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An honest chat about environmentally friendly products.

July 16, 2017

Sometimes, if I’m brutally honest what I want to say to people entering this industry and aiming to be eco-friendly (read ‘better than what’s currently on offer’) is this:  the most eco-friendly thing you could do is to either stop or don’t start making shit products. Indeed don’t even make any products if you’re that bothered! People don’t really NEED cosmetics anyway……

But of course I don’t say that because we are all in this industry together and we all love it.

I am OBSESSED with cosmetic science and am driven by a desire to always make things better, stronger, greener and cleaner but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know both intellectually and emotionally that the industry I’m in is largely un-necessary.  I mean we might want a funky new lipstick or hair gel but we don’t really NEED those things do we?

What I’m getting at here is that we all have to compromise just to exist here.  Where we draw our own line may well be something we feel in control of, something that is truly ‘up to us’ but actually it is often much more complicated than that.

The line you draw as a small start-up brand that sells products directly at a market stall is going to be very different to the line drawn by a multinational who services hundreds of thousands of customers around the world every day.

What’s possible differs from situation to situation as does what’s practical to implement.

I’ve written before on this blog about the way that while the smaller start-up brands can afford to be quite nimble and are often super creative it is often the larger household name brands that open the door and pave the way for that creativity by being the big customers for emerging technology, by investing in research and by testing their products and putting these new ingredients through their paces. The same can be said for packaging,  no small 100 units per run brand can demand a packaging manufacturer run a boutique lot of bottles just for them, that’s only possible for those buying 20,000 or more units at a time. The small fries quite literally pick over the scraps.

So, I don’t feel that we should all try to outdo each other with our environmentally friendliness and we definitely should not compare and/ or judge.  Finally it goes without saying that I don’t for one minute really feel that we should all just give up, go home and forget that lipstick was ever invented.  No, what I’m asking is that brands of all shapes and sizes, of all aspirations just take a step back and remember that what works for them won’t necessarily work for everyone. That most people who own brands and claim to care or even think about the environment and having a sustainable business do the best they can for the situation that they are in at that time.  That nearly everyone I know is compromising on one thing or another just to get by because the reality is that most of us are small fry and most of us can’t just change everything overnight and adopt the newest, greenest, cleanest ingredients, processes, packaging and transportation methods.

The path to environmentally friendliness is different for everyone but one thing that is common for all is that it is a path of many steps and the best way to tackle that is to take it one step at a time.

Be kind, be brave and keep striving to be better x


Hydrogenated oils – allowed in organics but not pure enough for some. Why?

July 14, 2017

What have jojoba beads, squalane and Biophillic H (Hydrogenated Lecithin, C12-16 Alcohols, Palmitic Acid) and Viscolid (Hydrogenated Rapeseed Oil) got in common?

One answer, the one I’m interested in is that they have all been hydrogenated in some shape or form.

Hydrogenation is a process where hydrogen gas is blown through an oil or oil mixture at high pressure using a metal catalyst (which is fully recovered after processing) to open up the oils double bonds and replace them with hydrogen ions.  This process is relatively straightforward and is valuable in as much as it turns an unsaturated oil into one that is saturated and that tends to increase its melting point giving you (among other things) an oil that is now a solid instead of a liquid due to its higher melting point. We call fully hydrogenated fats and oils ‘saturated’ as they are ‘full’ – each potential to form a bond with something different is being used.

Jojoba Oil MP  10C (liquid at room temp)

Hydrogenated Jojoba oil MP 67-70C (Solid at room temp)

Hydrogenating oils to make them harder and ‘thicker’ (more like butters really) is one simple ‘benefit’ of this process – you can thicken Avocado oil to a buttery texture or Olive or even Kiwi Seed Oil! Another is that we can use this process to turn Jojoba oil (a liquid wax) into a Jojoba bead – an ingredient that is prized as a natural alternative to plastic microbeads due to its ability to exfoliate, moisturise AND biodegrade. Plus it can be grown organically.  On top of that we can use the hydrogenation process to turn materials that are usually highly prone to oxidation (Squalene) to those that are more resistant to oxidation (Squalane) without doing too much to alter their functionality.  The last example as per the materials I’ve mentioned above is where hydrogenation is used on lecithin to act as a thickener/ emulsion stabiliser in this emulsifying blend.

Oils naturally come in saturated and unsaturated options thanks to mother nature. We have Palm and Coconut which are highly saturated vs Almond, Olive, Canola and Sunflower that contain relatively high percentages of unsaturated fats.  Nature also gives us a range of fatty chain lengths including the short and sweet Capric Acid found in coconut and (eugh) humans – HUMANS??? Who did this study!  Plus Goats and Cows which I’m sure Vegans will find just as disgusting. At the other end of the scale we have the oil that is really a wax, Jojoba and its 70-80% C20:1 chains.  So to sum up you can get saturated and unsaturated oils that have predominantly longer or shorter chain length fatty acids in their structure.  The thing that makes the most difference to whether they present naturally as liquids or solids is their degree of saturation with unsaturated fats tending to be more likely to look solid at room temperature.

That all sounds pretty simple to me and as a chemist I feel very comfortable with using hydrogenated oils in my cosmetic products in any shape or form.  But some of my customers express a distaste for this type of ingredient and I wanted to explore why.

Google strikes again.

