Nature’s Beauty Kit: Cosmetic Recipes You Can Make at Home (Fulcrum Publishing, 1995) is a slim paperback, 117 pages before its appendices and index, offering an odd assortment of recipes, rituals, and advice. The author, Deb Carpenter, has taught at Oglala Lakota College and scatters some commentary about traditional Lakota beauty care practices throughout the pages of her book; I think this, the effort to collect and share underappreciated American wisdom, is the most interesting aspect of Nature’s Beauty Kit; unfortunately, the effort is unsustained and unorganized, without even an index entry for “Lakota” or “Native American”, so the only way to find the little information that is provided about Lakota practices is to read every page of the book.
The book is arranged as short chapters focused on body parts (Face and Neck; Eyes; Hair; Lips, Teeth, and Mouth; Hands and Nails; Legs and Feet) and on types of preparations (Baths; Lotions; Soaps; Scrubs; Scents; Potpourri and More); the chapters are followed by four appendices (Oils; Herbs; Glossary; Sources) and a short index. All the chapters, whether named for a body part or a cosmetic preparation, contain recipes; some also contain personal anecdotes, advice, and background information on assorted subjects such as the structure of skin and the principles of reflexology.
Some very practical guidance is also offered:
- frequent reminders to always patch test before using a new product, because “natural” does not mean “harmless”;
- repeated (though unexplained) instructions that unused homemade cosmetics must be discarded after a few days (the explanation, of course, being that without preservatives the product will break down and become unpleasant, unusable, and perhaps dangerous, just as any food product would; for additional comments on preservatives, see this issue’s other book review)
- insistence that the best way to make sure the skin receives proper nutrition is to support it from the inside, by eating well, not from the outside, by coating it with lotion
Interspersed with these sensible observations, some practices are suggested which seem bizarre but harmless (chanting while massaging face or feet), and others which are mundane and useless (cider vinegar can rinse away dandruff but can’t eliminate it, since dandruff is caused by a fungus and vinegar is not anti-fungal; castor oil can’t do a thing for liver spots but make them greasy, no matter how often it is applied). Some ideas just don’t make sense: yes, lecithin does contain phosphatidylcholine (the book does not use this grown-up word), material useful for building and repairing cells, but simply adding one tablespoon of liquid lecithin per four ounces of night cream, without careful formulation to create a dispersion or emulsion of small particles, will create nothing but a sticky, expensive, jar of glue (A discussion of the importance of phosphatidylcholine is available in our January 2005 issue). There are also some surprising inconsistencies, suggestions I didn’t expect to find in a book called Nature’s Beauty Kit: add food coloring to bath salts; make liquid soap by melting down bar soap and adding perfume and food coloring.
Other suggestions offered in Nature’s Beauty Kit are possibly dangerous: applying a compress of grated potato to the eyelids is a good way to get food fragments in the eyes, causing infection; dunking one’s face into a bowl of ice water and ice cubes and holding it there as long as possible, four times per morning, certainly should not be attempted by anyone with a weak heart. Other ideas, though well-intentioned, are just false: yes, hair is “more than a fashion”; no, hair is not “a living part of us.” Hair is not alive; it’s the product of a living animal, as milk and perspiration are, and is physically and socially useful to that animal just as milk and perspiration are, but is not itself alive. Living cells contain DNA; hair does not. Hair follicles are alive, and the scalp in which hair follicles are supported is alive; hair, while interesting, important, sometimes problematic, and often beautiful, is not “a living part of us.”
I think the most serious deficiency of Nature’s Beauty Kit is that it offers many instructions but few explanations. For example, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), to which reactions are often as severe as to poison ivy and poison oak, is listed as a key ingredient in many hair-related preparations. Why, and why would anyone follow Carpenter’s instructions about handling it (wearing heavy gloves, so as to avoid the plant’s tiny hypodermic needles and plentiful formic acid) as the dangerous material it is, and then proceed to apply this material to their own skin? There are, of course, many resources available which explain the structure and traditional uses of Urtica and other botanicals; one such resource, based on Grieve’s 1931 A Modern Herbal, is the subject of another review in this issue. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in following Carpenter’s recipes do so with at least one eye on something like A Modern Herbal, making sure to investigate what to expect from an ingredient before using it; explanations, not instructions, are essential to safe use of natural materials.