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Is our thirst for cold pressed vegetable oils costing the planet?

July 20, 2019

When it comes to vegetable oils, there are two types of people I talk to, those without a prior opinion and those with one. Those with an opinion most often feel that the less processing or the gentler the processing a vegetable oil has gone through, the better it is.  I can understand the logic of that, less and more gentle processing retains more oily ‘goodness’  but what if the goodness never got out of the plant in the first place? What if we just threw half of the oil away?

I was looking into Castor Oil for a client of mine recently and I came across a paper that stated mechanical pressing would only achieve a 45% yield of the oil from the seed.  To put that another way, just ‘cold pressing’ leaves 55% of oil still in the plant.  Thinking on, that means for every 1 litre of cold pressed castor oil that makes its way onto the shelf, 1.222 litres of oil is potentially thrown away.  I’m not sure that sounds so environmentally friendly now.

After reading that about Castor Oil I wanted to look into another popular cosmetic oil, Rose Hip.  This study evaluated five high-tech extraction mechanisms including different types of CO2 extraction, solvent extraction, microwave and ultrasonic water bath.  Yields from the seeds ranged from 3.25% (water bath) to 6.68% (Subcritical CO2).  Meanwhile this study compared conventional cold pressed vs supercritical Co2 extraction and solvent (hexane) extraction.  Here we see yields of 6.5% for the supercritical Co2,  cold process 5% yield and the hexane oil was in-between but of worse quality.   Even though these two studies are not directly comparable (different rose hip species) the pattern in extraction results marries up.  Rose Hips contain somewhere between 6.5-7% oil as a general rule so if we take the maximum oil concentration as 7, the supercritical Co2 process extracted just under 93% while the cold pressed method only extracted 71.5% or, to put it another way, 28.5% of the oil was left behind with cold pressing vs only 7% of oil with CO2 extraction. Information on typical oil yield and compositional information is here.

Now I get that the quality of oil is important, it’s no use having a lot of rubbish. However, if the oil doesn’t come out at all, it is worth nothing as it is thrown away.  I think in this day and age when we are so worried about land use, the environment, conservation and sustainability we should take all of the science available to us into consideration.   It is likely that the optimal extraction method will differ for each oil and that’s difficult as it means that brand owners wanting to be sustainable will have to research each oil (or talk to someone who can do that for them). While that is a lot of work, it should be worth it as I’m sure none of us want to see our precious oils go to waste.

I hope you can consider the points raised here when you are making your enquiries and investigations into ingredients.  Remember we have to work as a team here and is nobody thinks, nothing gets better.

Amanda x

 

OMG it’s hard not to get mad sometimes…

July 20, 2019

Ok so this post may make my business flop like a lead balloon but hey, let’s give it a go anyway.


These are the Angry Beavers. The image was found on Wikipedia and is attributed here. 

It’s hard not to get mad sometimes because:

