Why I No Longer Seek out “Natural” Beauty Products

In November of 2015, about sixteen months ago, my morning routine was featured on the (apparently now-defunct) natural beauty blog “No More Dirty Looks.” At the time, I was using a heavily-DIY, all-natural routine, focusing on avoiding chemicals like parabens. Since then, I’ve obviously changed my tune and started using more man-made (and woman-made!) ingredients and products and stopped avoiding ingredients like parabens in favor of science-based ingredients. So I thought I’d use this post to talk a little bit about why I made the switch and why I no longer think it’s necessary to avoid the so-called “toxic” chemicals in our beauty products.

First, a little bit about my own personal story. I found natural/organic beauty through the organic and traditional foods movement. Several years ago, I decided to drastically overhaul how I ate in order to see if it would help my frequent migraine headaches. The good news is that it did! The bad news is that it meant making from scratch pretty much every scrap of food that went into my body. That’s a daunting task, and I did it with the help of food bloggers in the “real food” movement. And while I was busy putting only minimally-processed, organic food into my body, I started reading about how we also get exposed to “toxic chemicals” through the personal care products we use. Around the same time, I had a massive breakout of hives over my entire body for 36 hours. I tracked down the possible culprits and decided that the artificial fragrance had caused my reaction. So I started switching to an all-natural regimen of personal care.

At my crunchiest, I used homemade soap, apple cider vinegar, and organic oils to care for my face, body, and hair. I used crystal deodorant. I ate up articles by bloggers claiming to have found a scientific basis for avoiding parabens, phthalates, sulfates, fragrances, and a whole host of other ingredients. When I couldn’t use something made myself, I found the simplest, least-preserved brand at the organic market that I could. I even washed my hair with mud for a while. And I kept this up for years.

Finally, I realized that highly-alkaline soaps were not doing my skin or hair any favors. I think the first step was admitting that washing my hair with soap left it paradoxically greasy and dry. My hairdresser would refuse to touch my hair until he’d washed it with salon shampoo. And I was breaking out. I went from being a teenager and early-20-something with enviable skin to a spotty 30-something.

In a fit of pique, I became so frustrated with how my skin reacted to everything that I just stopped using anything at all but plain water on my face. That was when I started noticing that my skin was actually dry. I started doing different research, looking up hydrating skin, and eventually found the Skincare Addiction and Asian Beauty subreddits. There, I learned that I had probably dehydrated my skin from years of using alkaline cleansing products and only oils to moisturize. And a light bulb went on.

But in order to fully break away from my crunchy leanings, I had to convince myself that these chemicals I’d been avoiding for years were actually safe. Once I finally did, I felt embarrassed because the preponderance of scientific evidence is in favor of the safety of approved cosmetics ingredients, and I have a scientific background myself. Refusing to trust these researchers is akin to refusing to trust the science that claims vaccines are safe and necessary or that human-driven climate change is a major factor in our environment. If I trusted the science in one place, I needed to learn to trust the science in this place.

Of course, there are bloggers with science backgrounds doing the good work of trying to counter the scare-mongering people who perpetuate this fear of “chemicals.” And that really helped. But I also did my own looking around. And even now, when I find myself falling into old habits of worrying about a skin care ingredient, I do a search and try to limit myself to scientific publications. And since I know a little bit about scientific publication, I try to look up the journals these things are published in, to ensure I’m getting good sources.

But that’s not to say I’ve completely abandoned everything I gained from being an organic beauty aficionado. I still use natural oils on my face. I still DIY my own products, when I can’t find a commercial product that I like. And I still am wary of fragrance in skin care. I’m still aware of my ingredients, but I know that I could have a problem from any ingredient, not just the ones with unfamiliar chemical names.

And that’s the real crux of why I no longer consider myself a natural skin care person. I’ve found some natural ingredients that cause me much worse problems than any scary-sounding chemical ever has. As an example, I’m going to go back to that story about breaking out in hives. I noticed that the initial reaction happened in the exact pattern that I use when putting soap on my body. I looked at the bar of soap I was using and, sure enough, “fragrance” was one of the ingredients. Now, I’m friends with the lady who makes the soap, so I shot her a quick email. She verified that, yes, she used artificial sandalwood fragrance because of cost and environmental concerns with sandalwood oil. Well, I thought to myself, that must be the problem!

There was a jasmine perfume she sold that I loved, so when I was done “detoxing,” I added that back in first, to make sure it didn’t cause a problem. And it didn’t. Oh well, I thought, the jasmine fragrance oil and the sandalwood fragrance oil must have different constituents. But then, I started making my own soaps and she shared her fragrance supplier’s website with me. Well, knowing that the sandalwood fragrance made me react and the jasmine didn’t, I figured I could go to the data sheets for each fragrance and look at what different components they had.

