Tag Archives: Beauty

The truth about sunscreen

Happy summer solstice!  Mother nature seems to be celebrating with 100° heat and high humidity.  But the arrival of summer begs another discussion:  staying safe in the sun.


I grew up spending my summer days on the water and in the pool.  Days  of swim team, fishing, crabbing, boating, or just jumping off the pier were always capped by a week at the beach in August.  In other words:  sunburns were a rite of passage.  I looked forward to the golden tan that developed by the first day of school.  Sunscreen was always an afterthought.

Which makes this fact even scarier:    just one severe sunburn in childhood doubles your chances for melanoma.  These days, I no longer willingly and knowingly allow myself to be exposed to known carcinogens.  A sunburn is just not something to be taken lightly.  Not gonna lie, my vanity also comes into play:  we all can picture what middle age looks like on someone who had a little to much fun in the sun in his or her youth.  Hence, I have become super anal retentive about being protected whenever I’m in the sun.

Not all sunscreens are created equal, however.  There is startlingly little control and regulation over what sunscreens are permitted to advertise and promote in terms of their effectiveness.  There is little quality control over ingredients that may actually exacerbate skin damage.  While conventional sunscreens may prevent you from burning, thus giving peace of mind, they are not all equally effective against cancer.  This is an instance where our regulatory and industry controls have failed, and it is up to the consumer to do the research and protect themselves.

Luckily, the Environmental Working Group publishes a sunscreen guide every year, testing hundreds of sunscreens and reiterating these basic facts:

-UVB rays cause sunburn and cancer.  UVA rays cause cancer but not sunburn.  Many sunscreens are advertised as “Broad Spectrum” or otherwise protective against UVA rays … but very few actually are.  The rules are astonishingly lax.  Cross-reference the guide to ensure that yours is.

-Many sunscreens contain harmful ingredients
.  Vitamin A, or retinyl palmitate, is an ingredient in about 25% of sunscreen.  Vitamin A actually increases the skin’s absorption of UV rays.  How does this make any sense????  Oxybenzone, an ingredient found in about 50% of available water resistant sunscreens, penetrates the skin, causing allergic reactions and is a potential hormone disruptor.  Mineral sunblock frequently contains nanoparticles.  Most FDA-approved UV blockers react with sunlight to cause free radical damage to the skin, even as it is protective against UV rays.  Other ingredients are known toxins and known to penetrate the skin.  It seems that choosing the best sunscreen is choosing between the lesser of two evils.  According to EWG, there are effective and safer UV blockers used in Europe that have yet to win FDA approval.

-Bigger is not better.  SPF of 30 should be sufficient protection, and SPF over 50 is false advertising — there is no evidence that these provide significantly better protection.  Don’t believe the hype.  Growing up, I was always told that SPF 15 was adequate, but it depends on how easily you burn, and for many people it is not enough for extended periods of time.

Confused?  Yeah, me too.  There is no “perfect” sunscreen available in the U.S. today.  Luckily the EWG has some helpful advice:

Mineral blockers, for all their faults, are the best.  Nanoparticles, free radical damage, and pasty white skin aside, mineral sunscreens are the best thing available on the market today.  This is what I use, and while the thick white creme that doesn’t blend so easily took some getting used to, I am happy with them now.

-Sunscreen is not the best defense.  Stay in the shade.  Wear protective clothing, hats and sunglasses.  Minimize your time in direct sunlight in the middle of the day.  Don’t assume that you’re good to go just because you’ve coated your skin in sunscreen.

-Educate yourself.  Check out EWG’s guide and see how your sunscreen is ranked.   You might be surprised!

Summer is such a magical time of year — don’t let a bad sunburn ruin it.  Stay safe out there!

Stay cool!



Spring cleaning with Castile Soap

Well the weather has warmed up enough now that I think it is safe to say winter is, for all intents and purposes, over (now watch for a cold snap, I’ve just jinxed it!)  Time to get going on all our spring projects!

