Apothecary is sort of a buzzword these days, but before you could run down to Rite Aid or Duane Reade to pick of cough syrup for your sore throat, people went to apothecaries for help with their medical problems.
Apothecaries: A Brief History
They were the original pharmacists and knew all about what herbs mixed with what to fix whatever issue a person was having. Similar to a doctor, they’d listen to the symptoms a person gave and examine the problematic area before dolling out advice and the necessary medicine. They were knowledgeable about ingredients and how to use them.
We have evidence of apothecaries as early as 2600 BCE. And while they used herbs and flowers (this was especially common with colonial apothecaries) they also worked with minerals, chemicals, and even animals. Until the 18th century, apothecaries practiced like doctors. They apprenticed and some even attended medical school.
The apothecaries of today and very different from the ones of the past. They don’t diagnose or treat. Most of the time when you see the term, it’s by someone who likes to go the natural way to deal with mildly inconvenient but common beauty and wellness issues (think dry skin or cellulite).
How To Become Your Own Apothecary
The one thing that we all can takeaway from the apothecaries of old is that there’s something to be said for having a thorough understanding about specific ingredients and their impact.
Remember, the original apothecaries had an in depth knowledge of chemical compounds and knew that just because something was derived from nature didn’t automatically make it safe. While you can’t assume that everyone or product that reads apothecary uses natural ingredients, you can commit to educating yourself about what types of ingredients are worth knowing, using and avoiding.
Because here’s the thing: While your typical modern day apothecary really shouldn’t be looked to for suspicious rashes or hardcore medical problems, I’m all for going the DIY natural route whenever possible. To paraphrase an actual apothecary I know (seriously, she has a nursing degree and everything) nature has a remedy for most of our problems.
Looking into more holistic means of cleansing your hair, clearing your skin or keeping your underarms fresh is not just generally more economical but environmentally friendly and empowering. There’s no better way to understand how your body or ingredients work than by doing a shit ton of research and experimenting.
As you can imagine, there are an abundance of herbs, flowers, and oils to familiarize yourself with. In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming, which is why I like to recommend that people start their apothecary journey through the world of DIY beauty. As you become more confident and familiar with ingredients and techniques, you may feel comfortable going toward the herbalism route (tinctures, syrups, etc.) but until then, learning how to make and customize your own skincare products is a great place to step your toe in.
There are many great books about holistic medicine but to begin, I recommend two to add to your shelf or Kindle.
The Home Apothecary by Stacey Dugliss-Wesselman
This was my first real literary introduction to the world of serious natural beauty, herbalism and DIY skincare. It has beautiful pictures, amazing recipes and instructions, plus is a fun read. It tells you all about different oils (carriers, essentials), what they’re used for and which ones work best for specific hair/skin types and results. I tell everyone about it. It’s a must have!
My mom gave me her copy to borrow, and I still haven’t returned it! It’s filled with a ton of recipes for lotions, facial mists, hand creams, cuts, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s a really good place to learn about less common oils, what they’re used for and how you can incorporate them into your routine.
If you do read any of the two books, you’ll see that there are a lot of items one needs to get going. It’s a reason many people don’t give natural DIY projects a try. I mean, I get it. It can feel overwhelming.
When I started building my apothecary kit (I also like to call it a natural beauty artisanal), I kept things simple. The reality (and beauty) of apothecary style products/projects is that a single ingredient can be used in a variety of ways to address a variety of issues. It’s a serious way to get a true bang for your buck.
Apothecary Beginner’s Kit Must Haves
Facial clays like French green, white, and red are amazing for providing minerals and drawing out impurities from the skin. Each has different properties and benefits. Bentonite is one of my favorites because it’s amazing at zapping zits. It makes a great base for a facial or even body mask. Place a tablespoon of the clay into a jar (don’t use a metal spoon as this clay is powerful enough to extract metal), add a few blueberries (smashed) and a little plain yogurt for a lactic acid antioxidant rich face mask.
Epson & Magnesium Salts
Epson and mineral or “magnesium” salts are great for detoxing the body and relieving sore muscles. Like clays, they make a great base and can be customized for your needs. I love to add flowers like lavender and chamomile to mine, along with different essential oils. All you have to do is pick your ingredients, stir them together in a bowl and then place in a jar. Also, they make really sweet, affordable DIY gifts for friends. If you want to see some of my recipes, let me know in the comments.
Carrier oils (think sweet almond, jojoba, and avocado) are usually used to dilute essential oil blends. However, they totally can be used on their own and are part of many DIY skincare recipes.
They can be used for hair serums, facial oil blends, rollerball perfumes, conditioner and shampoo formulas, and whipped body butter.
