Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Saving my skin and hair (and money!)

I've posted before about making my own skin and hair care products, in part because my concerns about the environmental impact and toxicity of many commercial products, but also out of desperation. For years I had tried various commercial products, and nothing seemed to cure my severe dandruff or extremely dry skin that was prone to blackheads on my nose and chin, flaking on my forehead, and itchy, red, scaly patches all over.

Not only have I cured those problems myself by making my own products from natural ingredients, but I'm spending so much less money to do so. I sat down last night to add up what I'm spending now, compared to what I spent before. Included below are just the products I used/use for basic (face) skin and hair maintenance, without including costs for styling or makeup.

What I spent before:
Cetaphil gentle skin cleanser: $10 for 16 oz (6 mo. supply) = $20/year
Cetaphil moisturizing cream: $14 for 16 oz (4 mo. supply) = $42/year
Olay Total Effects Moisturizer: $23 for 1.7 oz (1 mo. supply) = $276/year
Bioré pore strips: $10 for 6 (1 year supply) = $10/year
Neutrogena T-Gel anti-dandruff shampoo: $16 for 16 oz (2 mo. supply) = $96/year
Queen Helene Cholesterol Hair Conditioner: $3 for 15 oz (4 mo. supply) = $9/year
African Pride hair relaxer: $8 for 4 mo. supply = $24/year

Total: $477, or about $40/month

What I use now:
AAA Pure Shea Butter: $25 for 16 oz (1 year supply) = $25/year
Powdered milk: $6 for 16 oz (2 year supply) = $3/year
Extra virgin olive oil: $6 for 32 oz (1 year supply) = $6/year
Pure aloe vera gel: $7 for 32 oz (4 mo. supply) = $21/year
Vegetable glycerin: $7 for 16 oz (6 mo. supply) = $14/year
Apple cider vinegar: $1.50 for 32 oz. (1 year supply) = $1.50/year
Trader Joe's TeaTree Tingle Conditioner: $4 for 16 oz. (3 mo. supply) = $16/year
Jojoba oil: $6 for 4 oz (1 year supply) = $6/year
Vitamin E oil: $2.50 for 2 oz (1 year supply) = $2.50/year
Essential oils for scent: $10 for 2 year supply = $5/year

Other ingredients: flax seed, yogurt, yeast, green tea, baking soda, mayonnaise: These are ingredients I have in my kitchen. They cost so little to begin with and I use so little of them in skin and hair care (just small amounts, either once a week or once a month), that the cost is negligible. So let's say $2/year.

Total: $102/year, or about $8.50 a month. That's about one-fifth of what I used to spend!

The best part, however, is the results. I am in my early 40's now, and my skin looks better than it did a decade ago. It may be my imagination, but I'd swear that the wrinkles I had started to develop (basically, two lines on my forehead, and a couple of crow's feet around the eyes) have diminished. Meanwhile, I know for certain that my skin is softer, smoother and clearer than it's ever been. As for my hair, as I have posted before, I am still working on styling, but the health of my hair and scalp is fantastic!

For the skin and hair care recipes I use, please click here, here and here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Basic soup recipe

It's fall again, it's getting chilly out, which means it's time for soup! I love making soup for my family, because it enables me to sneak lots of veggies into my daughter's meal, and it's a hearty, healthy meal that stretches.

I have also found that soups are easy to make. The following recipe is based on one I found in the Prevention cookbook, and can be endlessly modified. Follow the basic recipe, but choose you own set of ingredients, and the amounts, to add to it.

Oil (olive, canola or other vegetable oil)
Hard veggies, chopped (such as potatoes, butternut squash, onions, celery, peppers, carrots)
Broth or stock (such as chicken, veggie, or beef), and water
Spices (such as garlic, salt, pepper, etc.)
Soft veggies, chopped (such as zuchinni, tomatoes, green beans, mushrooms)
Protein (chopped, cooked meat or poultry, beans, or tofu)
Fresh herbs

~Heat 2-3 TB of oil on medium in a large stock pot
~Chop hard veggies and add to pot, and sauté for five minutes
~Add stock or broth. I usually add two 32-oz cartons of Imagine broth (organic broths, which I can often find on sale), plus 32 oz. of water. You can vary the amount of liquid depending on the amount of soup you're making, but a good rule of thumb is 2:1 stock/broth to water.
~Add spices and bring to a boil. For spices, I often add 2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1 TB garlic powder, and 1 TB Italian seasoning. For a spicier soup, I might exchange the Italian seasoning for 1/2 TB cumin.
~Add chopped soft veggies and simmer 10 minutes. During this time, if you plan to add meat and it's uncooked, chop and sauté your meat until brown. If you're adding tofu, you can sauté it if you wish, but it doesn't need to be cooked in advance.
~Add your protein: meat or poultry (chopped and cooked); beans (I usually add one 15-oz can of great northern beans, drained); or tofu (extra firm, drained and chopped).
~Return to boil and then turn off heat, and it's done!
~Add fresh herbs on top for garnish.

