Around a year ago when I looked in the mirror I was confronted by the face of a very sick girl, I almost didn’t recognise myself at all. Never in my life have I condoned violence of any sort, but on more than one occasion I had to stop myself from punching the glass in utter frustration. I’d suffered on and off with acne ever since puberty and at 26, at the height of my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which by then I’d been ‘fighting’ for almost a year, I use that word deliberately) my skin had broken out worse than ever before: my cheeks and jawline were completely covered in angry red spots, as if I’d taken a scouring pad to my own face. My eyes had completely lost their glitter and instead looked dead-inside; if the eyes are indeed ‘the window to the soul’ then my soul was not at home. They were, depending on what kind of day I was having either red, blotchy and swollen from all the tears; or drawn, grey and haggard with stubborn dark puffy circles underneath that made it seem like I hadn’t slept properly in weeks (I hadn’t, not for months, despite more or less living in my pyjamas that whole time.) I looked like I’d aged 10 years. My unsightly mousy brown roots were now clearly visible against my (up until then) perfectly highlighted blonde hair, which by now was unkempt and tangled from days on end spent lying in bed. The prospect of ‘getting ready’ to go out – showering, washing and blow-drying my hair, putting on make-up and getting something nice to wear out of my wardrobe just seemed completely pointless as no amount of eye-drops would clear these bloodshot eyes, no amount of make-up would cover the monstrosity that was my skin, and no dress, no matter how pretty, was going to make me feel attractive. I was completely exhausted. I just couldn’t be bothered to fake-it anymore, and I’d been faking it for a long time.
At that moment I decided ‘f*ck it, that’s it, from now on I’m not going to wear make-up, I’m not going to dye my hair anymore, I’m not going to try and make myself look ‘healthy’ when in truth I am anything but that, and I am certainly not going to use a host of expensive, chemical-laden synthetic products to do so.’
All of these things were going on and into my body, and for all I knew the harsh chemicals they contained could have been a contributing factor to my illness. Nope, at that moment I decided that I was done with ALL of it, and I was going to go down the natural route, trusting that, by taking care of what I was putting in and on my body (I had already begun to completely overhaul the ‘in’ by completely turning around my supplements and diet, you can read about this in ‘Can a Steak Really be Healthier for You than a Carrot? The Fat vs. Sugar Debate’) there would come a day when I would look in the mirror, completely au naturel, and I would smile, as I would look healthy, and my eyes would have their sparkle back. I decided that this was the way I would really know that I was getting better as eventually my health, and beauty, would shine from the inside out.
So, I let my roots grow out and I threw away all of my toiletries and cosmetics and stopped conventionally washing my hair, and my face, wearing deodorant, and wearing make-up. I stopped using anything that wasn’t 100% natural on my face or body, my rule being- if I can’t put it in my mouth then I won’t put it on my face, and if I don’t know what an ingredient is, it’s coming nowhere near me. (I do still shower by the way, just so we’re clear.) It was the best decision I could have possibly made.
Before I give you the run down of exactly what I use and how I use it let me first tell you it was not always this way. Noooooooooooo. Far from it in fact.
Up until that day I had to stop myself from punching the mirror my daily beauty routine could be described in two words: high maintenance. Before I got sick, every morning I would get up over 2 hours before work (yeah, this would include having a good breakfast and often a decent session of yoga and meditation- when I was looking after myself, that is) but the main reason for getting up this early was so I could go through all the ritualistic preening and prepping, buffing and blow-drying, and moisturising and make-upping needed to create the ‘mask’ that I felt I required to hide my looks-based insecurities to face the world as a confident, attractive woman. It was a ‘mask’ in more ways than one. One I wore for many years even as a ‘healthy’ person, long before I even got sick. See my article ‘The Story of my Skin: How I Finally Stopped Wearing Make-Up and Cured my Acne after Fifteen Years of Trying (Hint, Look to your Gut not your Face)’ for the full history of this ‘mask’ and how I finally learned to step out from behind it.
