Sodium benzoate is a preservative that crops up on ingredient lists for skin care products. It is safe, works well enough and doesn’t give rise to many skin reactions.
I don’t think it is many formulators favourite though, because there are other preservatives that work better. Not every preservative works in every formulation and against every organism, and sodium benzoate is one that really needs a low pH to work well and even then isn’t enormously effective against all the microbes you’d like it to be. So it has its uses, but it isn’t especially versatile.
To a chemist though, the name is quite interesting. It is the salt of benzoic acid, and benzoic acid has played a key part in the development of organic chemistry. It was first derived from an asian shrub. Specifically, it was extracted the gum of the Styrax platanifolius. This had been used for centuries but was purified still further by a sixteenth century French chemist. He got it into a crystalline format from which he concluded, correctly, that it must therefore be a single compound. I think that this was the first pure natural compound to be identified.
The chemist’s name was Nostradamus. He’s still famous, not for his science but for some confusing predictions he made that continue to be talked about.
The chemistry of this compound was the focus of intense interest in the nineteenth century. It was studied by many chemists. But the prize for working out its structure was taken by Friedrich Wöhler and Justus von Liebig. These are two of the giants in the history of chemistry. Their work was later built on to create the discipline of organic chemistry.
There are quite a lot of cosmetic ingredients that are derivatives of benzoic acid, so you see ‘benz’ quite often on the backs of packs. It is a neat little history lesson.
When I give a talk I rarely use notes, but I have generally written out what I am going to say in advance and to some extent memorised it. But I am now getting to the stage in my life where I don’t really worry too much about getting up to speak in public. What’s the worst that can happen after all? So when I was invited to speak at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent meeting on anti-ageing I decided to risk getting up to speak with very little idea of what I was going to say. I think the technical term for it is ex-temporising.
I think this is a universal truth, but it is certainly true in labs. The most stressful role is middle management. I enjoyed my time as a bench chemist doing the actual work. I enjoy supervising projects at a higher level. But most of my bad memories of my career are when I was in between – managing a team but reporting to senior management. Continue reading →
2017 was a remarkable year for the aviation industry. There was not a single passenger death from flying. The industry was quick to point out that there was an element of luck involved. But even so, given that their business is ferrying people around the world in metal tubes at a great height, to not have lost a single person in 12 months is quite an achievement. Continue reading →
I don’t know how long I’ll keep it up, or indeed how long people will put up with it for. But for the last week I have started the day with a 60 second video on my new Instagram account. If you aren’t familiar with the platform – you can’t post anything longer than 60 seconds. It is quite tough to say anything in such a short time frame, and I am finding that once I start it is a bit frustrating that I can’t get out everything I want to say. So here is a bit more detail on this morning’s one. Continue reading →
I reviewed the Ordinary as a brand back in early 2017 when they were not that well known. I quite liked the idea, but wasn’t sure it would fly. Well that shows how much I know, because since then they have created quite a stir. I think they have also been generating pretty good sales, in so far as you can tell these things. But they have certainly been generating a lot of attention. One reason for this is the, how can I put it, highly personal social media profile of the founder. But I think the much bigger reason is that they have developed a very distinctive offering which isn’t quite like anything else out there. I thought it would be fun to have a look in detail at one of their products. Continue reading →
There is an article I have seen posted on Facebook a couple of times that highlights the health risks of synthetic fragrance ingredients. I won’t link to it, but if I am seeing it there is a good chance you will have seen it too. The thesis it proposes is that synthetic chemicals in fragrances are toxic and might be dangerous to people who inhale them in public places, even if they aren’t actually wearing the fragrance themselves. Continue reading →
Fashions come and go in the cosmetics and personal care world, and everyone is keen to be on the latest trend as soon as possible. The latest buzzy thing seems to be Cannabidiol or CBD. This has an interesting background, being a derivative of hemp which is also the source of cannabis – which has been a popular if illegal recreational pharmaceutical since the sixties. So CBD comes with ready made notoriety. But it is currently being sold not as a gateway into a counter culture, or even as an aid to relaxation, but as a substance with health benefits. Continue reading →
I started reading your blog a few months ago, and find it a fascinating and useful resource. I am in the process of setting up a small business selling soaps and bath products that I make myself by hand. I started this as a hobby about 4 years ago, but found that I loved the process and the huge learning curve, and wanted to devote more and more time to it…
I am very keen to learn more about basic chemistry, but I have no idea where to start as I have no science background (if you were arty in my day, the sciences were another world!). If you are able to suggest any reading or learning material to get me started I would be very grateful.
Some things are impossible to describe. Smell for example. But fragrance is a huge multinational business worth billions. So with so much at stake it is necessary to try. There have been various schemes put forward over the years but they all rely on the same basic idea. Continue reading →