1) Add pasta to the soup at the same time you add the soft veggies. Or cook pasta separately and add when you serve it.
2) Puree the finished soup and add 1/2 c. cream, milk or plain soymilk for a creamy soup.*

* I wrote recently about the Magic Bullet blender, which I love despite the fact that it doesn't do everything it promised. One of the things it doesn't do as indicated is puree hot soup. The top blows off from the pressure (which is dangerous). I have to let soup cool before I can puree it in the Bullet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Preparing for winter

Our heating bills almost killed us last year. I may have posted about this before: we moved to Washington state to live in the home of military relatives who are overseas for several years. They told us that our heating and cooling costs should be cheaper than in Boston, because the area doesn't have the temperature extremes.

Reality is a little different. The house is cooler in the summer, by virtue of being built into the side of a hill (we have a big spider problem, though). However, Washington had one of the coldest winters and THE hottest summer on record this year. Add to that the fact that in Boston, we lived in a small apartment, and now we live in a large house with huge windows and an old, inefficient furnace. Our heating bills this winter were twice what they normally were in Boston during the winter, and five times what they were when we were striving to be energy efficent (described below).

Needless to say, we can't survive another winter with bills so high. So we are going to try something we did in Boston that reduced our heating costs by 60%. It will be tougher to do in a house, but fortunately, the temperatures here don't often drop below freezing, so I think it will be survivable.

In Boston, we turned our heat down to 55 degrees (except on the bitterly coldest days), and carried a space heater around from room to room as needed. This is what we're going to try this winter here.

I was able to get good deals on two Honeywell surround heat space heaters, purchasing one at Value Village for $8, and another at a moving sale for $5. These are good heaters because they're energy efficient, heat a wide space, have child safety features and automatic shut-off if tipped, and are small and light enough to be carried around easily. I've also found at yard sales and thrift shops such things as bathroom rugs and slipper socks. Now the challenge is making my husband and daughter wear sweaters. I'm always wrapping up, but they like to be freer than I do!

One other part of the plan: bubble wrap insulating our windows! I've heard it really works.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Magic Bullet yum yum!

You may have seen the Magic Bullet blender informercials on TV--you know, $99.99 in 3 easy payments and it does miracles in the kitchen.

Well, I bought one as my "after Christmas" present to myself. Not at full-price, however, and certainly not via phone (I've been burned by buying shoddy informercial products before). Instead, I'd had my eye on the Bullet for $59.99 at Costco for a while, and when I saw it there after Christmas discounted to $39.99, I snapped it up!

No, it doesn't do magic. It takes more than the ten seconds to make something that the ads suggest, and everything in their recipe book doesn't turn out as well as they claim (whipped cream, for instance). But it does work well for most things and is much easier to use and clean than a regular blender--enough that I can honestly say I love having it. I use it to make guacamole, hummus, milk shakes and smoothies, and to blend fruit and veggies for other recipes.

A friend brought us some plums from the tree in his yard, and I used it today to chop them up to make spiced plum bread. I love having an appliance on hand such that I can take an ingredient (e.g., plums), google a recipe, and know that I can whip it up without a problem.

Can I technically call this a green product? Given its small size, I'll bet it uses less energy than a traditional blender (and perhaps less water and dish soap, since it's simpler to clean), and it makes it much easier for me to cook from scratch, saving the processing and packaging that buying the food already prepared would cost. I think I'll answer my own question with a "Yes!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wind power in Boston

Crunchy Chicken had a blog post today about wind turbines, asking her readers to weigh in on whether they thought they were awesome, or if they had the concerns that are often expressed about them (an eyesore, too loud, a danger to birds).

