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Choosing a good cosmetic education course.

March 20, 2021

Sometimes I don’t like being me.

Mostly it is because when it comes to things that bother me I have no poker face.

If you annoy me, be that by something you say, are doing or a vibe you are giving off I will struggle to hide that from my face, body language and actions. I can come across as in a bad mood, aggressive or touchy but I’m rarely any of those things. That’s not often what’s going on inside of me. Instead it’s a mix of frustration and sadness, nothing personal (against you or as a judgement of you) just a world-weary ‘not again’ that’s going on inside of me. Layering the misunderstanding of how I present to the world is just the cherry on the top of an already tiresome exchange but I understand that’s my problem not yours.

This, my friends, is what happens when I’m asked ‘my opinion on’ certain educational providers or courses in this space – this a space in which I also teach so yes, I do see how another layer of misunderstanding might fester – that of jealousy, envy (are they the same thing?), spite etc. I can assure you those are not emotions I am familiar with and while I am familiar with and enjoy another emotion and that’s competitiveness, I’m not a ‘win-at-all-costs’ kind of human either. The race I run is a race of one. I’m not interested in other people that way other than considering if maybe I need to break out of my comfort zone and push myself on further. That’s it.

So yes, I do get asked about different courses all the time and yes I do promote or suggest a few that I do feel are good (and I generally explain why I feel they are good, and, if relevant, what I think may be their weaknesses from my perspective). I believe this is called ‘being honest’ and it is, but there’s more to it than that. I answer in a way that I’d like people to answer me when I ask questions like that, enquiry questions that are seeking information and insight. Rather than say ‘these are good, these are bad’ I prefer to delve deeper, getting the questioner to think about what they want from a course and teacher. After all, what is good and bad? It’s surely more subjective than analytical.

Different prospective students have different needs.

The way I see it there are different things that motivate people to study cosmetic science – not all of them a love of science (and especially not chemical sciences, most people I talk to hate the idea of using chemicals in their products). An aside – when people say that my ‘that’s-not-how-a-scientist-would-think’ inner voice starts shouting in my ear and I have to distract it with a biscuit or sip of tea!

So if you are thinking of studying, are studying but are not sure it’s reaching all the right spots in your brain or have studied and are still feeling emptier than an Australian water tank in the outback then maybe stop for a minute and consider what type of student you are or might be:

Types of students.

  1. Complete newbie who wants to start playing, who knows what will come next!
  2. Crafter who may want to scale up and tighten up on skills but stay crafty
  3. Crafter who prefers the term artisan and wants to be taken more seriously/ feel their brand has more integrity
  4. Crafter who wants to become more scientific and maybe grow a business/ bigger business
  5. Complete newbie who wants to start a brand and is detail focused but identifies as more strategic/ scientific than crafty.
  6. Hands-on investigator who wants to join the dots but no current science background.
  7. Science background hands-on investigator looking for professional development opportunities, refreshers etc.
  8. Internet researcher who wants to make sure they are right about everything they are reading and re-posting.
  9. Internet researcher who wants to understand what they read to a different level.
  10. Industry professional looking to fill gaps in their knowledge for a variety of reasons.

Lots of options, none of which need the same thing (and I may have missed some)

Then we have the different types of teachers or schools, I’ll just refer to both as educators.

a) Educators who are crafters who love doing craft with others.

b) Educators who are crafters who love teaching.

c) Educators who are crafters who love themselves.

d) Educators who are scientists who love science.

e) Educators who are scientists who love teaching

f) Educators who are scientists who love themselves.

g) Educators who are business people who love business.

h) Educators who are business people who love teaching.

i) Educators who are business people who love themselves.

i) Educators who are Industry Professionals who love talking about the industry with others

j) Educators who are Industry Professionals who love themselves.

f) Educators who are Industry Professionals that love teaching about the industry/ field in general.

Again, there may be more.

There is a lot of potential for bad outcomes when you think about it like this but it is also fair to say there’s lots of good also. Further, it’s clear there won’t ever be just one ‘best’ option for learning in this space.

For me, I’m naturally bias towards science in general and chemistry in particular. Secondary to that but also of importance is the application of that science – cosmetic business. As a consequence, I personally favour educational options that are scientifically robust, industry focused and both up to date with and supportive of the way the industry operates and wishes to progress.

When it comes to my judgement of others, I’m comfortable with educators who take a less science-based approach and will promote these if and when it makes sense to do so. What I can’t tolerate and won’t promote or support are educators who pass themselves off as something they are not. This seems very exploitative given that potential students, especially industry newcomers lack the tool kit and experience-led insight to make this judgement prior to signing up. Further, it wouldn’t be unusual for a newbie student to struggle to classify themselves and their needs without some help given that what is said about the industry and what the industry actually is and does are poles apart.

The reflective pause.

So how do you choose a good cosmetic education course? You first think about who you are and what you want from it.

What I’ve learned today is that instead of screwing my face up and feeling terrible about the fact I really want to scream out ‘no, that course is such a waste of money’ I will try instead to to this. I’ll turn the question back and ask ‘what you want to get out of the course and what skills are you taking into it?’ That’s the best way for me to overcome my bias and give the advice that’s best suited to the situation at hand.

Life, if one isn’t learning, one isn’t fully living.


Palm Oil Free and Asian Hate

March 6, 2021

If I pretend for a moment that I’m someone else (hard to do but hey, let’s try), someone who has formed their opinions around what’s good and bad in the world of cosmetics by scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest, I quickly realise that palm oil is bad.

Palm oil has become synonymous with Orang U Tans and more specifically, their loss of habitat and potential for a future. This link has been pushed by bloggers, brands, NGO’s and even Zoo’s for a good while now. For those new to the blog or for whom reading archived material is not a thing, palm oil was one of the first issues I blogged about. Palm plantations are something I have personal experience of as are the jungles and people of Malaysia and Indonesia- the countries most targeted by the palm free lobby.

But I have never been able to fall in step behind the logic of this cause – that if we boycott, ban and avoid palm oil the world will suddenly be OK again. Just as when I first started writing about this issue, I still can’t grasp how such a complex issue can be distilled into peoples minds into such a simple and incomplete solution. In my mind this cause has always been what I call ‘busy work’. Busy work describes the tasks you undertake to make you feel less hopeless, lazy or undisciplined but that ultimately should not actually serve as a substitute for what you really could or should be doing be that properly resting or saving the world.

If you are not angry about what I’ve said so far and don’t want to come and torch my house and accuse me of being a forest killer then I’m glad and wish to thank you deeply. Going against the grain is not a comfortable thing and nor should it be. There are many things about the way Palm Oil is produced that are clearly damaging to the environment. There is also much about our human habits, tastes and attitudes that need more attention. So I’m not saying the palm oil activists have no truth to their argument, I’m just saying it is logically incomplete and ineffective to my mind. I’ve also, for a long while, held the view that it’s politically and environmentally dangerous to be this blinkered and blind.

How we see each other.

I’m saddened to have become aware of a phenomenon called ‘Asian Hate’ and further saddened to realise this is on the rise, especially in the USA. In educating myself about this sorry state of affairs I’ve found myself stopping to consider whether the palm oil issue doesn’t play into the same bucket of hidden fear, hatred or othering that has fuelled this escalation in violence and othering. Indulge me for a moment while I explain.

The ”Other’ people are bursting my bubble’ phenomenon.

It’s easier to hate people who aren’t you and I’m guessing that most of you don’t own, manage or live on, in or near a palm plantation, farm, forest, woodland, rainforest or national park. I do live in one of those areas and maybe that’s why I find it so hard to neatly see myself in another, entirely different box or maybe it’s something else that makes me feel this way…

While I know that Instagram and Pinterest aren’t the only social media providers in the world, these two do feature significantly in the ‘live-your-best-life’ and ‘care about this’ space. We scroll to feel hopeful, connected and inspired by the world and we also scroll, click, sign virtual petitions and shop consciously to help us feel informed about the injustices in life that we want to do something about but only if the effort : reward ratio suits us.

We sit at home, wherever that may be, dreaming of photo-ready-forests filled with beautiful, happy and healthy animals; of pure waterfalls and rock pools that open up to the most amazing no-people-for-miles sunrises and sunsets; of people living simpler, more natural lives than us, thriving on their natural medicine and family ties, unencumbered by the 9-5 workday, the squashy commute or the stench from the city’s over-worked drainage system. With one click into the cart, we buy a piece of it before moving onto the next thing.

This voyuers perspective, this reduction of our involvement with the world to only that which we can see and act on instantly and superficially, changes our brain wiring unless we challenge ourselves. Problems and solutions are just one click away, click enough times on the right content and you start to believe you really are a powerful force for change in the world. Meanwhile we subconsciously push the problems of the world further and further away – we can’t be part of the problem, we buy organic vegetables and fair trade T-Shirts for god’s sake!

Romantic Othering, Palm Oil and Asian Hate.

