I grew up in India, the country that gave the world Ayurveda. Ayurveda is a medical system that is based on the tenet that human disease is caused by the imbalance of “Doshas” and the disease should be treated using predominantly plants and herbs (roots and bark etc.) to bring the doshas back into balance. Ayurvedic skincare is enjoying a reawakening (much like Yoga) and is all the rage today due to its esoteric appeal.
There is quite a bit of debate regarding the efficacy of Ayurvedic treatment - see this paper for example. The core issue seems to be lack of regulation of the ingredients used in Ayurvedic medicine and the lack of clinical trials that clearly establish efficacy of such treatment. Despite being born and raised in the land of Ayurveda, I will admit I have a healthy skepticism for Ayurveda - concepts like Doshas are hard for scientists to accept. In many Indian households (including mine growing up), using herbs and plants for daily skin and hair care was fairly common. I remember vividly my mother cooking an oil with herbs like curry leaves, henna, hibiscus, Eclipta Alba (or karasillankanni aka bhringraj) and giving me regular oil massages with the dark concoction that smelled ... like a bunch of herbs. She would also use a bunch of Ayurvedic oils for body massages, make a paste of chick pea flour and turmeric to cleanse (until I was grown enough to declare this the most unsexy thing to cleanse with and switched to fragrant soaps). With that rather long story, I now come to the point of this post - how to cleanse skin the right way.
Modern science gave us soap - a product formed by the sapinification of fatty oils using sodium hydroxide (or lye). The way soap works is by emulsifying dirt that sticks to our skin via the sebum - an oily substance that protects our skin. Sodium hydroxide is a highly alkaline substance - meaning it’s highly abrasive. Many cleaning substances such as the Comet cleaning powder, are highly alkaline which is why they are effective as cleaners. Typically the pH of soap is 9, that of water is around 7 (neutral pH) and that of sulfuric acid as present in battery acid, is 1. Strong acids and bases are abrasive and good for cleaning things - but not our skin! When you use a strong alkaline substance to cleanse your skin, you do effectively get dirt off. But you also strip your skin off its protective sebum making you feel very dry.
The other interesting fact is that your skin is actually slightly acidic with a pH of less than 5! I remember being amazed when I first read about this. This paper shows that even bathing with hard water (that’s more alkaline) can impact the acid mantle of the skin. So why is disturbing the skin’s pH not good? Because doing so (by using alkaline products) can disturb the skin’s micro flora - the bacteria - that live on our skin. Turns out that not all bacteria are bad - and we need these bacteria to have healthy skin. Disrupting the skin’s micro flora can lead to a variety of skin problems like eczema etc. So long story short, if you’re using soap to cleanse, stop.
What about liquid cleansers? These are made of a cocktail of surfactants. There are a lot of liquid cleansers in the market now that are more gentle than soap - see this nice article by labmuffin for a review. I checked the pH of some shower gels I had (picked up from hotels) and found the pH to be generally between 6 and 7. Not bad! However, it feels convoluted to make a cocktail of surfactants, add preservatives since these liquid cleansers are water based, (I am allergic to a particular preservative that is commonly used - phenoxyethanol), and add an acid (generally citric acid) to balance the pH. Below is the list of ingredients in a typical liquid cleanser;
I don’t like the complexity of this product. As I continue my journey into skin care formulation, I was drawn to Ayurvedic formulation of oils etc. The methodology of extracting herbal essences in a polar solvent (like water) and then boiling off the solvent in an oil is a very effective way to get a decent concentration of the plant material in a pH neutral medium without the need of a preservative. This type of elegant formulation is highly appealing to me and that’s how I embarked on a mission to research Ayurvedic formulation.
In Ayurveda, the method of skin cleansing involves using a paste made of powders - typically a base chick pea flour - that can be customized endlessly. Such a paste is called Ubtan. I was pleasantly surprised to find a paper on the antioxidant properties, pH etc. of an ubtan featuring chickpea flour, turmeric, and sandalwood bark powder. The pH of this ubtan is 6.5, pretty decent for skin. Below is the comparison of the pH of soap, a bath gel, and the Ubtan I have made.
