I started this post at 9:30 last night, when I had just cleaned up from making coconut oil moisturiser and hair oil, with all the oily measuring spoons soaking in baking soda. I have, perhaps inevitably, drifted into the DIY beauty trend for homemade lotions, lip balms, and acne remedies.
It was an accident, mostly. When I got married, I started reading a few ‘homemaking’ blogs for ideas on how to organise, advice on cleaning, recipes, budgeting help, and the like. The first one I read, and still my favourite for realism and goodwill, is AndreaDekker.com. As I was reading back through the archives of her blog, I found a post where she described a homemade face wash made from oil (yes, oil). It was in fact what I now know as the widespread phenomenon of the oil cleansing method (OCM for short), which is supposed to clean skin gently without drying, as well as helping with acne and reducing exposure to the additives in commercial products. I did a bit more research, and as a person with constantly blemish-prone skin, decided I had nothing to lose and gave it a try. That’s another story, but the long and short of it is that after trying it for a few months I’m quite converted.
My research on OCM led me into the whole world of DIY beauty. Now, this wasn’t totally new to me. In my teens and early twenties, I had read about few ‘home spa’-type tips like using lemon juice for acne or yogurt for a facial, but I never thought of these as more than an inexpensive way to pamper myself if I had spare time and felt like experimenting. The difference in the serious DIY beauty habit is that you actually replace basic products like shampoo, conditioner, face wash, moisturiser, even makeup and perfume, with homemade versions which avoid some of the synthetic ingredients and preservatives in commercial products. There seem to be about three basic motivations for this: health, environmentalism, and budget, emphasised in varying degrees depending on who you consult and their own priorities.
Me? I do love to make things, especially useful things that have the capability to be a tad impressive. I suppose I like to feel that I have the skills for a variety of useful tasks, even if they aren’t constantly employed. And while I try to steer clear of alarmism about the ‘deadly toxic chemicals’ in commercial products, I do generally think that many ingredients may cause low-level problems and that research simply can’t capture all their effects over time. So I’m sure that there are a number of common ingredients in shampoos, makeup and the like that we should at least be wary of, even if they occur in small enough concentrations not to pose an instant hazard. However, at this stage in life I’m not willing to spend a huge amount of money on this, so anything I tried had to be equivalent in cost to what I was already doing.
So I’ve been experimenting: lip balm, moisturiser, various facial recipes, haircare, and even a little (but surprisingly successful) makeup. I also had the failures: the soapy/oily shaving gel No. 1 and No. 2, the moisturiser that ironically dried up my skin, and seriously the worst and most disgusting hair I’ve ever had. After much trial and error, over a few months now, here are my thoughts on the DIY and natural beauty trend.
‘Going natural’ is not budget-friendly if you buy organic commercial products. You can, of course, go to Holland & Barrett and buy almost everything you’d need from their personal care section. I’ve read some labels there and for the most part, brands like Burt’s Bees are pretty good in terms of their ingredients. However, you’ll pay £9 and upwards for a bottle of shampoo.
However, it can be basically affordable, much of the time, if you make your own products. I did start by ordering a few ingredients online, because, contrary to what some of the ‘home spa’ recommendations suggest, the ingredients of hardcore DIY lotions and potions are not all ‘things you probably have in your kitchen cupboard’. That did mean an initial outlay of money. However, once I started making a few things, I estimated the cost of them according to the amount of each ingredient used and compared it to commercial versions: on the whole, I found that my homemade versions came out at equivalent to, or cheaper than, the ‘own brand’ chemist/pharmacy equivalents. They were astronomically cheaper (1/2 or 1/3 the price) of the higher-end or organic products, even if I figured in some cost for a container. On the whole, nothing I’ve incorporated into my new routine involves an increased cost in the long run, even though it did mean some money up front. As an example, I use an oil moisturiser on my face once a day. A 30 ml bottle of it costs me about 60-70p worth of ingredients, and I use about three drops for each application. By my calculation, a bottle should last about 5 months, which is about the length of time I got out of my old moisturiser – but it cost five times as much (and wasn’t an expensive one, either).
