Ranée

Underneath It All

* Last updated April 28, 2022

I have sensitive skin. Always have. It’s been prone to redness, dryness, itching, rashes, eczema, even wrinkling. Products that were labeled “hypoallergenic” or marketed toward “sensitive skin” didn’t seem to help (newsflash: those are just labels that get slapped on products; they’re essentially meaningless as what is a sensitivity for one person may not be for another). I’ve done tons of research on skin care products and their ingredients—the benefits, cons, hype, and total b.s.—and tried tons of them too. I don’t even want to guess at the amount of money I’ve wasted in this quest to just stop the skin problems. It’s taken years to finally solve the mystery and most of the detective work was done by me. What I’ve learned from this journey is that, underneath it all, it really does matter what you put on your skin (not to mention into your body in general).

Several years ago, I had a very bad reaction after eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant where I’d consumed way more guacamole than usual. My entire body swelled up and broke out in hives. Still, because I’d had guacamole before, I didn’t realize right away that avocado might be the culprit. It wasn’t until I had a less severe reaction twice in a row after eating my own guacamole that I figured avocado could be the cause. After that, I omitted everything containing avocado and avocado oil, including some hair products that contained it. My scalp eczema cleared up some but my problems persisted.

As has seemed to be the theme with most of my health issues, I had to be my own advocate in order to break the endless cycle of useless “treatments” that weren’t actually addressing the real cause or solving my problems. I found that dermatologists and other doctors weren’t really interested in figuring out the underlying causes of my skin problems; they just gave me various creams or ointments to treat the symptoms (some of which only exacerbated the problem). Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be a common theme among medical professionals. If I wanted to know once and for all what I was allergic to so that I could finally, actually treat my allergies or, at the very least, avoid the things causing them, then I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. So, this past year, I asked my primary care doctor to recommend an allergist so that I could get tested.

I had a prick test for environmental allergens that was enlightening (I’m primarily allergic to indoor allergies like dust mites and molds but also have minor allergies to a host of other outdoor trees and plants). The patch test for contact allergies was what I was most interested in, though, given that contact allergies were the cause of all of my skin problems. The results were a surprise as they didn’t turn up anything that had been a suspected cause (no fragrances or oils). I was already aware of my nickel allergy since every time I wore jewelry that wasn’t sterling silver or pure gold, I ended up with a really bad rash (my ears used to get really itchy, red, and swollen from certain earrings).

It did, however, show a common cleansing agent as one of the things I was sensitive to. That ingredient was decyl glucoside, which just happened to be in all of our soaps, my body wash, and my facial cleanser. Incidentally, decyl glucoside is a known allergen (quite a common one), yet it’s used in a tremendous number of personal care products marketed toward “sensitive” skin as well as products that are supposedly “hypoallergenic” (again, those labels are basically meaningless and the use of those terms isn’t regulated). I eliminated products that contained this ingredient from my routine, but my skin problems still persisted, so I played detective again and researched the ingredients in that specific cleanser. What I discovered is that decyl glucoside and similar related ingredients are made from coconut, which led me to wonder if coconut might be the real underlying problem. I did a little experiment; I began to remove items from my personal care regimen that I knew contained coconut to see if my skin improved. Lo and behold, it did. I mentioned this to my allergist and asked if I could be tested for a coconut allergy. They had a prick test for coconut and when I took it, we saw an allergic reaction almost immediately. The doctor marveled at how I’d come to suspect that coconut was the culprit, but I didn’t see anything awe-inspiring about my sleuthing. There was a mystery to be solved and I was determined to solve it. Period.

Once we identified the coconut contact allergy, then I began the arduous task of removing everything I was putting on my body that contained coconut, coconut oil, or ingredients that were derived from coconut. Well, guess what—that’s almost everything that goes into personal care products. Practically all cleansing agents/surfactants in soaps, shampoos, body washes, and even toothpastes come from coconut. A large portion of ingredients in lotions, creams, and serums do as well. An ingredient doesn’t have to literally have “coconut” or “coconut oil,” or even “coco” in the name to originate with coconut; things like vegetable glycerin, glycerides, and stearic acid are made from coconuts.

I’ve been going through a process of trial and error to find coconut-free products that work for me. Switching to olive oil hand soap has made a huge difference for me (no more chapped hands or itchy, red, flaky skin under my rings!). So far, I have found only one toothpaste that doesn’t have a coconut-derived cleanser or coconut oil in it (Weleda ratahnia); unfortunately, it also doesn’t have fluoride, so I’ve been using ACT mouthwash as well. I’ve listed below the products that are now in my regimen in case others like me have this rare allergy and are also seeking relief.