The scenario I’ve tried to describe above isn’t just relevant to the palm oil issue but as it’s that I’m focusing on I’ll continue on that track.

What I’m trying to capture above is how we, those of us away from THE problem, romanticise both what we see as the problem and what we feel is the solution. In doing that we reduce the agency of people close to the action.

When we conclude that Palm Oil is bad and we must boycott it, how much time do any of us spend thinking about the agency of the people in the countries involved? What do they want? What did they vote for? How are they responding? What balance are they seeking? How does Palm Oil impact their life’s now, what about how they see themselves in the future? Who even are they?

This ‘I know you better than you know yourself’ or ‘I can see your problems and I want to fix them for you’ mentality is how most wars and gross injustices start out.

I’m not saying that nobody BUT those living in Malaysia or Indonesia (in this example) is qualified to talk about or hold opinions on this matter. We are all free to do that but our freedom of thought, when turned into conscious life choices and action must surely be accompanied by a responsibility to evaluate all sides of a situation. To see things as they are rather than as we want them to be.

If our actions undermine the agency of other, fair and just minded people, we are not being helpful, we are being colonial.

There is no doubt in my mind that the world is heading towards a disaster if we all don’t change our ways. Being colonial – othering, romanticising, fetishising, distancing, homogenising – is not the change I’m talking about.

To me the palm oil issue has always been as much about me and what I do on my land as it is about the citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia and what they do on theirs. How can I hold ‘them’ to a standard I can’t attain myself? How can I deny ‘them’ opportunities that I, myself have benefited from? How can I criticise ‘them’ for not making huge changes in their lives when the only change I can muster is that which is necessary to buy a palm-oil free shampoo bar and vegan muffin?

It is not your ‘bubble’, they are not bursting it.

I was distraught and felt all hope was slipping away when the forests around me burned to ashes in the 2019-2020 bush fires and I am disgusted by the fact I live in a country that could easily take the gold medal in species extinction and land clearing. Meanwhile our politicians, the people we democratically voted in, sit swinging between outright denial and active avoidance on environmental and sustainability matters. If it’s not immediately good for the economy it’s not sparking our joy..

It’s highly likely, the people of Indonesia and Malaysia are equally but differently concerned about the state of the world and their part of the world but like me and no doubt you, these concerns are taking a while to unpick and turn into joined-up action.

The bubble we live in isn’t Instagram or Pinterest, our street, our city or even our country. We share our bubble with everyone and everything and if we don’t believe in the equality and right to self-determination of everyone, we are the ones bursting it.

The future is real.

I don’t have an answer to sum up this piece but I do feel the road towards a better, more sustainable and holistic future is to start focusing on what’s real.

People are real.

Asian people are real.

Asian real people have agency.

Asian real people with agency make educated choices and decisions about what’s right for them, their lives and their environment.

Asian real people with agency looking to make new or different educated choices may be more likely to pay attention to those outside-looking-in if they saw this better future and these other choices modelled and lived, rather than talked about and projected but unrealised.

Maybe Asian real people with agency are already making the best, most educated choices, are realising their potential and making the world a better place. Maybe it’s just that us non-Asians can’t see that yet.

The palm oil issue is not an obvious ‘Asian Hate’ pairing and I doubt many people have every thought of it (or themselves) in that way. But I hope by stopping to think about the issue in this way you can see how easy it is for us ‘outsiders’ to forget that underneath it all are people who are just like us.

Amanda x

Notes from the Stability Testing Laboratory – The Weather Girl.

March 2, 2021

I’m sure that many of you have, in the past, experienced the ravaging effects of hotness on your cosmetic products. I wrote about an experience I had a while back here and have since been mindful to remind my clients of the particular attraction that dark coloured packaging has to heat vs light. If that sentence has just had you going ‘wait what? Surely it doesn’t really matter what colour the packet is, just don’t leave your cosmetics out in the searing hot sun’ but actually it does matter. I am going off on a tangent a little to what I was going to write so I will be quick but basically the darker the packaging the faster it heats up and the slower it is to cool down.

While it is true that given enough time a product stored inside identical black and white packaging and exposed to the same amount of heat energy will eventually reach the same internal temperature. However the black pack will spend longer being hot than the white product. I would have hypothesised that without testing it as to me it seems fairly logical but about 3 years ago I had the chance to actually perform a stability protocol on a product to quantify just this! I can’t share the whole report here as it was confidential but I can say that the product stored in black packaging showed sighs of oxidation sooner and to a stronger degree than the product in white packaging at the same time point. I can’t remember the exact difference in heating curve but know the black pack was between 10-30% slower cooling down than the white pack which was significant enough to warrant investing in layered tubes that insulated the product better.

But today I want to talk about another weather phenomenon and that’s wetness.

Again most people can probably remember a day when they felt generally hotter and more irritated by the weather than the temperature should have warranted, often that’s due to humidity. Humidity is a term used to describe how much moisture is in the air and when the moisture levels go up, we tend to feel hotter at lower temperatures due to our sweat-cooling-mechanism not working so well. What you may not be aware of (or may not have thought about before) is that the air can hold different amounts of moisture at different temperatures.

There are two common ways to measure humidity – relative and absolute. Relative humidity is the percentage figure you often hear on the weather broadcast, absolute humidity is the actual amount of water in grams per meter cubed that is present. Once you know the maximum amount of water air can hold at a certain temperature you can calculate the amount present at any given relative humidity as I’ve done in the table below:

What this rather dry and boring table tells me in an instant is that at 20-25C, the ‘normal’ recommended storage temperature for a cosmetic, your products may be experiencing anything from 1.7grams of water per cubic meter to 17.3grams of water per cubic meter. What, you might ask, has that to do with anything given that most cosmetics are lidded and therefore won’t get wet? Well that depends doesn’t it…

Moisture permeability of packaging as supplied and in-use.

It’s rare for general cosmetic packaging to be completely air tight and in-use lapses of concentration or even difficult-to-manipulate closures can exacerbate the problem. I don’t have great fine motor skills (which is pretty annoying for my chemistry work) and in my day-to-day life I can struggle finding the thread on lids which often means the lids are either shoved on by-passing their natural thread dynamic or they are only half put on. Flip top lids are well known for flipping fully or at least half open and we all know that pumps are relatively tightly fit when we first buy a product but you have to unthread them to access the stuff thereby leaving a permanent air access point. Plastics and glass bottles and jars are not entirely air-proof either and will leak gradually over time no matter how diligently the lids are put back on a product.

This article looks at HDPE bottles and their ability to protect medicines from moisture and found moisture permeabilities between 12.57 – 149.95mg per day per litre of product. For the purposes of this exercise I’ll assume the liquid in the container was pure water which basically means the bottled water would gain between 0.1- 1.26% weight over a 12 week period when stored under equivalent conditions (75% humidity, 23C). To put this into an applied context, when I’m doing my stability testing of cosmetics, I fail anything that has a weight gain or loss of more than 1% over the 12 week test period. Products can gain weight from water taken in from the environment and can lose weight through evaporation so weight change is a very common phenomenon.

Exchanges between the product and the atmosphere increase the likelihood of preservative and oxidative failure of a product ahead of what you would normally expect. Sometimes oxidation happens first and in the worst case scenario the oxidative changes destabilises the product, reducing preservative efficacy which in turn leads to microbial failure. But this doesn’t always happen and some oxidative changes are barely noticeable and may not even make that much difference to the efficacy of the product. Alternatively it may be the preservative or microbial status of the product that gives up first. Moisture gain onto a dry, anhydrous or water-in-oil product can be the cause of unexpected and unwelcome mould growth, especially in formulations that are particulate-rich and may be harbouring microbial spores. Fungi often doesn’t need much moisture for it to start growing leaving products looking (and maybe smelling) quite grim.

So, what do we do?

I write these blogs because I’m interested in investigating what I see, the patterns that show themselves once you have journeyed around the sun a few times while doing the same things. I am interested in what we can and can’t control either by design or by instruction. On that note I’d suggest that what you do (should you wish to) is think about this when you are formulating, designing, storing or using your cosmetics. Remember that while I framed this as weather, it’s really about the environment- weather being the state of the atmosphere and the environment (from a product environment perspective) being the changes that your product is exposed to. People often bring up the bathroom when they are talking to me, stating the high temperatures and humidity as the reason they put a preservative in their dry salt scrub. I remind them that under those conditions, the product will most likely ruin (in terms of physical form) sooner than turn microbially unstable. They seem unconvinced but I advise them to try – salt quickly dissolves in water as does sugar.. On that note I remind people that fridges are a wet environment, that while reducing heat exposure is something it may not benefit the product if it means the oxygen is more soluble in it than the air (this mostly impacts vegetable oil based products stored in the fridge).

The bottom line is the environment interacts with and sometimes changes cosmetic products and cosmetic packaging doesn’t necessarily stop it.

One Parting Thought – World Wide Weather.

