An Interview with our Cosmetic Chemist: Jen Novakovich from The Eco Well

When we set out to create the perfect DIY Deodorant kit, we started off thinking we could simply test a few recipes with alternating amounts of the usual suspects like Coconut Oil, Shea Butter, Baking Soda and Tea Tree Oil and voila! we would have the perfect solution for quick homemade natural deodorant, without the bulk ingredients and used plastic containers. Sounds easy, right?

But, the more we thought about it, the more questions we had: what if the end product doesn’t work properly for everyone? What if your homemade deodorant melts when you’re on holiday in Florida? What do we say when you email us to ask about shelf life? What ingredients should we even include, that would make up for the cost savings of buying bulk?

With more questions arising everyday, and even fewer solutions, we realized this was a job for a professional. (To learn more about why we hired a cosmetic chemist- read our post about why you shouldn’t do it (all) yourself when it comes to DIY Deo formulation.)

Thankfully, around this time, we came across The Eco Well on Instagram. Known for her experience in formulating natural products for the green beauty industry in Canada, Jen Novakovich wears many hats; she’s a trained cosmetic chemist, runs a blog and podcast about the science behind green beauty products and their formulation (listen to our favourite episode here) and still finds the time to run workshops that educate people about cosmetic science. Phew! What a human. So, naturally, we emailed her about being our formulator, and the rest is history!

The thing we like most about Jen is her science-based approach to “green” beauty. It is commonly assumed that any product labelled “all-natural” is definitely good for you, whereas any product made of “chemicals” is bad for you. Jen– like the few science-based beauty advocates out there– does a very good job of separating fact from fiction when it comes to the science behind claims made by “all natural” products. And just like the commercial products at your local drugstore, some green beauty brands are also guilty of using fear-based marketing tactics to get you to buy products that are no more or less effective, sustainable or “natural” than their commercial counterparts. Unfortunately, many times these brands are unaware of sustainability layers or accurate claims and may unknowingly misinform on their labels.

All-in-all, it’s enough to get you to suspicious of making the switch to natural deodorant. That’s why today on the blog we are going to be picking Jen’s brain to get down to some real fact-based green beauty tips. She is going to be answering some common questions, busting some misconceptions and breaking open some old myths about so-called “all-natural” deodorant!

So, we came up with six questions for Jen to answer for us, so that we could finally put an end to all the speculation. Read her answers below!


Q1: First up, what’s the difference between a cosmetic chemist and a formulator?

"A formulator is someone who is able to formulate products. They can range in education, from self taught DIY enthusiast to someone who’s taken formulating course, to a cosmetic chemist. There’s a bit of contention as to what it means to be a cosmetic chemist, but usually, that indicates the person has a diploma or degree focused on sciences, usually chemistry, with either educational and/or professional experience in cosmetic chemistry." "Most cosmetic chemists are formulators by virtue or their training, but not all formulators are cosmetic chemists. To add, cosmetic chemists are specialized scientists whereas formulators range from DIY enthusiasts, artists of sorts, to scientists."

Q2: From a scientific perspective, what does “all natural” even mean when I read it on a deodorant label?


"Natural is a tricky word in marketing because there is currently no legal definition out there.  We do have a way of defining the term though, but unfortunately it’s not regulated and so there’s a lot of interpretation on the manufacturer and marketing side of things. From a more accurate way of looking at things, all-natural is something that hasn’t changed much from its natural self in nature and is extracted by things like cold pressing and steam distillation. As you can imagine, only a few ingredient types fit in this category - natural oils, natural waxes, essential oils, among a few others."

"When you start to change the natural ingredients, that’s when you run into the ‘naturally derived’ arena. Naturally derived ingredients can be made to not include a synthetic component, in the case of soap, or to include, depending on the molecule. Naturally derived end ingredients with synthetic components, for example cocamidopropyl betaine, shouldn’t be advertised as all-natural, despite what some companies seem to think, as this is both inaccurate and misleading. When we refer to synthetic ingredients, we usually mean petrol derived or made in a lab (note, not a bioreactor, that’s a whole ‘nother layer to this topic)."

"Ultimately though, to your question, when you read it on a label, it really doesn’t mean anything, and most ‘all natural’ products aren’t so all-natural… not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think it is to mislead your consumers with misinformation."


Q3: What are your thoughts on ingredients made in a lab? (Like our squalane, which is processed from fermented sugarcane)? Does lab always equal bad?!


"Labs equal science, and science is what we need to change some of the issues we see in the industry, to do things better, and be more sustainable. There’s so much fear mongering out there around the phrase ‘made in a lab’, but sometimes there’s a very good reason for it, for example sometimes it makes the ingredient safer for consumers, and sometimes it makes the whole process of producing the ingredient more sustainable."