Homemade body butter and sea salt spray

I’ve been making a couple of homemade products for myself as they’re pretty easy to create, help me to save a little money, and I haven’t been able to find anything that I like better. I used to make my own flax seed hair gel, but it required refrigeration, meaning it wasn’t portable, and a batch only lasted about a week, which seemed such a waste since I’d barely get halfway through a bottle/jar in that time. I recently switched over to making my own sea salt spray for my hair and have been making my own body butter ever since I suspected the coconut allergy. Recipes for both of those products are below.

Sea Salt Spray for Hair

Makes 8 oz.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp sea salt
  • 2 Tbsp organic aloe vera gel
  • 1 tsp almond oil (you can use whatever oil you like or any combination you choose: sunflower, castor, marula, argan, etc. based on your own preferences, hair types, and allergies)
  • Optional: 20 drops of essential oil for fragrance

Directions:

  1. Boil the water in a pot on the stove
  2. Once boiling, remove from heat
  3. Add the salt, stirring until dissolved
  4. Allow to cool, then add the aloe and oil(s)
  5. Pour into a spray bottle

For best results, shake your bottle of sea salt spray well before applying, so as to mix up the ingredients and avoid getting oily patches in your hair.

Body Butter

Makes 16 oz.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup beeswax
  • 1/2 cup cocoa butter
  • 1/2 cup sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup almond oil
  • 2 tsp arrowroot powder
  • Optional: essential oil/fragrance oil

Directions:

  1. Combine the beeswax and cocoa butter in a large bowl
  2. Melt them on the stove using a double boiler or in the microwave
  3. Remove from heat and whisk in your other ingredients
  4. Allow mixture to cool and then refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours
  5. Remove from fridge and whip the mixture using a hand mixer until it becomes creamy (it will look similar to whipped cream)
  6. Spoon into an airtight container and avoid adding water

Note that coconut is not a tree nut, despite being grouped with tree nuts in terms of allergens, and I do not have any known allergies to tree nuts, hence the inclusion of them in my body butter. However, if you do have allergies to tree nuts, then please do not make this recipe. Instead, substitute other ingredients that will work for you and your specific skin needs. If you’re not a fan of cocoa butter, the smell does dissipate once applied, but you can easily disguise it by adding fragrance or substituting a different ingredient. The body butter should be stored in a cool, dry place away from heat or it will melt (this happened to me on a trip over the summer).

In addition to the two products that I make for myself, there are also several products that I buy because, frankly, I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to make them myself. That list follows and I will continue to update it as I find my “Holy Grail” products.

OOlivia has become one of my favorite indie shops because they have a convenient “coconut-free” option. Gabriel Cosmetics also offers an extensive ingredient list on their site including a catalog of all coconut-free products.

LIST OF PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS

  • HAIR. Aside from my sea salt spray, I’ve been using True Love Soap Company’s shampoo and conditioner bars which are made for people with coconut allergies. Jayne’s honey, calendula, & meadowfoam shampoo bar and honey & silk conditioner bar are a match made in heaven for my curly hair. Her products and my sea salt spray are the only three things I put in my hair.
  • FACE. I’m currently using Gabriel Cosmetics hydrating cleanser and Desert Essence moringa, jojoba, and rose hip oil (unfortunately, I still seem to have some texture issues and occasional dryness or breakouts but this is the best I can find for now). The best lip balm I could find is Badger cocoa butter lip balm. I also really like their sunscreen, which doesn’t leave a white cast on skin and moisturizes without feeling too sticky or mask-like. Once a week, I use Oolivia’s matcha facial polish.
  • BODY. I have been cleansing with Clean Kids Naturally watermelon bubble bath from Gabriel Cosmetics. It’s coconut-free and works fabulously as a body wash. For SPF/sun protection, I’ve tried a Kiss My Face coconut-free sunscreen, but I wish Badger made theirs in a larger size because it’s much more moisturizing and doesn’t have a weird smell. My absolute favorite body product apart from my homemade body butter is now OOliva’s coconut-oil-free deodorant. It is hands-down the best! It’s unscented but keeps BO at bay even through interval workouts and the lack of fragrance means it doesn’t interfere with the perfume that I wear.