It occurred to me the other day that I have over the past couple years accumulated a rather obscene amount of castile soap.  Which kind of defies the purpose of this all-purpose product, but when you find something that works, you just can’t get enough! I’ve found such a diversity of uses for this magic soap that I need to get it in every scent.

I realize that for most people, the thought of using the same product for your hair, skin, laundry, floors and countertops is a bit disconcerting.  Soap is made traditionally from animal or plant-based fats, and in this form has been used for thousands of years as an all-purpose cleaning agent.  In the 20th century, as natural oils became more costly, synthetic surfectants were developed, and changed the cleaning industry as we know it. These synthetic surfectants, combined with fragrances, optical brighteners, phosphates, and other chemicals, allowed new petroleum-based detergents to dissolve messes quickly, keep your underwear gleaming white (artificially, thanks to the brighteners in laundry detergent), and foam up a little easier in hard water.  People very quickly abandoned their boring old soap!

But this all came at a cost — to our health.  If you’ve ever gotten a headache just from walking through the cleaning aisle at the grocery store, then you understand.  According to the Environmental Working Group, many conventional cleaning products “contain ingredients linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity and other health effects.”

Don’t you think there’s something a little wrong with the fact that the products we used to clean the surfaces we eat off of and the home we live in require a label like this?

There is an endless supply of simple and affordable green cleaning recipes online.  I’ve written about it here.  But this post is devoted to my beloved castile soap.  Not a day goes by where I don’t use it in some way.  I’ve amassed quite an array.  Here is how I use it:

Rose scent
My hand soap and face and body wash.  I dilute it in an old foaming soap dispenser at approximately 10:1 water:soap ratio.  I don’t actually measure this.  I fill the dispenser about a half inch with soap and fill the rest with water.  The point is that a little goes a long way.
Made from coconut oil, with nothing artificial, this soap is so super gentle on your skin.  The artificial ingredients in conventional face wash, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, are actually extremely drying and irritating.  They do more harm than good.  This stuff gets you clean gently and effectively.  My skin has been so happy since using it.
I refill all my hand soap dispensers with this too.  Most store bought soap these days contains triclosan, an antibacterial ingredient you want to avoid.  Not only is it implicated as a possible carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, it is just generally not a good idea to overload on antibacterial agents.  This is what encourages resistance and in the long-term provides NO additional health benefits.
I buy a big bottle of the rose castile soap and it lasts me almost a year.

Citrus scent
This is what I use for the laundry.  It leaves my clothes with a pleasantly clean and natural fragrance!  Here is my post on homemade laundry detergent.

Peppermint scent
Dog shampoo.  If you think conventional human soap is bad for you — take a look at the ingredients in your typical dog shampoo. I have a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and their fur is naturally oily which provides water resistance.  Regular dog shampoo would strip those oils right off, but using a gentle, oil-based soap gets her clean without being harsh.  As a bonus, I have heard that the peppermint and eucalyptus scents provide some level of pest prevention, though these products are not certified for that.

Baby mild unscented
Sometimes you just want unscented soap.  I keep a small bottle of this on hand for those occasions.

Travel.  I have a small bottle of lavender that I toss into my bag when I’m traveling or going camping.  It’s a travel-size face and body wash, a biodegradable dish detergent when camping, and in a pinch I can use it as shampoo, for washing clothes, and cleaning messes.

I don’t have a favorite for all-purpose cleaning; I usually just grab one already in my stash.  I am tempted to try the tea tree oil or eucalyptus for this, but I don’t need to feed my soap addiction.

Natural acne solutions

As I have mentioned before, about a year or two ago I made an effort to purge my cosmetics and skincare supplies of unhealthy chemicals, and I have been so pleased with the results.  Nowadays, it’s rare that I breakout so badly it requires intervention!

But my replacement creams, lotions and other ingredients were much more expensive.  And since all the ingredients listed on the label were recognizable and commercially available, I thought, why can’t I just make this myself?

Well.  Here’s why.  Emulsifying oil and water is HARD!  My attempts at homemade moisturizer ended up as nothing more than a huge mess in my kitchen.