  1. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and I’ve seen people that I’ve ‘trained’ in a one or two day course start calling themselves ‘cosmetic chemists’ or ‘cosmetic formulators’ even though I know that my short course plus lots of ‘google research’ is all they have done.  No industry experience, no science background, no scale-up knowledge. Now I know I’m a decent teacher but the laws of physics are stacked against me when it takes some 10,000 hours to become expert enough to consult and there are only 48 hours in two days…
  2. I’ve had to sit through customers telling me things about chemicals using the exact words I’ve written on here, as if they thought them up, when I know they have been reading my work, without even acknowledging it.  BTW I don’t need the acknowledgement for my ego but it’s actually good manners to give a nod to those that have helped you become so bloody smart 🙂
  3. I’ve seen brands that I’ve developed products for go out and sell their products as something they are not (natural, organic, vegan etc) even after we’ve had discussions about these very things so I know that they know that their products are not these things. This upsets me to be honest, it’s not like anyone will die because of this. Also, as  ingredients are listed on product labels, most customers could fathom this for themselves with a little effort. However it does annoys me that people would be so blatantly disrespectful to their market.
  4.  I have worked with people who want to develop a product who send me information to review from people who they look up to but I know that have NOT THE FIRST CLUE in how to successfully make and scale a cosmetic product.  This leaves me in a predicament, do I look like a bitch for saying ‘oh but that person isn’t really qualified and the information they have given you is not that good’ or do I just lie and say ‘I’ll consider this’ or do I burn down the whole universe?
  5. I have had people who market themselves as product developers ask me for advise on the simplest of things ‘how do I measure the pH, it is necessary’  type of stuff when they are developing products for PAYING CLIENTS.  Now not only is it cheeky to ask me for my advise for free on this when they are making money out of giving this advice back to their customers, they shouldn’t be calling themselves that if they are asking this type of question! It would be like a tiler if grout is really that essential.
  6. I’ve had brands argue with me about my stability testing protocol, saying that I take too long and that if I only increased the temperature a bit I could get it done in half the time when clearly they don’t understand that their whole emulsion struggles to get through at 40C let alone 50 and that most natural systems will oxidise terribly at that temp. Sure, we used to use 50C acceleration when formulations were mineral oil based because you can’t kill something twice (mineral oil is already dead) but organic cosmetics are another thing entirely…
  7.  I have sadly come across too many brand owner who only care about money, not about the quality of their product range. Now this is just business and I understand that but it still makes me feel a bit angry so I don’t tend to work with these people.
  8. I’ve seen brand owners who KNOW THE LAW with regard to product claims but still claim that their cosmetic product can cure, treat or help customers manage health conditions. This is seriously not cool, especially when I get new customers who hold these brands up as benchmarks and I have to say ‘no, you can’t legally say that’. Again, I’m left feeling like a dick head (my feelings are my own responsibility, yes I know that but…) because I can’t endorse this illegal behaviour. Why that makes me feel bad I don’t know, maybe therapy will help!
  9. Then I’ve had customers argue with me about the law after asking me about the law and me showing them the law.  That really is a hard one not to blow a gasket over.  I mean, I don’t make the law but if you ask me a question and I answer it WITH EVIDENCE please do not argue with me about it, go get a lawyer if you want to try your luck at breaking or manipulating said law.  May the (police) force be with you.
  10. Finally (for now hahahahaha) I have customers who tell me that they advice I gave them is wrong and that the advice they got from their other source (could be google, could be a Facebook group, could be another course provider) is better, mainly because it agrees with their currently held beliefs of how things should be. Now this only makes me mad to a point, at the end of the day I can sometimes be wrong and I actually don’t mind that as I am genuinely interested in learning and developing further. However, when customers tell me I’m wrong and I know 100% that I’m not and that their version of reality will turn out really badly for them I get mad. Not because the customer burst my ego bubble (In spite of this post being quite anger-filled I don’t really), more because I’m angry that people can’t recognise the value of different perspectives on an issue and how experience can give you some insights that people on a home-crafted Facebook forum maybe hadn’t ever imagined. Anyway, you get the picture.

At the end of the day my business is fun, my customers are mostly lovely and I genuinely love what I do so it is all worth it. However, what I sell science in the form of testing, formulating, article writing and trouble shooting. I don’t sell popular opinions, gut feelings, hunches or celebrity endorsed trends.  It does annoy me from time to time that people seem to be finding it harder to pick qualified input from opinion and don’t forget, they only get my input when they ask for it-I don’t lurk in forums handing out ‘wisdom’ to make myself feel important all day and night.  I am investing in turning my annoyance into more qualifications. I figured that maybe people need better teaching so hopefully my masters degree in chemistry teaching will help out there. If not, at least it’s fun for me to learn.

Before I go, if you have read that and thought ‘OMG what a bitch’ then that’s also a bit sad but I get it, it’s not nice to say bad stuff about people.  However, if you have read this, please do reflect on the spirit that I wrote it in. That is as a consultant who works behind the scenes to make your brand better. I am not trying to become the next famous person, celebrity brand owner, celebrity chemist or whatever, I don’t like the spotlight enough for that.  Sure that doesn’t mean I am justified in being mean or saying hurtful things  but in a world that is anti-science I think some resistance is warranted.

Amanda

 

PS: I know I’m not perfect either but this post isn’t about that. Maybe one day I’ll write another post about everyone that thinks I suck but today is not that day 🙂

The Tizz about Tanzy

July 20, 2019

Tizzy – A state of nervous excitement.

I am pretty sure I know which brand started the Tansy Blue craze. Colouring cosmetics with blue essential oils such as Tansy was never a thing before, then all of a sudden customers were like ‘well I want Blue Tansy as my colour’ like it was just one of those things.

There are apparently 160 species of Tanacetum. Here we talk about just two of them. 

The two types of Tansy.

Tansy is a herb which has long been used to help humans make their life a little better only most of the time it was used to keep insects away rather than as a blue dye.   Tansy smells like you would expect an insect repelling oil to smell,  strongly herby and not all that pleasant. That’s just one reason why I was a big gob smacked when I kept being asked about this as a cosmetic colourant. Then I remembered that Instagram has no smell feature and as most brands on there are boutique, the second big factor, price, would not be such a biggie either.

Tanacetum vulgare. 

