The Upgrade to Homemade: A Look at Making Your Own Toiletries
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
From entire cupboards of hairspray bottles to neatly wrapped boxes of bar soap, the number of cosmetics or toiletries lining the average homeowner’s vanity is substantial, to say the least. But while these products certainly do their job of brightening and whitening, they’re also saturated with chemicals that, once dumped in a trashcan or washed down the drain, eventually make their way deep into the soil and into water bodies and harm the life that resides there. Wanting to learn more about the chemical-free alternatives to some of my favorite personal products, I met with Mrs.Manjula Krishnamurthy (yes, again!) to ask her about her experience with making her own shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, and toothpastes entirely out of edible ingredients. I was awestruck by her choice to pursue a more natural route to cleanliness, and I think it’s safe to say that she had some fascinating stories — and some eye-opening advice — to share.
The Why: Tossing Chemicals for Good
It can be nothing short of daunting to make the switch from the synthetic products that fill the shelves of your local mall to more natural products that could otherwise easily be found in your everyday salad. For Mrs.Krishnamurthy, however, the change didn’t take a second thought. When I asked her what inspired her to harness nature’s ingredients for self-care, I was surprised to learn that as a child growing up in rural India, she regularly used natural substances to brush her teeth and clean her scalp. She said that Albizia amara, commonly called the Bitter Albizia, was just one of them:
Before coming to the United States, I hadn’t used shampoos. Instead I used a green leaf, Albizia amara, that grows in the mountains. When I was growing up, everybody used that. Mix it with some other ingredients, like fenugreek, and it forms a nice green substance. Take that mixture and rub it on your scalp and your hair. It doesn’t foam up like how shampoo foams up, but it increases in volume. It becomes lighter and airy, thereby taking all of the oil out of your hair. It leaves your scalp so clean. It has a very natural smell — the smell of leaves, if you will. I’ve never had any problems with it.
It was when she came to the United States that Mrs.Krishnamurthy began a nearly fifteen-year-long period of chemical use. Like most of us, she was enticed by the countless rows of shampoos of every scent and size, minty toothpastes that promised to make anyone’s teeth sparkle, and even perfumes that offered the most exquisite of fragrances. However, two sudden mishaps caused her to toss her toiletries just as quickly as she’d purchased them:
A few years ago, they came up with over-the-counter “24-hour protection” deodorant. When I decided to try it, the lymph nodes under my arms got swollen. [My arms were] hurting so bad! I had to immediately throw my deodorant away.
Another time, I was using shampoo, conditioner, and body wash at the same time just to save time. Those chemicals started reacting together, and I could smell ammonia gas in the shower. My lungs were not breathing at full capacity. I felt the same thing not once or twice, but many, many times when I used these products. These were the main reasons why I decided to quit.
And guess what? She’s never looked back.
The How: Choosing Ingredients That Work
After hearing Mrs.Krishnamurthy’s “why” story, I was immediately enticed. What could she use to maintain her personal hygiene without loading her shopping cart with what advertisements hail as “revolutionary” or “life-changing”? Mrs.Krishnamurthy explained that even though she creates her own products from a variety of ingredients like leaves and oils, her recipe book is constantly growing because certain components aren’t readily available year-round. As a child, for example, she would often clean her teeth either by chewing on the gum arabic tree’s leaves or sugarcane, the latter of which had fibers that rivaled those of a toothbrush. However, because these ingredients aren’t easily accessible in the United States, she’s discovered some equally effective ingredients that make for powerful tooth-whiteners. When she chooses to take the toothpaste route, she often gravitates toward one of her personal favorite recipes, which boasts a tasteful blend of chocolate mint leaves, cloves, and cardamom, among a few other ingredients. On other occasions, she chooses to clean her teeth via a slightly less conventional route:
You don’t need an actual toothbrush to brush your teeth. A lot of times, I just chew on a cardamom, and the pod makes a wonderful brush. You can brush all your teeth using just one cardamom. Cloves are fantastic too. Before I go to bed, I always chew and swallow a clove. Instead of chewing gum, if you can learn to chew on these fibrous things, it’s fantastic. And what’s better than having an edible toothbrush and toothpaste?
An interesting choice! As for hair products, Mrs.Krishnamurthy often plucks leaves from her flourishing garden and grinds them into a cleansing concoction, which, contrary to an ordinary shampoo, opens her lungs to “the freshness of life from outside.” However, she has also experienced success with far simpler — and less time-consuming — alternatives:
Sometimes, I just use plain lemon juice. Sometimes, I soak rice overnight and use the fermented water [in which the rice soaked] for my hair, with a few drops of essential oils. Sometimes, I soak fenugreek seeds and grind them up with a lot of water and a little bit of yogurt. Sometimes, I even put freshly squeezed coconut milk on my scalp. I love it. All [of these] maintain the bacterial and fungal balance in my scalp, which is very important for scalp cleanliness. I haven’t used a shampoo in two years, yet you won’t find dandruff in my hair.
And even her deodorants come in many different forms! Mrs.Krishnamurthy loves blending a fusion that primarily consists of cornstarch, baking soda, and oils such as coconut oil, lavender oil, and tea tree oil, all of which have antibacterial properties. She says that even a mixture as simple as this one offers a pleasing scent without any painful swellings. In other instances, when she doesn’t have her go-to mixture on hand, she often takes a shortcut and wipes her underarms with a cold, wet towel. Because she doesn’t sweat too much, she says that does the trick too!