Each morning would go like this. I’d jump in the shower, shampoo and condition my hair with products that declared they would furnish my locks with some, or all of the following: Volume, Body, Highlights… that were Cleansing, Smoothing, De-Frizzing, Moisturising, Natural (pah!) I’d lather up with a sweet smelling shower gel- again something supposedly natural: maybe scented with Almond or Coconut. I’d wash my face with, again, a ‘natural’ (and no doubt expensive) foaming cleanser for Sensitive/Oily/Combination/Normal/ (how many different types can you think of? Insert here) skin that purported it would give me a Clean, Clear, Radiant, Shine-Free, Blemish-Free and Moisture Balanced complexion. I’d get out of the shower and deodorise my under-arms with a scented roll-on anti-perspirant (oh, and of course it would have the word ‘natural’ somewhere in its name) that promised that it would under no circumstances allow me to perspire. In fact it would block my sweat glands completely to keep me smelling fresh for 24hours (ok, so it contained aluminium which is toxic and there was a teensy, ok rather widely known, proven risk of cancer) but it promised no unsightly white marks on my clothing and even if I had a complete stress-induced meltdown at work there was no chance I would break out in even the smallest sweat patch, phew- glad I had my priorities in order! Oh yeah, and I’d moisturise my body with Cocoa Butter infused body moisturiser (again, cocoa butter’s natural, right?) which made me smell super sweet and promised to simultaneously soften and tone, sculpt, and define my limbs whilst making them silky smooth. Once or twice a week I’d exfoliate my face with yet another shop bought product, that claimed to be natural as the exfoliating beads were derived once upon a time from almond kernels, and I’d similarly scrub my body with some kind of fruity perfumed salt or sugar scrub I’d spent a tenner on in the chemist that claimed it would remove dead skin to reveal baby soft skin, oh yeah, and not to mention, completely banish cellulite.
Of course none of this sh*t was ‘natural’ in the slightest. And in no way did all these products end up doing ‘exactly what they said on the tin,’ but of course, I kept mindlessly buying them anyway.
Are we done? No, not yet, in fact that was just Act One. Then I’d blow dry my hair and put serum on the roots and texturing clay though the lengths and ends until it perfectly resembled the ‘laid back, tousled, low maintenance, just got out of bed’ look I was going for. Only then could the real work begin of moisturising (yes, best to start using expensive anti-aging products in my early twenties) and priming my face before applying a plethora of cosmetics: foundation (to cover the spots), concealer (so that I would look as fresh as a daisy even if I was super tired and powering through) , powder (to hold it all in place), blusher (to give me rosy cheeks and a healthy glow, as if I’d been frolicking in meadows as opposed to working way too hard), bronzer (ditto, but in the sun) eyeliner and mascara (to accentuate my eyes and thus, again, banish any evidence of being over-tired). And if I were getting ready for a night out add to that: highlighter (for perfectly sculpted cheek bones), more bronzer (dramatic effect), eye-shadow (for a sultry and seductive air) and the use of a scary looking metal vice-like contraption that I would hold the flame of a lighter up to for a few seconds before using it to curl my eyelashes, (thank God I didn’t hold it too long and accidentally burn them all off!) And of course I wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without spritzing myself with perfume.
Ok. Ready to go? Yes. Finally.
And then of course there’s coming home again every night and using make-up wipe after make-up wipe to clean all the war-paint off again (that is unless you came home drunk and fell asleep in all your make-up in which case you had to shamefully do it in the morning) finding yourself disgusted by the black, soiled rag that displayed the remnants of all the crap that was just on your face. And that’s not even going into ALL the intermittent shaving, hair colouring (lest anyone see my REAL hair colour) face-masking, eyebrow plucking, and nail trimming maintenance that it takes to maintain the upkeep of the ‘confident, attractive woman’ mask (N.B. as you can see often underneath the ‘confident attractive woman’ exterior lurks a deeply anxious insecure little girl).
Oh my God, I’m completely exhausted even just writing that. Enough already!
