Over at the redesigned Canadian Business, I interview CEO Bill Baker of Consonant about his career move, from advertising exec to non-toxic skincare guru.
I had some extra time yesterday, so I finally made this Chili Lime Tequila Popcorn recipe from 101 Cookbooks that I’d been drooling over for months. It made me miss my dear departed Auntie Zan, who used to make us stovetop popcorn all the time, drenched in butter. I have a fear of deep frying, so I thought it would be hard. Instead, it was incredibly easy. I cheered out loud as the corn bombs rattled off the pot lid, then considered again how foolish most “convenience” food is, and how it isn’t really convenient for anyone but big food companies.
That train of thought was cemented when I idly scrolled through the comments on the recipe, and saw a mention of “popcorn butter lung.” I knew that microwave popcorn tends to be insanely high in trans fats, but until yesterday I didn’t know that a chemical called diacetyl in artificial butter was giving factory workers that make the stuff a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.
I don’t know why this surprises me. I’ve been an advocate of real, fatty food over weird, low-fat food since forever. It seems completely counterintuitive to, for example, add gelatin to make low-fat yogurt creamy when full-fat yogurt is already creamy? But still, the idea that a 44-year-old woman now needs a lung transplant due to popcorn butter…well. It’s an outrage.
After mounthing off about the artificial butter travesty to Le Jenk for a bit, I put the popped corn goodness into a giant paper LCBO bag and head off to see Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m not a cinephile because I have both snobbish and bummer tendencies. I find that most movies fall into two categories: stupid or depressing (with Wes Anderson representing strongly in the latter). Well, Mr. Fox was one of those rare gems that I wholeheartedly enjoyed. It was funny, it was smart, it was awesome to look at, engaging, touching but not heart-wrenching, overall thoroughly enjoyable. It was the best movie to watch on a -20 degree day after sneaking buttery, spicy snacks into an overpriced movie theatre. Do yourself a favour: melt some real butter onto some real popcorn, then go see it, soon.
I’m doing pretty well at avoiding the evil, evil Balsam of Peru, and so my split, stinging finger is much better. If you’re looking to go fragrance-free, here’s what I think about a bunch of stuff. If you’ve got any to recommend, please do, I’m always looking.
Avalon Organics Olive & Grape Seed Conditioner: Didn’t do much for my hair, left the ends pretty dry. Wouldn’t use it again.
Clinique Comfort on Call Face Cream: Clinique toiletries do have some questionable chemicals in them, unfortch, but they’re affordable-ish and always scent-free. Both this and the Redness Solutions line work really, really well for me, better than most things I’ve tried. I’m loathe to give them up, so instead I sent the company an email to ask if product colouring is really necessary, since that’s largely what gives them a moderate toxicity rating. Stay tuned.
Jonathan Green Rootine Dry Brush on Hair Powder: The people at Jonathan should really read their Sephora reviews, because the package this stuff comes in sucks. It does not work, so save yourself the trouble of bashing your skull repeatedly with the useless brush. Instead, unscrew the bottom and gently tap about 3/4 of a tablespoon into your hand. Replace the cap immediately, or you’ll dump the whole thing down the sink, guaranteed, and the bottle lasts eight uses, max. Price and crappy design aside, I love this stuff. The actual powder works really well, and I could not get through a week of 7 a.m. shifts without it, although you will have to do two “real” shampoo latherings to get it out. Please let me know if you are going to the U.S. and can buy me a few of these at $13 USD, rather than $20 CAD. Thanks.
Nature Clean Unscented Dishwashing Liquid: Suds up nicely, does a great job. A winner.
Nature Clean Unscented Herbal Shampoo: It’s ok. Not quite tough enough when I’ve been dousing my head with dry shampoo, and sometimes I could use a little more volume. I’ll probably try another kind next time, but I bet this would be a great kids’ shampoo. Aside from fragrance, it’s also free of SLS, propylene glycol and other gross weird stuff we probably shouldn’t absorb through our skin every day.
Nature’s Gate Fragrance-Free Moisturizing Lotion for Sensitive Skin: This is a decent mid-weight body cream. My skin can get pretty dry in the winter, so I personally need something richer at this time of year, but I’d buy it again in the summer.
Ren Guerande Salt Exfoliating Body Balm: Although I love exfoliating salts, I never would have bought this pricey stuff myself. Happily, a style writer friend who gets lots of swag passed it along. Yay, friends. It’s awesome, and softens things up nicely. It has essential oils, but no Balsam of Peru et al, so smells lovely yet left me rash free. And, the container is giant. Love it.
So another thorn in my eco-conscience is that I can’t compost. I live on the 17th floor (sort of—my building has no official fourth, 13th or 14th floor, which is very accommodating to various superstitions, but kind of confusing) with no balcony, in 670 square feet that I share with Le Jenk, his seven fish and large collection of knick knacks. Our building doesn’t do green bins and we do not have the room for a worn composter. Really, we don’t.
It’s super annoying because we don’t make much garbage, and the vast majority of it is compostable. Using cloth bags (or backpacks) for shopping was already a habit before the 5 cent bag tax, and so we’re out of free plastic bags and forced to buy bags for our kitchen garbage. Obviously I’m not going to buy Glad Kitchen Catchers, but every single biodegradable bag I tried ended up leaking pukey-smelling liquid by the time it was full enough to toss.
