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Things have changed around here.

August 29, 2017

Those of you that know me whether through this blog or in person know that I’ve been doing this cosmetic chemistry thing for near on 20 years now  – yes that does make me feel a little old.  Things have changed a lot since I started in this industry, both inside my head and in the wider cosmetic industry community and while some of those changes have been good, others have been a bit worrying to be honest!  Let me explain.

People do seem to be reading  more.

It makes me smile when someone who I am pretty confident is relatively new and fairly in-experienced in this industry starts a conversation with me by explaining how micro emulsions are better than regular emulsions for stabilising difficult actives and then asking ‘so why aren’t your products micro emulsions?’.   I smile not because the question is silly, far from it, it is a beautiful question and is full of merit. More that after a bit of time being in the industry you quickly realise there is theory and reality. Sure micro emulsions are good but how many manufacturers are experienced in that?  OK so some are but will they accommodate your small order and if they do,  have you any evidence that this method IS actually better than something simpler to make and can you make it organic, gluten-free, palm free and vegan?

People do seem to be confident in asking more questions.

It is a great thing that people are engaged enough to invest time in asking for ways to optimise their formulations and make sure their preservatives work.  Again I think this is great but I’m finding that an increasing amount of people are looking for quick, absolute, black or white answers when this is a world of many colours.  I have lost track of the number of times people start a conversation with ‘Everyone I ask tells me something different and now I want to know what you think’. Probably not because they think I know everything but most likely because they know that I’ll explain why all the different answers.  In case you are wondering why all the different answers the answer to that is simple – Cosmetic Science is an APPLIED science, there are always lots of ways to do the same thing. The only problem is that most people who are ‘asked’ during this search for wisdom will be other relative novices on forums who know what works for them but may not know why and even if they do may not think to ask the original questioner if their solution applies.

People do seem to be good at finding new ingredients.

I was speaking to a couple of ingredient suppliers about this on the weekend at Beauty Expo and they told me that they do get more calls and emails from individual members of the public and small brand owners now than they ever used to. I  assume this is because trade-name ingredients are more traceable now to the smaller end of town with many small lot ingredient packers selling things by their trade name or at least referencing it.  Some savvy brand owners or individuals do manage to trace these things back to the source or at least the importer who then unleashes a world of information on these poor little fish!  There are also bloggers that mention trade names and of course the dreaded (but useful) online forums and Facebook groups.   Now again, all of this is good but there is a down side.  As a formulator I’m always quite careful about which ingredients I pick for start-ups because it is very confronting to be told that you have to invest your first $3000 (after paying for a formula) into a 200 litre drum of that special thing which will probably run out of shelf-life before you use it all.  It is even more disheartening when, after doing that AND it running close to the end of its shelf life you find out the supplier is no longer supporting it in this market and you won’t be able to get fresh stock. Lastly it is devastating to find that your prized and lovingly sourced active (from overseas) is not registered for use here in Australia OR is not actually compliant to Organic or whatever regs.  I quite honestly have all the anxiety for my clients I’m sure as they don’t often seem to sense the gravity of all of this – maybe I do because it’s happened to me many times throughout my beauty industry life and it sucks.

People do seem quite sure of themselves.

Probably the most striking difference that I’ve felt over the last six or so years of dealing with lots of start-ups and wanna-be brand owners is the confidence that they now have about their formulating ideas – sometimes I feel they will whack me when I say ‘yes but…. not possible luv’.   I think that this confidence comes from all of the above,  feeling like a lot of research has already been done, a lot of people canvassed,  the ingredient suppliers sourced, the need established and the outlet primed.  The only down side is that again, what looks good on paper and in theory doesn’t always work well in practice.  Now I know that 20 years isn’t really a long time in something but it is long enough to have amassed a good set of bad experiences to pull from (similar to the above with the raw material example).  Sometimes this experience has been gained by longer term observations of what works and what doesn’t and other times it is because I’ve actually done that, tested it and got the results to prove it and that’s what I want to talk about now.

Results based discussion.

One thing that hasn’t really changed as far as I can tell is the depth of knowledge in this subject.  Sure there is more breadth because information is more accessible – you no longer have to be in the industry to access industry information – but I am not seeing much evidence that people actually know much more or are finding out many new things and that’s what worries me. That isn’t to say that I think the science boffins in their Ivory tower labs aren’t producing anything new, more that it is not swishing around in the pool that I spend much of my time in really and being as though it’s this end of town that’s really growing and trying to innovate I think it should be.  So what to do, what to do?

For a long time now I’ve been personally frustrated by the fact that I would like to do more testing but I haven’t always been able to afford it.  Testing ideas out doesn’t come for free as I’m sure everyone appreciates and it’s not only money, it’s also time. It takes time to make samples to test, time to think through what’s wrong and to learn and apply new knowledge.  I have to admit to having been reluctant to share some of the things I learn from time to time as I have sometimes felt that information is commoditized and taken for granted. We expect answers from a Google search without thinking about the trials and tribulations the information creator went through to get it there.  But then I think ‘stuff it’,  I’ll just do what I can and as long as I’m enjoying it and not breaching any brand IP then I’m all good.  So that’s what’s happening now.

A change for Realize Beauty.

I’m lucky enough to find myself in the position now that I do have a bit of time (well, not really but we’ll make time) and a bit of spare money to do some testing and share the results in order to help build a depth of knowledge that I think is a bit lacking in our smaller end of town.   The tests I am talking about are the kind of thing I tried to fund through my Blue Sky Lab program a few years back  – I couldn’t quite get that together then but now I’m pretty much ready.   So I’m talking a few Preservative Efficacy Tests,  some micro testing of different products,  Assaying of actives to see if they are there after a period of time,  Stability testing of some basic concepts, creating and testing of essential and vegetable oils that I press and more besides.  I’m basically talking about measurable analytics and data. Stuff that can help us all tackle questions like:

  • Does a sugar scrub need a preservative?
  • Does Vitamin C survive in a water based product?
  • Is there any retinol left in my night cream?
  • How different is one batch of essential oil from another?
  • Is my manufacturing procedure clean enough?
  • How active is my extract?

