In the basement beneath the Lotus Centre on Prescott Street, Esther Squires stirs a thick, fragrant liquid in a large Pyrex measuring cup. She’s been at it for about 20 minutes.
The liquid will eventually thicken into Rose Geranium and Lavender body lotion, which she made from a mixture of oils, shea butter, and natural preservatives like vitamin E oil and grapefruit seed extract. She’ll get seven bottles of lotion from this batch which took two hours to make.
That may seem like a lot of effort to produce just seven bottles of body lotion, but in the world of natural, chemical-free cosmetics, that’s what it takes.
After a lifelong interest in plants and their medicinal properties, Squires started her line of cosmetics, Esskin, a year ago, almost by accident.
“Last summer, I started doing an online course in aromatology with Jan Benham, who is based in the U.K.,” says Squires.
“She said she was coming to Toronto in November to offer a cosmetic-making course and that I should take it and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not that into cosmetics, I want to do therapeutic essential oils and learn how to cure skin problems or health and emotional issues.’”
Benham eventually convinced her and Squires flew to Toronto for the course. There, she learned how to make almost 20 different chemical-free cosmetic products using pure, natural ingredients.
“And I got the bug!” she says.
“I came home and instead of leaving it, I just went right into it. It was Christmas time, so I started making little kits of everything I had learned, including lipstick, for all of my friends. Then the phone started ringing after that with friends asking for more, especially the shampoo and the face moisturizers.”
Squires began making products ranging from shampoo and conditioner to lipstick, sun screen and facial moisturizer in the Lotus Centre, using a small stove.
Her products are entirely free of chemicals and made from organic ingredients that she or a supplier she trusts have researched and checked out. She sells them under the name Esskin, and they’re available at the Lotus Centre, Soothe Spa, Dynamis Health Centre and Johnny Ruth.
“Everyone is wanting products that are pure,” says Squires. “Every second person that I talk to has a chemical allergy or is allergic to scents. And though the essential oils have a strong smell, it dissipates quickly, and it’s therapeutic, so it’s beneficial for your system in some way.
“I only use the oil that’s good for what the product is intended for,” she continues. “For example, in the moisturizers are all balancing oils for mature skin. I wouldn’t put anything in the product unless it was geared toward that product’s intention.”
As for scent allergies, Squires says that many people are actually allergic to the chemicals in scents and synthetic versions of essential oils, but not the oils themselves. She goes to great lengths to ensure that all of her ingredients are naturally, and not synthetically, derived and says that many people with scent allergies find they can use her products without a reaction.
If they can’t, she can make all of them completely and naturally scent-free.
“Most of my plant-based ingredients and some of my essential oils come from my teacher,” she says.
“She’s sourced her ingredients for the last 25 years, trying to find the best quality ingredients, to the point that she goes to these places to find out what they clean their machines with in order to produce the ingredient. If they use any harsh chemicals at all, she will not buy from them; it has to be really, really pure.”
According to Dr. Tanya O’Brien, a naturopathic doctor at Health For Life, all that sourcing effort is necessary, especially for essential oils: labels don’t often reveal whether an oil is natural or synthetically derived.
“It’s hard to find 100 per cent pure essential oils,” says O’Brien. “Really, the only way to know is to contact the actual company. You actually have to call them and as if they’re using natural or synthetic ingredients.”
The effort, she says, is worth it.
“I would definitely say that you get more of a benefit from the natural than from the synthetics,” she says.
As Squires fills up the bottles of rose geranium body lotion, she says all the work is worth it for both herself and for her customers.
“I read David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen list (of cosmetic chemicals to avoid), and I was thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, in time,’” she says.
“But as soon as I came back from my course, my teacher was so adamant about staying clear of all that stuff, and I started cleaning out my cupboards. And once I got into making cosmetics, and started actually putting it on my body, I could see a difference in me and the people that use it.”
But the benefits aren’t just skin deep, she says.
“I feel like I’m contributing,” she says. “I’m getting a total of seven bottles, and I’ve been working on this for two hours, but I like that. It just feels more intimate to make small little batches rather than these big cauldrons. There’s something nice about it, it feels more like me.”