Product decisions: BUY or DIY?

When switching away from toxic products, you can buy safer products or go the DIY route. In my years of doing both, I’ve found that some products are better suited for DIY projects and some you’re just better off buying from a company.

The determining factors that I use are product quality (how well it works), time investment to make it, and the cost of purchasing the different ingredients to make something good.

Here is, in my opinion, how different personal care items rank:

Soap: BUY

Homemade soap is awesome; my sister makes her own soap. However, there are risks with using lye, an unavoidable part of soap making, and from watching my sister make soap, there seems to be a heavy time and money investment. If you want a new hobby or a DIY project, time and money not a problem, then soap making could be a fun endeavor. However, if you just want a simple non-toxic soap to use, I suggest just buying one – there are lots of options on the market today.

Hair styling products: BUY

Some might disagree, but I feel like DIY styling products are difficult. Especially when it comes to gels, creams, and volume sprays. I like doing DIY sea salt spray, but that’s only after I got real ocean water from Hawaii. If I didn’t have that, I’d never make it myself.

Shampoo/condition: BUY

Same as above, it’s hard to get the product just right the way professionals do. DIY conditioner is great for moisture, but it’s not going to wash out fully. Professional conditioners are meant to be rinsed out without leftover residue. Same goes with shampoo unless you’re going really simple and doing an apple cider vinegar wash.

Eyeliner: BUY

I’ve done DIY eyeliner and it’s a huuuge pain in the ass! There are recipes for simple ones, but they never work. The only thing close to a good one will be with oils, beeswax, black oxide, and the right supplies. I think they have special molds you can get now, but when I did it, it was a slow and patience-testing process of dripping the mixture into an empty pencil casing. It was messy and took about 5 hours. Some of my pencils worked pretty well, but it takes time to get the recipe just right and you really need all the different ingredients and supplies to do it right. I say, just skip it and buy it unless you’re looking for a challenge and time is not a constraint!

Sunscreen: BUY

Don’t mess around with this kind of stuff, just buy it. I add oils with natural SPF to my moisturizers for everyday use, but if I’m slathering up to be in the sun (like going to the beach), I just use the professional product.

Deodorant: BUY

I guess you can make this, the ingredients are pretty simple, and there’s plenty of recipes out there. But after trying the DIY route myself, I found that buying from a company was just easier and better.

Shaving gel/soap: BUY

I found it easier to just buy something made for shaving, especially since I have sensitive skin. Homemade ones run the risk of not providing enough moisture to the area or creating an imbalanced product, leading to clogged razors and an unsmooth surface to run the blade over.

Toothpaste: BUY

Just buy it. That’s it.

Face wash: DIY or BUY

Depending on how you like to wash your face it can be fun to make a DIY project out of it or it can be easier to just buy something. I tend to be on the buying side for this one. But many people like doing the oil cleansing method. For face treatments and masques, I recommend just doing DIY. It can be fun and there’re some awesome recipes out there using household items and food.

Eye shadow: DIY or BUY

Depending on what you like, it can be fun to experiment with making your own mineral eye shadow. I’ve had difficulty getting pressed ones to come out right, but I’ve had success with creating heavy powders (with a few drops of oil). Micas and oxides are cheap, as are the other ingredients you might need, like kaolin clay or liquid glycerin. Just be careful working with loose powders – I always use a simple mask when I mix eye shadow.

Clay face masks: DIY

Clay is not expensive. It takes a little time and effort to get a smooth clay mixture, but nothing too intensive. You can customize adding oils and other ingredients depending on your needs.

Moisturizers: DIY               (lotion: BUY)

If you like simple body oils and butters, just mix your own. It’s not a huge investment to buy a few different oils and butters, and those supplies last a decent amount of time. Professional ones can be pricey for what they are sometimes, so I suggest if you do want to buy a body oil or butter, check the ingredients to ensure that you’re actually getting a product that is much more complex than anything you’d want to make at home.

One exception to the DIY recommendation is if you’re hesitant about using or investing the money in essential oils but love fragranced body moisturizers.

For lotion specifically, I recommend buying since it can be tricky to get the consistency just right and you need more ingredients.

Sugar scrubs: DIY

It’s literally just sugar and oil/butter – super easy to make and you can customize it depending on the sugar you buy and the oils/butters you want to use.


If anything is missing from this list and you’re curious my stance on it, please contact me or comment on this post!

The Aral Sea Crisis: Human-Nature Coupled System Case Study

In my recent post about the ecological impact of cotton, I mentioned the disaster of the Aral Sea. This post takes a closer look at this situation, as a case study of a human-nature coupled system.

First off, a human-nature coupled system, or a coupled human-environment system, is an analytical framework to understand the complex interactions between society and our environment. After learning about the Aral Sea as a case study of this, I think you’ll have a solid understanding of what this means.


