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Halfway through this Plastic Free July

July 16, 2018

It seemed fitting this year to sign up for plastic free July even though I knew that the month would be anything but plastic free due to my need to keep on churning out the samples for clients. But it is fitting because lots of my clients are now actively looking for ways to reduce waste and offer recyclable packaging options,  some because they’ve seen David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ and others because of the ABC  series ‘war on waste’.  Then there are the clients that have always been ‘green’ but are only now seeing that their target market and packaging suppliers are starting to catch up with them – it’s all very well-being ahead of the curve until your curve leaves you with products that nobody can afford and/or with packaging that is almost wholly impractical/ unsafe (glass in the shower anyone…). It finally seems to me that the heavens are starting to align for the cosmetic industry.  Starting being the operative word.

reuse bags

So I thought I’d write this blog post by focusing on myself as a consumer of stuff, cosmetic stuff included,  so that we might together walk through what ‘Plastic Free July’ is feeling like for me, the average human who likes being clean.  Here is what I’ve done.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere.

Hand Cream, Lip Balm, Face Cream, Toothpaste, Razors, Shampoo, Conditioner,  Liquid Soap (mainly for hand washing apre’s the lavatory), foundation, powder, mascara, deodorant…..

For a cosmetic chemist I’m not actually a heavy product user and I can often reduce that list down a few and just do the one cream for everywhere that needs moisturising, shampoo for everything that needs washing and a dab of foundation when I can be arsed plus sunscreen for where the foundation doesn’t reach. Oh and deodorant, I do need deodorant to make me feel fresher even though July is a cold month here in Oz so we can get away with less than we would in summer and it’s easier to hide the aroma of the arm pit under several merino wool layers 🙂

So not many products but according to my bathroom bin I’m still throwing out too much plastic each month so let’s get busy trying to reduce that.

In the run-up to plastic free July I made myself some shampoo balls out of powdered synthetic detergent and some other stuff.  I also mastered conditioner balls which, it turned out, were much harder to get right and hard especially given that the cationic ingredients needed to condition the hair can’t be used at high levels thanks to their irritancy potential so we are left playing with an awful lot of Cetearyl Alcohol or equivalent which sets to a sort-of inflexible flake.  Not ideal but anyway, I managed it. For me, shampoo and conditioner were/ are my biggest use items as I wash and condition my hair daily as do my two long-haired kids and my husband (who has hardly any hair on his head but makes up for it on his chest and still likes the bubbles).   While I have managed to cut back on the need for packaging with both of these products by making them solid it wasn’t strictly necessary for me as I can make my own products and therefore can pack the liquid into whatever I want AND wash and re-use it if needed.  So it turns out that solid shampoo and conditioner balls are mainly great for travelling (less space) and for purchasing when you can’t make your own but if the idea of changing from a liquid to a solid freaks you out you can always make your own liquid shampoo and still avoid the consumer-sized plastic bottles.  On this subject I do understand that lots of people get by mighty fine with shampoo bars made via saponification, I just haven’t mastered that for me yet but those bars are the ultimate in low-impact cleansing as we will start to appreciate here in my little aside…

An aside – Plastic, plastic, plastic – the Babushka doll effect.

At the surfactant factory surfactant is made. That surfactant can be liquid or solid.

Liquid surfactant is usually delivered to the product manufacturer in one of three ways:

  • Bulk – in a special truck that offloads into the factory tanks, often in 20,000 litre lots at a time.  L’Oreal and other big brands would typically take their deliveries this way.  Very low packaging waste. Some factories are set to handle quite concentrated surfactant liquids (70-100% active depending on type) while others require more dilute mixes (20-50%).  The environmental impact here, outside of the manufacturing of the surfactant is the trucking costs with the more concentrated surfactant being more economical to ship than the more dilute one.  But then one has to consider factory handling costs. More concentrated surfactant is usually thicker and might take more power to pump around the factory so there is a pay off between shipping costs and CO2 emissions and factory pumping and handling costs and energy use.
  • 1000 litre intermediate bulk tanks – these are usually square heavy-duty plastic containers that are protected by a metal cage and can be stacked and moved around by a forklift truck. These are typically re-used after washing out and many supply chain companies offer a container deposit and re-fund scheme to encourage the recycling of containers. This has been very popular in the EU for a long time thanks to legislation and penalties around single-use packaging items in manufacturing but may not be enforced as widely elsewhere.  Old containers can sometimes be purchased for re-purposing by the general public too so these are quite economical and strong.  A wide variety of chemicals are stored like this.
  • Drums – 150-200 litre drums is quite typical.  These are nearly always metal and nearly always get re-cycled (re-worked) rather than cleaned and re-used but as the metal is recyclable any number of times these can be a good option for brands looking for smaller amounts of ingredients.  Drums are often shrink, wrapped to a pallet and shipped in lots of 4-6 drums depending on their size.
  • Bags – Powdered surfactant including soap noodles,  soap nut powder,  SYNDET soap powder and others are usually supplied in re-enforced paper sacks rather like bread sacks.  These are typically stacked on pallet loads and shipped in something like 1mt pallet quantities of which clients can buy individual bags or the whole pallet.  The pallet lot is usually shrink wrapped before shipping to protect it from dampness and from splitting.
  • Re-Packed.  So all of the above options can arrive to an ingredient re-packer and then be re-packed.  Depending on the size of business the re-packer deals with items may be packed into glass, plastic or paper and shipped in relatively large or small sizes.  The smaller the size the manufacturer buys, the bigger the packaging impact and vice versa but at this end of the scale one has to be mindful of waste and shelf-life.  Is it better to buy little and often and never lose material due to stock expiry or to save packaging, buy in bulk then have to throw half of the material away when it doesn’t get used in time?  Small packs also increase their CO2 footprint via transportation costs and general wastage as there is always product loss when transferring from packaging to manufacturing vessel.

Anyway, back to the products…

Toothpaste – to be honest, this time I didn’t even go there in making my own. I have made plenty of toothpastes in my time for people who don’t want ‘chemicals’, particularly fluoride but I’m happy to keep that in my toothpaste so I just opted to buy the same brand as normal but just in larger tubes – bigger volume of stuff-to-packaging ratio.

Deodorant – luckily enough I’ve been making lots of deodorants for clients of late so I just bagged myself a dollop of that.  Some of the deodorant I’ve been working with has been in solid stick form and I’ve actually found that quite easy to use as a sort of deodorant pebble type thing.  Probably wouldn’t appeal to everyone to rub a solidish deodorant under their pits but I felt fine with it so that’s what I’ve been doing.  Also I have seen a few brands now going for cardboard type tubes in this area which is lovely and can work really well.  I was also reminded by a trip to the supermarket that many roll-on deodorants are actually packaged in glass and the spray-ons are recyclable metal so maybe the plastic count isn’t so bad here after all.

Soap – Shampoo bar doubles up as soap so no dramas there. Otherwise there are bars of soap lying around that I can use for that.

Moisturiser – Again, I’m lucky as I make moisturiser all the time and can easily grab some from the lab and pop it into a glass jar.  For me that’s job done. I do know of some people who are happy to just use a veggie oil as moisturiser (say Olive or Jojoba Oil) and that’s pretty low-impact packaging wise but I do like to indulge in the sophisticated textures and actives of an emulsified moisturiser so I’d be looking at ways to get that with less impact than give it up altogether, especially as my skin can be quite challenging with the eczema and all.