Tansy has a long lasting yellow flower that can be dried or used for oil extraction.  In the Middle Ages the herb was used in homes as an insecticide and repellant and rubbed into meat to keep it from getting infested, in fact Tansy’s domestic usefulness ended up earning it the name ‘artemisia domestica’ (The encyclopaedia of Herbs and Herbalism, Malcolm Stuart, 1990).  The plant also has a role in the religious life and was used in a type of pancake that was eaten at Lent (I can’t remember being offered these but they do sound rather interesting, here is a recipe). You will notice if you click through to the recipe, the comments about Tansy’s essential oil chemistry.  When whole herbs are used in cooking, the essential oil is obviously a part of the mix given that it makes up part of the plant.  Now the amount of Tansy essential oil one would ingest in this pancake recipe is bound to be very little given the amount of leaves actually turned into juice to make this. Most plants contain very little essential oil as a percentage of their fresh weight with 1% being a pretty decent yield (if you extract it using steam distillation).  I’m not sure on the specific oil yield of tansy but one would hope it isn’t much given that it can kill you.   This type of tansy is known for its high beta Thujone concentration and beta Thujone is known for its ability to bring on siezures and renal failure.  If you are still interested in the history of this herb there is some more information here. 

So maybe that’s not the right Tansy…

Tanacetum Annum (Moroccan Tansy)

The movement of this oil into the mainstream seems to have involved a chap called Dr Kurt Schnaubelt who recommended it as a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine oil. This chap did a lot of promotional work in the USA which is possibly why this oil took off more over there than in Europe (where I’m from) where Chamomile is still the ‘go to’ blue oil.

This oil is characteristically blue (hence why it has found a use as a blue colourant) although it is fair to say that it can also come out green, it oxidises to blue thanks to a reaction the chamazulene goes through so it really does depend on how the oil has been extracted as to whether it’s oxidised straight away or not (it will eventually regardless of the distillation method). Both types of tansy are members of the Asteracea (composite) family, the same family as chamomile,  and this particular iteration of tansy is sometimes known as Moroccan Chamomile (although there do seem to be a couple of plants that go under that common name which is quite confusing) which may be on account of the similarity in benefits, odour and appearance to Blue Chamomile, it just sounds a bit sexier (maybe…) .

Blue Tansy also has a long history of medicinal use as described above by Kurt.  It is native to Morocco (if you hadn’t guessed by the name above) and  this article by Plant Therapy shows what it is actually like in Morocco and how the plant is harvested and extracted.  The writers are probably a bit naive in thinking that not many essential oil companies come to these places, the big ones generally do but there aren’t many big ones and the really big ones tend to find a way to buy up or tie up the bigger producers. The essential oil supply chain is like a funnel with most of us being the little fish rather than the one big one.  In this case what I find interesting is the note on the price.  As I mentioned in the beginning, Blue Tansy has become something of an internet sensation thanks to Instagram but sadly nature doesn’t cope with trends like this very well. Things take as long as they take to grow and oil yields are relatively low (around 2% for this oil) meaning that if we all want to keep using this as a blue dye then the pressure that places on the plant may well mean that it is farmed out of existence. That’s not such a sexy story I guess.

Summing Up. Is the colour worth it?

While the chemistry for this oil is different to the Vulgare type, it has some cross-overs in terms of Camphor, Borneol, p-cymene, alpha pinene and terpinen-4-ol (a key active in Tea Tree Oil). As such it’s smell is still rather herby and pungent, not horrible but not that attractive.  As the chamazylene levels (blue) in this oil can range from something in the region of 17% up to 38% it can take anywhere from 0.2-1% of this oil to get the blue colour you might want.  Currently the oil is selling here in Australia for over $10,000 for 1Kg so that would mean adding $20 per Kg onto your cosmetic product for a 0.2% dose (and light colour) all the way up to $100 per Kg for a 1% dose. If we compare this to Blue Chamomile we see that the Chamazulene levels can range from 2% up to 23% (Tisserand and Young, Essential Oil Safety, 2014).   Organic Blue Chamomile is currently selling for around $2300 per Kg which is a lot less than the Tansy plus Chamomile contains Bisabolol which is a well known anti-inflammatory and skin soother.  Even if you used three times as much of this oil, so you ended up with a similar blue colour, your overall cost | benefit analysis would be better – $13.80 per Kg for a 0.6% addition and $69 per Kg cost for a 3% addition – which you really wouldn’t do as that’s too much. On top of that while Chamomile isn’t the best smell in the world, it is less campherous and more herby/ ‘green’ than Tansy so can be blended into a pleasant aroma more easily.

To sum up, I can see why Blue Tansy has become popular as a blue colourant, it is natural, sounds exciting, and has got some market exposure from popular ‘hand crafted’ brands.  However, on the down side, it is expensive, it comes from a relatively fragile eco and farming system which can easily be wrecked by our western greed and doesn’t smell at all good.  There are other natural things that customers can use to make products blue including Butterfly Pea (but again, go easy on this, it won’t last forever if we all use it), Indigo (a bit more robust a supply chain thanks to its use in jeans manufacturing over the years) and even minerals like Malachite as seen here.  