So, we tried these Seventh Generation bags, which aren’t biodegradable, but are made of recycled plastic. And ta-dah, they don’t leak, even after two weeks of being filled with 35 lbs. of apple cores and parsley stems. I’m glad, because my friend Tay works for them in Vermont, and I was afraid I’d have to talk eco-shit about her boss. Phew.
Apparently Toronto is recycling plastic bags now, so I feel kind of a little better. But really I want a green bin, and a garden, to call my own.
Vanity has precluded such posts until now, but if I’m an experiential expert on anything, it would be the care and maintenance of finicky skin. I’ve had eczema and etc my entire life, tried just about every prescription and over-the-counter cream out there and consulted with a vast array of dermatologists, doctors and alt-health practitioners. I’ve learned quite a lot about the human dermis and I have very strong opinions on what does and doesn’t suck. So, ta-dah, here’s a semi-regular feature, Skinned, on my trials and tribulations with the body’s largest organ.
Today, fragrance. Above, a picture of my scaly, flaking finger. Maybe it doesn’t look that bad, but it’s wretched. For the past three or four months, tiny, insanely itchy little bubbles keep appearing along my finger. They’ll pop, maybe oozing a little thin, clear fluid, before cracking and staying fissured for a few days. It hurts and burns and makes it very hard to cook, which sucks, cause I love cooking.
There are a lot of causes and a lot of treatments, but my most recent enemy is fragrance, after I had a contact allergy patch test courtesy of my very lovely dermatologist, Dr. Sandy Skotnicki-Grant. (I’ve also developed a corticosteroid allergy after smearing the stuff on as treatment since childhood, but that’s another post). Dr. S-G discovered that I’m allergic to something called Balsam of Peru, used as a perfume fixative in just about everything. So now, I have to carry around a nerdy little list when shopping for everything, because like any sneaky chemical, Balsam of Peru has many aliases, like benzaldehyde, benzoate, benzoin and benzylsalicylate, plus diethylstilbestrol and Myroxylon pereirae klotzsch resin, to name a few. It’s not good enough to get products labelled as “unscented,” cause as confirmed by Dr. S-G, those often contain masking scents to drown out the chemical cacophony. Ew.
After a few days of internet research, I’ve come to the conclusion that, as much as I like things that smell pretty, conventional fragrance is pretty freaky. This handy site, Skin Deep, compiles information on cosmetic toxins from various international sources, instead of relying on the good old U.S. FDA. Let’s take a random look at a perfume I like to smell, say SJP Lovely. It rates an 8 out of 10 on the Skin Deep toxicity scale. One of its ingredients, isoeugenol, is related to Balsam of Peru. It’s also apparently a “known human immune system toxicant” making it a “banned and restricted fragrance” in the EU. It’s been shown to cause cell mutations in lab tests (i.e. it could cause tumors) as well as brain and nervous system effects in moderate doses. And, yes indeed, it’s often a skin irritant at low doses. Isoeugenol is out.
What’s creepy and fascinating is how many different chemicals I touch every day. Most of my personal care stuff was already pretty benign, but even after a full sweep post patch test, I still had the Snake Finger. About a month ago, my skin mysteriously cleared up – it took me days to realize that I’d had a weekend away and hadn’t washed dishes. I started using gloves at home and indeed, the finger is much better. But I’m still getting fragrance-free dish detergent next round, cause citrus scents can apparently react with air to become formaldehyde (another chemical I’ll be hating on later). Then I was up in cottage country last week and realized within an hour that a) I’d forgotten my gloves and b) I was allergic to my host’s Jergens hand soap. What a delicate creature I am.
Another frustration is finding fragrance-free products that are also clear of yucky parabens, SLS, glycols and other suspected endocrine disruptors and carcinogens AND still moisturize the way I want them to. I’ve had some lucky with a body lotion from local outfit Consonant, but have yet to find any face stuff I really love. Send suggestions, and stay tuned.
Right, so, I don’t know what happened but a few weeks ago I noticed that my nominally lustrous black locks were more like stringy, knotted black wires. There was one spot particularly, near the lower right part of my head, that was just constantly gnarled up. This hurt my ego, but not more than the thought of a salon oil treatment hurt my financial conscience. It was, as Bone Thugs n Harmony so eloquently sang, the first of the month. Or wait, was that song supposed to be happy, re: welfare cheques? I dunno. Either way, it was near mortgage time for me and therefore I needed a cheap hair fix.
Going on advice from Tasia, who often goes unheralded for the many ideas of hers that I’ve borrowed, I mashed up an avocado with 1/3 cup of mayonnaise and slopped it onto my head. Then I sat around for two hours smelling like a sandwich and wishing I could have instead eaten the avocado-mayo combo with chips. Then I washed it out, but not well enough. My dry head went from zero to 100, and for a whole day, I had insanely, beyond oilslick, greasy, lank hair. I felt desperate. I felt embarassed, because I didn’t have time to wash it again and I had to go out that evening and pretend that I didn’t notice the seal sitting on my head. I felt meaningless and vain, but also sad, because my hair sucked.
Then I washed it again the next morning and guess what? My hair was (cue advertising voice) noticeably softer and shinier. I’ve also started doing that old Seventeen magazine trick, rinsing with ice cold water before getting out of the shower, which also really adds some gleam and bounce. I’m much happier with my locks and even got a compliment on the weekend. I’ll point out here that this solution is free of weird chemicals we should all be avoiding, like parabens, pthalates, SLS and propylene glycol. So all in all, a win. Go to it, sandwich head.