel the love.

Amanda x