The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest fresh water lake in the world, but now it’s mostly disappeared and the remaining water has turned salty.

The Aral Sea – once a booming fishing industry

This was caused by massive and inefficient irrigation systems for cotton cultivation, which diverted water from the rivers feeding the Aral, reducing the inflow of fresh water. Before the Russian Empire, and later the USSR, decided to make cotton a primary crop in the region, the sea supported a huge fishing industry. As the water turned salty and disappeared, fish populations dropped and previously coastal towns found themselves in the middle of a desert.

The geography of the region was originally a landscape of desert, semi-desert, dry steppes, and high mountains. The Aral Sea was surrounded by two large deserts, and was considered an oasis of the region. The lake was fed by rivers flowing from high mountain glaciers. The sea had many islands scattered about, with lagoons and shallow straits, which provided a healthy ecosystem for many plants and animals.

Abandon fishing boats in the desert that used to be water.

The Russian Empire, starting in the 1700s, conquered this region of Central Asia and it was fully part of Russia by the 1900s. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the region divided into five newly independent nations. This was jarring and the states had a difficult time adjusting to the loss of overarching infrastructure and control.

Currently, what is left of the Aral Sea spans Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but the Aral Sea Basin also includes parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

The Aral Sea Crisis:

The desiccation of the Aral Sea has profound social, economic, environmental, and public health ramifications in the region. There is a vast amount of literature on the Aral Sea crisis, and if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I have resources at the end.

Stranded ships – Image by © Daniel Kreher/imageBROKER/Corbis

Here, I’m going to give you a condensed and visual representation of this crisis as a case study of human-nature coupled systems. The underpinning issue of this case study is that cotton production, which plays a major role in our consumerist society, requiring massive toxic chemicals, was the primary driver in this crisis. Considerations for environmental and human health were secondary to economic gains for monocropping cotton in terms of policy and planning.

For more information check out some of these sources:

LiveEarthDotOrg – Aral Sea Documentary (Youtube video 10 mins)

We are Water Foundation – Aral. The Lost Sea by Isabel Coixet (Youtube video 25 mins)

AJ+ Docs – The Salton Sea is Shrinking and Exposing Toxic Dust (youtube video 10 mins)

Aljazeera World – People of the Lake (article and 45 minute video)

Aljazeera – Uzbekistan: A dying sea, mafia rule, and toxic fish (news article)

United Nations Environment Program: The Future of the Aral Sea lies in Transboundary Cooperation

Karakalpak Center for Reproductive Health and Environment – Health and Ecological Consequences of the Aral Sea Crisis

Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health – The Aral Sea Environmental Health Crisis

ScienceDirect Journal of Eurasian Studies – Nature-Society Linkages in the Aral Sea Region



Ditch your Baby Powder and use totally tubular Arrowroot Powder

Tubular is slang for awesome or cool, originating in Southern California during the 1970s/1980s. A Tuber is also a root vegetable. Like a potato.

I think many of us grew up with that smooth blue-tinged bottle of baby powder sitting on our bathroom shelf. It was a staple in my house, for our bums as babies, for sweaty feet, and for awkwardly chafing teenage thighs. Have you ever stopped to think about what is actually in that miracle powder? I finally did and now that bottle sits unused, shoved to the back of the closet.

The alternative? ARROWROOT POWDER! It’s amazing and it’s way better than talcum/talc powder*. Here’s the bottom line, and look below this chart for the gritty details.

Talc powder Arrowroot powder
― Mineral that is mined from ore.
― Mining damages ecosystems, and threatens wildlife like India’s tigers.
― Needs to be processed to remove asbestos and contaminants.
― May be linked to cancer if contaminated with asbestos.
― Occupational exposure increases risk of lung cancers and respiratory issues.
― Products contain toxic fillers and fragrance.
― Pro: keeps you dry and chafe-free.
― Plant based.
― Easy to grow and process.
― Simple, no extra chemicals.
― Powder is extracted using traditional low-heat methods.
― Can add your own scent with essential oils easily.
― Pro: keeps you dry and chafe-free.

Why do I love arrowroot powder so much?

It serves the same function as baby powder, but it’s simple, cheaper, and free of fragrance and toxic fillers.

Arrowroot powder is a starchy white powder extracted from the tropical plant species of Maranta arundinacea, originating from South America. Arrowroot is a tuber, similar to potatoes. Arrowroot cultivation dates back to between 8200 BCE and 5600 BCE, making it one of the oldest domesticated crops. Arrowroot plants are hardy, easy to grow, and require few external inputs to grow. From my research, it seems that plants yield a reasonable amount of final product so there is not issue with needing to plant massive crops to keep up with demand. Additionally, I could not find any information about issues concerning energy or toxic chemical use to assist in processing. On the contrary, it seems that arrowroot powder is still extracted using traditional low-heat methods, making it a pretty sustainable alternative to baby powder.