And so on and so forth.

Now before we all get too excited, I can’t do EVERYTHING my little chickadees but I can do SOMETHING and hopefully that something that I can do and share will be interesting and thought-provoking for you as to be honest I think the world is getting a little tired of just reading or hearing opinions what we all want more of is results.

So let’s get on with it shall we?


PS: While I’m not short on ideas and projects it is always interesting to find out what interests and puzzles you. If you do have a request why not let me know either on here or via an email:   Also if you want to know where you can get some tests done do let me know as I can also help you out with that too.  The more people who actually do stuff the better in my opinion.





How do you know which solubiliser to select?

August 28, 2017

This question comes up a lot and I actually struggle to answer it, not because I don’t understand the science, but because I do.  Let me take a moment to explain.

Some time ago I was formulating a spritz type product for a client and was becoming increasingly agitated at my inability to predict which solubiliser would work. I quite literally had to keep making up batch after batch then throw them away due to failure after failure.  Now failure to adequately solubilise an essential oil into water (which is what we are talking about here for those who don’t know) can have a number of causes including poor manufacturing method, trying to incorporate too much oil,  trying to solubilise vegetable oil components or addition of a disruptive preservative.  I had already accounted for all of those factors so was pretty sure my issue was one of solubiliser selection only. Basically what a solubiliser does is to blend a little bit of  volatile oil (usually an essential oil, fragrance or flavour) into a lot of water. The resulting formula is somewhere in the region of 0.1-2% oil with the rest being water or water-soluble additives.  These products can then be called spritzers, toners, floral waters, deodorant sprays etc.

So choosing a solubiliser.

After taking a step back from the lab to have a think I came to the rather logical conclusion that this solubiliser/ solubilised oil relationship was a game of two halves brought together in a nurturing and supportive environment – rather like when two potential lovers meet in a bar…..

The oil.

I started to look more closely at the chemistry of the essential oils that I was trying to solubilise and to simplify things I looked at solubilising single oils first.

My table of date is available here. Essential Oil Chemistry For Class For website

Basically an essential oil is a chemical soup with one, two or possibly three main chemical actives present.   Some oils, such as Eucalyptus or Lemon are relatively easy to identify chemically with Eucalyptus being over 80% 1,8 Cineol and Lemon being around 70% Limonene.  I came to the conclusion that if I could know more about the chemistry of these individual aroma chemicals I could potentially predict what type of solubiliser would help solubilise these ingredients into water.  This assumption proved to be somewhat accurate.

On learning what the key components of my oils were I looked up their structures as that would tell me if these chemicals were polar or not.  Whether an ingredient is polar or not is very important as like dissolves like and as such polar chemicals are more likely to dissolve into polar solvents (water, alcohol) than non-polar chemicals (which are more likely to dissolve into vegetable oils than water).   My theory here was that the more polar oil chemicals, the more likely they are to dissolve into water anyway so the less solubiliser might be needed.  My other theory was that adding alcohol into the water phase would work against you when you are trying to dissolve polar chemicals than when trying to dissolve non-polar chemicals. This theory being based on the knowledge that water is more polar than ethanol.

Polarity:  Water > Glycerin > Ethanol > Acetic Acid (vinegar) > Benzyl Alcohol > DMSO (Dimethylsulfoxide).

I also looked at the molecular weight of the major oil component as my theory was the heavier the molecule, the more solubiliser it might take to incorporate it into the mixture.  I was basing this idea on density and the fact that if you match relative densities between phases you are less likely to get sedimentation or creaming of the product.  After trying a few things out in the lab I still feel that there is merit in pursuing this.

I tried to make sure that I was familiar with at least 60% of the oil chemistry in terms of its polarity and molecular weight before going any further as I felt that if I could predict solubility for the majority of the oil then I’d be more than halfway there. My experiments showed me that this was also a reasonable assumption.

The Water.

So after looking at the oil chemistry it was time to look at the water.  Most people start off formulating very simple spritzers with just essential oil, solubiliser,  water and preservative so that’s where I started too.  I have already experienced the chaos that can happen when one adds Aloe into the water phase of some spritzers and wanted to just focus my attention here on the basics (Aloe is salty and adding salt ions into the water can decrease the Critical Micelle Concentration of an ionic solubiliser and increase the micelle size – more on this another time).  I’d also advise anyone else looking at trying to optimise their spritz formulations to do the same – take out the water-based fluff first then add it back one by one to see how each thing affects your products clarity and stability.

The ingredient that one can’t really avoid is the preservative and this can also bring a level of pain to the formula playing field.  Preservatives work at the interface between the oil and water. Some preservatives do this very gently by finding a slot on the surface of the dispersed phase and leaving their bulk in the water phase without really interacting with the emulsion stability. Other preservatives work ON the surface, often lowering surface tension as that can help to ‘soften’ microbes so they can be killed.  That lowering of surface tension can be a problem in a delicately balanced blend as there needs to be a degree of tension between the surface of the dispersed oil phase and the external water phase to keep the place in order – keeps the oil droplets small and spherical.  If the surface tension drops dramatically the internal structure can collapse and the product turn milky or even separate fully.  Preservatives that present themselves as ‘wetting agents’ too are often the culprits here and while I’d caution against thinking they can’t ever be used (sometimes breaking surface tension at least a little bit is a great thing for better spreadability) it is something to be aware of.  Glyceryl Caprylate and Caprylyl Glycol are examples of this type of chemistry whereas Sodium Levulinate, Sodium Anisate and Phenoxyethanol are less likely to cause these problems.  Rather than avoid trying different things out I’d advice formulators to just give themselves time to observe how their particular formula interacts with their chosen preservative system.  It only takes a few minutes to see this for yourself after all!

Bringing it together – the Solubilisers.

So now it’s crunch time, how do we use all of this insight to help choose a solubiliser?  Well, that’s where things get harder still.