When writing this I started wondering about different places and imagining different scenarios. Formulating for a global audience has never been an easy task, not least because of the weather. Hopefully this table will help you to appreciate the wide and varying conditions that a global formula has to cope with. It may also help explain why customers living in different cities experience the same formula differently.

In this table I have placed major cities in the table to reflect their average relative humidity and their average annual temperature. Mostly I’ve just used the mean average but for Darwin I’ve split the data into wet and dry season to show how that alters things. If you like, you could use this table along with the table above to help you compare the average amount of moisture the air in each of these cities can hold. You could then compare what 80% humidity in Botoga means in terms of water volume vs that for Shanghai or Hong Kong.

The number in brackets is the city elevation because (as if you need more to confuse things), elevation affects air pressure and air pressure changes can also affect product stability, not least emulsion stability. Generally speaking, average air pressure drops as you rise in elevation. At 2000 meters you have only 80% of the air pressure as is present at sea level. Less pressure may translate to more movement in a formula which may lead to faster emulsion separation or oleogel crystalisation/ leaking. So much to think about but so much fun to consider don’t you think?

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a little more on this topic and I do hope it has encouraged you to take a closer look at, and maybe even record, how your ingredients, formulations and finished products change along with the weather / environment.

Amanda x

Plant chemistry and how to go about extracting it.

February 27, 2021

Plants are fascinating things and before we go any further I want to clarify that this article will be referring to dried plants, the type of thing we typically extract and then add into cosmetics rather than plant parts that are harvested for their oils (essential and/or vegetable oils). You could also call these herbs although not all dried plants are classified as herbs just to confuse everyone and everything.

I never used to think that though. When I was younger while I did ‘like’ a few – those with interesting stories like the foxglove and its murderous intentions, the dandelion that makes us wet the bed or the dock leaf that soothes my skin, I mostly thought of plants en mass and saw them as dull, boring, sedentary things that didn’t move fast enough or do anything exciting. Background greenery that was just there to run through, breathe in, stroke and hug, fall into, get stung by, feed to animals or pick and arrange.

As I left primary school we moved to a house with a larger garden and ended up with a gardener. It was at this point I realised that gardens can be something I can control. I can dig stuff up, plant new things, watch it grow then feed it to our rabbits or let the dogs poop on it. It was usually one of those things.

By the time I got to university I had fallen back into a headspace of thinking of plants as mostly infuriatingly boring and painful. My science degree meant I was to spend what seemed like hours studying parts of plants under microscopes. This made my eyes sting, brain hurt and my body feel like it was spinning. I loathed drawing cell diagrams and memorising endless parts and cycles. I felt like it was all just pointless and borning.

But then time passed, life changed and I changed my relationship with plants again.

Plants are fascinating things and for a cosmetic chemist they are a veritable factory!

I made the table above and have to admit it’s not 100% complete but it is a good start. I use it in one of the classes I teach and would thank people very much if they didn’t rip me off by copying this at all but if you must I’d like at least $250 each and a reference please. I will then send you my reference lists and background thinking – the stuff I’m not going to go into detail about here.

A very broad summary of the type of chemistry found in plants that benefits the cosmetic chemist are:

  • Vitamins
  • Natural surfactants
  • Antioxidants (plenty)
  • Gums
  • Insoluble fiber
  • Soluble fiber
  • Minerals
  • Tannins (toning, astringents, colours sometimes)
  • Proteins
  • Amino Acids
  • Fats
  • Essential Oils (of course but we’re really talking here about dried or fresh plants including herbs)
  • Sugars
  • Biologically active button pressers (pain relief, stimulants, anti-inflammatories etc)

The number one question about plant matter I get asked in this context is ‘I’ve bought this powdered herb, how do I use it in my product’.

I am sure I’ve probably talked about this on this blog before but I’m not a big fan of trawling through my past work – my bad really, I’ve written some good stuff that I could probably learn from hahahahaaha. Anyway…

There are two ways of tackling that question in terms of arriving at an answer.

The first way is to think about what you want out of it – what are you looking to achieve in your product (benefit) OR what chemical you think is in there and that you want to extract OR (in the case where you just like the plant, have lots of extract to hand and just want to use it in some way) where do I start…

The second way is to go straight to a reference book to see what chemistry is in the plant and the part of the plant you have and then build upwards from there.

Whichever way you tackle this you will end up having to perform the same type of analysis which basically boils down to you Identifying the plant you have, how it has been prepared to now (dried, fresh, powdered, pre-processed maybe) and what part of it you have got. It is important to keep in mind that plants contain many different parts and each part will have a slightly different chemistry. If you get lost on this dig up a weed or something that you are happy to sacrifice and look at it yourself. The flowers are different to the fruit are different to the leaves are different to the stems are different to the roots etc. Ask yourself early and often if the plant and the part of the plant you have got has the capacity to deliver the action you wish it to? This can be quite difficult to work out but with patience it is possible.

Side Note, Wishful Thinking.

I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed this cognitive process unfolding in the minds of the people I’m conversing with but there is nothing quite as powerful as a herbal extract for bringing out the wishful thinking in people. So many people have come to me and asked if they can put Kakadu Plum powder in oil (because they want to make an oil-only product). I tell them they could if they want but it probably won’t achieve anything on the skin as the chemistry that Kakadu plum is famous for is water, not oil soluble. The people then plead that they can infuse it for a long time under sunlight/ in a double boiler or whatever and I tell them that doesn’t change the situation much except for probably killing off whatever vitamin C is in the fruit…

Now I don’t know everything about everything and am willing to concede that should you try this you MAY end up extracting something from the Kakadu Plum extract but I am confident it won’t be vitamin C. While Kakadu plum is not just about vitamin C that is its strong suit and what it is heavily marketed as containing so doing this and then marketing your product as having Kakadu Plum present in a way that brings skin benefits is stretching the truth somewhat I’d say.

So what to do?

As a general rule of thumb your sanity check in the world of herbal extracts is the wider market. I say ‘general’ as there are always some outliers and special circumstances.

If you’ve always struggled to find the herb you want to play with as an oil extract but everyone sells it as an alcohol or glycerin extraction there’s probably a good reason, that being that’s what pulls the best stuff from the plant.

On that note, if you mainly see your herb of choice as an alcohol extract and you want to extract it in water, ditto. Alcohol has different pulling power to water and as such it can achieve different liquid extractions.

If you can buy your target herb as a glycerin extract you are probably in with a chance of making your own liquid extracts if that’s what you want to do. While it is actually fairly easy to make alcohol extractions too, alcohol is more expensive than water or glycerin, is also flammable (which may or may not be relevant depending on what you are doing) and is usually an indication that the plant chemistry is a bit harder to access. Glycerin and water, on the other hand, indicate that the plant matter yields its chemistry rather easily and as such, you should achieve at least something when trying to make your own extracts.

The table I put above shows some common solvents used to pull the chemistry from plants. The first big divide in plant chemistry is between water soluble and oil soluble chemistry. As I mentioned above, if the plant contains oil soluble chemicals that you want, you must extract it into oil OR in a way that pops the oil glands. At this point I realise that most people don’t have a clue about the chemistry of the plant they just acquired. If that’s the case make a note of the fact that this is important then either find a book on herbalism that identifies both plant chemistry and what that chemistry can do for the skin. It is very much like being a detective, you don’t have to know why someone did something, indeed you may not know that at all at the beginning, the key is to ask enough of the right questions to guide you onto the next step. If still in doubt this is where you could ask a chemist, herbalist or other qualified person.

At the top of the table is a row of blue boxes that indicate how polar the solvent is, the solvent being what the plant chemistry will dissolve into. Polarity is important in extraction chemistry as you are basically trying to coax the chemical from one spot to another. We do this by setting up a solvent solution that is welcoming to the chemical so it can naturally diffuse into it. I tell people to remember what happens when they place a tea bag or tea leaves into hot water. The water is the solvent, the tea is the herb. The water has the right polarity to pull the tea-chemistry through. Water is very polar, glycerin slightly less so, alcohol less again then oil largely non-polar. Knowing the polarity of the chemistry you are trying to capture is hard. That’s why I put the table together – to make that part a no-brainer.

As far as knowing how much plant material to put into how much solvent that is somewhat variable and actually less important in the first instance. Think again of making tea. You can make a cup of tea by putting one spoon of tea leaves into your strainer and pouring the water into your standard cup or you can make tea by using two spoons of tea into the same cup. You possibly could go to 3 or 4 but at some point it becomes obvious you are just wasting the tea. In short, there isn’t a ‘perfect’ herb/ solvent ratio but there is a range that gives you the best chance of getting something usable, this is typically somewhere between a 20:80 – 50:50 ratio of herb to solvent. In terms of temperature and time again, this can vary. Long brewing times are not a thing usually with glycerin, glycol or water extracts and by long I mean more than a couple of hours. Mostly you can just combine, mix and then start separating after a few minutes, especially if you are heating the solvent slightly (50-70C is usually enough depending on what you are aiming to extract). Heat basically gives the solvent more power while keeping its polarity the same so just as you make a rubbish cup of tea in cold water, you make a rubbish herbal extract in cold water often too, fruit powders and aloe being the exception.