And they had exactly the same fragrant compounds in them. From a chemical standpoint, there wasn’t a difference. So if I had reacted to one, why didn’t I react to another?

Then, I went back to the soap ingredient list and looked again. One of the essential oils was cinnamon essential oil. Now, cinnamon is intensely irritating and has to be used carefully. I had actually had a less-severe skin reaction to a product with cinnamon in it after my hives situation. So after all that, after years of being chemically-avoidant, it was probably a natural essential oil that had caused my reaction.

So the lesson here is that anything can cause a reaction, be it natural or synthesized. Be aware of your personal care products, but know that approved chemicals became approved through a lengthy research process, and distrusting that research may not leave you with the best products to work with.

Lotions and Potions

The cold air has hit us finally. The combination of cold, dry air outside and heated, dry air inside can wreak havoc on even the most resilient of complexions. I’m “blessed” have rather oily skin that does not get dry easily, but even I have noticed the effects of skin dehydration. And, as my beauty sources often remind me, oily skin does not equal hydrated skin. As such, I’ve found myself enjoying a few lovely moisturizing, conditioning, and hydrating boosts the last week or so.

  1. Rosewater and Glycerin: This is a very simple mix from the Heritage Store. It’s just what it says it is: their rosewater mixed with vegetable glycerin. It comes in a 4-oz. spray bottle and I love it more than any other fancy face mists I’ve tried. I use it when I get out of the shower before putting on my sunscreen in the morning, I use it in the evenings if I feel like I need a moisture boost before applying face cream and oil, and I keep one in my purse and my desk to just spritz whenever I feel dry or low. The rosy scent is true and light and a perfect pick-me-up.
  2. Griffin Remedy Skin Food lotion: I’ve used Griffin Remedy’s lotion in the past, but never shelled out for their fancier tier of lotion. With the state of my neglected legs being what they are, I splurged this weekend, and I have to say I love it. I first thought I would get the unscented lotion, as Boyfriend has expressed some concern about dry skin, but I found the lotion itself has a distinctive smell, likely from the MSM or some of the oils. So I got one that is lightly scented with frankincense. Frankincense is supposed to have some lovely healing and regenerative properties as well as smelling divine (literally, ask the Magi). The formula is a bit lighter and moister feeling than the plain Griffin lotion as well.
  3. Sheet masks: I discovered sheet masks when the Western world started discovering Korean skin care. While I’ve found that a fully-layered, eight- or ten-step regimen is just too much for me to stick to, I’ve kept my sheet masks around. Some of the old herbals I have list recipes similar to sheet masks and the practice of soaking muslin or silk strips in a healing solution and using that to beautify the skin has been around for ages. It is fortunate that I live in a day and age where I get the masks pre-soaked and in a little packet. I especially love them for travel because the cooling sensation of the mask calms my skin and sinuses after flying. My absolute favorite to date is the Sephora collection Rose Mask because of its lovely light scent, but I’ve recently ordered some more all-natural hydrating masks from 100% Pure and I’m excited to try them. As far as luxury items go, a $6-10 mask once a week is relatively benign and adds so much to my skin care routine. That said, if I’m in a pinch, I can soak a compressed sheet mask tablet in some alcohol-free toner (I like Thayer’s) and lay that on for a hydration boost.
  4. Hand cream: I had never been one of those people who used a lot of hand cream. I actually hate the feeling of having cream on the palms of my hands. But transitioning from a more hands-on job to a desk job has left me with less worry about slippery grips and more worry about the state of my hands and nails. Plus, a colleague once told me that he doesn’t look at women’s faces any more to determine how old they are, but can always tell from their hands. So I keep a tube at my desk. Right now, I have Andalou’s Path of Light cream in lavender, but I got a little tube of Human + Kind hand, foot, and elbow cream for Christmas and I plan to switch. Sadly, I’ve been unable to find a hand cream I like that doesn’t have shea butter in it, so I have to be very careful not to touch my face too much when I’m using hand cream, but I like that the H+K cream is more lightly scented than the Andalou. I’m intrigued by the brand overall, though most of the products are not quite what I need.
  5. Salves and balms: While oils and butters and salves will not hydrate your skin (only water and water-binders do that), they serve an important purpose in the winter. They lock in the moisture and keep your skin nourished with fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A and E. While I’ve expounded in the past upon my love of rosehip oil, I thought I’d mention a new remedy I’ve found: Moon Valley Organics Herbal Heal. It’s a salve made from safflower, rosehip, and flax oil, with a bit of beeswax to thicken it up. Then, they also add all sorts of lovely healing herbal extracts, and propolis tincture for extra healing power. I’ve been using it occasionally as an eye balm, and it was a skin-saver when I was plagued with raw, chafed skin around my nose from my cold, but sometimes, when it feels very dry, I will slather my whole face in it after piling on my hydrating ingredients to keep all that moisture in close to my skin where it can do the most good.