I was surprised by how little depth of reasoning I could find behind the chemistry of the different solubilisers available to the cosmetic chemist.  I came to the conclusion that many ingredient manufacturers had just assumed that all you need for a good solubiliser is a high HLB.  A closer look into this found some clarity in the pharmaceutical sphere – this paper was a big help. But first I’d better refresh the reader on HLB.

So HLB is the Hydrophillic, Lipophillic balance and is a number assigned to a chemical to help you visualise or calculate how much it loves oil vs water or water vs oil. The higher the number, the more likely it will be to prefer water – numbers usually go up to around 20 for this application.   Most solubilisers have HLB’s of between 14-20 meaning they like water a lot and oil a little bit. This makes them a logical fit for our formula which contains a little oil and a lot of water.  However, HLB isn’t everything as we shall now see.

Just as the chemistry of the thing we are trying to solubilise matters so does the chemistry of the solubiliser and one of the key things here is in how it forms micelles.

The word ‘micelle’ has become quite familiar to people because of micellar water but not everyone understands what that means. I like to visualise micelles as ‘ring-o-roses’ where the solubiliser, in the solvent (water) gets to a concentration where instead of wandering around aimlessly with no friends it forms friendship circles by holding hands or something similar.  These little grouplets are called ‘micelles’ and they orient themselves in a way that is most comfortable for them, forming when the surfactant reaches an ideal concentration – we call that the ‘Critical Micelle Concentration’ and it is different for each surfactant.  Solubilisation technology is mostly (if not always) non-ionic so these solubiliser chemicals have a water-loving and an oil loving end to them.  In a formula like this where there is little ‘oil phase’ to speak of the oil loving end will congregate facing inwards with the water-loving end facing out only the oil loving ends will be empty until the oily thing to solubilise comes around.

This terribly drawn picture below is my attempt to show a couple of micelles (the tadpole looking things in circular formation).

When the perfume or essential oil is added it can fit into this merry dance in one of three places and be ‘solubilised’.  It either slots into the middle- the hydrophobic core (shown here as a brown/ gold blob),  slots in at the interface (joining the hand-holding ring – the blue bits) or fits in with the hydrophilic end of the micelles as per the orange blobs on here.  Non polar aromatics will assume the first position inside the micelle while the water-insoluble polar aromatics will prefer the interface.  Some aromatics might also find a spot in the hydrophillic tail group and loosely associate themselves there.

When I found out all of this I was excited as it really did seem like I could use this knowledge to predict where my ingredients of choice would sit and fit and be stable but oddly enough this wonderful insight has saved me only a fraction of what I thought it would in time in the lab – so far anyway.   I think that part of the reason for that is because of the complexity of the ingredients we try to solubilise and the other part is probably because some solubilisers we use in cosmetic manufacturing were developed more for their high HLB than their micelle behaviour.  Then again I could be wrong and it could be that I’ve just not tried enough things but the fact that I’ve found it so hard to gather data on CMC does lead me to the conclusion that ingredient manufacturers think it either irrelevant or haven’t realised how interesting it would be.  See this from BASF who are pretty big in this area.  

With regards to CMC you will notice from the numbers that I have managed to find, that these numbers are very low and that in general, we would be adding our solubiliser at levels higher than the CMC in pretty much ALL cases (leading to the question ‘why would we bother with CMC then as we always surpass it)?   But while we do surpass this concentration point, we are still trying to formulate using the lowest level of solubiliser possible to save us impacting negatively on the products aroma, skin feel (not too sticky) and cost.  Even with that accounted for we wills still most likely use more solubiliser than the CMC so for me the value of the CMC is in giving us insight into how readily these surfactants form micelles and roughly how much of our added solubiliser will be in one.  So, you not only have to exceed the CMC, but you have to exceed it by enough of a margin to give you enough micelles to accommodate your aromatic oil phase. By my reckoning the larger the CMC, the (potentially) more solubiliser you should be adding to guarantee that your aromatic oil meets up and interacts with a micelle.  I think that this is why we are often told to use three times more solubiliser than aromatic oil to start with – to help shift the odds in your favour of having micelles and having micelles that ‘see’ the oil.

Another angle to discuss is the shape of the solubiliser.  Some solubilisers are pretty much small, simple heads and straight chain tails (Decyl Glucoside) whereas others are far more complex  (polyglyceryl-10 Laurate).   If we think about the micelles again, it is fairly easy to see how big chunky solubilisers with lots of tails might be able to catch lots of the polar but mostly hydrophobic aromatics in those swishy tails – rather like a fishing net. However, it might also be harder for these types of chemicals to welcome the non-polar components into their little hydrophobic cores, not least because the swishy tails block the way!   It also seems rather logical to expect that big bulky solubiliser molecules might either not form micelles at all (this is possible) or, when they do they are either really big (so big micelles but less of them) or consist of relatively few individual units so are more loosely packed.  How this impinges on the net result of solubilising your essential oil or fragrance is up for debate but unless you have lots of polar oils to solubilise I’d be leaning towards simpler structured solubilisers with bigger, more spacious cores as my preferred option.

So what’s next? How do you know which solubiliser to collect. 

If you have managed to read through all of the above,  been able to visualise what I’m going on about and still feel inclined to get in the lab then I applaud you!  I’m sure that within all of this information will be a method of putting it all together in a simple way that can help shortcut the circuit but I haven’t found it yet.  And even if there was a perfect calculator nature is always there to trip us up with an uncharacteristic batch of essential oil that doesn’t quite conform to our expected norm – this would be less likely to happen with a fragrance.

What I’m hoping that this article does is underline the complexity of the science behind this.  The science that underpins solubility, solubilisation and micelle formation helps us to deliver drugs perfectly,  create sprayable micr0-emulsions AND make a good sprizer to help set your make up.  I don’t so much mind that it is complex, it is always fun to grapple with a few concepts at once – stops the brain from atrophying but have I managed to save you or me any time as yet?  Probably not.  But hang on, maybe I have – I think what I have managed to do is bust the myth that just getting the right HLB will shortcut your problem.  I think we can all agree that getting a little bit of aromatic oil into a lot of water is way more complex than that!

On that note I had better go into the lab and see if I can add to this research and identify a pattern.