And what about acids?

Some chemistry will yield better if the mixture is acidified first. The same can also be said about alkalising the solvent (mostly water in pH cases) but I didn’t add alkaline into the table as it can get a bit too complex for the audience I had in mind for this. For pH change we would typically use citric acid or sodium hydroxide solution, enough to change the pH to around 3 for acid or 10 for alkali. What pH change does to help is chemically alter the relationships that exist within the plant cells, un-gluing them if you like. The glued-up version is insoluble, the un-glued version being soluble (in your solvent). This can be useful with proteins and especially where you want to break those proteins down to more ‘digestible’ amino acids but as I said, that’s getting more complex.

A Final Note – Why Dry?

Most herbs we work with are pre-dried. This is because most plants contain a lot of water. Removing that leaves only the ‘other’ chemistry and it’s that we want. We are then free to customise our solvent without it being contaminated (as with oil extractions) or diluted by the water already present. So dry first then extract is a good plan.

The End.

I get that plant chemistry is hard to grasp but there is an easier way and that’s to just grab whatever plant you are interested in and just put some into different solvents – run your own experiment. Maybe store them for a day or so, shaking every so often and see what changes you can observe and measure. If you have the money you could always send them all off for analysis to see just what you pulled. Wow, now we are sounding like a millenials Friday night on Tinder…

Have fun, keep your mind open and don’t stress. Plants are fascinating things and it only took me forty something years to figure that out. Oh and if all of this sounds like too much of a faff then just buy the ready-made extracts, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Stars, the chemists toolbox.

January 25, 2021

I don’t know about you but I like to pick at or inquire into a thing until I get to the bit that makes it make sense. Whether that’s a person, a movement (social or physical) or object. For me, studying and applying chemistry scratches that itch, helps me to understand why something does what it does, feels how it feels or is difficult to control (remain stable). I have never mentally struggled with the question of where my chemicals come from because I always felt that completely obvious but it turns out that isn’t the case for everybody and that’s what I want to discuss here. All the chemical elements we find here on earth, the items that make up the stuff of high school nightmares – the Periodic table – all come from space and were born in stars. That very same stuff then becomes everything else.

My interest in space and chemistry have made it hard for me to subscribe to the ‘natural vs synthetic’ dichotomy we care about so much in this industry, especially as it quickly became clear to me that few people if anyone really have the time or inclination to discuss this in any depth. While I no longer get as hung up on those semantics as I used to, I felt it might be interesting just to share with you some of the magic that goes on up there beyond our atmosphere especially given that this, 2021, marks my year of moving towards clarity. Clarity starts with knowing and understanding what you’ve got.

From Sky Gods to Science.

Humans have been looking up and wondering about the stars since time began and I got a potted (mostly western) history of that over the recent holidays whilst reading Stuart Clark’s book ‘Beneath the night. How the stars have shaped the history of humankind’. The book describes how our relationship has evolved from our early cultural relationships and stories through to the time of Aristotle who claimed that the ‘earth was made of divine matter and was different to space’ and on to the scientists of the Islamic Revolution and beyond. One of the largest leaps in our scientific understanding of the night sky came out of the work by Cairo-based polymath Ibn al-Haytham’s from around 1000 c. His work on optics and vision, astronomy, mathematics and the development of the scientific method helped form the foundations for the Scientific Revolution that followed some five hundred years later.

By the 1500’s the idea that the earth was at the centre of the universe was becoming increasingly hard for scientists to ignore or defend although that didn’t mean it was any less dangerous to do so! Copernicus became famous for his mathematically backed model showing how what we observe in the night sky makes more sense if it is the sun, rather than the earth at the centre of our universe – a bold move in such God-fearing times! A few decades later in Italy, Galileo Galilei got into huge trouble with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and was eventually placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for what he did to further develop and publicise the work that Copernicus had started with regards to the order of our solar system.

The wrestling between God and Science continued to shape the work and biases of scientists here in the western world for the next 2-300 years. People like Sir Isaac Newton tackled this by identifying as ‘Natural Philosophers’ which, in a nutshell meant scientists who were using and developing the latest tools and mathematics to study and reflect on the beauty and wonderment of nature without questioning the spirituality of it all. I don’t know whether this was smart diplomacy or heart-felt sentiment but on reflection it totally makes sense to keep some of the magic (or divinity) alive, especially given the awe we naturally feel when looking up at the night sky! But it was the arrival at what we now call the ‘Modern Scientific Revolution’ in the 1800’s that enabled scientists to focus on staying in their lane (what they can observe, measure and test) that really got things moving in terms of space exploration.

Analysing the Stars

Long before we blasted off towards the stars, the stars came to us as meteorites. These stone and metal objects have been making their dramatic entrance into earths atmosphere since time here began and chemical analysis of these objects helped us take the first solid steps in uncovering the material nature of our universe.

Today we don’t have to wait for things to fall to earth, we have telescopes that can scan the skies and pick up signals indicative of different elements and molecules. We have found carbon, the stuff of life, in the Diffused Interstellar Bands (DID’s) that appear as gaps in the spectrum of light from distant stars and galaxies. We also know that these DID’s contain much of their carbon as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, the same ‘nasty’ chemicals that we produce when diesel fuel or other objects are burned. We know there is amorphous carbon (reactive carbon such as we find in coal) in stardust and that these little sooty specs that float around in space are able to form bonds with hydrogen atoms as they float around in space’s super cold vacuum, thus kick-starting the same organic chemistry chain that goes on to give us aromatic ketones and alcohols such that we find in pears and other fruits.

The Nobel gasses, known for their inertness and loner-tendencies here on earth can be found cavorting around with hydrogen in supernovas such as the Crab Nebula while red gassy giant stars seem to be the birthing place for elements such as Iron, Oxygen and Carbon. The heavy element of Silica, which makes up around 60% of the earths crust, Sulphur and Calcium have been identified as forming when supernovas collapse in on themselves as they explode and pretty much everything else on that Periodic Table of Doom has been spotted forming somewhere or other up there.

The Nature of Chemicals.

While we can turn to space to understand the origin of all chemical matter on earth, we must turn our attention inwards to understand the nature of the chemistry we, as humans both employ and generate with intent.

The difference between the chemical element Iron, which is present and useful in all living things and the element Polonium – a deadly but rare, radioactive metal is less about it being made of different, more dangerous matter and more about proportionality and space.

Both Iron and Polonium are made from electrons (-ve charge with a mass of 1 unit), neutrons (no charge) and protons (+ve charge with a mass of 1 unit) just as all elements, but in differing quantities and physical arrangements (shells). If we go back to the stars which give rise to these elements, rather than wonder what made all the different materials that must exist in stars, we’ve now distilled it down to something quite simple – energy, polarity and proportionality. Exposure to different forces as the star explodes creates the conditions that decide how much of each get together, this singular process that spits out combinations of three types of sub-atomic matter generate all of the different elements that go on to form everything else.

If all chemical elements are materially the same, albeit in differing proportions, what we are dealing with here on earth when we talk about chemical elements, chemical compounds or complex materials is not material, it’s potential.

Material = what something is made of.

Potential = What something can become/ cause or turn into.

Cosmetic Chemistry, Nasty Chemistry, Natural Chemistry.

So now I guess we should bring this back to what we are all here for – Cosmetic Chemistry and I feel the above idea of potential is useful here.

Cosmetic chemistry relies on ingredients, ingredients are always chemicals and decisions around the chemicals that are publicly acceptable have, for a while now been shaped by a somewhat arbitrary decision making process based largely on material origin.

What I have attempted to show above, in a long-view origin-story way is that material origin has no baring on material potential and that it is material potential that really matters.

The potential for a material may be innate (inborn/ natural) such as we find with the elements that make up the periodic table and the molecules that form here naturally on earth, this would include cosmetic materials such as clays, salts, plant matter and other mineral, or it can be gained, constructed or acquired. For years now, humans have been able to construct materials based on their own intentions, to design materials that help humans fulfil their potential – this would include cosmetic materials such as silicone fluids, synthetic surfactants, many solvents and more besides. Where humans have often (in my opinion) gone wrong is not so much in what we have constructed but in not understanding its full potential before it got too late! For example, us humans created a durable, long-lasting materials that made the mass-manufacture and transportation of consumable products not only possible but also cheap! This material was plastic and today it is a word that sends many an environmentalist off in a tail spin. However, what I’m trying to say here is the plastic situation of today isn’t a material failure, it is a failure of attention and focus – a lack appreciation for the materials whole potential, something that maybe a life-cycle analysis could have made obvious, could have seen us make changes that made the problem go away. Hindsight is such a lovely thing but just as the scientists observing the stars in our pre scientific-revolution world were hamstrung by God, we too may be hamstrung by arguments over material origin or chemical name.

The future is written in our stars.