Foundation – already in glass packaging except for the tube and lid which are plastic.  I figured that as this lasts me quite a while (I’d only go through 3 per year max) it probably isn’t such a big deal.

Mascara – Mine is all plastic but again I use so little of it that it lasts me way past its best-before date so I’m not replacing that.

Sunscreen – I’ve written enough about sunscreen for any regular readers to know that I wouldn’t skimp on this OR make my own (untested) product so this is one that’s staying as is. All I would say is that sunscreen is the type of product that can get abused and mis-used during its lifetime. Kept in the sand, at the bottom of a dirty bag, shared around and generally mucked-up.  I’m pledging to take better care of my sunscreen so that I ensure the whole pack can be used before it becomes too icky and dirty.  On that note I mostly buy the family bulk pack anyway so as to reduce packaging impact. It is Australia after all and we should use sunscreen every day (although I often forget and I’m sure my skin is paying the price sadly).

The verdict. 

If you are a cosmetic chemist or someone with an interest and a bit of know-how in cosmetic ‘cooking’ you can probably cover yourself quite well and make up your own products and store them in re-useable tins, bottles or jars BUT you perhaps should be a bit honest with yourself about the real environmental impact/ savings of what you are doing, especially if you are buying up lots of small lot ingredients and some of those are going to waste or if you are risking your health in doing so.  Remember that many ingredients come in plastic bottles or jars so that should also be taken into consideration and not just the in-use pack.  I think for many, purchasing from an established brand that’s doing the right thing may well be environmentally less impactful than making everything yourself. For those that aren’t into making things, sometimes just up-sizing the packaging and going for something the whole family can use is a good option – stop buying one cream for him, one for her and another for the kids maybe.  Multi-functional products can also be good as can products with a long shelf life that can at least give you time to get through them all.  Remembering the packaging-to-product ratio is the easiest change we can make I think.

Personal Care – The non-wet stuff.

One other big thing that I’ve focused on this Plastic Free July is in ditching the single-use razor. It has become something of a mission of mine  with three leg-shavers in the house in a country where it’s summer for nearly 8 months of the year.  Anyway, I’ve been searching and have found these guys who make delightful metal razors with replaceable blades. They will even let you post back your old blades for recycling, the product is reasonably priced from the outset so I’m happy all round.

Cotton Buds are another thing that I tend to use too much but luckily I’ve also found those with bamboo handles or cardboard instead of plastic, same for toothbrushes although I have to say I’m yet to change as my plastic brush still hasn’t run out. It’s good to see a fast growing ‘green’ material starting to replace throw-away plastic as we move back to a more natural way of being.

Hairdryer and styling tools – OK so these aren’t daily disposable items but living in a pretty hot place I’ve been able to ditch the hairdryer save for trips to the hairdresser, for the last 10 years which has, in a way, reduced my plastic consumption as I’ve not burned out a device or two in that time period.  Same for clothes dryers which are hardly needed here in Australia but I guess that’s another discussion.

Feminine hygiene has come on leaps and bounds in some regards in this space.  Now there are a variety of underwear brands that can cope with most days without the need for a pad or tampon, there are also the moon cups which are great re-usable options for those who can handle them and there are also contraceptive IUD’s that can eliminate the need for the monthly bleed anyway for those who are not attached to that cycle.

Toilet Paper is another area of stuff and while my normal brand isn’t too bad as I don’t tend to buy the plastic covered packs much but I did want to go all out and support a better way. So, this Plastic-Free-July I’ve gone with the ‘Who Gives A Crap‘ group who support the building of sanitation facilities overseas with each purchase and who pack without plastic and deliver in bulk.

Who gives a crap

Overall I’m starting to see that buying in bulk and planning ahead are key factors in a successful plastic reduction strategy as is just taking a step back and realising that some of the little things you just do day after day do, indeed add up over time and when there are easy, drop-in options that are less impactful it can actually be fun to take them!

Before I go I’ll just mention another thing and that’s to do with work and my lab.

I have terrible eczema from time to time on my hands and so have often had to resort to plastic throw-away gloves when I’m working and for when I’m washing up. I have somewhat reduced my reliance on those by buying re-usable pairs for when they are needed and going without at other times but that has taken a toll on my hands which are often itchy and broken (skin wise).  I have noticed that there are many jobs where the use of single-use plastic items are required for health or hygiene and am hopeful that one day soon we can find a way to meet these needs without harming the planet as plastic gloves are undoubtedly a necessity in many applications, mine probably less so although they can make my life more comfortable.

In the lab I’ve stopped using plastic weigh boats (which I inherited rather than purchased) and instead opt for small stainless steel weigh bowls for my tiny measurements. These are hard to break, easy to clean and great for heating (if required) small amounts of liquid (although hands can get burned if you don’t have tongues to pick them up).  This has reduced my lab waste somewhat.  I’m also trying to ditch the plastic pipettes and have gone back to my old uni-days glass droppers albeit with plastic pump handles (but at least they are re-usable).  I’m also making sure I recycle as much packaging as possible, use glass for whatever I reasonably can and am cutting down on the number of samples I retain (to one instead of two – a test and a look) but again, it’s highlighted to me just how reliant we’ve become on plastic and how hard it is to avoid its use or even reduce it in some cases.

A final word.

Plastic Free July may only be 16 days in but so far it has really opened my eyes and made me think about everything I do, the challenges my brand owning clients have in their business and the trials and tribulations of the modern-day cosmetic purchaser.   It will no doubt take a long time to undo all of the plastification of the last 60 or so years and I doubt that we need to go that far but we definitely do need to change and as I said at the beginning of this piece, it finally looks like the heavens are starting to align, the alternatives are becoming available and the public are ready to invest in a greener, cleaner and hopefully healthier future.

So thanks Plastic Free July for getting me thinking, so far it’s been fun.






Glycerin use in intimate lubes and moisturisers

June 30, 2018


There, if that word is a problem for you then best to switch off now as that’s what this is all about.

map of tasmania

Aussie slang for a ladies privates 😉

Ok so the question of whether glycerin is OK or not to have as an ingredient in products heading for the vagina came up recently and I just had to investigate.  It came up because one only needs do a quick ‘google’ to find conflicting information on this topic – some Doctors say it’s Ok, some say it’s not, some brands say likewise as do some bloggers,  health ‘news’ sites and so on and so forth.  As with most areas of conflict the hard evidence of facts seem to feature less prominently in the discussion as momentum grows,  like you don’t really need an anchor when your audience is already primed to accept one outcome or another.  That isn’t scientific though and that kind of discussion doesn’t impress me much hence the need for this brain dump.  So here goes.


Chemically glycerin is a polyol and polyols have alcohol functional groups.  It wouldn’t be right to say that glycerin is an alcohol in the same way that ethanol (drinkable) alcohol is although it does share some features.  It is water-soluble, has -OH functional groups (that’s the alcohol part) and is a decent solvent (but nowhere near as strong as alcohol) but that’s pretty much it.  Unlike ethanol, glycerin (or glycerol which is its other name) is a moisture binding active.  It likes to suck water into its self, holding onto it like a greedy little squirrel hoarding its nuts for the winter, never to let go….  Oh sorry, back on track.  But it can and does let go.  Glycerin is a humectant and humectants bind moisture via osmosis so if the concentration of water is high in the surrounding tissue they may suck some out of that tissue until they are in balance but if the surrounding tissue is dry, they will release some moisture into it, again to balance it out – in that way you could say that glycerin is a very considerate water carrier and is a good sharer.  How this plays out in skin care is that for the most part, that the water content of glycerin is higher than the water content of the skin and in balance with the atmosphere (sort of) and so moisture is pumped onto and into the stratum corneum leaving a balance and no negative effects.  If, however, the atmosphere is super dry, the glycerin could try sucking moisture from the skin, especially as skin cells typically have around 60-70% water in them, this can lead to the awkward position of the glycerin-containing moisturiser leaving the skin feeling very dry.  In opposite situations where the weather is very wet, such as in a tropical location or during monsoon season, the glycerin hits super-saturated skin and ends up just leaving the wearer feeling sticky and gross.  These nuances can be formulated around so that glycerin can be used in all cases ON the skin but what about IN the body?  We’ll get to that in a moment.