Now if I’m tired, I look tired. If I’m well rested, I look well rested. I’m done faking it. And I’m still very much in recovery from Chronic Fatigue so I tend to look tired a fair bit, sometimes I look down-right dreadful, but without the mask I notice it, and I take the steps I need to make it better- more rest, less worrying… And I do not claim to be completely secure and perfect in my looks (no, 27 years of vanity cannot be undone in mere months), I am as imperfect and flawed, and vain as everyone else and as such am still often painfully insecure. I won’t deny that occasionally I will put on a little bit of concealer and a flick of mascara if I’m going somewhere and I feel I need a little assistance, however, this is a far cry from the inch by inch military precision with which I used to apply layer after layer of foundation everyday, even if I was just spending the day at home. Although in an ideal world none of us would feel that we had to wear any make-up at all, ever, the fact is that we do live in the world we live in, and it’s undeniable that sometimes, a little bit of make up just makes you look and feel great, and I honestly think there’s nothing wrong with that. A few weeks ago I went to an African music concert with some friends and as I was going out in the evening (not a common occurrence for a CFS sufferer) I decided to put some liquid black eyeliner on my eyes for the first time in over a year- and you know what, I looked in the mirror and I felt really attractive, and I danced barefoot all night long (and that’s the important bit!). But what I’m saying is that although I wish we didn’t feel the need to paint our faces at all, of course we want to feel attractive and we should feel confident and love ourselves when we look in the mirror, and sometimes a bit of playful make-up to ‘dress up’ is wonderful. So don’t throw out that shocking pink lipstick yet, I haven’t, although I have no idea when I will next find myself in the right situation to wear it.
But all in all, these days- I’m in and out of the shower in a heartbeat and ready in under 5 minutes. Phew!
You know what I see when I look back on my high-maintenance beauty routine now? Well for one thing I see
How much money did I spend on cosmetics, toiletries and make-up over the years? Blindly buying into the consumerist ideal that if I just used this lengthening mascara then I’d flutter my eyes and be a bonafide boy-magnet; if I used this toning cream my distinctly Amazonian thighs would transform into spindle-slender legs; or if I just spritzed myself with this extortionate perfume then I would leave an irresistibly scented pheromone trail in my wake which would cause men to literally fall at my feet. It pains me to think of the money I spent, knowing that next to rent, bills and food, it was probably my most significant expense. I remember joking in airports that that worst thing that could happen if my luggage were lost would be that my make-up bag would be gone. Firstly, how would I go outside? No one ever saw me without make-up. Holiday photos would be out of the question. And also, how could I even begin to replace all those expensive products and perfume on my minimum-wage budget? That little bag could easily have been valued at a couple of hundred pounds. Again, I’m pleased to see I had my priorities in the right place, f*ck’s sake. How many more trips to exciting places across the world could I have made if I added up all the tubes of mascara and all the other unnecessary crap I bought over the years? It doesn’t even bear thinking about. I can tell you this, next time I’m in an airport it’ll be with a camping rucksack and a tent and no make-up bag.
Another thing I see: I see hour after hour of wasted time, when I could have been in bed sleeping, I could have been meditating, I could have been reading, I could have been journalling or writing my novel, I could have been doing yoga, I could have been making a really elaborate breakfast while dancing round the kitchen, I could have been listening to the morning birdsong, I could have been in bed doing more fun things than sleeping with someone I care about, I could have been outside admiring a beautiful sunrise… but instead I was so insecure thought I needed to put in these hours, every day, just to make myself look presentable. This makes me sad, I wish I’d known.
And finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of ‘natural’ beauty products. Even if these lotions and potions had the word ‘natural’ in the title, or were derived once upon a time from something in its natural state, they were anything but that. No, there was absolutely nothing ‘natural’ or organic about them. (Did you know that unlike food the use of the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are not regulated when it comes to body products?) If once upon a time an almond or a coconut was involved in the creation of the product then it can be labelled as natural, even if it has been mutated beyond recognition with a million strong chemicals added so it in no way retains any links to the original fairy story. Every one of these products, without exception was synthetic, artificial and full of unnecessary chemicals, not to mention potentially toxic. And I was using these on my skin (which is a key part of the immune system, and the body’s largest organ of detoxification) so I was absorbing all of these not just into my skin, but also into my bloodstream. There was no question, they had to go. Who can tell me what Sodium Laureth or Lauryl Sulphate, Glycol Distearate, Methylparaben, Propylene Glycol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine or Methylisothiazolinone are? Who can even pronounce them?! I can tell you that many of these ingredients have been shown to disrupt the levels of healthy bacteria in the body, which is essential for a healthy immune system (and clear, healthy skin) and have also been proven to in many cases disrupt the workings of the endocrine system (your hormones), cause immune damage and of course majorly irritate that which it professes to protect: your skin, stripping it of its own self-regulating natural moisture, so that you, as a result, end up buying yet more products in an attempt to restore it! (Capitalism takes unfair advantage of the misinformed consumer yet again.)
