“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.” — Plato
For decades, I used standard commercial skincare products. About ten years ago, I switched to more organic or “conscious” versions bought from health food stores. Now (except for hair care – oh, the tragedy – more on that later), I am moving over to making my own products at home.
The idea of homemade skincare had never appealed to me before. Cooking food was tedious enough, so the idea of concocting, say, my own body lotion was even more frightful. At least with preparing food, I could stuff my face after all that trouble.
It’s not that I don’t care about my skin. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time and energy despairing over it, in fact. I had years of chronic eczema from scalp to toes; my body is mapped by its scars (why, thank you, eczema!). I’d react with a violent rash if I ate, touched or even smelled random allergens; to call me sensitive is an understatement. My skin was often parched, requiring lavish attention.
Since I altered my diet some months back to eating a great deal of raw fruits and vegetables (I know! I thought I’d be the last person to say that), three things have happened.
One: the quality of my skin has changed, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s less upset; I may even call it pleased. It’s still a bit dry – I swim daily in a chlorinated pool, which doesn’t help – but it’s stopped being Poor Charlotte (Poor Charlotte being the doom-filled, woe-stricken maiden cousin in A Room With A View, played in the film adaptation by Maggie Smith).
Second: now that I wasn’t putting as much random junk and processed crap inside my body, it seemed incongruous to still be putting them on my body.
Third: I got over my fear of being in the kitchen. A few simple dishes were helping me from the inside. Surely I could do the equivalent for my outsides?
Because that’s how I’m built, I did epic research on how I could make my own beauty products. I admit I got a little obsessed. But hooray for all that, as I’ve now figured out:
- how to clean my face and body without harsh chemicals or even soaps,
- how to balance them using oils and butters,
- how to keep it all streamlined, eco-friendly and (because I’m me) travel-friendly.
What stops us
We live in the age of fear. Many of us are convinced that without foaming shampoos or anti-bacterial handwash we can’t be really clean. Or that without big names and logos on our dressers, we’re somehow lacking. Or that straying too far from the mainstream will result in social exclusion. These of course are pervasive messages courtesy of the multi-billion-dollar conglomerates that are invested in selling us patented over-packaged pricey rubbish with a mile-long list of lab-created ingredients that have the potential to cause serious long-term health problems. And they tell us we’re worth it.
The second is the faff factor. This was what stopped me all these years. Finding reliable recipes, sourcing ingredients and needing what I imagined would be a chemistry lab at home. And after all that to likely end up with something that looks a bit sad and smells iffy. Urgh! I would have rather watched cricket (a game I don’t understand at all).
The third is the luxury and/or “pampering” factor. We’re stressed, overworked and time-strapped. But ooh look, here’s a perfume or a face cream that will make it all better in an instant. I get it. I spend too many hours wandering around the duty free sections in international airports. Even today, when I’m not remotely interested in buying their stuff, I’m still seduced by their alluring images, slick packaging and the promise of so much in one tiny bottle.
A change of heart
I’ve come to learn: if I can make a salad, I can make a body lotion. Making my own homemade beauty products is fun and easy. It’s also a lot cheaper, even when using all organic/raw/cold-pressed ingredients.
There’s also nothing to fear: this is how previous generations did it (just like, you know, cooking real food) and nature provides everything we need for our wellbeing.
It’s more involved than buying a lip balm off the pharmacy shelf, but then so is preparing a meal at home instead of grabbing a fast food takeaway. As an exact parallel, just as doing away with the preservatives and cheap fillers of a packaged meal is important for the sake of health, so it is with skincare products.
Our skin, after all, is porous enough for topical patches (nicotine, oestrogen, etc) to enter our bloodstream and alter our body chemistry. I once read an interview with the founder of Aveda who said if you rub a piece of raw garlic on the underside of your foot, you’ll smell it on your breath 20 minutes later. Yikes. Let’s not ignore the cumulative effect of routinely bombarding our bodies with hundreds of synthetic additives and solvents. Let’s choose un- or minimally-processed ingredients that are actually healthy for our skin.
While doing so, we will be rejecting the now-common ingredients in countless bottles and jars that clutter up most bathrooms. These include formaldehyde (known carcinogen), parabens (hormone disruptors) and phthalates (so-called “gender benders”; as aggravating I find men at times, I’d really like them to stay as they are without manboobs and wide hips, you know?).
I could get rid of a bunch of my current skincare products if I had a different lifestyle. Perhaps if I had a fully raw diet and didn’t live in polluted cities, I could do away with using a deodorant, as – going by personal and anecdotal evidence – there’s less pong when the body’s not digesting animal products or processed foods. If I didn’t swim every day, I probably wouldn’t require a body cream. If I were less vain, I wouldn’t bother with eye makeup or dyeing my hair (but I am, I am).
Still, I advise taking a close look at each item on your bathroom shelf and ask if it’s really necessary. The multi-gazillion-dollar beauty industry tells us we need lotions and potions, ointments and serums for our eyes, necks, thighs, décolletage, feet, and hands. All the better to waste your money, of course.
Hair care is the one area I still find difficult to switch over. I’m wary of using the most popular no-poo method of baking soda and apple cider vinegar because of the horror stories that inevitably surface after using this combination for a year.
In India, women use natural herbs to clean their hair: shikakai, reetha and amla. The real deal is to boil and strain the ingredients, let them cool and apply; this needs to be made fresh each time. I went with dried organic powder versions that I mixed with rosewater before using. I felt most smug about my switchover, even if applying the paste felt more like a mudpack and took a while to wash out. I anticipated a transition period but when, after a month, my hair gained the texture of straw, I limped back to Kérastase.