Glycerin its self is quite a safe ingredient as far as the skin goes and it hardly ever causes any problems because of its chemistry although that doesn’t mean it’s problem free.   I mentioned above that glycerin has some solvency properties.  If it didn’t, you’d not find it used as a solvent for herbal extracts, the ingredients we call glycerites. In a glycerite the glycerin is being used as a medium into which the phytochemical from the botanical matter are extracted. This pulling power or solvency is what can cause issues on the skin as to be a solvent you have, by definition, the capacity to dissolve things (not all things but some things) so glycerin could, at some point and under some conditions, dissolve chemicals that are naturally occurring on the skin, thus affecting its natural balance.   But before we start to contemplate the damage that glycerin could potentially do in its role of solvent, it is worth remembering that water is also a solvent and that we recognise that if we spend too long in the bath the water can dissolve our skin lipids and leave our skin super dry – weird but true – I suspect from glycerins chemistry and what has been written scientifically about glycerin that its solvency power is going to be in that order with regards to skin consequences and that the glycerin would most likely have to be used in an un-balanced way for it to start causing that type of problem.  So, to my mind any down side with glycerin is going to be less about its solvency and more about something else, probably its osmolality.

As I mentioned above, glycerin carries and delivers water via osmosis.  This, to me, looks like being its number one super power in terms of Lubrication and Vaginal health as well as the thing most likely to cause problems if there are any.  The vagina is a muscular tube protected by a mucous membrane which is made up of cells called a stratified squamous epithelium. This structure is the same as the cell layer found in mouth but nothing like the skin that we present to the world on our face.  Facial skin is covered in a dead layer of keratinocyte that acts like a flexible coat of armour that’s hard and water-resistant.  Our Vaginas on the other hand have live skin cells on their surface and are, in stead, protected by a mucosa which protects the soft tissue underneath.  Mucosa has to be moist to be healthy – terrible analogy but think of a slug, without their slime production ability they would just be looking all dried up and prune-like,  or like a discarded fake eyebrow – not good.  So, it doesn’t take much brain power to work out that a balanced, healthy vagina is one which has a happy, healthy mucosa and a happy mucosa should have just the right amount of water – not too much and not too little.

Is there a way of telling if a product is balanced properly for the vagina then, with regards to moisture levels?

Fortunately there is.  Osmolality can be measured in a lab so a lubricant or intimate moisturiser can be sent off and analysed for a small(ish) fee taking all the guess-work out of life and giving us at least one answer to our question about whether glycerin should be avoided in our vaginas.

So, we know the Osmolality of a healthy vagina and we can test the Osmolality of our products so the potential for an ingredient to over-dose the vagina with moisture or suck its moisture layer dry can be mitigated with some simple analytical chemistry and a bit of formulating know how.  How very simple…

Osmolality = measure of the osmoles of solvent in a Kg of solvent.  Osmolarity = measure of the osmoles of solvent in a Litre of solvent.

The molecular weight of a solute, in grams, divided by the number of ions or particles into which it dissociates in solution.

So if it’s that simple, why are we still debating it?

Well there seems to me to be a few things at play here, opportunity could be one of them.

Glycerin free is a mini-trend in this area thanks to one or two brands cottoning on to this osmolality malarkey early.  Glycerin is a key component of the most dominant brand on the market, KY Jelly (in terms of lubricants) so one could come to the conclusion of what better way to carve out your piece of the pie than dis the competition, especially when there’s a shred of plausibility to your position and especially when it looks like anyone opposing this will have difficulty in proving the opposite i.e that there is no issue with glycerin in these products.

From the description of Osmolality above, fellow chemists of the world will spot that Osmolality is going to be pH dependent and concentration dependent (how MUCH of an ingredient is present) so it is highly likely that a products osmolality is influenced by more than just glycerin and further, influenced by more than just humectants. So if humectants are just one part of the puzzle why is it that that’s all we are talking about?   To put this another way,  it would be easy to avoid glycerin and still have an Osmotically inappropriate solution on our hands.    Here are some other ingredients that influence a products osmolality:

Amino Acids.


Simple Sugars (sucrose, xylose, glucose, etc)

Inorganic Ions such as salts (electrolytes)- Sodium Lactate, Sodium Chloride, Potassium Chloride, Sodium PCA. 

Carbohydrates (could be soluble or insoluble fibre types if using ‘foody’ language.

And here is a pretty good definition of what Osmolality is. Osmolality factors greatly in developing formulating for tube feeding and other pre-packaged meal replacements such as baby formula or adult food supplements/ meal replacements.

Further, this study found that combining osmolites changes the water flux of a formula so while Osmolality is a good measure of the strength and potential of a solution to change the water balance of a environment, it isn’t the only measure.

As an aside:

It is pretty interesting looking at the non-glycerin formulations out there now as I’m yet to find one that doesn’t include other osmolites in their formula and that doesn’t surprise me because osmolites are what NEED to be in these formulations.  So it is likely that it’s not about avoiding all or any one ingredient that changes the osmolality of a liquid, it’s about appreciating how to balance them for best results and tolerability, including water flux.  That’s science, the rest is marketing.

The vagina fights back.

Anyone with a healthcare background will also appreciate that the body is not passive – the action isn’t all a one-way-street.  What I mean by this is that even if the Osmolality, pH and water flux is right, that’s only part of the story in terms of vaginal compatibility.  The vagina might react to the lubricant or moisturiser because something else is triggering a reaction such as an aromatic material, a preservative, a plant extract or an oil.  These things might still induce stress on the area.  Again this type of thing is not often discussed and I do have my suspicions about why but this might just be my own bias talking.  What I think plays a part in keeping this detail quiet is creative and expressive freedom.  It’s pretty bloody boring and mind-blowingly complex to admit that any one of your ingredients can trigger a vaginal meltdown so it’s best to just focus on what one thing, ‘solve’ that then hope nobody has an issue with what’s left.  Also it does allow for brands to use their own special magic sparkles to liven up their product offering – adding essential oils, herbal extracts and so on and so forth.  Also, it gets very expensive to test each component of a formula for its safety and irritation potential in a particular area and if you test your whole formula and find it wanting it’s hard to then go back and fathom what made the thing not work.

So are we there yet or is there anything else?

Look, to be honest there is something else that might be festering in the back of some people’s minds about glycerin but only if they’ve done a lot of reading…

Glycerin has been found in decent amounts around surgical implants and implanted devices that have developed a biofilm of Candida albicans.  It is not suspected that the glycerin CAUSED the biofilm, more likely the glycerin is a metabolic (made in the body) bi-product of the dysfunction.

