Thursday, June 11, 2015

In Which I Go On (at Length) About Perspective

Let me tell you a story - a really, long freakin' story but one that's going to be interesting, I promise. Even if you care nothing of face cleanser (and I don't know who could possibly fit that description), this is going to hold your attention. It's about natural skin care and how the medium is the message, the medium being advertising in this case - branding more to the point. I've got some peripheral chemistry to throw in, you know, for kicks, and some germ-phobia that I come by rather naturally. Get a drink.

OK, so I started making face cleanser prototypes a couple of weeks ago. As I've mentioned, I'm not making oil-cleanser (a worthy undertaking that just isn't my thing). I'm using surfactants and a bunch of other things that can be tricky to pronounce. The vast majority of those things originate in plants, even as some of them are rather refined. A couple of things have been born in a test tube, cosmetic preservative, for example.

Here are the ingredients in one of my recent batches (as per the cute label I devised):

Neroli Hydrosol, BSB (plant-derived surfactant blend), Cocamidopropyl Betaine (plant-derived surfactant), Aloe Vera, Glycerin, Pro-vitamin B5 (Panthenol), Oat Protein, Rosemary Extract, Crothix (to thicken), Essential Oil blend, Germall Plus (preservative)

Let me tell you what this recipe produces: A slightly pearly, mildly sudsing, nicely viscous, moisturizing (but oil and dirt removing), fantastic smelling, truly cleansing (but not drying) cleanser.

It manages to be quite effective for those with dry, balanced or oily skin, as long as they're not on the outer margins of either extreme. It works very well for me (thanks to rosemary, neroli, surfactants and my EO blend) and I've got super oily skin. But it's not drying, given the inclusion of protein, Crothix and glycerin. I hope you'll agree that it's not dense on ingredients. My goal is to stay as simple as possible.

Here's a bit more about the proposed benefits of specific ingredients, just to keep it fun:

Neroli hydrosol: One of my fave floral distillations, this not only smells awesome - slightly like orange blossoms - but it's good for oil control and, in some brands, it's used for acne-control.

BSB: This is a low sudsing blend which is known for gentleness. Often included in baby products.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine: Long name, but it's even more gentle than BSB. It comes from coconuts, 100%. Apparently it suds better than BSB. I don't know if I concur.

Aloe Vera juice: This is pure, not cut with other stuff, and it's apparently full of protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, B12, C and E, essential fatty acids as well as amino acids and "skin rejuvenating" enzymes.

Panthenol: I mean, this protovitamin is in everything. It's moisturizing up the yin yang - an emollient and a humectant.

Oat Protein: This is a moisturizer that's known for its ability to impart "softness" to the skin.

Rosemary Extract: Not to be confused with the essential oil or any of the other 8 zillion versions of rosemary, this is an amber liquid taken from the rosemary leaf. It's astringent (good for keeping oils in check) and it imparts the feeling of tone to skin. 

Crothix: This one's from a test tube. It adds thickness to a surfactant-water blend that otherwise feels like watered-down shampoo. Modern skin care has trained us to relate to a product with a certain viscosity. I use a tiny 1% in my formula but it transforms it from thin to plump. This substance is also moisturizing.

Essential Oils: So as not to make this post even longer than it's destined to be, let's leave this blend a mystery. But the EOs are all therapeutic-grade (whatever that means) and designed to bring skin-balance and sensory pleasure (Kristin's special domain!).

Germall Plus: While, this product is the least concerning of the many cosmetic-grade preservatives I've researched, I'm aware it's a tough sell. Don't worry, I'm gonna sell it. Though oil-only products do not get germy (but will eventually go rancid), as soon as you mix water and oil, you create a beautiful environment for bacteria, yeasts and mold. Germall Plus is a broad-spectrum preservative that, when used in the appropriate volume - which is a miniscule 0.1 - 0.5% - kills all the crap that could produce a bad infection, or kill someone who's immuno-compromized. Diss it all you want. I'm going to test the shit out of some naturally preserved product as I recently found a fab way to order test kits online. (I'm waiting for a 10-pack to arrive.) But until I'm sure that grapefruit seed extract is going to keep microbes at bay, I'm using the Germall.

