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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 (http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/cosmetics/html/consolidated_dir.htm). 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.
Founder & President, WoodSprite Organic Body
June 23, 2010 — Today’s Way: This one may seem overly simple, but there are a lot of folks who don’t give a second thought to this wasteful habit. Instead of relying on electricity to light a room during the day, why not open the curtains and let natural, abundant, free daylight fill your living and working areas? It just doesn’t make good environmental or budgetary sense to keep the house all closed off on a beautiful day, burning up fossil fuels (the source of most of our electrical energy) that contribute to pollution, the destruction of unique ecosystems and of course, global warming. Besides, our bodies need natural daylight; studies show that natural daylight helps to ward off depression and conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So, roll up those shades! Throw open those curtains! And let the sun shine in.
June 22, 2010 — Today’s Way: Okay, I have a very liberal attitude toward wildlife and even insects. I feel that we are all here for a reason, and that we should be able to share this planet as part of a harmonized ecosystem. I do not kill spiders in my house. Instead, I enter them into them into the Witness Relocation Program, and move them safely outdoors. I have been known to relocate many creatures and critters that most other people would think nothing of dispatching, but sometimes, a line is drawn and preemptive action must be taken.
For instance, in the case of yellow jackets building their nest in the gas tank door of my car. Usually, I’d wait until it’s cool and they’re lethargic enough to knock the nest away with a stick, but in the summer, they stay too active to mess with. Rather than using a chemical insecticide sprayer, I have discovered a totally safe and effective alternative. Dish detergent and water. Yup, that’s it. Add about 1 part ordinary liquid dish detergent (or better yet, a nice organic castile liquid soap) to about 10 parts ordinary tap water, mix well, and put into a bottle with a sprayer that can be adjusted to a fine stream. Alternatively, a squirt gun works, too. Good aim is necessary.
My technique follows thusly: Get within a safe but accurate shooting distance, take aim, and fire. Then run away.
Although dish soap is safe for us, it sticks to the insects and disrupts the permeable membranes of their respiratory systems located on the shells of their bodies, killing them quickly. I should point out that this is a very concentrated formula to ensure that dangerous stinging insects are disabled immediately, but it could burn plants if your aim is not on target.
If you want to eliminate other soft bodied pest insects, such as aphids, spider mites, white flies or mealybugs in your garden plants, you will want to use a higher dilution of about 5 tablespoons liquid soap or detergent per gallon of water, and cover the entire plant with the broad mist of the sprayer. This will kill the offending bugs and their eggs. However, once the soap solution dries out or if it is rinsed away by rain, you may need to reapply once or twice to ensure total annihilation. Be sure to rinse the entire plant after about 24 hours. This solution will keep indefinitely, and it is much cheaper and safer for both our health and the health of our planet than the chemical alternatives.
June 21, 2010 — Today’s Way: One of the best things you can do with your kids is to allow and encourage creative time and space for them. Kids love to get their craft on…imagining new purposes for ordinary objects at an early age exercises their fine young minds and helps develop an aptitude for critical thinking. And you know what else? It’s fun!
One of my favorite craft items when I was a kid was the good ol’ ordinary toilet paper tube (along with its brother, the paper towel tube). We used to paint them, bedazzle them, punch patterned holes in them, make them into kaleidoscopes, build castle turrets (on top of cardboard boxes) with them, tape them together to make binoculars, telescopes and periscopes (complete with mirrors), we poured beans into them and sealed the ends to make rattles for our imaginary rock band…you name it, we made it.
Start collecting your tubes now so that, on the next rainy day your children (or nieces or nephews, or grandchildren) are trapped inside, you’ll have a ready stash to repurpose. And get the kids involved, enlist their help to collect the tubes and make a special box for them (a box, by the way, that could also be reused and decorated just for this purpose). Believe me, when they grow up, they won’t remember their score on the video game they always played, but they will remember time well spent with you, creating fun new things out of ordinary objects that would otherwise have gone straight to a landfill or recycle bin.
To get you started, there are several websites with lots and lots of ideas for projects using toilet paper tubes, and here are just a few:
June 20, 2010 — Today’s Way: I’ve talked about lawns and their maintenance demands before in this blog, and that’s because the American Quest For The Perfect Lawn represents a huge chunk of the pollution pie. Inefficient engines on lawn mowers, leaf blowers and weed whackers, extravagant water usage, heavy chemicals in the form of fertilizer and indiscriminate pesticides are just some of the offenders contributing to greenhouse emissions, air pollution, human health problems from chemical exposure and the killing off of beneficial birds and bugs, not to mention global warming. Aside from not having a lawn at all, there are many clever and more Earth-responsible lawn-care alternatives that are every bit as effective as conventional methods.
One excellent alternative to the use of pesticides is beneficial nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic, parasitic worms which live in almost any kind of soil and climate, and feed on grubs and other larvae that live underground for at least part of the life cycle of common insect pests, such as Japanese beetles, gnats, weevils and fleas, yet are completely harmless to humans, animals and plants. There can be thousands of nematodes of many varieties in just one handful of soil, but you can fortify your yard with specific species of nematodes which are known to effectively control specific species of other insects, as well as some types of fungi.
