© Kat Morgenstern, June 2007
Exactly when, where and our human obsession with 'beauty' started is hard to say. Fact is, it has been around for a very, very long time. Remains of ancient perfumes, potions and make up have been found in Egyptian tombs and uses of beauty products in classical Greek and Roman times are well documented. But even 'tribal societies' have a well established tradition of skin care and cosmetic uses, though they may be less apparent, when viewed from our modern perspective.
In modern society the aim and purpose of using such products seem primarily to consist of making our appearance more attractive to the opposite sex. In ancient times however, people sought to make themselves more appealing to beneficial Gods and spirits, or attempted to ward off nasty demons.
Beauty is an ephemeral quality and since its inception it has always been a moot point. Culture and fashion greatly influence what we perceive as beautiful. In ancient Greece for example an un-oiled body was thought to be offensive to Gods and humans alike and olive oil was extensively used to make the body smooth and shiny. In other societies animal grease, such as bear fat was used to achieve a similar effect, but on a spiritual level, it was also thought to transfer some of the animal's perceived powers.
All over the world good smells were believed to attract the benevolence of helpful deities, while bad smells were always associated with the Gods of the underworld, harmful demons, or later, the devil. Thus, people soon adopted the many wonderful fragrances of herbs and flowers to serve their own purposes. Flower garlands, head wreaths and armbands were not only meant to look pretty but also send fragrant messages to the spirit world. Likewise, 'make up' and body paint was not only used to enhance physical beauty, but also to protect against the much feared evil eye and other harmful influences. The same thinking motivates indigenous tribal people, who use face and body paints to ward of natural and supernatural enemies. Originally, such paints often really had protective qualities as they were made from herbs, roots and clays with anti-bacterial or anti-fungal properties, but even in ancient times minerals were discovered and utilized for cosmetic purposes which actually caused more harm than good for those who wore them.
Today cosmetics, perfumes and skin care products constitute multimillion dollar industries, presenting a staggering array of choices to confuse the customer. Whether you are looking for shampoo, lotion, make up or perfume, the variety is overwhelming. Much of it is full of synthetic chemicals, mineral oils, preservatives, artificial fragrances and other junk food for the skin. Latest arrival on the high-end of this dazzling range of products are the 'natural skin care products', although on closer inspection one will actually find relatively few ingredients that resemble anything that you or I would deem natural. This is due to the fact that mass produced cosmetics need to be relatively sterile in order to extend their otherwise short-lived shelf-life - which can only be achieved by using certain preservatives or mineral oils.
The best natural cosmetics are home-made, using high quality vegetable oils and butters, such as coconut, avocado or almond oil, in combination with organic flower waters (hydrosols) and essential oils. They should always be produced in small batches to ensure freshness and purity. Making home-made cosmetics, tailored exactly to your own needs is fun and not all that difficult.
In the case of lotions and crèmes, the idea is to combine a proportion of oil with a proportion of liquid, with the help of an emulsifying agent. In the old days this emulsifying wax was derived from whales, but nowadays animals no longer have to suffer for our vanity. Jojoba oil has excellent emulsifying properties and other plant based emulsifiers can be produced in the laboratory.
Just which oils, waxes and other ingredients are chosen to create a specific crème or lotion, will determine its nutritional properties for the skin (see previous article on oils). Some oils are 'drying' while others are moisturizing. Combining these with humectants such as vegetable glycerine or aloe Vera gel produces varying consistencies and benefits for the skin. The trick, when blending crèmes is to have all ingredients at a similar temperature so as to avoid curdling, and to combine them slowly. If you have ever made mayonnaise from scratch you know what it takes to make lotion or crème. Apart from the emulsifying wax, which blends the watery and oily components together, you will also need a stabilizer, such as stearic acid, which is added in very small quantities, to give you product a stable consistency. However, use it sparingly or else your crème will become chalky instead of smooth.
For those who don't want to mess with oils and waxes there are now ready made base crèmes on the market. These generic crème bases can be enhanced by adding special ingredients such as essential oils, infused oils or Aloe Vera gel. However, they can only absorb a limited amount of additional ingredients before they become unstable, so experiment carefully. The quality of such crème bases varies widely and most contain preservatives or alcohol, which increases their shelf-life and makes them less vulnerable to turning into a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. However, these chemicals are not all that great for the skin, so read the ingredients label carefully, and do your research. Making your own is definitely the best way to ensure highest quality. Producing only small batches means that you don't have to worry as much about shelf-life or bacteria, since your crème will probably be used up before it has had a chance to go rancid or mouldy.