If there’s one thing that ladies don’t want to encourage it’s the old Yoghurt pants and so you only have to mention the remote possibility of that for women to run in the opposite direction and I understand that, I really do only these things aren’t necessarily related.  The biofilms being discussed here are typically on implanted devices within the body in general and the glycerin found is not injected as a product or rubbed in, it’s manufactured by the body as a consequence of the dysfunction that’s already happening because of another set of circumstances.  Now I’m not qualified to say whether this is never going to be an issue worth thinking about for vaginal lubricants but I’d say it’s highly unlikely to be relevant, even for women who have vaginal mesh implants to correct prolapse or other issues, not least because there is little chance of any product you apply to that area will end up passing up and into the place where an implant might be sitting and even if it did, avoiding glycerin in a product wouldn’t solve the problem when the body can clearly make its own anyway.

Here is an article explaining this. 

And is there any truth to the worry that glycerin is a sugar and sugar leads to candida?

Glycerin is a sugar alcohol and oddly enough it is not classified as a sugar OR an alcohol which is confusing. Instead it’s a polyol.  Sugar alcohols exist naturally in fruits and veggies and if you’ve ever been on the low FODMAP diet you’ll know all about that food group. So if we want to ban glycerin from our vaginas because its too sugary, we’d also need to consider banning extracts of mushrooms (unlikely to be present in a sex lube but you never know, people are weird)  avocado, apple, apricot, watermelon, nectarine or pear extract too.

It was when I was ‘googling’ this that I found the above, so I think that might be where the initial hysteria came from but it’s still worth a deeper look.  There seems to be discussions within the Candida support network about glycerin and xylitol and other alternative sweeteners that might be used while on a Candida management diet. These forums seem to focus on the qualities of the ingredients when ingested rather than when used on the skin and even then the rational for the conclusions given leaves me feeling a bit like nobody really knows what they’re talking about to be honest.  Glycerin is sweet and can be used as a low glycemic sweetener for food although that’s not its primary purpose in food as it is actually not that sweet and packs more calories than sugar. But because it has a low glycemic index it is popular with diabetics in the same way that sorbitol is (glycerol and sorbitol are similar but different of course).  Here’s a sugar comparison table. 

The idea that putting sugary (or sweet) things ON the skin can cause a yeast infection in the same way that eating a high sugar diet can upset your micro biome is interesting but unlikely to be scientifically accurate, not least because people making the link neglect to investigate IF, WHEN, WHY and HOW high sugar diets alter the biome, whether they do that alone or when other dietary deficiencies or pre-existing conditions are present and whether that dysfunction could even happen on (or in) the skin.  Here is a link to the candida sugar diet tips. 

This sort of situation is very annoying for a cosmetic chemist as again, it provides a doubt in the mind of the general public who, not having time or the energy to really think about it decide to make a quick decision not to risk it (the precautionary principal that plays right into the conservative nature of the human psyche) thus eliminating any possibility of intellectual dialogue.

All I would say is that if the sugariness of glycerin has the potential to cause a problem then so does the sugariness of

So what’s the conclusion then?

Based on the research that I’ve done for this article and over the last year for other projects I’ve worked on I have found enough evidence for me to conclude that avoiding glycerin is not necessary and further, the idea that avoiding glycerin is the ONLY step needed to ensure the resulting product will be good is ridiculously un-scientific. Like many things that come up about cosmetic and personal care ingredients, this ‘free from glycerin’ type of claim has the potential to spread in popularity because its simple and because there’s a shred of truth behind the fact that too much glycerin can be bad, but as I said above, so can too much salt, too much amino acid, too much ANYTHING GOOD practically.

With my science head on I’d back glycerin as a good, low-potential for irritation, cost-effective, environmentally friendly, bio-compatible humectant for vaginal products against its alternatives, especially given its long history of relatively safe use in this area even in spite of KY Jelly not getting its Osmolality spot on, clearly the vagina can cope with that, of course it can, it’s part of a woman 🙂

With my brand owner perspective head on I’d be honest and say ‘yep, the glycerin thing could become a bit of a shit fight but the science doesn’t stack up to discount it on those grounds so you would be discounting it on marketing terms.  If your brand is a marketing heavy type brand then fair enough, take out or leave out glycerin but if you are selling yourself scientifically be careful not to over-hype the ‘glycerin free’ claim as it has no scientific basis.  Overall I’d love to think that brand owners can stand in their power and stand up for real science but I understand that marketing is often more powerful in terms of influence, income and business success. That’s a shame.

With my vagina owning head on I’d be looking out for products that discuss things like the product pH (that’s important) and it’s osmolality (very important). I’d personally be turned off crazy ‘free from’ claims but do accept that that’s probably because of my chemistry background.

So that’s it really.  I can’t see any reason why the average lady can’t use a lube or moisturiser with a bit of glycerin in it as long as it’s been formulated with vaggie health in mind and I don’t care what individual doctors say because it’s a little known fact that you don’t need to be a pharmacist, compounding chemist or cosmetic chemist to become a doctor or even a gyenacologist and while it’s true, these people are clever, they can’t possibly know everything and maybe sometimes, they don’t even want to.



A little shampoo bar experiment.

June 13, 2018

There’s been a bit of a buzz on Facebook this week about solid shampoo / shampoo bars this week so I thought I’d delve a little deeper, the net result of which was the production of these rather crude but also quite cute shampoo snow balls – don’t you just love it when a plan (or a shampoo ball) comes together…

Anyway, the appetite for all things packaging free (especially plastic free) is growing and as such, shampoo bars fit right in. They are super concentrated,  super easy to travel with (light and non leaking although they might get crushed I guess) and super efficient offering a more concentrated clean than your average shampoo.

I took a look on the market to see what was already out there and found two distinct types of formulation – the saponified bar and the detergent bar.

Lush dominates the synthetic detergent type of product with their good-old-fashioned Sodium Lauryl Sulfate needle formulation. I have always admired Lush’s ability to get away with selling what the internet deem as ‘nasties’ without it seeming so, maybe the fact that these shampoo bars were ultra-appealing to the ‘green’ market led to people overlooking their google-search chemical faux pas?  It sure looks like it. In any case Lush basically cake together the SLS needles with a few other bits of glitz and glam and voila, a shampoo bar is formed and it soaps up like a trooper.

In the non-synthetic detergent camp are bars of soap.  Now I’ve blogged before about washing your hair with soap and declared myself to not be a fan but I have to say that might have been a bit harsh in terms of an opinion, it’s just that my dad used to wash his hair in Imperial Leather soap and every time I tried it I ended up with a sludgy pile of dry, knotted hair for my efforts (we were a hard water, soap scum area).   Saponification kings and queens seem to have perfected the art of making a soap bar that isn’t all drying and scummy and as such have developed quite a following.  In fact there is a Facebook group devoted to the art of shampoo bar soap making and it has close to 3000 followers to date – impressive!

In terms of the natural-or-not stakes, both types can contain only naturally derived chemistry and can end up with similar environmental profiles on a weight/use basis which means there is no massive difference environmental impact wise on which one you choose but there are differences in terms of residual pH (pH when wetted.  Synthetic detergent bar soaps (which can be naturally derived) tend to have a residual pH of around 5-7 while saponified soap bars have a pH of 9-11 depending their super-fat level.  This may not be an issue but it definitely is a significant difference and could be a factor in the irritation or sting factor of the bar (although we’d also have to take the irritation potential of the surfactants into account too as that can be pH independent.

