A guide to cheap and easy made-from-scratch cleansers, toners, moisturizers, scrubs, and masks.
My 14-year-old niece looks out from behind the pantry door in our kitchen to ask me where the honey is. I tell her that I left it in the shower, and she gives me that teenager-perfected look of pity and revulsion. But she’ll just have to get used to it because, for the foreseeable future, what she uses to sweeten her tea and what I use to clean my face are coming out of the same jar.
Since I was younger than she is now, I’ve had what my mother calls “problem skin.” It is an excessively sensitive, acne-prone mess of keratosis and razor burn whose hobbies include scarring, peeling in direct sunlight, blotching red when I watch GOP debates, and bursting into itchy pustules if I use the wrong laundry detergent. As a teenager, I took comfort in the assumption that adulthood would mean post-pubescent cutaneous bliss, but my skin just got worse.
Recently, I started to wonder if the problem wasn’t my skin, but the harsh chemicals I used on it. So after 15 years and thousands of dollars in creams and gels and dermatologists and medications and microdermabrasion and infomercial impulse buys, I decided to go the full hippie and renounce all commercial skincare products. Now, I’d dabbled in homemade scrubs and bath soaks here and there because I espouse a doctrine of DIY frugality and have been desperate enough to try anything. But this time, I got serious.
I gathered every bottle, tube, and pot of store-bought product (and there are a lot of them after all that trial-and-error) and put them in a drawer, then decided on a couple of ground rules.
1. Nothing goes on my face that I wouldn’t eat (with the exception of makeup and sunblock). Sometimes I even put things on my face and eat them simultaneously, but we’ll get to that later.
2. The materials are cheap. With a project like this, it’s very easy to spend a small fortune on natural ingredients making claims as inflated as their commercial counterparts. I, however, am budgeted within an inch of my life. I’ve heard wonderful things about the benefits of tamanu oil, but at $13 an ounce, it doesn’t interest me. Luckily, I already had a small cache of essential oils collected over the years. They make a great addition to natural skin care concoctions, but aren’t necessary. The only carrier oils I use are olive, grapeseed, and coconut, because I also cook with them.
With these basic rules established, the objective is the same as any other facial care regimen: cleanse, tone, moisturize.
Every day I wash my face with honey. In its raw form, honey has serious antiseptic and antibacterial properties that are perfect for getting gunk off your face. Just make sure the label explicitly says it’s raw, because pasteurization wipes out all the benefits.
Treat it like you would any other cleanser: Rub about a teaspoon onto damp skin and rinse clean. If you can leave it on for a few minutes while you brush your teeth, even better. With wet hands and face, it’s not sticky at all and comes off easily. If I need a little more oomph, like for removing makeup, I’ll mix it with a little baking soda in my palm before applying for extra scrubbing power.
There is a method of facial cleansing that uses oil exclusively, which seems counterintuitive to those of us who spent the late ‘90s as shining beacons of sebum. (The internet is full of raves, but science says I should stay away.) A little olive oil on a cotton swab makes a phenomenal eye makeup remover.
I keep two toners on hand. The first is a recipe I developed after sneaking a cellphone picture of an ingredients label in a pricy handmade cosmetics shop. Boutique espionage is the greatest starting point in at-home product development. Toner No. 1:
1 oz vodka
2 oz water
5 drops tea tree oil
5 drops grapefruit essential oil
The vodka is serving two purposes here. The oils and water need an emulsifier in order to mix—think of it as a vinaigrette for your face—and alcohol does that. Any time you want to dilute essential oils in water, you’ll need one. It’s also a powerful astringent that will tighten your pores. Tea tree oil is an anti-inflammatory that helps tame redness, and grapefruit smells nice. This one’s refreshing as hell, but very drying. Oily skin and humid climates can stand up to daily use, but listen to your face and scale back if it’s feeling too aggressive. I keep it in a spray bottle for quick application in especially clammy situations, like after a workout or during that long stretch of Texas summer when the air is made up of crotch sweat and tequila vapor.
Toner No. 2 is just equal parts water and apple cider vinegar. I use it on a cotton swab when I’m feeling dry. It’s gentler than the vodka toner and balances your skin’s pH.
This one’s easy. Grapeseed oil. On my face. Just remember a little goes a very long way. The challenge in this is getting it on as lightly as possible. Using your fingers to slide on a thin layer gets easier with practice, and a cotton swab can be a huge help, but I use a Misto. Seriously. It gives me moisture light enough to wear under makeup.
On days I’m not wearing makeup but don’t want to look like a greasy teenager, I rub the cut side of a potato all over my face. It feels wet going on but dries in a few seconds and the starches control shine longer than any powder makeup claiming the same.
For a fantastic exfoliating scrub, combine used coffee grounds and enough olive oil to form a paste. It’s aggressive (especially if you French press), so I wouldn’t try it while broken out.
I love masks, but I rarely make one unless I’m using ingredients that would otherwise be thrown out. I’ve read that avocados are wonderful for repairing sun damage and fighting wrinkles, but I will never experience that because eating guacamole is a core tenant of my personal beliefs. What I’m saying is that we’re going to use every part of the buffalo.
I mask once a week at most, and have three go-to recipes.
Mask No. 1: The pulp from my juicer that I normally trash can be mixed with just enough coconut oil to form a paste, spread onto my face for 10-15 minutes, and rinsed clean for deep moisture. The works great with carrots, cucumbers, spinach, tomato—really anything worth juicing is worth putting on your face. Just be wary of acidic fruits (which should be fine in moderation) and beets, lest you risk losing Homecoming Queen to Muffin Sangria.
Mask No. 2: Yogurt’s lactic acid is as good for your skin as it is your digestive tract. Any morning I don’t finish a breakfast of yogurt, honey, and flax seeds, leftovers are going on my face. Lay this on thick until it dries. Pieces of it should come of easily in your hands, making rinsing a bit easier. Oatmeal is another great dual-purpose breakfast and mask.
Mask No. 3: Anytime I make mayonnaise or pasta carbonara, that abandoned egg white is going on my face for my favorite and simplest mask. Whip the egg white with a whisk or food processor until it’s frothy, spread it on your face, and let it dry completely. The white will tighten like crazy—you can crack it if you smile—but it will melt away easily with warm water.
Granted, my BA in English doesn’t qualify me to make these recommendations with any scientific or medical authority, but I’m confident that I can know a lot more about what going on my face when I browse for skincare products in my pantry than I ever did when I was shopping in a drugstore. And I think it’s safe to assume that honey won’t be taken off the market for its link to inflammatory bowel diseases, like our old friend Accutane. What I can say with certainty is that I haven’t put a cleaning agent of unknown origins to my skin in over a month, and my face has never been happier.