The internet is a wonderful thing and everyone ‘googles’ everything these days, I even googled ‘am I normal’ (apparently that’s quite common according to this)  and ‘how long until I go on my next holiday’ one day when I was bored.   If you google phrases like ‘hydrogenated oils’ and ‘saturated fats’ it doesn’t take long before you end up in Heart Foundation territory and the ‘saturated fats are evil’ type of talk……

Adding hydrogen to oils is something that food manufacturers cottoned onto as a way of making them last longer.  That can be more economical in a frying situation, especially in fast food joints where everything is fried, even the staff.  Unsaturated fats become rancid or ‘used up’ fast and that adds extra costs onto a fry-heavy business but not only that, it also increases the resource burden.  If we ignore any health down-side we could argue that hydrogenating oils for frying makes for an environmentally friendly solution as the same oil can last for much longer thus cutting back on the need to keep replacing it.  However, there does look to be a down side health wise.

You may notice from the table above that naturally hydrogenated or saturated fats consist of mainly shorter chain fatty acids.  Coconut and palm have over 50% of their total weight in C10-C12 fats vs Tallow which is 66% C18 or Canola which is 96% C18.  I am not qualified to explain what that may or may not mean for our internal health but can see that we are not really comparing apples with apples here and it’s not necessarily because of the degree of saturation.

The other down-side to this practice is that these oils are often only partially hydrogenated, meaning that some double bonds still remain.  The presence of some double bonds in the partially hydrogenated fats enable them to remain liquid which, in turn means they can be used in the same way as their un-touched brothers and sisters only these oils will last longer (due to their being less double bonds).

When you partially hydrogenate an oil you leave the door open for trans isomers to develop and this is where the trouble starts.  This paper here does explain the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils in the food industry.  Luckily a good mouth feel is not a thing that cosmetics are really into…..

unsaturated issue

Trans isomers are where the carbons participating in the double bond have their hydrogens on the same side.

Cis isomers are where the hydrogens are on opposite sides.

According to this very useful article trans isomers are not that common in nature even when fats are naturally partially hydrogenated such as is the case in Shea Butter so oils that contain a large concentration of trans-fats are, in fact, quite un-natural and yes, un-healthy when eaten but where does that leave the skin?

Foody types and healthy lifestyle advocates do not like the idea of putting things onto the skin that aren’t good for them and with that in mind it isn’t too much of a stretch to see why that has led to some to reject hydrogenation as a reasonable problem solver for their cosmetic formulations.  But I would strongly challenge the logic of that on so many levels, not least because in this specific case the risks of clogging ones arteries from using a face cream is surely far less than the risk of slipping over in the bathroom while using it!

But what if these trans fats could have a negative effect on the skin?

It turns out that trans isomers of fatty acids do behave differently when they get close to human dermal fibroblasts.  Now before we get all ‘I told you so’ it pays to think this thought a bit.

This study which is quoted in the above article is looking at fatty acids and not fats.  An oil is a mixture of triglycerides and when we hydrogenate the oil we are actually hydrogenating the triglyceride and this is most often done without first breaking the triglycerides into glycerin and fatty acids.  This might seem like a non-issue for the layperson but there is a huge difference between a free fatty acid and a triglyceride in terms of what it can do on the skin and where it can get.  Most, if not all triglycerides will fail to reach the dermal fibroblasts as to do that would require getting all the way through the epidermis and into the dermis – something that a big hunk of oil can’t really achieve.  While I can’t conclude that the scenario played out in the attached study will NEVER happen when a hydrogenated oil is applied to the skin in real life, I would comfortably sit with the notion that this is a very unlikely turn of events. 

But do cosmetic industry hydrogenated oil manufacturers think about the trans fat issue?

As luck would have it this week the Senior Vice President from Floratech, Kelley Dwyer was in town and I caught up with him and asked him just that.  Floratec is a leading manufacturer of hydrogenated Jojoba oil products and for them, trans fats are a thing they seek to avoid.  Apparently their process has been designed to avoid trans-fat creation, not least by insuring full hydrogenation of the oil.  In any case trans fats can be picked up by an analytical test lab so it is possible for a manufacturer like Floratec to be able to answer questions as to whether their products are trans-fat free!  I think that’s great, don’t you?

If we go back to the wider debate about the health risks involved in saturated fats for a moment I do think it is also worth pointing out the issues that surround the good fats, bad fats argument with regards to health. I’m not sure if you saw ‘That Sugar Film’ that came out a couple of years ago but that came out at a time when more and more people were questioning the ‘fat is bad, sugar is fine’ hypothesis that we’d been literally force-fed since the 1970’s. That mentality helped to prop up the fast food industry that we are now blaming for our fat guts but is it overly simplistic to think that fat in equals fat on? I absolutely think so.  Indeed, todays health food market has gone mad for coconut oil as a ‘healthy’ fat which indeed it may be but it’s still saturated so my point of it maybe not being the ‘saturated’ part that’s an issue looks quite likely.

I’d say to people who peddle the ‘if it isn’t healthy to eat I don’t want it in my product’ to ditch the sugar scrubs, the salt thickened shampoo and the alcoholic skin toner too, please.

So, to spell it out a bit clearer I’d bet my bottom dollar that if there are any problems in eating these artificially saturated vegetable fats it’s got more to do with the longer chain length and what that might do to the chain shape than the process of adding hydrogen.  I do agree that saturating vegetable oils and then eating them MAY/ COULD/ MIGHT cause issues though but I do not agree that these issues are relevant to cosmetics just as using a salt scrub that contains 70-90% salt is probably deadly if eaten but will cause no trouble at all to use as a topical scrub.

