Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Essential Oil + Fragrance = Something Stinks!

Reading product labels is incredibly important if you care about wellness and personal health, but you’re hamstrung if you don’t understand the secret industry jargon.  Particularly in the beauty, health, wellness and natural product arena.  Labeling laws around the world still allow manufacturers to not fully disclose all the chemical ingredients in a product, and sadly many manufacturers use these legal loop-holes to pull a few swifties.

“Fragrance”, “perfume”or “parfum” is perhaps the most tricky area of all.  Intellectual property law says manufacturers don’t have to disclose the chemical components of a fragrance – it’s privileged and commercially sensitive information.  A report by the Committee on Science & Technology to the U.S. House of Representatives as long ago as 1986 (25 years!) showed 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates and many other known toxics and sensitizers capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.  Some other studies have shown that an individual synthetic fragrance can contain up to 300 different chemical components.

So, we got that part.  Artificial fragrance is bad.  Essential oils are good – beneficial to good health even.  So we look for products that are labeled “with essential oil of moonflower” (or whatever), we feel safe and reassured and we stop squinting at the label.  It contains essential oil so it must be OK.

Maybe.  But Maybe not. 

When I first learned soap-making here in Thailand I was determined to make all natural soap (and still am) but the soap-making teacher explained that using only essential oils was not smart or profitable – they cost too much and the soap has a very short fragrant shelf life, often ending up after 6 months with no scent as the volatile oils have all evaporated.  She explained that adding chemical fixatives would make the volatile essential oils stay in the soap over a long time. “But I want to make all-natural soap!” I wailed.  “Mai pen rai” she answered (translates from  the Thai as “never mind”)… “you use a tiny bit of essential oil and then add cheap commercial fragrance –  10%-90% ratio is normal - it works because the fragrance itself already contains chemical preservatives and fixatives,  and they then fix the essential oils into the soap.  Only you don’t have to declare those chemicals on the label.”  She was smiling at the end.  wasn't.

I didn’t want to believe her.  But in the last year I have often seen “essential oil” right up front on a “natural” product label (usually plastered on the front), and then way down the end of the product list on the back in microscopic type it might say “fragrance”, “parfum”, “natural flavor” or “natural scent”.  Yes, petroleum is natural and so is cyanide, so they’re at least not lying about that part. 

I wanted to believe that products either contained only essential oils (and were therefore safe, natural and beneficial to my health) or used cheap synthetic fragrances (and were therefore easily identified, “bad” and easily rejected).  The truth is that many, many factory produced “natural” products which contain essential oils also contain synthetic fragrances.  These products are not 100% natural at all and can be harmful to your health used over time.

How harmful?  Health Care Without Harm*, a research and action group, found phthalates in most of the popular beauty products they tested.  Since reproductive age women buy more cosmetics and personal care products than other people, they have a greater exposure to phthalates.  Recent studies suggest diethyl phthalate, commonly used in fragrances and other personal care products, damages DNA of sperm in adult men, which can lead to infertility, may be linked to miscarriages and birth defects, and may lead to cancer and infertility in their offspring.   Phthalates have also been associated with thyroid disorders, premature breast developments in baby girls and abnormal sexual development in baby boys.  Phthalates, at levels of concern, are found in the blood of most pregnant women. They can cross the placenta and are found in breast milk. 100% of people tested had phthalates in their urine.

We can’t avoid synthetic fragrances 100% of the time – they’re in most everything, even many “unscented” products, where they are used to mask component odors and achieve a neutral smell.  But we can reduce our exposure and we can wise up to the tricks and traps manufacturers use to sell us quasi-natural at a premium price.

Make sure when next you buy “natural” that “essential oil” on the label means ONLY essential oil.  If there are “fragrances”, “parfums”, “perfumes” or things you can’t pronounce on the label as well as the essential oils, put it back. 

Be smart, be aware and know that as a consumer you have a lot of political power to change the world we live in.  Speak up and share good information.  Support people and businesses who genuinely present you with healthy and 100% natural choices.  Let the management and marketing people of these less-than-reputable companies know why you are no longer buying their product.

Enjoy the gorgeous natural essential oils Mother Nature has blessed us with, and choose products that don’t compromise them or their amazing healing properties.

*Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition of more than 470 organizations in 52 countries working to transform the health care sector so it is no longer a source of harm to people and the environment. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

After is Good, Before is Better

Massaging, steaming or applying sports rubs after a major sports event or intense physical activity is the best way, isn't it?  We’re programmed to think that way.  For example, this tweet came in my twitter feed this morning:  “Next time I do 1/2 marathon: 1) Locate #sports bra days in advance 2) Ditch heavy water bottle (plenty on route) 3) Schedule post-run #massage

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, essentially it’s like running your car into the ground and then servicing it after it breaks down.  And cursing all the way because it doesn’t handle well or give good fuel economy.  And possibly being late or missing your appointment due to a breakdown.