The Ubtan is closer to our skin pH and what’s more, you can make one that feels luxurious and smells great. I use a very mild surfactant to give the Ubtan a “soapy” feel and appearance but is totally optional. You can also use a few drops of an essential oil to add to the fragrance if you do desire.
My latest experiments in the Saroya lab revolve around extracts and hydrosols. Extracts are extraction of plant material using a solvent (such as water, glycerin, alcohol, or an oil). To be more specific, a water extract is also known as a tea - the material can be real tea or any other herb like rosemary, fennel, mint etc. If the solvent is glycerin, the extract is called a glycerite, if the solvent is alcohol, the extract is called a tincture. If oil is the solvent, the extract is called an oil infusion. Extracts can be used as a vehicle to carry the plant nutrients in controlled concentrations in a skin care formulation. As always, water extracts, or teas, are the hardest to preserve and hence I never use water as the solvent. In general, these extracts do not require heat. To make things more complicated, I will also introduce you to the term decoction - which is extraction of plant matter in water by boiling. The ancient practice of Ayurveda uses decoctions (or kashayam) to extract nutrients from barks, leaves, roots etc. The decoction is then boiled again in an oil to boil away the water leaving behind the nutrients in the oil. This is really the beauty of Ayurveda. Boiling off the water ensures that the product does not get spoiled due to bacteria and mold. Using a decoction to get the nutrients in the oil as opposed to a straight oil infusion ensures effective concentration of the nutrients. Oils are typically not good solvents for plant nutrients - so doing a straight oil infusion will be less effective. As you can imagine, this procedure is laborious and time consuming.
I have been playing with tinctures and glycerites and in some cases a mixture of glycerin and alcohol. Glycerin is a polyol - i. e. has multiple hydroxyl groups - and is an excellent solvent for a variety of plant matter. So is alcohol - to be specific, ethyl alcohol. I have been using the highest proof vodka for my extracts (I have absolutely no inclination to drink it btw). So far I have extracted citrus peels in alcohol (see this post), lavender, white oak bark, and pomegranate peel in a mixture of glycerin and alcohol. I use the citrus extracts for cleaning, the lavender extract as a room mist, and the pomegranate peel extract in a wonderful facial mist. The extracts cannot be used straight - they need to be diluted first, with distilled water. Depending on the application, the dilution will vary. For cleaning, I use a 50:50 extract:water ratio. For the room mist and facial mist, a heavier dilution. In general, with the addition of water comes the need for using a preservative. I use a preservative in the mists but not for the cleaning sprays as the higher percentage of alcohol acts as a preservative.
These extracts have expanded my product formulation. In addition to making liquid formulations, they can also be incorporated into creams and lotions (though the amount used will be very less and thus not deliver optimal concentration of the nutrients). For now, I plan to stick with sprays and mists.
Stay tuned for part 2: all about a different method of harnessing plant nutrients - via hydrosols or hydrolats.
I am thinking of writing an ebook on how to use plants in your backyard (or plants and herbs you can grow easily), and fruit peels that you throw away to make extracts and hydrosols. My thoughts are to cover the following in the ebook:
- Effective cleaning products using citrus extracts
- Make luxurious facial mists that are rich in skin nutrients
- Hair care products
The ebook will walk you through the material needed to get started, have detailed recipes, and links to research articles that describe the benefits of the products.
It would be wonderful if you, dear reader, would let me know if you would be interested in such a book. Please do let me know in the comments.
