Every year for the past eight years, my girlfriends and I plan a trip together as a way to reconnect after our lives have moved us to different cities. We have varied our destinations from Montreal, New Orleans, New York City and the Indiana Dunes State Park. Our latest adventure was a getaway to a spa a few hours away from Madison. Before our trip, we emailed back and forth about the spa treatments that were listed on the resort’s menu which had names like The Sea Lime Sigh exfoliation and Burst of Radiance facial. We each picked one or two services and looked forward to spending the rest of the time together languishing in the resort’s pools and saunas.
The weekend delivered just what we expected: relaxation and laughter. The services from the spa were as promised too; I enjoyed my facial and I started thinking that this would be a good time to “makeover” my facial care products and routine which, after 15 years, needed some updating. Up until that time, I had been dutifully following the steps prescribed to me by a department store beauty counter. And, as I have become a more conscious consumer, I had to admit that these products were not in line with my values because of their use of harsh synthetic chemicals and animal testing. So after my facial, I spent some time browsing the spa store and investigating the labels on the expensive jars of products like the Sea Lime Sigh. I wondered if I couldn’t make some less-expensive versions of these products using organic ingredients sold at the Co-op. Upon returning home, I took it upon myself to further my knowledge about skin care and try my hand at making some of my own skin care products.
The skin and the acid mantle
One interesting aspect I learned about was a thin layer atop the skin called the acid mantle. The acid mantle acts as our skin’s first line of defense because it interacts with every molecule that graces its surface. The acid mantle is composed of several elements including sebum and sweat which help the mantle stay within a specific acidic pH range of 4.5 and 6.2. This acidity helps to neutralize alkaline contaminants and pollutants and wards off bacteria and viruses. The body does its job to maintain the acid mantle, and we can help to encourage its upkeep through regular cleaning, exfoliating, toning, and moisturizing. But we must take caution against the numerous facial products that contain too-strong alkaline cleansers. They can strip the acid mantle and leave the skin vulnerable to the attack of bacteria and contaminants.
Cleansing, exfoliating, toning, moisturizing and protecting from the sun
In addition to learning about the acid mantle, I also examined the basic protocol of skin care: cleaning, exfoliating, toning, moisturizing and protecting the skin from ultraviolet rays. Let’s review:
Cleansing: Cleaning your face at least twice a day with a mild cleanser is a good jumping-off place for skin care. Washing and toning your face before bed is an often-overlooked step, but it is important to remove the pollutants and dirt that accumulate throughout the day in which bacteria can thrive. That said, many aestheticians recommend skipping nightly moisturizer in order to allow the skin to perform metabolic processes of cell growth, regeneration, and repair.
Exfoliating: The skin is responsible for removing one-third of the body’s waste which translates to about one pound a day in the form of dead skin and perspiration. A mild daily exfoliation can aid in the turnover of dead cells and leave the skin smoother and more ready to accept healing nutrients and hydration.
Toning: The next important step is reclaiming the skin’s proper pH after cleansing. Soaps typically have a higher and more alkaline pH of eight to eleven. The lower pH of toners, face splashes, and astringents help to restore the pH preferred by the acid mantle.
Moisturizing: After the pH is restored, moisturizing is an essential next step with products like facial serums and moisturizers. Facial serums are composed of oils that have a smaller molecule size and can descend and deliver nutrients into the deeper layers of the skin. On the other hand, moisturizers have larger molecule size, are deposited on the upper layers of skin and serve their purpose by adding moisture and locking in existing hydration. There is not a need for both serum and moisturizer, but together they team up to give the skin maximum nourishment, hydration and protection.
Protecting from the sun: This step is arguably the most important part of skin care. Sun exposure during early and late day could be opportunities for vitamin D production, but lengthy mid-day time outside necessitates the use of sunscreen.
Some ground rules to making your own skin care products
Now that we have the basics of skin care down, we should cover the ground rules to do-it-yourself (DIY) skin care products. Just like with cooking, make sure your ingredients are fresh and that your tools and hands are immaculately clean in order to avoid introducing bacteria to your final products. And also just like with food, skin care products made in the home don’t have an infinite shelf life. Discard something if it begins to smell spoiled or is growing mold. To increase the life of your concoctions, consider storing them in a cool and dark place.
When choosing your ingredients, a good maxim to follow in making your own body products is: don’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t eat. (I would argue that the converse is also true: don’t eat anything that you wouldn’t put on your skin). If you have food allergies, avoid using those allergens in your products and be sure to test all of your products on a small patch of skin to ensure you have no reaction before you proceed with a treatment. And after you have prepared and packaged your products, be sure to label the container with the list of ingredients.
