A trip to skincare heaven: Colleen Hague’s homemade organic lotions and potions

August 22, 2009

Those who have been reading this blog for a while (or my book, of course) will know that underneath my newfound appreciation for minimalist living lies a ruthless product junkie. It really wasn’t so long ago that I could be found slinking through the aisles of high-end department stores in search of the Best Face Cream In The World, and I’d pay up to $100 to get it. Fortunately, during my green challenge, I was able to see just how ridiculous this was and realized that the only thing my face really needed was a firm slap; eventually, I managed to pare down my long list of facial products to a simple bar of soap and a bottle of jojoba oil. I still maintain that we don’t need much more than this.

However, I recently had the privilege of meeting an incredible woman named Colleen Hague, a clinical aromatherapist and founder of Awaken My Senses, a line of organic skincare products, which she makes in the basement of her Toronto home — a space that’s been converted into a beautiful and serene kind of apothecary, laboratory and womb-like healing centre (that smells AMAZING). This is Colleen:

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Can you believe she’s 55? Anyway, I was introduced to her by a friend of mine who raved about the Awaken My Senses products. Then I heard that, instead of testing on animals, Colleen tests all her lotions on herself — and you can see the difference. It’s hard to notice in the photo above, but in person, you’ll see that the right side of her face has fewer lines and a firmer, smoother texture. But what really caught my attention when I first met her was how she walked into the room, pumped out a blob of organic moisturizer into her hand, and licked it right off.

“If you don’t feel comfortable eating it, why would you put it on your skin?” she asked, adding that up to 80% of what we slather on our bodies and faces every day ends up being absorbed within 30 seconds, gradually making its way into the bloodstream.

She then took some peppermint oil and rubbed a bit on my foot.

“You’ll taste that in your mouth after a few minutes,” she said. “That’s how quickly it gets into your system.”

OK, I thought. So I have to be careful about what I put on my skin. But I already am careful about that. What I wanted to know was this: Does it matter whether we use an essential oil or a carefully blended mixture of oils, water and other nutrients? And to what extent does our diet really affect our skin? And really, is there any truth to this aromatherapy business? I was once told that, because of my low blood pressure, I should never smell lavender again — but come on, that’s a bit crazy.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Colleen convinced me that what we smell can definitely affect how we feel, and this also has an effect on our health. But more important is what all these different oils do once they’re absorbed by our bodies. In a mini lesson on dermatology, she explained that there are three layers of skin: The epidermis (on top); the dermis (below); and the subcutaneous (even futher below), where new skin cells are formed about every 28 days. Standard moisturizers only affect the epidermis, but pure essential oils will get down to the subcutaneous level; a good skincare regime therefore involves using a combination of both oils and lotions.

When it comes to problematic skin, you also have three areas of concern: Eczema (which belongs to the dermatitis family); psoriasis (which is related to the nervous system and is often stress-induced); and rosacea (a cardiovascular problem that manifests itself in the skin).

As we get older, the nutrients we ingest are diverted more to the endocrine system and skin becomes less of a priority organ. But just because our bodies care less about our skin, doesn’t mean that we have to forget about it, too. So while it’s important to eat healthy, bear in mind that our skin will be the last to benefit from all those antioxidants and whatnot, which is why we need to feed it topically as well.

In terms of treating wrinkles, pimples, redness, dryness and so on, there’s no single magic ingredient — the secret, says Colleen, is all in how you blend the oils. It also makes a difference when you use the whole oil, rather than extracting it, synthesizing it and then reinserting it into a water and petroleum-based cream to give it fragrance, which is what most manufacturers do. But Colleen also blends her products according to environmental and climate factors, pointing out that a person’s skin will look and feel different in the prairies versus the east coast.

Anyway, after almost two hours of poking around her lab, I was desperate to try some stuff out. Then, Colleen came up with an even better idea.

“Why don’t we make something up right now?” she said. “I’ll let you choose which oils and how thick you want it, so it’ll be custom-made.”

SO EXCITING!

She tied on her apron, we went over to the counter, turned on the hot plate, brought out the electric whisk and got down to business. I wanted to use the extra-virgin avocado oil as my base as she had just gotten it in and had been raving about it, and it’s a lovely green colour. So she poured some out in a measuring cup, then grabbed a vegetable-based emulsifying wax, shook a few kernels out into a mixing bowl and let it melt. Here’s the photographic documentation:

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Once this was melted, Colleen added it, along with some distilled water (or maybe it was spring water… I can’t remember), to the avocado oil and began blending them all together:

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Soon, it turned into a lovely, thick cream that looked good enough to eat (and, naturally, we could have eaten it and been totally fine):

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She then added some carrotseed oil, which gives it a longer shelf life (Colleen says most of her products have an expiry date of six months), as well as some jasmine, and presto! Beautiful, nourishing moisturizer:

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And finally, here’s a shot of her clays, which she uses for face masks. I just thought they looked pretty (sorry about the lack of focus):

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I really can’t say enough about Awaken My Senses — I’m not about to suggest that everybody go out and buy every single one of her products, because the packaging and shipping does have some environmental footprint. However, if you’re serious about nurturing your skin and making it as healthy as possible, these lotions and potions are the perfect answer. On top of this, Colleen is an incredibly inspiring woman, so if you want to learn more about natural approaches to dermatology, give her a call. And check out her amazing stuff over here: www.awakenmysenses.com.