My current fascination in skin care formulation is with using plant extracts for specific needs. My first experiment was in creating a hair oil infused with hibiscus flowers, amla (gooseberry) and rosemary leaves. I love how it turned out - I will post details on this in a subsequent post. I'm now a huge huge fan of hibiscus - it does wonders for hair. The next inspiration for a plant extract came after I unseeded a pomegranate fruit (from a local farm) and was left staring at the peels. My husband has clearly noticed that I hate to throw away any plant material and he did a quick Google search on pomegranates and told me that I should probably do some research on their peels before throwing them away. So I decided to dry the peels anyways and spent the next few weeks researching pomegranate peels and now have educated myself on a wealth of information. Below are two extracts - the one on the left is pomegranate peel and the one on the right is white oak bark. I love the rich colors - these are due to the wonderful compounds extracted from these substances called Phenolics.
Phenols are a class of aromatic compounds (containing a benzene ring and a hydroxy group).
It turns out that pomegranates (fruit, peels, roots etc), white oak bark and several other plant materials are rich in polyphenols - compounds that have multiple phenol structural units. Below is a further classification of different types of polyphenolics which have different benefits for skin:
One of the key properties of polyphenols in general is their exceptional antioxidant properties. They are fantastic scavengers of reactive oxygen species that are generated in our tissues when exposed to harmful UV rays from the sun and lead to various skin disorders, including in the extreme, skin cancer. There are a multitude of other benefits as well as shown in the picture below:
My primary interest is to see how polyphenol topical application can help with skin issues. The picture above indicates the mechanisms by which these compounds can help against aging - photoprotection, cell renewal, inhibition of melanin (suppress age spots, melasma?), collagen stimulation, constriction of blood vessels (under-eye dark circles).
Coming back to my two extracts - pomegranate peel extract is rich is polyphenolic acids (punicalagin acid, ellagic acid) that have photoprotection benefits and also rich in tannins which aid skin cells renewal. In other words, perfect for use in an anti-aging product!
The white oak bark extract is rich is quercetin and tannins - which can help with blood vessel constriction and melanogenesis inhibition - i.e. an under-eye dark circle treatment. I also plan to extract the flowers and leaves of magnolia grandiflora which are also rich in polyphenols such as magnolol and honokiol, and other tannins for an anti-acne treatment.
The next thing to figure out is the concentration needed for efficacy and what kind of formulation to use it for in. Fun stuff!
This post is not directly related to skincare. However it is relevant to health.
What do you use to clean? Countertops, sinks, the fridge and the like? Chances are something out of a spray bottle that smells good and strong or Chlorox wipes etc. These contain harsh chemicals that zap 99.9% bacteria etc. A common chemical family found in these cleaners are quarternary ammonium compounds. These are not exactly healthy. Read this. And this. Basically, these are suspicious compounds - linked to contact dermatitis, reproductive toxicity in rats, asthma etc.
So what can you do? Make a simple and effective cleaner with plants of course. Citrus peels contain some good stuff like limonene which is a good solvent for cleaning. To extract this stuff, simply steep the fresh peels in vodka. Buy the cheapest vodka you can find! This is called a tincture - get a clean jar, cut up fresh orange or lemon peels and throw them in, and then cover with vodka. Trick is to ensure the peels are fully covered to prevent mold from growing on the peels. Let it steep for a week and you will be rewarded with a highly fragrant tincture. To make the cleaner, dilute the tincture with distilled water in a 50:50 tincture:water ratio. The resulting cleaner will be a bit acidic and is excellent for the following:
- Disinfecting countertops (alcohol is disinfecting)
- Removes mineral deposits - superb at this
- cleans faucets and stainless steel sinks beautifully without leaving any residue or stain (alcohol evaporated fast)
- excellent shower curtain/door spray - keeps the icky stuff at bay
- great for ceramic sinks
- glass/mirror cleaner - again the alcohol helps
You can also replace the alcohol in the above recipe with white vinegar and add a dash of dish soap to make a stronger cleaner for stovetops and such. Use the same dilution with distilled water as described above. The only condor this cleaner is it still smells of vinegar and leaves a bit of a stain if used on countertops and such.
Next time you eat an orange or cut a lemon, save the peels and buy some vodka!
