Witch hazel: Adding magic to your beauty routine

Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Witch hazel sounds like something that would be used in a potion or spell, right? But you probably didn’t realize that it’s actually a pretty common ingredient in skin care products ranging from Clarins’ Beauty Flash Balm to Clinique’s Clarifying Lotion… and for good reason.

What exactly is witch hazel?

witch-hazelWitch hazel is an ancient herb that has been used for medicinal purposes since centuries. It was first discovered by the Indians, who found a way to extract oils from the bark of Hamamelis virginiana – commonly known as the witch hazel shrub. Although the origins of its distinct name are unclear, it may have come from the Middle English word “wich”, which means “flexible”, in honor of the plant’s bendy branches.

Witch hazel contains tannin, flavonoids and strong anti-oxidants, which can help clear up a multitude of skin problems. Native Americans used the plant to ease swelling and treat minor wounds, abrasions and several other skin conditions. Today, herbalists consider it a powerful remedy for relieving muscle aches and pains, treating varicose veins, as well as to stem bleeding from cuts and scrapes.

However, it is as a beauty treatment that witch hazel keeps its mystique. And you don’t even have to wash your face with it from a silver bowl at full moon. It works quite simply and effectively at any time of day and the benefits are underlaid with solid scientific proof.

What to do with witch hazel

De-grease your hair: To reduce excessive oil, dampen a cotton ball with witch hazel and dab it along your hairline and parting. Leave on for 10 minutes, then rinse off with cool water.

Spot control: Witch hazel helps disinfect and reduce the inflammation on a pimple, which is why it can be found in many over-the-counter acne treatments. For maximum effectivity, try this potent mask: mix a teaspoon of witch hazel with two teaspoon of honey (for dry skin) or an egg white (oily skin). Apply this to the affected area and leave for 20 minutes; rinse off with cool water.

Soothe sunburns: Treating a sunburn with witch hazel will lessen healing time and prevent the infamous skin peeling and flaking. And it’s simple – just spread a thin coat of witch hazel on the ‘burn. It will both cool and soothe.

Treat dry skin: Apply witch hazel immediately after showering… it will “lock in” the moisture that has just soaked into your skin.

Pore perfecter: The high level of tannin content (which strengthens pore walls) in witch hazel makes it great for soothing and tightening large pores. Plus the herb is naturally antibacterial and effectively sucks out dirt and oil without over-drying. To use, simply soak a cotton pad in watch hazel and gently rub over cleansed skin twice a day.

A branch of witch hazel

A branch of witch hazel

Toner: Unlike many harsh toners that contain chemical ingredients, witch hazel naturally firms the skin without making your face feel too tight. It also helps reduce inflammation and redness, while having a cooling touch that leaves you feeling refreshed.

Anti-aging: Witch hazel is rich in antioxidants, which defend our skin against free radicals. Free radicals can damage skin, leading to premature skin aging. So, apply witch hazel regularly to clean skin when you want to slow down the clock.

Refresh tired eyes: NOT by squirting witch hazel in them, but by soaking a clean rag in witch hazel and cold water and placing the cold compress over your closed eyes for 10 minutes. The anti-inflammatory effects (which make witch hazel one of the magic ingredients in Preparation H) will help relieve strained, puffy or red eyes.

Heal a bruise faster: Been in a fight recently? Well, maybe not. But if you bang your leg or arm and are left with a nasty bruise, a thrice-daily dab of witch hazel can help speed up the healing time. It also works as a disinfectant for cuts, cracked skin and blisters.

Soothe (or prevent) razor burn: The anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel stop itchy bumps from forming around irritated hair follicles. Apply before or after shaving – this goes for both ladies and gentlemen.

Scars and age spots: Pour 2 tablespoons of witch hazel into a bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice and mix well. Use a q-tip to dab the mixture onto the age spots before bed. Let dry and put on the night time moisturizer. Repeat process for 2 weeks to fade the spots.

Do a deo: The same antibacterial and astringent properties that make witch hazel so effective at reducing oiliness can also help your underarms. Simply saturate a cotton ball in the liquid, dab it on your underarms and let it dry. You can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to give it a nice scent.

Varicose vein relief: Soak wash cloths in witch hazel and lay on legs (which are propped straight out) to reduce pain and swelling from varicose veins. Witch hazel will help tighten the veins, relieving discomfort temporarily.

Soothe poison ivy and poison oak: Just like acne and blemishes, witch hazel reduces itching and relieves swelling. Something definitely worth packing on your next picnic or camping trip.

