Queen Helene’s hugely popular mint julep masque is widely considered to be a safe product. I mean, it’s found in all the health food stores, so it must be okay, right? Or is it? And is there any actual mint in it?
I’ve had this same plastic tube of the stuff sitting in my bathroom cabinet for years and had pretty much forgotten about it until a few weeks ago when I noticed my face was getting dirty from all the work in the garden. (For those who don’t know, mud masks are used to suck out the oil and dirt clogging your pores and leave your face baby soft.) Following my resolution to use up the plastic-packaged stuff I already have before looking for alternatives, I dug out the Queen Helene and got ready to slather it on my face… until I read the ingredients.
Not only does this “natural” product come packaged in plastic, but it contains enough questionable ingredients to rate a 5 on Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. Maybe I didn’t want to use this stuff up after all. I decided to see if I could make it myself, analyzing the ingredients to figure out which ones were actually therapeutic, which ones were unnecessary or even toxic, and which ones I could find without plastic packaging. I thought it would be a neat exercise to go through on this blog. So here we go:
1) Distilled Water. I’m fine with using plain tap water.
2) Kaolin and Bentonite. These are types of clay — the main ingredient in a clay mask. (Duh.) I found bentonite clay powder in bulk at Whole Foods Market and at various smaller health food and herb shops in my neighborhood and bought some in my own jar. I have not found kaolin or any other kind of clay around here in bulk, so I just used one kind.
3) Glycerin. Glycerin is an emollient and humectant. It’s valuable in a mask because it softens and helps attract moisture to the skin. Glycerin is a component of various fats and can be produced as a byproduct of saponification, i.e. soap-making. As such, it can have either animal or plant origins. What’s more, glycerin can also be synthesized from fossil sources. If you want to avoid animal or petroleum-derived glycerin, you have to make sure the label specifies “vegetable glycerin.” Queen Helene’s label says there are no animal ingredients, but it doesn’t indicate whether the glycerin is from plant or fossil sources. I found pure vegetable glycerin in a glass bottle at Lhasa Karnak Herb Company down the street from me in Berkeley. The bottle does have a tiny plastic cap.
4) Zinc Oxide. According to Skin Deep, zinc oxide is a bulking agent, colorant, skin protectant, and sunscreen agent. It’s definitely a safe ingredient, but for my purposes, I didn’t think it was necessary, and I didn’t want to go to the trouble of looking for it without plastic, so I left it out.
5) Propylene Glycol. Propylene glycol is a petrochemical derived from natural gas. Skin Deep gives it a hazard rating of 3. Leave it out.
6) Sulfur. Sulfur is a naturally-occurring element, and according to Skin Deep, it’s used in skin care products for anti-acne and skin conditioning purposes. It’s also a natural fungicide in the garden, as I recently learned. But I don’t have acne and didn’t feel this ingredient was necessary for my purposes, especially since I have no clue how I’d find it without plastic. So I left it out.
7) Chromium Oxide Greens. This is a mineral pigment used to give the masque its green color. Oh, you thought that green color came from the clay or maybe the mint leaves? Nope. This stuff might be safe, but in my book it’s wholly unnecessary. Leave it out.
8) Methylparaben. Parabens are preservatives used in foods and cosmetics. They are estrogen mimics and may disrupt the endocrine system. There is debate as to whether they are linked to breast cancer. Skin Deep gives methylparaben a hazard rating of 5. Without being a scientist, my feeling is that if we don’t need to use these chemicals, we should play it safe and NOT use them. Why experiment on ourselves? Just say no.
9) Fragrance. This is a bad one. Or not. We don’t know. Because the term “fragrance” on a label indicates a secret mix of chemicals that can include anything from allergens to phthalates, another type of hormone-disrupting chemical used to help fragrances “stick.” And if these chemicals are not spelled out, we as consumers have no way to know what they are or whether we should avoid them. These days, I don’t buy any product that lists “fragrance” on the label.
Where’s the mint??
Did you notice the ingredient “mint” on that list anywhere? No? Neither did I. Queen Helene’s mint julep masque doesn’t contain any actual mint — unless it’s included in the word “fragrance,” and if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they simply list it on the label? Because it’s not there. So I made my mint julep masque with mint leaves from my own garden.
I steeped the mint in boiling water and then mixed together the tea, bentonite clay, and vegetable glycerin into a paste. It felt cool on my face, just like the commercial version, except I had the satisfaction of knowing exactly what was in it. Maybe my concoction is lumpier than Queen Helene’s, but it worked really well. My skin felt clean and soft afterwards.
I like using as few ingredients as possible. And I enjoyed going through the list on the Queen Helene tube and trying to figure out what each one was used for and which ones I actually needed. It took some work to find the clay and glycerin without plastic packaging. But I looked at it as a fun exercise. Clay facial masks are obviously not a necessity of life. And as for other natural recipes for skincare, there are a ton of recipes on the Internet. I just wanted to find out if I could get the same experience without all the extra packaging and ingredients. And I did.