Gleams & Notions

How Molecules Changed The World We Live In

By Harvey M. Fishman, Consultant | March 5, 2014

I just finished “Napoleon’s Buttons” by Le Couteur and Burrescon, published by Penguin. The subtitle is “17 molecules that changed history.” It is the story of how the desire for certain chemicals has affected and changed the world.  Among the 17 are: phenol and how it created antiseptic conditions for surgeries and other hospital procedures; glucose (sugar), which fueled the slave trade and created profits that helped spur economic growth in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century; and nitro compounds such as nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene (TNT) and their effects on explosives and warfare.

The title refers to the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte’s army used tin buttons, which disintegrated under cold conditions into a crumbly non-metallic tin powder.  In 1812, when their uniform buttons fell apart, were they too busy holding their garments together rather than carry weapons? It’s just one example of how chemicals impact world events.

The Impact of Olives
The authors stress the structure of the molecules and how a small difference in the placement of the atoms can change the properties of the compound, which is illustrated by chemical reaction diagrams.This column will focus on olive oil and oleic acid, a main constituent of it and one of the major chemicals used in the cosmetic industry. The olive tree, Olea europaea, has been cultivated for at least 5,000 and perhaps as long as 7,000 years. The Roman Empire expanded the olive culture to the whole Mediterranean basin. In addition to food, olive oil was used to light lamps, but mostly for cosmetic purposes. It was rubbed into skin after bathing, and athletes considered olive oil massages essential to keep their muscles supple,and soothe and heal abrasions. Women kept their skin looking young and their hair shiny with regular applications of olive oil. It was also thought to prevent baldness and promote strength. Many herbal fragrances were dissolved in the oil to produce scented mixtures. The olive tree needs a short cold winter to set the fruit with no spring frosts which might kill the blossoms.

Although oleic acid is found in other oils and also in fats, olive oil contains a larger proportion of monounsaturated fatty acid than any other oil. Oleic acid in olive oil varies from 55 to 85%, depending on the variety and growing conditions.
Below, is one use of olive oil in a cosmetics formula from Hallstar.

Cold Process Soap Using Exotic Oils
(For Sensitive to Normal Skin)

Ingredients %Wt.
Phase A  
Water (Aqua) (distilled)  24.9
Phase B  
Sodium hydroxide (Lye) 8.5
Phase C  
BioChemica Olive Oil (HallStar) Certified Organic (Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil) 45.3
BioChemica Macadamia Seed Oil Ultra Refined (HallStar) (Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil) 20.1
Phase D  
Beeswax  1.2
Phase E  
Fragrance (Parfum) or essential oil(s) q.s.

Procedure: Prepare molds and any other ingredients in advance. To a suitable secondary vessel, slowly add phase B to phase A (the lye will interact immediately with the water and get very hot), mixing to ensure solution. Let this mixture cool to 50°C. In the main vessel, combine phase C, start mixing and heat to 55°C. While heating, add phase D and mix until clarified. When both main and secondary vessel contents are homogeneous and at 55°C, carefully, add the lye solution (secondary vessel contents) to the oils/beeswax mixture (main vessel contents). With stirring, mix until trace (thick slurry). This process can take up to one hour using a mixer. At trace, compatible essential oil or fragrance (phase E) may be added as desired. Stir until thoroughly mixed and then pour into molds. Insulate with covers and let rest undisturbed for 24 hours. Unmold and cut into desired shapes. Let cure for at least 3–5 weeks.

The authors of “Napoleon’s Buttons” discuss the role of olive oil in soap making and the significant role that it played in preventing disease. With the decline of the Roman Empire, soap usage declined in Western Europe. However, during the eighth century, soap-making using olive oil was revived in France and Spain. This high quality soap was known as “castile” after a region of Spain. The soaps of northern Europe were based on animal fat or fish oils, but the soaps produced were of poor quality, and used mostly for washing fabric. An explanation of the saponification is then illustrated.

I highly recommend this book. Although it is like a “busman’s holiday” for chemists, I enjoyed the world history associated with the discussed chemicals.

Harvey M. Fishman

Harvey Fishman has a consulting firm in Wanaque, NJ, specializing in cosmetic formulations and new product ideas, offering tested finished products. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been director of research at Bonat, Nestlé LeMur and Turner Hall. He welcomes descriptive literature from suppliers and bench chemists and others in the field.