One of the first things I observed on travels in Guatemala was the sheer magnitude with which the country struggled with litter. Single use plastics like chip bags and candy wrappers swarmed the streets with a life of their own, clogging drains and being eaten by the many street animals looking for any scrap they could find. This observation did two things for me- understanding that my choice and ability to be zero waste back home was a privilege (one that many people are not able to afford) and strengthening my resolve to stick to my ideals while in the country. There are many battles to fight, and many causes deserving of attention, but one simple one that the average person can help with, if not help change the flow of the world with, is reducing waste.
Before leaving for Guatemala I spent a week preparing my wash materials. Pulling together my favorite jars, locating needed ingredients and creating the simplest and most effective products I could. I created a bar of all purpose soap with uses from cleansing the body and washing your hair to hand washing clothes. I also worked on a hair and skin conditioner (which also worked great on sunburns!) and a separate face cleanser. The hardest part of this process was not actually creating the items, but locating the ingredients NOT in single use plastics. But determination wins over immediate satisfaction when talking about the protection of Mother Earth.
Basically a version of Castile soap, the bars I created used a key component that many hippies may be less then excited about- lye. “A lye is a liquid obtained by leaching ashes, or a strong alkali which is highly soluble in water producing caustic basic solutions. “Lye” is commonly the alternative name of sodium hydroxide or historically potassium hydroxide.” (here) In soap lye is the ingredient that creates the lather. You can create soaps without it, but the results would differ from a traditional sodium hydroxide solid soap. Also the multi purpose use of the soap was incredibly important and it would have been pretty disappointing to arrive in Guat and find my soap wouldn’t work for washing my clothes due to not using that ingredient. Finding this without plastic was the hardest considering that the main suggestion online seems to be to order it online, and that can create its own world of waste. However lye can actually be found at your local hardware store, generally in the plumbing section. If this is the route one chooses to go it’s important to get 100% lye, and you’ll find that information directly on label. These come for the most part in small plastic containers, however I decided to make an exception here due to the fact it was a fairly easy container to reuse with a lid, and also choose to email the company to see if I can send the container back to be refilled or recycled. Other than lye the other main ingredient I used was coconut oil, easy to locate in glass jars with metal lids, and some bulk stores even have it! Coconut oil in itself is quite cleansing, having a history of being used for many beauty and health purposes throughout the world (particularly India). It’s also nourishing packing in a heavy amount of moisture and being wonderful for absorbing other oils. (Oils attract oils)
With the coconut oil I used a double broiler like system and got it to a completely liquid form, and added in my herbs. I used lavender and rosemary respectively, the power couple of herbs for beauty purposes. Lavender is an anti fungal as well as promotes hair growth, while rosemary stimulates hair follicles resulting in hair growing longer and stronger, as well as being an excellent treatment for dry scalp. I let this mixture sit in a low simmer for about 5 hours and what this did was pull all the oils and good stuff from the plants into the coconut oil. This circumvents the need for essential oils in the soap making process.
Creating the actual soap was fairly easy, I had some anxiety about lye, reading about how potentially dangerous it was to use due to the high temperatures it reaches, however when the simple precautionary measures are taken (wearing gloves and long sleeves) and having general common sense about your actions it turned out to be quite anticlimactic in that sense.
Once you soap has gone through its creation process (this is the “how-to” I used) it’s time to let it sit. Now generally you’re suppose to wrap it in some kind of wax paper for the curing, and I am lucky enough that I have a hoard of wax paper from visiting family and taking it after they use it so I can wash and reuse it instead of ending up in the trash. However if this is not available, I would go to some kind of cloth next, however the material has to be non absorbent, since the soap goes in as a liquid first before it becomes a solid bar. Before I leave it to cure I like to place a handful of extra herbs into it, (lavender and rosemary respectively) for added aesthetic and a bit of exfoliation action.