So if people are flocking to these bars to soothe their eco-soul are they right or are they mis-guided?  A bit of both it appears…

According to quite a few data analysts that I’ve read over the years the biggest environmental impact from your shampoo is the water used while using it – the time spent in the shower.  Apparently the ‘stuff’ that goes into the formula, the packaging and manufacturing only account for between 5-20% of the total impact with the in-shower water accounting for at least 80% of the carbon footprint.  This would be assuming that the water is heated using fossil fuel power and pumped to the shower using electricity which is also fossil fuel.  I expect that if the water was rain water, pumped and heated using solar or other renewable energy the impact would be different.

Out of the formula and the packaging we know we can’t do away with the formula but we absolutely can go packaging free (naked) as long as we can master a solid bar so let’s look at that.

Packaging of regular mass-market shampoos is mainly plastic based and most, though not all are recyclable but not infinitely so.  Also most will struggle to biodegrade at the end of their lifespan so we will still be left with a problem.  The trouble with shampoo formulations is that they typically contain a decent percentage of water – often between 40-80% – an ingredient that then adds to the shipping cost and volume while creating the need for plastic packaging due to the wetness of the formula.   Taking that out solves a couple of issues, if it is possible.

A typical ‘wet’ shampoo formula structure is something like this:

Not all surfactants are usable when 100% active, some are too slow to ‘wet’ or become foamy, others are too stripping -I’d almost say that SLS needles fit into here but clearly some people can tolerate them.  So when going for a solid formula we do restrict our surfactant choice.  Now the one thing that I’m a big advocate of is efficient formulating, there is no point creating a shampoo bar that is rubbish as that is the ultimate waste or time and resources.  So we still need our product to perform well.

Now our solid bar formulations don’t have to be water free, they just have to be able to come together as a solid.  I ended up making a bar that contained 28% water which is a lot less than a normal shampoo but it’s definitely some.  Having some water in the formula is often required to help the ‘bar’ form or bind together.  In my formula I’ve used the water to help me form  a gel between the emulsifier (a blend containing Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Cetearyl alcohol and glyceryl stearate) and Cetearyl alcohol.  These two ingredients form a non-oily, low-tangle-potential gel network in which the surfactants can nestle and solidify.  An alternative method would be to form a gel using a gum such as hydroxyethyl cellulose or xanthan or equivalent and then using that to house your surfactants. I chose not to do that as I wanted a more conditioning, gentle cleanse rather than the user feeling the full force of the surfactants.

So in my solid bar I’ve used Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, the emulsifier (which has some anionic surfactancy) plus Sodium Stearate.  Sodium Stearate is a traditional ‘soap’ so I’ve paid homage to my soapy friends there but the other two are ‘synthetic’ naturally derived ingredients.   Sodium Cocoyl ISethionate is the original SYNDET soap bar ingredient and I chose that as it has a low water solubility compared to some surfactants so it won’t disappear immediately on wetting, it has a good foaming ability and a mild skin profile.  The only down side is that this isn’t the best for aquatic toxicity so I wouldn’t recommend using it as the only surfactant in a blend, especially if you wash a lot and your water goes out into a river rather than through a water treatment plant.   That said, this has an excellent biodegradation profile and is a good performer and is perfectly manageable when it goes through a treatment plant.  The Sodium Stearate (normal soap) is also a bit of an issue in aquatic environments although not quite as bad as our other friend.  The biggest issue with this soap is its biodegradation, as it degrades it gets a bit more toxic.  The Lactylate is very clean and other ingredients in the mix aren’t too bad to be honest.  The net result of my investigations here were that I ended up feeling a bit like ‘you solve one problem and create another’ – I was a big bummed that my solid shampoo was still likely to cause some negative impacts on the environment if used in large volumes – but after doing a few more calculations I realised that I was probably being over-utopian in my thinking and that as long as people were sensible the benefits would most likely still out-shine the risks.

So what does the finished formula look like?

This is what I ended up with and you can see how that looks at the start of this article.  It’s just a rough-and-ready formula to be honest, could be better, could be worse but in terms of performance it’s really very marketable.

I tested this out on my hair and found it lathered well and was pretty much bang-on for efficiency.  I had calculated that this shampoo bar contained around 65% surfactant which is around 3 times more than a regular shampoo.  I used 1.42g of product to wash my hair vs around 4.5g of regular shampoo which equates to a 1/3rd dose for the solid shampoo – so a pretty much equal surfactant exposure overall.  Now one wash does not a scientific experiment make but it was a good enough starting point for me to feel that this is something worth pursuing.

Environmentally the savings in terms of freight space and packaging materials are significant I feel.  Sure the product would need to be packed in something but with it only taking up 1/3rd of the space of a regular product there’s more than a little room to be creative without losing the benefits here.   Cost wise the price of my creation vs a regular shampoo seemed reasonable too.  Keeping in mind I’ve used small batch pricing and an expensive essential oil blend I got my in-use dose cost to be around the $0.045 mark vs my normal liquid shampoo which comes in at $0.098 (I buy this usually

Overall I’d have to say that I’m finally tempted to change my whole household over to shampoo bars and this formula looks like a good starting point for me.  I’d probably use some of my cost savings to swap some of the Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate out for something like Sodium Stearoyl Glutamate just to up the environmentally friendly ratings specially as the primary surfactant has to be used at a fairly high dose but other than that I’d not be inclined to change much at all.  I did use a powdered preservative in this but there would be no harm in using a liquid one, after all a wet paste is being formed. I’ve no idea at this stage if that preservative would even be able to preserve a product like this though, the water activity is very low (until the bar is wetted and left with hairs on to try in a soap bowl) so it could be fairly low-risk but I’d have to test it before ruling out the need for a preservative or finding it needs something stronger.

To sum up I’d say that even though your wet shampoo formula/ bottle/ transport/ manufacturing  only makes a relatively low contribution to your carbon footprint if you live in a coal or gas-fired electricity/ water heated home, it still makes some impact and let’s face it, those plastic bottles do soon stack up in the recycling bin if you’ve got a family living with you so why not experiment with something else!

A solid shampoo may not be able to be everything that your wet shampoo can be but it can certainly be innovative, relatively mild, environmentally friendly, ultra-portable and, if you add a bit of colour and a nice smell, a bit of fun to boot! I think I just converted myself.  Off to the lab I go…

Amanda x

We’re getting really angry about plastic but is our anger being mis-placed?

June 10, 2018

The other week I was out and about and a chap started talking to me about the polystyrene cups that were on the counter for clients to use if they wanted a drink of water.  He started off with a ‘I wouldn’t have thought anywhere would still use those things’ but it didn’t take long before he was quite literally fuming, citing ‘war on waste’ and talking about sea plastics and all manner of things.  I would usually be extremely sympathetic to anyone talking like that as I too despair over the state of the environment, the amount of plastic we use and those dreadful polystyrene cups but this time I didn’t.  This time I felt panicked to be honest. I felt like a change was coming in attitude that couldn’t be matched with reality.   Part of the reason for my panic was the fact that this chap was talking to me in a line up for the till.  He was wearing clothes that had an obvious plastic content to them and was carrying a plastic basket full of products packed in plastic and was likely to pay for said goods using his flexible plastic money pal…

To quote that well-known philosopher and poet Lana Del Rey:

There’s somethin’ in the wind, I can feel it blowin’ in
It’s comin’ in softly on the wings of a bomb
There’s somethin’ in the wind, I can feel it blowin’ in
It’s comin’ in hotly and it’s comin’ in strong

Misplaced anger can start a war and I’m feeling that the inevitable war on waste that needs to happen has the potential to bomb out a few allies early if it doesn’t get its mission right and that’s what I’m worried about.