The stars, natural and unbothered by our human endeavours gave birth to the chemistry that made us and everything material that we can imagine. For hundreds of years we have played with those star-burst chemicals, arranging it in ways that have helped us fulfil our worldly hopes and dreams, make our lives more comfortable, affordable and fun. But then we saw that in doing this, we were often stealing from our future, leaving the world unbalanced, polluted and poisoned. We sought to remedy this by framing it as a war of origin, pitching natural vs synthetic, focusing only on the material and not on the material potential…

It is arguably impossible to pre-empt the full and complete potential and environmental fate of all chemicals that we construct but if we never account for our role in imagining, shaping and developing that potential, if we never see ourselves as as the ‘stars-on-earth’ chemical soup makers, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes right up to the minute it is too late.

So to conclude, when you are creating new chemistry be that at an ingredient or product level, it is disingenuous to focus entirely or get hung up on the origin of matter because all matter shares an origin. The key place to focus is on its potential. First there’s the potential which we imagine and read about in the material data sheet or its technical data. Second is that bound up in the new material or product – what it does and can affect, and third is the potential which is stored and that may have unhelpful consequences down the track. Essentially this is a life-cycle or cradle-to-grave analysis and yes, it would have just been easier to say that in the beginning but then I would not have been able to tell you about the stars and that would have been tragic 🙂

Reaching our full potential as environmentally savvy cosmetic chemists is easy when you remember that it all starts in the stars.

Here are some useful articles and references that I read when researching this piece.

  1. Last day of the dinosaurs’ reign captured in stunning detail. National Geographic magazine article that looks at the impact of the Yucatan Peninsular Meteor that fell to earth here, in Mexico, some 65 million years ago and wiped out the last dinosaurs. This article helps explain how scientists are discovering more about the chemistry of space.
  2. Chicxulub Impact Event – more information about the massive meteor in Mexico.
  3. The Raw Materials in Space. Scientific American article looking at where chemicals come from and what is being found in space.
  4. What is the origin or Iron. A quick review of where Iron is formed in space.
  5. The discovery of Nobel gas molecules in space. An article outlining what we know about nobel gas space chemistry and abundance.
  6. Silica in space, where it comes from and how space glass is formed.
  7. Chemistry World – A chemical account of Evolution.
  8. Beneath the Night. How the Stars have shaped the history of humankind. A great book by Stuart Clark.

Vegan Beeswax? What is that?

January 18, 2021

There is no singular alternative to beeswax, rather there are a variety of options one could try when formulating vegan-friendly products and I want to dive into that.

Interest in vegan cosmetics has grown substantially over the last few years due to a number of factors, the factor most interesting to me (if that matters to you) is sustainability – land use, land change and carbon footprint.

Now I can’t pretend to be vegan or lead you to believe that I find the farming of animals wrong because I don’t. I grew up in a market town, come from a family for whom farming was in their DNA (at least for as long as has allowed me to search) and can lead you to the home amongst the fields, somewhere in the English countryside, that has my name on it (Foxons Lodge). Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t move with the times, challenge my own believes, see things through a new lens but so far, I’m still more of a farming/ hunting/ circle-of-life kind of girl than one who hunts tofu in suburbia. However, what I can clearly see is that a) animals deserve to live more natural lives (as do we) and b) eating meat every day or possibly most weeks, especially red meat is problematic on many levels.

With that explained some of you may now be wondering what cow burgers have to do with beeswax given that bee farming is quite a substantially different endeavour. While I’m sure the vegan community will explain this to you better than I can, the practice of keeping bees for human gain – so we can harvest ‘products’ from them be they honey, wax or propolis, is seen as bee slavery and an interruption of their natural lives. Avoiding any kind of sentient being slavery is a goal of veganism and as such, bee products are out.

So now to beeswax and what it usually does for us cosmetic chemists.

Many products benefit from a bit of wax. Balms are an obvious starting point as it is difficult (although not impossible by any stretch) to turn an oily or buttery substance into a stick balm (like a Chapstick for example) without using a high melting point, oil-compatible ingredient, for example a wax. But they aren’t just for thickening, waxes are used in hair styling products including beard balms where they can help hold a style or smooth down the hair. They also help stabilise oil-in-water emulsions, form ointments (another type of emulsion, typically water-in-oil), provide water-resistance in hand creams, sunscreens and long-wear make-up and make make-up such as mascara possible. Use of waxes in a cosmetic formula can range from 0-30% and even more in some cases depending on what is being created, the viscosity (thickness) required, the rheology (flow) you are aiming for and the products wear resistance and functional requirements.

Beeswax is one of the best known cosmetic waxes and is something that many hand-made or local-provenance brands like to use as it is completely natural, often smells great (sweet like honey but with heavier tabacco and woody back notes), can have a beautifully rich yellow/orange colour and is very, very versatile.

Beeswax behaviour.

If I had to describe the physical properties of beeswax in one word I’d say ‘flexible’. Unlike the majority of plant waxes available, beeswax is rubbery, maleable, absorbent and stretchable. We have its chemistry to thank for that but it is its purpose in the world that answers the ‘but why’s’. In an ever-changing and moving world, brittle building materials are problematic and can easily fracture and lose form. Flexible materials, materials that can absorb, contract and expand with the nuances of the day, are far more likely to last and easier to mould, grow and fix should they be stretched too far. Now while I do remember having a bee talk at primary school, I also remember feeling it lasted far too long for my liking. I remember very little of it thanks to me zoning out (and then getting into trouble for not moving off the mat when the talk was over – I was still AWOL) but I do remember coming away with a new found appreciation for the intelligence of bees. What I didn’t appreciate until more recently though is just what amazing material scientist bees are given the complexity of the wax they produce.

Beeswax chemistry.

One only has to take a momentary glance over a paper on beeswax chemistry to know that you are looking at a very complex material. This fact, as always, amuses me immensely given that we are living in a non-science world where anything that can’t be pronounced is shunned. Well there is somewhere in the region of 300 chemicals in beeswax from many different family groups including Fatty Acids, Alkanes, Wax Esters, Alkenes and Fatty alcohols and some of these things have names that I’d definitely struggle to fit on an ingredients label. But rather than get into the fine details of each chemical the important thing is to appreciate that it takes many, many otherwise quite stiff and boring chemicals, combined in just the right ratios to make this amazing material. Mimicking it was never going to be easy…

So what is vegan beeswax?

New Directions (who I have consulted for since time began) have just launched a new ingredient called ‘beeswax alternative’ or something of that ilk. I’ve been paying around with it in my lab over the last week or so and have also been doing a bit of a nosy around in its chemistry to see what it actually is so I can compare and contrast it to real beeswax. I’ll get to all that in a minute but what I can confirm is this is all natural, all plant derived and sans palm – palm oil is still a thing to avoid in some circles.

There are many alternative waxes a cosmetic chemist can choose from but the wax I am talking about has been specifically designed as a beeswax alternative. With that in mind I tested it expecting a similar capacity to thicken or firm up a balm, similar plasticity, emulsion stabilising power, water-resistance and hold capacity (for styling or colour cosmetics). What I didn’t expect was for it to look, smell and feel like beeswax and other than the look of the pellets, my expectations were correct and it doesn’t.

INCI name: Helianthus Annuus Seed Wax, Olea Europaea Oil Unsaponifiables, Rhus Verniciflua Peel Wax, Shorea Robusta Resin

So this is a blended wax made from more than one plant material, intentionally chosen to re-create the type of chemistry found in beeswax. The Helianthus (sunflower) wax gives it its wax-like melting point, the Olea Europaea (olive) unsaponifiables provides a source of open chain hydrocarbons thanks to the presence of squalene, the Rhus Verniciflua (Varnish Tree wax or Sumac or Japan wax or berry wax) adds water-resistance and oleogel stabilising power while the Shorea Robusta (Sal Tree/ Dammar) Resin brings the flexibility.

Each one of the four components have their own distinct chemistry containing many different components but when brought together they form one wax pellet with a melting point of 68-74C which is actually higher than beeswax not that I’ve been able to tell from my trials.

How does it feel?

My experimenting thus far has left me concluding that this isn’t as able as beeswax to create the hardness that is typically associated with stick products when used on an equivalent basis.

I started off trying to thicken Caprylic/ Capric Triglyceride (MCT Oil) as that just happened to be something oily I had around in excess quantities. The resulting softish balms are below. 80% MCT, 20% Wax for both.

The resulting beeswax balm (LHS) had an obvious homogeneity to it straight away, spreading easily across the skin or surface and feeling smooth and ointment-like. The vegan beeswax balm didn’t quite behave that way and looked rather lumpy, also failing to spread evenly when pressed and instead yielding in chunks that meant some bits of skin and/or surface were missed while others received a big dollop.

Now I have to confess that this lab work of mine was undertaken with my ‘rough-and-ready’ approach which basically means you get bored of mixing and cooling quickly and whack the thing into the freezer to cool quickly. Anyone who knows anything about balm science and formulating appreciates how important optimal method is. Balms will structure differently if exposed to different levels of heat, mixing stress/ time, cooling conditions and even the cooling container. So, with that in mind I’m looking at this as a ball-park comparison only and will, when I’m feeling more detail-orientated, try a few more methods of production out to see how that alters the balms crystalline structure.