Do you currently use witch hazel in your skincare regimen?

Beauty recipe: How to make virgin coconut oil at home (effort level: easy)

We already know that coconut oil is one of the most versatile beauty ingredients, tackling everything from cellulite and dark patches to frizzy hair and eczema.

However, after reading about how so-called ‘virgin’ oils, like coconut and olive, are amongst the most faked products in the food world, I started exploring the process of making virgin coconut oil right at home.

Turns out, it’s pretty simple. And you don’t need any fancy machinery – just what you have right in your kitchen already. It does require a bit of patience in parts but to me that’s a small price to pay for getting coconut oil that I unequivocally know to be fresh, pure and virgin.

Ready to try it out?

Making virgin coconut oil with fresh coconuts

You will need

2-3 mature coconuts (the brown-husked ones – they have the maximum oil content)
blender (optional)
cloth strainer
small saucepan
glass jar

How to

1. Split open the coconut and pour the water in a bowl

2. Scoop out the flesh using a sharp knife or a spoon

3. Roughly grate or shred the coconut flesh

4. Add the coconut water to the flesh and let it marinate for an hour (some recipes call for plain drinking water here but I prefer using the coconut water itself for two reasons: if any plain water is left over in the final coconut oil, it shall turn the oil rancid pretty fast; and the coconut water is itself a nutrient-rich oil base, so shouldn’t be wasted)

5. Pour everything into a blender and process till you get a paste-like consistency (if you don’t have a blender, skip this step)

6. Strain the paste (or the coconut-flesh-and-water marinade) through a thin cotton cloth to get rid of any residual solids; squeeze 2-3 times to get the maximum liquid out of the marinade

make coconut oil7. Now you have coconut milk (which has it’s own uses – more on that later!)

8. Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan and simmer on medium heat till you see it granulating and the oil separating from the solids. This can take up to an hour; stir frequently and hold on to your patience at this point!

9. Once the oil has visibly separated and risen to the top, remove it carefully with a spoon and pour into a glass jar

10. Let the oil cool for a couple of hours and then place the jar in the refrigerator overnight. This will make the oil solidify and completely detach itself from any residual water or milk solids

11. Scoop out the pure coconut oil and use it for any of these fantabulous skin and hair recipes!

Have you ever tried making coconut oil at home? How was your experience?

Beauty recipe: The Queen of Hungary’s Water (the world’s first cure-all skin tonic!)

You know the best part about travelling? About being a “gypsy” – beauty or otherwise? The friendships you develop with people from across the world. Unshakable, everlasting friendships. Because midnight conversations deep in the lush rainforests of Amazon and bone chilling treks up the fjords of Alaska have a way of forging bonds that withstand geographies and calendars.

And they pay the most beautiful dividends. Like the time Anna Csaszar, my pálinka-drinking-soul-baring-limbs-freezing buddy from Hungary introduced me to her country’s cult Queen of Hungary’s Water. I’ve often seen this beauty tonic in various forms on the shelves, from brands as varied as Omorovicza, Caudalie and Lush. But somehow, despite the “gypsy” antecedents, had never really investigated it. My bad.

Turns out Queen of Hungary’s Water (or Hungary water, as it’s known in short) was the world’s first distillable perfume – predating Eau de Cologne by almost five centuries.

And it wasn’t just a perfume either. Nope! Rather, it was a cure-all beauty tonic, bestowed with near-magical properties: the early recipes advise the user to drink the tonic, rub it on skin, bathe in it and inhale it in order to receive the most benefit. In fact, according to legend, it was so effective at reversing the old queen’s appearance that 25-year-old Grand Duke of Lithuania asked for her hand in marriage when she was 70!

Whether that’s true or not, fact is that the herbal composition of Hungary water is a wonderful astringent for all skin types. It gently tones, tightens pores, soothes itchy or acne-prone skin, normalizes the skin’s pH, smoothens the skin texture and protects it from bacteria and other infections.

The potent blend of volatile oils, flavonoids and phenolic acids, which are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, also make it a superb hair rinse.

But Hungary water may also be one of the most controversial beauty products in history. Claims about its origins range from the perfume-tonic having been given to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (1305-1380), either by a monk, a court alchemist, or a band of roaming gypsies.

It’s believed that the recipe for Hungary water remains written by the queen’s own hand, in golden alphabet, in the Imperial Library at Vienna. And that’s what the people of Hungary, who call upon this tonic water for everything from acne and eczema to headaches and indigestion, base this easy home brew upon. Anna gave me my first bottle and since then, I’ve always had one sitting on my side table.