Brief digression: These cleanser ingredients fall into 3 camps, as far as I'm concerned: "natural", "test tube lite" and "hardcore".  I put everything but BSB, Germall Plus and Crothix into the natural category. We can agree to disagree if you'd like. There's no real definition of natural, after all. Test tube lite ingredients are BSB and Crothix. BSB is plant-derived, but it's more refined than some other surfactants (and less refined than others). Crothix is considered to be entirely non-toxic but it's not natural. The Germall is hardcore, needless to say. 

As it happens, I'm open to using other surfactants - decyl glucoside, for example. It's an ECOCERT-designated product made of plant sugar. But I've heard that this stuff is useless at suds - which I require, even if they're not popular these days. It can also be a bit filmy, apparently, if used in ratios above 5%. I'm going to try it (I have some, I'm just not motivate), but I'm not overly optimistic. On the topic of Crothix, I'm also happy to use other thickeners, though I don't have concerns about this product, based on what I've read.

I'm decidedly not interested in foregoing the 0.5% of preservative that will prevent my potion from becoming a vat of germs. Again, I intend to experiment with the natural preservatives even if testing is simply a moment-in-time undertaking. I will leave some naturally preserved hydrous product in a window for 2 months and then test it. Am I happy to go all-natural as long as I'm confident that it's feasible? Yes. But currently I seem to have 3 choices: 
  • Make un-refined, plant-based skin care bi-weekly and store in fridge. Ain't my lifestyle, alas.
  • Make plant-based skin care as needed (every few months), with natural preservative. Likely to produce germ-filled products. Not happening until sample-tested. I fear potentially harmful germs. Mind you, if grapefruit extract keeps the bugs away, I'm happy to use it in place of something from a test tube.
  • Make plant-based skin care, as needed (every few months), with cosmetic-grade preservative. In appropriate quantity, will prevent microbial growth for up to 2 years. Test this product on a variety of occasions, over lifespan, to confirm effectiveness.
A couple of other things before I get very sassy with the whole idea of style over substance.
  • I'm pretty serious about using minimally refined and unprocessed skin care - when it stays on my face and soaks into my skin (like a face moisturizer). The surfactant/oil/water-based cleansers (face, shampoo, conditioner) wash off, so I'm not particularly concerned by a small amount of chemical refinement.
  • What I really like about this cleanser is how beautifully it actually cleans my face without drying it out at all. I've actually never encountered this in a product before.
  • While I don't like how surfactants and sulphates impact the environment, I don't believe (at this time, based on what I've read), that they're particularly, directly dangerous for people. Most of us use them in most of our personal care products (from health food or drug store), and have no negative reaction. Having said this, I don't want to unbalance the earth by contributing to an over use of these products. This cleanser employs small amounts of high-quality surfactants so it doesn't suds overly much. I mean, it suds enough to make me feel alright (cuz I loathe the feeling of washing my face with something that doesn't cut oil), but not an iota more.
  • I'm amazed by the quality of product I can produce as a home-chemist. It's not like sewing - where the crafter generally can't compete with the quality of most RTW brands - because (s)he just can't source the highest-quality fabrics. I really think that, at this point, that the skin care crafter is on a pretty even playing field with the commercial producer. It's a very well-organized field of endeavor.
OK, but here's where I'm going with this topic. These same ingredients are correctly labeled by INCI nomenclature, you know, the science-y sounding words. When written that way, here's what's in my simple, fairly natural and, in my opinion, sustainable cleanser:

Citrus aurantium amara (Neroli)PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Trideceth Sulfate, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, PEG-150 Distearate, Sodium Laureth-13 Carboxylate, Quaternium-15 (BSB), Cocamidopropyl Betaine,  Aloe Barbensis Leaf Extract (Aloe Vera), Glycerin,  DL-Panthenol (Panthenol)Hydrolyzed Oats (Oat Protein), Rosmarin officinalis leaf extract (Rosemary Extract)PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate (and) Aqua (and) PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides (Crothix), Essential Oil blend,  Propylene Glycol and Diazolidinyl Urea and Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate (Germall Plus)

