Natural solutions for personal care (Original Article)
This is the original, unedited version of the article that was published in the Dec 2013 edition of Life Positive magazine.
It talks about the harmful effects of the toxic chemicals commonly used in Personal Care products like Shampoos, Shower Gels, Laundry detergents, etc. It suggests natural alternatives which are safe for health, and easy on the earth, which can be used for Personal Care.
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Natural solutions for personal care (Original Article)
Natural solutions for Personal Care
by Piyush Kumar
There is a slow, but perceptible trend of people going back towards organic
foods, as they become aware of the dangers inherent in foods grown using
synthetic pesticides & petroleum-based fertilizers, and contaminated with
antibiotics, synthetic colors & preservatives. However, even as we are
increasingly becoming conscious of the ill-effects of consuming food containing
chemicals, we inadvertently continue to splash ourselves with other toxic
substances through our personal care products.
Toxic chemicals in our Body & Skin care solutions
Once I happened to read the list of ingredients on the bottle of a popular
brand of shampoo. It turned out to be a veritable chemical soup, with the
Dimethicone, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Dimethiconol, Zinc
Pyrithione, Carbomer, DMDM Hydantoin, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Zinc
Sulfate, Panthenol, Lysine Hydrochloride, Tocopheryl Acetate, Methylisothiazolinone,
Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Sdium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Climbazole, Zinc Gluconate, TEADodecylbenzenesulfonate, Poloxamer 407, Laureth-23, Laureth-4, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium
Polynaphthalenesulfonate, PEG-9M, Aminomethyl Propanol, Methylchloroisothiazolinone,
Propylene Glycol, Lactic Acid
I wasn’t sure how safe these complex compounds with unpronounceable
names were. On digging further, I came to know that organizations like the
Environmental Working Group (EWG) have warned that a large number of the
chemicals used in common personal care products, can be harmful to health.
Also, research by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics shows that out of the more
than 10,000 chemicals used in personal care products, about 89% of the
ingredients have not gone through detailed human safety testing. Since many
of these ingredients have been introduced too recently, it is anybody’s guess
what the long-term effects of the sustained use of these compounds would be.
When you look more closely at the labels of different cosmetics and personal
care items, you will find that they are choc-a-bloc with synthetic chemicals.
Advocacy groups like the “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families” campaign & the
David Suzuki Foundation have come up with lists of toxic chemicals found in
everyday use personal care products & cosmetics alongwith their health
1. DEA ( diethanolamine) – Used as a foaming agent in shampoos and
cleaning agents; skin and eye irritant, high doses can be carcinogenic
2. Diethyl phthalate – Used as a fragrance in personal care products;
endocrine disruptor, impacts normal development & reproductive
3. DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl Urea etc. – These products are used as
preservatives; continuously release formaldehyde which is a known
4. BHA & BHT – Used as preservatives in cosmetics; found to be allergens
5. Methylparaben, Butylparaben, Propylparaben – Widely used as
preservatives; known to be hormone disruptors, linked to kidney & liver
damage, lead to skin aging and DNA damage
6. Coal Tar Dyes (FD&C Blue No.1 etc.) – Used as colouring agents; Many
Coal Dyes show toxicity in animals, and have been banned in Europe
7. Cyclotetrasiloxane, Dimethicone etc - Group of silicone-based
compounds used in hair products, deodorants & moisturizers; can cause
harm to immune & reproductive systems, also influence the nervous
8. Triclosan – Used as an anti-bacterial agent in soaps, toothpastes,
shampoos, Liquid Hand soaps etc.; Linked to liver damage, altered
thyroid functioning, and increased antibiotic resistance
You will find most cosmetic products including shampoos, conditioners,
shower gels, liquid soaps, hair gels, lip balms, facial makeup, nail polish,
perfumes, skin creams etc. are largely chemical based.
Shockingly, a number of toxic chemicals are also used in Baby products.
Looking good with Petrochemicals
The 20th century marked a turning point, in moving away from natural products
to synthetic chemical-based products for diverse applications.
During World War 2, the petrochemical industry received a big push in the USA
and other industrialized countries, to produce synthetic rubber, explosives,
Fuels & lubricants. After the War, the petrochemical industry diverted its
resources into other market segments including fertilizers, pharmaceuticals,
cosmetics, plastics etc.
A number of the products used in the cosmetics industry are actually
derivatives of the petrochemical industry eg, isopropyl alcohol, polyethylene
glycol, Triethanolamine, phthalates and many others. These products besides
having a deleterious effect on human health, also poison our environment.
As the cosmetics & Pharma industries grew to become multi-billion dollar
industries, they further invested large amounts to synthesize newer chemical
compounds. These businesses find it much more profitable to create and sell
chemical derivatives. After all, what profits would they earn if they sold
products made from easily available substances like Amla, Turmeric etc !
Since these synthetic chemicals were not present on the Earth during the
human evolutionary phase, the human body does not know how to process or
digest them. Many petrochemical-based products do not bio-degrade in the
environment for decades , so how can we expect them to be digested by
human bodies in such a short time.