Happy labbing.

Amanda x


Building an efficacious brand starts with knowing your actives.

August 18, 2017

So I’ve been asked to produce a ‘cheat sheet’ of actives. A piece of paper that allows people, at a glance, to work out what to put into their products to get an effect.  I’ve just finished that work and it’s turned out OK but I feel a bit odd about it.  You see, what I’ve done is enabled the ‘box ticker’ as well as the ‘thorough researcher looking for a starting point’.  I’ve made it easier for people to feel like they are making something good when in reality they may not be.  Maybe it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter…. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it – after all, I do that sometimes.  Maybe it would pay for me to remember that I can’t control what other people do with the information I give them, that all I can do is do the best I can do and leave it at that.  Maybe that’s true but I want to tell you what’s going through my head anyway, in the hope that should you read this, or another of my ‘cheat sheets’ you might take a moment to see what lies beneath and behind this, to see what I’m really trying to achieve and if you are willing to do that, then maybe, just maybe you will go on to make great products that we can all be proud of.

So what’s going on?

I guess to answer that requires a bit of a scene setting as to what I mean by ‘active’ and an ‘efficacious brand’.

In a cosmetic setting the ‘actives’ could be many things but often they are the ingredients that are added on top of the base to make it special, to give it the ability to do something specific.  If we use the example of a sponge cake recipe you can pretty much take that recipe and, with minor changes make a plain or chocolate or lemon or walnut and orange or Victoria sponge cake.  The base ‘product’  is the sponge while the ‘actives’ are  the chocolate, lemon, walnut, jam and butter icing – the things that make the sponge ‘special’.   Now all of this might seem bleedingly obvious to the long-term brand owner but I’m not always convinced that it actually is.  That the ‘actives’ are given the time and attention that they deserve and that’s where ‘efficacious’ comes in.

Efficacy = results.

It is perfectly possible to pop all of your actives into a product and get zero benefit. It is also perfectly possible to pop in your actives and get a right mess. Sometimes that is due to the way the formula is manufactured and sometimes it has more to do with something else.

If we take the sponge cake example again it is logical that you would add some cocoa into the cake batter to turn a plain sponge into a chocolate sponge. Adding the cocoa at the end of the process would not a chocolate sponge make!  Same actives, same concentration, totally different result (cake).  The same could be said for the jam,  add the jam into the cake batter and get an almighty mess probably,  spread it onto the cooled sponge after baking and voila, great success!

And this is where I start to worry about an active cheat sheet.  Just knowing that a plant extract, vitamin, mineral or peptide is known for a particular outcome doesn’t in its self guarantee it. In fact, with plant extracts you can quite often get a whole lot of nothing you expected unless you are in the know so we should definitely explore that more!

In our cake example I talked about cocoa being the active in the chocolate sponge but what do you know about cocoa? The cocoa that would make this happen?  What part of the cocoa plant is it? Why does it work? How come we have to put it into the sponge batter?  How much do we need to add to get a result?  Will it always work or is it sensitive to other conditions?   Again I’m sure that these are questions that go through my students and clients heads when they are weighing up their actives but it is all too easy to miss this detail when faced with an appealing sounding plant active, especially if you can then add heaps of it (such as in the case of a plant hydrosol for example) and then have it listed as one of your key ingredients!  What could be better than that!

Not all plant parts are created equal.

Ok so in order to assess whether your particular plant extract, powder or liquid is going to do what you THINK it will/ should/ could do you need to know its chemistry AND you need to know what it is about that particular plant that gives the action that you are hoping for.  Once you know that it is just a game of SNAP!

For example many people think that carrot oil is a good source of vitamin A because they have heard that carrots are full of vitamin A and may also know the cosmetic ingredient Retinol or Retinyl Palmitate which are oil soluble so assume that carrot oil contains all the vitamin A.  But that is wrong.  Carrot oil is from the seeds and the seeds are not rich in anything vitamin A related, in fact they produce a highly smelly oil which is anti-microbial – still very good for the skin but not vitamin A.   In the case of carrot the vitamin A is in nature’s form as carotinoids and in the carrot they are mostly the water-soluble type.  Carotinoids are a family of pigmented retinol-type chemicals that can be oil or water-soluble, in Buriti oil the carotinoids are what makes the oil super orange so it is no wonder that people get confused.  This may not sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things but for me it does matter, especially if you want your customers to get a good chance of getting the result you are aiming for!   The story of ‘where’s my target chemical’ plays out across all types of plant active, not least because you get very different chemistry from different extraction methods – glycerin extracts will not give the same analytical profile (chemistry) as an alcoholic extract and both will differ from a hydrosol or essential oil.  This sometimes leads people to assuming that the whole plant leaf, twig or bark is better, that adding the powdered whole plant is the bees knees but this is also false most but not all of the time.

When adding powdered botanicals, even super concentrated ones unless it completely dissolves into the water or oil phase, such as Aloe or coconut milk powder does, it is likely that very little of that powder ever becomes bio-available during normal product use.  Many plants hold onto their chemical ‘actives constituents’ with all their might and these actives need coaxing out with either a solvent, heat, mashing or infusion.  So you can easily end up with a product that contains the potential to act but none of the joy!  Rather like me giving you one of my lovely sponge cakes but saying ‘you have to experience it through the tin I put it in’.  Not very satisfying!

The other thing that people often think with botanical actives is that more is better, hence why people like ingredients that they can add to the top of their INCI list – where the higher content ingredients are.  This is also often, although not always untrue.  Many plants that are highly active can also be quite likely to initiate a reaction to the skin.  That’s actually quite an obvious statement because actives have to have an action by definition BUT if that action is to irritate, inflame or otherwise disrupt unhelpfully that is not good.  The saying ‘the dose makes the poison’ is worth remembering but that’s not all.  Knowing your target chemistry and what dose of that is required for a chance at a result helps to insure you have a fair chance of an efficacious formula that doesn’t have  any negative side effects, not least the side effect of having an overly expensive (but not very effective) product!

I guess the bottom line here is that you just have to think much more carefully about what, why, how and where these actives are and need to be to work before just diving in!