Even easier to create, my hair/skin conditioner showed to be a life saver the entire trip. From helping others in the group with massive sunburns to moisturizing and having a natural insect repellent with the lavender and tea tree present in it. The main ingredient here are once more going to be coconut oil, and this time aloe vera. A bit harder to locate not in plastic but easy to extract directly from the plant, the aloe vera gel was probably the most difficult for this process, however my favorite phrase is “first is the worst” and after watching a couple videos the extraction from plant was more fun than work. You can also find large jugs of aloe vera at your local health stores, the problem is finding them not in that annoying plastic container. Another ingredient I used here was Joboba oil, I choose this over vitamin E for a couple reasons, one being the moisture it packs in, the barrier it creates to protect against dust and other environmental contaminants, as well as the fact that it absorbs super quickly which means that the end look is non greasy. Joboba is also a natural scalp cleanser, removing crusted sebum with it’s soil solubilising agents, as well as any air borne particles. With anti inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties it’s a perfect choice for a conditioner that will also suit any hair type. While neither is cheap, the joboba was definitely a little easier on the wallet than the vitamin e, however both are fantastic for hair and skin. This is another product where locating it NOT in plastic is nearly impossible, but it’s one of my favorite types of bottles to reuse for travel to put small amounts of product in, or refill with my own creations and giving these away as gifts to family and friends. There is the potential to send the container back to some of the companies who produce the product, but the easiest bet is to locate an apothecary or other trades person who deals heavily in the natural remedies of the world. Finding someone who can either refill or make the product themselves is often the end all solution to locating a plastic free alternative, if not being the person that creates the item. I followed the same process with my coconut oil and herbs, and then simply mixed it all together. With the tea tree I was lucky to find in a beautiful small glass container easy for cleaning and reuse. Flower wise, it’s up to the user what your needs are, I choose lavender, chamomile, and rose petals for mine. The coconut oil being the base for the conditioner you have to keep in mind that the texture itself will change from solid to liquid depending on the temperature it is in. In Guat it tended to be quite soft and almost liquid the whole time, which I actually quite appreciated making the use very easy, especially when we needed some emergency sunburn lotions (thank god for all that aloe vera in there!)
Being, as many have joked, a dirty hippie, I think it’s important to talk about the realities of using homemade products like this to the extent that I do. Coming from California I reduce my water usage by taking less showers, and short ones at that. This has allowed my body to find its natural cleansing cycle, and allow the oils that exist on my hair and skin to balance out. With excessive cleansing comes more oil production, when you’re constantly removing these oils that your body has produced for a reason, your body can read it as a need to produce more. It takes time to get to a point where your body to regulate itself to anything- wether it’s a diet change, or product change, or even something as simple as getting up in the morning, so be patient with it, and know you will look oily for awhile. (That’s what dry shampoo is for!) This process is not for everyone, know your body and what it needs. It took years to find out the best way to deal with my acne, and as it turns out for me it’s just letting my skin do its thing and stop washing it so much. The other thing to keep in mind here is that your hair will never look or feel the way it does with natural products as it does with professional products. Remember what you see on TV and when you leave the salon is an altered state in your hair- products with ingredients like dimethicone smooth the cuticle layer of your hair down making it shinier- natural products can provide this but not in the same way or same efficiency that other products will. Particularly when I’ve talked to clients who use all natural products on their hair the main complaint is how it feels when it’s wet- stringy or kind of rough. However I think it’s important we try to consider here that this is an effect of social conditioning and beauty standards- a need to have soft silky hair. Different hair feels different from other people’s, and it’s quite common to have rougher feeling hair, or particularly if one is found chemical treatments such as color or perms. But that’s the wonderful thing about using completely natural processes for your hair- it’s broad reaching and almost any texture can do it, so long as it’s adjusted for one’s texture and personal needs. I’ve found that while my hair can feel a little funny wet, it looks and feels wonderful dry, and I have found there’s more longevity between washes. Sometimes all I do to clean my hair is rinse it, because the conditioner has a coconut oil base (and I use it as a leave in more often than in the shower) so when I rinse it out several days later I’m cleaning it without having to actually wash it. But again- my hair does not look like hair you see in L’oreal commercials, but hair in its natural state isn’t suppose to look like that. We have to realize that these products are advertising CHANGING our hair, which is okay, everyone has different needs for their hair, but don’t expect to wash your hair with coconut oil and look like Eva Longoria.
Onto one of my favorite and last products- my facial cleanser and toner. The toner was simple, I took witch hazel and rose petals and put them together in a jar for a week. Witch hazel will be your natural alcohol, which after cleansing helps bring your skin back down to its natural pH and help it absorb the moisturizer you put on afterwards. Again locating it not in plastic is hard- but doable! At the very least find it in a container that can be reused for other purposes. When all else fails, find a way to reuse your things, or see if you can get them refilled! I’m sure at this point most can guess the main ingredient for my cleanser- coconut oil. This comes at a slight price, as coconut oil is a pore clogger. So for those who are acne prone it can be less then ideal, but I’ve found it to be quite effective, and less troublesome as a cleanser, but I avoid it as a moisturizer. Keeping in mind once more that oil attracts oil, it actually works as a wonderful makeup remover as well (it get’s off my Kat Von D tattoo liner, which my regular make up remover couldn’t even do with ease!) Other ingredients are aloe Vera gel, and green tea. I get my favorite tea from “Kitchen Witch Gourmet” who you can find at many of of the local art festivals here in California, as well as online. They sell their teas in beautiful glass containers that are quickly becoming some of my new favorite jars. The particular blend I used included rose petals and I added just a bit of peppermint leaves for the added freshness. This simple but effective combo has proven to really help keep my skin stay clear, awakened, and most importantly- clean.
(My hair while in Guatemala)