Natural or Not: The Story of a Mineral Oil Molecule

May 3, 2011 | Contact Author | By: Johann W. Wiechers, PhD, JW Solutions
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This is not a regular column, it is a true story. After reading it, many will try to prove that everything stated is wrong. However, it cannot be proven wrong; nor can it be proven right. By now, you are wondering what this author is up to, so let us delve into the subject at hand. 

This story is about the life of a molecule—a simple but frustrated mineral oil molecule. A molecule that felt it was perfectly natural but was accused of not being natural. Wrongly accused, it would say, but that is what everyone says who is being accused. It had to find a way to prove its naturalness but how does one prove this? Then all of a sudden it knew, and it looked forward to the big moment but could not predict the outcome. “To be or not to be natural,” that was the big question for this mineral oil molecule. 

For cosmetic readers, this story reverts to the beginning of life for this remarkable molecule. In the beginning, it is written that "the earth was formless and empty. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness." But the earth was not empty, otherwise there would be no ocean. The mineral oil molecule was already swimming around as a small amino acid in the primeval sea, although "swimming" is not the right word as it was moving around due to Brownian motion (although it would be ages before Robert Brown would be born).

Life was unexciting until all of a sudden, the molecule was swallowed by a Dunkleosteus terrelli, a large predatory fish that made ocean swimming dangerous about 400 million years ago. After ending up in the stomach of the biggest and strongest sea monster that ever lived, this molecule was built up into a large mass of protein and gradually felt strong and powerful like a D. terrelli; however, even it did not have eternal lives, and "Dunky," as he was named by his three friends, died. He closed his protein eyes, sank to the bottom of the sea, water washed over him, sand settled on top of him, and his flesh decayed.

After many millions of years, the story continued as the molecule experienced extreme pressure due to sedimentation. The fish meat it once belonged to no longer existed and everything was dark and gooey but due to the extreme pressure, its internal structure reorganized and the molecule could not even freely move its electrons. This limitation was just beginning to annoy it when all of a sudden, it experienced a strange but strong, loud shaking. The noise was deafening but even before it could develop a headache, it felt as though it were rising. Definitely, something important and unexpected was happening.

Finally, the molecule had some space to move around, and its new life started as it emerged to the surface on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Now it was shaken, not stirred, and soon found itself in a distillation column. It was getting hotter and hotter and some of its smaller friends could no longer cling to it, disappearing into thin air. Then the molecule itself could no longer stand the heat and at around 270°C, it also had to leave. Workers in blue overalls commented, “this is the really nice fraction,” but the molecule could not hear this as it was trapped in a cooling column. Realizing that its environment had changed, it was then surrounded only by friends and was no longer in a gooey, dark mass. The workers in blue overalls were right, it was indeed a really nice fraction!

Next, the molecule entered a pressure tank filled with hydrogen gas. “We’ll nicely saturate this lot,” said the workers, and any double bond or unsaturated bond that could be found in its friends’ structures was saturated in a rather forceful way. After two hours at 220°C and 50 atmosphere hydrogen gas, no double remained. Luckily, this molecule was already a cycloalkane and there was nothing to saturate in its skeleton. With time to observe what was happening to its friends, the molecule noticed it could gradually see further and further. In fact, since its "before Brown" time as a little amino acid, it had not experienced such a high degree of transparency. Yes, the molecule felt good that it was part of a nice fraction. Maybe that was what saturation was all about; it was satisfied, saturated and happy.

Now the molecule made another jump in time, but just a small one. A couple of fantastic things happened to it as the molecule found itself incorporated into a cosmetic cream—the process by which being so secretive that this author, by contract, cannot divulge. What can be said is that the mineral oil molecule found itself located in the internal phase of an o/w emulsion, which again involved another increase in temperature, vicious stirring in a large high shear mixer, and cooling. The molecule had never felt so luxurious in its life; it had felt free as a simple amino acid in the primeval sea, powerful as a protein in the muscles of Dunky, and suppressed during its transformation into a cycloalkane. Being a part of a cosmetic formulation really gave it the feeling of luxury; perhaps it had even reached the chemical equivalent of Nirvana.

The cosmetic cream container was then picked up by a consumer who carefully studied the INCI list on the label. “Mineral oil,” the consumer said. “Should I really use this horrible synthetic stuff on my face?” The molecule replied, "I’m not synthetic! Once upon a time, I was a sea monster (D. terrelli). Then I was suppressed in the dark for millions of years, which was not nice but happened naturally to me. Then I was heat separated from my friends, and there was nothing synthetic about that. That saturation process was not fine but I escaped that rough process because I was already saturated. I am just as natural as you are!”

However, despite the molecule being close to the surface of the luxurious cream, the consumer did not hear it. This consumer was the type that believed anything man-made was synthetic but the mineral oil molecule disagreed, finding it to be wrong. If the consumer would have listened, the molecule would have explained that every human being on earth is man-made. So according to this theory of naturalness, humans are therefore synthetic. The only person that lived on earth that was not man-made, according to the Bible, was Jesus Christ. He would therefore be the only natural human being that ever lived, but many people called him supernatural! The mineral oil molecule had to admit that a few weird things happened to its friends in the oil refinery, but did they make this molecule unnatural?

Of course, the molecule realized that naturalness was what the consumer believed it to be, but it knew for sure it was not created in a cyclotron or nuclear reactor; it was already in existence long before such installations were ever designed. It also knew it was not animal-derived. If it were, it would now have been natural gas instead of oil—but no one would have doubted whether it was natural or not. To make it worse, the molecule belonged to the most purified, rich fraction of natural oil, and it was accused of not being natural. How could it get the consumer to believe that it was indeed natural?

Then, the molecule knew. While the consumer was uttering words like “chemical,” “bad,” “synthetic” and even "petrochemical,” the molecule realized that if the consumer were to apply the luxurious o/w cream to his face, then the molecule would be natural. So the mineral oil molecule stopped uttering words of wisdom and let it be.

The consumer put his finger into the cream and the mineral oil molecule looked straight into his eyes with anticipation. The song "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meatloaf came to mind as the molecule recalled the refrain: “Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me? Will you never leave me? Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life, will you take me away and will you make me your wife? ... What’s it gonna be boy, yes…. or… no?” Would the consumer apply the cream containing the molecule to his face? And would the molecule be able to penetrate the consumer's skin? After years as Dunky and millions of years in suppression, would he finally have the chance to continue his life as the consumer? After all, isn't that the cycle of nature?

The consumer sighed while the mineral molecule held its breath. In a few seconds, the molecule would finally know whether it would be officially endorsed as natural. The question of, "to be natural or not to be natural?" was finally going to be answered.