All exercise and strenuous physical activity requires good oxygenation of the blood and the efficient removal of waste material in the muscle.  When the muscles are as detoxed as possible and residual wastes excreted from the system before you start, the lactic acid build up (which hurts so much afterward) is slower and less.   The muscles work more effectively, giving that tiniest bit of extra competitive edge.  Maybe that’s not so important in your social golf round, but for a competitive triathlete, it’s imperative. When the circulation of blood is optimal, the blood carries the cellular wastes away from the muscle during the event or activity, thereby reducing aches and pains later.  Most importantly, a fatigued muscle is more prone to injury, so scheduling your massages, steams and rubs before also reduces the risk of injury.

The three most effective ways to prepare your body for your sports event or intense burst of physical activity (be that a night of dancing or schlepping boxes when moving house) are:
1.       A herbal steam.  30+ minutes sweating out toxins and then rehydrating thoroughly during and after the steam.  Doesn’t take long, it feel good and can be done the day or evening prior, so as to allow plenty of time for adequate rehydration.
2.       A massage.  Whether it’s a sports massage, lymphatic drainage, Thai massage or even just a very good oil massage, the process will encourage your body to release toxins.  Make sure you drink plenty of water afterwards, to assist the removal of wastes out of the body.
3.       A stimulating sports oil or rub.  If you don’t have access to a steam room or a masseur, you can still massage your major muscle groups yourself (thighs, gluts etc) with a stimulating rub or oil to encourage blood flow.  Be sure it is 100% natural, as using anything that contains mineral (white) oil, synthetic chemicals, petroleum products or artificial fragrances will actually impede toxin release and slow down the detox process.  A good plant-based natural herbal oil or beeswax balm will be easily absorbed into the body and carry the active ingredients from the essential oils to where they are needed.

By all means, schedule any or all of these for afterward too.  And enjoy aching less.  And better performance.   Taking care of your muscles before and after means your next post-event training session will be more effective too.  Or that you can happily kick on to the salsa dancing class after shifting sand in the garden all day. 

There is of course a fourth magic preparation for your muscles: sleep.  Our bodies detox, heal and repair best when we sleep, since it is only during certain parts of the sleep cycle that human growth hormone is produced.  We need that for tissue repair and building new muscle. 

So, think outside the box and step outside the regular mindset that only schedules the massage for after the event when you're already hurting.  Relish your physical activity, whatever it may be, and get the most from it. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

5 Reasons to Scrub and Polish

No, I’m not talking about your bathroom tiles or even the kitchen floor.  I’m talking about the skin on your body –the 95% of skin you have which is so often neglected, under-functioning and unable to do its most important work.

Which begs the question: What is your skin’s most important work?  To look pretty and feel smooth?  To glow with a golden tan or shimmer with pale incandescence?  If you remember back to 7th Grade science class, you may remember the teacher explaining that skin is primarily involved in temperature regulation of the body and that it is also the body’s primary detoxing organ.  Is it all coming back to you now?
Detoxing.  An average body in an average climate loses about 2 litres of sweat per day, of which an estimated 450g is solid waste product.  Eeeew.  So if your skin is clogged and less than optimally functioning, some of that solid waste stays in your body; that makes you tired, reduces sleep quality, slows down your organ function and depresses your immune system.

Scrubbing and polishing of the body’s skin has 5 main benefits:

  1. Gently scrubbing and polishing clears clogged pores and removes potential infection from the base of hair follicles – basically that means less pimples, spots and in-grown hairs and more efficient sweating and waste removal;
  2. Removing the surface layer of dead skins cells enables the skin to better absorb moisture and the nutrients we may apply through plant-based oils;
  3. Gently scrubbing and polishing stimulates blood flow in the sub-structure of the skin; apart from assisting with the more efficient removal of wastes into the blood stream, stimulating the circulation also encourages the growth of healthy new skin cells and a better flow of important nutrients to those cells;
  4. Removing the surface layer of dull dead skin DOES make your skin softer, smoother and nicer to feel – it evens out the rough texture and reduces itching and irritation.
  5. Improved blood flow to the sub-structure of the skin WILL make your skin glow and look both younger and more attractive, although that’s not primarily why we scrub and polish. 

Scrubbing and polishing needs to be done gently (no redness!) and with a natural product.  Many commercial scrubs contain plastic scrub beads – they happily sit in the oil-based scrub leeching their toxic component chemicals into the scrub.  Some of the natural scrubs use nut shells, but these are often too harsh for the skin and damage its surface, adding to broken capillaries, redness and leaving you vulnerable to bacteria and irritation after the scrub treatment.  Read the label of your scrub or body polish.  Does it contain chemicals, petro-chemical oils (like “white” or “mineral” oil?) or synthetic “fragrance”?  If it does, toss it out.  It completely defeats the purpose of the detoxing scrub and polish if the product you are using merely adds to your body’s toxic load. 