Plastic is everywhere, in the obvious and no so much. I mentioned this before when there was outrage about microplastic exfoliating beads entering the sea.  Many people became passionate about demanding alternatives and I’m sure  some cheered when the laws got changed, cheered while spruiking their favourite  plant-based bead housed in a formula brought to you in a handy plastic-packaged bottle or jar no doubt. .   I’ve worked in plastic manufacturing environments and am well aware that most plastic has been or will become a slow-to-disappear microbead at some point in time. I can’t imagine there are any analytical methods around that can accurately trace the sea microbead  back to your face wash. Of course I understood and still understand the sentiment behind the action and I support it but I still felt a niggling concern that a lot of energy was about to be used up solving what would probably only amount to being a tiny fraction of the problem.  Humans only have so much time and energy in them before they give up so I’m a big fan of making our actions big and making them count which sometimes conflicts with the mantra ‘tiny steps lead to big effects’. I sometimes feel we use those tiny steps to placate ourselves and self-soothe.

So now, in this war-on-waste film era,  I’m concerned that the cosmetic industry is going to become THE focus of attention of this movement to develop a post-plastic reality.   While I think that change in this area is both needed and inevitable I worry that we’ll be left with all the anger, no viable solutions and a lot of brand owners in therapy.

Cosmetic packaging does come in all shapes and sizes, glass, recycled plastic,  different types of virgin plastics, bamboo, paper, cardboard, aluminium and so on and so forth. Some products can be packed in non-plastic packaging without an issue but many can’t YET.  Even when we can pack liquid products in glass, it’s nearly always plastic that makes up the lid, the dispensing tube or the label. Further, what you, the general public don’t see is that our glass bottles and jars nearly always come individually wrapped in plastic, a step that the factory implements to ensure that no dust or contamination gets onto and into the glass prior to us receiving it. So there’s the plastic we see and that which we don’t see.  Avoiding ALL plastics is very hard at this point in time for the cosmetic brand owner especially when you take into account the plastic that happens behind the scenes with regards to the packaging protection I’ve just mentioned to the plastic packaging that ingredients come in, the pipette used in the lab to transfer liquid, the containers that ingredients are shipped in, the protective disposable clothing the factory staff have to wear to avoid contamination, the bulk containers they pour your product into, the shrink-wrap for the pallets and the plastic on the boxes to hold the invoice on the pallet.   It’s no wonder that I’m worried.

For a brand to be able to afford the best in truly biodegradable or reusable packaging requires it to be available in small volumes.  Many brands I talk to weekly are packing off only 1000 units per run, even less sometimes.  That’s nowhere near enough to get your own bottles designed and produced – 20,000 of each type is the normal minimum order quantity.  This could leave many brands vulnerable to customer scorn without having any ability to do anything about it other than totally re-formulate or stop doing what they are doing – both expensive, anti-business options.  Also, just because biodegradable or plant-based plastics are available it doesn’t mean they are necessarily suitable for the cosmetic products we know and love.  Product packaging interaction is a huge part of stability testing and a product that fails because the packaging leaks, discolours or collapses is not at all sustainable even if it’s all organic.  Further, keep in mind that most packaging has to come in from overseas. There has been a lack of investment in Australian manufacturing for decades and now we are left with only a handful of options. Maybe we can become the sustainable packaging hub of the future but to get there is going to take time, money and some big brains working behind the scenes.

I’m involved in a couple of sustainable packaging projects right now and as exciting as that is it’s also hard because we just can’t get the solutions happening quick enough or cheaply enough to become main stream yet.  I am worried that the people who will bear the brunt of this new-found anti-plastic activism will be the brands trying their hardest to be the most natural and sustainable they can be.  It makes sense, especially as the packaging probably is the biggest environmental impact of a product but it isn’t entirely helpful if there are no other options.

I guess what I’d like is for the public who are very much trying to reduce the levels of plastic they ‘consume’ to be joined up in their thinking and to assist brands that are trying to do the right thing to carry on, even if that does mean purchasing items in plastic for a bit longer.   I’m a huge advocate for conscious consumerism – don’t buy too much (reduce/ make more considered choices), use every last drop of each product you buy,  re-use and then re-cycle.   It is getting difficult to participate in this world and enjoy all of our modern conveniences to their fullest while still trying to do the best for the environment but as hard as it is now, it will be even harder, I think,  if we kill off our little allies in the process.

I realise that while a world without plastic can’t come quickly enough, it has taken us over 70 years to get to this point and it might take more than a few weeks, months or even years to get us out of it.  I don’t see a need for a completely plastic-free future but it would be nice if our every-day, short-term needs could be met by packaging that doesn’t cost the earth.

I’ll leave you with that.

Amanda x




Sandlwood Oil – Western Australia’s Liquid Gold.

June 6, 2018

It could be said that Australia was colonised in the same way that a wrecking ball might colonise a disused building, brutally.  Ok so that may be a little harsh but it’s hard not to look back at that time in history with some sadness at what happened after the first fleet landed, especially when you do it through the eyes of the Sandalwood tree.

Sandalwood holds a beautiful secret in its heartwood where its warm, rich, woody, syrup-like oil hides only to be released on the trees felling and subsequent distillation.  It takes a good many years for the heartwood and its oil to grow and mature,  fifteen to twenty-five at the very least, fifty more commonly but this does depend on the species and in Australia the lead species is Santalum Spicata.  The tree can then go on and live for over one hundred years thriving in the hot dry climates of the Western Australian planes.

The Australian Sandalwood tree grows wild in some of the most remote areas in Australia such as Western Australia’s Gibson desert, but it was also unfortunate to thrive closer to the west coast than that, closer to the ships that heralded the start of a new era for Australia, as a British colony.

Modern Australians equate Western Australia with the mining boom but before minerals there were trees or ‘green gold’ (Australia’s national colours are green and gold, maybe that’s why, I’ve no idea actually).  The  value of Sandalwood was missed on the first colonisers who allegedly chopped trees down for fence posts, fire wood and building materials but it didn’t take long before word of this woods true value spread.  Sandalwood proved to be a boon for the colony and, on realising the market value the settlers wasted no time at all in setting up gangs to harvest the trees and processing facilities to prepare them for export, mainly to Singapore.   Wood was shipped out to markets all over the world and as the trees sailed out, the money flooded in – something the new colony urgently needed to become sustainable.  The global appetite for Sandalwood seemed to be as insatiable as the early colony’s thirst for hard cash! The trees continued to come tumbling down for a while longer anyway until high government taxes and global over-supply ground things to a halt.  Yes, the humble but beautiful Sandalwood tree benefited from an eight year hiatus in cutting thanks to over-enthusiastic taxing of the local industry combined with a flood of Sandalwood entering the global market so while the trees rejoiced, the locals sat waiting nervously for their fortunes to change and they did.  A combination of crop failings in India and war in the region led to another supply chain tightening and the game of Sandalwood hunting was back on only this time Western Australia had become a penal colony, the population had doubled and other industries such as wool and wheat production plus cattle grazing were competing for land and able-bodied labour.

