Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To Botanical or Not to Botanical

Yes, horrible title. If you still kept reading, I'll forgive its existence and express my thanks. Before proceeding, please read the disclaimer at the bottom of the page. If you continue on without doing so, it basically says that I'm not recommending any product or practice and you're responsible for what you do or do not do.

Anyway, I've never met a dermatologist who was a fan of botanical skin care. My first dermatologist was pretty open-minded after decades of practicing and he was fond of telling me that if it worked and didn't do any harm, then why not? But, that was about where his opinion ended. I always took his advice, but as I got older I tried new things.

The big awakening that my skin-care regimen could not remain static occurred when I was 21. After every shower I would break out everywhere. My face and neck were the worst, but it wasn't limited to that area. I thought my shampoo and conditioner were the culprits, which seemed strange because I was using CliniDerm at the time. It's pretty safe stuff. After two weeks of eliminating my shampoo, conditioner, soap and even the water, I realized it was the Vaseline I slathered all over myself after each shower. My dermatologist was shocked as he'd never heard of such a thing. Convinced it was something used to bleach commercial Vaseline he gave me samples of unbleached petroleum jelly. I still reacted. So, he pronounced me allergic to petroleum and I moved on. Since then, I stay away from Vaseline, GlaxalBase and anything related to petroleum.

Around the same time, Phisoderm switched to making products for the acne market, with no warning, which left me suddenly high and dry regarding a skin cleanser since I can't go near Ivory or Dove. As pure as they say they are, they're full of chemicals just so your tub doesn't accumulate soap scum.

So I had to rethink my skin care strategy and I started with Kiss My Face Olive Oil Bar soaps. Since then, I've used botanical products from companies like Kiss My Face, Avalon Organics and Eminence Organics.

I've had doctors since then tell me that I can't possibly be allergic to things like Dove ("But, it's not soap!") or Vaseline, but the indisputable fact remains that I am and can prove it (not that I have any urge to do so ever again). I've also read a lot of articles written by medical experts which say to stay away from botanicals (lavender, rose, etc.) because they can sensitize the skin and cause more reactions. Seems to me that's exactly what happened to me after using Vaseline for 21 years.

Well, here's the thing. The whole "natural is good and artificial is bad" argument is just a silly as the "natural is ineffective and science is your only hope" argument. It's all too black and white.

Arsenic occurs naturally. So does a host of lethal bacteria. Eggs and cashews are pretty damn natural, too, but at the very least I'll end up in a hospital bed hooked to an I.V., if not dead. Hey, guess what? Petroleum is natural, too. Vaseline's claims to having a "natural" product crack me up to no end. Cue the eye rolling.

Natural isn't the be all and end all, but neither is stuff cranked out from a lab. DDT, Agent Orange - brought to you by the very smart people of some lab who thought they were helping out mankind.

There is a happy medium. I've found lavender to be very soothing for my skin, but of course, if I were allergic to it, I wouldn't. Despite my love of the smell, I stay away from products with peppermint oil because peppermint is an irritant (I really wish companies would stop using it in everything). When I have really rashy spots, I use a corticosteroid cream because the "natural" eczema cream I bought last year doesn't do anything except for make me smell kind of nice, though it's a great moisturizer.

A couple of years ago, I had a horrible rash on both ankles for over six months. First, I eliminated everything I thought could possibly have caused it, but no luck. Then, I went the scientific/medically-approved route and absolutely nothing happened - corticosteroids were powerless against this rash. So, I tried a wrap of Swedish Bitters for a few weeks. One ankle completely cleared up, but the other didn't. So, I soaked the other ankle in a hot bath of neem leaves for another few weeks, every single night. And that cleared up the other ankle. At the end of it all, who can say what worked? The vodka used to make the Swedish Bitters? The act of bathing my ankle in the hot water in which I'd steeped the neem leaves? I haven't the foggiest - I am not a scientist and it was anything but a medical trial - but it worked and it did no harm.

When I try new things, I'm not stupid about it. I don't use Dove, even though I have a doctor who tells me to. I don't use Vaseline even though the entire medical community seems to think it an innocuous substance (and I always have to do a bit of convincing when I meet a new doctor). I also don't buy into "natural" eczema cures (there is no cure), nor do I hold any stock in homeopathy. As a child I went through years of it (like all parents, mine were desperate for a cure) and even then I found it illogical.

Like a lot of things in my life - politics, values, beliefs - I've found a happy medium and I hope others can, too. Your body is yours, and yours alone; so, what works for you is what works. End of atopic story.

If this post has made you start thinking, here are some links to help you get started. As with all things, please have an educated discussion with your doctor before trying anything new and read my disclaimer at the bottom of the page. The links tend to skew towards an anti-botanical view since I don't use sites that make claims of cures or are anti-pharmaceutical.

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