I like to use them for body oil recipes. I’ll use sweet almond or apricot oil as my base and then add a blend of essential oils for fragrance (usually a mix of lavender, grapefruit, and vanilla).
Tea Tree Oil
My boyfriend hates this stuff, but whenever he gets a breakout or mosquito bite he’s quick to say, “Okay, put some of that stinky crap on it.”
Truth be told, tea tree oil has a potent smell. I personally love it, but if you’re not a huge fan of the pungent minty scent, consider it’s amazing benefits. It’s antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial. If you want to see all the studies with it, check out this article from Healthline.
I use this brand of Tea Tree oil, but you can find other good ones at most health food stores. It’s great for creating acne fighting recipes (mix a teaspoon of bentonite with a drop of tea tree, add a little water for a paste and smear on the breakout) or anything where you want to discourage/destroy the growth of bacteria.
I put it in my deodorant recipe, and add 3 drops of it to my shampoo and hair masks because it’s also antifungal. If you didn’t know, yeast buildup on the scalp can cause thinning hair. Tea Tree is a great way to nix that.
Ah, essential oils. A must for all skincare apothecary kits. They smell great and have many different health benefits.
Unlike most synthetic fragrances, essential oils are created by distilling plants, herbs, and flowers. There are so many (and I’m talking in the hundreds) to choose from but:
- They can be pricey
- They’re not all sustainable
The thing with essential oils is that because they’re derived from plants, it takes a long time for them to be created. For example, it takes 10,000 roses to make 5ml bottle of rose essential oil. That’s nuts, right?
If a species of flower, root or herb is not having a good season, the price for the essential oil goes up. Also, keeping up with the demand for specific oils can cause a shortage in the plant and increasing risk to its extinction. Because of this it’s really important to know about your oils and where they are coming from, which oil makers are reputable (not all are), and that you’re purchasing therapeutic grade. You also want to do a patch test on your skin to see if you’re allergic to a specific ingredient.
For all of these reasons, I sometimes use fragrance oils. Some synthetics don’t have phthalates and contain compounds from the actual flower you want. It boils down to what you feel comfortable with, what works for your body, and what type of thing you are creating.
I like strictly using essential oils when it comes to my deodorant, body salts and scrubs, and anything that will come in contact with my face.
For your beginners kit, I recommend obtaining some of the basics like lavender, orange, lemon, eucalyptus, gardenia, rose, clary sage, and lemongrass.
I use essential oils not only for my skincare, but cleaning products and DIY diffusers. I like NOW Essential oils because they create quality oils and are transparent in their labeling. However, other companies I like are Plant Therapy, and Eden’s Garden.
Droppers come with most (not all) amber bottles, but plastic ones with points of measurements make recipe creation 100 percent easier!
Instead of counting drops you can count by the ml. Some essential oils stain, so it’s also preferable to mess up a plastic one rather than a glass one you may want to use in a gift down the line. If they split, cleanse and recycle.
Every apothecary needs amber bottles that protect their creations from the sun. Most of the time they will come with a dropper, but you can remove those if necessary and replace with a spray top or a plain cap.
While you can certainly use bottles from your own home, I like bottles specifically made for this sort of thing because of their size, sturdiness, and portability. You can reuse them (I soak mine in white vinegar and soap, then place in the dishwasher), and work well for body oils, essential oil blends and other experiments.
As of this typing I have about 5 in my cabinet, all filled with different fragrance blends that will be used in future perfumes and body butters. The more you have, the more creations you can make.
Jars with lids
Jars with lids are another must. You’ll need them to store your masks, body butters, cream based deodorants, scrubs, bath soaks, and more. Again, amber based jars tend to protect from the sun which can encourage spoilage, but depending on what you’re making, they’re not always necessary.
You can totally use mason jars or what you have on hand, but I like smaller jars because I don’t need to have a lot of product to fill one up. They also are handy when I want to make a DIY beauty gift for someone.
I never thought I needed funnels until my boyfriend gave me some very tiny ones several Christmases ago when I started making perfumes. They help prevent spillage when you’re pouring into bottles with small openings. Are they absolutely necessary? No. But they can help. Before I got them I was forced to eyeball or do everything drop by drop, which could get messy.
There are so many things to add to this list. Witch hazel, high quality honey, bowls only used for your DIY recipes…argh, I want to list them all. However, this is a very good starting place. Hell, it’s where I started.
Since I went into the world of DIY apothecary style beauty, I’ve rarely bought a facial masks or perfume. I haven’t had to purchase deodorant in two or three years. Most of what I need I make and am much happier for it.
As you make your own apothecary kit, please let me know what you’re adding, making and any questions you have. If any of the DIYs I mentioned interest you, please let me know and I’ll do a post.
Hudson Valley based writer.