Beneficial nematodes can be purchased in packets which can be stored in a refrigerator until you’re ready to distribute them. Then, simply moisten the nematodes with water and spread over your lawn (or garden) with a watering can or sprayer. You can purchase beneficial nematodes at your local big box home improvement store, or order them online, such as this site.
June 19, 2010 — Today’s Way: Some of us may be surprised to learn that the amount of fuel savings that can be garnered by adjusting your bad driving habits is significant–on average, anywhere from 10% to a whopping 40%–depending on how much of a lead foot you have, that is. If you’re an aggressive driver (come on, you know who you are…punching the gas pedal off the line, accelerating until the very last moment, then using the brakes heavily to slow down, weaving in and out of traffic like you’re Mario Andretti), you’ll see the biggest savings by easing off on acceleration and coasting your way to a gradual stop. For the average driver, simply being more mindful of your pedal pushing can still bring notable fuel and monetary savings over time, as well as less wear and tear on your car. And fuel savings means less use of petroleum, which means less emissions, which means less green house gases, which means less pollution, which means healthier air and a better future for everyone.
June 18, 2010 — Today’s Way: Picnic season is upon us! It’s time to haul out mom’s famous potato salad recipe, and to take pleasure in the flavors of summer with strawberry shortcake, fresh squeezed lemonade and delicious fruit salads. Usually, we pack all of these things up and haul them to the park or the beach or the campground, along with plastic forks, spoons and knives as well as other “disposable” dishes, to be used once and then tossed away and forgotten. The problem with this is, those plastic utensils are going to be sitting in the bowels of some landfill far after memories of that lovely summer meal, and probably even you, are long gone. Another concern is exposure to BPA and other chemicals by eating on or with plastic. The most eco-responsible thing to do is just take your regular utensils with you (or, buying an affordable set from a yard sale or Goodwill store especially for picnics and travel), and take them home and wash them for reuse, but if you’re worried about losing pieces or having to do extra cleaning after the hauling, there is another great alternative. Biodegradable utensils, cups, plates and bowls are made from plant starches and other natural ingredients, and when you’re finished using them, they can either be thrown away and will eventually break down in a landfill, or better yet, some brands are compostable, and completely disappear into organic matter within a matter of months. Most of these plant-based utensils are heat tolerant and microwaveable. Furthermore, there is no worry of chemical exposure to plastics in your food. So, you’ll be able to fully enjoy mom’s potato salad without the guilt of using disposables.
June 17, 2010 — Today’s Way: This one is sooooooo easy, you’ll love it. Get out a tire pressure gauge, check your tires, inflate them to the proper level. This simple bit of maintenance can save you an average of around 10% on your gas budget, and of course, saving fuel helps to save the planet, too.
June 16, 2010–Today’s Way: Have you ever noticed how many roofs are black or a dark shade of brown or gray? The color of one’s roof is something we often might only consider only as a matter of aesthetic concern, yet there are environmental and energy implications that should not be overlooked. When you have a dark colored roof, whether made from shingles or even roof tar on a commercial building, that roof absorbs heat energy from the sun. Think of wearing a black turtleneck in the sultry, August sun…there’s a reason that we tend to wear light colors in the summertime because it helps to deflect heat and keep us cool. If you live in a climate where there is a considerable amount of hot weather, even if for part of the year, it just makes better sense to install a lighter colored roofing material to help deflect some of the sun’s fire, which will result in lower cooling costs and also helps to defend against our planet’s rising temperature. Now, I realize that a roof is something we hope to only have to install or replace a couple of times in a home’s lifetime, but it’s something to consider next time you’re in the market for a roof re-do. It’s really such a small step, and rarely costs much more than an ordinary dark roofing material, but the energy savings make it well worth considering.
June 15, 2010 — Today’s Way: How often do you go to your favorite restaurant, knowing full well that, as usual, you won’t be able to down that triple seafood enchilada, and, not wanting to be wasteful of good food, ask for a box to take the rest home? More often than not, even in this age, that take out box or doggie bag is going to be made of polystyrene foam or plastic, which is still not recyclable in most municipalities, and has a rather unclean production origin. Even if the carton is made of a much more Earth-friendly biodegradable paper fiber (which is better), it’s still going to be likely thrown away or recycled after only one use.
I’d like to propose a better idea. What if you brought your own clean, reusable storage containers with you to the restaurant? Okay, maybe it sounds a little odd to lug your Tupperware to a restaurant, but hey, people used to think that cloth shopping bags were a weird idea, too, and just look at how popular, practical and convenient they are now. What I’ve been doing is popping a couple of my clean reusable containers into a cloth tote and keeping it in the car. That way, next time I find my eyes are bigger than my stomach, I’m able to hand over the containers to my waitperson and, even if they look at me a little sideways, most of the time, they comment on what a good idea it is.
If you really want to do take out in style, you could use these cool stainless steel travel containers, which come in handy for your daily lunches and picnics, too. Best of all, they’re BPA-free and endlessly reusable, then recyclable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WoodSprite Organic Body
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!
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