skincare product formulators

Lessons from my Mum

MARG SMITH is the owner of Syndet Works – an Australian company established in 1984 to formulate and produce soap free skincare bars.

MARG SMITH is the owner of Syndet Works – an Australian company established in 1984 to formulate and produce soap free skincare bars. Syndet has developed an enviable reputation for custom formulated and manufactured skincare that now extend well beyond the origins of the business.


☛ Read the original article here in The Science Of Beauty Magazine

My mum was a classic collector (and possible hoarder) of stuff. As she got older she became what we called “scientific” because of the many food experiments she kept in the fridge and pantry. As mum got older, we took on greater responsibility for the contents of the fridge, freezer and pantry and Ian (see my previous article on dishwasher Nazis) would immediately chuck the obviously failed experiments. Both of us were always amused at the number of packets we found without “best by” dates – a sure indicator of great age.

Most Mums are extremely protective of their children and in this respect, my Mum had an almost maternal instinct towards her ‘experiments’. At least that was the case until the day when I leapt across the sofa to grab the bickie she was about to put into her mouth. The dip she had just scooped onto the biscuit had turned grey with pink, black and green moulds. She put her glasses on and was not all that impressed. A weekly examination of the fridge was accepted from that point. Many of us become this sort of scientist as we get bigger fridges and start collecting containers of partially consumed items. It is both “eee – yeww”and fascinating to discover an older specimen happily growing in the rear of level 1 of the “cold stability fridge” at home.

Now as I get older and more “scientific”, I have a tendency to claim the lost container as a ridgy didge experiment and check out exactly what has grown on the tortellini...endlessly enthralling. Ho hum??? On the positive side, not all the wild things are bad. Both hubby and I have a bit of a penchant for fermenting and growing stuff and have come to appreciate the wonders of yeast. He for the elegant wine and me for the herby or fruiting mush that may unlock a new and exciting end result topically not internally or neurologically. Though I do indeed enjoy the fruits of his skill, I really do love growing or collecting a herb or plant and seeing what happens to it after giving a week or two in the fermenter. Assuming nothing disastrous has taken place I’ll often distil the fermentation results to see if that has any effect on either contamination or efficacy. NO it is nothing LIKE Breaking Bad. It is a lot more like Breaking Wind if the ferment goes off through contamination by fungus or mould or bacteria. Even when perfect there is something quite redolent can be great or a bit essentially herby.

All this is a bit of fun, but get real Marg, our brands, our personal and skin care products cannot become multicoloured, bloated dip type things, they just can’t, so experiments that might be OK for the home kitchen should never reach retail shelves. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that vegetable matter is crawling with all types of greeblies, most of which are quite harmless most of the time. Indeed protecting ourselves from some may can be great or a bit essentially herby. All this is a bit of fun, but get real Marg, our brands, our personal and skin care products cannot become multicoloured, bloated dip type things, they just can’t, so experiments that might be OK for the home kitchen should never reach retail shelves. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that vegetable matter is crawling with all types of greeblies, most of which are quite harmless most of the time. Indeed protecting ourselves from some may have the exact opposite effect, as there is now an emerging body of evidence that suggests our immune systems are strengthened by exposure to these bugs and that it is beneficial if we ingest them or apply them whilst fresh. However when we capture them, put them amongst a nice nutrient base like a cream, then package them off, without completely knocking them off, then the “fermentation” is quite different and will become either unpleasant or toxic or both.

As formulators and manufacturers get more and more into the natural and often “organic” products that are demanded of us, the need for raw materials to be subject to more careful scrutiny has grown. Traditionally and legally, most raw materials for cosmetic purposes must be clean and have bacterial, mould and fungal growth right down low. Pretty much all the raw materials accepted by us have a certificate of analysis, stating amongst other things the bacterial, fungal and mould loading. There are limits and they must not be exceeded. Each material is different and if imported (unfortunately most are now) must have AQIS clearance to get into the country. If a material has not been cleared it is either irradiated or destroyed. This is where it is sticky for our certified organics, as they are not to be irradiated or preserved with many preservatives except those which are classed by the certifier as natural. Unfortunately bug counts from raw organic materials can cause quite a few headaches for manufacturer and brand owner alike, when the finished product is being certified as organic. For 2 reasons mainly (amongst many)

  1. Contamination that cannot be controlled by normal methods if those methods aren’t approved by the certifying body
  2. Shelf life.

The link between these 2 points is preservation methods and materials. For manufacturers and people trying to do the “right thing” by customers regarding safety, it can be a really hard gig. Quite frankly the whole question of preservative systems and what is, and isn’t allowed, is an issue that has taken up a lot of our time and those of people who care. The push is to have preservation free or natural preservation. All good intentions, but in my ever so humble opinion, just not quite there yet in the world of mass market cosmetics, where shelf life of up to 3 years is often claimed.

The challenge for a safe extended shelf life becomes greater for natural and organic cosmetics due to (usually) higher commencing bug counts even when freshly made. Microbial/fungal/ mould (B/F/M) contamination in a natural (thus) vegetable based product that has not been rigidly preserved or decontaminated prior to using in a cosmetic is normal but a time bomb. As an example take a simple case of using an Aloe Vera extract. Almost all formulators use a 1:200 powder concentrate, reconstituted in water for use as the “water phase” in natural and particularly organic creams lotions washes. It means that pretty much in one simple operation, the product achieves the percentage of organic material required by the certifier. In most cases now this is from 75-95% of the total. The certificate of analysis shows that in its powdered form it passes the loading of b/f/m totals allowed, but remember that in powdered form it is inactive.

