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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From the Pantry to the Bathroom: NOTHING! (Or, Listen to Your Boyfriend)

June 7, 2009

OK, so this doesn’t exactly conform to the format of FTPTTB in that I’m not about to reveal a moisturizer recipe that calls for olive oil and honey (although I’m sure you could use those ingredients for moistening purposes). Instead, my skin care tip of the day is: Nothing!

Remember, a few months ago, when I was complaining of that weird rash I had under my eyes after I stupidly used my diluted-vinegar-and-cinnamon concoction — originally intended as a hair conditioner — in place of toner? Yeah, a word for the novices out there trying to tackle homemade beauty products: cinnamon and delicate regions of the epidermis do NOT go together. Anyway, I was trying a bunch of different remedies to bring my under-eye area back to normal, including almond oil (nope), safflower oil (nope), vitamin A and E (nope), jojoba oil (nope) and my ever-beloved coconut oil (nope), and while most of these would kind of work temporarily, all it took was one shower or face wash (with or without any soap) for my skin to freak out again.

Now, my approach when it comes to health or skin problems is to try a natural remedy first; if that doesn’t work, I come crawling to my mother for some good ol’ Western medicine. Of course, I could have tried reconfiguring my diet — eliminating coffee, alcohol, yeast; introducing more antioxidants, lycopene and whatnot — but to be honest, I’d rather have rashy eyes and a glass of shiraz in my hands than a flawless complexion and nothing but water after an eight-hour day of work.

So my mom gave me some Cortate cream she had lying around the bathroom. Actually, it was lying around my sister’s bathroom, because she apparently applies this stuff liberally for no medicinal reason other than it gives off a nice “glow” (if you’ve read my book, you’ll know this is par for the course in terms of her logic … and, actually, it does leave a healthy-looking sheen, regardless of how fake it may be).

Now, although cortisone can be kind of sketchy in high doses, this stuff was only 0.5%, so I figured a few short-term applications of it wouldn’t kill me. And the result: It worked! Well, sort of.

It worked temporarily — I applied it at night and the next morning my skin looked great; even washing and towel-drying my face didn’t seem to hamper its efficacy. But the problem was, as soon as I tried to wean myself off the cortisone, the rash came back within days. Now, technically, I could keep using this cream on a daily basis for the rest of my life, but my gut kept saying, “Your eyes were fine six months ago and they didn’t require any drugs!” This was driving me crazy.

The funny thing was, every time I complained about this rash and went about applying yet another new oil or ointment, Jacob would say, “Why don’t you just leave it alone? If you didn’t put anything under your eyes before, why are you doing all of this now?”

He had a point, but I was sure that if I went to bed at night with rashy under-eyes and didn’t do anything about it, I’d wake up the next morning looking as though I’d contracted some horrible disease.

But the other day, out of exasperation, I decided to give it a shot. I had no plans to go out the following morning and, even if that changed, I had some concealer that would at least hide the redness.

Well, guess what? The boy was right. My eyes felt a little dry, but otherwise looked fine other than a few spots. Another few days of this, and they’re practically back to normal. See for yourself:

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(This is right after I woke up, so I don’t have any makeup on and look kinda tired, but still — no rash!)

Moral of the story: Our bodies don’t NEED lotions, potions, creams and exfoliants. Sure, applying some type of oil every now and then (especially in the winter) helps against dryness, as does drinking plenty of water; and of course, if you have psoriasis or eczema, that will probably require some treatment, whether drug-based, food-based or both. But on the whole, it’s always better to opt for a minimalist hygiene routine — this benefits both yourself and the environment.