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 discovered I had an avocado allergy. 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 it out. After that, I omitted everything containing avocado and avocado oil, including some hair products that contained it and which had likely caused a very bad bout of scalp eczema. Avocado wasn’t, however, the sole cause of my skin problems. That would’ve been too easy!
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 treating 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 aggravated 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—Penns Hill—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.
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.
- 1 cup water
- 2 Tbsp sea salt
- 2 Tbsp organic aloe vera gel
- 1 tsp sweet 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
- Boil the water in a pot on the stove
- Once boiling, remove from heat
- Add the salt, stirring until dissolved
- Allow to cool, then add the aloe and oil(s)
- 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.
Makes 16 oz.
- 1/2 cup shea butter
- 1/2 cup cocoa butter
- 1/2 cup sunflower oil
- 1/2 cup almond oil
- 2 tsp arrowroot powder
- Optional: essential oil/fragrance oil
- Combine the shea butter and cocoa butter in a large bowl
- Melt them using a double boiler or in the microwave
- Remove from heat and whisk in your other ingredients
- Allow mixture to cool and then refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours
- Remove from fridge and whip the mixture using a hand mixer until it becomes creamy (it will look like a thicker version of whipped cream)
- 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 my one-stop shop for coconut-free products as they have a convenient “coconut-free” search option. They also exclude avocado from all products, which covers my major contacts allergies. Several of their products are now in my favorites.
LIST OF PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS
- HAIR. Aside from my sea salt spray, I’ve had been using True Love Soap Company’s shampoo and conditioner bars which were 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. Unfortunately, the Etsy shop closed and while I tried to find a suitable replacement for this combo, I could not. I reached out to the shop owner, Jayne, who said that since she regularly makes that particular shampoo bar, she would be pleased to continue selling some to me. She also said that she can make the conditioner bars on demand and I could order those as needed too. I am so incredibly grateful to her for this! Her products and my sea salt spray are the only three things I put in my hair apart from occasionally using a couple drops of OOlivia hair oil to tame frizz.
- FACE. OOlivia cleansing cream and night cream have fast become faves of mine. I’m also using Desert Essence moringa, jojoba, and rose hip face oil. I tried Herbivore’s Phoenix oil, which is also made with the same ingredients but includes some additional moisturizers, but quit after one use because of the smell of the added rose oil, which also felt irritating to my face. The best lip balm I could find is Badger cocoa butter lip balm (I’ve been using vanilla bean but hope to try out some others as well). I also really like their sunscreen, which doesn’t leave a white cast on skin and moisturizes without feeling too sticky or mask-like. I occasionally use the Agrio mask from Skin Scholars and like to mix mine with a little honey.
- BODY. While I love True Love Soap’s honey/calendula bar for my skin too, I’ve been trying out Oolivia’s olive oil soap, which is just OK. I’m actually hoping to find a coconut-free body wash instead but still searching. In the meantime, I’m going to mix up my own milk & honey bath. 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 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!