We all love facials - the ritual of steaming, masking, pore cleansing, facial massage. Blackhead removal - not so pleasant. I'd love to hear what you like about getting a facial! Please share.
However, I bet here's something you didn't know. If you are dark skinned, blackhead removal can actually do more damage to your skin. Why? The curse of pigmented skin is its very easy tendency to scar. Squeezing out blackheads bruises skin and tends to leave behind scars that last forever. Remember that next time someone tries to de-blackhead you!
So what can you do? First we need to understand blackheads.
Blackheads are caused by two things: excess sebum (oil) and debris like dead skin cells. When the opening of a hair follicle gets clogged by these two, a comedone (bump) develops. If the bump is above the skin surface, it gets oxidized resulting in a blackhead. If the bump is below the skin's surface, it is a whitehead. If the comedone gets infected by bacteria, it is a pimple. There's a lot of hooey stuff on the internet with no scientific backing about how to manage comedones and acne ranging from "non-comedogenic" products to oil cleansing. If we were to address the root cause of blackheads, we need to control the amount of sebum produced and prevent the accumulation of dead skin cells. How can we do this?
Turns out that controlling the sebum production is not easy - it is dependent on hormones which are a bit tricky to manage. We can do something about removing dead skin cells. This is a good review published in a scientific journal about methods to manage acne including alternative therapies. The paper indicates that clay masks are effective in clearing out dead skin due to clay's excellent absorptive and adsorptive properties.
This paper also indicates the benefits of using clay masks for mild acne although it was sponsored by a company that makes and sells clay!!!
There are different types of clay to use. I think it's OK to use any of them although skin care marketing will have you believe otherwise. These are Bentonite, kaolin, French Rose, French Green, Fuller's earth (Multani Mitti) ... In general the French clays and Kaolin clay are gentler and less drying.
What you need to know about applying a clay mask:
1) Cleanse face first
2) You can use water, yogurt, honey, apple cider vinegar as your liquid medium. Water is perfectly fine.
3) Test your skin to sensitivity. If your skin is sensitive, apply a thin layer and leave on for 5-10 mins and wash off. If your skin is not too sensitive, you can leave the mask on for 15-20 mins.
4) Frequency of application - no more than once a week depending on how your skin likes it.
Some other helpful tips to manage blackheads:
1) Cleanse your face with a mild Ph balanced cleanser no more than twice a day - morning and evening. One of the key problems with liquid cleansers are that they are very hard to completely rinse off. It is vitally important to rinse the cleanser off COMPLETELY or the chemicals in the cleanser will clog your pores. A rule of thumb is to wash your face with water 10 times after applying the cleanser.
2) Steam your face to open your pores once a week.
3) Minimize the number of products you use on your face.
Lastly and most importantly - let your confidence make you beautiful, blackheads or not. Don't obsess - just follow these simple hygiene tips, eat sensibly, and live your life!
I have never been into makeup. I know it's quite exciting for a lot of women, but for me it's just a bother. Why?
To illustrate what makes me feel gorgeous, I need to make an analogy to Ramit Sethi's pyramid for productivity (with due apologies to Ramit). When you think about it, there are a few key fundamentals which when taken care of pay huge dividends when it comes to the quality of your life. Beauty is an aspect of quality of life - it adds to self confidence. So, here are the fundamentals Ramit talks about that are the basics of leading a productive life. Interestingly, the same is true for looking gorgeous as well. (Below is my summary and not exactly Ramit's words).
One of my clients told me that good skin care needs to be cultivated like good oral hygiene. Just like it's automatic for us to brush our teeth so they are healthy, so should it be with skin care so our skin is nourished and glows with happiness. And just like brushing teeth, we need to start with kids when they are young so the habit becomes ingrained.
One of the most common issues I hear about is dry skin. Ranging from scaly and itchy to hard white spots particularly on young children's faces. Such problems can easily be avoided by practicing the following on a daily basis.