Now as MCT oil can be a bit of an odd beast, the second thing I tried was Olive oil. These are the results when I did my 80:20 test:

Beeswax is on the left and the vegan alternative is on the right. Again I did my ‘chuck it in the freezer’ move on these ones so yes, there are some chunky crystals in both but to be honest, I don’t care because it was clear to see that both of these waxes really liked olive oil soooooo much that they married it!

Chemistry wise, Olive oil is far more complex than MCT oil and that absolutely could account for the difference – the more complex structure better able to ‘fit’ tightly with the interruptions in structure the wax makes. Both resulting balms were semi-solids, had very similar viscosities and appearances and were equally lovely to feel. If anything I actually preferred the feel of the vegan beeswax one.

From there I started playing with a few more things but I’m not yet ready to share any of that work as I’ve got to focus (grasshopper) on some other work. However, what I can say is that this vegan friendly wax definitely has its place.

But why bother when you can use plant waxes such as Rice Bran, Candellila and Carnauba?

True, true. There are many other plant-based waxes around and it’s perfectly feasible that one or another of these would be a better fit for your formulation than this constructed wax. However, the is one thing these plant-waxes have in common is their lack of ability to form flexible films and that’s something that I have to say, the vegan beeswax alternative can do albeit in a clunkier way than beeswax proper.

Plants produce wax as sunscreen and water-proofing. Rather than it being a building material, it is a protective cover and as such, doesn’t have to be as flexible. Indeed, some plants find it beneficial for their leaves to be stiff and as luck would have it, plant waxes help make that dream come true!

Formulators have long known that combining waxes together gives a better, more flexible and forgiving film than just using one but even so, you are still ending up with what is potentially a lot of wax. The downside of wax-heavy formulations is just that – heaviness. Waxes can retard flow across a surface, make a product feel heavy and hot to wear, even crack an emulsion or pull moisture out of it (in which case the product becomes rubberised). What the vegan beeswax does is allow you to use more wax without using more wax – because it contains a range of chemistry, some of which is less waxy than your typical natural waxes provides.

And it is with that rather inelegant sentence that I make my conclusion for now. This constructed beeswax alternative may not be able to harden up a formula to the same degree that regular beeswax can but that’s actually to its benefit. For those formulations where you want stiffness without too much waxy residue (I’m thinking solid moisturising sticks, bi-phasic lip products etc) it is a benefit to be able to build your viscosity using other formulating strategies thus reducing the potential for an over-waxed product. This isn’t possible with binary or multi-wax formulations built around just what nature gives us.

I am looking forward to exploring this material and wax chemistry further as there is sooo much more to explore but in the meantime I’ll leave it at that.

This paper was interesting by the way…

Beeswax production.

Where to in 2021, a personal (& possibly boring) reflection of where I’m at.

January 12, 2021

First I’ll start by reiterating what this is, mainly because that’s how my brain works. It starts at the beginning (each and every time) and builds from there, never assuming, never bolting on. This is, indeed a tiresome way to be but it’s how I am…

This is a blog about cosmetic chemistry. More specifically it is a blog about my experiences, interactions and research as a scientist in general and a cosmetic chemist in particular. I am a cosmetic chemist who has a formal education in chemistry plus a long history of applied field work as a hands-on cosmetic chemist (factories, brands, laboratories, test facilities, consulting, speaking, teaching etc). I’ve been writing this blog since 2007 and up until the last two years I was quite prolific and enjoyed the process of sharing my ideas and seeing them form in real-time as I typed (yes, that’s how I write, there’s no plan and not much editing which some of my readers have, over the years, pointed out as annoying. Their loss). I knew that in time, the thrill of sharing all of this for free, for the shear joy of doing it, would wear off a little as things do when you keep on. However, I hadn’t anticipated just how that joy might be eroded and what it would do to me, how it would leave me feeling.

Turns out it would be eroded by my lack of ability to cope with and adapt to how people now interact with it, it being the information, insights and research I pump out, now being 2019-present vs then which was when I started…

Back in the beginning there appeared to me to be a real appetite for deep thinking and real investigating. Now it feels like opinions are all that matters and they who dress it up in the sexiest clothing or that look the best on Instagram, You Tube or Facebook win. That to me requires a different skillset. That to me doesn’t matter as much as what I have always tried to do and aspired to be. This has frustrated me forever but it finally became too much…

Also turns out that when it comes to fight, flight or freeze I do the latter and that goes on for a long, long time sending ice-cold ripples through my muscles, leaving me tense and with no blood supply to my extremities (brain being one of them). Once I’ve thawed (if indeed I do) I prefer to fight rather than flee but with so many perceived fights to pick from, the exhaustion sees that instinct turn inwards, leaving me questioning the point of everything. I know, I think I’ve said this all before but I guess us humans are doomed to walking around in circles until we notice the small detail that marks a way out.

Like many people 2020 threw up some outside-of-work challenges, a significant and persistent one being the changing and increasingly fragile health status of close family members. This plus Covid after a torrid 2019 which saw epic drought turn into flame meant that my limping brain and body gave up completely come October, since which time I’ve been hanging on by a thread to both my sanity and physical health (physically I can’t praise proper Chinese medicinal acupuncture highly enough, it’s really helped get that Chi moving again). While life remains somewhat complicated outside of work, as 2021 unfolds I do feel slightly more capable of tackling things again after having taken a solid break this Christmas period – the first full break in over 10 years.

But my crash in enthusiasm and stuckness wasn’t just caused by the environment be that the weather or my family, it was also about me.

When I mentioned above that the joy I had found in my work had been eroded because I couldn’t cope with people (that’s it in a nutshell) I knew that I had to dig into that further. The first truth of adult life is learning that you can only control yourself and the only real choice you have is in how to respond. Turns out that freezing is not a great business response and on that note I decided to turn my science mind inwards…

Somewhere between 2019 and early 2020 I was formally diagnosed with ADHD. ADHD is often thought of as the ‘naughty kid’ mental problem. The stigma around ADHD exists in a soup of skepticism where many un-labeled people seem permanently pissed off because everyone else has a mental health label which somehow excuses them from taking full responsibility for their actions and inaction. Further, this weird label fetish seems to make some un-labelled feel their life is harder and less fun because they have to change/ do more/ miss out because of it. Well I’m now part of that problem.

But that’s not all. Turns out I’m also very likely Autistic too.

The autism part is still being probed into but the odds are looking high for me hitting the double whammy of ADHD and Autistic by the time this year is through by which time I’ll be 47. That is quite late in the day for such a revelation but on balance it is not surprising given I’m a high IQ girl for whom ‘people’ and ‘being human’ are special case-studies.

Not wishing to jump the gun on the autism diagnoses I wish to fully acknowledge where I’m at currently so I can move forwards with the tools I already have at my disposal:

  • My time outside of family commitments which is still highly variable and less than it has previously been.
  • My intellect and access to resources which, in many ways continues to broaden and deepen.
  • My mental wellbeing and processing capacity which is influenced by both my neurodivergent (ADHD) way of attending to and processing input plus my limited ability to understand and manage interactions with people (this is what the autism may help me explain and if it isn’t that, the process I’m going through will still enable me to access some skills workshops to improve my capacity here).

With that acknowledged it is pointless for me to say ‘2021 is going to be an awesome year, a big year of change, just watch-this-space while I prepare to take over the world’. It won’t be that, it may even be harder than 2020 on the family front but that’s out of my direct control. What I can see is I am entering this year with eyes that are starting to re-adjust to a new way of relating to myself and the world. I am starting to feel a new energy pulse through me and it feels free and vibrant.

Over the last few months I have been keeping myself physically and mentally alive (basically) by slowing down and noticing more about the land on which I work – the trees, animals, mushrooms, flowers, rivers and human history. I’ve been planting seeds and watching them grow, travelling by foot and seeing relationships between things evolve and change as they go through their life cycles. I’ve re-tuned my ears to the vibrational energy that exists in and connects all things and realised that I interpret that as chemistry, living chemistry, life-giving chemistry. I have returned to my roots, the roots that had me lay on my stomach for hours as a child as I observed every little thing about the lawn in front of me, every little stary twinkle in the sky. I acknowledge that I lost this energetic sparkle somewhere between 2019 and now but am ready to welcome it back in its new, older and hopefully wiser form. That I can now use this energy as a light to guide my writing, research and lab work and as a source of power to push me to address and change the things that no longer serve me.

So 2021 will see Realize Beauty change because I’ve changed but hopefully it will all work out for the better. For those of you who need to know practically (rather than metaphorically) what this will look like I expect to be re-focusing myself on deep topics such as tracing where chemicals come from, why ingredients behave as they do (in formulations vs alone) and how products interact with the skin (cosmetically rather than from a dermatology perspective – not qualified for that).

