I got into a minor Twitter spattette the other night about homemade cosmetic preservation. Jessica of http://www.outinapout.blogspot.co.uk/ asked me if it was okay to mix a liquid foundation, a chapstick and some cornflour to make a serum to go around the eyes. I mulled it over for a bit, and said that it should be okay if she used it fairly quickly. She’d also asked the world’s coolest cosmetic chemist, Kelly Dobos. Kelly was a bit more cautious than me and thought it was a bad idea.
What had bothered Kelly, and she was right to be concerned, was the risk of microbial contamination. A liquid foundation will have been formulated with a preservative to stop it supporting microbial growth. A chapstick doesn’t contain any water and so isn’t a problem. But the cornflour probably has some moulds or bacteria lurking in it somewhere. The food we eat isn’t sterile. In fact some things like cheese and yoghurt probably have more culture than a night at the opera. But our mouths and digestive systems are adapted to handle this situation. Our eyes are not – as I found out over Christmas. I was a little tired and emotional and rubbed my eyes without realising that a Twiglet had attached itself the side of my finger. It was very clear very quickly that natural selection had not equipped my conjuctiva for savoury snacks.
The serious point is that food can be safe to eat but could still be harmful to your eyes. For example, lemon juice isn’t something you’d want in your eyes. And aside from irritation there is also the risk of microbial infection, which again your eye is particularly sensitive to. There have been cases of women being blinded from very old eye products. They are very rare – rare enough that I cannot find any evidence of a case ever having happened in the UK – but not totally unknown.
So Kelly had a strong case. I think I might well have had said the same had the request come from some random individual. But Jessica is a make up artist who writes a very good blog and clearly has a pretty good idea of what she is doing. Also, it is always tempting to be ultra-cautious when giving out advice. But I thought about just how many people there are out there experimenting with putting homemade cosmetics, often based on food ingredients, on their skin every day. You come across lots of blogs and internet pages with recipes and suggestions. Few of them have much conception of preservation. And the fact is, lots of people have lots of fun with this kind of thing without coming to any harm whatever. Advising people to stop not only makes you look po faced, it contradicts their experience.
And the reality is that there is not actually too much risk. If you make up a mixture that isn’t preserved, the bugs won’t have time to grow if you ue it straight away. If you keep it for a few weeks, mould will start to grow on it and you’ll see straight away that something is wrong. It is only going to be risky for a brief time before the problem becomes apparent.
And we are pretty well adapted to cope with random germs we come into contact. My Twiglet experience for example did not lead to any long term problems. Your eyes are probably your weakest point, but they are still not totally defenceless.
So my suggestion is that if you do want try making your own cosmetics using ingredients that you can find in the average kitchen, experiment away. Be aware that what you are doing is not as safe as using a properly formulated cosmetic that has a preservative system that has been tested out in a microbiological laboratory. But very few things are as safe as cosmetics. The UK poison centres have only ever reported on death as a result of the use of a cosmetic product. And that was an intravenous drug user who wrenched the ball from an underarm deodourant and drank the contents because he saw the word ‘alcohol’ listed on the ingredients. (I don’t recommend doing the same, but even in his case I have a feeling there may have been complicating factors.)
There are some common sense things you can do to make sure nothing goes amis. Keep everything clean. Use anything you make straight away and don’t keep it for future use, not even in the fridge. Don’t get anything in your eyes if you can possibly help it.
(Here are some well written and very sensible guidelines from the FDA in the States. They are about standard products rather than home made ones, but the principles are similar.