It’s not difficult per se, but it’s definitely not foolproof. None of the recipes I now use are hard to produce, but in every case there was a lot of trial and error before arriving at something that worked well. This is largely because everyone’s skin is different, but also because I needed to learn how to substitute ingredients for what I had, and to educate myself enough about the ingredients to know how to use them properly. I made a delicious-smelling balm that was wonderfully moisturising, but once the summer weather hit, I realised I’d included citrus oils in my recipe, which make skin photosensitive. So I needed a different recipe if I was going to apply it in the morning before going outside. Additionally, though there are books out there, if you’re getting your information from the internet it takes a lot of reading and sifting to sort the good from the bad advice – and there is some bad advice out there. Some people swear by coconut oil to moisturise everything, including their face. But if you read far enough, you’ll find that some say that it can dry out facial skin – as indeed it did for me. So it takes quite a bit of research and fact-checking. I will add, in fairness to cosmetic companies, that I’ve generally found that things are the way they are for a reason; commercial formulations are designed to be cost-effective, easy to use, and have a long shelf life. Those things aren’t always true of homemade versions.
Quality ingredients matter. This is a sort of subset of the ‘not foolproof’ issue. As an example, quite a few DIY products rely on oils (I’ve accumulated four different ones), but it’s imperative that these be cold-pressed (or expeller pressed, or ‘produced solely by mechanical means’) and not heated in any way. It’s the same reason hydrogenated oils are unhealthy in food; heating oil changes its molecular structure in a bad way, and you don’t want to use that on your skin. Obtaining good oils means, mostly, having to order them online if you don’t want to pay a lot of money for them at the health food store.
Serious changes will probably require new methods and new routines. Although I mentioned that the DIY natural beauty trend tends to be aimed at replacing daily-use products with homemade versions, it often isn’t a case of a one-to-one switch. Hair care is a good example: there are many options, but almost all will involve 1) a hair wash of some kind, 2) a hair rinse made from diluted vinegar and 3) some kind of moisturiser, usually oil. These three things roughly replace the standard shampoo, conditioner and styling product trio, but aren’t used in quite the same way. Equally, your routines and the time allocated to various personal care tasks might shift. For example, now that I use the oil cleansing method on my face, it takes me longer in the evening than using a foaming face wash; I probably spend 3-5 minutes in the bathroom each evening between cleansing and moisturising. But, conversely, I spend less time in the morning, because all I do is rinse my face with cold water.
There’s a need for realism and balance. It is alarming, once you start learning about this and reading the labels of products you buy. Once I saw how much improved my skin was when I stopped using my cleanser, I began to wonder if the main ingredient (after water) was the cause of many of my skin issues in the first place: sodium laureth/lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a synthetic detergent which many people say can cause skin problems. In fact, I knew a PhD student in Oxford who was researching this very thing. As near as I can remember, she said her research found that SLS breaks down the cell structure of skin. Ick. What this means practically (aside from concerns about long-term damage) is dryness and itchiness. But when I started reading labels, I realised that pretty much any liquid cleanser, whether facial cleanser, shampoo, body wash or hand soap relies on SLS as its primary ingredient. It was actually very frustrating. I’m trying to eliminate it from my normal routine gradually, but also trying to remember that I’ve been using it all my adult life and I haven’t died yet. There’s a need for balance, remembering that we still live in the real world.
If anything, the lesson to be learned is – read labels! Thanks to my mom, I was always taught to read food labels to look for hydrogenated fats, MSG, preservatives, and levels of sugar. The same principle goes for cosmetics and ‘personal care’ products. A website like Skin Deep can tell you what the ingredients of cosmetics are.