Making your own skin care: getting creative
The practice of making your own body care products can also be likened to cooking: follow a general recipe and add your own personal touches. A good starting point is to look at the ingredients of your favorite skin care products and find something you would like to emulate. Don’t be deterred when you come across a chemical or genus and species name. For example, Tocopherol is just the chemical group name for Vitamin E, Lavandula angustifolia refers to lavender used in essential oils, and “herbal infusion” is a fancy way of saying “herbal tea.”
A great way to obtain ingredients is to open your cupboards and forage through your garden. If you are missing something, head to the Co-op; in fact the ingredients for the recipes included in this article can all be found in either the produce, bulk, packaged foods or Health & Wellness department. Most of the ingredients are inexpensive so don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This process is all about trial and error. And be sure to take notes as you work in case the mad scientist in you discovers something brilliant.
Homemade skin care products make for great gifts especially if they come in a pretty package. The Co-op sells some great looking dark-colored bottles that will help to preserve the volatile properties of herbs. Wide mouth half-pint jars are well suited for bath salts and body scrubs. Be creative!
The Sea Lime Sigh ingredient list gave me some initial inspiration and from there, I began concocting recipes for several skin care products. I share some of my favorites below.
My body scrub recipe
- 1/2 cup sea salt
- 1/2 cup of base oil like almond oil or olive oil
- 5 drops lime essential oil.
Directions: Use coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle to get the sea salt down to a granule size that will not be too rough on the skin. If you use a coffee grinder, I suggest you use one that is specifically devoted to grinding herbs, not coffee, otherwise you will end up with facial products that have residual coffee oils and coffee that tastes like your skin care products. The Co-op sells coffee grinders in the coffee section of the store. In a clean measuring cup, measure out the almond oil and mix in the essential oil drop-by-drop. Once the oils are mixed, slowly add the sea salt and stir. Put the mixture into a container and label.
It is best to use this product in the shower. Spread the mixture over the skin and gently massage into the skin. The salt will act as a disinfectant and help exfoliate while the oils will penetrate into the skin. Once complete, rinse off the residual oils and salt, shower as normal and take caution against slipping in the tub.
For some variation on this recipe, try swapping sugar for salt, as it can be less drying. It should also be noted that the above mixture makes a great body scrub, but is not suitable for the face.
The face needs gentler mechanical and chemical exfoliation measures like the following duo below:
- 2 tsp. finely ground sunflower seed
- 1/3 cup applesauce.
Directions: Mix the two together in a small bowl. After cleansing face, apply to mixture to neck and décolletage and, as with all facial exfoliants, very gently massage into the skin to lift off the dead skin cells; any scrubbing will leave damaging micro-scratches on the skin. This mixture can be left on for a few minutes allowing the chemical exfoliant malic acid (from the apples) to work away at dead skin cells. Once complete, rinse well.
Some alternate ingredients for a facial exfoliant include: finely ground cornmeal or oat flour and cream or yogurt; the cream can add extra moisturizing for drier skin, and yogurt contains lactic acid that also works as a chemical exfoliant.
Additional chemical exfoliants include lemon juice, pineapple juice, white vinegar and apple cider vinegar. Although these can be too harsh for most faces, they make great softeners for rough elbows knees and feet. Consider a foot soak in a basin of 2 cups of water and 2 cups of white vinegar. After the soak, use a pumice stone to work on softened calluses. For a little more invigoration, add 5 drops of peppermint essential oil to your footbath; or for a mini foot massage add some marbles to the bottom of the basin and roll beneath tired feet. Once done, dry, moisturize and put on some cotton socks.
Hands also need some extra TLC this time of year. Try this terrific hand exfoliant:
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- 3 tsp. base oil like walnut or olive oil
- 2 drops sweet orange or lemon essential oil
To compose, follow the same instructions I outlined in my body scrub recipe. Once you have a paste, massage hands together for a minute or two, focusing especially on the dry and rough parts of the hands. This is a perfect mixture to keep in a jar next to your kitchen sink.
Not only are salts good as cleansers and exfoliants, they can also be great for a good old-fashioned tub soak. In addition to sea salt, also consider Epsom salt, kosher salt, or any other salt that sounds interesting. Here is a reliable bath salt recipe I use for my children’s bath.
- 1 cup Epsom salt (great for soaking sore muscles)
- 10 drops of an essential oil
I vary the kind of essential oil that I use depending on what kind of day we are having: if we are winding down from a long day, I add lavender essential oil. If the kids are stuffy and have drippy noses, I substitute eucalyptus essential oil. And because life with kids isn’t predictable, I have the individual ingredients right near the tub where I can add them separately and directly to their bath if I don’t have a pre-made mixture of bath salt whipped up.