Finally there is another essential oil that is blue and that’s Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium). It has a chamazulene level around 26% and smells similarly herby to Tansy but not quite as pungent.  It also contains more beta Caryophyllene than Tansy (approx 2.5 as opposed to around 1% in Tansy) and this is the pain relief active.  However, it does contain some Thujone than the Blue Tansy (1.8% vs none) and that’s the stuff that can give you convulsions.  So, if you do decide to use this, you should be able to use it safely but don’t go crazy with it.

So my final word on this is for you, all of you, to just think beyond the Insta-good gravy train and consider all aspects of an ingredient before opting for it.  The last thing you want is to solve one problem only to create three more.  Oh, and by the way, that’s kind of what people do pay industry trained cosmetic chemists for, we think of all these things as part of our jobs.

Amanda x

 

When plants are chemical factories.

June 26, 2019

Let me introduce you to another Australian Native plant, Nicotiana Benthamiana and yes, you can smoke or chew it:

This unassuming little plant that grows across WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland is quite the laboratory super-star thanks to its ability to act as a virtual chemical factory.  In fact, it has been put forward as a possible ‘premier plant cell biology model‘ by a number of academics in this field.

I came across this when looking at research into a plant-derived peptide that a customer of mine will be stocking.  On hearing that the ingredient I was reading about, a peptide,  was ‘grown’ using this plant as its factory I was somewhat stunned.  I hadn’t known before today that plants can be used in this way and if I’m honest, I still don’t fully understand how it all works.  It is not really surprising, given the complex nature of the science involved.

Like so many other Indigenous Australian plants, this plant was scooped up in the great white take-over of early settlement.  Seeds and specimens of many botanical species were bagged, labelled and spirited away by boat to Kew gardens and other places.  I never really thought much about this until relatively recently but now I’ve become WOKE (awakened I think it means) it really sucks.  What sucks is the fact that the local people whose interest in, and use of plants like these informed much of the early picking have rarely received anything other than a token mention in dispatches for their time. The fact that Australian Intellectual Property is still trouping out of the country without even saying thank you is a little hard to stomach. But here is where we find ourselves and here is where we need to start making amends so that’s what I’ll try to do.

As the name suggests this is a nicotine plant.  I found a great summary article on the indigenous uses of this in the Australian newspaper by Nicolas Rothwell who describes beautifully how the dried leaves of this plant are ground up with ash (to help release the nicotine) before being shaped into a pellet and chewed – this is the traditional way.  This plant,  Pituri,  formed part of Central Australian and Western Desert culture (the word Mingkulpa is used to talk about cultural significance of the plant and rituals) and is still used today typically by women elders. If, like me, you are concerned about how little thought is given to Indigenous Australia with regard to plant knowledge, this may be useful, it is a submission to IP Australia on this very topic.  It is good to see that people are stepping up and trying to put some protections in place. This review from March 2018 is also very good. 

The Westerners who first ‘stole’ the plant matter in order to study it were quite disappointed to find that the active was only tobacco.  The tobacco from this native Australian plant isn’t quite up to the level of productivity of the plant typically used to make cigarettes, apparently that came from Mexico and South America.  However, this plant has much more exciting things to offer.

Part of the scientific interest in this tobacco plant is its lack of immune system. As I mentioned I’m still trying to get to grips with this but this article states that as a key factor making this plant a useful candidate for studying plant disease and how plants might survive in other climates or even on other planets – useful research given the mess we are making down here…

In addition, the plant is also being looked at for the production of terpenoid chemistry, a chemistry that has many uses in cosmetics for flavours, fragrances and even antimicrobials.

Before I wrap this up I guess it is worth asking the question ‘what do you think about using plants as chemical factories?”  Apparently this work doesn’t meet the definition of ‘genetic modification’ so the ingredients made are GMO free (if that is important to you).  I get asked quite often about the origins of ingredients and where I used to be able to say ‘synthetic’ or ‘natural’ and that would be it, now people want a much deeper answer. I’m usually really fine with giving people answers but some things are beyond our untrained comprehension so I do wonder of the merits in the discussion, especially given the general appetite for ‘if you don’t understand it, reject it’.  Maybe I’m being too harsh…

This really is the tip of the iceberg for this plant and my knowledge of the role it is playing in my cosmetic future.  I am going to carry on reading and if I find anything else out that is worthy of sharing I’ll pop it up here.

Amanda x

 

P Anisic Acid isn’t soluble.

June 26, 2019

I thought I’d write a little about this ingredient as it is a very good natural preservative, especially against mould but it is quite hard to use so we should explore that.

P Anisic Acid is supplied as a white powder that is stubbornly resistant to solubilising into your cosmetic formula.  I’ve had many a chat about this ingredient and mostly it is about how formulations containing it can look gritty.