See, looking at that what we are generally doing when we hydrogenated a vegetable oil is turning the Oleic, Linoleic and Linolenic Acids into Stearic Acids and I don’t know a single customer of mine that has an issue with stearic acid (unless it is the issue of it being palm derived which is a different thing issue altogether).

I’ve come across lots of formulation problems that can be fixed or somewhat addressed by the addition of a hydrogenated vegetable oil in one or another format so my advice to brand owners, product purchasers and beauty warriors is to look past your prejudice with this one if you have it as really, this is a pretty nifty little ingredient on so many levels and with input levels of usually between 1-10% across a whole range of different formulations you’d surely have to eat a lot of product before you super-saturated yourself now wouldn’t you!


PS: Hydrogenated vegetable oil (non palm derivative) can be used to replace beeswax in balm formulations if used alongside vegetable waxes as it helps to build some flexibility that veggie waxes don’t always bring to a formula.

Plastic and the cosmetic brand.

July 12, 2017

“Today, an average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging”  Worldwatch Institute, Jan 2015. 

The outrage that was felt when somebody, somewhere realised that exfoliating micro beads were sometimes made from little pieces of plastic was bemusing to me and I wrote about it here and here.  If you can’t be bothered with reading either of those articles, in a nutshell I felt that focusing all ones attention on microbeads IN a product was somewhat trivial when compared to the amount of plastic used to make the bottles that many cosmetic products are packaged in.

299 million tonnes of plastic was manufactured in 2013, a 4% increase on 2012 figures (Worldwatch Institute) .  This plastic accounts for 4% of global petroleum consumption. 

While I’m not a cosmetic brand owner myself, I am a cosmetic brand producer of sorts. I formulate, manufacture small batches to get brands and/or new products started, send out test samples and buy materials.  Because of all of that I often find myself in a sea of plastic of all shapes and sizes and it bothers me.  Sure I recycle everything that it is currently possible to recycle but is that really enough and what happens to the recycled plastic anyway?

Between 22-43% of plastics end up in land fill and 10-20 million tonnes ends up in the oceans each year. 


I thought it was high time that I looked into all of this a bit more thoroughly and to also look into whether newer plastics like the polylactic and bamboo type plastics are actually solving any problems?


Plastic. What’s used now?

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate).


Cheap, lightweight, easy to recycle.

When it comes to product integrity over its shelf life PET does not give your product the best protection due to its relatively high oxygen permeability.  This article is a good little side-diversion into the problems manufacturers are facing in producing non-permeable (or less permeable) PET. Worth a read.

With regards to PET bottles, at least one of the manufacturers here in Australia has made a commitment to use recovered PET in new bottles at levels between 25-100% which is heartening as every bit of re-used plastic reduces the burden on virgin material.  This also goes for HDPE.

PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol). Recyclable under code 7.

Tough, high level of chemical resistance (alcohol, acetone solvents), more flexible in manufacturing (so more creative bottle types and shapes are possible)

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene).


Versatile, low risk of leaching into the product. Usually for harder packaging than the PET but not always.

Readily recyclable and hardy.  Far better at preserving product integrity than PET so best for cosmetic products that might perish from oxidation – Essential oils as actives/ aromas, Retinol products, Vitamin C serums etc.

Again at least one Australian packaging manufacturer has made a commitment to incorporate between 25-100% reused HDPE into new packaging.

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)


Tough and withstands harsher environmental conditions than PET.   Flexible plastic food wraps (such as Australia’s Glad Wrap) are made from this. Requires a high percentage of pthalates to plasticise (soften) it so is a potential source of pthalate contamination in a product if the product leaches into the packaging and vice versa.  This article from Choice contains more information. 

When it comes to cosmetics PVC is better than PET at protecting a product from oxidation due to its lack of permeability to oxygen.

LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene). 


This is a flexible plastic often used for tubes.  In this months ‘The Science of Beauty’ Magazine from the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists  Steve Welsh has an article on tubes. You might like to contact him for that by following this link.  LDPE is often blended with other materials to get the right mix of flexibility, stiffness and durability. It may also be lined with EVOH (Ethylene Vinyl Alcohol Copolymer) to improve oxygen permeability. As long as the tube has the recycling symbol it can be recycled.  The cosmetic brand owner/ formulator needs to specify the tubing requirements so as to protect the formula inside.

PP (Polypropylene) 

polypropylene recycling

This is great for hot fill products due to its high heat tolerance. This makes it great for balms, waxes and pomades. It also has a pretty good oxygen barrier and is often a hard pack so suitable for ridged jars.

PS (polystyrene)


OK so Polystyrene is not often used as a primary (or secondary) packaging material in cosmetics but it can often be used to help ship your ingredients around! Polystyrene often comes at you in those little cubes that stop your herbal extract bottles rattling around in the box during shipping.  Polystyrene is useful in as much as it can be made super hard and non-squashable yet ultra-light weight meaning it can fill those empty box spaces well without adding weight.  While it is recyclable it has something of a bad public image due to it often being used in disposable cups and take-away trays making it look cheap, nasty and polluting.  Also on a large-scale, its large volume to weight ratio (takes up lots of space, not very heavy) means it can be very un-economical to transport to recycling plants. , store or dispose of (into a skip bin). Companies such as Australia’s Brentwood are starting to address these issues.