Natural solutions for hair care
According to Ayurvedic principles, you should apply to your skin only those
substances that are edible. The reason is that anything applied to the skin, is
directly absorbed into the bloodstream. On the other hand, an item that is
ingested through the mouth is first broken down in the stomach, and its
harmful ingredients removed by the liver. Thus, toxic substances applied
directly to the skin are more harmful for the body.
As I became aware of the dangers present in modern-day personal care
products, I started looking for natural alternatives. Fortunately, natural
solutions for body care have been around for millennia.
Until the first half of the 20th century, only natural solutions were used for
personal grooming and cosmetics. A good place to start looking for these
options, would be to find out what alternatives were used by our
grandparents. Till only a few generations ago, a whole range of natural
products were produced from the kitchen itself.
For Hair Care, Reetha (Soapnut), Shikakai (Acacia Concinna)& Amla (Indian
Gooseberry), have been used for centuries in India. While Reetha is a hair
cleanser, Shikakai works as a conditioner. The combination of Reetha, Shikakai
& Amla nourishes the scalp, helps in hair growth, and gives them a soft feel.
Reetha contains saponins, which act as a natural surfactant. Reetha has slight
antimicrobial properties, and helps to keep hair shiny & skin soft. Shikakai ,
which literally means ‘fruit for hair’, has abundant amounts of Vitamin C, and
other micronutrients, which help to nourish hair roots.
Reetha, Shikakai & Amla are commonly available in Kirana stores in India.
The traditional method, is to soak Reetha berries, Shikakai pods & Amla fruits
together overnight, and then boil & strain the concoction the next morning to
prepare a ‘shampoo’. While applying on the scalp, don’t let the ‘shampoo’
enter your eyes, as it will sting. Alternately, you can mix Reetha, Shikakai &
Amla powders together with water to make a paste, which can then be applied
to the scalp and washed off after a while. If Amla is not available, Reetha or
Shikakai can be used individually, or in combination.
As a shortcut, I have found readymade shampoos from Meghdoot, Khadi
Gramodyog, Patanjali, etc. to be of help, as they contain extracts of these
traditional herbs. However, please note these Shampoos may contain Sodium
Lauryl/Laureth Sulphate as a foaming agent.
You will notice that your natural ‘shampoo’ will produce much less foaming
than you are used to. We often correlate a shampoo’s cleaning properties with
the amount of foam it produces. In fact, the extra foam in shampoos is created
by using mono-ethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine( DEA) or triethanolamine
(TEA), which are known hormone-disruptors and have already been banned in
a number of European countries.
It is important to remember that many of the so called ‘herbal shampoos’ may
also contain harmful ingredients. Therefore, it is important to check the label
for the entire list of ingredients. Many shampoos which are advertized as being
‘herbal’ may contain detergents as the base, which are often hidden in the
ingredients list under the catch-all term “Q.S.” (Quantum Sufficit).
By switching to natural products, you also do your bit to protect the
environment. The runoff from chemical shampoos, shower gels etc enters the
water supply chain and the soil & pollutes our ecosystem.
Once while taking a shower, as I saw the residual foam going down the drain, I
realized that it could come back to me some day in a different form. It would
either mix with the ground water, and return as drinking water, or the
groundwater would be used to irrigate crops and mix with the soil, and thus
the chemicals would enter the food chain.
Bath & Body products
Globally, as well as in urban India, Shower Gels are fast replacing Soaps as the
preferred medium for body cleansing. Shower Gels/Body Washes contain
Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Acrylates Copolymer, Fragrance, Cocamide MEA, PPG-9, Menthol,
Ammonium Chloride, DMDM Hydantoin, Tetrasodium EDTA, Methylisothiazolinone, BHT,
Propylene Glycol, Titanium Dioxide etc.
Also, Shower Gels come in plastic packaging, which ultimately adds to the nondegradable trash on the Earth.
In comparison, Soaps are a much more eco-friendly alternative as compared to
Soaps were the preferred cleaning agents in the Pre-Petroleum Age, and have
been around for more than a millennia. Soaps are made from commonly
available Fats or Oils including Coconut Oil, Olive oil, Palm Oil etc. Soaps are
produced when the fatty acids available in oils or fats, is combined with an
alkaline base. In ancient times, soaps were made by mixing plant oils or animal
fats with wood ash.
However, one should keep in mind that a number of Soaps these days contain
the ingredient ‘Triclosan’. Among other concerns, Triclosan is known to disrupt
the functioning of the thyroid hormone, interfere with reproductive systems
and increase antibiotic resistance in bacteria. One of the uses of Triclosan is as
Triclosan has become ubiquitous in products like soaps, hand washes,
toothpastes, mouth washes, Talcum Powder and many more everyday items.
Triclosan is being phased out by a number of consumer giants, because of
continued health concerns. Therefore, it is advisable to stay away from Soaps
which contain Triclosan.