I love a good walk in the bracing winter air, and I love to come home and curl up in the warmth of my house. With these lotions and potions, I find that these enjoyable winter practices don’t wreak quite so much damage on my skin, and keep my feeling beautiful and moisturized all winter. What are some of your winter skin tips?

An Indulgent Skin Care Routine for After Illness

I’ve been suffering from this awful cold for almost two weeks now. Wednesday night it became so terrible that I went to the urgent care center for trouble breathing. It’s nice to know that “I’m having trouble breathing without dissolving into a coughing fit” is a reason to be moved to the front of the line. Two and a half hours, a session with a nebulizer, and a handful of pill bottles later, I’ve been advised to rest and avoid being outdoors in the cold. As we’ve just recently enjoyed the advent of true winter weather, this means avoiding most enjoyment of the outdoors.

It also prompted the doctor to advise me to work from home so as to avoid my rather bracing daily walks from and to the train station. Thankfully, my boss agreed and I’ve spent the last two days working in the comfort of my own home. Now, the last few days I’ve done the bare minimum to maintain my skin care routine. Washing in the evenings, tone, moisturizing, and a little herbal balm around my nose where it’s been chafed from tissues. While taking a break for lunch, I decided I ought to take a little time and pamper my neglected skin.

I started with a good massage with some grapeseed oil to loosen dirt and debris. This I steamed off with a warm washcloth and followed with a good cleansing with my Earth Science cleansing gel. Thoroughly cleansed and prepped, I applied a sample packet of Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask. This lovely soft-pink gel smelled lightly of flowers and remained on my face for 20 minutes before rinsing and applying a Sephora Pomegranate sheet mask. I prefer the Rose mask, but was out of them and the Pomegranate was supposed to be “anti-fatigue,” which I thought might benefit after weeks of late nights and sleep interrupted by coughing. Thankfully, the fruity scent of the mask was light enough and actually quite pleasant.

I applied the sheet mask, made a pot of lavender Earl Grey tea and got back to work for a half an hour. After I’d marinated under the mask for a half an hour, I decided it was enough. I removed it and patted the remaining serum in. I finished up by massaging in some True Nature Botanicals Face Oil. I got a deluxe sample of this oil from True Nature Botanicals last time I ordered and it smells absolutely divine. If it weren’t so dear, I would spring for the full size. For now, I’m rationing it, as I can’t justify shelling out for just a nice-smelling face oil.

I have to say that in addition to making my skin look absolutely lovely, this routine was relaxing and uplifting and made me feel a bit more like a productive member of society again. Although my instructions to avoid exertion and cold air does leave me feeling a bit like a consumptive Victorian literary heroine.

A Very Bold Experiment

Despite having a very simple beauty routine compared to some, I sometimes wonder why I struggle a bit with acne while Boyfriend enjoys largely clear skin, despite the fact that he does absolutely nothing for it. A few weeks ago, I decided to change things in a rather large way.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve gone without any face or eye makeup at all and I wash my face only with water and a clean washcloth in the evening and water only in the mornings. It’s a lovely simple routine and I don’t have to worry if I occasionally forget to wash up at night because I’m not wearing makeup to clog things.

Going without products has taught me about my skin. I’ve realized that I actually have patches of dry skin when I put nothing on my skin. To avoid this, I use five drops of rosehip seed oil patted into my skin at night and Badger Balm rose-scented sunscreen during the day. It sinks in and prevents dryness without giving me greasy skin and it smells lovely.

Other than that, I wear my red lipstick. And that’s it.

Obviously, when I act, I still have to wear some makeup. As one show is in tech right now, I’ve been experimenting with using grapeseed oil followed by my homemade soap to remove the makeup. I think because I only wear makeup for a few hours at a time instead of all day, it doesn’t irritate my skin as much.

Perhaps I shall stick to this, or perhaps I shall need more come summer when the heat makes me sweat, but for now, I’m enjoying my simple routine.

