Autumn is a time to relax, to enjoy, to slow down. And it is the perfect time of year to learn about Tirol’s wild herbs – not for cooking but for making natural cosmetics. I met up with a local expert to discover what the region’s woods, pastures and meadows have to offer my skin.
Me and cosmetics? It’s complicated. On the one hand I like beauty products which are quick and simple, but on the other hand I have sensitive skin. That’s why in recent years I have found myself spending more and more money on expensive face creams. And yet, I have never really felt comfortable doing so. Despite my best efforts to avoid aluminium and microplastics in cosmetics, even high-end products are full of mineral oils, softeners and other harmful things. Just download one of those code-scanner apps before you next go shopping – you will be surprised. In many ways, I have been feeding my skin a diet of fast food. Ironic, really, for someone like me who is into healthy eating and makes everything herself, even down to a simple vegetable soup.
But how easy is it to create your own cosmetics? I don’t know (yet), but I’m determined to find out. Autumn, I am told, is the perfect time of year. As the days get shorter and the air turns colder, many of us look forward to long soaks in the bath followed by a honey skin peeling. For me, autumn has traditionally been the season to learn a new hobby – wood carving, screen printing and sewing have all been mastered with more or less success. This year it’s the turn of natural cosmetics.
Making your own beauty products is a trend which has been booming in recent years. Courses have sprung up in towns and cities offering the opportunity to harness the power of nature to create natural, sustainable skincare solutions. Many recipes draw on plants native to the Alps, so Tirol seems the perfect place for me to start. I was joined by a local herb expert, Barbara Hoflacher, who has spent years studying the flora and fauna of Tirol. As a child she accompanied her grandmother on walks through forests, across meadows and over streams, collecting many alpine herbs along the way and then using these to make many of the products we need for daily life.
For more than 20 years, Barbara has taken a professional interest in organic skincare. She is a qualified alternative practitioner, physiotherapist and aromatologist who learnt her trade from the best, including Susanne Fischer-Rizzi and Wolf Dieter Storl in Munich. She also works as a radiological technologist on the children’s ward at Innsbruck Hospital. As if that wasn’t enough, she is a hiking guide and and a passionate hunter. The fat from the game often goes into her cosmetic products and is considered healthier and more environmentally friendly than imported fats like shea butter. Natural fat, however, does not feature in her make-your-own cosmetics workshops for two good reasons: the amount of game which can be hunted in Tirol varies from season to season, so it is difficult to secure a regular and reliable supply; and these days young people, especially those living in cities, prefer vegan cosmetics with zero animal products.
Organic? Tick. Vegan? Tick? So what else is important for Barbara Hoflacher? “It’s got to be simple,” she says. This philosophy shines through in her recently published book “Du darfst auf meine Haut. Naturkosmetik selber machen” where it’s all about high-quality ingredients and less is more: olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, all organic. When it comes to the plants themselves, Barbara encourages me to think local and use anything and everything that can be found in the region or grown on my window sill. As I quickly discover, there are plenty of options out there: birch leaves, basil, lavender, dandelions, daisies, etc. Add a few essential oils and a couple more basics available from any good pharmacy and, hey presto, you have all you need to get started. “I aim to make people as independent as possible,” says Hoflacher, “No matter whether they live in the Tirolean Alps or downtown Berlin.” She adds that these days it is increasingly hard to buy organic, ethical cosmetics in shops and online. Harmful ingredients are often given non-threatening names. Even ‘natural’ cosmetic products contain questionable substances needed to make them last longer on the shelf.
I meet up with Barbara Hoflacher on a chilly autumn day in Innsbruck. The wind is whistling through the streets, whipping up yellow leaves which have fallen from the trees and tossing them into the air in front of the cloud-covered Nordkette Mountains. The air is crystal clear – an early sign of the winter to come. Hoflacher greets me with a smile and tells me enthusiastically that we have chosen exactly the right time of year to meet. “Autumn and winter are traditionally the times of year when people take up new hobbies and learn new skills. That has always been the case here in Tirol – as soon as the harvest was complete, people would settle down in their homes and sit around the stove to tell stories, carry out repairs and learn handicraft skills from their grandmothers.”