One positive change has been learning to relax. Although I mentioned above that getting into ‘natural’ beauty can be frustrating – and if you do enough reading you can start to panic that you’re going to die at 35 because you didn’t massage coconut oil into your sunburned arms – on the other hand, all this attention to what I’m putting on my skin (and the resultant failed experiments) has forced me to be a little more accepting of how my skin and hair naturally are. As I was trying to clear up my acne, I decided to stop using the tinted moisturiser and concealer I’d been using daily for years, figuring that I should go ‘all the way’ in letting my skin breathe if I wanted to see whether all this natural stuff really made a difference. And, you know, it wasn’t that bad. I speak as a person who isn’t a big beauty junkie, merely liked the smell of a nice body wash or found comfort in knowing that concealer could come to the rescue, but I think beauty routines can become something we feel we need because our day will be ruined without them. It would be ruined if we had a blemish or slightly greasy hair. But that just isn’t true. In the process of experimenting I did have (still have) some bad hair days and some anxiety over my persistently imperfect skin, but it’s helped me relax a little and not expect perfection. In that sense, all this ‘natural’ care has been helpful in reminding me that health is more important than a flawless complexion or magazine-perfect hair.
Some practical advice
There is TONS of information about this online. It’s not my goal to make you feel inadequate if you don’t start washing your face with oil – so don’t bother if you aren’t interested. But if you are, here are some of my suggestions for where to get started if you’d like to try some natural and DIY routines.
The oil cleansing method is something I’d recommend at least trying if you have skin problems like acne or dryness. I had both, and both are enormously improved. You can read about OCM here and here; read the comments on the blog as well for other suggestions. I do advise reading up on this before you actually try it, so that you know what you’re doing. I started with castor oil ordered from Amazon (from a seller called Naissance) and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Sainsbury’s Organics range (which cost £2.50).
It can be fairly easy to swap a normal facial moisturiser for a little bit of oil, especially at night. I use sweet almond oil with a bit of added vitamin E oil. Exactly three drops is enough for my whole face. After cleansing in the evening, while my skin is still damp, I drop three drops of oil onto my fingers and rub my hands together to spread the oil, then massage it gently into my face. I find I don’t need a moisturiser in the morning.
Using honey as a face mask is easy and very cleansing and moisturising. If you aren’t wearing makeup, you can actually use honey like a face wash. Otherwise, use it as a mask after you’ve removed makeup: apply about a teaspoon of honey to your clean and dampened face, wait 10 minutes, and rinse it off.
You can make both lip balm and a more all-purpose body moisturiser very easily once you buy the ingredients, which will usually include natural beeswax and some variety of oils (olive, sweet almond, coconut – again, ensure they’re mechanically extracted, virgin oils). Lip balm was one of my first DIY projects, and it worked really well. You can find some recipe ideas for lip balm here. If you don’t want to rush out to buy containers at first, try using some small glass jars or washed-out containers from old cosmetics to store your concoctions.
Try using bar soap instead of liquid body wash, and don’t use it all over your body every day, only the…um…most important bits. Soap, at the basic level, is made of oils rather than a detergent like SLS. Commercial soaps do have additives like perfumes and preservatives, though in my opinion they are still probably less irritating to skin (mine at least) than SLS. If you want to go whole-hog, try a handmade cold-pressed soap. I have some from the Happy Tree Cosmetics company (which I bought in York), which is lovely, and I find it leaves less scummy residue than commercial bar soap. In London, the All Natural Soap company looks good, though I haven’t tried their products yet. About £2.50-3.50 seems the usual price for a 100g bar of handmade soap. Mine came in a little organza drawstring bag, and the seller told me to leave the soap in the bag and use it that way, then hang it up in the shower to dry between uses. This is much easier than trying to handle a slippery, slimy bar of soap, and makes for less mess and less waste.
If you’re feeling brave, you could try switching to a shampoo bar, which are often made by the same companies that make handmade soap. I’ve just started using one, and though I’m still in the trial stage, I’ve been very happy with the result. Again, do some research online to see how to use it. I follow up with a rinse of diluted apple cider vinegar (about 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water) and use a little bit of oil, scrunched into my damp hair, to condition afterwards.