Keeping it mechanical
Three products I use that are non-chemical and only mechanical:
- Loofah to scrub the body in the shower.
- Magic Mitt (by Jane Iredale) to remove my makeup. This is a microfiber mitt I dampen with water then use to gently wipe away makeup, including my stubborn gel eyeliner. This lets me avoid using chemicals – eye makeup remover, face cleanser, toner, etc – though I do need to wash the mitt with soap and water before hanging it up to dry overnight. A simple microfiber cloth (sold for facial use) will also do the same job. I understand even a muslin cloth could do it too (buy a metre from a fabric store, and cut into smaller pieces).
- Tongue scraper. I got into Ayurveda from when I came to India to work on my first film 20 years ago. While I don’t follow it any more, some habits I picked up from it are still with me, including using a tongue scraper. After brushing my teeth in the morning, I run the plastic scraper down my tongue once to clean it. Having done it for so long (though it confused a Chinese acupuncturist I consulted years ago, who expected to see my body’s dysfunctions manifest on my tongue), I now don’t feel my mouth is fully clean without it. It’s cheap ($1.50/£1) and available online or at a health food shop.
Keeping it solo
The next best option is using single-ingredient products. Such as:
- Oil for the face. I use rosehip seed oil in place of a moisturiser and night cream/serum. Three to six drops a day is literally all that’s needed, making a small bottle be both long lasting and travel-friendly. Jojoba oil may be better suited for those with oilier complexions.
- Oil for the hair. This is in place of a serum or commercial oil (the kind that, however “natural”, is hard to wash off – what’s in it, for heaven’s sake?). I rub a few drops of jojoba oil across my palms and spread it over my hair to combat frizz (hello monsoon weather!) and as a mild leave-in conditioner. Argan oil, mango butter or shea butter is also lovely for this.
- Crystal stone as deodorant. I use a mini travel version that lasts years. Wet with water and run under the arms several times.
- Honey as an occasional face mask. Yum.
Keeping it simple
Reading myriad books and blogs on natural beauty as I have, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are thousands of recipes out there, many with a dizzying array of ingredients and complicated instructions – and plenty of wild promises claiming to cure everything.
I experimented with simple recipes then streamlined them further. I love the idea of using good, honest ingredients that are as raw and unrefined as possible. Pure fats (oils, butters, waxes) are protective. Grains are cleansing. Essential oils (not required, really, except for perfumes) pack a punch and make the heart sing. Simple, as ever, is always the most elegant.
Keeping it dry
I also choose recipes that make dry and/or solid products, because:
- Water is a breeding ground for bacteria, mould and fungi. If a recipe doesn’t require water (except right before using it) there’s less need for preservatives.
- Liquids are bulky and heavy. Liquid products are basically diluted versions of their solid counterparts. Opting for dry products means doing away with the waste, the weight and the space, making less product go a longer way.
- Dry generally means longer expiry dates, which means I can make a bigger batch to last months, instead of mixing things daily.
- Dry helps carry-on-only travel (which, as I keep saying, is Very Important to me): no spills, less weight, more compact, no need to squeeze more into that dreaded 3-1-1 liquids pouch. Hurrah!
Keeping it local
Every culture has a history of natural skincare. Whatever is local will be best suited for the climate and environment. The ingredients will be grown in the region and therefore ecologically more sound with fewer miles to transport, and also cheaper.
Saying that, I discovered how labour intensive many homemade beauty products are in India, where I am currently staying. This is not unlike its cooking – diverse depending on the region but inevitably involving multiple steps, many ingredients and numerous dishes per meal. Many people here have someone helping in the kitchen, which makes this less tiresome. I do not, hence my sifting through many local traditions to find beauty recipes I can put together without spending hours chopping, grinding and simmering.
I’m also happy to support fairtrade communities and sellers wherever they are in the world, and therefore don’t grumble about purchasing shea butter from a women’s cooperative in Ghana, or rhassoul clay from Morocco.
I’ve had fun figuring out how to translate recipes from one place to another. In the West, finely ground oats are often used as a base for cleansing and scrubbing DIY beauty products. In South Asia, it’s that ever-present gram (chickpea) flour. I was also delighted to discover that adzuki beans popularly used in Japanese skincare is known in India as red chori (chawli in Maharashtra, where I am) and available widely and cheaply.
Making our own beauty products doesn’t have to be complicated. We can learn more about our bodies, our preferences and our surroundings with just a little exploration. Homemade skincare products are tailor made to our exact tastes, and are also cheaper and healthier.
DIY beauty is a form of self-care that reminds us that we’re looking out for ourselves. What’s not to love?
I will post my favourite simple homemade skincare recipes soon!
“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau
The Holistic Beauty Book: With Over 100 Recipes for Beautiful Skin by Star Khechara is my favourite book on natural homemade skincare. The recipes are largely streamlined, and most are vegan. I like her ethos, style and tone.
There are countless blogs on making your own skincare. One of my favourites is wellnessmama.com, run by Katie who is thorough in her descriptions, rehearsed with her recipes and sane with her information. Her site also covers recipes for natural household products, baby care and food.
For a look at our culture’s worrying fascination with labels, celebrity and surface glitz, watch The Bling Ring, directed by Sofia Coppola, for a true cautionary tale of Hollywood teenagers who stole from the stars.