Now the ingredient is mostly used at between 0.05-0.3% so not very much, but that little bit can cause people a lot of problems hence my blog post.

If we look at the solubility, we must first remember that the word is an applied term i.e. we must talk about both solvent and solute in order to establish solubility.  In this case the solvent is water and the solute is p anisic acid:

That graph comes from here and relates to an Experchem spec of p anisic acid.  Being an individual chemical other suppliers data is likely correlate well with this.

This graph shows me how solubility of p anisic acid rises as the temperature rises.  The temperature is plotted along the bottom (X Axis), the solubility along the side going up (Y Axis).   Between 30-40C we get what looks like a massive jump in water solubility when compared to temperatures below 30C but in reality we are only talking a big jump in what is a tiny amount of ingredient.  At 40C only 0.03g per 100g (or 0.03% of p anisic acid is soluble. That’s not really enough to be useful in the average cosmetic formula as we require at least 0.05% to be anti-fungal and typically use this up to 0.3% so 10 times more than this!

So what can we do?

First of all we have to think about how a preservative works and whether insolubility is a real problem or not.  Now fungus grows on the surface of a product so it makes sense that a good anti-fungal preservative will sit at the surface of a product.  There are many surfaces within a product that contains many phases. In an oil-in-water product there are surfaces between the dispersed oil drops and the continuous water phase.  It is helpful if anti-fungal and general anti-microbial preservatives sit there.  I like to think of my preservatives as border security guys.  They are no use to anyone if they are asleep inside the centre of the country, they need to be at the borders between countries, ready to check peoples passports and deny entry if needed.  Preservatives are the same, anti-fungal preservatives are most definitely needed on the front line!

So not being soluble may not be such a big deal?

The main problem with this lack of solubility is the ability of the user to detect tiny undissolved particles in their product. This is an aesthetic and maybe a safety problem (blobs of p anisic acid may be more irritating than if it was solubilised throughout the product).  It may also be a preservative problem if the preservative is poorly wetted and therefore has less surface area.  Again if we think of this as like a border patrol person, think of how less effective border security would be if all the guards were huddled into one spot – that’s what not wetting your p Anisic acid would look like, plenty or room to sneak around them!

How soluble is enough?

One could argue that the best outcome for p anisic acid is for it to be adequately wetted and partially dissolved without being fully dissolved.  That way it stays at the border, nicely spread out and ready for action while being harder to detect (on account of it being finely dispersed) and less likely to irritate (for the same reason).

So how do you achieve that?

Heat is an imperfect tool.  Sure if you heat the formula, the p anisic acid becomes more soluble but cosmetics are not stored hot, they are typically stored at room temperature and we’ve already seen that it doesn’t help us.

Changing the solvent helps.  Adding some alcohol will help boost p anisic acid solubility because this chemical is soluble in alcohol.  We could play around with the ratio of alcohol to p anisic acid in the formula to get it to just dissolve rather than become fully incorporated in the water phase.  Doing this can lead to crystallisation later down the track for the formula as crystals of the partially solubilised p anisic acid find their friends and start to migrate together but this may not be a problem for a long time – i.e. after your product shelf life has run out.  You’d need to check.

Another thing that can help is to alter the chemistry of the active.  P Anisic acid is not water soluble but sodium anisate is.  You can make this chemical change by altering your product pH with Sodium Hydroxide or equivalent.  Again you don’t want to make the p anisic acid folly comfortable in your water phase but you can encourage it in a little, lubricate its passage somewhat.  You may want to experiment with this.  Both p anisic acid and sodium anisate are antimicrobial, the p anisic works best as anti-fungal because it stays at the interface (that’s physics) rather than because of its chemistry so keep that in mind and you should still be ok.

Hopefully that gives you some tips of how to work with P Anisic Acid, a great naturally derived preservative that is good at preventing fungal growth in water based cosmetics.

Amanda x

I do believe in fairies but I don’t believe in that.

June 26, 2019

I’ve always believed in fairies and by ‘believed’ I mean I can feel the magic of the world everywhere. Every time I go out on a bush walk (which is quite often) I see little faces in the rock formations, the clouds, the trees even. I smell the signs of a world that hides its self from me;  taste the soil, rain and decaying leaf litter in my mouth as I breathe. I feel the worlds layers open and close like a pulse with every step.

I feel it is a wonderful gift to be able to see and feel the world this way, to be able to weave a narrative into the threads of spiders webs and be able to see the rays of light that filter through the branches as kisses from an all powerful star.  But my ability to see the world like that does not mean that I will believe everything or anything I’m told without first examining it scientifically.

This blog is an exploration of the world of wellness and wellbeing and how people elevate the personal testimony to godlike status.


“I cured myself therefore I can cure you”

I’ve written about this before but it has recently come to the front of my mind again and so I felt compelled to examine it again.