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A green report on my very ungreen trip to Tunisia

March 13, 2009

Sorry for the extended absence, folks — I’ve been away on vacation, and there’s not much in the way of high-speed wireless in rural Tunisia.

Yep, that’s where I was. Nefta, Tunisia. Far, far, FAR away from Toronto, Canada. Now, I realize some of you will take the fact that I flew all the way to North Africa for a 10-day trip as reason enough not to keep reading this blog. I know it’s hypocritical of me to make claims of being an environmentalist and then proceed to spew over 20 hours’ worth of carbon into the atmosphere for pleasure’s sake. And I don’t really have any solid defense for this argument. All I can say is that there are hundreds of things I’m willing to do in the name of protecting and respecting the Earth, but right now, restraining my air travel isn’t one of them, and this out of nothing but complete selfishness on my part — I have a strong desire to see the world (that I’m polluting) first-hand, to experience what it feels like to be caught in a sandstorm, bottle-feed a baby camel, walk around a date plantation at dusk, and so on.

Anyway, that’s the only rationale I can give you, so for those still reading, here are a few photos and accompanying captions that address some of the green and not-so-green goings on in Tunisia, home of Star Wars, the Sahara Desert, date farming, Berber tribes and dromedary love.

OiLibya Gas Station in Tozeur

OiLibya Gas Station in Tozeur

As my boyfriend commented upon seeing this: “Well, at least they’re honest about it.” This was in Tozeur, where we picked up our rental cars (the most compact, fuel-efficient ones I could find; plus, there were four of us to each car). Filling up a tank costs about 40 dinars, which is $35 Canadian, which is pretty cheap. I don’t know about you, but whenever I saw this sign, I kept shaking my head and saying “Oy, Libya”…

A baby camel in Matmâta, a typical troglodyte village

A baby camel in Matmâta, a typical troglodyte village

How cute overload is this? Can you see his little milk moustache, too? I had just fed this guy some milk from a bottle and wanted to bury my face in his fluffy hump and snuggle him forever. Camels are everywhere in this country and are used for transportation, tourism and unfortunately food. What’s reassuring, though, is that they’re treated well — all the camels I saw looked well-fed and happy.

Environment Mouse

Environment Mouse

Readers, meet Environment Mouse. This cartoon rodent with enormous ears (“Qu’est-ce que c’est la souris avec les grandes oreilles?” my French-speaking friend inquired of a cab driver one day, which led us to the answer) is Tunisia’s green mascot. He doesn’t do much, other than adorn garbage cans, but we still love him.

An organic date farmer

An organic date farmer

My friend Rob snapped this photo of an organic date farmer at a plantation just outside Tozeur. We originally wanted to visit a date factory but ended up getting semi-lost; then, just as we pulled into a driveway to turn around and go home, we stumbled upon a small house and this man, who turned out to be the owner of all the palm trees around us. He gladly showed us around and explained why it was so important to grow these things organically — for instance, all dates have insects in them when harvested, but conventional methods include extracting these with toxic gases while the organic process involves freezing them. We got to eat dates fresh off the stem with no glucose coating, and the farmer even gave me my own palm tree seedling to plant at home (unfortunately, I wasn’t going to take a chance with Canada Customs, so I left it behind for the dude at Avis to take care of). I’m planning on writing more about this for my Sense & Sustainability column at the Post (this week’s story was on garburators, by the way), so watch out for it!

greenland

Flying over Greenland

And finally, here’s a snapshot from the flight back, where we flew over Greenland and, yes, there was a very direct and somewhat ironic connection between the plane I was in and the icebergs that were melting down below. But as depressing as that may be, it’s still beautiful.

That’s it for now; stay tuned!


The Dark Side of The Farm

January 19, 2009

Reader Mark just sent me the link to this hysterical Star Wars spoof, starring Obi Wan Cannoli, Ham Solo, Darth Tater and Chewbroccoli. It takes place in the aisles of a futuristic grocery store and reveals the horrible truths behind the dark side of the farm. Check it out:


From the Pantry to the Bathroom: Deodorant Edition

January 2, 2009

deo-ad

Welcome to the first installment of From the Pantry to the Bathroom, where I feature natural alternatives to beauty and hygiene products, all of which can be created by using ingredients found in the kitchen pantry (think toothpaste made from baking soda and peppermint extract; face masks assembled from oatmeal and honey; etc).