Others including PETG and  Polylactic Acid. 

recycling 7

Polylactic acid is one of a newish breed of biopolymers, plastics made from vegetable starting points rather than petroleum.  As a stand-alone polymer Polylactic Acid is very brittle and requires plasticisers to help it be moulded and squeezed. In terms of oxygen permeability PLA is reported to be somewhere between PET (better than) and PVC (not quite as good).  This study on oxygen permeability of PLA found, as you would expect, that the thicker the PLA material, the stronger the oxygen barrier.  I found this simple and somewhat logical graph clicked something in me though,  we try to make plastics thinner so they use less material and are more efficient but in doing so we might well increase their oxygen permeability to a point that they can no longer perform well for us – a balance between packaging thickness and packaging performance has to be met.  On further reading it turns out that there is an optimum amount of plasticiser to be added that further increases the plastics tolerance to oxygen.  Adding more plasticiser goes on to reduce oxygen tolerance.  Again, simple science really but interesting as it shows the limits and tolerance of different polymers to different conditions.

Just one other thing around PLA is its heat stability. Like PET, PLA is not that heat stable and can deform at temperatures of 60C and up which puts hot filing out of the question. This can make PLA bottles unsuitable for some cosmetic applications.

Permeability of packaging


So nearly everything we use can be recycled. So what’s the problem?

Not everything that CAN be recycled IS as we can see from the graph above. When I found this chart I immediately questioned why New Zealand was at the bottom as that looked odd to me but apparently they did have quite a bad record in recycling up to around 2008 when Parliament started to take things a bit more seriously.    Apparently at that time it was costing 10 times more to send something to landfill in the UK than New Zealand so quite simply, chucking it in the dump was just too cheap in NZ.  The price paid to dump stuff is entirely political so it is right for politicians to manage this.

New Zealand landfil

The barriers to recycling are many including the availability and proximity of recycling facilities to waste generation,  price of transport,  price of energy and government policy/ incentives on waste to name but a few.  Some years it makes more sense financially to recycle than create new material while in other years the dollars stack in favour of just making it all afresh. Think of the difference in costs between building your new home on a freshly, clear, level site vs a knock-down and disposal job.   During times when global oil prices are low, it would be down to government policy to make recycling more attractive.  As you can see below, oil prices rise and fall quite dramatically over time and as bioplastics currently only make up 1% of the plastics market, oil prices still matter hugely!

global oil prices

Petroleum Free Plastics Accounted for only 1% of the global plastics market in 2013

The other big problem with plastic recycling is that you can only recycle so much before you reach the end of the line.  Just how many times plastic can be recycled is something I can’t entirely answer as it depends on the starting plastic and in what it is subsequently recycled into but often you are talking about only once for bottles (so virgin bottle then recycled bottle) and then it has to be re-purposed into something else.  This reality goes for all types of plastic, whether bio or petroleum which basically means that when using plastic packaging its final demise should always be kept in mind and when we think of death we must also think of birth – the circle of life or Cradle to Grave Analysis.

In terms of what ‘other’ things plastics might become when they stop being bottles we find that quite a bit of it actually comes back as clothing!  Again, when looking into the plastic microbeads issue I was blown away by the fact that I was often WEARING much more plastic than I was ever putting on my face (or even counting for the plastic in the product bottle).

Bottle to coat

25 x 2 litre bottles = 1 fleece jacket. Made from Polyester or Polar Fleece

Degradation times: 

  • Cotton glove: 3 months
  • Wool: 1 to 5 years
  • Leather shoes: 25 to 40 years
  • Nylon: 30 to 40 years
  • Rubber boot sole: 50 to 80 years

Other companies such as this one take plastics and rubbers and turn them into more durable products such as park benches,  play matting, decking and fences thus extending the usable life of the plastic and diverting it from landfill.

Bio-Polymers – Are they a good choice?

Rather than answering this with a personal judgement call I want to look at the subtleties and facts again.

Petroleum is going to eventually run out as it is a fossil fuel that we use faster than we can make so we HAVE to find alternatives which we are doing with our bioplastics typically made from corn starch, rice husk, bamboo fibre, palm leaf, sugarcane and wheat straw. Just look at all of these lovely things that Ecosoulife make this way (OK so that’s a personal judgement but I do like these things)!

Bioplastics are renewable as they grow fast and can be re-grown for as long as the soil is viable and available and water is present in the right quantities.  But if we stop and think on that for a moment it doesn’t take long to realise that land availability and water security are also hot environmental issues for us right now.

An Aside: My thoughts here are that we could find ourselves in a ‘Palm Oil’ type position if we don’t do some proper joined-up thinking about this right now – we all jumped on board the palm oil wagon for cosmetic ingredients when moving from petroleum and tallow to vegetable feedstock, we felt good about that and ended up consuming MORE product (and arguably valuing the resources less because they were so cheap). If we do that with bioplastics we will end up in real trouble as both packaging and product will be competing for land (including land currently used for food crops) and water resources.

But don’t bioplastics biodegrade better?

Biodegradability is a funny thing and is heavily dependent on the environmental conditions the packaging finds its self in and the definition of biodegradable the product complies to but in any case bioplastic and biodegradable are not one in the same. It is possible to make a bioplastic that doesn’t biodegrade and make regular plastics from petroleum that do.  The main plus point with bioplastics is the non-reliance in petroleum feedstock, that said, the chemicals used to plasticise or process the bioplastics are likely to be petroleum derived (and may be present up to 40% of bulk weight, so a bioplastic might represent a 60% ‘saving’ as a minimum on petroleum resources).