And some other little things.

The last bit I want to talk about on here quickly is the stability of the actives themselves and how knowing a little about their character can again help to boost product efficacy.

Antioxidants are big news in natural (and regular) cosmetics as they help to keep our skin in tip-top condition by helping to mop up the free-radicals that can cause us to age prematurely.  I like to think of antioxidants as our skins army of protectors but like any army, they can’t just keep on working forever, they get worn out and used up if treated harshly or put under too much pressure.  Knowing a little about what ‘pressure’ means for your little skin soldiers will help to ensure they are battle ready for the whole of your products shelf life and not just the first couple of days!  The same can go for botanical extracts whose pigments can photosynthesise, whose aromatics can evaporate or oxidise and whose essential fatty acids can again oxidise (go rancid).  Basically it is best to adopt a mindset where you really have to get to know your actives before you start with your formulation – that way you can formulate FOR them (being as though they are your products big-hitting-benefit-bringers) rather than you just trying to shove everything in at the end while hoping for the best!

Avoiding the Overwhelm.

OK so back to the cheat sheet for a minute.

With a cheat sheet we essentially create a ‘cheat’ or ‘quick’ way to access the information we need to short-cut our R&D process.  Then I’m telling you all of this and opening up multiple cans of worms.  After years of working in a technical help desk capacity for cosmetic clients I understand and appreciate that sometimes this can feel overwhelming and end to a virtual lock-down state where the potential brand owner/ product developer literally can’t move forward for fear of getting something wrong, ruining their product, putting something rubbish on the market and being found out or just causing an explosion.  If you feel like that then let’s pause a minute to think.

The way I look at it my cheat sheets are ‘door openers’ or ‘introductions’ into a complex yet exciting world.  Imagine you arrive at a party where you don’t really know anyone. The host, being a good and thoughtful person, takes your hand and introduces you to a few people (they are our ‘actives’)  now it is possible to have a perfectly nice time for a little while by just exchanging pleasantries with these people,  maybe by talking about the weather, what was on TV last night or a funny cat clip you saw on social media.  You could quite feasibly leave the party feeling that it was an enjoyable experience.   On the other hand you could take a deeper, more intense approach, especially if you happen to be introduced to someone very interesting. You might ask them about their life, their dreams, what makes them tick – who knows you might even end up marrying them – the ‘actives’ equivalent of doing some analytical and efficacy testing I guess 🙂  You get the picture….

And back to the cheat sheet. 

So I come back to the beginning and look at what this piece of work is – a simple, fast-reference resource. An introduction, a starting point,  a guide, a map.  It says very little and yet quite a lot at the same time.  Helping you to hone in on the individuals (actives) that might be able to help in your search for efficacy (results).  It is just the beginning, the rest is up (or down) to you. And I think there is value in that.

Actives Master Data Sheet August 2017

Enjoy x





“I Know That When I Put My Moisturiser On It Probably Does F…All” Helen Mirren.

August 3, 2017

Well what on earth do we make of that statement from L’Oreal brand ambassador Helen Mirren?  Do we hang up our lab coats and spatulas and call it a day?  I wonder……

To be fair on Helen Mirren she went on to finish that sentence with “but it just makes me feel better. I’ve always said to L’Oreal as well that I will only do what makes me feel better” and to be honest, isn’t that fair enough?

Outside of the clear argument about how unprofessional it was of Helen to drop the F bomb while sitting on a L’Oreal panel I think there is some merit to what she says and not in a ‘let’s bag out L’Oreal’  sort of way because I think doing that sort of misses the bigger point.

Helen Mirren is 72 and she’s beautiful.  She has a beauty that has only got deeper and more feisty with age – like a fine cheese (I like fine cheese) or wine (less love for the wine but I’ve heard that wine ages well sometimes) but you get my drift.   Helen was born with a winning hand in the genetic lottery of beauty and whatever she’s doing to maintain that is clearly working, at least from what we see and I’ve no grounds to doubt that what we see is authentic and real. On that basis I feel that it would have been great for Helen to acknowledge her privilege by adding the simple words ‘for me’ at the end of her sentence and yes, I realise that sounds awfully politically correct but I can’t very much help that.

So let’s reword that on her behalf:

“I know that when I put my moisturiser on it probably does f….all for me”

I can get behind that and not in a ‘well maybe she’s using the wrong product’ kind of way.

Let me take this a step back a minute and think about me (sorry) as I really do need moisturiser.

I was not so lucky in the genetic lottery of life, at least when it comes to my skin.  OK so it wasn’t a dreadful tragedy but I have a couple of small genetic malfunctions that mean I have eczema and are prone to chronically dry skin that cracks right through to the bleedy blood bits.  Yuck.   I swear that if I don’t wear moisturiser my skin would fall off or be very painful or unsightly – shedding skin cells as you walk is not a good look.   Now the skin is supposed to create its own moisturiser. If it is ‘normal’ it is perfectly able to create a lovingly balanced water phase and a nutritive oil phase that keep everything as it should be but mine is a bit crap.  I accept that some people have very oily skin and have the opposite problem to mine and I also accept that people have very normal skin and really don’t need anything most of the time but that’s not me.

Maybe Helen is one of those lucky people that doesn’t really benefit from anything much because she’s a freaking freak of nature and has normal skin and an ungodly amount of resilience.  Give that girl a hug in the hope that some of it rubs off on us.

Now maybe I’ve chosen to frame it this way because moisturisers are my life (and my business) but maybe I’ve framed it this way because it actually makes sense once I tried to morph myself into the mind and body of Helen.  I mean Helen clearly knows her own skin by now and is probably right that nothing she slaps on now as a 72 year old will make her look 20 again and unless she’s particularly dry, greasy, pimpled or sun damaged she probably doesn’t need much correcting either.  And while we are at it, why should be pathologize what is in essence a healthy and normal ageing process?