Here is a basic recipe for a nice, light textured crème that is easy to make:
Melt the Shea butter and oils at a low temperature in a double boiler. Pour into a bowl. Using a stick blender (alsoknown as 'magic wands') set at the highest speed, slowly add in the rosewater as you stir. The mixture will turn white and gooey. Add the emulsifying wax and stearic acid and keep beating until all is smooth and creamy. Finally, add essential oils of your choice (1-3% of total volume - but be sure to follow essential oil safety guidelines).
Often the emulsifying wax and stearic acid are of a consistency that requires you to return the mixture to the doubleboiler in order to melt them so they blend in. If you have to do this, do it before you add any essential oils. It is best to add the essential oils right at the end, when the crème base has cooled down to body temperatures, in order to avoid them 'flying off' with the heat - they are rather volatile, after all.
Which oils you'll want to use depends on your specific skin type. Some oils, particularly those that are high in unsaturated fatty acids (e.g. Evening Primrose, Hemp, Borage Seed oil) are usually only used in small quantities (10% of total amount), as nutritive additions, rather than as the main ingredient for your crème base. For a crème base stable oils, such as coconut, olive, almond or apricot oil are good. Some oils have a richer, thicker consistency than others. Experiment with different blends to find a combination that suits your skin type. You can also use infused oils, such as calendula infused oil, or St. John's Wort oil to add extra healing qualities. For the liquid portion plain distilled water will do, but hydrosols are nicer. Rosewater is slightly astringent, while Elderflower water is emollient and soothing and Orangewater is refreshing. Instead of shea butter you can also use cocoa butter for example. You can also add floral waxes, which are a by-product of essential oil production. However, they may contain traces of solvents.
The cheapest and easiest method to create a home-made bath preparation is to use coarse salts, such as Epsom or Sea Salt. Crush to a grainy size (dissolves easier) and add a few drops of a gentle essential oil, such as rose, lavender or jasmine. Stir and blend well, fill in a jar and allow to macerate for a few days before use. Some people like to add food colouring to make it look more like the stuff you can buy at the store, but this is purely for looks. If you don't mind 'bits' floating in your bathtub you can add a handful of fresh fragrant rose petals or lavender flowers to the salt blend. The salt will dehydrate them and absorb their scent.
Soaking in water for any length of times dehydrates the skin. Normally, the skin's natural oil secretions keep it from drying out, but frequent bathing and showering washes our natural protective layer off. You can replenish the lost oils by applying skin oils or lotions after each bath or shower, or you can use bathoils. Almond or coconut oil are good choices. Add some drops of essential oil for a beautiful scent and also add a little Turkey Red oil, which facilitates dispersion of the oil in your bath water.
If you don't like bath oils because they feel too greasy, but still want to add essential oils for the smell or for a specific therapeutic effect, you could try using plain milk (some people prefer goats milk), or cream as a dispersing carrier agent for your essential oils. A tiny blob of honey mixed in is also very nice and softening for the skin.
Making shampoo from scratch may be a bit ambitious, but there are certainly hair care products that can be made easily. These would better fit into the category of 'conditioner' though. A quick and easy conditioning can be made with Rosemary (dark hair) or Chamomile (blond hair). Just make an herbal infusion as if you were making a strong tea, steep until cooled off, strain and use as a rinse.
To nourish brittle and stressed hair, an oil pack is good, but be warned - this is a greasy affair. Jojoba oil or coconut oil is excellent for this treatment. Take a little oil and massage well into the hair. Cover with a plastic bag and leave in place for a while to allow the oils to really penetrate the hair. Wash out and rinse as usual. Don't overdo it with the oils though as it can be quite tricky to get all the oil out. Aloe Vera gel also makes a good conditioner. It can be diluted with a hydrosol or used neat. It has the added benefit of aiding skin conditions such as dandruff.
These are just a few suggestions. The scope for making your own natural skin and hair care products is only limited by your imagination. From simple to elaborate, anything is possible and you can be sure that whatever you make at home is much better for your skin than whatever you could buy at a store - and compared price-wise, high quality home made cosmetics, although requiring a certain minimum investment for equipment and materials, still work out much less expensive than top of the line commercially available natural cosmetics. And better still - if you make a little extra you'll always have beautiful gifts to share with your friends.
Note: Be aware that some essential oils can be highly irritating or cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Always investigate essential oils thoroughly before using them on your skin and only use them in dilution. It is best to test a dilution on a small area of the inner arm first, before applying them more generally. Furthermore, some essential oils (e.g. oils of the Citrus family) can increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun's rays, making it prone to burn more easily. Thus they should not be used on exposed skin during the summer months. Also, be especially cautious with essential oils during pregnancy.
For more information on essential oils and safety precautions see:
For more on carrier oils see:
Cosmetic ingredient glossary: Glossary
Excellent resource for making homemade soaps and cosmetics: http://www.soapnuts.com/
Lotionmaking 101, and supplies
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
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