While I was entrenched in the darkest days of my green year and not buying any new plastic, let alone consuming products full of chemicals and preservatives, I ultimately had no choice but to make myself clean and pretty using whatever I could find in the house. Now, I still do this, but it’s more in the name of laziness and frugality.

Sometimes, homemade stuff doesn’t turn out so great — using vinegar instead of shampoo, for instance, unless perhaps you have thick, curly hair and don’t mind a permanent redolence of fish ‘n’ chips — but occasionally I’ll stumble upon something so effective and simple, I just have to share it with every woman (and sometimes men) I know.

So without further ado, here is my first find:

COCONUT OIL DEODORANT

The recipe is very simple:

Ingredients:
– Coconut oil

Directions:
– Put on underams

That’s it!

You can find coconut oil at most grocery stores (definitely at any health food store). It looks something like this:

omega-coconut-oil

Coconut oil is great for cooking — it can be safely heated to high temperatures, it’s great for smoothies and has lots of beneficial side effects (ask your local nutritionist about it). But it’s also useful as a moisturizer, a shoe polish, and, if you’re feeling kinky, as a lubricant.

I can’t remember what, exactly, possessed me to spread coconut oil underneath my arms recently because I’ve been using a combination of the crystal rock and the wild-yam scented Green Beaver brand of deodorant for a while with mostly positive results. But in the end, I found that coconut oil is a lot more effective. In fact, it almost smelled better once I started to sweat a little. I’m not sure whether the oil is clogging my pores or not, but whatever — I’m sold. Try it out!!

Update: Burbanmom/EnviRambo has also just seen the coconut oil light — check out her post on it over here.


Deodorant ad above from Flickr


Tapping into the organic flow (Day 332)…

January 26, 2008

pancake

The flow of maple syrup, that is.

It occurred to me during a recent grocery expedition and some follow-up Google searching how important it is to buy organic maple syrup. Earlier on Green as a Thistle, I wrote about honey, and made the switch to organic for the sake of the bees, but today it’s for the sake of the trees.

Why is it so important to get organic syrup? Well, for numerous reasons, but here are just a few, courtesy of Béland Organic Foods:

  • Organic syrup doesn’t use any lead or lead solder in the processing equipment, so consequently there’s no lead in the finished product.
  • During the running season, Béland cleans its line system with natural biodegradable products.
  • In making organic maple syrup, there are no synthetic chemicals used to control foam during boiling; instead, certified organic and Montreal Kosher vegetable anti-foaming agents are used. Often, at least in the past, pig fat was used to prevent foaming (sick!).
  • While brand-named syrups are sometimes made with sap that’s been treated by UV radiation or microwaved, and the “pancake” syrups are mostly just corn starch, organic Grade B maple syrup is pretty much straight from the tree.
  • Finally, organic sap farms don’t mess with any pesticides or GMOs; they treat their trees with respect to ensure a long and natural life.

So from now on, my sweet tooth will only be sated with ethically responsible syrups. All it requires is spending an extra couple bucks, which I think is pretty simple.

Image courtesy of these guys


Vegetarians — avert your eyes! (Day 331)…

January 25, 2008

shfjdsk

I know this seems silly, but a part of me wants to make 366 green changes to my lifestyle (yes, that’s 366 — up until now I’ve been saying 365, but of course it just happens to be a freakin’ leap year), without resorting to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

I don’t have a problem with vegetarians; for at least five years of my life I was one of them, and now I only eat meat about once a week — and it absolutely has to be happy meat. Furthermore, I realize it takes a LOT of water, land, energy and other resources to raise and feed the animals, slaughter and butcher them, then package and ship the meat.

But there’s something about those old-fashioned farms with animals grazing outside, being all cute, fertilizing the pastures (and, OK, farting a bit of methane into the air, too) that makes me want to support the people who run them. Same goes for organic dairy and free-range egg farms, even though I don’t actually eat eggs much because they gross me out.

Anyway, like I said, props to the vegetarians out there — you’re leaving a lighter footprint than me, you have great restaurants, but I want my vitamin B12 and I don’t want to get it from nutritional yeast flakes.

Where the hell am I going with this post, you ask? Here’s where:

Wait, have the vegetarians left yet? Because they’re not going to like this.

My green move today was… to sign my father and I up for a butchering class. WAIT! Don’t go rushing to the comments just yet; hear me out. It’s taking place at the Healthy Butcher, a family-run store in Toronto that gets all their meat from local, organic farms. They run these courses where you can go and see where your filet mignon comes from, learn about the different cuts, the different ways to prepare and cook them, and practice your knife skills. This will, I hope, accomplish two things:

One, I’ll have to confront my meat, which will mean I’ll have all the more appreciation for it whenever I decide to consume it; and Two, it’ll help me learn how to cut it properly so that when I try to trim the fat or bone off something at home, I waste less.

OK, that’s it, post’s over. Vegetarians can open their eyes now.