The conventional way of treating the Aloe Vera powder is to wet it out, preserve the wetted out powder with a good broad spectrum preservative, then add it as one does to our formulation. But if this product is to be certified as organic that really will not be feasible if the broad spectrum preservative is not approved by the certifying body. To conform to certified organics we must reconstitute the Aloe Vera powder prior to manufacture. It is at this stage that we must be able to decontaminate/ protect it. The processes we have available to achieve this include the use of heat, which is great but does not kill everything. Alternatively we can lower the pH so it is about 3.5 (like wine) and that helps too, but can be a bit too jolly low for other parts of the product to work. After all this we can use potassium sorbate, well not for this little black duck and many thousands of us as we are horribly sensitive both topically and internally to the stuff. And anyway it is only any good to knock the m part of our b/f/m, so it is useless. And I keep having this conversation about what we can and need to do to make a product safe and compatible with skin. I have seen cosmetics that adhere to the recommended practices and dosage of natural preservative manufacturers, and yes they do work within a limited range of conditions and types of packaging. Also one must be very aware of the microbug load of all ones natural and organic raw materials before one even thinks of formulating.

I have seen both recommendations and tests done on various systems and materials of 1.5-4% with differing results. This all leads on to the issue of shelf life. Let’s start with the shelf life or expiration date of our starting materials. Well they are all over the shop. I have here in front of me the expiry dates (from manufacturing date) of over 500 raw materials we purchase. I have a sampling here and please understand that this is not a standard, it is just what various companies declare (and thus do not take responsibility for after this date).

Can anyone see something going on here? I know most materials are decontaminated and then preserved but some of the manufacturers are giving us as users not much time at all to have these materials shipped and made up. They are I guess relying on the manufacturer of the finished product to preserve the entirety and thus extend (hopefully) the shelf life of the individual raw materials within. However I wonder if this has been tested either by a lab or the law, as to the responsibility of the safety and the efficacy of the parts and the sum. I am particularly miffed when we get perfume at 12 months and preservatives at 24 months and emulsifiers at 1 year!! Does that mean that they fail after this time? In our experience most materials are pretty stable, but in this world of documents, proof, evidence and litigation, I do admit to being a bit scared. So every time we make something, our customer will ask “what is the shelf life” and the “ PAO” (Period After Opening)? Well here is our recommendation: The dates below are loose guidelines for PAO for conventional well preserved products, but note that the more a product is exposed to air and potential bacteria, the shorter its lifespan.

Powders last longer than liquids, and liquids in pumps stay fresher longer than liquids in jars. Always handle the product after cleaning your hands, and anything that directly touches your skin should be cleaned or replaced regularly, such as brushes, cosmetic sponges, eyeliner tips, mascara wands and lip liner. Everyone really tries to makes products that go with the 3 year shelf life but really naturals and organics can really only be safe for 2 years. And in saying that I would put a strict proviso on the types of vegetal raw materials used as so many organic vegetable oils can go rancid in a much lesser time. Anti-ageing and acne treatments: Three months to a year. Serums with antioxidants can turn quickly; be on the lookout for any changes in colour. Eye cream: Unopened three years and six months after first use. Body lotion: One year if opened and two years if unopened. The pump containers tend to stay fresh longest. But they will dry up and will need to be cleaned out if left for a few weeks Shampoo, conditioner and shower gel: About two years. Bath oil: One year to use up that gorgeous bottle with the lavender stems; don’t delay. Remember my point about rancidity and leave in a cool dark place to extend its life. Hairstyling products: Three to five years. Most are alcohol-based, which helps preserve the formula. Hair gel and spray typically last two to three years. Bar soap: Up to three years. Mascara and liquid eyeliner: Three to four months once you start using it. Two years if unopened.

Gosh do any of us do that!!!! Eye and lip pencils: Three to five years. Sharpen them before each use as a way to preserve them and keep them clean, or dab them on a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. Lipstick and gloss: Two to three years unopened or 18 months after first use. Foundation and concealer: About two years for oil-based and up to three years for water-based if unopened. Most of these products are designed to last up to a year, so if you don’t use it up, chances are you didn’t love it anyway. You should aim to use them up within about six months after first use. Please note comments re SPF below as that will change the lifespan. Anything with SPF: Should have an expiration date. All others, up to three years. Sunscreen: Check the package for an expiration date, but if you still have last year’s opened bottle of sunscreen, you should abandon it. Aim to use it up within six months of first use; if you don’t, you’re probably not using it enough. Blush/bronzer: About 18 months after first use. Perfume: About two years. To get more mileage out of a perfume, resist the temptation to display a pretty bottle on your vanity. Instead, stash it away in a cool, dark place (in the fridge). Or if you get a new scent that you won’t use for a while definitely keep away from light and store it in your refrigerator. Nail polish: One year. Nail-polish remover: Good indefinitely. Shaving cream: About two years. Deodorant: Up to two years, but antiperspirants should have an expiration date. And I must say we get gulps and gasps of disbelief...Retailers won’t allow that! They must have minimum of 3 years on the shelf, (and with no special conditions like temperature lower than 25-30C, or blazing sunlight or feature lighting on it). And then PAO needs to be at least 12 months same reason. In the end what I want to say is that my mum was as scientific then as many of us now, buying and making stuff and wanting it to be OK well beyond reason. Just see why manufacturers start to arc up with both materials suppliers and with customers and retailers pushing the window of reason so narrowly that very few products can get through.

We all got so used to our stuff being really well preserved and quite frankly bullet proof, that we have forgotten that the insistence of a natural and almost conventional preservative free product has dashed that little dream to blazes. “In this all I ask is the customers, brand owners, retailers and natural product certifiers get real about the use of preservatives and have some thought for the real safety of the consumer.”