So what about the positive stuff in all this? Yes, finally! Well the entire contents of my bathroom cabinet these days are as follows:
A jar of Raw Organic Coconut Oil, a jar of Bicarbonate of Soda, a bottle of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar (try and get one ‘with the Mother’, a tub of Raw, Unpasteurised Honey, a bar of 100% Olive Oil Soap, Natural Moisturiser and Natural Fluoride-free Toothpaste.
These are the essentials and I also have a few other things: a bottle of Almond Oil, a Dry Body Brush, an empty Jam Jar and a Spoon (I’ll explain this later) a Razor (I can’t claim to be fully liberated), and Rose and Lavender Essential Oils.
And that’s it. That’s everything.
And this is what I do with them:
Hair: I follow the ‘No ‘Poo’ method of hair washing. Google it, there’s loads online about it. Sometimes it’s also called ‘Curly Girl.’ I use Bicarbonate of Soda as my shampoo and an Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse as my conditioner. (Can you get more natural than that? Or cheap? Plus I never have to browse all aisle after aisle of unnecessary products ever again.) Oh and I only wash my hair once a week, and I do it at night and sleep on it so never use a hairdryer. And it doesn’t get greasy in the slightest- hurrah! I have long hair so the measurements I give are for that. If you have short hair maybe half it to start with, and do your research, but most of all, just play with it and see what works best for you. It takes a while to get the amounts exactly right for your hair, but it’s worth it when you do.
Here’s what to do: wet your hair in the shower and in an empty jam jar put a tbsp. of Bicarbonate of Soda. Fill the jam jar up most of the way with hot water and give it a good stir, or put the lid on and shake, so that the powder dissolves and you have a salty liquid. Pour it over your roots, you will need to flip your head upside down to get underneath and to each side, then disperse it through the roots and scalp (not on the lengths and ends) until you feel a kind of silky, slippery texture- it will feel a little different, it maybe takes a minute or two of working it through with your fingertips before this shift takes place. Then rinse out really well. Rinse rinse rinse.
To condition: rinse out your jam jar, make sure there is no bicarb left at the bottom and put a tbsp. of Apple Cider Vinegar in it. Again fill the jar almost to the top (no stirring or shaking required this time) and pour is over the lengths and ends of your hair, not the roots. Again, rinse out thoroughly, and just when you think you’ve rinsed enough, rinse one more time. The vinegar scent disappears almost immediately, and although your hair will not have that sweet intoxicating (in more ways than one) freshly washed smell you used to get from shampoo, I can assure you that you will not smell of a chip shop, and your hair when it dries will just smell of…hair.
Speaking of chip shops… when I was going through puberty my Mum used to say to me when my greasy roots were screaming out to be washed ‘you look like you’ve stuck your head in a chip pan’. And I promise you that if you keep up with this routine over the weeks and months, you will never again have a problem with greasy roots as your scalp will gradually rebalance itself and they will be a thing of the past, honestly. But AT FIRST this is not the case. If you are going to go ‘No ‘Poo’ then you have to endure the adjustment period: it’s unavoidable I’m afraid. The first 3 weeks or so are not pretty. Your hair will completely shock you with all the crazily weird textures it can adopt. During the adjustment period I was using the bicarb and ACV a few times a week, maybe once every 2 to 3 days. In my experience it is best to start this way and then gradually reduce the number of washes. I am down to once a week these days, it took me a few months to get there (if it’s particularly hot weather I find that sometimes I need to do it twice a week). But yeah, the adjustment period… there was a point where my hair felt exactly like glue. But of course, your body is adapting to being weaned off a daily diet of artificial crap to re-instating its own, much more reliable, self-care methods. This will not happen overnight. But ride it out. Tie your hair up for a few weeks, wear a headscarf, it’s worth it. It’s a trial and error process and you just have to keep tweaking it as you go along- for example, for a while I was using too much bicarb and not rinsing properly and I ended up with a flaky scalp, there was another period where I was using too much vinegar as I felt my hair was beginning to get a bit greasy. It’s all about working with the amounts to see what works best for you, when you get it right, it’s brilliant! No looking back. Think of all the money you’ll save and how your body will thank you.