I want to spend some more time modelling what scientific joined-up thinking actually looks like, how experimenting works and explaining why ‘you just can’t google that’ and other such jolly things. If COVID permits I will be doing some more out-of-state field work, if not I’ll be concentrating on, and talking you through how I’m growing cosmetic ingredients and birthing ‘chemicals’ at home on our 50 acre woodland called Fox Hill Hollow. I will also be spending more time researching how the communication of cosmetic science has changed through history and in particular, exploring the balancing act between truth and great story telling (creative marketing/ lying/ fake-news…). As always I’ll be teaching (maybe in person, definitely in our live, online classes via New Directions); stability testing products, distilling my home-grown essential oils and chemistry and manning the technical help desk for New Directions. But I’ll be doing all of this in a way that allows me enough head space so I don’t become overwhelmed and so that I have enough time to address the challenges that being me throws up both mentally and physically (so that means highly managed social contact, I’m not the type of person you’ll find hanging around just waiting for a chat).

So that’s that.

I’ll be posting some cosmetic chemistry content on the weekend probably but until then, stay as safe and as healthy as you can out there.

Amanda x

My Cell, Mycelium, Mycelia. Mushrooms and our Microbiome.

October 13, 2020

Slimy, stinky, dirty, murky. Poison, potent, colourful, yuck.

What words come to your mind when you first think about adding mushrooms to your face cream?

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi and fungi is something that us cosmetic chemists spend a lot of time trying to avoid growing in the products we formulate. That said, we also spend a lot of time formulating with materials that fungi made possible. But we rarely add mushrooms to our products in the way we add say, powdered herbs…

I say rarely because mushrooms are added as feature ingredients to cosmetic products and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years – I’ll have to go back and research that sometime.

When I think of mushrooms and skincare in the same sentence I think of Dr Andrew Weil and the brand Origins. I’ve associated Andrew with mushroomy skincare for years but weirdly enough, considering my obsession with mushrooms and my love of skin care science I’ve never tried this cream or add mushrooms as extracts into my own formulations (I have added them to customers products at their request though, albeit only occasionally). Maybe this is because I secretly suspected Andrew was drawing a long bow with this one (as health gurus whose personally endorsed product ranges span lots of products have a tendency to do) or maybe because products with his name on have always been very expensive.

Before I talk about adding mushroom powders to cosmetics I want to talk a little more about the chemical factory that fungus is.

The mushrooms that we see in the forest, eat, dye clothing with, photograph and use as medicine are only around 1/10th of the whole fungi, the rest, its mycelium network most often lives underground. If we think of mushrooms as the fruits, mycelium are the rest of this thing we call fungi and mycelium and mushrooms are themselves made up of groups of cells called in arrangements we call hyphae.

Fungi ‘eat’ by moving themselves over a potential food source and then sinking into it, breaking it down and transforming it completely. Humans are often told ‘we are what we eat’ which, for me, is often a large bar of chocolate and a smattering of tuna or jam on a sandwich. But for fungi its more a case of the food, rather than the fungi changing and this, it turns out, is a thousand times more interesting!

Practically anything you can think of can be fungi food. They exist at nuclear waste dumps, in soil contaminated by other industrial waste chemicals, in salty sea water and in environments with super low oxygen levels. There is even a type of fungi that eats plastic. I find this exciting as given half the chance it is quite conceivable that fungi can wrap its self around all the bad things us humans have done and poop out metaphorical rainbows!

The fungal digestive process is a chemical factory that can do or give us products from three different pathways. Firstly the fungi its self can be a source of useful ingredients, secondly through its digestive processes it can unpick and untangle the tight threads of a substance that would usually persist forever and re-arrange these liberated chemicals into new materials or it can literally poop new and useful chemicals out as it feeds. Some examples of the results of these three processes include: Xanthan gum, Hyaluronic Acid, Beta Glucan, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Ceramides, Peptides, Carrageenan, Cyclodextrins, Rhamnolipids (surfactants), Preservatives (Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Coconut Ferment), Papaya Enzymes, Bifida Ferment, Alcohol, Carotene, Omega Fatty Acids, Superoxide Dismutase, Chitin and many more besides.

Whether we know it or not, us cosmetic chemists are accessing materials that fungi have made possible every time we formulate natural cosmetics so is it time to add the whole fruiting body into the pot too?

A case for the whole mushroom.

Looks like Mr Weil was onto a little something after all with his mushroom infused facials and that makes a lot of sense given we can now appreciate the rich and diverse chemistry that exists inside these fruits. But first this >

The Ick Factor.

Unlike most herbs we associate with cosmetics (calendula, rosehip, lavender, green tea, witch hazel), mushrooms don’t make the average person feel fresh, outdoorsy and clean. That’s a barrier that has to be overcome emotionally rather than logically and is why we may be better first dipping our toe in with our microbiome.

Our skin Microbiome is something we are becoming increasingly comfortable in considering, discussing and accomodating into our care regimen. Our microbiome includes fungi and fungi includes mushrooms so here we are again people, back at those old things again and here comes the ick but wait, before we submit to our deepest mushroom fears, its worth remembering that when we talk about ourselves as individuals, as humans, that’s not entirely true. We contain more non-human than human cells and at least part of that is fungi. Our skin barrier and immune health depends on this so we know that mushrooms can be the good guys sometimes…

Most of us have a little dark crevice of a brain cell within our minds that is set to equate mushrooms with bad things. So while most of us have never sprouted mushrooms from our ears or belly buttons (or know anyone else that has) I would not be surprised if many of us haven’t, at one time or another, been told they will grow if we don’t wash properly! Trench foot, athletes foot, ringworm, jock itch, thrush and nail fungus are embarrassing (sometimes smelly, always unsightly) infections that we may well have had a (however fleeting) personal relationship with and serve to confirm our suspicions that these things can do us harm.

Then we have the alternative side of the ‘shroom’. I’ve long stopped caring what people think of me after I open my mouth and words come out but often, when I talk about my passions in life, one being mushrooms, I spot the development of a sly and knowing smile, a ‘aha, I knew it’ look develop in the listener. But no, I don’t like mushrooms in a psychedelic way. My ‘weird’ fascination and demeanor are just natural and anyway, my brain cooks up enough weirdness without me adding to it with psilocybin. For some, this slight whiff of the illegal, unconventional, dangerous and devious is enough to have them keep mushrooms at arms length.

So will mushroom cosmetics make us high?

What I was going to write was ‘well, I very much doubt it’ but then I came across the one of the weirdest research papers I’ve ever read. This paper discusses a science experiment of sorts that attempts to measure the impact of a psychedelic substance on a subject who had the substance applied to their scrotum by the oral secretions of another. OK warned you, here it is.

Transdermal penetration is a thing and it may well be that wearable psychoactive patches, massage oils, creams and other things that could fit under the cosmetic banner however tenuously could well become a thing in the future. However, as it is very difficult for chemicals to penetrate the skin, I doubt that this could happen unintentionally meaning that the chemist creating the formula would need to carefully select for and formulate towards this as an outcome.

What about infections?

This is a more valid concern but again it is very unlikely that your cream or potion will grow the mushrooms that you put into it.

Any mushroom material used in cosmetics has to be appropriately processed and typically this renders it sterile. No longer able to breed, grow and colonise your creams and potions, the ingredient is now no different to any other carbon-rich matter you may put into your formula. If you buy mushroom powders, like any other powder they could introduce microbes into your product but this has more to do with their surface area than their mushroomness and is the case for any powdered extract or particulate, including clay.

Any other barriers to entry?

When I introduced the new mushroom powders that New Directions are stocking to the sales team some of the fears resided around how these might colour and fragrance the creams and serums we sell ‘won’t they end up all brown and stinky’ was a common thought. While it is true that most mushroom powders are somewhat tan to brown in colour, their typical use levels are not so high that this can’t easily be accommodated to create a natural looking off-white to cream emulsion. In terms of the smell, this can be an issue but one that is common across a number of popular natural actives: Rosehip, Evening Primrose or Hemp Seed Oil, Seaweed Extracts, Spirulina, Apple Cider Vinegar, Dead Sea Mud and even Tea Tree Oil. Each mushroom species has its own aromatic footprint and this in turn differs between the fresh and dried ingredient and then again after re-hydration. Generally speaking while some mushroom notes will be present in your cosmetic product, when you work within recommended dose guidelines, this background aroma should be something you can work around.

Mushroom Magic – what will they do for me?

As you’ve quite possibly had enough mushroom talk to last you all day I’ve put this last bit into a handy presentation. These are the four skin-compatible mushroom extracts available currently at New Directions Australia. Do make sure you check with whatever supplier you purchase from how the extracts they make or sell are prepared and how strong / concentrated they are as this can vary. Generally most mushroom powdered extracts are placed into your water phase either prior to or post emulsification (if you are making a cream). Most mushroom chemistry is relatively heat tolerant.