More than 50,000 tones of wood was exported from Western Australia between 1890-1900 but by the end of the 1920’s it was becoming obvious that things needed to be managed in a bit more of an orderly fashion and by 1929 the Sandalwood act was passed and the government took control, making it illegal for Sandalwood to be pulled (harvested) without a licence unless the tree was grown on a managed plantation.  To this date, the Australian Government still maintains an interest and control over the industry aided by increased fines and co-ordination with the Forest Products Commission who also manage bush regeneration and, after a change in the structure of contracts in 2016, are focused on creating  opportunities for Aboriginal participation (which many might say is about time…). These legislative attempts to make the industry sustainable are sort-of paying off but concerns still exist around the true impacts of the early settlers ‘work’ on the long-term viability of Australian Sandalwood. You see, while plantation timber is a good, manageable option, wild tree populations are required to maintain diversity of seed stock and to improve and strengthen the crop going forward (or else we go backwards…).  The future of Sandalwood does indeed look like being one where local, Aboriginal, ancestral knowledge and managed plantations will need to work together to secure a better and more sustainable future for the entire community and country rather than for the benefit of just a few.  This type of partnership has been realised by the Dutjahn group who are well placed to bridge the gap between wild harvest old growth trees and modern plantations.

So that’s the wood, what about the oil?

The distilling of Sandalwood oil was happening in Australia since 1875 according to the website of Oil Distiller Mt Romance,   ( a company that has just found its self in financial bother calling in the receivers last year)  but it wasn’t until around 1922 that things really started to kick off in the oil distilling world thanks to a company called the Plaistow Confectionary Co.   There seems to be a bit of scandal about how they came to understand how to distill the oil.  Apparently they took over the Sandalwood distillery from a chap named Braddocks sometime around 1922 but by 1924 they were in court trying to gag Braddock who, they claimed, had stolen intellectual property off them and was seeking to use it to his advantage.  The trove court report is here.  

It’s a bit hard to work out exactly what was going on and how but it does look like a chap called J.H Marr (a chemist who worked for Plaimar Ltd) was the chap who worked out the best method for oil extraction.  Rather than steam distill the oil he was soaking shavings and sawdust in a solvent and using that to extract the oil. Oil export records from the Forest Department Annual reports have proved impossible to find for this period but records from 1945-1971 show fluctuating oil sales with a maximum of 34,726 pounds of oil sold in 1948 falling to just over 3000 pounds sold in 1970.

I can’t find a lot of information about what happened between the 1970-1980 but by 1983 the first plantation trials of Santalum Album was planted in Kununurra, WA and with that trial being successful, the first commercial plantation was established in 1999.  In 1999 there were apparently 50 hectares planted out and that had grown to 2545 hectares by 2008 – the lions share of the growth in that species.  Tests on oil quality back in 2006 confirmed that the trees are producing good quality oil but with yields varying from less than 0.5% to around 7%.  Keeping in mind the tree has to be pulled for the oil to be measured, getting accurate data by increasing the sample size can only be done by killing the samples which is not an attractive prospect.  Catching up with this crop in 2013 we see issues being raised by the ‘Green Left’ publication who are concerned about irrigation, jobs and land use in the Ord river region – where this plantation is situated. I found this news item interesting as it just shows that even ‘green’ agribusiness ventures are not always loved by those with Green politics which, on one level makes sense but on another makes me wonder if it is ever possible to please all the people all of the time…

Moving on to 2017 and we are starting to see harvesting in the Kununurra region and that too looks to be embroiled in some controversy. Quintis, one of the companies mentioned in this news article is a company also known as Mt Romance, a name that many Australian essential oil users will recognise.  As I mentioned above in this article, this company is surrounded by financial issues at present and their future, and the future of their Sandalwood oil projects is looking a bit shaky.  Their 2016 harvest of 99 hectares yielded over 300 tons of heartwood which was apparently in line with expectations. However, the next harvest in 2017 of 81 hectares only yielded 140 tons of heartwood, well below predictions.  This just goes to show what a fickle business this agricultural lark is. Whether this heartwood was sold on the open market as is or processed into oil at their Mt Romance distillery is not something I can confirm here but what I can say is that in the 2016 company report the oil distillery is looking financially shaky. One thing that I did have a chuckle about was the mention that one of their clients was Young Living oils.  I chuckle because I’m often told that Young Living has the best quality oils, sourced from their own plantations etc…  That may be so for some oils but for this one the Young Living customers are getting the same stuff as practically everyone else in Australia and around the world.

The other big player in Australian grown Indian Sandalwood oil is a company called Santanol. This company is majority owned by an investment company called KKR who are basically interested in making money, lots of money.  Let’s hope the trees do that for them when harvest time rolls around.

Meanwhile Santalum Spicatum, Australian Sandalwood oil is still predominantly being produced by Mt Romance down closer to Perth but again, that company is going through financial issues so who knows what the future ownership will look like. In 2005 there were 12,000 Kg of this oil being produced over 7050 hectares with supply balancing demand.  I can’t find any later figures on oil volumes to be honest.

Looking into the history and current reality of Australian grown Sandalwood oil has been a bit of an eye opener really.  I think, as a cosmetic chemist and ingredient user it is easy to take things like a little bottle of essential oil for granted but after reading into the trials and tribulations of getting that oil to market I’ll no doubt be a bit more respectful of it.

So what else has been learned about the Sandalwood tree?  

The tree is hemiparasitic and requires a host tree in order to establish roots as it can’t fix its own nitrogen.  As such it is usually planted next to a specific type of acacia tree (acacia Acuminata) which provides the young Sandalwood tree with food, water and shelter while it gets established.  The Sandalwood tree  is a relatively small, scraggy looking thing but it is quite rough on its host and often needs 2-3 feed-trees to leach nutrients from for it to survive.  Much research has gone into selecting the perfect host and host density and that has helped modern plantations to become more efficient, so much so in fact that tree survival is around the 98% mark in well-managed plantations.

Another interesting Sandalwood tree fact was discovered also when looking for ways to germinate the seedlings.  It was discovered that a cute little creature called a Woylie is involved in hoarding and distributing the seeds in a way that facilitates their germination naturally, something that scientists have been able to replicate, at least in part, via machinery in new growth plantations.

Sadly, like many native species, wild populations of Woylie have been dramatically reduced by predation and loss of habitat but it is hoped that with more mindful plantation practices and land management plus fencing and reserve areas these cute and hard working little beings will not only survive but thrive into the future.

Scotia 2012

Another interesting Sandalwood fact is that the tree produces fruit that can also be collected and harvested for oil.  Rather than waiting the 15-25 years for heartwood, the tree only takes 4 years to produce fruit.  That fruit yields a beautiful vegetable oil, perfect for skincare and other uses and thankfully, the tree does not need to be felled for us to enjoy that.  In addition to being a good skincare oil, this Sandalwood fruit oil also provides a sustainable income stream for plantation owners who would otherwise be waiting a very long time between pay cheques.

So is the future of Sandalwood oil in Western Australia or what?

Both Australian and East Indian Sandalwood oil grow in many parts of the world but it looks likely, due to the investment of the government, the infrastructure and the intellectual property that’s in place, the state of W.A will remain a key player in this global game.  However, it is clear that while the product may be wildly popular and expensive, being a player in this industry is not easy.  Change in land ownership rights are likely as legal challenges under the  native title act continue to right the wrongs of our (white) ancestors.  Then there’s climate change.  Farmers will know that the climate is ALWAYS changing as that’s what climate does but most people would agree that things are changing faster and more dramatically now than they have ever done before (in living memory) and who knows if that will make the growing of this beautiful oil easier or more challenging.  On top of that we have growing competition from synthetic Sandalwood alternatives.  The perfumery industry doesn’t necessarily mind if the Sandalwood aroma is grown or manufactured and as that’s still the lions share of the industry, that could prove to be its downfall. That said, if everyone opts to ‘go natural’ then the up-swing in demand might squeeze the supply chain so much that farming practices resort to being unsustainable and short-termist.  There most be a balance to be had somewhere.  What is looking ever likely is that we will see more diversity in the management and ownership side of the business as we move into the future and that can only be a good thing, as the more minds we have looking to protect, improve and sustain this industry the better in my mind at least.