Biodegradable plastics are plastics that are engineered to fail (break down) at some point. The plastic manufacturers may incorporate a chemical into the structure that breaks down in certain conditions (UV, moisture, heat, soil etc).  One such chemical is BASF’s Ecoflex which can also be mixed into Polylactic Acid plastics for a totally ‘green’ packaging solution.  Another option is Ecopure from Bio-Tec Environmental, this is more similar to what is found in biodegradable cosmetic packaging.

So, to re-cap you can buy bioplastics made from corn that don’t biodegrade and those that do, just as you can buy petroleum derived plastics that behave similarly.

In terms of biodegradation that is worth a whole other article as plastics might degrade to their monomers but not break down fully.  Biodegradable plastics based on Polylactic acid are sold as being able to break down into nature identical compounds that don’t pollute the soil,  some are even classified as compostable but not all.  One might now feel that this gold standard of bio plastic, biodegradable and compostable is the answer for you but be aware that this type of packaging may not yet be available to suit and support the types of products you are wishing to make – patience grasshopper x

Additional options for the cosmetic brand owner to investigate. 

Did you know that it is entirely possible to re-create petroleum derived plastics naturally?  Without getting too deep into a chemistry lesson petroleum derived plastics rely on a chemical called ethylene which is produced by cracking naptha, a chemical that comes from crude oil. BUT ethylene can also be manufactured from ethanol derived from sugar cane (or corn)! Brazilian company Braskem is the largest manufacturer with 52% market share.  Keeping this in mind it might be the case that rather than we all change to DIFFERENT polymers (PLA etc) we stick with PET, HDPE and the rest but create them with vegetables rather than crude oil.  In many ways this would be an easier route to take as we have more experience with these polymers than we do with PLA.  The only hurdles being (again) the land use food vs packaging issue and the biodegradability profile.

And finally to Waste-to-Art projects.  Packaging from Fungi!

OK so this is my favourite option in terms of novelty and functionality and that’s plastic made either from mushrooms mycelia or from waste greens as long as its compostable where possible.

Without a doubt in my mind the biggest issue in moving from a petroleum to vegetable economy is land use. If, like me you value forests, countryside and space the thought of a growing global population using land for even more non-edible resource production is actually quite sad-making so I’m super excited at the prospect of turning the bits of vegetables we don’t use into up-stream products instead.  Now sure, that plastics company Ecopure above are already doing that to some degree you might say but I’m talking about real waste like the stuff you might put into your composting bins OR the actual roots of the fungus that starts decomposing your stuff.  That’s what I call an exciting use of resources.  Now again, these types of plastics are not likely to be coming in every shape, size and packaging type to a store near you any time in the near future but in time, I think it will be the way to go (just as we are doing in looking to replace palm oil feedstock with algae – something I talked about in this article in 2013)

I came across an interesting American company, Ecovative, when looking at alternatives for the Polyethylene packing nuggets that are often used.  This company actually make their plastics from mushroom mycelium which I think is really FAB!

mushroom packaging

Grow it yourself mushroom packaging – not water resistant but could be a good option for postage packs. From

While this isn’t a workable solution in terms of a material for your shampoo bottle or face mask just yet it is possibly a contender for your shippers,  point of sale displays or packaging boxes and what’s more it can definitely be composted after use.  I do look forward to a more mushroomy packaging future after reading that even though at present, the company is not able to ship its packaging to Australia due to quarantine restrictions – what a shame! Maybe us Aussies can learn how to grow our own plastic! And on that note I’ll wrap things up.

Plastic and the Cosmetic Brand – How are things stacking up?

OK so for those of you wanting to shout ‘yes but there’s glass, tin and aluminium packaging out there and they are both infinitely recyclable I’d say yes, but this article has been about plastic in its many guises and formats.  Glass is heavy (when compared to plastic) and therefore expensive to ship AND it requires more protecting in shipping to prevent breakages.  It can be dangerous in wet and slippery places. Further it  often requires a lid of closure or tube dispenser which, is often (though not always) plastic.  Aluminium tubes are brilliant for many things except it can be very hard to get them filled (not many people have the capacity for filling and run sizes for packaging purchasing and filling can often be very long) – one point of interest is that Aluminium is extremely oxygen tight so excellent for packing materials that oxidise.  Tin is a more expensive material and is less flexible than aluminium so is less likely to be used as tubes (read this for more info if you are interested).  Going plastic free is possible but it comes with its own varied challenges that may or may not be ‘worth it’ for your brand, so back to plastic.

There is one theme that has come up time and time again when I’ve been researching plastics for the cosmetic industry and that’s the massive amount of innovation and science that is going on in this space.  We have new polymers, old polymers made in new ways, old polymers made in old ways but with new additives to make them break down quicker and more besides.  As a scientist I’m always drawn into areas of innovation and this, for me is a huge opportunity for just that.  I appreciate that some people wish to go plastic free (just as I appreciate the wish for some brands to be palm free) and I accept that in some cases avoidance is a reasonable plan but for those of you with an interest in the science of the mainstream (me) then plastics is where it is at!

I can’t personally see a future without plastic but after looking into all of this I feel I have more than enough reasons to feel positive that things are going in the right direction. Now if we can all just help keep the pressure up on governments to maintain investment in this type of material science,  recycling initiatives, land-fill and waste charging and valuing our land and primary resources I think the future may well look bright.

