Powders & Flours

Most of the powders you use when making body products will come straight out of your kitchen cupboard – like baking soda – while others may be more exotic, like French clay, or even scary, like lye or anything with acid in its name. But fear not. Back in the day, these things also used to sit up in the kitchen pantry. It’s time we reacquainted ourselves with them. Myself included.

Arrowroot: Arrowroot is a fine white powder made from ground up tubers grown in tropical climates such as the West Indies, and has long been a staple among the native populations in Central and South America. The plant looks a bit like banana leaves, and the root resembles parsnips. Arrowroot is a gluten free starch and is an excellent thickener in cooking. I have seen this flour called upon in many recipes, but to be honest, I have yet to use it myself in body products. Cornstarch is usually an acceptable if not an excellent substitution.

Baking soda: Sodium bicarbonate, or bicarb, is a serious work horse product. Used most often to make quick breads, or in cleaning products, or simply as a cleaning product, this is a cheap and easy-to-find powder everyone should carry in their home. Out of toothpaste? Stick your toothbrush into some bicarb and brush away! Have a black circle around your bath tub? Sprinkle a cents worth of bicarb on it and poof! Gone! Wanna make yummy cornbread? 1 Tsp of bicarb and you’re off! You get my drift. It’s good stuff.

Bentonite clay: also known as grey clay, comes from Western US and Canada, it’s residue from volcanic ash. A very fine and smooth powder, this clay is highly cleansing and detoxifying, it pulls out dirt, toxins and pollutants from the skin as well as acts as a fine exfoliate. Grey clay is ideal for greasy skins.

Borax:  or sodium borate is a naturally occurring salt of boric acid found on evaporated lake beds, like in Furnace Creek in Death Valley. Borax was first popularized as a cleaning and laundry product by a company that mined the California and Nevada deserts in the late eighteen hundreds using teams of mules (hence the company name “20 Mule Team”). Although borax is now used in a wide variety of commercial applications, its primary use is still for making laundry detergents and cleaning products. Borax seems to be easily procured in the States in the detergents aisles in grocery stores, but here in Quebec I have never seen it except in an herbal & all-natural supply store. Apparently you can’t even get it at the larger stores like Walmart out in the suburbs. So unless you order online, your best bet is probably a soap supply store, like Coop Coco and Calendula or an herbalist, like La Bottine aux Herbes.Addendum: Actually, I found 20 Mule Team Borax at the Ace Azores Hardwarestore Home Hardware on St-Laurent! They sell a 2kg box for 6.99. Score! Addendum #2 On November 2nd 2014 I also found it at Provigo on Mont-Royal, the same box for $7.19 before tax. 
Caustic Soda: see “Lye”

Citric Acid: Named after citrus fruits which contain a high percentage of this acid: lemons and limes contain the highest concentration of citric acid, followed by grapefruits and oranges. It is what screws up your face when you eat a lemon. Originally extracted from lemons, citric acid is now widely and cheaply produced through a process of glucose/sucrose-fermentation.  It is used in the food industry to add a flavour of acidity and sourness, as well as a preservative. It is used to make those fizzy vitamin tablets – not to be confused with Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C – when combined with baking-soda and dropped in water it produces fizz (source). Like bath bombs! It is also used to adjust pH values in food- and cosmetics-production, cleaning products, laundry soaps, and can be used as a cleaning product. The lady who sold me my 1 kg bag of citric acid (for 6$!) at Maison Ecolonet said that you can use it in your home in lieu of vinegar (pretty much anywhere). Apparently it is a powerful de-scaler of household appliances, like your percolator, because it removes lime buildup, and grime in general. You can also use it to clean windows and mirrors. It is a natural product and 100% biodegradable.

Corn starch: From the inner pulp of the mais kernel, cornstarch is often used to thicken sauces and stews. In cosmetics it is used in deodorants, balms and lotions to add a fine powdery consistency and/or to de-grease an oily substance.  If you are concerned about the makeup or origin of your corn, make sure to get organic cornstarch. Like Bob’s Red Mill.Green clay: Usually from France or Europe, green clay originates from the ocean floor and is green because of decomposed vegetable matter.  Also known as Sea Clay this amazing powder is filled with minerals and vitamins, green clay is ideal for sensitive skins, normal to dry skin.

Lye: Sodium hydroxide, caustic soda (FR soude caustique),  NAoH, or simply, lye, has historically been made by dissolving wood ash in a liquid. These days, most lye is manufactured in large quantities using industrial grade chemicals. It is what makes soap. End of story. You need lye. Lye is a powerful de-greaser and when mixed with grease and cured, it produces soap. Lye is also used in industrial strength cleaners, and (yikes!) in food manufacturing as well (source). If you have ever seen that scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt burns lip-marks onto Ed Norton’s hand you know to use lye with caution. You would also remember that Pitt neutralizes the burn with vinegar, and it’s true, it’s good to keep vinegar near you when handling lye just in case you get burned. Always use gloves, goggles, and if you have asthma, like myself, a mask. Have fun! Most online sites will recommend you get lye at the hardware store, but here in Montreal hardware stores don’t really carry lye (or even borax). For Montrealers who live in the city, Home Hardware, formerly known as Ace Azores, on 4299 St-Laurent now sells lye in 500 gram bottles for 6.99$.  Otherwise, Coop Coco & Calendula also carries it, and you can even get it at the herbal stores on St-Denis: La Bottine aux Herbes and Alchemiste en Herbe.

Rhassoul (Ghassoul): A brownish, sometimes greenish clay mined in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where it has been used since the 12th century by women as a skin and hair treatment. This mineral clay is high in silica, magnesium and potassium and is excellent at removing dead skin cells and excess sebum. It is widely used in bath houses and spas in mudpacks, scrub massages and poultices. Typically the clay is mixed with water to create a face mask, or hair pack, but you can use it as an ingredient in soaps, shampoos, and oil-based face masks as well. Rhassoul is naturally foamy and swells with water. It can be found in chunks or in powder form.

Sodium Carbonate:  See “Washing Soda”  

Sodium hydroxide: see “Lye”
Washing Soda: or sodium carbonate is also known as soda ash or soda crystals. Called washing soda because it is a sodium salt that turns water very alkaline or soft (soft water is alkaline) and for some reason, soft water gets dirt out of your clothes better (as anyone who has ever lived in soft water countries knows). Washing soda is also used as a stain-remover and can be used much the same as baking-soda, to get rid of water deposits in your kitchen appliances. Sodium carbonate naturally occurs in the ashes of plants grown in certain salty soil types but is most often produced synthetically (source). But as I just found out, you can also make it at home by baking baking-soda for an hour. Washing soda is usually sold as a “detergent booster” but mixed with soap and borax it actually becomes detergent! Booyah!


Zinc Oxide: It is the stuff that makes your sunscreen white, and what protects you from sunburn. It is what makes dandruff shampoo white and what soothes flaky, itchy scalp. It is what makes calamine so calming for your skin (calamine is pink because the white of the zinc oxide is mixed with 0.5% iron oxide). It is what makes baby-powder so good on diaper rash.  It is what you can use to make your own sunscreen, or eczema cream. Yay! Incidentally, zinc oxide has been used for eons to cure skin ailments, especially the ones that itch: it occurs naturally in nature.

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