I became a nurse in 2006, and within a week, my hands started showing rash, blisters, itching and finally pain, so I went to see Employee Health. Since there were no other rashes, it was easy to conclude that I was reacting to the soap and/or hand sanitizer we were using at work. I was prescribed Cetaphil cleanser, prescribed an antibiotic (the pain was due to infection and the resulting swelling) for a week, but they could not prescribe an alternative to the hand sanitizer. My hands got better, but still itched and at times blister then become flaky depending on how often I washed. They would get better during my days off, but get worse again while working. The hospital went through several changes in hand sanitizers, and every time I would try them, my rashes would instantly flare up. My hands would also get so dry aside from the above mentioned symptoms, so I kept a Cetaphil cream in my pocket as well. I was resigned that I would suffer from this eczema for the rest of my nursing career.
It was tough. There would be mornings when I would come home from work with hands so itchy and flaky, and I would run the faucet until the water was so hot, and I would let that run on my itchy hands to “scratch” without causing trauma and opening the skin up. I would do that to the point that it would be painful instead of itchy because that would calm the itch down for about 4 hours, allowing me to sleep some before they itched again. I would then apply petroleum jelly, put on cotton gloves and then nitrile gloves on top then go to bed. These would keep my hands moist instead of drying up and contributing to the itch while I slept. I did this for 6.effing.long.years…
I was not actively searching for a cure for my eczema. I just accepted it as a chronic condition that had no cure. And I was not looking to change profession.
Back then I was an avid baker and cook, but when my sons got older and I paid more attention to healthier, clean-eating, I got bored. And because I am a strong advocate of real food and growing your own food and sustainability, I ended up with lots of homerendered lard from homegrown pork and lots of buttermilk which was a by-product of me making butter from heavy cream we got from our grass-fed cows. I used to use them for making buttermilk donuts and pie crusts when I still baked and cooked a lot.
So I thought of other ways to use them, and soap-making came to mind. Lard and buttermilk soap was great!
But that didn’t stop my itching, because I was still using the same stuff at work. But it was a start towards clean skin-care.
Then I saw a video on lotion-making, and I had the oils and butters. I only needed to get a preservative and emulsifying wax. So I made my first small batch. I was so excited to try it on my whole body.
Within 3 days I had bumps and itchiness all over.
“No!!! It can’t be! I made it! Am I allergic to almond oil? That can’t be! I eat almond nuts without issues.”
Then I thought of looking at the other ingredients I used. I thought of doing a spot test on the paraben preservative (Germaben I). Using a cotton swab I applied a tiny dab on my left deltoid area and kind of forgot about it until the next morning when I saw a big red spot there the size of my palm . It took me a while to recall that I tested that spot! On to the other preservative I had (Germaben II) which was another paraben. Same result. Sigh!
So I joined groups on fb about lotion-making and looked for answers as to alternatives. Some of the cosmetic chemists there would defend parabens (methylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben being the most commonly used in commercial lotions) because they have been proven effective and safe. My retort was: “They might be safe for the general population, but to my skin, they are toxic. So I am looking for an alternative.”
The first one I tried was Optiphen Plus, with usage rates of 0.75%-1.5%, which worked great! But the ever curious me tried a different one: Germall Plus, which required 0.5% to 1%. I tried 0.5% in the hopes of using less preservative in my lotion.
I reacted badly. I had bumps and wicked itching all over within minutes, which got bigger and worse over the next two days even with that single application. After I discontinued using it, I could not even offer it to others. I dumped it.
I was back to Optiphen Plus, using 1.25% to make sure microbes would be prohibited from feeding on the milk I use. To this day it remains my go-to preservative.
I have even tried natural preservatives for my face cream formulations and have found Leucidal liquid and Natapres very effective and not causing me any problems IF I am using only water as my water-base instead of adding teas and various extracts (next to try is AMTcide derived from coconuts).
The exciting thing was that, the scents never bothered me, whether it was the synthetic fragrance oil or the natural essential oils. And that was the fun part of making my own lotions! I was hooked! The days of using boring unscented lotions for my skin was over! And it was such a feel-good hobby, compared to baking/cooking, and much welcomed when shared with others. You know how some people don’t want to accept cupcakes or cookies you bake? Nobody has turned my lotion gifts away.
Now I pay more attention to the ingredients I use in my homemade products. Fragrance oils needed to be phthalate-free. Gotta watch out which essential oils can cause photosensitivity or trigger seizures or labor, etc.
A disclaimer, though. I am not an aromatherapist nor a holistic nurse. I don’t believe that all synthetic products are bad (I do use plant-derived ingredients like palm stearic acid or vegetable glycerin as much as I can.) And to be honest, my lotion does not have all-natural ingredients even when unscented or with essential oils. That is because any emulsifying wax will be made in the laboratory. Even if it is plant-derived, it still would undergo several steps before the end-product.
There are, however, certified organic emulsifying agents which may not give the desired thickness (as how I have found out with ECOmulse), or might be more tricky to work with that if you are not a cosmetic chemist, achieving a stable emulsion will be a guessing game and potentially result to wasted ingredients and money.
In any case, my eczema gradually resolved almost completely since I had been using my homemade lotions, and my co-workers noticed. I became their standard for sensitive skin, and at times, their default consultant on the topics of eczema and natural skin care (and I have always been honest with my limitations).
Pretty soon, they wanted to buy my lotions.
One of them used the lotion on her face, then asked me if it was okay to do so. I said if it did not irritate around the eyes, then it should be fine. And that was how I started on making face creams.
So I had been making these lotions and creams for gift-giving mainly and was selling some to co-workers. But when complete strangers started emailing me to ask how they could buy because they had tried so-and-so’s lotion or received it as a gift, and loved it, I got nervous. I did not want to get in trouble with the IRS.
Hence I decided to get legal selling my lotions. But because I am still working as a RN, I am selling wholesale to local stores rather than individual retail sales.
I did change employment to a hospital closer to home, and they have an alternative to the harsh hand sanitizer – Purell at 70% isopropyl alcohol content, which does not bother me at all except for its drying effect, which I am quick to correct with my lotions. The hospital soap here also has not bothered me. Now my eczema has fully resolved. I finally realized that the cause was constant exposure to the irritating substances, and that the first step to heal is to identify and avoid them. The next step is to support the healing with skin-nourishing moisturizer that has none of the irritants. I did not mean to cure my eczema, but I did.
It is my mission to make this option available to others who might have the same skin issues that I do. Like I say to my husband, my lotions are like those of Bath & Body Works, only better.