When you reach out for the most attractively packaged or the most advertised soap / shampoo on the shelf in the store or for the one that promises the most amazing results, stop and think about what it is that you are using so generously on the largest organ in your body, the skin.
A few months back, when my youngest grandchild was born, I was waiting nervously for the appearance of infantile eczema which I have seen in my kids and grandkids. It was at this time that I decided to go back to what we used as children. It was either moong flour with turmeric or the herbal vaasanaippodi , the quintessential bath powder used by generations of South Indians. A traditional, not so glamorous home made powder, but one that definitely played a huge part in the flawless and youthful skin that my mother, her sisters and my grandmother had. Genetics apart, what we use on our skin plays a crucial role in how our skin looks.
This got me looking into the benefits of natural products versus the commercial ones. My mother and aunts, when they were kids, used to go and bathe in the Kavery or near the backyard well. Using turmeric and vaasanaippodi they not only maintained the health of their complexion, they also did not pollute the river waters with any chemicals. And so I decided to go back to my mother’s recipe for vaasanaippodi. Being children of an army officer, we would return from our annual vacation in Srirangam laden with huge amounts of vaasanaippodi, shikakai podi (a herbal shampoo powder) and the like. Having stood us in good stead during our growing years, I figured why not do this for my grandkids now? And so, began my tryst with our traditional beauty aids.
A natural progression took me into making hand made soaps using these powders. Most people miss the convenience of soaps, especially when one travels. The shikakai for instance does a fantastic job of cleaning and conditioning your hair, but lather, not so much.
When I started researching into soap making I realised that we are literally bathing with a whole slew of chemicals. And that is a scary thought. These chemicals essentially strip your skin of valuable oils and then you put on some more chemically laden lotions to add moisture to your skin.
Let us look at the chemicals in most commercial soaps. The most commonly listed ingredient would be stearic acid and sodium tallowate.
Fats and oils rich in stearic acid are more abundant in animal fat (up to 30%) than in vegetable fat (typically less than 5%). The important exceptions are shea butter and cocoa butter which are used minimally, if at all in commercial soaps. So guess what is the source of this ingredient in your soap/shampoo. That’s right. Animal fat, lard and what have you.
If you see sodium tallowate you know that animal fat has been used. And this is the main ingredient in many soaps. This means that the soap is produced from a mixture of animal tallow (about 75 to 85 percent) and oils. Guess what the commercial manufacturers of soap would be using?
We have not even looked at the other chemicals listed on your soap. In addition to this cocktail of chemicals you also have to contend with animal cruelty in getting the tallow which is essentially from kidneys and other organs of slaughtered animals or removed before processing and selling the carcasses. With so many vegetarians and vegans around the world, does anyone stop to think about what they are using on their faces and bodies every day?
So what is the solution? Enter “home-made soaps”. Sodium hydroxide or lye or caustic soda is the only chemical needed to make any kind of home made bar soap and once the lye has reacted with the plant fats and oils, their chemical structures are changed and there’s no harmful residue left, to worry about. This chemical reaction is called saponification. The lye is completely used up and what happens at the end of this chemical reaction is two products glycerin and soap, with no harmful effects from either. Most commercial soap manufacturers will remove the glycerine and sell it separately. But when the glycerine which is a moisturiser is stripped from the soap, it makes the soap more drying.
Hand made soaps are commonly use coconut oil, olive oil, castor oil, canola oil, almond oil among others and many butters like shea butter, cocoa butter etc. Mind you this list is not exhaustive and there are many many vegetable oils and butters which are natural and good for your skin. Making these soaps is not that difficult and just require some time, a fair amount of patience and hitting on the percentage of oils and butters that work for you, by trial and error. The pluses are that you can decide what vegetable oils you want in your soap and personalise it with the herbs and fragrances you want. I make mine with coconut oil, olive oil and castor oil. I also mix in a liberal portion of my vaasanaippodi and turmeric powder in the soaps and shikakai powder in the shampoo bars so I can enjoy the benefit of these handmade herbal powders too. So, the next time you buy soaps and shampoos for your family, check the label for the ingredients before deciding on one.
As a family, we generally use vaasanaippodi and shikakai podi when at home and take the hand made soap / shampoo bar when travelling. And touch wood, my grandchild has not had any infantile eczema as I have been using vaasanaippodi on her since birth.