Once again, the original (and the label version - for space reasons if no other!):

Neroli Hydrosol, BSB (plant-derived surfactant blend), Cocamidopropyl Betaine (plant-derived surfactant), Aloe Vera, Glycerin, Pro-vitamin B5 (Panthenol), Oat Protein, Rosemary Extract, Crothix (to thicken), Essential Oil blend, Germall Plus (preservative)

Pretty interesting, no? It takes some perfectly real, discernable ingredients and makes them sound clinical. And it implies that some other ingredients (which are considered entirely safe for use and present in teeny quantities), comprise a "meaningful" volume of the product.

Which one of these versions is obfuscating things?

It's a bit like freaking out when you discover that you've been wearing a bra that's 3 cup sizes too small. Your boobs didn't get any bigger for discovering the truth about size. And really, unless you're pretty serious about it, you're already using most of these (vetted) products - and many others that are possibly, infinitely worse for you and the world. 

The more I "do" chemistry, the more I respect the composition of things - composition of the finished product and of the components that make it up. I highly encourage it because it facilitates a very practical skill - chemical discernment. Note: I do realize that I am beyond novice in this field and I'm speaking entirely from that vantage point, but I know so much more about this topic than I did last year - and it's empowering

Lord, if you've made it this far, you deserve a cookie. I'm curious to know your thoughts on this topic. Are you one of those peeps who washes her hair with baking soda? Do you buy off the rack at Sephora with nary a glance at the unpronounceable ingredients? Do you shop where the labels show you what you want to read? Seriously - let's talk!


  1. I made it to the end! As a soapmaker I have given serious thought to labeling my soaps, and I always read the labels on other handcrafted soap. I have followed your skin care potion endeavors with great interest. Well done.

    1. You have fortitude Tami :-) It's tough to figure out how to label. My goal is to be entirely transparent with people - but honestly, it's hard to know what's true.

  2. I'm a fan of some preservative. It's a much bigger deal here in the NW rainforest climate, where things you'd never guess could mold, can & do, than in the dry desert country I grew up in.

    Also a fan of the creamy non-suds. I used to buy Beauty Without Cruelty cleansers. The cream version is actually for Normal/oily, while the milk version is for dry. Confusing, much? But with the gift of rosacea that has accompanied the road to perimenopause, it's all so much harder. Frankincense & Rose EOs are great for the sensitive skin conditions (at least for me), but so many others are not. Lavender too. Just wished I like the smell of that one, but I do not. Mothballs is how my nose interprets it.

    1. Oh, I can only imagine. We have a lot of humidity and precipitation here - but not as much as you've got in that rainforest. I'm going to look up the BWC oily skin cleanser. I want to know more! And honey, I feel your pain re: perimenopause, as you know. This shit's not fun. I'm confident that your skin will settle as you move out of this life stage. Too bad that lavender reminds you of mothballs. It's not my fave scent, but I am not put off by it.

  3. Ha! I disagree. I live in Vancouver and I've never experienced humidity like summer in southern Ontario! (But then I've never been to Florida.)

    So I'm a rare one who uses minimal cleansers and moisturisers and no makeup whatever. Soap, shampoo, shea butter/calendula, homemade lip balm and that's about it. As a zitty teenager I hated my oily skin but now as an almost-senior I can finally appreciate it's benefits.

    You are just having WAY too much fun with your potions, Kristin! Love your enthusiasm. I had no problem reading to the end so....where's my cookie?

    1. Hey Louisa - I find it so interesting that you have found S Ontario more humid than Vancouver. It really does get ridiculous here. But I've been to Florida and it's worse :-) I'm appreciating my oily skin ever more as I move towards 50! It's keeping things youthful. And I wish that I could use cleanser with no surfactants, but it's just not for me (right now).