How hard or soft your water is can also be a factor, so those in big cities like London might find it a bit more challenging. It’s all trial and error, but ultimately so rewarding. Alternatives I know of that friends use are: Rye flour as opposed to bicarb as shampoo, or Himalayan salt crystals. You can also use Aloe Vera juice as conditioner instead of ACV.
Face: I go into more detail on this in my skin blog ‘The Story of my Skin’ but what I use is Raw, Unpasturised Honey as my facewash. It smells so yummy and feels so lovely and soothing on your skin, and I only do this at night, never in the morning, as overnight your skin has re-balanced all of its own oils. In the morning all you need is a little splash of cool water on your face at most, if anything at all. As someone who has suffered from severe acne for 15 years, this REALLY works for me; NOT washing your face is what works? Who knew! If I need to exfoliate, a couple of times a week, I use Bicarbonate of Soda again. I’ll put a little bit, say ½ teaspoon of bicarb in my palm and then use some cold water to turn it into a little paste and use that, very gently, focusing particularly around the nose area. Once rinsed off, it is essential here to use some form of toner to rebalance the PH of the skin (as bicarb is incredibly alkaline). So, you can make a toner, by using, guess what? Apple Cider Vinegar in water! Yes, just a tiny bit, maybe ½ a teaspoon or so, mixed into a plastic bottle (100ml) and use that to get your skin’s PH back in balance. Then moisturise. I intend to move towards creating my own moisturising facial oil, but right now I am just using a Neal’s Yard natural moisturiser until I can afford to buy all the essential oils to mix up my own potion, which I know will be really fun! When I’ve mastered this I’ll share the recipe. And finally, for those times where I do use a little bit of make up, to take it off I put some almond oil on a cotton wool pad and use that as a make-up remover.
Body: To wash my body I use a 100% olive oil soap. I love Chandrika soap too which is Ayurvedic, super cheap, and smells amazing, you can buy these in any health store. Or if you want to treat yourself, get some of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap, made from essential oils and 100% natural ingredients. I have the Rose one and it smells absolutely divine.
For deodorant I use my trusty coconut oil and bicarbonate of soda again. First get a small dollop of coconut oil and warm it between your palms and spread it under your arm pits, then pour a little bit (about the size of a 10p coin) of bicarb into your palm and dab it on top. This works an absolute treat. I was completely amazed by how well this works as a deodorant, I don’t smell at all! It will not prevent sweat patches from developing, and do watch out for white marks when you are wearing black, but, as I’m sure you know, the body is designed to sweat and it is potentially very dangerous to prevent this natural process with aluminium filled anti-perspirants.
To exfoliate I dry body brush for 5 minutes before I get in the shower. Here’s a great little article on this by my favourite wellness website Mind Body Green: ‘Why You Should Start Dry Body Brushing Today’ You could also make a body scrub by mixing rough Himalayan salt crystals into honey perhaps.
I moisturise my body with coconut oil, I just keep a tub by the shower. As oil and water don’t mix you can do this while still standing under the shower and it will stay on your skin- perfect for Winter (or Scotland, at any time of the year!)- and you smell like a coconut, mmmmmmm.
And did you know that coconut oil has a naturally in-built SPF of around factor 10 so can be used as sunscreen? Brilliant.
And that’s about it.
Oh, and instead of expensive perfume, these days I dab Lavender and/or Rose Absolute Essential Oils on my neck and pulse points. They smell gorgeous, and give you the relaxing aromatherapeutic benefits as well, and not to mention are far kinder to your wallet. I find that even the most expensive perfumes smell synthetic to me now.
So, this is how I have made my Way Through the Woods away from the cosmetics industry and towards a beauty regime that is much better for my wallet, my body and the environment. And although I am still very much in recovery, there are most definitely days when I look in the mirror and that sparkle is back, in fact, it’s better than ever.
(Update- I wrote this post in June 2015. At that point I had been following ‘No Poo for just over a year and my hair was loving it. Cut to almost 6 months later and my hair is not so much loving it anymore, and so I have decided to stop. I felt that a build up of bicarb and vinegar was developing on my hair and eventually it just was not getting clean enough with my weekly wash. So I have reverted back to Shampoo and Conditioner (the most organic and natural I have been able to find), for now anyway. I might go back to ‘No Poo in the future, but as with everything in our bodies and minds, we need different things at different times, and it is our duty to follow THAT at any given time, not what we know to be healthiest, or most ethical or what someone else has told us. Be your own guide.)