I have spent many a conversation gazing at the other persons wonderfully smooth, pore-less skin wondering why I didn’t get what they ordered.  Maybe Helen is just throwing the grenade right back at us (the industry) and dropping the truth bomb that we all know is out there – that you can’t ‘buy’ naturally good skin, even if you do employ several hundred patent lawyers and come up with secret ingredients, silky textures and yummy smells.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t buy anything.

If I was L’Oreal I’d be a bit miffed at the choice of words, not least because of how easy the grab is to headline but then again I might also choose to use it as a conversation starter – which I have done today on my Facebook page and in my class this morning.  Whatever your views on this larger topic or on Helen’s use of the F word I think we can all agree that if something makes you feel better why not go for it and indulge?  After all isn’t that what cosmetics are all about?


Is the future O’Right?

August 2, 2017

I do not get paid to promote brands, certification standards or products on this blog. I just write about what I like – as free as a bird 🙂

So I purchased a shampoo from Taiwan manufacturer O’Right while at the Hair Expo the other month off the back of their claims of being the first ‘Carbon Neutral’ Shampoo brand (in Taiwan maybe, I actually can’t remember the detail on that but it did get my attention).

O’Right have won many awards for innovation in the green cosmetic space and I was super keen to give their products a try as one thing I’m not a fan of is products that tick all of the environmental boxes but don’t deliver – I see that as the very definition of unsustainable as the products are likely to not sell (and be dumped) or bought but not used (and end up being dumped).  I needn’t have been concerned though, the shampoo I bought was lovely,  worked really well on my hair and left it pretty soft and manageable even without conditioner.  The only down side for me was the fact that I’m sensitive to the preservative used in the blend so I did end up with an itchy head – it’s the Methylisothiazolinone which seems to still be popular across Asia and is in most commercial shampoo products to be honest but I just can’t handle it.   So sadly this isn’t a product that I can keep buying 😦


What I was taken by is the way that the company have taken a ‘big picture’ view of their environmental impact.  Looking at their factory,  manufacturing methods, packaging, biodegradation and performance. I was super excited to find out that their headquarters, where they manufacture their products is powered by renewable energy –  a combination of solar and wind!  Did I mention that my dream is to run a solar-powered chemical factory?????  I have to go back to Taiwan and see this for myself,  how exciting!

For many years I’ve wondered why this type of thinking has taken a back-seat from the heavily ingredient focused approach that brands more commonly take.  Focusing on INCI lists and whether it reaches an organic certification percentage rather than looking at the brand and business as a whole and asking ‘does the product make sense? Does the product perform?  Is the product a good use of resources?  How will the product affect the environment during and after use?  What about the packaging?

I was watching a You Tube video by Cosmetics Europe earlier this week which puts things into perspective.  The video mentions that only 5-20% of a shampoo’s environmental impact comes from the ingredients, manufacture and distribution with the majority of impact coming from the water used with the shampoo.  I wonder if in spending a disproportionate amount of time focused on whether a shampoo contains parabens or sulfates has distracted us from the fact that there is much more we can collectively work on. I also wonder if the brands that focus exclusively on this realise that the big end of town are moving with the times and making some big strides in ‘Greening’ their operations and reducing their impacts?   Maybe we should all start working together…..

With that in mind this Taiwanese brand has got out there, put its money where its mouth is and created an award-winning brand as you can see below:

  • Taiwan’s first shampoo received “Carbon Footprint Label”.
  • World’s first shampoo to be certified as “Carbon Neutral” under PAS2060 framework.
  • “National Outstanding Small and Medium Enterprises Award”, the most glorious award among SMEs “Taiwan EEWH Green Building Gold Certificate” “Environmental Sustainability Award” by SGS
  • “National Sustainability Development Award” by Executive Yuan
  • “Industrial Sustainable Excellent Award” by Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA)
  • “Enterprises Environmental Protection Award”, the most glorious award in environmental protection
  • “Excellent CSR among SMEs in Taiwan” (2011 & 2012) by MOEA
  • “Xue Xue Awards“(2011 Specialty Award & 2012 Creativity Award) by Xue Xue Institute
  • “Excellent Eco-Friendly and Green Energy Enterprise” by Taoyuan County Government
  • “The Model of Taiwan Entrepreneur Award”, the most remarkable award among entrepreneurs Invited to deliver a speech in 2012 Beijing cross-strait Brand Forum MOEA’s First
  • “Taiwan Green Classic Award”
  • “Golden Pin Design Mark”, the most honorable award in design field
  • The first place of “Green Brand” survey conducted by Taiwan Business Next Magazine MOEA’s top 100 Taiwan Innovative Enterprise On behalf of Taiwan SME to deliver a speech,
  • “Green Transformation”, at 2011 APEC conference held in USA SGS ISO 9001:2008 QMS Certificate
  • “Taiwan Superior Commercial Service Brands” by MOEA


The shampoo comes packaged in a Polylactic Acid bottle – completely biodegradable within a year apparently. I am trying this out for myself here.  In addition the shampoo that I purchased also comes with some little seeds squirreled away in the bottom compartment of the bottle – I’ve planted those today too, let’s keep our fingers crossed that they will grow (I wonder if this is part of the carbon offset calculation?).

The company also use Soy based ink, recycled paper and Taiwanese Bamboo caps which look great and function really well in the wet shower environment.  The company also engage in ‘giving back’ via a number of charity initiatives and are also keen educators which is all very nice and feel-good friendly.

But is this all just box ticking or will brands like this make a difference?

Ok so the cynic in me would recognise that some of these awards and programs and even the whole idea of carbon off-set is prone to being abused or used purely for a market advantage but that’s the same with anything that is done anywhere – some people will always do it just to make money and other people will do it because it is the right or logical thing to do.  The people behind O’Right are young, innovative and motivated to make a difference and the fact that they have gone to such meticulous detail to measure their product range is something – you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.   They have also gone for a much more complex marketing proposition than purely ‘does my label look good’ which is no easy feat. Maybe they have been able to do this because in Taiwan and China, their local markets, there is less concern over things being 100% natural and free-from a thousand things than there is over here.  Maybe that has created the space to look at the environmental impact of a product more holistically and without the need to prioritize appeasing the ingredient-focused marketing department over all others. Or maybe they haven’t quite got that bit right yet and that they do, in fact need to ‘clean up’ their INCI list further – maybe that’s an improvement and if it makes the product 2-5% greener so be it. After all, just because we aren’t making a huge difference or impact doesn’t mean we don’t bother at all.