"For the first case, iron oxides are a great example. Up until around the mid 1900's, naturally derived iron oxides where used in makeup products. Unfortunately, since they are commonly contaminated with heavy metals, this was very hard to control in cosmetics and led to a lot of people getting very sick. Fun fact, iron oxides and other color additives where one of the big reasons why the Food and Drug act of 1906 was passed in the first place, and later, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics act of 1938. Today, to ensure consumer safety, all iron oxides must be made in a lab. While they are identical to their natural counterparts (nature identical), aside from the contamination part, they are completely synthetic. To add to this, there is pretty well no color additive approved for use in color cosmetics that isn’t synthetic due to some of the risks of natural color additives. Have you seen a 100% natural makeup product? That’s actually not a thing."

"For the second case, sometimes natural ingredients are not sustainable. For example, certain essential oils require upwards to 10,000 lbs of plant material to extract a single pound of essential oil, as is the case for rose. In light of the growing demand of natural fragrances, and our diminishing resources - how can this possibly be sustainable? Certain crops take decades to come to a point of maturity for extraction, as is the case of sandalwood, and depending on where essential oils, for example, are extracted (i.e. branches and leaves vs. roots), this might kill the plant. Some natural ingredients require huge amounts of land and resources to cultivate them, some are grown in marginal habitats, and so on and so forth. It’s not good enough to say a product is ‘green’ because it comes from nature, because that’s simply not true. In comes bioreactors (mentioned above) and biotech. This is a huge discussion right now in the cosmetic industry, but ultimately, biotech offers a part of the solution to manufacture certain difficult ingredients more sustainably, such as in the case of naturally derived squalane, rose, vanilla, etc."

"We’re at a time that we need to be smart about how we produce our products and ingredients. With our diminishing resources and growing demand, we need to be taking steps to ensure that we aren’t going to be destroying the environment producing ingredients for our products. We need to be finding ways to do things better, especially for heavily sought-after materials, and make things sustainable for the future. That’s what science and innovation, which often comes in a lab setting, offers the cosmetics industry."


Q4: What does it mean when a company says something is free from “chemicals”?


"It means, in my opinion, that you probably shouldn’t purchase from that company. Misinformation is something that drives me bonkers in marketing, and ‘chemical free’ claims are no exception. EVERYTHING is made up of chemicals, from the coffee you drank this morning, to the air you're breathing, to ‘all-natural’ ingredients, and to you as a living organism."

Q5: Factually speaking, what are some ingredients we really should stay away from in deodorant formulations?

"There is SO much misinformation with fear mongering on ingredients to avoid, some not even found in your deodorants (parabens are not generally in antiperspirant or deodorant formulations). I’m going to sway away from this trend and stick to ingredients that will either result in a, I would say, not nice product, or cause irritation. Things like heavy oils, especially high up on the ingredient list, or plant or bees waxes as one of the first couple ingredients - the products going to feel pretty greasy and balmy. Baking soda. This is a very caustic high pH ingredient not suitable for the pH of your skin. Ever used a natural deodorant that gave you a bit of a burn? That’s why."

"If you’re opting to get a liquid deodorant rather than bar - if the base is ‘watery’ and contains essential oils without a ‘solubilizing’ agent. Essential oils ARE NOT soluble in water. Not including a solubilizer means that you’re at risk of potentially applying undiluted essential oil on your skin, which is demonstrably irritating, and may put you at risk for skin sensitization all the way to atopic dermatitis. Solubilizers are a type of surfactant that allow essential oils to dissolve in a water-soluble base–  they can be found as EcoCert naturally derived all the way to synthetic. If you see a product that’s ingredient list reads like this: witch hazel or floral water, x– essential oil and maybe even vitamin e, and that’s it– I wouldn’t buy it."


Q6: What are some common myths being marketed to consumers by the green beauty industry that you think we should be talking more about?


"Natural is NOT synonymous with green. There are many examples of natural ingredients wreaking havoc on the environment. I think it’s really important to be very critical of the sustainability profile of every ingredient we use, natural or otherwise. What’s the supply chain like? How is it harvested? Does extraction kill the plant? How long does it take for the plant to come to a point of maturity where it can be harvested? What part of the plant is harvested? What’s the CO2 impact? What’s the social impact? Will the ingredient be possible if we continue on in the next 50 years, business as usual? As you’re probably gathering, the word sustainable is a very complex one with so many metrics to look at. It doesn’t cut it to call a product ‘green’ just because it has natural ingredients."

-Jen Novakovich.

Phew, thats a lot to take in! But here at Make This Universe, we are trying to simplify things for ourselves by ensuring that the claims we make are backed by science, and part of that is educating ourselves through people like Jen! We hope you guys enjoyed reading this post as much as we enjoyed learning from Jen. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any thoughts, questions or challenges for us!



1 comment

This is a great post! I loved how Jen made complex cosmetic science concepts so accessible and interesting at the same time!!!

KathySkead February 01, 2019

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