Thus, despite that Mrs.Krishnamurthy’s choice of ingredients is anything but consistent, there is one thing that she says remains the same no matter what path she takes:
I can eat everything that I put on my body. Your skin absorbs a lot, so why would you put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t ingest?
A valid point, indeed!
The Pros: Performance, Price, and Personalization
Aside from shying away from synthetic toxins, Mrs.Krishnamurthy’s products offer a wide array of other benefits, the main one being efficacy. In fact, Mrs.Krishnamurthy argues that her products are equally, if not more, effective than the ones we can find in the store largely because they encourage the body to function in its natural ways. For example, while store-bought anti-perspirants keep you smelling sweet at the cost of clogging up your pores, homemade deodorants remedy the odor issue without the sacrifice. And as for her shampoos, Mrs.Krishnamurthy says that her self-made scrubs keep her scalp healthier — and her happier! — than the synthetic ones ever did:
I want clean hair and a healthy scalp. I don’t want to be scratching my scalp. That’s it! I started making homemade shampoos because my shampoo was making everything worse. It was giving me dandruff. It made my scalp dry and my hair dry. It stripped out all of the oil from my hair. It was horrible.
Apart from functionality, Mrs.Krishnamurthy highlighted that her products are also far more cost-effective than the more traditional options:
A bottle of shampoo? $5. A bottle of conditioner? Another $5. A bottle of lotion? $10. I can buy a whole gallon of natural oil with that money and use it for two or three years! For hair, most people use shampoo, conditioner, mousse, and some kind of serum. And then for their face, they use some kind of face soap, face scrub, toner, cleanser...you name it. You don’t need all of that! Maybe I have 4 or 5 oils, but that’s it! I love the ease.
While performance and price are certainly great benefits, my personal favorite is customizability. Making your own toiletries enables you to choose exactly what goes in them — and just as importantly, what doesn’t. Mrs.Krishnamurthy highlighted that because everybody's body is different, everybody’s body demands a different form of treatment:
I use coconut oil on my hair or scalp, sesame oil on my face, and castor oil on my lips. But I can’t say that everybody should use a certain oil. I can’t. Naturally, you may be secreting a lot of oil. Just because something goes with my body and skin does not mean that it will go with yours. Even the weather can affect the natural oils secreted by your skin!
The takeaway? Know what your body needs! “Just like you tune a radio, you have to tune your system,” said Mrs.Krishnamurthy. “If you do, your body will thank you.”
Mrs.Krishnamurthy often makes her own body scrubs out of fruits and flowers that she grows in her own garden. Pictured here are three such scrubs: one made of orange peels and palm flowers, one made of lavender, and one made of herbs ranging from marjoram to Thai basil. The soothing scent of these natural cleansers is perhaps their biggest boon.
The Cons: Strong, But Not Strong Enough
Though homemade products can make for fantastic cleansers in ordinary situations, certain circumstances call for stronger synthetic products to scrub the paint off of your skin or the bird poop (yes, bird poop) off of your scalp. Mrs.Krishnamurthy described one such situation in which her son landed in a, well, sticky situation:
One day, [my son] and I were walking outside. Somebody had just filled the gaps in the sidewalk with silicone, and there wasn’t a construction cone. He was a little kid and he fell down. His hair had silicone in it, and I had to take it out. That silicone is a chemical that needs a chemical soap to be removed. In such conditions, you have to use what you have to use. But not on a daily basis! You’re basically scrubbing off your natural oils. You don’t need all of those harsh chemicals.
But even though Mrs.Krishnamurthy doesn’t currently make her own hand soap, one of her childhood stories showed me that even commercial soaps have their limitations:
My dad’s farm is filled with moonflowers, also called Datura. This weed has a bitter fragrance and a bitter taste. One time, my dad was pulling these weeds out of the yard, and he came home and washed his hands with soap. His hands still smelled bitter. So, he washed them again, and again, and again with soap. Then, he sat down to eat rice and yogurt with his hands. And guess what? After washing his hands four or five times, he could still taste the bitterness of the weed. Your hands have all these little lines, and these plants have oil, sticky milk, or resin that they emit. It is extremely difficult to clean every little line in your hand with just plain soap alone.
In the end, it really is a toss-up. Sometimes we need synthetic products to rid our skin of strong toxins, but other times synthetic products themselves aren’t strong enough. Once again, it’s up to you to listen to your body, and to use what it needs most.
The Advice: How to Pursue Nature’s Path
To those of you who are interested in making your own toiletries, Mrs.Krishnamurthy had some words of wisdom to share. For one, she emphasized that homemade products may not work for everyone. Someone who exercises and sweats a lot, for instance, may need something stronger than homemade deodorant to conceal their body odor if they don’t want to shower twice. Mrs.Krishnamurthy generally advises that you are aware of your own body’s needs before you dive into creating your own products:
There’s a lot of research that you have to do. It takes time. You have to constantly be in tune with your body. If your scalp, your underarms, or your skin needs something, listen to it. Know what is good, what is not good, what is poisonous, and what is not poisonous. Even the chemicals in certain plants, when mixed together, could form a poisonous concoction. Know your body, but also know about the plant or oil that you’re putting on it.
As Mrs.Krishnamurthy said, “You don’t want to be your own guinea pig.” I couldn’t agree more.
Even though making your own toiletries has the potential to be a time-intensive ordeal, the end result always pays off: a healthier you, and a cleaner environment! And even though the switch from store-bought to self-made is a large one, Mrs.Krishnamurthy has shown us that the rewards are both nourishing and long-lasting. The best part? All you need is an open mind!
(And, of course, a little bit of nature too.)