I hope that you have enjoyed this potted history of Australian Sandalwood and if you want to read the primary sources that I used to find out most of the facts listed above please follow the links.  I might not have shared everything, I can’t remember, but I’ve tried to link to all the big chunks of info that I could find.

Happy formulating/ sniffing or oil procuring and don’t forget to try the Sandalwood nut oil, it’s lovely.

Amanda x



History of Australian Sandalwood Industry. 

Another look at the Sandalwood industry of WA.

RIRDC Sandalwood Industry Report 2006

Government Review

Essential oil quality. Westcorp


Australia, the Hemp Colony?

June 4, 2018

If I’m not reading chemistry I’m reading history so imagine my absolute mind-blowing delight when I can combine both as is the case with Hemp and Australian white settlement…

Being British I can say things like ‘back when Britannia ruled the waves’  with some degree of credibility,  we did have a mighty good navy once-upon-a-time and growing up, it was a source of pride that such a little nation shaped like an old woman riding a pig could have mustered the energy and man-power to conquer anything other than a cup of tea and large slice of cake but we did.   Since my youth, I have,  thankfully, grown up and learned about all aspects of colonisation and as such tend to be less gung-ho (enthusiastic) with my praise for my forefathers but that’s another story.  This one is about hemp.

British naval ships HMS Alexander

Back in the day there were no planes, trains and automobiles to get you around, it really was a case of  hopping in your boat and setting sail if you wanted to get anywhere fast (and/or far away) and as I said, that’s what my English ancestors did.  One such chap was Sir Joseph Banks, someone who I’m sure I’d have paid some degree of attention to had I been alive at that time.  He took part in Captain James Cook’s first great voyage that ran from 1768-1771 and included time surveying the east coast of Australia,  relatively close to where I now live.  During that trip Sir Joseph, who was a botanist and fellow of the Royal Society, focused on charting the many new and potentially useful botanical species he encountered. He was renown for focusing on species that could have a commercial benefit in some way, either as food, medicine or for industrial use.  It was he who famously introduced Eucalyptus, Acacia and Banksia (named after him) to Europe but it wasn’t just a one-way-street for Banks,  he could also see the potential for sending something back to Australia and that something was hemp.

By 1778 Banks was the president of the Royal Society and was charged with advising King George III on the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.  He used his influence, ear of the king and (limited) experience of Australia to suggest that this new colonial outpost be used to grow the empires Hemp crop as a way of solving the growing hemp crisis that was engulfing Britain at that time. Experiments were already going on in Canada and India so why not the vast expanse that was Australia?  Hemp was a hugely important crop during this time as it was used to produce the strong and hardy rope needed to hoist a ships sails – without hemp Britania’s wave ruling days would be numbered.  The king granted permission for Bank’s experiment but it was decided that the operation should remain secret save that any other nation got wind of the plan.  It has since been alleged that the whole notion of Australia being used as a convict colony was really just a cover for the hemp experiment – I’m not sure how much truth is in that but a chap called Dr John Jiggens found it interesting enough to write a whole book about!

Hemp book

Eventually things got moving and by 1840 the first commercially viable Hemp crop was sewn in the hunter valley region of New South Wales – Cannibis Sativa.  Apparently the largest farm was some 400 hectares producing enough to fully rig three English Naval ships but the unfettered joy was relatively short lived as sail made way to steam and then, later to fossil fuelled vessels thus reducing the demand for hemp rope. At the same time, developments in the processing of cotton increased the popularity of that fibre and further eroded the market for hemp.  But hemps popularity never completely disappeared and it remained a viable farming crop until 1937 when the law changed.

Hemp that is used for rope and fabric has virtually none of the psychoactive properties of Marajuana although visually the crops are hard to tell apart.  In 1937 the Australian government passed new legislation banning the cultivation of hemp in a move that echoed what was going on in the USA.  The USA was going through its prohibition era and was looking to formalise and better legislate the pharmaceutical industry.  Up to that point it has been estimated that some 30% of pharmaceutical drugs were based on hemp so in an attempt to get that under control, hemp farming was banned as it was just easier and cheaper to police a complete ban rather than carry out testing to see if a crop was industrial grade, low THC hemp or drug-quality crop.

The ban on growing hemp persisted for a long time and it wasn’t until relatively recently, in 2008 that the Hemp Industry act came into play.  This act introduced a licensing scheme to allow farmers in New South Wales (and elsewhere in Australia with slight variations on the licence laws) to grow low THC hemp crops for finer, seed and oil production.   Low THC hemp is classified as containing no more than 1% THC – Marijuana contains between 4-24% for comparison.

This re-opening up the market has allowed farmers to re-plant crops and start participating in the market for green fibre, cloth and plant-based oil crops but it wasn’t until last year that things got even better still!

In 2017 the law changed again and now hemp can be grown for food use. All hemp growers are required to hold a licence to operate and that licence outlines details of how crops are to be audited and tested for their THC levels.  This is to ensure that hemp food products do not cross over into the therapeutic realm.

Attitudes to hemp as a non-pharmacologically active crop have changed significantly over the last ten years as more and more people have become aware of the environmental impact of different crops on the planet.  Hemp is a good candidate for ‘green’ brands and lifestyle products as it is fast growing,  low-maintanence and is a crop that can be fully utilised with next to zero waste which is highly unusual.   The oil yields between 0.6-2.4 tones per hectare (palm oil can yield as much as 4-5mt per hectare) and it has an almost perfectly balanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 for human nutrition at 3:1. As far as skincare goes, this is a medium-to light weight oil with low shine making it an ideal candidate for facial serum oils and leave-on skincare products.  It is also relatively low-cost to produce due to its fast growing nature and lack of need for pesticides and in some regions it is even possible to produce two crops per year.

I was lucky enough to visit the Hemp Expo in Sydney last month and see and try for myself some of the many products that can be made with this amazing crop!  As you can see from the above, the Australian history of hemp is fascinating and multifaceted but I think it will prove to be nothing compared to its future.  I look forward to participating in the future of the hemp industry here in Australia and am even considering planting a couple of hectares of our property with some low THC hemp to experiment with as long as our soil and rain fall conditions are favourable.  Who knows, maybe I can even grow my own hemp based emulsifiers and surfactants in the future, now wouldn’t that be nice!


So, to all my lovely readers out there keep your eyes peeled for more hemp action in the coming years,  the laws are changing, the public is receptive and the future is reliant on us farming cleaner, greener and more versatile crops so thanks Joseph Banks,  you may have done a few things that I can’t stand by and praise but you did good in bringing Hemp to Australia.

Amanda x







Get yourself a little assay…..

May 10, 2018

So what is one of those?

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


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

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

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

When assays go wrong.

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

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

When they work well.

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

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

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

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

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

So what can we assay for?

Quite a few things but my most common tests are:

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

And who does these tests?

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

What does it cost?

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

And when should I assay my formulations?

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

If in doubt just ask.

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

So that’s the intel on assays.

Have fun in the lab 🙂


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