A Whirl of Fragrance

Several years ago, I had a horrible skin reaction to an artisan soap. I suspected a fragrance oil the soap maker had used. Naturally, she was horrified and offered me a free bar to make up for it (I chose an unscented bar based on olive and avocado oils). Since then, I’ve been careful around scented products. Since then, I’ve come to realize it was probably a natural essential oil that caused my reaction, but I still vet fragranced items quite carefully. As I also get migraine headaches, I have yet another reason to be careful.

Sadly, fragrance is one of my favorite things. A scent can evoke so much feeling and memory. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching around for fragrance companies that really pay attention to the ingredients they put into their fragrance. I don’t always get completely all-natural items, but I prefer companies that avoid the major nasties and focus on naturally-derived scents.

Recently, I placed an order from Demeter Fragrance, a company that has been on my radar since I was a teenager and they were releasing really weird scents like “Dirt.” They focus on single-note scents and encourage blending and layering. As someone who favors simple scents and florals, I love this idea. Rather than getting a designer fragrance with a dozen notes in it, I can blend my own, really letting each element shine.

So I put together an order of samples, along with a small bottle of one of their completely 100% natural scents. I went with an assortment of florals (violet, Bulgarian rose, and jasmine), along with two spicier scents to use as bases (bourbon, and whiskey and tobacco), a sample of vetiver (for grounding), and a bottle of the 100% natural rose scent. They also included a free bottle of magnolia perfume.

I have to say the scents are lovely. The 100% natural rose is very rosy, though I can detect the distinctive scent of rose geranium. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to stay strong on my skin for long, but I appreciate it as a nice, natural-smelling scent.

The other florals are wonderful, too. The jasmine is a rich, syrupy jasmine, probably sambac rather than grandiflorum. The violet is very, very light, but has a lightness that I will revisit in the spring time. The Bulgarian rose is a fantastic, real-rose scent. Some people think florals smell grandmotherly, and while I’ve never seen that as a problem, none of these have that powdery scent that can make floral perfume smell odd.

The whiskey and tobacco has a strong pipe tobacco note, with a bit of whiskey’s sharpness underneath. It has a bit of vanilla to it, without smelling too sweet. The bourbon smells, well, like my bottle of Eagle Rare. It’s just sweet enough, just sharp enough, and with a brightness that will be fantastic in spring and summer. And vetiver is likely going to become my favorite base note.

I have to say, I was most impressed so far with the sample of magnolia. It’s not overpowering, but it’s very floral. When I was in high school, on my walk home, I would stop and stick my nose in the gigantic white blooms on the magnolia trees along my route. This captures the faint rosiness, the notes of honeysuckle and jasmine, and that special fragrance particular to a magnolia. It brings back memories, which is the ultimate goal of most fragrance for me. Despite the fact that it’s very much a spring-y scent, I will probably wear it throughout the dark days of winter to brighten my mood.

As far as the samples go, my plan to start blending and layering them to see what combinations I like. Then, I can order larger vials for blending a custom scent. So far, I believe I will try mixing jasmine with whiskey and tobacco, and vetiver. I may also try rose, violet, and bourbon.

I’m so excited to play with my little order of fragrance. I haven’t yet seen how the synthetic fragrance blends last on my skin, but I’m looking forward to experimenting.

Note: I purchased all these fragrances with my own money and have not received anything in return for this post. Even the sample was a standard gift-with-purchase.

My All-Natural, Homemade Body Butter

As promised, I have decided to share one of the recipes I mentioned in my No More Dirty Looks profile.

When I switched to safety razor shaving, I decided I needed some decadent way to moisturize my legs after shaving. Of course, because I tend to do my shaving in the evenings now, I don’t want to draw out the process much more than needed, so I wanted it to be easy, quick, natural, and not too messy. I started out using a little of my tallow-and-rosehip oil balm, but I found it didn’t absorb very easily and Boyfriend found my slightly slick legs off-putting.

When I ordered babassu oil for my soap-making, I looked it up and found out that it is also a lovely skin care oil. It absorbs fast, and, despite being used similarly to coconut oil in soap, it doesn’t clog pores the way coconut oil can. So I looked up a recipe to use it in a body and lip balm.

I found one at Swifty Crafty Monkey, who has a wealth of information for the beauty formulator. She gives her amounts in percentages, which is handy. I altered her recipe to forgo fragrance (I added the fragrance percentage to the babassu oil), and ended up with a recipe like this:

49% babassu oil
25% mango butter
25% beeswax
1% vitamin E

I measured out in grams on my soaping scale, making a 100-gram batch for simplicity (1%=1g), and found that gave me exactly 5 lip balm tubes and one 2.65-oz. deodorant container. The lip balm is lovely and silky and absorbs so nicely that it’s my new favorite base for lipstick. I use that right after I shower, then I have a lovely beverage while I gather my things for work, and by the time I do my makeup, I have only a bit to blot off before applying lipstick.