One reader wrote that they would never work in the city--too much turbulence and noise. So I had to respond, because when I lived in Boston, I lived a few blocks away from a wind turbine. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 in Dorchster installed a wind turbine in 2005. Walking by it on numerous occasions, my opinion was that it was neither loud nor an eyesore. Just the opposite: it was one of the most attractive objects on the city skyscape (see photos above).

From what I remember, the wind turbine was a source of pride throughout the city. People thought it was cool, both visually and because of what it was accomplishing. I remember hearing at a public meeting that it was supplying a significant amount (maybe 50%?) of the energy needs for the IBEW building.

Curious to know what the current opinion of the wind turbine is in Boston, I googled it, and found this article. It describes how the city of Boston is now planning to install wind turbines on top of city hall and at several schools, and is creating wind energy zoning regulations for private property. Sounds like Boston definitely wants to be at the forefront of wind energy use in urban areas!

Apple picking!

One of the joys of New England autumns, in addition to the foliage, is apple-picking. Fearing we would miss this, we were excited to discover an orchard near our home in Tacoma. Curran Apple Orchard, now a public park in the city of University Place, has an annual harvest day in September from 1-4 in the afternoon. Last year, daughter was napping at one PM, so we went when she woke up at 3 pm and found all the apples picked clean.

This year, we decided not to repeat that mistake. However, even arriving at 1:05 yesterday, many of the trees were already bare when we got there! Nevertheless, we were able to pick two large bags of apples, and pressed enough to make two half-gallons of cider, with plenty left over to bake a few pies. It was great fun for my daughter, who is now old enough to climb the apple trees and loved being able to crank the cider press.

So a great day! The cider we pressed was fantastic, too. It was made from about four different varieties of apples, and we didn't add anything to it (no spices or sweetners). The only thing lacking was apple cider donuts...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Simplifying the hair care routine

I am all about simple. If something is too complicated to do, I often decide it's not worth it.

I posted before here and here, about the hair care products I make. Anyway, some of them are just too difficult to use. The curly pudding continues to clump up, and I have to rub it for some time in my hand to make it usable. The deep conditioner also clumps up and is hard to wash out, because avocado can be hard to blend smoothly, and coconut oil solidifies when it cools.

So here I go again, spelling out my modified homemade hair care products: my detangler and daily conditioner still work very well (see recipes at the first link above, near the bottom of the post), so I continue to use them.

For deep conditioning (once every two weeks), I now add 1/4 c. mayo, 2 T. olive oil, and 3 T. water in a dish and microwave about 45 seconds. I stir this mixture and apply to my hair, covering it with a plastic shower cap, and then with a hot towel. Wait a half hour, then wash out and condition/style as usual. With this recipe, I have no problems with any clumping, and it's easy to wash out.

For a styling gel, I will continue to make the flax seed gel (again, recipe at first link above), and for now at least, I'm abandoning the curly pudding altogether.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Thrift shopping bonanza

I haven't made a pitch recently for the National Thrift Store month petition, so here it is!

Yesterday, both Value Village and Goodwill had 50% off sales in honor of Labor Day, and daughter and I went shopping! Spending a total of $30, we bought:

-- Three kids' movies
-- Two books for daughter, and two for me
-- A hamper (a much needed item in our house!)
-- A purse for me, since the strap on my old one recently broke
-- An additional Brita pitcher and a popcorn bowl
-- Various clothing items for daughter, including winter boots, a leotard (she wants to take ballet), and two pairs of underwear
-- A necklace and jewelry case for daughter
-- The accessories to accompany my daughter's Halloween costume. My sister bought her a pink princess dress earlier this year, and we found some fairy wings that attach to her shoulders on an earlier thrift store trip. Yesterday, we were able to buy earrings, a necklace, a crown and a fairy wand to make the costume complete.

Among that list, there is one item I wish I didn't have to buy, and that's the purse. I now have in my closet three purses in great condition, except that the straps are broken. Not even the straps really, but the little piece of leather that attaches the strap to the purse itself. I have tried in vain to ask at tailor shops and shoe repair shops to see if they can fix them, and I've always been told no. In each case, it should be a relatively easy thing to fix, requiring only a few stitches if one has a heavy-duty sewing machine and thick thread. It just seems crazy that I should have to abandon decent handbags for want of a few stitches.

No Impact Man has written about this on occasion: the lack of people today who can repair things such as appliances, and how that negatively contributes to our throw-away society. I'm glad I found the new purse, but in the meantime, I'll hold on to the old ones in hope that someday I'll be able to have them repaired.