I am sorry for the long post but this has been an epic research project that I’ve barely summarised in these 3000 plus words 🙂

Amanda x

PS: If anyone is scratching their heads and crying about the mention of pthalate plasticisers in plastic manufacture I will put that on my list to get back to at some point. It is possible to test finished products for plastic leaching and stability testing of cosmetics generally checks for visible (and sometimes chemical) signs of leaching in prone products so generally the immediate risk to consumers is low (or at least managed) but the fate of these chemicals in the environment and the presence of them in the first place might still cause concern.  Pthalates are plasticisers and have been found to have hormone mimicking powers (endocrine disruptors).





Experiments in surface tension

June 30, 2017

Last week I was working on a bi-phase cleansing product for a client and just could not resist the chance to play around with the phases and create some art.

There are a few tricks to getting a nice clean separation between the phases and a good mix upon shaking  but mostly it’s not tricks at all, it’s just science.  The science you need to read up on is that involving surface tension and density.  Get the surface tension properties right and you’ll have a good, clean separation of the phases, get the density right and you’ll achieve a phase separation where you want it (top or bottom heavy) AND your product will come together quickly for effective cleansing.

Once those two things have been mastered, the only other thing to do is work out how to get the performance for your particular price point.  Simple?  Not really but always lots of fun and very, very beautiful  🙂

Conversations with your cosmetic chemist. Oh the things people say!

June 30, 2017

It’s Friday, I’m about to go on holiday and I am feeling pretty chilled on this, the last day of the 2016-17 financial year.  As such, I thought I’d wrap up the year with some of the funny things that people, prospective customers, existing customers and blog readers say to me as I go about my business of being a cosmetic chemist.   Before I start I do acknowledge that there are no silly questions, that it’s better out than in (unless it’s a fart in a lift….) and that all’s well that ends well and other suitably cozy and reflective puns and one-liners.

I love you all really.
Here goes….

  • I know which ingredients I want in my product and all I need you to do is just tell me the percentages.
    • Me ‘you really don’t understand this process do you?’
  • But I’ve never had any micro issues before.
    • Me ‘so how often do you run micro checks on your batches. What do you mean ‘what’s a micro check!’
  • HOW MUCH?????  (when I explain formulating costs).
    • Me “There are other cosmetic chemists out there, let me get you some details”.
  • But I can get a recipe for free online.
    • Me “Yes, online you can find free recipes, a formulator will create you a formula optimised for your business. These are not the same thing’
  • I did an online course and I’m just wondering if that qualifies me to be a formulator?
    • Me (Bangs head against the wall)…..
  • I’ve got customers in China who are desperate to buy my brand once you’ve formulated it.
    • Me ‘????? buy what? You currently have nothing?”
  • There’s nothing else like this on the market.
    • Me “Look dude, I HATE shopping but I know I’ve seen at least ten other brands with that idea not that it matters”.
  • My product is great it is just that you have to keep it in the fridge/ nuclear bunker/ suspended animation/ or it falls apart.
    • Me (Bangs head against the wall again).
  • What’s a pH meter?  
    • Me !!!!!!!
  • I want it to be free from silicones, parabens, sulfates,  mineral oil, PEGs, Fragrance, Colour, Gluten, GMO’s, Animal Products (Vegan Friendly), Palm or its derivatives and anything else you think I might not like.
    • Me “water, try water”
  • I want to match this Dior product but I want it to be organic and I’m going to sell for $5 per bottle.
    • Me “Hang on, let me get my magic wand out of retirement”
  • How come it will take 12 weeks to create a new formula? I can whip up a product in my kitchen in an hour.
    • Me “make that 16 weeks”.
  • Oh I can’t afford stability testing, how come you can’t just tell me how long it will last?
    • Me “Let’s grab a cup of tea and I’ll explain the sciencing thing to you”.

If, after reading this you feel that you would like a sensible explanation on any of the above please do feel free to comment or email and I’ll lovingly explain myself.  One thing I really enjoy about this work is sharing in peoples journeys from wide eyed newbie to experienced brand owner with stockists galore!   It makes it all worthwhile even if, every now and then I do wonder what is going on inside peoples head when they start out.

Have a great weekend everyone.






Define Chemical.

June 28, 2017

I am not going to bore you with the line ‘as a chemist, I appreciate that everything is a chemical’ even though I just did.  No, I’m going to share with you a definition of ‘chemical’ that  I just thought up. The idea came to me when I was thinking about gardening and is  based on how we define a weed:

Weed: A wild plant growing where it is not wanted.

Such a simple set of words that say so much!  This one sentence conveys a message that plants can be both wanted and not wanted, that they can grow wild or be cultivated and that the only thing separating a weed from a ‘good’ plant is that a weed decides when and where to grow and not you.  Taking this extrapolation one stage further we can easily imagine a scenario when a plant is defined as a weed in one setting and a ‘good’ plant in another.  I think that is really neat, very cleaver and extremely useful. The use of the word ‘wild’ is also cool as it helps us to foster a sense that these plants are untamed and somewhat outside of our rules and control, that by definition there is something unknown and maybe even unknowable about them.

I was thinking about how good it would be if we could accept chemicals in that way.

Chemical: an ingredient that contributes a level of risk to a formula, perceived or real, that  outweighs its benefit. 