An even more nature-friendly method than Soaps for bathing is to use Bathing
Powders, made with Gram Flour (Besan, Chickpea flour), or Green Gram Flour
(Hari Moong) as the base ingredient. Readers can easily find recipes online for
making Herbal Bathing Powders with common ingredients. For example, Sunni
Pindi is a traditional bathing powder used in the southern states of India.
Ayurvedic Bath Powders made using a variety of special herbs, are also
available commercially. Companies like Asvini, Ancient Living, Prithvi etc. sell
Bath Powders made using Ayurvedic herbal ingredients.
Corn Flour is a safe and inexpensive alternative to Talcum Powder, for usage
as a Body dusting Powder. It feels smooth on the skin, and easily absorbs
moisture. Corn Flour is especially advised for children, whose skin is very
sensitive. Arrowroot flour is another ingredient which can be used with Corn
Flour, or by itself in a Body Powder.
Disposable razors are a perfect testimony to the wanton callousness, which
characterizes mankind’s attitude to the environment. Just to save a few
seconds every day, many people have forsaken the practice of using Razors
with replaceable Safety Blades, and instead opted for disposable razors.
Imagine the amount of plastic being discarded every day, just for the small
convenience offered by Disposable Razors. Estimates show that about 2 Billion
disposable Razors are thrown away every year in the US alone. With the
middle-class in India almost the size of the entire US population and emulating
Western forms of consumerism, India’s contribution to plastic trash production
is also catching up.
Apart from the plastic waste, we also need to account for the energy and
resources that went into manufacturing that plastic handle, which goes into
the waste bin every day. Using Razors with replaceable Safety Blades would
immediately cut down the amount of plastic garbage we accumulate on the
Earth every day.
Most shaving creams, foams & gels available in the market are also chemical
based. As a healthier alternative, I found the Biotique Bio Palmyra shaving
cream, which has Coconut Oil as its base, and beeswax, castor oil etc as other
ingredients. Also, a Shaving Soap would be a better option than creams or
foams, as they are typically made with Plant-based Oils.
Alum (known as ‘Phitkari’ in Hindi) is a commonly available alternative to aftershave disinfectants. Rubbing a block of Alum on your face, and then rinsing
with water, obviates the need for an after-shave lotion, as Alum has antiseptic
Alum is still commonly used in many places across India, especially in villages. It
is quite inexpensive and can be easily found in Medical Stores.
Soapnuts – the ‘green’ cleaning solution
Reetha(Soapnuts) can also be used as a very good substitute for washing
For each laundry load, about 7-10 Reetha berries are needed. You need to
break open the Reetha berries, remove the seeds, and put the remaining shells
in a cloth bag or sock, and tie it up. Then put the bag/sock along with the
laundry load inside the Washing Machine instead of adding commercial
detergent powders, before starting the Washing Machine cycle.
Laundry detergents contain a combination of synthetic chemical-based
solvents, softeners, fragrances, preservatives, brighteners, fillers & oxidizers,
which pollute ground water & soil. Synthetic Detergents usually contain
phosphates as their major constituent, which cause overgrowth of algae in
water bodies, which in turn causes oxygen depletion killing plants & fishes.
Washing with Reetha gives clean laundry, without any of these disadvantages,
since it is bio-degradable. Interestingly, a number of companies in the US, UK,
Germany, Australia, New Zealand etc. now sell Soapnuts (Reetha) as an
environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic laundry detergents.
A Reetha solution made by soaking the berries in water overnight, also works
as a great dish washing liquid. On a sidenote, till very recent times, wood ash
was a popular medium for cleaning utensils in many parts of India.
The Reetha solution can even be used for washing windows & floors.
I have learnt to be very careful about what I put on my skin or inside me, and
closely read the labels of things that I buy, especially food items & cosmetics.
Readers can find natural alternatives for personal care, which do not add to
the toxic load of the Earth. These alternatives will be gentle on the skin, as well
as safe for the environment.
Rather than relying on corporations for making sure that the products they sell
are safe for human usage, we can take the responsibility of our health in our
own hands. We all share a naïve belief that big companies would give
precedence to human safety over their profits. However, when cigarette and
cola companies can peddle their products with impunity, whose adverse health
effects are well known, what can we expect of other corporations ?
In India, which has a hoary tradition of herbalism & Ayurveda, it is easy to find
a number of natural solutions for personal care, which have been available for
centuries. Those of our villages which still remain untouched by the “modern”
consumerist culture, have still preserved these secrets. Also, we can pick up
insights from the products used by our ancestors a few generations ago.
By using natural products for personal care, we can also do our bit to support
the rural economy.
- Reetha, Shikakai, Amla in powdered form or as a solution
- Shampoos containing Reetha, Shikakai, Amla as the main ingredients
- Soaps made from Vegetable Oils
- Herbal Bathing Powders made with Gram Flour (Besan), Green Gram
- Ayurvedic bathing powders
- Sunni Pindi
- Corn Flour/Arrowroot powder
- Reetha Solution/ Reetha Powder
- Reetha Solution
Piyush Kumar is a Renewable Energy professional, who works in the
Solar industry. He is interested in exploring the interplay between
environmentalism & spirituality.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org