With that let’s look at the ingredient list of the variant I tried.

The full ingredient list is here:

96% Natural Ingredients. 

Aqua, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Lauryl glucoside, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, laureth-2, Fragrance, Polyquaternium 7, Menthol, Camelia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Niacinamide, Citric Acid, Methylisothiazolinone, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate.


Sodium Cocoamphoacetate:  An Imidazoline based  amphoteric of the type made famous by Johnson and Johnson’s ‘No More Tears’ baby shampoo.  These surfactants are mild and biodegradable but you wouldn’t classify them as completely natural as while they are built on a fatty acid (possibly lauric which is the predominant fatty acid in coconut oil hence the coco part of the name) the additional steps in the manufacturing process are quite involved and result in a complex but interesting range of structures. Looking at the bigger picture though, this surfactants is a pretty good choice when it comes to its in-use and post-use attributes being unlikely to bioaccumulate and having a relatively low aquatic toxicity so it definitely stacks up well when compared against Sodium Laureth or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.


Lauryl Glucoside:  This is a non-ionic surfactant that isn’t particularly great at cleansing the hair as it tends to tangle it but in a combination it can facilitate the formation of mixed-micelles which both thicken the shampoo a little and help to improve the foaming and cleansing characteristics.  This is one of the most natural (100%) surfactant options being corn and palm derived mainly. It is also biodegradable and has a reasonable aquatic toxicity profile although it can be irritating to the skin.

Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate: This is an ultra-mild anionic based on an amino acid. Very good skin profile and equally good environmental profile with excellent biodegradability and low aquatic toxicity.

Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate:   This surfactant has been developed to fill the gaps that SLS/ SLES/ ALS leaves in a shampoo formula namely good foamability and cleansing power.  It is a modified polyglucoside so like the lauryl glucoside but with a funky carboxylate group attached.  Carboxylates are salts of carboxylic acids which are functional groups found on amino acids among other things.  They are found all over nature so while adding one of these onto the end of a glucoside isn’t necessarily going to happen by its self in nature it results in what could be described as a surfactant of natural origin.  Again great biodeg and aquatic tox figures for this one.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine: This is probably one of those that will be stripped out of a formula like this in future mainly due to it being one of the least naturally derived (petrochemical content) and also due to the potential for it to contain contaminants which can be irritating.  CAPB is often added to a formula to increase and improve foaming behaviour and to help make the overall blend milder.  It is possible to buy high quality CAPB that has been vacuum stripped of any impurities but it isn’t possible to strip it of its petrochemical fraction.   Cocamidopropyl Betaine is classified as readily biodegradable but there are some concerns over its aquatic toxicity as this paper highlights.  

Laureth-2: This is a thickener, it is ethoxylated and as such is usually something that ‘natural’ and especially ‘organic’ cosmetics stay away from mainly because the ethylene oxide has traditionally come from petroleum sources but also because ethoxylation can give rise to 1-4 Dioxane residues in the surfactant and 1-4 Dioxane is a human carcinogen.  Again, that said, this contaminant can be vacuum stripped off leaving a clean product behind but you can’t vacuum strip off the petroleum derivative and I would have thought that a non-renewable input would increase the products carbon footprint to a greater degree than a renewable input would.  But we can’t let ethoxylation go without mentioning that you can generate ethylene oxide from plant matter!  I am not sure if O’Rights ethylene oxide was plant or petrochemical derived but if it was plant then that’s one box ticked.  In terms of environmental impact this chemical is not winning any awards. While it is likely to be present in pretty small quantities in this formula (0.5-3% possibly), it is not good when you look at its MSDS.  The high aquatic toxicity would have me thinking twice about using this in a shampoo like this but in the grand scheme of things it probably isn’t going to make the product a big no-no and really one must look at whether there is a better alternative in existence before calling for its replacement. Remember that only 5-20% of a shampoo’s environmental impact is from the ingredients….

Below that we are into smaller fish territory with this being likely to be the less than 1% spot. There is a fragrance which may or may not be of petrochemical origin and may or may not contain pthalates – many cosmetic fragrance houses do disclose now if pthalates are part of the mix as most people do want to know.  The Polyquaternium 7 is a commonly used conditioner for shampoo formulations. This is non-natural for sure and most quats are pretty toxic to the environment but do remember that when it comes to toxicity the dose does make the poison.  The guar gum is quaternised so that is also a conditioning thickener and will likely be part petroleum derived, the Vitamim B3 (niacinamide) is probably fine, nature-identical rather than natural, citric acid is usually natural then the preservatives in this case are petroleum derivatives.

To Sum Up.

Overall I wouldn’t say that this is the greenest ingredients list I’ve ever seen but  it is certainly going in the right direction. Weighing  up the ingredients list while considering the likely impact of the products in-use on the environment, against the fact that the product does work very well and that the overall offering from O’Right is definitely a step in the right direction I’d say that these guys have had a great stab at putting a really good eco-story product that works out there.

In my view focusing on the ingredients list is important and is something that we have all become accustomed to doing – a sort of habit really – so it FEELS natural and look, I’ve just done it too.  But I’d just caution against using that as the ONLY measure of a product and further I’d absolutely caution against elevating it above all else when evaluating a products eco footprint.

In my opinion O’Right has opened up a very important conversation here about sustainability,  sustainable brands, green cosmetics, environmental footprint and impact and life-cycle analysis. They have shown that creating a truly ‘green’ brand should include all parts of the process and not just the ingredient selection. They have opened up a conversation about power generation, carbon accounting, business management,  manufacturing, packaging design, material science, shelf-life and product functionality and I’m sure that as long as they keep innovating they will have a bright and green future ahead of them.

I didn’t tell O’Right that I was writing about them and have had no contact with the brand other than my conversation with them at the Hair Expo. Just so you know.

