Monique Kovalenko hasn’t bought deodorant in four years.
After living through cancer a decade ago, she’s interested in avoiding mysterious chemicals contained in store-bought products – but also in not being smelly. With deodorants labeled “natural” or “organic,” she failed at the latter.
“I’d spend all this money on organic deodorant and stink,” Kovalenko said.
She demonstrated a homemade solution last week, using a fork to mix baking powder and cornstarch into a blend of fragrant, liquidy cocoa and shea butters in the corner cup of a muffin tin. She’d let it harden overnight, pop it out of the tin, and voila: deodorant. And it works, Kovalenko said.
Do-it-yourselfers – having moved way, way beyond home-improvement projects – have taken on beauty and skin care, too, with books, websites and workshops devoted to home-grown skin scrubs and moisturizers, shampoos and lip balms.
Humans have been making masks of mud and rubbing olive oil into their skin since ancient times. Julie Gabriel, author of “The Green Beauty Guide,” credits as her inspiration 19th century author Harriet Hubbard Ayer – the first American woman to build and run a beauty empire – whose book “Bath and Body Splash” suggested bathing with apple cider vinegar and using bay rum as hair conditioner.
Now, those who mix their own soaps and salves in their kitchens-turned-labs cite concerns about chemicals found in store-bought cosmetics and skin-care products as well as an interest in the creative and thrifty pursuit of making your own stuff.
“There’s that do-it-yourself mentality that I have, through and through,” said Amy Karol, of Portland, whose popular DIY blog Angry Chicken includes recipes for lip balm and vapor rub alongside sewing and cooking tutorials. “I don’t want somebody telling me what to do, and that includes someone telling me what to put on my body.”
Room for caution
Now 43, Kovalenko was diagnosed 10 years ago with malignant melanoma, which had moved into her lymph nodes. She decided against interferon treatment after surgery, instead striving for a less carcinogenic life. She started by improving her diet, eventually moving to the balms, lotions and other products she applied to her skin.
“There’s just a whole lot of stuff in (those products) that’s really questionable,” Kovalenko said. An ingredient allowed in products today may be proven harmful later, she added.
Many concerns about antiperspirant, for example, center on their aluminum-based compounds, which some research has suggested are absorbed by the skin, causing changes in estrogen receptors of breast cells, according to the American Cancer Association. The compounds block the sweat glands, preventing sweat from getting to the skin’s surface.
While calling for more studies on the possible risk, the organization says “no clear link to breast cancer has been made.”
But customers at Lorien Herbs & Natural Foods often express similar concerns, employee Ellicia Milne said. The store, at 1102 S. Perry St. in Spokane, carries essential and “carrier” oils, beeswax and other ingredients in skin care recipes, along with storage jars and tins.
“When you make your own, you know exactly what’s in it,” Milne said. “When you go to the store to buy something, even when it’s one of the natural products, there’s often a long list of things that you have to go look up, if you’re really concerned about it.”
Most ingredients used in homemade skin products are generally safe used topically in small amounts, Milne said – but there’s still room for caution. At Lorien, Milne and the owners answer questions about the herbs and oils on their shelves, sell reference books detailing the products’ properties, and direct customers to the library to find more resources.
Even after research, though, an individual could suffer a bad reaction to an ingredient, Milne noted. “It’s just like anything – there’s no guarantee.”
Oils from bergamot oranges and grapefruit, for example, can increase sunburn risk, said Karol, the blogger. She urges women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to consult with their health care providers before using any homemade concoctions.
“When you’re making your own stuff, you need to be aware of your own allergies,” she said. “But also, when you’re adding essential oils, all those oils have properties, and you need to look those up.”
Karol added: “I tell everyone, ‘Experiment. If you get a rash, then stop it.’ ”
The fun part
DIY lotions, balms and salves require no specialized equipment – simplicity is part of the point.
To melt her shea and cocoa butters, Kovalenko placed the solid wafers in jars in a pan of water on the stove. She buys ingredients at local natural markets or online. Jars, tins and lip-gloss tubes are available at craft stores or online.
A cheat sheet of ingredient ratios on a chalkboard in her kitchen, she tinkers to improve products to her liking. Her lip gloss is a blend of vitamin E oil, peppermint extract and stevia. Instead of dabbing commercially produced perfume on her wrists, she blends jojoba oil and oil extracts. Her “body butter” – effective against winter-dry skin, she said – combines shea and cocoa butters with oils, often almond oil or apricot seed oil.
Milne said she makes a face wash with bentonite clay, flower petals and essential oils.
Taking a cue from her mother, she said, she keeps a simple comfrey salve in her cupboard. She makes an infusion, letting the herb – comfrey is known as “knightbone” in England – soak in olive or another carrier oil, then combines it with melted beeswax before adding any other essential oils or herbs.
“We’ve used it for years for our kids and everybody in the family,” Milne said. “Anytime you have a bump or a bruise or anything like that, it seems to help speed up the recovery.”
Rebecca Lanterman, who owns Aspire Skin & Wellness Clinic, at 12308 E. Broadway Ave., advises avoiding preservatives and red dyes in commercial products.
For DIY treatments, she suggested rubbing olive or sesame oil on chapped lips – no mixing required. “You use an old toothbrush, and it doesn’t really hurt,” she said.
For a facial exfoliant, Lanterman suggested mixing a couple of drops of lavender essential oil with baking soda and a little water to make a paste, leave it on your face for five minutes, rinse and moisturize.
Karol said she’d advise checking the public library for recipes, then trying something simple. Moisturizing facial oils are easy, just a combination of a couple of oils.
Lip balm is a pretty safe step up: You get to melt the ingredients, but “you’re not dealing with wrecking anything.”
Try facial lotion last, she suggested. It does require a dedicated blender, she said, and, like mayonnaise, it requires emulsification – a tricky process for beginners.
Gabriel, the author, writes that it can be difficult to get the right consistency or texture when trying to replicate a cream or lotion. Gabriel suggests buying basic, organic lotions or skin cleansers at a health food store or online and adding ingredients to make your own blends. Look for products without irritating ingredients such as peppermint and eucalyptus oils, she writes.
From Monique Kovalenko
2 parts baking soda
1 part cornstarch or arrowroot powder
Essential oils (about 4 drops in a 4-ounce jar)
To avoid clumps, use a mortar and pestle (or a fork and a bowl) to work oils into part of the powder first, then add it to the rest.
From Amy Karol
3 tablespoons shea butter
3 tablespoons baking soda
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cocoa butter
2 vitamin E oil gel caps (puncture and squeeze out the oil)
A few drops essential oil of your choice
Melt all ingredients except oils and stir – about 30 seconds in a microwave. Add oils, stir again and pour in a 4-ounce jar. Place in refrigerator to set.
Simple Sugar Scrub
From “Pepper Monkey,” a contributor to Food.com.
1 clear plastic jar (less likely to break in the bathroom)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Lemon juice (optional)
Essential oil, such as lavender or sandalwood (optional)
Mix the sugar and olive oil in the plastic container. Add any optional scents. To use, place some scrub on a washcloth and rub in circles where you need exfoliation. If sugar settles to the bottom of the jar, shake before using.
From “A Kid’s Herb Book: For Children of All Ages,” by Lesley Tierra.
½ cup mullein oil or olive oil
¼ teaspoon eucalyptus essential oil
1/8 teaspoon each lemon balm and thyme essential oil
Shake well in closed container. Massage onto throat, chest or back. Cover with warm washcloth or piece of flannel.