Why natural cosmetics is cool and why synthetic cosmetics is also cool.
You know me, I’m an engineer, not a dermatologist, beautician or even a beauty enthusiast, but I am a woman with an annoying mixed type skin and I like to dabble in everything, so yes, I make some of my own stuff. You voted that you’d like to know more about my DIY cosmetics alchemy on Instagram, so before we get started, I just wanted to clear up some things.
Natural VS synthetic cosmetics – why?
First off, although I like natural cosmetics, I’m not one of those people who claim natural is always better or that synthetic is bad. I like to know what I’m putting on my skin, but the key word here is always quality. Improperly selected, harmful natural ingredients can be just as bad or ineffective for your skin as a cheap synthetic product full of unnecessary alcohol, because not everything that occurs naturally is nice. I also don’t think that synthesised ingredients are inherently bad, because if we can create a better molecule that helps treat acne or reduces wrinkles, then why not?
Although there has obviously been lots of progress in synthesising completely new ingredients, a lot of them are still based on or derived from plants and traditional herbs, we’ve just gotten better at processing them and at recreating their effects with a similar synthesised ingredient. Exhibit A: salicylic acid, the wonder cure for acne and the main ingredient of Aspirin, but also the stuff that our digestion system creates from salicin, which is naturally found in willow bark. Exhibit B: retinol, the current anti-age hit ingredient, which is essentially a vitamin in the vitamin A family, you know the stuff that’s found carrots, kale and squash in a slightly different chemical form. Vitamins C and E are both hailed as amazing cosmetic ingredients for their antioxidative action and again we’re talking about naturally present compounds that we need for our bodies to function properly. Hyaluronic acid, collagen etc. are also some of the main building blocks of our skin and the idea behind using them in cosmetics is to supplement the skin with ingredients that it loses over time as we age.
So personally, I just don’t see why there has to be such a divide between natural and synthetic cosmetics. Natural also unfortunately doesn’t necessarily mean more sustainable or better for the planet if the ingredients aren’t sourced right and there can be ethical concerns on both sides. Although I will say that natural cosmetic is much more likely to be sustainable, ethically produced and not tested on animals and that most big mainstream brands have managed to give synthetic cosmetics a bad rep. However, there are responsible brands on both sides and although I still also use mainstream products as you can see on the cover photo, I am trying to support local, responsible brands.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, on to DIY cosmetics: when I started being more conscious about my waste production and impact, I also realised that there are a lot of things that we can easily make at home. I feel like we’re entirely too disconnected with what we’re rubbing into our skin daily and we’re letting clever marketing sell us simple 5 ingredient bath bombs for up to 10 € as a result. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at INCI, the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients.
INCI is an international standard and the ingredients of all cosmetic products must be labelled according to it. However, a single INCI entry doesn’t also mean a single ingredient, because sometimes a single ingredient consists of multiple chemicals that all need to be listed to avoid allergies and other health problems.
Here’s an INCI list for a totally natural, fancy lip balm:
Theobroma Cacao Seed butter, Cocus Nucifera oil, Butirospermum Parkii Butter, Olea Europaea Fruit oil, Cera alba, Vitis vinifera Seed Oil, Copernicia Cerifera wax, Candelilla Cera, Ricinus Communis Seed Oil, Tocopherol, Lavandula Angustifolia Oil, Calendula officinalis, *Linalool, *Limonene *Geranoil;
Looks complicated right? Doesn’t look like something you could easily make at home? Well, let’s take a look at it again:
Cocoa butter, coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, beeswax, grapeseed oil, carnauba wax, candelilla wax, castor oil, vitamin E, lavender essential oil, calendula extract + three ingredients that are naturally present in essential oils
Does it look simpler and more doable now? You could just as easily use only one type of oil, wax, butter, vitamin E and an essential oil to recreate this lip balm and it would be a very nice one. In fact, many different ingredients are often used to make the product look fancier or to save on production costs, because some ingredients are much cheaper then others, so you can use them as fillers to amp the volume without decreasing the quality of the product. You can use this website to decode the INCIs of your favourite products and you should also know that the ingredients are listed in descending order of how much ingredient is used in the product. For example, if alcohol denat is listed among the first 3 ingredients or if the packaging claims the product is full of something and that ingredient is not listed amongst the first 5, that’s usually bad.
Making your own DIY cosmetics products probably seems a lot more doable by this point and personally I like to mix up the simple stuff, such as solid soap, facial toner, lip scrubs, facial masks, salves, lip balms, bath salts and bath bombs. That’s actually quite a lot of different things and they are all quick and rather easy to make. I might expand on to simple water-based creams at some point, but I plan to stay well away from things like make up, nail polish, serums, toothpaste, eye creams, perfumes etc., because you don’t mess with what goes into your eyes and some things are too complicated to make at home without proper equipment, so there’s really no point.
That also brings us to another important point: DIY cosmetics is always essentially experimenting on yourself, because the final product doesn’t go through any dermatological testing and there’s a reason why we have regulations for cosmetic production. You need to trust your ingredient supplier, your recipe and you need to know your skin – I recommend patch testing everything you make to avoid allergic reactions and unwanted breakouts.
So, why would you even make your own cosmetic products then? Well, it gives you complete control over the ingredients, you’ll learn a lot, it’s often cheaper in the long run and will save you some trips to the store, it produces a lot less waste (here are some additional tips for reducing your cosmetic waste) and most importantly, it’s fun, at least for me. I find that there’s a certain meditative self-care component to making your own cosmetics and it smells nice while you do it too. 🙂 Homemade products also make for great, useful gifts (my grandmother loves the calendula salve I make), although you need to be careful that you tell the recipient exactly what’s in them in case of allergies and you need to keep in mind that the shelf life of natural cosmetics is much shorter than for store bought stuff. You can of course easily use preservatives for natural cosmetics too and for some things you should.
As for ingredients, I prefer using common household stuff that I have readily available (olive and coconut oil, baking soda, distilled water, aloe vera plant, chamomile, activated charcoal…). Obviously there are some things you will need to buy (I get my cosmetic ingredients at calendula.si and milnica.si), so check the Internet to find a local supplier, but you’ll see that you can use a lot of things straight from your kitchen. You also don’t need to buy lots of specialised equipment or anything – I reuse glass mason jars and small bottles, regular spoons, silicone baking moulds etc., although I do have a designated whisk and spatula for my soap making and I make sure that all glassware goes through the oven for sterilisation. Another general rule of thumb is that if it’s edible, it’s probably safe to use on your skin too – for example, dry flowers are often treated with pesticides and chemicals for preservation, so you don’t want that in your products. Cosmetic-safe flowers can be expensive because of their designation, but guess what? Herbs and rose buds for tea are all edible and safe and often a lot less expensive, so be creative and think outside the box. You can also knock yourself out with super fancy cosmetic ingredients like mango butter or avocado oil, but they can be a bit expensive and I rather like the idea of using local herbs and what I already have.
I’m planning to share my DIY cosmetics experiments here, but please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you, so consider this a disclaimer. I’m not a cosmetics expert, I just want to give you some inspiration and ideas for what you can make, but you’ll need to do some research and adjust that to your specific skin needs and preferences.