Initially I am a little concerned that after so many years of using products rich in mineral oils my skin will react badly to natural cosmetics. Barabra reassures me that I have nothing to worry about – the ‘worst’ I can expect is a transition phase lasting around 28 days during which the pores clogged up by conventional cosmetics open and release natural toxins. This process, she tells me, is an important one so that my ‘new’ skin can get the maximum possible benefit from the organic cosmetics we are about to make. Fresh plant-based oils kick-start the skin’s natural repair mechanism and help build up the cement which holds the individual skin cells together. “Skin has to be both waterproof and breathable – a bit like good outdoor sportswear,” explains Barbara, adding that in many cases high-quality olive oil alone would be perfectly sufficient for a healty skincare regime.
Good to know, but our plans for today’s workshop are a little more ambitious than just cracking open a bottle of cold-pressed virgin olive oil. Barbara is going to show me how to make a warming bayleaf cream which can be used on the body and the face to treat skin impurities and soothe aching joints and muscles, especially in the back. We also plan to make a comfrey rub – ideal for dry skin in the autumn months and also proved to help treat wounds and scars, relieve sports injuries and treat tendonitis in the wrist. I also want to have a go at making an organic deodorant and bath salts. And, last but not least, Barbara suggests making a gentle oil based on St. John’s wort which can be applied to the inside of the nose to relieve dry nostrils – perfect for this time of year full of colds and sniffles. That’s all we will have time for today, but I also get to take home a recipe for skin tincture made from tree resin. Resin, it turns out, is one of the key ingredients in many winter products. “It heals cuts and grazes, even big open wounds, is a natural disinfectant, works as a blistering ointment, warms cold hands and feet, soothes chest infections and coughs, helps with painful Achilles tendons, treats back ache,” says Barbara, before laughing that the list goes on. And one of the best things about resin is its natural abundance: it can be found anywhere with spruce, larch or pine trees.
Barbara’s favourite resin comes from the Swiss stone pine, a tree which can generally be found at altitudes above 1,300 metres. One the best places to collect this resin is Salfeins near the village of Grinzens, a high plateau offering fine views of the Nordkette Mountains to the north of Innsbruck and the craggy limestone peaks of the Kalkkögel. Further useful plants found at these altitudes include masterwort, angelica and mountain thyme. In order to survive in this harsh environment, these plants have developed high concentrations of essential oils – perfect for natural cosmetics. Far from keeping this spot a secret, Hoflacher is keen to show it to me. “Knowledge grows the more you share it,” she explains. That is why she also offers special walks where she introduces guests to the huge diversity of natural plants growing in Tirol. She lets me in on a few basic rules. Number one, always collect produce when you are walking down. That prevents plants from wilting and means you don’t have to carry around a heavy rucksack all day. Number two, listen to the “call of the plants”. That means first and foremost being flexible and spontaneous. You might set out on your walk determined to collect elderberries, but if you don’t manage to find any then don’t worry. Chances are you will pass plenty of other great things, for example masterwort, so don’t be afraid to change your plans and take what you find. Relax and let nature guide you.”
The time has finally come to get my hands dirty. I am surprised by just how simple Barbara’s recipes are. Some things, such as tinctures, take a little bit of time, but we’re in no hurry. We clean the comfrey, cut it into pieces and place it into water bath together with beeswax. “Warm maceration” is the technical term, I am told. As I cut the roots, a viscous liquid oozes out. This can be used to treat wounds on the skin and mucous membranes inside the body. Barbara explains that she collected the comfrey we are using from the Inn Valley, but it can also be found in abundance in most wetland areas of Europe. In Munich, she says, there is plenty growing on the banks of the Isar. We take the mixture off the heat, stir it until cold and then pour it into small glasses. The process in itself has a meditative quality and is no more complicated than making a Sunday roast. The difference is that you end up with something you can enjoy for many months and give away to friends as a unique gift.