You are a science experiment but in your own science lab.  Your science lab doesn’t just consist of flesh, blood and bone, it’s also got shelf upon shelf of prior experiences, feelings and thoughts.  All of these exist on complex laneways that lead to shelves that only you have, organised in a way that only you can make sense of.

You may remember a time when you tried to untangle a ball of strings. Maybe they were shoelaces, bits of wool or thread, necklaces even.  How hard is it to spot which goes with which and just pull that?  How hard is it to follow one thread and one thread only all the way to the end? How often do you just want to get the scissors and chop the part you want free?

Your science lab is constantly changing. It’s changing position, content and capacity. Some days it is huge and well organised with every bit of equipment you ever dreamt of needing organised in neat, shiny rows.  However, on other days it is a tiny broom cupboard-like space where everything is piled up, twisted and somewhat broken.  In between those two extremes is a lab that is pretty much OK for you as long as you take the time and effort to clean in properly and care for your equipment. Sure you dream of a new this or that, extra something and a few more hours in the day to get on top of it all but you manage, mostly you manage.

This is the lab in which you do your experiment of one.

Everything you do in your life shapes this lab.

Your lab is not my lab. I recognise some of the things you have and follow why and how it is organised to a point but I don’t ‘feel’ it like you do.

And so it goes with your personal ‘cure’.

I can see it and feel it, if I’m lucky it will do something but it won’t ‘fit’ me like it ‘fits’ you because it can’t.


What is wellness and wellbeing?

I’m pretty sure that the wellbeing industry is all about staying well rather than treating illness.

So the medical industry is all about treating illness so we can get well again maybe?

Wellness seems an absolutely worthwhile life cause and one that we probably should take on as our personal missions — stay well, grow, have boundless energy and vitality, clear skin, shiny hair and nails and all our own teeth.  Some of us find it relatively easy to stay well as we are born with a robust genetic blueprint, are nurtured in safety and love with the right amount of resources, including time, and we manage to maintain that throughout adulthood. However, most of us aren’t quite that lucky.

As humans, all of our bodies work fundamentally in the same way whatever life has thrown at us and in that regard we undoubtedly feel we should be knowable, measurable, diagnosable and curable, at least to some degree.

But is wellbeing as knowable and illness?

Can wellbeing be achieved in a prescribed way?

Is feeling well the same as being well?

I actually doubt it.


Wellness and Illness are not opposites. 

I introduced this blog post stating that I believe in fairies.  Now I believe in fairies like I believe in wellness. I believe ( ‘believe’ being the term I feel most appropriate for such a dialogue), that wellness is easier to feel than to map and measure, but just like a belief in the supernatural, the power of this belief lies more in the abstract than the analytical. One of the big issues with some cancers is that you can’t feel them until it is too late.  So you can report feeling well and healthy (and even measure well in all the usual tests) even when you are carrying and growing a cancer. On the other hand, some people feel terrible in spite of any measurable or immediately knowable reason why.  Us humans are funny like that and I wonder if that’s something we don’t really like to admit.

So maybe the wellness industry is more about helping you feel like you are doing all you can to stay well in spite of all of the above? That at least you tried…

But tried what, that is the question.


Trying something that worked for someone like you.

Testimonial Time.

I think that most of us know, deep down, that the control we have over our lives is a bit of an illusion and that this reality makes us feel somewhat vulnerable.  I see this vulnerability played out in the wellness industry of which the beauty industry is a part, well, at least some part of it is.

I wonder if personal testimonies are given so much power because they help us feed some important parts of ourselves:

1) the part that wants to help give others comfort

and

2) The part that makes us feel empowered and in control.

Undertaking some positive action to address these two instincts helps us feel less vulnerable.

The personal testimonial feels like the ultimate gift to give another. We open ourselves up (become vulnerable) by sharing our troubles and struggles with others. In that way we become accessible, approachable and trustable.  Sharing how we overcame a problem, especially one that our audience either has or fears getting, is arguably much more powerful, relatable and wholesome than hearing how a medicine can ‘cure’ a specific disease.  With the latter, it is the pill or maybe procedure or practitioner that has the power, with the former the power is in your hands.  That is both highly desirable and commercially valuable.

As a human I get this in the same way that I ‘get’ how people, myself included, believe in things like fairies. However,  the scientific part of me finds it disconcerting that these personal testimonials get confused with and placed above things like real scientific evidence. I find this hard because I actually believe that the two things can exist together, not as equivalents but as complementary parts of the whole human experience.


Reconciliation.