Amanda x



An Experiment With My Polylactic Acid Bottle.

August 2, 2017

Got a bit distracted in the most delightful way today.

So I bought a shampoo by O’Right (Taiwan innovative brand) at the Hair Expo in Sydney the other month and having just finished using it (very nice BTW) I wanted to test out if the Polylactic Acid bottle really is biodegradable – it is supposed to break down to lactic acid, Co2 and water pretty much….

Anyway, I cut the bottle up and stuck some into soil which I’d placed into an old jam jar. I did this so I can watch it degrade (or not….)

I also kept some aside to put into my new compost bin when it arrives. I want to see how that degrades in a normal compost situation. My only issue with this is whether I’ll be able to track where it is in the bin.

I kept another bit to put on my windowsill as one of the down sides with most PLA is its ability to be broken down with UV light. I want to see if it lasts longer than my pegs – Australian sun is a bugger for breaking down pegs and the Bower birds take the blue ones.

Lastly and my favourite I kept some for a chemistry experiment. I’d read a report here saying that you can break down PLA with sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid so I wanted to try. I did try (although I didn’t quite adhere to the rules laid out but I got the gist) and I can safely say that I made the bottle disappear (sort of). What the lab report didn’t account for is that cosmetic bottles usually contain pigments and ink which have to be filtered out. That done I’m left with a yellow solution which, when acidified with the Hydrochloric Acid becomes a clearish mixture of lactic acid and salt (including some sodium lactate I suspect). I set the final pH at around 4.6.

If you are going to try this at home do be aware that boiling up high strength lye solution is pretty dangerous as it is very highly alkaline and you have the bubbling/ boiling factor so do take precautions of your eyes and skin.  Also the Hydrochloric Acid is much stronger than the acids we typically use in a cosmetic formula so don’t go sloshing that around too.  Also be aware that the pH is very slow to reduce at the beginning but when it starts to drop it drops very quickly so it is easy to over-shoot it. If that happens just add more Sodium Hydroxide until you reach your desired pH. Basically all you’ll end up with is a more dilute solution with more salt in it.

So why bother doing this?

Well, firstly because I can (I have the chemicals on site) but mainly because it stops it going into the bin or the garden for years….

There is currently a  lack of recycling facilities for PLA here in Australia and I’m sure that’s the situation in other parts of the world too. PLA is still quite a boutique plastic, not least because it breaks down almost too quickly for most consumer goods. The O’Right company that make the product that uses this bottle give their formula a 3 year shelf life but the packaging only a 1 year shelf life.  That might not be so convenient for them over time unless their sales are pretty fast and thorough.

That aside though I thought it would be pretty damn neat if people could deal with their packaging on-site rather than pop it into a bin for collection and transportation to an off-site facility.  Practically speaking this self-disposal may end up being more energy intensive than sending it by truck to a facility off-site as the water has to be heated and the chemicals – NaOH and HCl – have to be purchased.  If you could run your facility from solar and rainwater the environmental impacts would be even less – this is one of the plans I have for my property out west – I’ve often dreamed of running my own solar powdered chemical factory, sounds like an oxymoron but I think it has legs……  Anyway what was I doing. Oh yes,  In any case I thought  that softening the plastic up with a bit of cold lye solution prior to composting might just speed up the process without adding too much energy cost to the disposal so that’s an idea too.

The bottom line is that it is possible to take a shampoo bottle that you just finished with that morning and make it disappear leaving in its place a nice acidic liquid that would be used to clean your house before ultimately flushing it down the sink with a clean conscience.  The solids filtered out of the mix would probably have to be disposed of in the garbage unless you could identify the chemicals present and ascertain whether they can also go onto your garden (titanium dioxide might be OK for that) but you are talking a few grams left over and way less space.

That’s what I call waste-to-art and I for one am looking forward to seeing more of this in the future.

Bring on the Polylactic Acid.

Amanda x


A Blue Oil For The Blue Mountains

July 26, 2017

It has been super breezy up here this week so I decided that I’d take advantage of that and collect up a mixture of gum leaves that had fallen into my path on one of my many bush walks (yes, when I’m not in the lab I am hugging trees, exploring new tracks and trying to spot birds up here in the Blue Mountains National Park).

I’ve just bought myself an essential oil distillation kit and have been super-keen to distill anything I can get my hands on, it’s bordering on an obsession to be honest and the only thing stopping me getting a ladder and stripping my own trees is the fact that I don’t want to hurt them (I read ‘The Hidden life Of Trees“. Trees do have feelings 🙂 )  So, the chance to get my hands on their leaves without having to do the stripping myself was too good an opportunity to let up so I got out my backpack and went on a little walk to the end of my garden and this is what happened next.

This is one of the trees that I collected from. It’s in my garden and I think it’s either a Eucalyptus Oreades (Blue Mountains Ash)   but I could be wrong, there are so many different Eucalypts.

Essential Oils

Anyway, according to my vintage copy of ‘The Eucalypts and their essential oils’ by Baker and Smith this tree produces an oil with a 1.2% yield. I got nowhere near that this time but that could have been because many of the leaves I collected were pretty dry and old and some of them weren’t even from that tree 🙂  It ended up being a bit of a mish mash but I didn’t mind because it was fun doing it and put a different and interesting spin on my bush walk.

Anyway, after the usual wait to boil water and build up pressure I got some hydrosol come off and then the magical blue oil!  They say that the Blue Mountains is blue because of the haze from the Eucalypts in the summer and after seeing this oil I would have to say that it may well be true!  It is strange but I fully expected that to just be one of those sayings that was not really based on anything measurable but here we have it!

Sadly the oil didn’t smell particularly yummy. It wasn’t bad but wasn’t as crisp and distinct as the other oil I distilled, the Eucalypt from our Cowra property.  In any case that didn’t matter because there wasn’t enough of it to bottle and get analysed this time.  Maybe next time I’ll be more careful about choosing my sample and will pick it fresh so as to (hopefully) get a better oil yield and quality but I didn’t feel too disappointed because the colour of that little bit of oil was just beautiful to behold.

Oh I love my job x