1) Only use warm, not hot water for showering. Young children who bathe on their own are notorious for taking long, hot showers. This combined with a lack of basic skin care is the best recipe for dry skin. Ask me, I have experienced it with my daughter. Convincing her to cut the heat and time took long, but the next step below really helped in the interim.
2) Use a gentle soap. I recommend a pure glycerin soap like this one. Vegetable glycerin is an excellent humectant - meaning it attracts moisture to your skin.
2) Apply a body cream with a significant amount of humectant (like vegetable glycerin) when skin is still slightly moist. Many Indians like to use an oil, like coconut oil. However, while oil is good, by itself it is is not enough for chronic dry skin which needs water that's found in creams and a humectant that draws moisture to the skin.
So there you have it - simple and effective. For stubborn dry spots, try the Resuscitate serum, proven to be effective and safe.
If you do a search on the internet, you will find a myriad number of websites touting the benefits of drinking lemon water. Many of them are unsubstantiated by research. When I began drinking lemon water every morning (a few months ago), I started because:
a) I was impressed by what topical application of ascorbic acid was doing to my skin (see here for details)
b) I have a lemon tree in my backyard and figured why not use them and see what happens?
Drinking warm lemon water is legendary in the practice of Ayurveda. The fact that this is an age old practice and has consistently been praised for it's detoxifying abilities is a good start to why it might be worthwhile to cultivate this habit. However, I wanted to see what modern science has to say on this subject. I found this excellent summary by Dr. Alison Chen which looks pretty thorough in the vast body of papers and research that she has summarized in her article.
I think making this change has added a new dimension to wellness for me. I drink the juice of about a quarter of a lemon diluted with warm water. Everyday (unless I am traveling). Below are the daily short term benefits I realize:
Final words: skin health is very tangibly linked with overall wellness, of both body and mind despite what most skin care companies would have you believe. There are no miracle drugs or products that can give you glowing skin. You need to cultivate good habits and discipline to enjoy great skin and I believe ascorbic acid is a good tool to have in your toolbox.
Unless it's fruit and vegetables.
I recently went on a team building event from work to a place where we baked some goodies as a team. One of the items we made was red velvet cake. I bit my tongue as we dumped a couple of tablespoons of the red dye into the dough. Did I do the right thing in not speaking up about the hazards of using artificial food coloring? I don't know. . .
It seems there are two camps these days on food, bath and body ingredients - the alarmists a la Food Babe and the "I'm cool with parabens because that's the best thing there is to preserve things for 5 years without fearing icky mold and bacteria growth". Kind of like American politics conspicuous by the lack of a balanced point of view.
Below is how I feel about artificial food coloring. I wrote this as a comment in response to a blog post from a lady who has her own natural products line. You can read her post here.
While I commend the spirit with which you have written this article, I still think it is very important for consumers to become smarter in choosing both food and bath and body products. A couple of examples: artificial food coloring. There are now a ton of products that have food coloring. Three of these dyes that are used widely in the US have benzidene which a study published in an NIH paper shows to be a human and animal carcinogen. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2957945/
The FDA of course approves of this to be used because the concentration is too low to cause harm. Which is the same argument used to permit the use of lead acetate in a men's hair product to cover grey. There are scientific papers written that conclude there is NO safe level of exposure to lead.
Although most of the Questionable ingredients are present in low concentrations, the lack of transparency in labeling products and the absence of audits in the bath and body industry, exposes consumers to risks - and given that the combination of multiple food and bath and body products consumed, concern about the cumulative impact of the effects of these substances on health is understandable. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of consumers to vet out what is in food and other products to ensure safety, ethical practices in mass manufacturing especially when it comes to children. The truth is we will never be able to isolate a health issue to a certain ingredient. But like you say, the way everything we put in our bodies can interact with each other, how they build up due to cumulative effects etc. are common sense concerns.