Throughout this mind-dump of a blog post I’ve been playing with what I see are two sides of my human character, the science side and the in-awe side.  The science side of me can’t really understand how people can ever believe that their experiment-of-one produces transferable knowledge in the type that can be used to treat others. I can’t understand how people don’t recognise their own biases and how these often lead to them jumping to conclusions.  Testimonial experiential experiments are often uncontrolled and have no capacity to ‘blind’ the test subject in the way we do with scientific studies in order to minimise bias. Often still, results are extrapolated out far beyond the scope of the experiment are are Un-repeatable so you basically get one shot and that’s it. Scientific research more typically involves repeating an experiment several times while making small, measurable changes to the conditions.

On the other hand I feel that we’ve often got it wrong with science.  My scientific training has been done in a westernised way.  As such, I’ve been taught to break complex systems down into parts that can be measured, known and then sold independently from the whole.  This is how pharmaceuticals work and how most western doctors go about diagnosing and treating humans.  I absolutely can see the flaws in that way of thinking, how it may win a battle but fail to win the bigger war.  I see how this approach makes it very difficult to give nuanced, holistic care and consideration, and how the things that us humans really need can be left wanting in this model.

But it doesn’t have to be an either /or scenario.


It turns out that what I don’t believe in is pitching ‘this’ against ‘that’.

I believe and am therefore invested in the gentle and quiet art of observation which includes paying attention to your testimonial but not raising it to godlike status.  I believe in the value of taking something apart in order to learn more about the value of each cog, wheel and system. However, I also believe that it has less power in its orphaned state and therefore always has to be returned and viewed as part of the whole.

A scientific approach doesn’t have to mean that anything intangible or personal flies out of the window just as a wellness approach doesn’t have to deny or ignore science.  They are two hands clasping the same heart and they both empower us to survive, live and die well.

So I will continue to be that scientist that believes in fairies as that’s what gives my life meaning.

Amanda x

 

 

My bush supermarket adventure and the lab work that followed it…

June 21, 2019

It’s not every day that you get to work in a laboratory on Groote Eylandt, a place that I only heard about  during my Help Desk duties at New Directions.  On that point I have to remind you all that as a professional cosmetic chemist I can’t always talk about the exciting things I do, you all must think me super dull. However, thankfully this isn’t one of those ‘ssshhhh’ times and so when the call for ‘HELP’ came in, both myself and the NDA team were onto it because helping businesses grow is what we are all about! That said, this isn’t an advertisement piece I just thought it would be useful for you to know why, how and who was involved, not least by way of showing gratitude.

So off to the bush I went but first a diversion…

 

I didn’t really plan to get into the cosmetic industry, have never really been a cosmetic ‘girl’ and being something of a tree hugger feel a groaning awkwardness about the waste and consumeristic nature of the industry I’m a part of.  That said, I stuck at it because I also recognised ‘it,’ this industry, as holding a special type of power over people.  No, not the power that tells women that they are saggy and wrinkly when they are not, that they need fixing, plucking, whitening and scrubbing.  More the side of the industry that helps us express our desires and goals, that invites us to care for ourselves and others, that facilitates some down time and pampering, that reminds us to touch ourselves and others with care and love.  That’s the side that I love and that’s the side that keeps me going.

In order to do that you need ingredients from which to make the products. It is there, in that supply chain, from the soil to the soul that I’m fascinated, obsessed even. It is there that this story goes.


The cosmetic industry is a hungry beast. Hungry for novelty it chews up and spits out any NEW ingredient it can get its hands on in a bid to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than all the others.  I see this all the time and to be honest, it’s hard not to get caught up on it, at least some times.  One year we saw an insatiable appetite for Dragons Blood Extract, next it was Kakadu Plum and then Hyaluronic Acid,  Rose Skincare, Topical Botox Peptides, Papaya Ointments and then Vitamin D skin infusions.  If it sounds exotic, great, if we can get some data behind it from which product claims can be made, even better. Brands are like kids in a candy store just salivating to dive in and taste what’s next and in many ways that’s understandable.

But what are we missing out on when we rush like that?

The market for Australian indigenous ingredients, especially those with ‘bush knowledge’ behind them is strong both here and overseas. Australia is seen as a country of extreme weather and unforgivingly rugged landscapes and as such, our plants have a reputation for being super-potent super-foods (and cosmetic actives).  One could argue that this commoditisation of our landscape first became a ‘thing’ in the early days of white settlement when boats would sail into Western Australia empty and out with a heavy cargo of Sandalwood.  Meanwhile on the other side of this vast island was Eucalyptus which was studied, squeezed, pressed and traded with equal zeal.  Thinking about it, that’s always been ‘our’ thing — we came, we stayed, we stole it.  Too harsh maybe? But really, has much changed?


You can’t ‘own’ Groote Eyelandt, it owns you or at least it feels that way.  The moment you step foot on the shores of this beautiful tropical island you feel part of another time and space, it reminds me of that song…

….And just like this song, the island means something and has a rhythm and a story that’s as rich and alive as it ever was, either in spite of everything or because of it, I’m not sure that’s for me to say.