So we accept that chemicals are ingredients and that ingredients are chemical but that some ingredients come with levels of formula-dependent risks that others do not. This is good as it allows us to develop a tangible risk (or cost) assessment platform.  The mention of a formula reminds us that ingredients (AKA chemicals) are needed in order to create a formula (product) and that we expect these formulas to deliver a measurable benefit (or, at the least, present next to no risk).  The idea of ‘level of risk’ leads us to conclude that there is a way of measuring or ranking the risks posed and relating that back to the individual formula and that this measure can form the basis for a logical decision-making process.  Talk of a formula also allows us to imagine a world where an ingredient might be classed as a ‘chemical’ in one formula but as a mere ingredient in another (where the benefits outweigh the perceived or real risks).

My hope is that if this catches on we can start having more meaningful discussions about formulating and ingredient choices that result in better products and not just products that are perceived to be better only because they are ‘free from’ this, that or the other. Surely a measured and measurable assessment is preferable to the baseless hype and hysteria. But I do wonder if there is  a real worry in brand ownership circles that the hype is just that, empty and baseless?  Whatever the case I know that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it – OMG that sounds so corporate!

Now of course, as a chemist I am going to balk just a little at the bastardization  of the word ‘chemical’ but what else would you expect from me?

Amanda x


The Vitamin C Numbers Game

June 28, 2017

It doesn’t take the average beauty hunter long to work out that when it comes to good skin, vitamin C can deliver:





  • Ascorbic Acid is a cofactor required for the function of several hydroxylases and monooxygenases.
  • Vitamin C is not synthesised in humans and has to be provided by diet.
  • The word “Ascorbus’ means no scurvy.
  • Topical application of Vitamin C has been found to positively impact collagen synthesis.
  • Study participants with a diet low in vitamin C reported the largest change in collagen function via topical application. This was because those eating vitamin C were already able to produce collagen at an optimal level for their age and skin type.
  • Ascorbic Acid is the vitamin C of choice for the skin but it is highly unstable. The phosphate and Glucoside form of the vitamin work via slightly different pathways but give similar collagen boosting results. They can be classed as pro-vitamins (Provitamin is a vitamin pre-curser that can be converted into its active form through normal metabolic processes).

However, when it comes to buying a Vitamin C product, the beauty hunter is faced with a myriad of choices and decisions, not least is the decision of which percentage of Vitamin C is good enough to get the job done. I wan to discuss that a little now.

Let’s start at the very beginning, with Ascorbic Acid, the original (and maybe still the best?) Vitamin C.

Vitamin C Ascorbic Acid

Ascorbic acid is a white, granulated acid with an acidic pKa of 4.17 which means at pH 4.17 it will exist in a balance between how it looks above and as above but with one proton missing (H).

But that’s not all, Ascorbic Acid also has a second Pka at 11.8 due to it being what we call a Di-Acid,  although this second change is less relevant to us as cosmetic chemists as we rarely formulate at such high pH:

Ascorbic acid at pKa

For a formulator, knowing an acids PKa is important as this is the point where the acid solution naturally sits as a 50:50 mix. Any reduction in pH increases the acidity dramatically, pushing more of the molecule into its reactive side while any decrease in acidity (increase in pH) pushes the acid towards its less active side.  It is important to note though that this pH shifting is not going to ‘use up’ the molecule, the arrows in the above equation show that this reaction can go both ways if the conditions (pH) are right. So you could formulate a product at a higher pH and rely on the lower pH of the skin to facilitate the change towards the more active form.  This is theoretically possible but with the skin pH being somewhere between 4.5-5.5 it is not likely to result in a very active product.

So, when it comes to Ascorbic Acid, our vitamin C of choice for this article, we know that pH 4.1 is the sweet spot and below that it only gets more potent (and less protonated) as the balance shifts in favour of the AScH2 side.  Another way of thinking about this is that as the pH rises, the chemical changes within Ascorbic Acid increase. Chemical changes = chemical reactions = potential rise in instability and decrease in activity.

While interesting (hopefully) and relevant to what I’m going to delve into next, pH is not the key focus of this article, the key focus is concentration and that’s what I’ll look at now, linking it to pH at the end (if I remember).

When it comes to vitamin C products one could be forgiven for thinking that it is ALL about concentration. There is an abundance of products out there spruiking their Vitamin C percentage loud and proud, none more so than the 20% bunch.

20% seems to be the golden number (at the moment) when it comes to vitamin C serums and is a percentage active point that most customers want to formulate to which begs the question, why?

I’ve been reading heaps of papers on topically applied Ascorbic Acid and the one that gave me the best insight into the origins of this 20% number was this: Topical L-Ascorbic Acid Acid: Percutaneous Absorption Studies. Dermatologic Surgery  Volume 27 (2) – 1 Feb 2001.    This study was carried out on white yorkshire pigs (live) that had been shaved prior to application (potentially increasing transdermal delivery via abrasion of surface – like exfoliation although they did have 24 hours to recover from that shave). As an aside, the realisation that a live animal experiment has given us this data is one of the issues that, for me, complicates the animal testing argument. I am forever wrestling with the questions that arise from this including the question of whether a brand that uses this data to perfect their formulations is somehow complicit in the animal testing being as though they then profit from it?  I really don’t know as it makes no sense to ignore data we discover via animal testing don’t you think?    Anyway, the net result of this study found that skin absorption increases up to 20% concentration of ascorbic acid under the experimental conditions but didn’t increase over that.  The bottom line being that 20% is the OPTIMAL concentration for skin penetration and adding more may be quite pointless.

