Exploring ideas for affordable, sustainable, enjoyable living.

DIY Cleaning and Personal Care: Ingredients List

I plan on posting some recipes for cleaning and personal grooming/beauty products you can make yourself, saving yourself loads of cash and exposure to toxic ingredients. But first I thought it would be useful to give you a list of the ingredients I use for these things. Some of these items were ones I already had on hand, while others required a little capital investment. However, that initial outlay of cash was nothing compared to what I save, and since I acquired these ingredients over time, my pocketbook didn’t feel too violated.

I’ve ranked these according to how much I use them, but it may be different for you, depending on what you want to make, your level of experience, and what you already have in the pantry.

The Essentials

  • Water (I know, duh, right? But for some things I use distilled water)
  • Oil(s)
  • Beeswax
  • Apple cider vinegar (white vinegar is ok but I prefer apple cider vinegar)
  • Baking soda
  • Herbs and/or teas

With these ingredients, I can make any number of salves, balms, creams, and lotions; an all-purpose disinfecting surface cleaner; toothpaste; moisturizer; facial cleanser; drain de-clogger; and hair cleanser and conditioner.

I find coconut oil to be totally indispensable for my routine, but other oils suitable for use on skin include olive, jojoba, sunflower, and sweet almond. There are of course many others, but these are common and usually easy to obtain. Olive and coconut oil do double-duty as cooking oils. I do recommend getting the best quality oil you can afford, especially if you are going to use it on your skin, as this will ensure you don’t end up looking like you washed your face with lard pizza. Also, opt for “virgin” or “extra virgin” varieties as these contain more of the plant’s original nutrients. In particular, much of the “extra virgin” olive oil on store shelves is actually cut with lower grade oil–more information on that is here. Turns out that olive oil racketeering has been going on since the Roman Empire.

What you put on your skin gets into your body as surely as if you’d eaten it, so the general rule is if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.

Calendula officinalis. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Calendula officinalis. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Theoretically, you can get by without herbs, but they add so much and most don’t cost too much, especially if you grow them or gather them yourself. If you were to buy only two herbs, my suggestions would be calendula* and lavender. Calendula is an excellent skin-healer and -soother, full of antioxidants. Lavender is disinfectant and soothing to both the skin and the nerves, plus it smells lovely. I find the scent of “French” lavender to be rather unpleasantly camphor-y, and prefer “English” a.k.a. “true” lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). While you can find “French” or “Spanish” lavender in the flower section of nurseries, English lavender is in the herbs section. Both calendula and lavender are non-toxic and can be taken internally, even eaten for gustatory pleasure, as well as applied externally. Both are good topical treatments for wounds and burns. Alternatively, both green and black tea are full of antioxidants and beneficial for the whole body, including skin and hair. And if you want a free herb that’s good for your liver and digestion, you can’t do better than the humble dandelion. Just make sure any herbs you use aren’t sprayed with chemicals or subjected to lots of car exhaust.

*Brits call calendula (Calendula officinalis) “marigold,” but do not confuse it with what Americans call marigold (Tagetes sp.).

Next Steps

  • Essential oils
  • Raw honey
  • Washing soda
  • Citric acid
  • Borax
  • castile soap (e.g., Dr. Bronner’s), bar and liquid*
  • sugar and/or salt

Ready to get a little more creative? With these ingredients plus those above, you can now add laundry detergent, dishwasher detergent, flea repellent, and exfoliating scrub to your DIY repertoire.

Essential oils are not truly oils, but concentrated plant extracts. They thus add powerful scent, but some (e.g., lavender, peppermint) are what’s called GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) for internal use, so you can put them in toothpaste. Washing soda is sodium carbonate (not to be confused with sodium bicarbonate, a.k.a. baking soda) and Arm & Hammer makes a version. You can often find it in the laundry aisle, but not every store carries it so you might want to call and ask first. Borax may sound like a scary chemical but it’s completely natural. Bar soap is necessary for the laundry detergent recipe I use, but liquid castile soap is useful for many things so you might as well get both. I like the unscented Dr. Bronner’s because there is no smell to clash with other ingredients, and have you read the Dr. B’s labels? They’ll keep you entertained through many a boring trip to the bathroom. (All one! All one!)

*At some point I do plan to try my hand at making my own soap, with the lye and all that, but I don’t have the supplies at this time.

For the Dedicated DIYer

  • Arrowroot powder or cornstarch
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Guar gum
  • Alcohol (preferably 100 proof)
  • Vegetable glycerine
  • Raw honey

By adding these ingredients to the ones above, you can now make your own deodorant, tooth whitener, stain remover, medicinal herbal tinctures and syrups, body wash, pet shampoo, and glass cleaner. You can also experiment with different recipes for lotions, toothpaste, etc.

I personally prefer arrowroot powder to cornstarch as I find that it’s more effective both in cooking and in my personal grooming products, but it’s up to you. Cornstarch is undoubtedly the less expensive of the two. Guar gum is a thickening agent derived from beans.

As for the honey, you can wash your face and hair with honey. Yup, just plain old honey. It’s antiseptic so can be helpful with acne and cuts, and extremely moisturizing. Wash your hair with honey and you will truly know what “body” means. All you need is warm water and a little more elbow grease to rinse it off. Plus, if you make sure to get raw honey (if the label doesn’t explicitly say raw, it probably isn’t), it is highly nourishing and can even help with your allergies. It is very important to get real, raw honey–most of what is on grocery store shelves is a sticky melange of unknown provenance made from corn syrup and water. Read more about that here.

And now you can see how with a relatively small number of generally quite inexpensive items, you can make a huge variety of things to care for you home and your body. Even better, almost all of these ingredients are useful for many different purposes, for example, cleaning, cooking, kids’ crafts, and so on.

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Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part III

And we’re back, with permaculture principles #7-12!

7. Design from patterns to details.  We don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel; nature and people are full of patterns that can be templates for things we want to build or do.  And our predecessors usually worked out the kinks, making it that much easier for us. Also, figuring out what you need to accomplish first helps keep you from getting distracted by picayune details. Accordingly, permaculture farms and gardens are laid out in ways that replicate the features of specific natural ecosystems, chosen as appropriate for local conditions.

8. Integrate rather than segregate.  I think this could just be the most important principle of all, because it overlaps so many others.  Every element in your home ecosystem, from the furniture to the people, should accomplish more than one purpose, and each should help the other elements accomplish their purposes as well.  What we are talking about here are mutually supportive relationships among all elements.  Such relationships–whether among the beams of a reciprocating roof, the members of a family, or a community of plants–mean that each individual part bears less weight, less responsibility.  When you observe nature’s patterns (as in Principle #7), you will see that the whole pattern is greater than the sum of its parts.  Each organism or structure fulfills multiple roles but also assists every other part.  Beautiful!

For example, chickens.  Chickens lay eggs, they can be eaten, their poop is fertilizer, and they eat garden pests and kitchen scraps, thus reducing waste and enhancing food production.  When they die, their remains can be composted to nourish more plants.  Plus, they can be sweet little birdy friends!  Though in that case you might not want to eat them. Anyway, unless you eat an enormous amount of eggs or have a huge family, two or three hens are all you need, and they can live in an urban backyard (depending on zoning laws, that is).

Chances are, many things in your home are already doing at least double duty.  But this principle also requires that we see our actions in terms of a larger context, so that our actions are conscious and meaningful.

9. Use small and slow solutions.  Big is harder to maintain; fast is likely to burn out.  As Joel Salatin describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a hundred years ago a farmer could comfortably support a large family and a bunch of livestock on relatively few acres.  Now, that farmer’s great-grandchild can barely support a family of three or four even with more land and higher-yield crop varieties.  The desire for bigger fruits and higher yields (and of course, bigger profits for companies that sell fertilizer and seed, and now GMOs) led to decisions that seemed clever in the short-term but have proven to be unsustainable over time.  America now produces so much corn that we literally do not know what to do with it all, yet individual farmers keep growing more and more in an attempt to just break even.

The home economy too needs to be sustainable.  When first attempting to budget or grow vegetables, patience is necessary before we start to reap real rewards; but in the long run, small-scale systems are easier to maintain than big ones.  A simple example of this is cleaning–if I do a few little chores every day, keeping the house clean is manageable and not too awful. But when I let it build up, even though I mean to do a super-fantastic scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-toothbrush spring cleaning, I wear myself out before I’ve finished two rooms.

It is also worth remembering that our home ecosystem is part of an even larger system, and every choice we make about how to feed, clothe, or house our family affects people and animals we’ll never meet.  Make no mistake, small actions can still have huge effects.

10. Use and value diversity. Remember how I said that the availability of any resource will fluctuate?  This is why they say you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I should have known this would all come back to chocolate.  I’ve been experimenting with different brownie recipes, and have realized that flexibility is key in choosing the right recipe.  Last week when I made brownies, I used up the last of my cocoa powder, and the local market doesn’t carry it.  But they do carry baker’s chocolate, so the next time I made brownies, I used only baker’s chocolate.  The recipe I was using called for unsweetened chocolate plus a lot of sugar, but I didn’t have enough sugar so I used some unsweetened and some semisweet chocolate.  My point here is that if you have the elements of your home ecosystem each fulfilling multiple roles, and a flexible recipe, you can always have brownies.

11. Use edges and value the marginal.  Anthropologically speaking, humans have always preferred living in ecotones (zones where two or more habitats meet).  These are the places with the greatest variety of resources (and as we just saw with Principle #10, variety is a good thing).  I love the proverb that permaculturalists use to sum up this principle:  “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”  The best way forward may be the road less traveled.

There are other ways in which we can apply this principle.  For example, consider buying store generic brands or cereal in a bag instead of the big name brands.  These brands may be “marginal” in terms of their packaging and advertising, but in many cases they’re just as good and a whole lot cheaper. Alternatively, consider shopping at ethnic markets where you can sometimes find amazing bargains.  This week at our local Mexican grocery, tangerines were 3 lbs for 99 cents, and potatoes were 10 lbs for $2!

Another reflection of this principle is the adage that one should shop around the edges of the grocery store and stay away from the processed foods that tend to be stocked in the middle aisles.

My favorite application of this idea is making my own stuff.  I make most of my cleaning and personal grooming products myself. Some people I know say this is hippy weirdness. Even more think anything I make myself must be somehow unsanitary or sub-par at best. But when I think of (a) how much money I am saving and (b) how much more effective I find most of my DIY products to be, I just have to laugh at the naysayers.  I’m laughing all the way to the bank. (I will post some ideas and recipes for making your own stuff later.)

12. Creatively use and respond to change.  Quoth Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns:

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

(The poem is “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.”) Changes are inevitable, but if you’ve been observing your situation as per Principle #1, you can see many changes coming and roll with them.  They can become opportunities as well as being challenges.

In concrete, mundane terms, one example of this is that in my attempts to save money, I discovered that having a budget wasn’t enough. In fact, by itself it really didn’t help at all. I started keeping a household account book and that helped immensely, but still wasn’t enough. Just last month I started keeping a monthly list of unforeseen expenses. One of the reasons I had so much difficulty sticking to my budget is that when unforeseen stuff came up (most recently, my car died and needs to be replaced) it would totally wreck my plan. Lest my budgeting gang agley as it has so many times before, I need to keep a record of this simply as a reminder to myself that I don’t have as much left in the bank as I normally would, but more importantly, to gain a concrete idea of how much I need to have saved in the emergency piggy bank from month to month.

Last but not least, this principle is about having a vision for the future. For my home, I am using these very permaculture principles to help forecast changes and guide my decisions long-term, so that my home economy isn’t just a matter of balancing a checkbook.  It actually becomes fun as well as being socially meaningful action.

If you’ve read along this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it useful!

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