I do agree that consumers must get smart about vetting out scientific studies from alarmist blogs or websites written by people who have no formal training or credibility in health or chemistry. Just because this needs more effort does not imply consumers can blindly consume if they have any regard for what they are putting in their bodies. This article in the Scientific American illustrates the impact consumers can have on changing the way big companies approach what they put in their products. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-artificial-food-coloring-contribute-to-adhd-in-children/
Thanks for reading my long comment!
So what do you think about artificial food coloring? As I wrote this comment, I realized that the key reason that I chose to start my own skin care line was really inspired by the concept of minimalism. I am not an alarmist - I did eat the red velvet cupcake - but I believe we need not resort to unwanted and un-needed things to make our food (including skin food) nutritious, beautiful, and tasty.
Lastly, I want to leave you with this guide on food colorants by a then toxicology Ph.D. candidate: https://cspinet.org/sites/default/files/attachment/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf
I am sorry if I completely change how you feel about soap. I thought about whether to write this or not and finally decided to write it after a recent conversation I had with a friend about her chronic dry skin.
What kind of soap do you use to cleanse your body? A bar? Liquid soap? Other? No matter what you use, please bother to look at what its ingredients are. If you use a bar, I'm pretty confident you will see "sodium tallowate" listed in the ingredients. I want to discuss this. I am a vegetarian - initially due to upbringing that has religious and cultural roots and now because I choose to be. I care about animals and choose not to consume anything that involves killing an animal. I was not always this way - I have bought leather goods before - now I choose to buy furniture, shoes, purses etc. that are not made of leather. I do not eat meat. I do not support animal testing or any cruelty to animals so that we humans can consume more and more. If you feel the same way as I do, ditch the bar soap with sodium tallowate. Tallow is a fat derived from certain animal parts (mainly cows) and is saponified with sodium hydroxide to form soap. Given the quantities of soap manufactured, I can't begin to imagine the condition of the animals from which it is derived.
Traditional soap is made by saponifying vegetable oils like olive oil. Saponification is the reaction of sodium hydroxide with the fats in oils that produce soap and other byproducts. So why is tallow (or lard - derived from pigs) used? To cut costs - it's a cheaper byproduct of the meat industry.
Liquid soap is made of synthetic surfactants. The sulfate surfactants (which are now notorious) are examples. A common surfactant is cocamidopropyl betaine. I don't have a huge principle issue with liquid soap. But my main problems are a) they have very little beneficial chemicals (most surfactants are drying and irritating), contain hardly any amount of beneficial oils or humectants (chemicals that draw water to keep skin hydrated), and b) since they contain a good bit of water, you need a preservative to ensure shelf life.. Too complicated. If you see a label that says natural liquid soap, it's a lie. Tallow is natural, synthetic surfactants are not.
So what kind of soap should you use? If you suffer from chronic dry skin, start evaluating your soap. I recommend a glycerin soap. This brings me to one of the great ironies of the skin care industry. Glycerin is one of the key byproducts of soap making. However, this chemical is removed from soap as it is used extensively in the beauty industry. So manufacturers can sell you a crappy bar of soap and make more money selling one of the most beneficial ingredients in soap separately. Glycerin soap is soap from which the glycerin has not been removed. Glycerin is a humectant - it loves water and draws moisture to your skin when t is present on skin. It is almost impossible to find commercial soaps containing glycerin. A couple of brands I have seen is Kiss My Face olive oil soap and the famous Pears (that got into a controversy for changing its recipe adding a bunch of unhealthy ingredients). I encourage you to seek out hand made soap - there are plenty of people who make amazing hand made soaps - these will have the glycerin in them and your skin will thank you for the trouble. Or you can be like me and buy melt and pour glycerin base and customize this to your liking by adding oils, essential oils etc. Or you could learn a new skill and make your own soap. All you need is water, sodium hydroxide, and an oil! But this needs a bit of skill and caution. I have a packet of unopened sodium hydroxide - one day ...
It's really sad that the beauty industry peddles cheap unhealthy stuff at ridiculously marked up prices and makes all kinds of claims that are false. We need to get smarter about reading the ingredients and making good conscious choices just like we would for food.