The body butter in the deodorant container is hardly an idea I can claim as my own, but I must admit, it is significantly more convenient than trying to grasp a slippery lotion bar with warm, damp hands after a shower. It glides on slightly damp skin and absorbs almost instantly. I use it every time I shave, and then after a few showers when I’m feeling scaly.

It definitely lends a lovely finish to my shaving ritual, as well.

A New Endeavor

I hinted at a new craft project I’ve taken up in my last post, but I didn’t give any details. Well, here’s the big reveal:

AllSoaps

Last week, I made my first batch of cold-process soap!

I’ve been interested in soap-making for years now, but never took the plunge. At first, I wanted to make an unscented olive oil soap for a family member who had very sensitive skin. But as the years went on, I’ve realized that some of the best fats for soap-making are the local, traditional animal fats I can get from farmers around me. Of course, this appealed to my vintage sensibilities and I’ve spent some time researching both vintage soap recipes and modern soap research.

That, coupled with my new attempts at all-natural hair and skin care, let me to more actively look up what I would need to start making bars of homemade soap using lard and tallow. Eventually, maybe I can make a bar of soap that serves all my showerly needs, hair and skin alike!

I started out with a basic recipe mostly based on lard, but with just enough coconut oil to provide nice lather and cleansing power. I had meant to try using tallow, but the store was out of it. I also made a bar with mostly olive oil and just enough coconut to provide lather to put away to cure for holiday gifts for those whose sensibilities might be offended by animal-based soaps.

Both recipes went smoothly, and I’ve just cut up the second batch yesterday. My first batch was a small, 1-lb. batch that I poured into silicone muffin cups to mold. They make very cute soaps. But I wanted something more traditional for gifts so I poured the soaps into a square silicone pan and cut it into rectangular bars.

I’m very excited about my new hobby, and hopefully will be able to test my new soaps on myself and Boyfriend in the next few weeks. And then, I have lots of other recipes planned, from a luxurious facial care bar, to a bar using sheep tallow! I’ll report back here with each and every batch, though.

A Brief Life Update

I’m still here, I promise. And things are still happening.

Sadly, my gardens are not doing so well. A combination of vacation and busy weekends left us with little time to weed. One of our azaleas seems to be dying, and most of my herb garden has been re-conquered by weeds. The basil and parsley are making an heroic effort to fight back, and the sage is doing admirably, but I’ve lost the rosemary. In an odd twist, some weeds grew in my potted peppermint plant and seems to have completely killed it. Killing mint is a new one for me! But I was able to harvest some parsley for a pantry bean soup a couple weeks ago, and some sage for a sage-and-garlic-rubbed pork roast. But my visions of herbed bounty has been tempered somewhat by my natural dislike of actual garden work.

I’ve started walking much more, in addition to my newfound swimming practice. I’m feeling healthier, though also tired. But I’ve discovered that a weekend walk to the local herb store is the perfect distance to tire me out without being too onerous. And buying a few ounces of herbs is a rather cheap shopping trip.

Boyfriend and I also put up another batch of mead this weekend. We chose to use a local apiary’s honey because it comes in bigger jars, but we kept the same recipe as before otherwise. We made a 5-gallon batch! So hopefully it turns out well and next summer we will have lots of honeyed bounty to share with our friends.

I’m experimenting with my hair care again. I’m trying to become more natural, after deciding to grow my hair out longer. My hair is finally long enough to wear up most of the time, without resorting to sad, floppy ponytails, so I’ve rejoined the Long Hair Community in which I participated for a couple years before my divorce. While going through my old journals, I discovered that I had luck in the past with soap-based washing. Since I’ve recently moved to a homemade facial cleanser made with Dr. Bronner’s soap, oil, and honey, I’ve decided to try using the rest of the soap I’ve bought to wash my hair. It’s a simple process: just unscented soap to wash, rinse quite well, and then rinse with diluted apple cider vinegar to rebalance my hair, and rinse the whole thing again. A little oil or tallow balm on the ends of my hair keeps them soft. And I can use aloe vera when my hair feels a bit dry. So far so good.

But… I have some new surprises on the horizon. I don’t want to give too much away, but stay tuned next week for a very vintage hobby post, hopefully. I’m also going to the local renaissance festival this coming weekend, which is a lot of fun, and progressing with my aerial silks. So that will probably be posted as well in the coming weeks.