But if you have some time, here is the way to pre-make a bath salt: measure out the bath salt and place it in a shallow bowl. Add the essential oil drop-by-drop to the salt and shake or stir after each drop. Bath salts make great gifts; place your finished bath salt in a fancy tin, add a pretty label and tie with ribbon. Or, use a muslin bag full of not only the bath salts, but also some herbs like crushed pine needles, lemon balm, sage or lavender buds.
Spending some time soaking in the tub can also be the perfect time to give yourself a facial mask. Masks are a great way to deep clean and nourish the skin. Masks can be composed of clays, finely ground grains, brewer’s yeast, or even fresh fruits.
Basic Clay facial mask
- 1 Tbs. of white clay (or brewer’s yeast for oily skin)
- 1 Tbs. water or green tea (or cream for dryer skin or Aloe Vera for oily skin)
In your palm, or in a bowl, mix together the ingredients. Use your fingers to spread paste onto freshly cleansed face, neck, and décolletage. If you allow the mask to fully dry, the clays will draw out excess oils, but for very dry skin, consider gently massaging the mask on, leaving it for a minute, and then rinsing it off before it dries. This will minimize the loss of precious facial oils. Rinse with cooler water to constrict pores and then apply toner.
Facial masks can also be made out of fresh fruits. Consider mashed avocado or pureed persimmon as ingredients for a mask. For drier skin, add cream or buttermilk. For oily skin, try an egg white and arrowroot powder
Once you have pampered yourself with a long bath and facial mask, it is time to restore the skin to its proper pH. Hydrosols can be a great for this job. Hydrosols are the watery distillate byproduct produced when essential oils are distilled. Hydrosols can be a way to get the nourishing and healing benefits of a plant in a milder form than essential oils. And hydrosols also make excellent candidates for toners because they have a pH between five and six.
For oily, combination, or acne-prone skin
Witch hazel makes for a stronger astringent to tone the skin.
- 1 cup witch hazel
- 1 Tbs. of ground rose buds,
- 6 drops of geranium essential oil
Put this mixture together in a wide mouth half-pint jar and allow it to steep for two weeks, shaking it every day. Once complete, strain the liquid and pour into a spritzer for easy toning following your facial cleanse.
Oils and moisturizers
After your skin has returned to its proper pH, putting on oil and a creamy moisturizer is the perfect way to get rid of itchy winter skin. A simple good oil recipe can be composed of
- 1 cup base oil, like walnut or sesame oil
- 15 drops lavender essential oil (or any essential oil)
Put this mixture into a squeeze bottle so you can portion out the right amount and spread over the skin.
Moisturizers are a little trickier to compose, but relatively easy nonetheless. The following moisturizer recipe is great for any part of the body and gentle enough for the face.
- 1/3 cup apricot kernel oil
- 2 Tbs. Shea butter
- 1 1/2 Tbs. rose geranium hydrosol
- 3 drops vitamin E (you can even prick open a vitamin E capsule if you don’t have a bottle of Vitamin E)
- 8 drops lavender essential oil
- 8 drops Moroccan blue chamomile essential oil
- 8 drops Vetiver essential oil
In a double boiler (if you don’t have a double boiler, you can easily substitute a pot of water with a pyrex glass measuring cup placed in it) heat the Shea butter and oil on low setting until the mixture is melted. Stir the oil and fat together well. In a separate pot, or in the microwave, warm the hydrosol until lukewarm. Slowly pour the hydrosol into the oil, stirring constantly with a wire whisk until the mixture is thick and smooth. The important part is to get the oil mixture and hydrosol to similar temperatures so that they can be allowed to emulsify. Remove the mixture from heat, and let the entire mixture cool to room temperature before adding the essential oils and vitamin E, which will ensure that these will not be compromised by heat. Pour the mixture into a nice jar, and as it cools continue to stir or shake to prevent mixture from separating.
As with all of the above recipes, feel free to make substitutions to your moisturizer. For example, consider substituting jojoba oil for apricot kernel base oil or substituting cocoa butter or beeswax (if you are not vegan) for the Shea butter. And you don’t necessarily need to add hydrosol, consider green tea or Aloe Vera instead. For the essential oils, Ylang Ylang, Rose Geranium or Clary Sage essential oils can easily be used as substitutes.
One product I haven’t tried creating is my own sunscreen. Instead, I have been using a product off the shelf. But from what I have read, the best sun blocking agents are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, so if you do want some Sun Protection Factors into your moisturizers, consider adding these.
Now that you are armed with a little bit of knowledge, it is time to try out your own recipes. And consider doubling or tripling the batches of your favorites concoctions to send to your far-flung friends. I might have a few ideas in mind for my traveling companion gal pals. In fact, I might give DIY sunscreen a try because next year’s vacation with the ladies is shaping up to be surf camp!