Perhaps with more experimentation I could have gotten it right, but I wasn’t keen on wasting more ingredients.  Furthermore, in my research I discovered that homemade cosmetics still require nasty parabens if you want to keep them longer than a week unrefrigerated.

So I gave up on trying to create lotions and creams.  But, it is easy enough to make simple masks, scrubs and bath ingredients that effectively improve your complexion, while saving you money too!  There are several books available with basic recipes; one I like is called Ecobeauty by Lauren and Janice Cox.

Naturally managing breakouts

Nowadays, most people are aware that the healthiest food options are those that minimize processed, unpronounceable ingredients.  So why not adopt the same paradigm for our skin?  Shifting to natural and safe products has made a world of a difference in my complexion.  Growing up, we were always told in our beauty magazines that “natural doesn’t mean better.”  But I am starting to question that idea.

Speaking for myself, I have learned that this incessant need to “medicate” my “problem” skin was the culprit all along.  Approaching my skincare as nourishment and not treatment has led to great improvement, but I do occasionally need some intervention.  With a few basic ingredients, I am able to control breakouts with readily available ingredients, and without the harsh and irritating junk found in conventional cosmetics.

Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in most over-the-counter acne medications.  For many years, before being synthesized in laboratories, it was obtained from the bark of the white willow tree, and used primarily as an analgesic.  These days, you are probably more familiar with its commercial name aspirin.

Salicylic acid also causes our skin to shed dead layers and replace itself more quickly.  Though most drugstore acne treatments contain it, you can avoid the harmful inactive ingredients and apply a more concentrated form by crushing an uncoated aspirin pill, diluting in water and blotting on problem areas.

Acetylsalicylic acid, the synthesized version, is strongest, but there are natural options as well for a gentler treatment.  It is an allelochemical used by many plants in defense against pathogens.  As mentioned above, the bark of the white willow tree is a common source, and you can purchase it in powdered form and add it into any mask or scrub, or even mix in with your moisturizer, to help with problem skin.  You could also dilute it in water, green tea and/or witch hazel to make a gentle, calming toner.

Strawberries are another source of salicylic acid, and ground up into a paste you can make a healing mask for acne-prone skin.

Another important skincare ingredient is honey.  Honey is naturally antimicrobial and when applied to skin can help fight acne-causing bacteria. A lot of honey purchased at the store is processed beyond recognition, however, which reduces its beneficial properties — so seek out more natural brands.

With all that in mind, here are a few recipes for facial masks and scrubs that can help manage breakouts.  If you have attempted everything to no avail, I encourage you to give these a try!

Basic honey mask
This is a preventive antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory treatment.

1 part honey
2 parts lukewarm water
pinch cinnamon

Combine ingredients and make a paste.  Apply to face and leave on for 20 minutes.  Rinse with gentle soap and water.
Repeat daily for 1-2 weeks and then continue 1-3 times per week for general maintenance.


Add a few crushed strawberries or powdered willow bark to the above mixture to infuse acne-fighting salicylic acid.  Mix it all in a food processor or by hand.

Mermaid skin scrub

This is a recipe from the book Ecobeauty mentioned above.  Seaweed supposedly helps draw toxins and impurities away from the skin.  The pectin in the apple juice also softens, while the sugar is a gentle exfoliant. I also added some powdered willow bark during application.

1/4 cup powdered kelp (I actually just ground up 2 pieces of nori in my food processor…)
1/4 cup granular sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup apple juice

Combine kelp and sugar in a bowl, then mix in the honey and the apple juice.  Apply to skin, gently scrubbing, and leave on for five minutes.

Stored in a clean jar, this mixture will keep about 2 weeks in the fridge.

I tried the mermaid scrub for the first time last night, and my skin is noticeably softer this morning!

If you are satisfied with your skincare routine, no need to change a good thing — but if you are tired of sub-par results or want to save some money, I encourage you to give homemade products a try!  I’ll continue to post more recipes I discover as I try them.