You’ll note that all of the products listed here are organic and/or cruelty-free, and many are made by small business owners because, yes, that matters to me almost as much as what I put onto and into my body. I am SO glad that I did my research and advocated for myself and my health, but most importantly, I’m delighted to be getting closer to living in happy skin because of it!

On Writing

Simplify

I’m super old-school when it comes to writing.  I write in a notebook with an Art of Ophelia pen while drafting (by this I mean during the initial writing phase; I migrate everything to the computer for revising and editing).  There are several reasons why I’ve chosen to do this and why I prefer it to writing digitally.  First and foremost is because when I wrote everything electronically, it was too easy for me to hit the delete key and constantly revise/rework text that I wasn’t happy with instead of pressing on with the story.  I kept getting in my own way by doing that. Suffice it to say, I accumulated loads of unfinished stories in the process. You might be saying, yeah, Jamie, but you can just scribble over stuff with your pen, too.  I totally can, but the difference is that it’s still there and can still be read/deciphered as long as I don’t tear out the pages, crumple them up, and throw them in the trash.  I used to trash entire chapters when I wrote electronically but for whatever reason, I haven’t torn out any notebook pages thus far.  I admit that I’ve done a fair amount of scribbling over text, but it’s nothing compared to the editing I did while I was supposed to be writing in electronic format; by making this switch, I’ve successfully managed to turn off my inner critic/editor for the most part.

I also write with a pen and notebook for comfort. I don’t like sitting at a computer or staring at a screen for lengths of time. When I spend most of my day at the computer working, it’s hard on my eyes and causes tension and muscle soreness in my neck and shoulders. I don’t want that experience while I’m writing. I’m much more comfortable curling up on the couch with my notebook and pen (sometimes with a blanket and cup of tea) and my headphones (everything I write has its own soundtrack). My new method feels natural, organic, to me.

I’ve also been unplugging from digital devices in general. I don’t watch a lot of TV, I quit wearing a fitness tracker watch a long time ago, and I keep my phone on silent most of the time (Do Not Disturb Mode is fantastic). I don’t like the distractions of these devices and the constant alerts, noise, and glare. This is a personal preference.

All that being said, I’ve found that with my current project (the first since my move away from electronic writing), I need some form of organization to help me keep focused on where I am with things. I’ve been periodically moving content over to the iPad to get a sense of structure/overall picture, but the time that I spend migrating text over is valuable writing time lost; once again, I’m getting in my own way. I also run the risk of editing text as I move it over, which I don’t want to get caught up in doing—that’s for later.

Thus, I sought an alternative to simplify the process. I considered a system of sticky flags in different colors to indicate sections about particular characters and a beginning note to summarize each scene I write, but ultimately, I decided a storyboard will work best for me. I’m a tactile person, so the idea of using an actual cork board with colored note cards appeals me. Different colors can indicate characters or events and each card will summarize a chapter or scene. I can move the cards around on the board to group them and to keep an eye on where I am (in other words, what gaps I still need to fill in). My husband made the suggestion that I not actually put this up on the wall as I might become overly focused on the structure/organization when that’s not super relevant during drafting (a wise suggestion!). Instead, I’ll stash it away so that I can take it out as needed and it will be a useful tool for when I’m done with the draft and begin revising and thinking more about structure. This will be an easy transition to migrating the content to Scrivener (my writing software on the computer) once I’m ready; my physical cards will become digital ones in that environment. I love it when a plan comes together! All I need to execute this simple plan of simplification is a cork board and colored some note cards.

I currently have a cork board on the wall of my office, but it’s full of my son’s artwork and things like a DC Comics collector card of Raven, my Potential Slayer button, a vinyl-lover sticker, and pics of my favorite Star Wars characters. So now comes the dilemma . . . Do I keep this board as is and find another to function as my storyboard or do I find a new home for all of these mementos and such and convert this board into my storyboard? It’s a tough decision, man.

While I mull it over, drop me a line to tell me what tools you’re a fan of and why, how you keep an overall view of your story arc, what you use to outline/organize, etc.

Update: I did away with the notecards and corkboard and ultimately decided to go with three separate notebooks since my story takes place in three parts (I’m going to be interweaving three threads here). I copied down the sections that I’d already written and have been filling in the blanks in between so as to get a more linear story and see the bigger picture of where I am. I think this is the best way forward for me, so from now on, I’ll jot down notes or sketch out particular scenes when they come, but I will also work on filling in the blanks to get to those given points so that I don’t end up with a disorganized mess that I can’t sort out.