Old timey plant biology diagram of Arrowroot.

I read in a few places that sometimes arrowroot powder is combined with potato starch and marketed as simply arrowroot powder, but I’m skeptical of these claims given regulations on food labels and my inability to find concrete evidence of this practice. I will continue to look into this.

Arrowroot is used not just for personal care products, but it’s also a common replacement for cornstarch in foods (it’s gluten free). It’s a popular thickener for jams, soups, and sauces.

Where can you buy arrowroot powder? Literally everywhere! I buy mine in bulk at PCC Natural Markets, but Bob’s Red Mill makes some and their products are sold in the baking aisle of most grocery stores. You can also find it on Amazon, Vitacost, and other online stores.

Arrowroot is so much more interesting because it’s so simple:

Baby powder appeals to some people because of the fragrance, but as we learned in previous posts fragrance is something to avoid in personal care products. If you want a nice body powder with a fragrance, you can easily buy essential oils, botanical fragrance oils, and extracts to add to your arrowroot powder. You have flexibility to choose your own scent – you’re no longer constrained by the marketing gods of Johnson & Johnson!

DIY projects for all-over body powders are becoming more popular and arrowroot is a great base for these. You can add cocoa powder, cinnamon, and micas to give your powder some color or shimmer. I like adding citrus essential oils and a light silver mica to my body powder during the summer.

Then, if you’re feeling really adventurous and DIYing it up, you can even grow arrowroot plants and make your own powder! Here are a couple resources I found about this:


The problem with talc:

Talc ore is the softest mineral in the world, composed primarily of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. As an ore, it contains asbestos. Commercially sold talcum powder is supposed to be asbestos free, but the risk of contamination is a concern. A study in 2011 found that approximately 60% of baby powder in Korea contained asbestos. Multiple agencies, including the EPA and the NTPˆ consider asbestos a known human carcinogen. That means it’s linked to cancers, primarily lung and ovarian cancer.

The cancer risk of talc powder is unclear, with many agencies suggesting that asbestos in talc is not a big concern. Maybe that’s true? I don’t know for sure, and they are still conducting tests on this issue. But, do you really love your baby powder that much to risk the possibility if there’s a perfectly good alternative?

The possible link between baby powder and ovarian cancer gained widespread media attention last year when Johnson & Johnson lost three court cases over the issue starting in 2014. Some new research indicated a link between talc-containing baby powders and ovarian cancer. The data was not 100% conclusive, but it was enough to raise suspicions and concern.

Risk of contamination was significant enough to cause the European Commission to restrict the use of talc in consumer products.

Additionally, there is concern over the ecological impact of mining and the health risk to miners and factory workers in processing plants. Talc powder is a possible occupational hazard linked to lung irritation, respiratory problems, and cancer.

Another alternative to baby powder is cornstarch. It’s simple and affordable, although corn has it’s own plethora of issues being a major industrial monocrop. Partly for those reasons, and because I just like doing the different thing, I’ve always been a huge fan of arrowroot powder.


Safety note: It’s always important to be careful when handling any loose powder that has a chance of floating all over. I use a mask when handling my mineral cosmetics and mixing powders.

*Talc has many applications, and some might be just fine, but I’m focusing specifically on personal care products here.



ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.

Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives…Unfortunately…

Cotton Facts:

  • Cotton is the biggest non-food agricultural crop in the world.
  • It uses 11% of the entire world’s pesticides.
  • In developing nations specifically, 50% of pesticides go towards cotton.
  • It uses 24% of world’s insecticides (a form of pesticide).
  • 220 million Metric tons of CO2 are released each year from global cotton production.
  • It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one t-shirt.

Cotton is everywhere. It’s in our clothing, our furniture, our bedding, our food (cottonseed oil/cellulose), and even our money! However, cotton has a dark side – it’s massively resource intensive and an environmentally destructive crop. The exact impacts vary among countries, growing practices, and conventional vs organic cotton.

The problems with cotton in general are very simple:

  • It uses tons of pesticidesˆ, fertilizers, and other toxic chemicals.
  • It’s immensely water intensive to grow and process into final products.
  • Plus, heavy use of chemicals leads to lots of water contamination.
  • As an industrial monocropˆ it degrades the soil, reduces biodiversity, and replaces wildlife habitats.

Pesticides and toxic chemicals:

Cotton is a chemically intensive crop all along its supply chain from the field to the store shelf. These include pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, defoliants, dyes, and other toxic chemicals used in manufacturing.

Pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides are used heavily to protect cotton from pests like the bollworm, and weeds. Additionally, monocropping leads to an increased need for pesticides because it disrupts normal and healthy ecosystem function. Crop rotation and co-planting are farming methods designed to preserve ecosystem health; isolating large acres of a single crop leads to greater problems with pests and soil degradation. Pesticides and related chemicals are harmful to human health and our ecosystems. These chemicals contaminate the broader environment through runoff and by seeping into soil, sometimes reaching deep aquifers.

Defoliants are chemicals used to help leaves fall off plants; for cotton, this makes it easier to pick. Agent Orange is a well-known chemical defoliant, which gained recognition during the Vietnam War due to its prolific use by the US military and the subsequent injury to humans and damage to ecosystems.

Cotton also requires high amounts of fertilizers, primarily nitrogen-based synthetic ones. These fertilizers contribute significantly to emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O)ˆ, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Water Pollution by Textile Industry in Tirupur, India.

Dying cotton is the most chemically intensive step in the processing of cotton into final products like clothing. Conventional cotton products use extremely toxic dyes, plus bleaching agents, wetting agents, industrial detergents, softeners, and salts. Consequently, textile manufacturing produces large quantities of wastewater that contaminates surrounding rivers and lakes with all of those toxic chemicals.

Water use:

To make one T-shirt uses an amount of water equal to what a person drinks over the course of 2.5 years. Cotton irrigation systems are an inefficient use of water, as is the case with all industrial agriculture. Diverting water from nearby lakes and streams to irrigate crops results in lost water during transport and reduces the availability of fresh drinking water.

The disappearing Aral Sea in 1970 compared to 2014.

The case of the Aral Sea disaster is one of the best examples of cotton’s environmental impact. Once the fourth largest freshwater lake, the Aral Sea was drained to near extinction to irrigate cotton crops. During the 1950s, it supported a booming fishing industry, providing livelihood and employment for thousands of people. It was considered an oasis in central Asia, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Now, it is an arid desert where communities struggle.

Soil erosion and destruction of habitat:

Cotton is a monocrop and it takes up vast quantities of space. Reduced fallow time between growing has led to soil degradation, increasing the need for fertilizers. After almost a century of heavy use, many established cotton fields are thoroughly exhausted, forcing expansion of agricultural land into surrounding habitat. This destroys vital habitat for wildlife.

Please read my follow-up post that discusses alternatives to conventional cotton.


ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.

Imperfect alternatives to conventional cotton (follow-up post)

This is a follow-up to the my post about the environmental impacts of cotton.

There are a few alternatives to conventionally grown cotton, the obvious one being organic cotton. World Wildlife Fund launched the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) with support from Ikea to encourage better practices of cotton production. BCI has gained wide support and has been successful in reducing pesticide use and water consumption. BCI works with farmers and other stakeholders to implement new irrigation technologies and more eco-friendly cultivation methods. In Pakistan, farmers have reduced their water use by 39%, which significantly lessens cotton’s impact on the Indus River.

Hemp and bamboo are other common alternatives to cotton, but as with all textiles, they do come with their own sets of problems. Both are quick growing and less resource intensive than cotton. Hemp needs virtually no pesticides or chemicals to grow and uses half the water cotton does. Bamboo is also less water intensive, grows amazingly fast, and doesn’t need pesticides to grow either. In terms of growing these crops, they are better than cotton. However, processing methods for these materials can be energy intensive, expensive, and sometimes require harsh chemicals. Well, nothing is perfect. I know it’s frustrating, but we do need to clothe ourselves, so don’t agonize too much. If we improve processing methods and reduce the toxicity of chemicals in the manufacture of these products, it would significantly reduce the environmental impact of these materials.

The bottom line for shopping is finding materials that are cultivated using ethically and environmentally responsible practices, requiring as little water and pesticides as possible, and processed using relatively few toxic chemicals. Waste management practices of manufacturers also differ significantly, so finding responsible and transparent companies will reduce your environmental impact as well. Ethical shopping can be more expensive, so you really need to strike a balance between your wallet and your conscience. I buy new professional clothing and things like underwear and socks, but I also try to buy organic cotton or organic hemp products, and I shop at thrift stores.

Additionally, more companies are starting to sell eco-friendly clothing. Check out companies like Pact Organic and Patagonia.

On a personal note, I’ve found the transition to ethical shopping a bit stressful – greenwashingˆ is a big problem, there are lots of choices, and it’s expensive. The fashion industry has a long way to go in terms of human labor and environmental impacts. Pushing for transparency, ethical practices, and less environmentally intensive technologies is a good start.

I’ll dig into some of the issues and possible solutions more in future posts since it’s a pretty big topic.

ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.