(*Note: my mother tried in vain to teach me how to sew by machine when I was twelve. I really wish I had been more adept, but even if I could sew, I'd need a heavy-duty machine that can handle leather. I can darn holes and sew on buttons by hand, however.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Green beans! And a strawberry!

Finally, some green beans have grown! I picked a few today. I also picked our first couple green peppers, and added them to eggs this morning. Delicious! Alas, we lost our eggplant, which rotted before it was big enough to pick. However, another one is starting to grow. Not quite like the cukes, which are spreading like mad, but still a success.

I also discovered a strawberry today! Hubby bought a strawberry plant in the late spring, and it produced a few fruits in July. I thought that was it, since the season is technically over, so what a pleasant (and very sweet! Yum!) surprise to find one on the plant today and eat it!

More on The New Yorker and No Impact Man

The New Yorker article I wrote about is getting quite a bit of attention. Grist, a major online environmental magazine, wrote about it two times (and my blog post was linked in paragraph 4 of the second article!). Crunchy Chicken also weighed in, and I'm sure others around the blogosphere have been discussing it.

The consensus seems to be that the article's author, Elizabeth Kolbert, a leading journalist who writes about climate change and the environment, was rather unfair in her assessment of No Impact Man. And now the man himself, Colin Beavan, has added his own voice to this discussion. He makes a few primary points: that individual and collective action are both necessary--and indeed, the two often feed each other. Individuals who try to live more sustainably in their personal lives often become more aware and motivated to get involved in collective action. And collective action will be ineffective if we as individuals do not go along with the changes that it requires. He also notes that with so many forces aligned against environmentalism and sustainability (such as modern consumerism, climate change skeptics, and enormously profitable non-green industries), we can't afford to have people on the same side in-fighting like this.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Helping your neighbors and health care

This article reports on a town hall meeting in which Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, addresses a woman whose husband has a traumatic brain injury. When she tells him that their health insurance won't cover his care and asks what Sen. Coburn will do to help, Coburn responds, "Well, I think—first of all, yeah. We'll help. The first thing we will do is to see what we can do, individually, to help you, through our office. But the other thing that is missing in this debate is us as neighbors, helping people that need our help. [Applause.] You know we tend to ... [Applause.] The idea that the government is a solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement."

The whole health care debate is so frustrating and infuriating! One purpose of our government, stated expressly in the Constitution, is to "promote the general welfare." The fact is, there are many things that we as individuals, as families, or even as neighbors, cannot do on our own. The government can pool together resources and work on collective solutions much better than most of us can as individuals, families or small groups and communities. (By better, I mean they can take advantage of efficiencies of scale).

Take Coburn's statement above. There is a great deal that neighbors can do when someone has a seriously ill loved one. They can cook you meals, clean your house, watch your children, maybe drive the one who is sick to the doctor, and offer you moral support. In most cases, however, your neighbors cannot afford to pay your medical bills. (If you had neighbors that wealthy, you'd likely be that wealthy yourself).

Even if your friends and family pool together some money, how much are they going to come up with? A few thousand? That won't come anywhere near meeting the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars that a serious illness can cost. And no matter how well-intentioned, your neighbors most likely do not have the expertise to provide you with skilled nursing or medical care--and if they do, they probably have their own jobs they need to continue working in order to pay their own bills.

The inanity is driving me nuts, and what's saddest is that so many people are buying it, as the applause for Coburn's statement indicates. What's even sadder is that some of these very people are those in need, or who have relied on government solutions for their care (if you want, I'll look up the many articles and videos I've seen recently that show this), yet they somehow consider their own needs an exception and want to deny similar help to others.

Update: This article makes similar points about the incident, quoting medical professionals who were horrified by Coburn's words.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A few years ago, I read an article titled something like, "Five Things That Are Just As Scary As Global Warming." It was then that I heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the first time. The Garbage Patch is a vortex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is drawing in plastic and other garbage at alarming rates. According to the Associated Press, scientists--who've only known of its existence for about a decade--are now studying the Patch to determine the extent of damage to the environment.

One of the biggest problems is that plastic degrades into small toxic pieces, which are then ingested by marine animals. And the strength of the vortex is such that scientists have no clue how to clean it up. As one researcher wrote, "Seeing [humanity's] influence just floating out here in the middle of nowhere makes our power painfully obvious, and the consequences of the industrial age plain. It's not a pretty sight."