Our comfrey concoction has taken a little while to complete, so now it’s time for something a little quicker: bath salts. As we grind away at the salt-and-herb mixture with a pestle and mortar, the room fills with a wonderful scent of fresh rosmary and juniper. I feel like I’ve been lying in the bathtub for half an hour! This relaxing sensation may well also have something to do with the fine views of the Patscherkofel mountain offered through the large windows – the clouds have cleared a little and the autumn sun is bathing the landscape in a golden light found only at this time of year. Once we are done with our pestle-and-mortar action, all that is left is to add a little plant oil and sprinkle the essential oils on top. We then move straigh onto what turns out to be the fastest of all the recipes we complete today: the organic deodorant. It comes in the form of a cream which is applies thinly to the skin. I am surprised by its powder-like consistency and the fact it smells better than one of my favourite deodorants from a well-known Australian beauty brand.
Barbara explains the importance of hygiene when it comes to producing cosmetics which, ideally, should last for several months if not longer. She recommends cleaning the equipment required with pure alcohol. Using small jars and filling them all the way to the top is also a good way to ensure the products stay fresh – it leaves less space for oxygen and bacteria. Essential oils also have a mild natural preservative effect. On average, Barbara tells me, the creams and tinctures we make will last anywhere from three months to three years.
Back home I replace my face cream with the bayleaf cream we have made together plus a bottle of high-quality organic olive oil. My skin feels good and seems to have no problems with the switch from mineral-based products to natural products. I haven’t quite got up the courage yet to replace my shampoo and toothpaste with natural alternatives, even though Barbara was kind enough to recommend a few. As she says, it’s better to start of small and take things step by step. Throwing away all your old products and replacing them with new ones normally ends up in frustration and disappointment. And who needs those kinds of feelings in a steaming hot bath full of homemade bath salts?
- 100ml organic olive oil
- 100ml organic sunflower oil
- 1 or 2 handfuls of bayleaf (cut into small pieces)
- 40g organic beeswax
- Optional: 20 drops of organic lavender oil
Place the bayleaves into oil and heat the mixture to 60°C in a water bath for 45-60 minutes. Remove the bayleaves and sieve the mixture through a tea towel to remove any bits. Heat the oil again in a water bath and add small pieces or beeswax and lanolin. Remove the mixture from the water bath and stir until cold, adding the lavender oil slowly drop by drop. Pour the mixture into 30ml jars (fill them to the top) and wait until cold before putting on the lid.
- 200ml organic St. John’s wort oil or organic olive oil
- 1 or 2 handfuls of clean comfrey root (cut into small pieces)
- 40g organic beeswax
- Optional: 20 drops of organic rosmary oil (eucalyptol)
Place comfrey into oil and heat the mixture to 60°C in a water bath for 45-60 minutes. Take off the heat and, if possible, leave to rest overnight. Warm the mixture again the next day, then pour it through a tea towel and remove the comfrey. Heat the oil again in a water bath (60°C) and add small pieces or beeswax. Remove the mixture from the water bath and stir until cold, adding the rosmary oil slowly drop by drop. Pour the mixture into 30ml jars (fill them to the top) and wait until cold before putting on the lid.
- 3 teaspoons shea butter
- 1/2-1 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2-1 teaspoons zinc oxide
- 2 drops Atlas cedar oil
- 4 drops scented geranium oil
- 7 drops lime oil
Take the shea butter (room temperature) and mix with the rest of the ingredients before filling the mixture into 30ml jars.
- 50ml St. John’s wort oil
- 3 drops cajeput oil
- 3 drops Swiss stone pine oil
- 4 drops thyme oil linalool
Place all the ingredients in small brown bottles with pipette lids, shake gently and seal.
- 10-30g fresh herbs such as rosmary and juniper berries
- 200g natural salt
- 2-3 tablespoons of plant oil or macerate
- 8 drops of essential oils (choose your own)
Cut the herbs into small pieces and crush with the salt using a pestle and mortar. Mix with the plant oil and essential oils. Place to mixture into a jar, screw on the lid and leave to rest for 14 days.
- 100ml olive oil
- 10-30g soft spruce resin
- 20g beeswax or 10g Carnauba wax
Heat the olive oil and add the resin. Remove any small pieces which have not dissolved, then pour the mixture through a sieve. Melt the macerate and the beeswax over a waterbath. As soon as the mass is warm enough to touch, stir it until cold. Pour the mixture into jars and wait until it is cold before putting on the lids.