Thankfully, given the number of bottles I go through (it’s addictive in what it does to your skin!) Hungary water is easy to make and you can get the ingredients just about everywhere.

And even if you can’t find everything in this list, just use what you have (except for rosemary – that’s crucial). Also, you can opt for either dry or fresh herbs. Though I’ve found that the fresh ones tend to make the mixture a little more cloudy. Personally, I stick to dry herbs – making sure they are organic, though.

You will need

  • 6 tablespoons lemon balm
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary
  • 4 tablespoons rose petals
  • 3 tablespoons calendula or marigold
  • 3 tablespoons mint
  • 1 tablespoon lemon peel
  • 1 tablespoon sage
  • 4 tablespoons chamomile (optional)
  • Cider vinegar to cover (preferably organic)
  • Rose water or witch hazel
  • Essential oil of lavender or rose (optional)

How to make Queen of Hungary’s Water

1. Pour all the herbs into a widemouthed glass jar

2. Add enough vinegar that it rises about two inches above the herbs; close the jar tight and let it sit in a warm or sunny spot for 2-3 weeks

3. Strain out the herbs with a fine mesh – try and get all the bits out as any fragments may turn rancid over time

4. Add either rose water or witch hazel in a ratio of 1:1 to the remaining liquid

5. Add the essential oils, if you so desire

6. Rebottle the mixture and store in a cool, dry place

Have you ever come across the Queen of Hungary’s Water? Tried it? Liked it?

Kokum comes of age: The perfect-skin secret you’ve never heard of!

Now, this is an Indian ingredient I never imagined seeing on an international platform  – that too, courtesy one of my favourite brands. I just picked up Burt’s Bees Ultra Conditioning Lip Balm With Kokum Butter and it’s anchored around, of all things, kokum butter – a little known fruit that is native to India’s Western Ghats (think Mumbai and the surrounding areas) and is rarely seen beyond this area. And it’s not just Burt’s Bees… a quick search shows this fruit cropping up majorly in skincare products nowadays.

In fact, I had never heard of kokum till it was introduced to me by my grandmom-in-law in Mumbai. Scientifically known as Garcinia Indica, the kokum tree is a tropical that’s pretty low maintenance and needs few – if any – chemical fertilisers or pesticides. It bears dark red fruit, which look a little like small plums. In the kitchen, it is used as a souring agent (like tamarind) and has a sharp, acidic flavor with a fruity aroma.

Kokum fruit

Kokum fruit

And what does kokum have to do with skincare?

But it’s in the realm of skincare that kokum really comes into its own. The seed contains 23-26% oil (extracted as butter), which has made it the traditional moisturiser for the local population since centuries. It also has high levels of Vitamin E, is non-comodegenic (non-pore clogging), reduces degeneration of skin cells and restores elasticity.

And most ideally for a hot land, kokum butter has a relatively high meting point, which means it remains solid at room temperature and does not need refrigeration. This is what makes it perfect for an organic brand like Burt’s Bees, where it allows for the use of less wax and more butters for maximum skin benefits.

Exactly how to DIY your skincare with kokum?

When used in its purest form, kokum butter is held near a flame and the melted oil is applied straight to the skin (it’s especially great for tackling rough patches or cracked heels).

This is how you will see it being used in most traditional homes, where the women swear there’s nothing better to keep skin glowing, hydrated and wrinkle-free than this simple formulation.

Kokum butter is also excellent for healing burns and allergic rashes, since it simultaneously cools the skin while hydrating.

Kokum butter

Kokum butter

Don’t people drink kokum juice as well?

Absolutely! Kokum juice – made by steeping the fruit in water – is used to relieve gastric problems like acidity, flatulence, constipation and indigestion. It is also helpful in controlling diabetes and is especially popular during summer as it has a cooling effect and shields the body against dehydration and sunstroke

Besides this, kokum also contains rich amounts of anti-oxidants that bind with free radicals and prevent oxidative damage to body cells. It also helps promote cellular repair and regeneration.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy this delectable, multi-benefit-laden fruit is through the appetizing sol kadhi, which is a much-in-demand summer drink as it cools the body internally, thereby reducing sun damage and keeping heat-related problems like acne at bay.

Kokum is easily available in Indian stores across the world – when buying, look for dark, soft, pliable rinds that release their juices easily. Then just dunk in the water and enjoy!

Have you ever tried kokum butter or kokum juice?