What about loofahs or mitts instead of a product?  That’s fine but only if you boil it after each and every scrub so the dead skin cells and bacteria you are removing aren’t sitting happily breeding in your bathroom each day, ready to add to the problem when you next use the loofah tomorrow.  A fine clay exfoliating stone is a wonderful alternative to dirty loofahs and mitts, and also wonderfully hygienic. Always remember, use it gently! 

How often to scrub and polish?  Not everyone is the same.  If you are sick, actively fasting and/or in a detox program, probably daily – maybe after your herbal steam.  For “normal” people, maybe 2 or 3 times week is optimal. 

Always finish your skin treatment with a tiny amount of rich, natural plant-based oil to nourish and moisturize the skin.

Remembering the “why” of body scrub and polish helps us to understand why it’s actually not a beauty treatment but rather an important part of natural health management that adds to our personal wellness. 

Scrub, polish, smile, glow, enjoy.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why You Should be Thanking Your Cracked Heels.

Thanking them?  Are you out of your mind?  They hurt!  They itch.  They don’t look pretty in my new sandals.  They trash my stockings at work. They even bleed onto the floor first thing in the morning sometimes!

While only someone who has suffered badly cracked heels can ever appreciate those feelings, it doesn’t change the fact that cracked heels ARE really important and something we should be thankful for.  Because they are visible and irritating and embarrassing, we notice them.  We even start reading blog posts to try and fix them.  The challenge is to understand them and the message they bring us.

The skin on our heels is like the canary in the proverbial coalmine.  It’s under more strain than the skin on other parts of our body, simply by virtue of the weight our feet carry each day, step by step.  The skin on our heels is exposed to a challenging range of environmental conditions, from being super cold on frosty mornings, to being stifled in synthetic shoes all day, to having the blood flow limited for hours on end while we sit and play on facebook, and to getting the dregs of nutrients from our blood by the time it gets all the way down there.

So what are your cracked heels telling you?  Firstly, they’re telling you loud and clear that your essential fatty acid balance in your diet is inadequate.  You need to increase your Omega 3 and 6 and 9 intakes through raw nuts, seeds, avocadoes, oily fish and natural cold-pressed vegetable oils.  These same essential fatty acids that support the sub-structure of our skin are also critical for heart health and hormone balance – better to heed the message from your cracked heels now than to be in the ICU after your heart attack or sitting in the oncologist’s office to chat about your breast or prostate cancer problem.
When your liver is overloaded with environmental and dietary toxins and struggling to process masses of alcohol, fats and processed foods every day, your body is less able to absorb the essential fatty acids that you do manage to eat.  And you see the result in your cracked heels.  A toxic liver is less able to fulfill its normal function as a part of the body’s healthy immune system.  Your cracked heels are telling you that your immune system is less than optimal and going to be less-than-able to deal with incoming threats.
Cracked heels are also telling us that our blood circulation is suboptimal.  The sluggish blood supply to the far-flung regions of the body is causal for cracked heels, but it also contributes to things like blood clots that trigger strokes and kill people.  Far better to be improving your exercise regime because your cracked heels gently suggest it, than to be in a stroke rehab unit one day trying to learn how to feed yourself again. 

OK, so I think you get it.  Cracked heels are a sign of poor diet, poor circulation and a toxic liver.  Dealing with those three things now could make a massive difference to your health in later life.

Meanwhile, is there anything you can do to relieve your cracked heels?  Yes, there are two simple things you can do to help cracked heels while you detox your liver, boost your exercise and change your diet.  Firstly, you can remove the old, dry and cracked skin by soaking your feet and scrubbing away or cutting off the old skin.  Do it often.  This makes it easier for the new and healthier skin underneath to absorb any nourishment you apply.  Which brings us to the second thing you can do: apply a nourishing, soothing natural heel balm at least twice a day.  Make sure it is a beeswax balm and not one which has a petrochemical base.  How will you know?  Read the label!  Why does it matter?  Petroleum bases contain things like glycerin and white mineral oil (both toxic petroleum products) which are actually skin drying agents and will compound the problem over time.  Natural beeswax is an ancient skin conditioner which protects and soothes and aids natural healing. Beeswax enables the skin to regain its natural elasticity.  Use it regularly to prevent cracked heels too.  For best results, apply before bed and sleep in a pair of cotton socks – you’ll be amazed at the difference in the morning. 

So remember to thank your cracked heels.  Listen to what they’re telling you and make the big changes that are needed – in the end, no amount of fabulous natural heel balm will be enough if you’re not nourishing your skin from the inside, promoting good blood flow through exercise and keeping your system as clean as possible so it can absorb those important essential fatty acids that your skin needs for health. 

And if you’re looking for a fabulous natural beeswax foot repair balm?  Well, you know where to find us.