I’m going to do a bit more experimenting myself but am particularly interested in the work that’s going on around mushrooms and heavy metal chelation and environmental remediation.

A bottle of intrigue – John Strange Winter Hair Food.

September 9, 2020

Usually when I find old chemistry and product bottles I dream about what would have gone on inside the bottle, the formula, the grand claims, the chemistry.  However, this bottle was different, this bottle was strange…

Mrs Arthur Stannard ne Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Palmer of 25 Charleville Road, West Kensington, London went by the pseudonym of John Strange Winters, or at least she did sometimes. Her life spanned a time when educated women were to be quiet on most things and as such, should one want to make noise, one better do it in somebody else’s skin. She lived from 1856-1911.

This particular name appeared first in a book called ‘Cavalry Life Or – Sketches And Stories In Barracks And Out – In Two Volumes – Vol. I in 1881 when Henrietta was 25, following which she used this name frequently in her business and publishing activities. For a young woman in London society to be writing about battle field life would have caused quite a stir at that time. The suffragette movement was about twenty years off reaching its full potential and men were very much the authority on everything. However, this didn’t seem to deter Hentietta who, I can only suppose, either loved pushing boundaries and causing a stir or was too busy working to pay attention to what she SHOULD have been doing…

Henrietta is listed as a feminist, author and journalist. She was the first president of the Writers’ Club (1892), and president of the Society of Women
Journalists (1901-3). Her books were very popular with one, Bootles Baby selling over two million copies! With that kind of exposure and publications under her control, the world was her oyster and John Strange Winter / Henrietta set out to take over the world!

When it comes to the hair balm it appears that she may have been working with a contract manufacturer to handle this. I don’t know for sure but it seems unlikely that such a proficient writer (and one with four children of her own) would have time to cook up, bottle and distribute cosmetic products on her own.

This advert below which, in keeping with her ‘Strangeness’ featured a cat drawn by fellow Londoner artist Louis Wain (who also has an interesting story), mentions the chemists Burgoyne, Burbidges & Co of London.

This company is still in business today in India but during that time was a wholesaler, exporter and producer of many pharmaceutical preparations and patented medicines so maybe the strange hair food was one of them!

In terms of tall tales and fanciful claims the cat-advert above seems playful and innocent enough, especially given that during this time people were selling all kinds of weird stuff. However, we should not be thinking of Henrietta as a straight-laced advertising prude. Nope, the more I looked into her, the more I started to think of her as the late 1800’s and early 1900’s answer to the Kardashians albeit with a better developed grasp of the English language! She inserted herself into books, magazines and cigarette packets proving to everyone that in business, a women’s place is IN YOUR FACE wherever that might be!

Now I’ve only got the one antique bottle from this collection and it dates to roughly 1903-1910 but her brand didn’t stop there. I found this advertorial which talks about her Temple Cream in pretty out-there fanciful ways! It must have been quite common to have hair and scalp issues back then as hair tonics, creams and lotions to prevent balding were quite the buzz! I guess someone like Henrietta with her head full of brown curls would have been rude not to capitalise on her doubly blessed life (creative writing and natural hairiness).

In the extract below I love how here she’s fiercely defending the fact that she makes these at her own home. I do doubt the truth of that but admire her for trying to be a woman who has and does it all!

The above is an advert in a publication called ‘Truth‘ which has its own interesting back story too. It is through this that we find out the social and personal circles of Henrietta include Henry Labouchere (1831-1912), a homophobic writer, politician, theatre owner and publisher responsible for the UK’s laws that resulted in homosexual acts being a crime. Not content with just homophobia, Henry was also an anti-semite and hated the idea of feminism with a passion, so much so that he would ridicule the Suffragettes in his papers. The fact that Henrietta was allowed to publish her advertorials in his magazine meant either he loved money more than his principals or he was a complete hypocrite. Maybe though Henrietta was just very good at playing people to get what she wanted! Henry was friends with another author and news publisher George Augustus Salsa who happened to be married to Henrietta’s sister in law. Both Henry and George were foreign correspondents of the day and as such, crossed paths a lot and to this day, their partnership is known in the trial of Richard Pigott – another interesting back story. Granted much of this information seems neither here nor there for a cosmetic chemist but I do like to place a broader social context around the products we buy and the people who convince us to buy them. After all, these people end up getting into and onto our skin thanks to the products they make and on that note we move to the last piece of this puzzle for now.

It seems that our dear Henrietta was quite the viral marketing expert and was fishing for contact details with every opportunity! Here’s a postcard that is either totally fake or proves that this lady really did go all out to build her empire and become famous!

So did she make it? Did Henrietta build a vast fortune and become one of the leading lights in cosmetic entrepreneurism? Yes and no I guess. As far as writing goes and the role she played in progressing women’s representation in literature I would say she was a success on many counts. However, given that she lived out her life during the time in which women were fighting for and winning the right to vote across different countries of the world AND she had such a visible and powerful platform at her disposal she didn’t use it. She publicly stated that she wasn’t supportive of the womens sufferage movement and had ‘got everything she needed without it’ and in doing so possibly displayed both her privilege and her ego-driven ambition. As for cosmetics well I’m not sure how much of those she sold during her lifetime or how much of her home was overrun by bottles and boxes but she was pretty penniless when she died so maybe she did just lend her name to things, maybe her business acumen wasn’t as good as her skills in self-promotion or maybe she had all the fun and freedom she wanted and didn’t really care much beyond that.

Whatever really went on inside Henrietta’s mind and business during her life, her alter ego, John Strange Winters, persisted way after her death immortalised in bottles of hair food, Lakshmi Face Cream, non-oily hair food and toilet preparations and no, I’ve still no idea what actually was in this bottle but when I do find out I’ll tell you.

Chemists, Con Men and Conspicuous Claims

September 9, 2020

A gentle meandering through cosmetic science’s history books brings up some inconvenient truths about my professional peers of yesteryear. I feel it’s fair to say that some of these early chemists were full-on shysters (disreputable, unethical, unscrupulous), peddling cures and potions that ranged from outright dangerous to straight-out morally wrong. MY people (and yes, I feel obliged to ‘own’ them as part of my story) exploited Indigenous medical knowledge (biopiracy), said that your black skin could be ‘remedied’ with diligent scrubbing, that your thinness was unbecoming of a woman and your fatness slovenly. Oh and let’s not forget those who let their grey hair and wrinkles show. You, my dears have you let the side down and let yourself go. Damn those emotionally dead shit heads for the role they played in cementing our feet in self-loathing and enslaving us in this prison-of-the-self. Damn me for making my money in an industry that continues to do this.

In the west and countries into which westerners sought influence during the 17th and early 20th century (yes, not that long ago) something weird was going on. Chemists (aka Pharmacists/ Cosmeticians) and medical doctors competed with one another for patients, especially around daily gripes such as issues of the skin, digestion and lungs (?). During this time medically trained doctors were often too expensive or simply unavailable to the average person. There was no over-arching and legally regulated health care or pharmacy system and as such potions, ointments, creams and balms were largely unregulated, a situation that may sound attractive and freeing to some but also provided an opportunity for exploitation and quackery. This competition for hearts, minds and bodies spawned a whole industry based on ‘nostrums’ or patented medicines, goods that have now largely been replaced by OTC medicines, cosmetics and herbal preparations (loosely speaking). As you might expect during such a ‘wild west’ period, not all of these ‘cures’ were helpful and some were downright outrageous!

I love reading history and have a brain who’s joy is sparked Marie Kondo style when investigating both the origin of our ideas about ourselves and their rate-determining-step (how quickly they evolve and change). Now I can understand the desperation that comes with feeling physically ill or dis-harmonious and given the times, can see how easy it would be to fall for the slick advertising of yesteryear and slip some snake oil into my handbag – what other choices did most people have? That side, the truly medical side did start to get cleaned up pretty early in the 1900’s but the more cosmetic side of this story remained as outlaws for much, much longer, some might even say that it’s still the used car salesman of the science world today.

So, if I’m honest, the reason I enjoy doing this historical digging so much is because I just can’t understand why anyone would buy into a marketing scheme that insinuated the way their bodies present was somehow un-whole, in need of ‘fixing’, unworthy, unequal or unlovable. For me, cosmetics and personal care is an art space- an ‘icing-on-the-cake’ type of affair, a practice that facilitates and prioritises self-care and respect, something that restores and supports balance rather than fixes or erases reality. Why layer that over with somebody else’s crap?

When I say ‘I can’t understand’ I want to emphasise the word ‘can’t’ as a defiance rather than an intellectual or attitudinal deficit.

Oppositionality = The refusal to conform to the ordinary requirements of authority and a willful contrariness.

I want to stress that this is less about anarchism of society and more absolute freedom of self – a strength rather than deficit mindset. So, with that in mind I read history knowing that coded within these pages just as within ourselves, lies the key with which to break this lock.

In the meantime why not pop yourself over to the website of Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor who has been studying this subject for many more years than me and who has uncovered some corkers including this below: