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The Smurf Juice Syndrome

One day, I was visiting a new spa in the Phoenix area with another soaping friend of mine, and as we awaited our bill, we perused some of the beauty product offerings in the spa’s retail boutique.  My friend picked up a small bottle filled with a conspicuously blue yet “natural” facial serum and suddenly exclaimed (not just a little loudly in the whispery quiet of the spa environment) with incredulity, “where’s the blue?!”  She, a fellow formulator and artisan of her own line of handmade, natural bath and body products, was of course scrutinizing the ingredients label on the product box, because that is what we do.  It is a compulsion and we can’t help ourselves, really.  As far as I know, there is no 12-step program for this label-reading affliction because it doesn’t really constitute a diminishment of one’s quality of life; it’s just really annoying for anyone trying to get me to walk through any retail beauty aisle at anything resembling a brisk pace.  I just can’t do it.  I *have* to stop and read the ingredients.

Anyway, the problem with the ingredients listing on this particular product, however, was that it was incomplete.  And anyone who formulates beauty or body care products for a living can tell this, simply by looking at it.  There were actually more than a few little label lies happening in this case, but the most glaringly obvious omission was the fact that the stuff in the bottle was seriously, oceanically, azure blue.  However, there was absolutely NO listing for a colorant anywhere in the ingredients.  To nearly anyone else, this might simply not even matter.   I mean, why NOT blue?  It’s a “blueberry” serum, right?  So it must be blueberries that make the serum Smurf blue, right? Even though it’s not even the color of blueberries? So what if it’s the color of Smurf juice?  So what if they forgot to include blue on the label?

As creators and formulators of our own skincare and bodycare products, the ubiquitous and blatant mislabeling of products in our industry is well known to us.  Yet when I tell friends, family and customers about this rampant labeling abuse, they are often shocked.  Like most people (and like me, before I began making my own organic body care products over 16 years ago), they assume that there are laws and regulations and governing agencies (such as the FDA) which oversee these things to protect consumers.  Right?  Well, mostly. There are laws.  There are rules.  But you may be a bit surprised to learn there is very little, if any, actual policing or enforcement of those laws.

As indie beauty care artisans, we tend to take a great deal of care in choosing quality ingredients, painstakingly sourcing and blending and mixing and tweaking and testing (usually on friends and family) before finally releasing our creations into the world.  And most of us follow the labeling laws. Many of us do so proudly, because we know how great our ingredients are and we want you to know, too.  We pour our hearts and souls into our products, because we want to put something really good out into the world.

The problem with the smurf juice syndrome is that we indie brands are trying to compete on an unlevel playing field.  The company that makes the smurf juice serum happens to take out two-page spreads in every spa, salon and beauty trade publication currently in circulation every month, and they claim to be offering “handmade”products using “organic” ingredients.  Yet, as a literal handmaker of bodycare products using certified organic ingredients, I can assure you that this company is not.  But how is the public to know the difference?  How are we, as consumers, going to make informed choices if there is no transparency and truth in labeling?  When the average consumer (who is not a formulator) picks up a bottle of something called “Rose Hip Toner” and the entire sum of the ingredients reads: “Rose Hip Juice” despite the fact that the product is red—very red.  And despite the fact that this “rose hip juice” smells heavily of roses.  And nevermind that, if I were to go out to my wild rose bushes this autumn and squeeze the juice from the ripe rose hips and put that juice in a jar and leave it on a shelf for, say, anywhere from one to two weeks at room temperature, the result would be at least fuzzy, probably covered in mold and certainly. Not. Red.  And it would definitely not smell like roses.  How are you, the consumer, to know that this product has to contain more than what its ingredients label suggests?  I know, as a formulator, that there would have to be some type of preservative, whether natural or chemical-based, for any kind of liquid “juice” to not decompose in a bottle, unrefrigerated, unless that juice is sold in powder form.  I know, too, that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve or retain a natural red color in wet products.  If you were to mash strawberries into a jar and leave them there, they would most certainly turn brown (and then into compost).  And I can tell you that there is a fragrance in that bottle, because “rose hip juice” doesn’t smell like roses.  In fact, I am not sure that there is even such a thing as “rose hip juice”.  But this company, with its big advertising budget and its clever packaging will sell you its “handmade, organic rose hip juice” toner for the bargain price of $48.

There is currently new legislation being proposed to improve FDA laws for food as well as cosmetic products.  And, as much as I am not looking forward to the prospect of having to pay more licensing, certifying or business fees, I think it’s long overdue.  The European Union took the lead way back in 1976 with their European Cosmetics Directive, which has been improved and updated several times since, banning harmful ingredients such as known carcinogens and irritants and greatly restricting labeling nomenclature (  Here in the States, we’re way behind.  Aside from the lack of enforcement in labeling laws, there are many substances in commercial cosmetics and beauty products today which are quite frankly, toxic.  They’re toxic to humans and they’re toxic to the planet.  Although the proposed FDA requirements will hopefully bring some much needed attention to the way that cosmetics are made, packaged and sold in the United States, there isn’t likely to be a substantial restriction of known harmful ingredients.  There are, however, a couple of independent sites trying to bring more transparency to the formulation of beauty and skincare products, most notably the “Skin Deep” site by the Environmental Working Group, which keeps a free database of cosmetic and beauty products and their ingredients, breaking them down by safety in a rating system.  Although their system is admittedly flawed and imperfect, it certainly is a step in the right direction.

But regulation and databases can’t replace good common sense.  You, the consumer, already have the senses to discern labeling omissions.  Next time you pick up a beauty product the color of smurf juice, even though the “FD&C Blue No. 5” isn’t listed in the ingredients, you know it’s in there.

In the meantime, I am going to endeavor to utilize this blog space to educate, inform and hopefully entertain those who would be so kind or curious as to read it.  It occurred to me that there are hundreds of blogs out there from organic product reviews to nothing short of a shill for organic product sellers, but scant few from the perspective of the actual indie formulator.  I make absolutely no pretenses as to my point of view: I am heck bent on purity, and so about purity I will write.  I may also occasionally shill for my own products, too, but I promise to keep it to a minimum. Until next time, please remember not to believe everything you read, especially if it’s an ingredient label for a “natural” or “organic” product that is bright blue, yet doesn’t list a colorant, or preservative, among its ingredients.


–Jacquelyn Ramsey

Founder & President, WoodSprite Organic Body

Palm Fruit Photo courtesy of

Palm Fruit Photo courtesy of

Recently I’ve received a few questions from worried customers about our use of palm oil in our organic soaps. Upon the heels of the good news this week that Procter & Gamble have bowed to global pressure and have vowed to begin using traceably sustainable palm and palm kernel oils in their products, I thought this was a timely opportunity to educate and address those very valid concerns.

I share that concern; it is my passion for a sustainable and socially responsible Earth that drove me to start WoodSprite nearly 15 years ago, and it is that same passion that dictates our choices and practices as a company every single day, from every one of the ingredients we choose, to the recycled papers and materials we use in our daily business and product packaging, to our energy and water conservation, to our practices of composting and recycling.

Organic Palm Oil is highly valued in soapmaking because it replaces animal lard in the formula, lending hardness and stability to our all-vegetable soaps, allowing them to last longer. We feel very strongly that using vegetable or mineral ingredients is a far more sustainable and morally responsible choice over using animal ingredients, but we are also looking for those sources to be grown in accordance with our purpose and environmental values.  While there certainly is a problem with devastating habitat loss and unfair trade/labor practices with the growing global demand for palm fruit oil, not all palm oil is grown or harvested equally. At WoodSprite, we use and have always used, certified organic palm oil that is grown sustainably and responsibly with third party verification. If you’d like to learn more, you can visit this site by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil: or read this article about EcoSocial’s certification programs:

To learn more about WoodSprite’s daily environmental policies and practices, please visit this link on our website: or here:

I love these questions from customers and appreciate the opportunity to share knowledge. It is education and information that allow us all to make conscientious, informed decisions that better our lives and our planet. So, if you have a question, please feel free to stop by our website and reach out.

–Jacquelyn Ramsey

I’ve received this question on occasion, and often enough that I thought I’d share my answer here in the hope that it may lead to a better understanding of the ingredients we use in our organic skincare products.

It seems that there has been a fair amount of unnecessary concern generated when folks see certain ingredients–in this most recent instance, Borax (or Sodium Borate)–listed as a “moderate concern” on the well intentioned, yet a bit flawed, Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.  I love the Database for its efforts to bring the power of knowledge to the average consumer, especially to help open people’s eyes to the truly harmful ingredients commonly found in our everyday lives, but an effort so large and encompassing cannot always appropriately weigh every little factor in the overall equation, and sometimes, ingredients are judged in very broad and generalized terms. At any rate, the Database seems to have generated this question more than a few times and I thought it may be helpful to include my full reply for your consideration. The following is a direct copy and paste of an email I sent in response to a question about why we use Borax in some of our organic skin and body care emulsions (lotions):

Hello, and thank you for your question about our use of Borax.

I can certainly understand your concerns about the use of Borax (or sodium borate) in some of our body care products, especially with the wealth of conflicting and confusing information on the internet and specifically, on the Skin Deep Database.  While I do link to the database from our own website because I think it’s a wonderful resource for consumers, it is still a flawed, incomplete and imperfect system.  And the EWG has even admitted as much.  They have made some excellent improvements on the database recently, but as in any case of good research, one should still weigh the information against other reference sources as well.

For instance, we also use a dietary-grade (for ingestion) Vitamin E in many of our products.  Our Vitamin E is sourced from natural non-GMO vegetable oil (very often sunflower or wheat germ oil) and is full-spectrum, meaning that it contains all the components of Vitamin E in its complete and natural form, rather than a synthetically produced or heavily processed derivative.  Vitamin E is a wonderful antioxidant and, of course, is well known for its ability to heal the skin.  However, the Skin Deep Database used to list Vitamin E as a skin irritant, potential carcinogen and had a moderate hazard level of 4.  Since the changes that they have been implementing, they have now made a differentiation between naturally-sourced Vitamin E and its synthetic cousins.  Even with that differentiation, Vitamin E is still listed as a “low” hazard, but with a score of 2.  And it still makes a very small reference to a 25 year old cancer study.  If one were to take only a cursory glance at the Skin Deep Database without taking its data gaps and references with a grain of salt, they might just see the word “potential cancer” and become needlessly alarmed.

Regarding Borax, I have absolutely no concerns about its use in my skin care products, and I use it regularly as part of my non-toxic cleansing regimen both at home and in our workshop because of its many wonderful properties.  A natural and unique mineral found in dried up lakebeds with large deposits found in the US Southwest, sodium borate serves many purposes and industries.  In cleaning, Borax mixed with water creates a minor reaction and releases very small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, which makes it a mild  antiseptic and helps to inhibit microbial growth. This is also a reason it is desirable in natural cosmetics.  In our products, borax softens the water phase of an emulsion (lotion or creme) which assists in binding the disparate aspects of oil and water together, without the need for chemical emulsifying waxes (which are often referred to on cosmetic products as “vegetable emulsifying wax” but are actually an isolated fatty acid fused to a detergent or surfactant which are typically petroleum derived or completely synthetic). In other words, the Borax helps to reduce the surface tension of the water-based portion of our formulas, and enables the water to stay mixed together with the beeswax and oils, and contributes to the inherent natural preservation of the formula without the need for chemical based preservatives, many of which have been linked to cancer and which have been proven to reside in the lymph and fatty tissues of the human body.

Our use of Borax in our products represents 0.00297% of the formula.  Certainly, there are potential health risks involved in using nearly any ingredient, natural or not.  The way in which an ingredient is used, and the purpose it serves in a formula are factors that are not considered in the Skin Deep Database score, which they do attempt to specify next to the score.  For instance, most of the research that I have found regarding the human toxicity of Borax applies to ingesting large amounts of the powder, and the exact amount is only estimated, not known.

Furthermore, the bulk of the research is based on animal testing, with cruel trials stretching out over time in highly unlikely dosages and types of exposure (in addition, the studies included use of boric acid ,which is not the same thing as sodium borate, but is derived from it).  The low risk rating on Lavender Essential Oil does not include similar references in the Database, though I’m quite certain that if one were to drink a couple glasses of it, or inject the essential oil subcutaneously, they would indeed be feeling rather poorly.  But these are exactly the sorts of data gaps which the Skin Deep Database allows for, though I personally think they still need to do a little more to make that more clear.

One thing I would like to stress is that I am probably the biggest stickler out there when it comes to purity in products, especially my own.  I started making my own skin care formulas in my apartment kitchen nearly 20 years ago because I could not find the level of purity I was looking for in the marketplace.  I have always been very chemical sensitive, especially to synthetic fragrances, and I had to start educating myself on food and cosmetic ingredients so that I could avoid the common offenders.  The more I learned about the chemicals routinely used in our everyday food and body care products, the more I observed a direct link between the health of our planet and the health of humans.  Especially concerning to me is that there seems to have been an increased incidence of cancer in all its forms in proportionate correlation to the use of chemicals in everything from  agricultural crops to the water flowing from our faucets to the heavily processed “food” products on grocery shelves and the body care products we use daily on our skin.  14 years ago, I started selling the products I was making for myself quite by accident, and we’ve been growing ever since.  I’ve turned away opportunities due to requests from large hotel chains who wanted me to change my formulas (ie: use chemical ingredients) so that I could produce in larger quantities or compete on a more economical scale, but I would not veer from my natural path.  I believe that dedication to making products using only natural and organic ingredients, in as complete a form as possible, is the answer to a healthier planet, and to that of her inhabitants.  I am very passionate about this, and every product I have formulated has been with that core value in mind.

At any rate, I’ve compiled a little information about Borax, or Sodium Borate, for your consideration (below).  It is only with information that we can make informed purchasing choices, and that is ultimately something that each of us must decide for ourselves.

If I can answer any other questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.  And thank you again for your interest in WoodSprite Organic Body products.

Kind regards,
Jacquelyn Ramsey

WoodSprite Organic Body


From Mountain Rose Herbs (
Borax Powder Profile
Origin- USA
Appearance- White crystalline granules
Shelf life- 2-3 years
Notes- Stores well under any condition but extreme moisture is best
avoided. Avoid contact with the eyes and mouth, and do not expose
directly to the skin. Can be used directly for cleaning purposes, and is
suitable for both cosmetic and cleaning purposes. Manufactured according
to USP standards.
Chemical Analysis

Anhydrous Borax- 70.1%
Boric Acid – 48.5%
Sodium Oxide – 20.8%
Water of Crystallization – 46.2%
Chloride- 37ppm
Size- US #30 Mesh

Borax (Sodium borate) is a natural mineral which is widely used in the
cosmetic industry. Since it is also utilized as a detergent, many people
are shocked to learn that it is also a main ingredient in their favorite
brand of bath salt! Borax naturally occurs from the repeated evaporation
of seasonal lakes. The largest deposits of this mineral may be found in
California, the American southwest, Chile, and Tibet. Borax is a very
popular ingredient, simply because of its many varied applications, and
its ease of use.

Cosmetic Use

Borax is found in creams, lotions, shampoos, gels, bath salts, and bath
bombs. It is an emulsifier, preservative, cleansing agent, and a
buffering agent. Commonly used in bath salts, borax has the ability to
soften the water, and suspend soap particles in the bathwater. The
result is soft, clean, and healthy skin, which is not clogged by the
residue of soap particles. When used in collaboration with citric acid
in bath bomb or bath salt recipes, the product will produce a fizzing
action. It also forms bath or body gel, when mixed with water and guar
gum. In summary, Borax has the following uses for body care products:

* Preservative
* Emulsifier
* Water softener
* Cleanser
* Particle suspension
* Buffering agent
* Fizzing action (when used with citric acid)

To use: Simply mix borax into the water portion of your recipe, and heat
to a temperature of above 75 °C. Stir until fully dissolved, and then
incorporate into your recipe.

Not to be ingested, large doses may be fatal. May cause irritation if
exposed to the skin, eyes, or if inhaled. Handle with caution, and keep
away from children and pets.

Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Sodium Borate and Boric Acid
Journal of the American College of Toxicology Vol: 2 Year: 1983

Sodium borate and boric acid are used in cosmetics as preservatives,
antiseptics, water softeners, pH adjusters, emulsifiers,
neutralizers, stabilizers, buffers, or viscosifiers. Investigators have
reported that sodium borate and boric acid are poorly absorbed through
intact skin; however, both compounds are absorbed through abraded,
denuded, or burned skin. In a 90-day dermal toxicity study, boric acid
(25-200 mg/kg/day) was nonirritating and nontoxic when applied to the
intact skin of rabbits. Sodium borate and boric acid were relatively
nontoxic when tested orally in animals. A 5% sodium borate in water
solution was mildly or moderately irritating to the skin of rabbits and
guinea pigs, and practically nonirritating when instilled in rabbit’s
eyes. Acute studies indicated that, at 10% in water, boric acid was
mildly or moderately irritating to the skin of rabbits and guinea pigs.
Sodium borate or boric acid in the diet of rabbits and rats caused
growth retardation. Doses of up to 1.06 g/kg/day sodium borate in the
diet of male rats exerted toxic effects on the gonads as well as
infertility. Boric acid was nonmutagenic in the Ames test. Boric Acid
induced reduced eye phenocopies and lumpy chromosomal inclusions in
drosophila melanogaster. Limited carcinogenic and teratogenic studies
did not indicate a statistically significant effect. In clinical
studies, cosmetic formulations containing up to 3.2% sodium borate were
nonirritating to moderately irritating and nonsensitizing when applied
to human skin. Formulations containing up to 2.4% boric acid were
moderately irritating and practically nonirritating. Photopatch testing
of formulations containing 1.1% or 1.7% sodium borate were negative.
Based on the increased absorption of boric acid by damaged skin as
compared to intact skin, as well as the testicular atrophy observed in
experimental animals, the panel concluded that sodium borate and boric
acid, in concentrations < 5% are safe as cosmetic ingredients when used
as currently recommended; however, cosmetic formulations containing free
sodium borate or boric acid at this concentration should not be used on
infant or injured skin.
What Is Borax? from

<…rue&terms=borax>*What Is

Borax (also known as sodium borate decahydrate; sodium pyroborate;
birax; sodium tetraborate decahydrate; sodium biborate) is a natural
mineral compound (Na_2 B_4 O_7 • 10H_2 O). It was discovered over 4000
years ago. Borax is usually found deep within the ground, although it
has been mined near the surface in Death Valley, California since the
1800s. Although it has numerous industrial uses, in the home borax is
used as a natural laundry booster, multipurpose cleaner, fungicide,
preservative, insecticide, herbicide, disinfectant, dessicant, and
ingredient in making ‘slime’. Borax crystals are odorless, whitish (can
have various color impurities), and alkaline. Borax is not flammable and
is not reactive. It can be mixed with most other cleaning agents,
including chlorine bleach.

*How Does Borax Clean?*

Borax has many chemical properties that contribute to its cleaning
power. Borax and other borates clean and bleach by converting some water
molecules to hydrogen peroxide (H_2 O_2 ). This reaction is more
favorable in hotter water. The pH of borax is about 9.5, so it produces
a basic solution in water, thereby increasing the effectiveness of
bleach and other cleaners. In other chemical reactions, borax acts as a
buffer, maintaining a stable pH needed to maintain cleansing chemical
reactions. The boron, salt, and/or oxygen of boron inhibit the metabolic
processes of many organisms. This characteristic allows borax to
disinfect and kill unwanted pests. Borates bond with other particles to
keep ingredients dispersed evenly in a mixture, which maximizes the
surface area of active particles to enhance cleaning power.

*Risks Associated with Borax*

Borax is natural, but that does not mean it is automatically safer for
you or for ‘the environment’ than man-made chemicals. Although plants
need boron, too much of it will kill them, so borax can be used as an
herbicide. Borax may also be used to kill roaches, ants, and fleas. In
fact, it is also toxic to people. Signs of chronic toxic exposure
include red and peeling skin, seizures, and kidney failure. The
estimated lethal dose (ingested) for adults is 15-20 grams; less than 5
grams can kill a child or pet. For this reason, borax should not be used
around food. More commonly, borax is associated with skin, eye, or
respiratory irritation. It is also important to point out that exposure
to borax may impair fertility or cause damage to an unborn child.

Now, none of these risks mean that you shouldn’t use borax. If you do a bit

of research, you will find risks associated with all cleaning
products, natural or man-made. However, you do need to be aware of
product risks so that you can use those products properly. Don’t use
borax around food, keep it out of reach of children and pets, and make
sure you rinse borax out of clothes and off of surfaces before use.

Bulgarian Lavender Calming Sea Salt Glow

Bulgarian Lavender Calming Sea Salt Glow

Nothing instantaneously transforms dry, scaly skin like an exfoliating organic salt glow or sugar polish treatment, but few of us know why or how to choose between the two.  For the most part, the basics for each product are almost identical, consisting essentially of oil and an exfoliant, in the form of either salt or sugar crystals. Both also perform triple duty by cleansing, removing dead skin cells and moisturizing simultaneously, with the added benefit of increasing blood circulation and oxygen to the skin, resulting in that lovely “glow”.

However, depending on your skin type and when you typically use the scrub, you may want to choose one or the other.

Sea salt has many wonderful qualities for the skin, not the least of which is its antiseptic properties, which cleanse, heal and detoxify at the same time as buffing away dead skin cells and speeding new cell turnover. However, because of its antiseptic nature, it can be slightly drying or irritating to sensitive skin, and no matter what skin type you have, you’ll want to make sure to use a salt glow before shaving, for it can cause stinging on freshly abraded skin.

Sugar also has unique benefits due to its mild glycolic acid content–a natural Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (AHA)–which dissolves dead skin tissue chemically as well as mechanically buffing it away, making way for new cell production. Since sugar does not have antiseptic action, it can be used on sensitive skin and applied before as well as after shaving. However, for the cleanest, smoothest shave and to help prevent ingrown hairs, a scrub of either kind is best used beforehand.

Coconut Lime Organic Sugar Polish

Coconut Lime Organic Sugar Polish

At WoodSprite, we offer both refining Sea Salt Glows in four aromatherapeutic scent blends, and three smoothing Organic Sugar Polishes to suit your unique needs. Please feel free to visit our website for more information.

WoodSprite Soy Aromatherapy Candles

Hand Poured Soy Aromatherapy Votive Candles from WoodSprite Organic Body

There’s just something about the flicker of real candlelight that warms the very soul and magically transforms an ordinary space like no other.  I suppose it’s because candles connect us to an ancient and primal need within humans; the quintessential quest for fire…after all, fire represents warmth, shelter, protection, light, comfort and food.  Maybe that’s why candle sales account for about 2 billion dollars in the U.S. every year, with 7 out of every 10 American homes using and buying candles on a regular basis.

The Evolution of Candles

Non-wicked candles have been used in some form or another for approximately 5,000 years, from the crudest of materials—such as candlefish, which are so high in oil content, the dried carcass could be mounted on a stick or piece of bark and lit on fire, and would burn from end to end just like a candle—to slightly more sophisticated versions including strips of dried papyrus dipped in animal or vegetable fats. It is generally believed that candles as we now know them, with a plant fiber wick of some sort running through the center of a formed hunk of wax or fat, were developed by the ancient Romans sometime before 3,000 B.C.  Originally, candles were purely a utilitarian necessity, serving the purpose of providing light within the home or lighting the way for travelers, but they also took on a certain mystique, playing a central role in sacred rituals for spiritual and religious ceremonies spanning multiple cultures and continents.  The Jewish Festival of Lights (or Hanukkah), for instance, centers upon the lighting of candles, and dates back to 165 B.C.; there are also numerous references to candles in the Bible, and Constantine is reported to have used candles in Easter services back in the 4th century.  Typically, candles were fashioned from available household materials, most often leftover tallow and animal fat, which when burned, produced foul, acrid smoke and soot.  It was not until the Middle Ages that beeswax was discovered to be a viable alternative to candles made with animal fat, and with its sweet scent and clean burn, beeswax became the preferred candle material among Christian churches.  To this day, only pure beeswax candles may be burned at certain services in the Catholic tradition.

During different points in history, somewhat lesser known wax alternatives such as those obtained from bayberry bushes and palm fruit passed in and out of favor, but the most notable changes to the craft and trade of candlemaking (or chandlery; a chandler is a candle maker), arrived around the 18th century, with the use of spermaceti wax, obtained from the blubber of whales during the height of the whaling industry.  Around this same time, a method of extracting and refining a waxy heavy hydrocarbon substance from crude oil was developed, and with paraffin, the modern candle was born.  Paraffin, at the time, seemed to be the answer to candle making; it burned relatively clean as compared to candles made from animal fats, and was cheap to produce, coming from a seemingly endless resource, petroleum.  As the whaling industry finally declined, paraffin replaced spermaceti candles, and enjoyed a 150 year long reign.  However, after the discovery of the electric light bulb in the late 1800s, the candle itself lost favor, and as power lines criss-crossed the countryside, candles were relegated to mere backup sources of light.  It was not until a full century later that the candle experienced an incredible revival, becoming a favored symbol for romance, celebration, elegance and especially, for home décor.

Today, one can find candles in an infinite variety of shapes, colors, scents and sizes.  Pillars, tapers, votives, tea lights, container candles, floating candles, candles with multiple wicks, gel candles, painted candles, carved candles, candles shaped like fruit or food or figurines;  if you can dream it, there’s a candle for it.  Candles bring beauty and glamour to any occasion, but what most people do not realize is the ugly truth hidden behind the magic; modern paraffin candles contain harmful, carcinogenic (meaning, causing cancer) chemicals and contaminants that are vaporized and released into our homes and directly into our lungs every time we burn them.

Aside from being a non-renewable by-product of petroleum, paraffin wax itself is actually not an ideal candle medium.  It is soft, very pliable and burns at a relatively low melting point, making it prone to losing its shape.  It is only with modification by other petrochemicals and solvents such as copolymers, microcrystalline wax and polyethylene that the ideal properties are achieved, and which are probably relatively inert as long as, ironically, the candle is never burned.  Upon lighting a candle, however, the wax becomes a liquefied hazardous fuel which is then only partially consumed by the flame at the end of a wick.  The remaining unburned additives are vaporized and unleashed into the air of the surrounding environment, and those compounds which are not immediately breathed in by nearby inhabitants then settle into fabrics, textiles, onto walls, into heating ducts and other surfaces in the form of soot.  This soot, according to the American Lung Association, contains 11 documented toxins, two of which are known carcinogens—toluene and benzene.  Furthermore, the actual colorants and synthetic fragrances used to make most candles more appealing are also made from petrochemicals, coal tars and synthetic chemicals that create even more contaminants in the air.

Pretty scary stuff, I know.  But don’t give up your candle habit just yet.  The good news is that there are wonderful, natural, healthier and greener alternatives out there, and I’m going to break down the options for you, so that you can make more informed purchasing and candle burning choices.

The Break Down:  What is a Candle?

Essentially, a candle consists of only two parts: Wax (the fuel) and Wick (an absorbent string of plant fiber).  Yet the art and science of making these two aspects work in perfect harmony to create a controlled and predictable consumption of energy (flame) is where all the magic really happens.  There is a delicate balance, a beautifully choreographed dance, all orchestrated by the chandler, who must create the optimum delivery of fuel to flame.  Too small a wick to too much wax results in a drowned wick, while too large a wick to too small a candle diameter will wreak smoky, sooty havoc, no matter how clean the wax or fuel.  Other factors, such as added color and scent, also affect a candle.  Despite what most home candle making kits would lead us to believe, merely dipping a bit of random wicking into wax will produce a candle by the strictest definition of the word, but to have it burn properly and efficiently is the challenge.  Though a candle, in the strictest sense of the word, can be as uncomplicated as a fish on a stick, the art of and science of making modern candles is a truly complex and fascinating craft due to the seemingly limitless options considering the simplicity of their components.  Which wax to use?  How large a wick?  What type?  And will the candle be scented?  Will it be colored?  Every single variation changes the dynamics of the whole.

Waxing Poetic: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Which wax to choose?  Waxes can be derived from animal fats, plants and even minerals.  The most readily available wax is paraffin, which of course is a petroleum byproduct and is neither renewable nor sustainable.  Therefore, if you care about the health of people and our planet, you’ll want to choose a wax that is sustainable, renewable, and burns cleanly.  And this narrows the choices considerably.

Beeswax: The purest, cleanest candles are made from beeswax, period. Beeswax requires no refinement or modification other than simple filtering, and is a renewable resource as long as we still have bees around.  Natural beeswax is golden in color and emits a gentle, sweet, honey-like scent.  There are refined, de-scented and bleached versions of beeswax for those who wish to color and add their own scents to candles, but I feel that this defeats the purpose of using beeswax.  If you decide to go with beeswax candles, be aware that beeswax is somewhat costly, and certified organic beeswax is very expensive and can be hard to come by, though it is the only option to have a truly organic candle at this time.  Beeswax is a semi hard, long-burning, high-temperature wax which complements nearly any décor and occasion. When purchasing beeswax candles, look for rich, golden color and for the characteristic honey scent.  Be aware that beeswax is not considered vegan; bees are not necessarily harmed or killed in order to obtain the wax, but most strict vegans eschew the use of any byproduct of animals or insects.

Bayberry: Bayberry wax can be obtained by boiling the leaves of the bayberry bush, and actually enjoyed a brief period of popularity in candlemaking during the colonial era in the New World.  Bayberry wax is a totally natural, clean burning, vegan, hard wax from a renewable resource and bears a wonderful semi-sweet, eucalyptus-like scent, but it is difficult to extract and consequently very expensive due to the small amount of wax yielded in processing, limiting its commercial viability.  Therefore, bayberry candles are usually made by small artisans and handcrafters, especially in the New England region. Bayberry wax is grayish green in color and, because of its natural aroma, limits scent and coloring options in candles.

Palm: Palm wax comes from the fruit (coconuts) of the oil palm and is a naturally derived (though refined), vegan, hard wax from a technically renewable resource, however—and this is a big however—the wax comes at a high environmental cost due to commercial plantations of oil palms being planted after the clearing of vital and irreplaceable rainforests of Southeast Asia. If you choose to use palm wax candles, try to make sure they are made from certified organic and fair trade crops, which are usually grown responsibly and sustainably upon established plantations, rather than freshly cleared tracts of virgin rainforests.

Soy Wax: And now we come to my personal vegetable wax favorite.  Soy wax is arguably the greatest innovation to come to candlemaking in the last two centuries.  Although this wax is not naturally occurring and requires some processing with human help, its commercial viability and relatively low environmental impact far outweigh any drawbacks.  Soy wax is a vegan, clean burning, non-toxic wax created from hydrogenated soybean oil, and sometimes is blended with other natural vegetable waxes and oils, depending on the manufacturer.  It accepts color and scent well, burns at low temperatures and has the added benefit of being biodegradable.  Most soy wax is so inert, technically, we could eat it, though of course this is not recommended.  If there’s an accidental spill of wax from a soy candle, cleanup is a mere matter of hot water and soap.  It is important to note that, though soy wax can be made from certified organic soybean oil, the process of hydrogenation disqualifies the finished soy wax product for organic certification, so despite claims made otherwise, there is currently no such thing as certified organic soy wax candles.  The soy wax we use at WoodSprite is made from non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) soybean oil and is grown without pesticides or herbicides right here in the good ol’ USA, so it supports our farmers and also requires less energy in shipping.

Wicked Good

To the uninitiated, a wick seems like a fairly straightforward device in the form of a simple bit of string, but modern wicking is available in a staggering variety of materials, styles and forms with a different purpose for each.  For those looking for a healthy, greener wick, however, the best choices are unbleached cotton or hemp.

Cotton: Ordinary cotton is the most common wick material, because it is soft, absorbent and abundantly available.  However, cotton is also one of the more heavily polluting conventional crops in the world, requiring tons and tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides each year.  Furthermore, the process of bleaching the cotton adds more pollution to our fresh water lakes, rivers and streams.  Happily, unbleached cotton wicking is becoming more widely available, though certified organic cotton wicking, which uses fewer or no chemicals in the agricultural process, is so far, difficult if not impossible to find.  Hopefully, as the demand for certified organic crops continues to increase, an organic cotton wick will soon become more widely available.  In the meantime, when looking for cleaner candles, be sure that the wicking material is at least made from unbleached cotton.

Hemp: Sustainable, strong, versatile and quickly renewable, hemp fiber is a wonderful alternative in fabrics, textiles and even wicks.  However, the range and availability of hemp wicking choices is still rather limited, and I find that the quality is not as consistent as with unbleached cotton wicks.  As hemp is recognized for its superiority and becomes more widely commercially available, I think we’ll see more candles using hemp wicks in the future.

Core Values

Some wicks are braided around a stiff strand of metal or fiber, called a core, especially in container or votive candles where the larger pool of liquefied wax is prone to pulling over and drowning the flame.  Many of you may remember hearing about the dangers of lead core wicks in candles several years ago due to the health hazards associated with burning them, so most large candle companies moved to zinc or paper core wicks.  While burning zinc core wicks is less hazardous than those made with lead, I personally believe that any vaporized heavy metal is probably not a good idea to breathe in, so for me the only choice, if you’re going to use a cored wick, are those made with a paper core.

A more recent addition, and my personal preference, is the coreless wick.  These consist of cotton fiber braided with a fine strand of stiffer fiber (usually kraft paper) which gives the wick structure and rigidity while at the same time reducing carbon buildup (known as “mushrooming”) on the flame tip.  These coreless wicks can be used in either container, votive or pillar candles.

Making Good Scents

The popularity of scented candles and more recently, “aromatherapy” candles, has been a huge boon to the candle industry.  Not only do we want our candles to light up our living spaces and special occasions, but the connection between memory and scent makes candles the perfect way to evoke a desired mood or feeling, or simply to make our homes smell good.  However, what few people know is that most scented candles are made from synthetic complex aromatic compounds derived from harmful, sometimes carcinogenic chemicals—some just as hazardous and toxic as those released when burning paraffin.  Furthermore, the term “aromatherapy” has been so widely misused and abused, even fewer consumers have any understanding of what it actually is.

I could easily write an entire book on aromatherapy—and many others already have—but the most important point to know is that the practice and use of aromatherapy is not, in fact, only about aroma (admittedly, the term itself is a part of the problem).  Aromatherapy makes use of the living, healing essences of real plants (in the form of flower, fruit, root, bark or stem), mostly from herbs, in order to heal, support and mend the body through physiological means.  These living essences are extracts called Essential Oils, which is another misnomer because these so-called oils are actually more similar to alcohol (which is also distilled).  These Essential Oils are fragrant, but they are more than just fragrance—carrying with them all the healing properties of the plants from which they are obtained.  Lavender, often used for its clean and calming scent for the mood, is actually also incredibly calming for upset skin, assisting in speedier recovery from traumas such as burns or scrapes, as well as other wounds.  When we burn a candle which is infused with true lavender essential oil, the aromatic aspects as well as the healing chemicals of the lavender plant are released into the air around us, and as we take in its essence through our lungs, upon our skin, into our homes, we are allowing those healing properties to infuse our own bodies. A synthetic replica cannot do this.  Synthetic fragrance oils are chemical aromatic compounds which attempt to mimic the scent of lavender (but can never truly duplicate), but fragrance oils contain none of the other healing properties of lavender.  So often, unwitting consumers who buy a scented candle looking for its aromatherapeutic benefits, instead receive a dose of heavy chemicals which not only do not heal, but actually can harm.

When looking for natural scented candles, always make sure to look for the term “100% Pure Essential Oils” on the label and be aware that these will likely cost more than their chemical candle counterparts.  If a manufacturer is using real Essential Oils, they will be proud to state that fact.  If a label says “fragrance” anywhere on the label, it is most likely synthetic.

One last note on candle scents: Look out for candles being marketed as “triple scented” or other such claims.  Because the amount of scent needed to fragrance any given candle varies so widely depending on multiple factors, there is no such thing as a standard scent ratio or amount—it is ultimately just a matter of preference from one candlemaker to the next.  Terms like “triple scented” are meaningless.

Bliss Sacred Collection Aromatherapy Candle

Bliss Sacred Collection Aromatherapy Candle by WoodSprite Organic Body

True Colors

Another very common factor I see people overlook when considering a natural candle is colorants.  Currently, there are no commercially available, totally natural candle colorants on the market, anywhere.  So, even if you find a candle that is made of beeswax or soy wax, and it has an unbleached, non-metal wick, and it is scented with pure essential oils, if it is a bright lavender color, you may want to keep looking.  That bright color can only come from chemical dyes obtained from coal tars and petroleum distillates, which again, include a number of contaminants which are vaporized and released into the air around you when the candle is burned.

It is possible to color candles by using some natural plants, such as spices and herbs, however, the colors achieved are generally rather earthy in tone (not bright lavender) and often fade quickly when exposed to daylight.  Some essential oils contain a bit of natural color—for instance, Patchouli is a lovely, dark brown, and Sweet Orange is a gorgeous gold—and while I can appreciate the appeal of a bright, rich colored candle, I’ve come to truly love the muted pastel hues that our soy candles take on just from the pure essential oils we use to scent them.

Candle Primer

Finally, I’d just like to take a moment to cover the most standard candle types because it’s a question I’ve been asked many times over my 10 years of candlemaking.

Pillars: Pillar candles are molded or sometime rolled from sheets of a harder wax because they are intended to stand alone and support themselves as they burn down.  Pillars should always be burned on a heat-safe candle plate, but require no further containers or holders.

Tapers: Beautiful, elegant tapers may be dipped or molded, but because of their tall, narrow profile they need to be burned in taper holders.

Votives:  Votives seem to cause the most confusion in the candle world, because they resemble pillars in that they are a molded, yet they are not a standalone candle.  Votives should actually be thought of as a container candle or container refill, because they are designed to liquefy to the edges of the container in which they are held, taking on the shape of that container.  Votives are most efficiently burned in a snugly fitted votive holder or cup which is slightly wider at the top than the bottom, as this will ensure that every bit of wax is consumed and you’ll get the most burn time from your candle.

Containers: Container candles are typically made from a softer wax that is intended to adhere well to the inside of the vessel into which it is directly poured, and like a votive, should create a large liquefied pool of wax fully to the edges of its container.

Tea Lights: Tea lights are also a form of container candle, and like a votive, though they are often molded, must be held within a cup or holder to contain the liquefied wax.

No matter which candle you choose, of course, always, always, always enjoy your candles with safety in mind—never leave a burning candle unattended, keep them away from flammables such as drapery, and out of the reach of children or pets.  Remember to keep your wicks trimmed—wicks that are too long or which have a large buildup of carbon (like a mushroom cap) burn inefficiently and will produce soot or smoke no matter how clean or green the wax used.

–Jacquelyn Ramsey

WoodSprite Organic Body

Pumpkin Chai Organic Olive Oil Soap

Well, the release of our new Pumpkin Chai Collection of organic skin and body care has been an overwhelming success!  We’ve never experienced such a demand for any single product line in such a short time before, in ten full years of business, and all of us here at WoodSprite are very excited and grateful.

With pumpkin season full upon us and the dry autumn air well on its way, I thought this would be a perfect time to introduce a new ongoing column in the WoodSprite Organic Body Blog.  This has actually been something I’ve been wanting to do for some years, now, but the daily demands of running my own business always managed to bump it off my List of Things to Do.  Finally, the stars have smiled upon me and some recent really great questions from our customers prompted me to make it a priority.  Welcome to Notes from a Natural Formulator; I sincerely hope you’ll find what is offered helpful, informative and interesting!

Proof is in the Pumpkin: Why pumpkin is so good for you, inside and out.

Though we tend to think of pumpkins only for carving or baking pie once or twice a year, this humble squash has a lot more to offer us year round than we might first realize.  Pumpkins are nutrition-packed powerhouses; rich in the antioxidants Beta Carotene, Vitamins A, C & E, as well as such other cancer-fighting carotenoids as Lutein and Zeaxanthin.  Pumpkin also boasts B Vitamins, Niacin, Riboflavin, Ascorbic Acid, Potassium and Enzymes, while pumpkin seeds are especially laden with Zinc, a natural sunblock and antioxidant.  Furthermore, the oil obtained by cold-pressing the seeds contains emollient Omega Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), Proteins and Polyunsaturated Fats which protect, moisturize, soothe and help the skin’s own ability to regulate and balance sebum production (the natural oil our skin manufactures to protect and moisturize).

In skin and body care, Pumpkin pulp is wonderfully useful for exfoliating, nourishing and soothing the skin.  Its high Alpha-Hydroxy Acid (AHA) content along with active digestive enzymes makes pumpkin particularly valuable in skin care treatments or facials, being gentler than glycolic peels yet just as effective at doing away with dead skin cells, bringing out a smoother, softer complexion after just one treatment.

You can give yourself a fresh pumpkin facial treatment in the comfort of your own kitchen with only a few ingredients:

  • 3-4 Tablespoons Organic Pumpkin Puree (use small pie or sugar pumpkins, halve and remove seeds, bake cut-side down for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees or until tender, cool, scoop out from skins and puree pulp in blender or food processor until smooth) or Canned Organic Pumpkin Puree.
  • 1 Tablespoon Organic Whole Milk or Greek Yogurt (Vegans, Use Soy Milk)
  • 1/2 Tablespoon Organic Honey (Vegans, Use Maple Syrup)
  • 2-3 Tablespoons Organic Raw Cane Sugar (Optional–For Making Exfoliating Scrub)

Instructions: Combine Pumpkin Puree, Milk or Yogurt and Honey until smooth.  Warm gently over low heat or briefly pop into microwave for best results.  Smooth over face, carefully avoiding eye area, then recline and relax for about 15 minutes.  Rinse thoroughly with warm water, then follow with your favorite moisturizer if needed.  For exfoliating scrub, add Organic Sugar and gently massage onto skin in circular patterns.  Let set for a few minutes, rinse and moisturize as needed.  Seal and refrigerate any leftovers; compost after 2 days.

How it works: The pumpkin puree nourishes and soothes the skin while active digestive enzymes work to dissolve dead skin cells.  The milk or yogurt also contains natural lactic acids, which also dissolve dead cells.  The honey is a natural antibacterial and humectant (meaning that it pulls moisture from the air), moisturizing and imparting valuable vitamins to the skin.  If you opt for the sugar version, you’ll gain extra exfoliation while the sugar boosts the natural mild alpha-hydroxy acids in the pumpkin puree, resulting in smoother, softer skin instantly.

Of course, you could just save the pumpkin for baking pies and buy our Pumpkin Chai Nourishing Organic Facial Masque instead.  Either way, you’ll love the beautiful, soft glow that pumpkin brings to your skin!

©2009 WoodSprite Organic Body – All Rights Reserved

For quite some time, folks have been asking me to start a blog about my organic spa and body products, and though I was flattered, I really didn’t think there would be enough for me to write about on a regular basis.  Mostly, my day-to-day efforts are focused on running my business, dreaming of new products to make, trying to live as fully as possible while leaving as small an environmental footprint as possible, and trying to squeeze some traveling in here or there.  In a nutshell, I’m probably kinda boring.  And although my ongoing passion for creating and formulating new and fun products for my company is certainly fascinating enough to me, I wasn’t sure anybody out in the real world would want to hear about it.

Slowly, though, I began compiling little notes about the questions I receive over and over…mostly from customers, many of them from my own workers, friends and family.  The growing trend to “go green” has brought with it more new companies and products trying to capitalize on the trend than ever.  With them comes more competition, yes, but also a lot more confusion for the general public who are, perhaps in varying degrees, just getting used to the idea and are trying to untangle the truth from all of that marketing hype.  Magazines and news media have jumped on the bandwagon, trying to give “green tips” and feature “green products”, but I often see them, in their zest to inform but limited time for research, relaying a lot of misinformation and perpetuating a lot of the confusion.  If the reporters don’t understand the differences between “organic”, “natural”, “certified organic”, “wildcrafted”, “fair trade” and “all natural” (indeed–not many of us do), how can they educate their readers and viewers in the concept?

And so, I decided that I would just start talking with you about what I know.  If it’s not of interest to you, then you don’t have to read it, right?  But if some of you are curious about how I formulate my products, how I choose ingredients, what “natural” truly means, how the organic certification process works (as we at WoodSprite go through it ourselves) why I have such a passionate commitment to my definition of purity, environmental topics as well as some fun things like polls, advance peeks at new products and ideas we’re working on, green living tips and heck–what’s the world without recipes–a recipe or two, then I will do my best to make it worth your while.

One of the ongoing features of the blog will be a daily tip about how to make life just a little greener in small and large ways.  It’s called “365 Ways to Live Earth Day, Everyday” and I hope you find it fun and helpful.

Today’s Way:  New Life for an Old Phone…I’ve had a few friends mention that they need a new cell or cordless phone because they’ll no longer hold a charge.  But there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater (or the phone into the landfill); you can find a replacement rechargeable battery pack for nearly every model of phone out there at a fraction of the cost of purchasing a new phone.  I’ve found great deals on Amazon and Ebay, for even my ancient phones, at as little as $5 each.  Just remember, when you swap out the old battery, be sure to contact your local recycling authority to arrange for proper disposal or recycling.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing with you next time!

Jacquelyn Ramsey, Founder & President of WoodSprite Organic Body

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