From my viewpoint I can see that the islands narrative is complex, not for the feint hearted. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to get here and stay here. There’s the croc infested waters, the stingrays, box jelly fish and death adders.  The lively tradition of settling disputes by spears and the black gold that is manganese.  And then there’s the people,  the ‘locals’. People who I recognise instinctively and yet don’t know at all.  People who came here on song lines long ago, who became part of the soil and who grew strong in the shade of the trees they were born under.  They speak Anindilyakwa, a complex rhythmic language that I can’t even pretend to understand but you can feel it when you hear it. It feels like the words sing you home, weaving threads with each sentence that remind you who you are and why you came.

But none of that matters when you just want to capitalise on a bit of the bush.


We drove out onto lands that are under Aboriginal control – that’s true for much of Groote thanks to a 1976 land rights were granted to the people.  The path was dusty,  the corrugated road shook the truck and plants tried to invade our space every time we slowed down, popping a limb or leaf through the open windows. It was warm but not hot on account of it being the dry season, something I was quite grateful for – I feel that humidity is something to be endured rather than enjoyed!

There is no doubting the beauty of the landscape out here and on the day we went, the bush supermarket was quite full!  We picked, scraped and gathered a few bits and pieces to go into the Bush Medicine inspired balms that Bush Medijina are becoming famous for.  I won’t tell you what we picked because that’s not for me to say but suffice to say, every species has its story to tell.

Shopping like this really does ground you. I’m not a fan of shopping usually but if this was my supermarket, I’d be popping down here for a look every day!  However, I’m reminded of another way of seeing ‘this’ as just a series of opportunities for money making.  The proverbial cash-cow.


Some people don’t feel anything much. They can come in, take a sniff around and walk off with everything you value without a second thought about their impact. I know people like that and the worst part is that you often don’t even know you are being fleeced until it is too late.  It feels like this place could easily become that, there’s enough here to attract the sharks.


We took our goodies back to the laboratory and set up for the next day, a day where we would put the plants to work again, but this time in the form of their extracts, juices and infusions.  I shared some of my knowledge and invited them to play and run their own experiments with the test products I took along.  There was no lack of creativity or pride in seeing something so familiar transformed into something new, something ‘other’.  There’s so many layers here to explore, so much potential but I think it’s best if they tell you that.


I trained as a cosmetic chemist in the western tradition of being, doing and thinking.  Before that I trained as a chemist under the same thought regimen.  It may seem like nothing to many people but to me that isn’t nothing.  My nature and nurture only ever match up when I’m out on the land.  What I mean by that is that science, chemistry, education doesn’t make sense to me in its abstract ‘orphaned’ state.  The western way is to divide things up into knowable chunks of power that can be exploited in one shape or form.  It isn’t all bad, this way of dissecting provided a pathway for much closer observation of each individual part than can be seen otherwise.  However, I am constantly reminding myself in my head that we can’t know the true nature of a table by just observing one leg. This feels like that.

My western ways provide me with an ‘unnatural’ perspective on the situation be that ‘situation’ a plant, product or market opportunity.  But another way of knowing dominates here and that is a way I FEEL rather than KNOW.  It’s a way of being that requires you to step into the space fully, surrendering your individualised ego until you breathe as part of the whole.  Now all of this might be sounding a bit ‘oh my goodness woman, did you SMOKE something’ but I don’t mean it like that. Anyone who has met me will know what a blunt speaker and practically minded beast I can be.  However, this is a ‘thing,’ you really can FEEL it.  When you stop trying to take a plant away from its environment, stop trying to pull it apart into this part and that part you get a better insight into it as a whole dynamic being.  OK, OK Hippy Trippy again.  I don’t mean like that, I just mean that things start to make more sense, measurable things like the vitamin C concentration, the presence of antioxidants, the potential oil yield, the plant colour and smell, the reason that this tree is better than that tree and so on and so forth.  Sure we can communicate this in discrete scientific packets but we won’t truly value it until we let it tell its own story.


And it’s there that I leave this.

This place has many stories to tell and the best placed people to tell its stories are the people who grew here and are growing here.

I don’t want Groote to be seen as a trophy place where someone can come and do a drive-by plant heist, a ‘grab-and-run’ cowboy, a bio-pirate.  I don’t want THESE people to have to be satisfied with wild harvesting their green gold while some other fella gets rich on the up-stream. I want THESE people to swim all the way and swim so strongly against the tide of the modern world that they carve their own new song lines if that’s what they need to do. Song lines that bring with them ingredients, products and a sense of value that is so lacking in the world that sits outside of this magical place.  Let’s help them do just that.

Bush Medijina balms are beautifully made (and no, I didn’t formulate them) and have aromas that will make you yearn for some ‘me’ time in this great backyard we call Australia.

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