As a formulator I can attest to the difficulties in formulating 20% of a sticky water soluble powder into a product.  For one, there’s 20% of your water phase gone, made more dense, more active and more acidic than it otherwise would be. With 20% of stuff turning your water into Syrup be prepared for a very sticky dry-down phase and a few issues with emulsion stability – both solvable but not in any ‘piece of cake’ way.  We haven’t even gone into oxidative stability – Vitamin C solutions won’t last for very long without help – but that’s a matter for another day.

It turns out that the aforementioned study also found that the pig skin became saturated with Ascorbic Acid applied at a 20% concentration once a day after three days of application.  Interesting indeed and possibly cause for us to pause and consider whether we could get away with less vitamin C after all given these fast and dramatic results?

Where the cosmetic industry parts ways with science is called the marketing department. OK, so that’s not entirely true, I know plenty of marketing people who love (and are qualified in) science but all too often the words ‘well that’s what the market wants’ are thrown out there as if the market was a real, separate thing with a mind of its own……

I personally see no reason why, all other things being equal, we can’t present the market with 1%, 5%, 10% and 20% Ascorbic Acid products (and everything in-between) given that we accept a skin cycle of roughly 28 days and application rates of once or twice a day.   The same study as above looked at concentrations of 5, 10 and 15% finding incremental increases in skin concentration relative to the Ascorbic Acid concentration in the product – a step wise increase.  One could hypothesise that if 20% reaches saturation within 3 days, 10% might reach saturation within 6 days, 5% in 12 days and 2.5% in 24 days, 2% saturated within a skin cycle of 28 days and 1% becoming saturated at around 60 days.  Given that the skins cells are not all synchronised on the same 28 day cycle (we are not snakes that shed all at once) this hypothesis seems reasonable enough meaning that practically ALL concentrations of Vitamin C are helpful and able to saturate the skin in time.   One other thing to consider is what we call the ‘half life’ of the Vitamin C in the skin – how long can it hang around for before it is used up/ oxidised/ excreted etc.  I haven’t found a number for the skin yet but have found that it has a half life of around 83 days in the kidneys which is where our long-term storage of oral Ascorbic Acid goes.

But the market wants bigger, better, stronger, faster. 

I saw today a company selling a 30% Vitamin C product and will look out for the science to support a need for MORE. I secretly hold the thought that I will be waiting for that science for quite some time…..

So what’s a brand to do? Just focus on numbers or attempt to broaden the conversation?

Shoppers have a notoriously short attention span so I get the need for a short, sharp injection of information to get their dollars into your wallet but these days shoppers are not just shopping at the point of sale, they are also shopping around for information, depth, authenticity, knowledge, evidence and, dare I say it, SCIENCE.  I feel there is still so much more scope within the Vitamin C market for conversations and information that will really help people choose a product that works for them and yes, I do think that includes products that contain less than 20% vitamin C, in fact I think that’s exactly what we need!

Some other, non numbers games you can play/ ask about.

Ascorbic Acid may be the cheapest and most directly biologically active form of vitamin C that there is but it isn’t the only form.  Why don’t we start broadening our product offerings and conversations to include these things? Not just because they are often easier to formulate with (stabilise) but because they might just bring something else to the party, open up different markets or facilitate the formulation of different types of products?   In pursuing this, the 20% addition figure becomes less relevant (it only relates to topically applied ascorbic acid)  but real evidence can potentially fill that gap – after all, it isn’t necessarily the amount you put into a product that matters (which is what we are focusing on here) it’s more about what it can deliver and where!

Product format is another area of focus,  improving skin feel, exploring different ways to enhance dermal penetration and looking at building additional benefits into the base (rather than it be just a vitamin C vehicle) can be powerful things to focus on given that customers can really feel a difference and have their expectations challenged.

And lastly we have pH.

If you do manage to read the paper that I’ve shared here you will see that the team not only looked at Vitamin C concentration but they also looked at the product pH.  Different forms of Vitamin C have different pH ‘sweet spots’ so again, adopting a one-size-fits-all pH for a Vitamin C product isn’t necessarily going to cut it.  When it comes to Ascorbic Acid the sweet spot is actually the very acidic pH 2 (according to that paper).  Now pH 2 is far too acidic for a consumer product and would be better suited to a professional range such as that found in a medi spa or equivalent. The reason Ascorbic Acid works best under these acidic conditions is that its charge density is lowered with decreasing pH and in lowering the charge density you make it easier for the Ascorbic Acid to penetrate deeper into the skin.  Remember that Ascorbic Acid is water soluble and the intracellular cement binding the skin cells together is an oily soup – oil and water don’t usually mix and a high charge density will be actively repelled.  Anyway, the bottom line is that we opt for a pH around the Pka of Ascorbic acid because that is a good balance between the activity of the acid and the potential for it to penetrate.  Ascorbic Acid can still build up in the skin when the pH is higher and at pH 5 you are still getting just over half the penetration as you get at pH 3.5 but with potentially way less stinging (important for people with a compromised skin barrier) and more formulating versatility.  So the bottom line here is that pH is a formulation dependent factor on how effective a product could be and that concentration alone is not enough to make a product ‘good’.

In summary I’d encourage you to think holistically about Vitamin C and to move beyond the marketing mindset that views this distills years worth of science into a quest for the best percentage.  That’s just not going to cut it in my view.

Amanda x

PS:  I thought that if you had time you might like to see some of the scientific data presented on a slightly different type of Ascorbic Acid – Ethyl Ascorbic Acid.  It isn’t often that I laugh at a material data sheet but this did crack me up a little.  I think it’s worth its own blog post 🙂