Monday 26 September 2016

My scented week: from zero to hero (Aroma M Geisha Noire!) via some musty old books

In last week's post about my recent brush with allergic contact dermatitis I mentioned that I don't believe fragrance is a contributory factor. I still don't, yet at the same time, I haven't felt much like wearing perfume lately, whether during the flare ups or the fragile periods of quiescence in between. When the double decker oedemas strike, my whole focus is on calming my skin down, not adding other chemicals to the mix. And when my skin is in a good phase, a bit of me doesn't want to tempt fate on the remote offchance that fragrance might be a trigger. But mostly I have gone scentless in recent weeks because as with make up I have simply got out of the habit. Though I have worn the odd dab of Lancome's La Vie est Belle from my newly acquired miniature, and can report that I do like it as much on me as I did on my friend L's friend S in France. ;)

Then this week wasn't actually free of dermatological incident in any case: I had a bad reaction to raw garlic and/or onion on Tuesday evening while engaging in a rare bout of cooking. That'll teach me! Turns out they are poisonous plants, to dogs at least, so go figure. Luckily, thanks to a timely tip off from Lisa Jones, the immediate deployment of a couple of new weapons in my skincare armoury from the Avene range - specially formulated for 'peaux intolerantes' - had things back under control by the middle of the next day.

Two days later saw the installation of a new dishwasher, seven weeks after the polystyrene cube was deposited by the delivery men in the middle of the dining room floor. The excitement I felt to see the appliance in position at last triggered a completely out of character five hour flurry of kitchen cleaning.  One cupboard leads to another, you know how it is... And in the course of this operation, my hands inevitably came into contact with a wide range of powerful cleaning agents, as I didn't wear rubber gloves consistently throughout. Cue flare up No 2! Cooking, cleaning...why, I have only myself to blame. ;)

Friday saw the visit of an antiquarian book dealer, who had come to appraise a small selection of my late father's enormous collection of theological and devotional books. We holed ourselves up at the dining room table for a couple of hours: I passed the lady each book in turn, which she examined with professional care, noting the type and quality of paper, the lie of the ribbon marker, the pattern of end papers, the clasps, the binding - no aspect was left unturned. She was also looking for any rips or tears, missing pages, faded covers, brown stains or foxing, loose stitching, defacement in the form of underlining / annotations / colouring in(!) by lost generations of Victorian children - and most pertinently in the context of this post, she put the books to her nose and inhaled deeply, on the look out for any which had a musty smell.

For as with old clothes in a wardrobe, a musty smell is not a desirable aspect in an old book, and detracts from its appeal, and ultimately also its value. I watched rapt, as the book dealer conscientiously sniffed each volume. Humidity is the main culprit in causing books to go mildewy, and some cursory research on the Net has unearthed a surprising number of strategies for removing this unpleasant odour, including baking soda, cat litter(!), coffee grounds, charcoal briquettes, clothes dryer sheets, newspaper, and something called 'MicroChamber paper', incorporating zeolite molecular traps, whatever they may be. Unfortunately, my father's books run into the thousands, so the logistics of submitting the mustier volumes to one or more of these ingenious remedies make this pretty much a non-starter.

Then by Saturday, my skin was in a holding pattern of good behaviour, and at a gig that night, I risked both makeup and perfume for the first time in a while. My SOTE was the very addictive Geisha Noire from Aroma M. I shan't attempt a full review of it, as I couldn't possibly top The Silver Fox's glorious paean here. I will just say that Geisha Noire is a smouldering, furrily sensuous, ceremonial cupcake of a scent that did not feel out of place in the atmospheric venue, a converted church, partly dating back to 1270. Interesting factoid - one of the 49 rectors to have officiated in St Mary at the Walls (as it was called in its consecrated days) turns out to be the grandson of Thomas Twining, founder of the tea company of that name, whose 'Everyday' tea bags are standard issue in the Premier Inn where we were staying.


I had several unprompted compliments on Geisha Noire from other audience members, and one of the band pronounced it 'sweet', before adding: 'It's nice', in case I might construe that as a criticism. I am afraid I completely forgot to sniff any of my friends - including Caryne, the diehard Lush fan, and Andy, whom I introduced to Ormonde Jayne. I did at least chat about perfume to my Swedish friend Louise. (Check out this post for the lowdown on Stockholm's perfume trail during my stay with her in 2009.)

Courtesy of Louise Bodin 

As we strolled though the churchyard during the very noisy support act, Louise told me about her recent perfume purchases in a British branch of T K Maxx: L'Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu and a Penhaligon's whose name escaped her, except that it began with 'z'.  (That was easy to check later - my money is on Zizonia!)

And speaking of Penhaligon's, the band played 'Stick Your Hand Up if You're Louche', with its reference to Tralala mentioned in a recent post. As you can see, the bass player took this opportunity to come clean. We were in a church, after all.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Quick (and slow!) skincare fixes: Part 2 - 'The eyes have (had) it': my brush with allergic contact dermatitis (aka eyelid eczema) prompts toiletries triage and cosmetics cull

Me, on a good skin day, dressed up for a wedding - but scroll on...!
I had been planning to do a post sometime on my overall skincare routine, having spent a couple of years now concertedly experimenting with various high end serums, night creams, eye creams, acid toners etc, and generally trying to up my game in terms of taking care of my skin, albeit very, very belatedly. But since the ill-fated day in April where I needed a quick fix before a gig for dark circles under my eyes, my whole dermatological regime has been thrown into total disarray and is only now starting to fall into (a very different) place...

For as well as buying that Clarins concealer mentioned in that post, in order to qualify for four free handbag sized items and a sponge bag to put them in, the sales assistant talked me into buying another skincare product, and I opted for a cream cleanser with gentian in it. I had forgotten to pack my usual Micellar water, which had actually started to sting a bit lately, so I was on the lookout for other eye makeup removing products that were suitable for sensitive skin. To the SA's credit, she said that this cleanser wasn't formulated specially for eyes, and might irritate some people, but that I would probably be okay. I was so keen to qualify for the goody bag(!) that I recklessly took a punt. 'It's Clarins, how bad can it be?' I thought to myself.

That night I took my make up off with this supposedly 'gentle, water-free formula for oily skin', that offered 'optimum comfort' and promised to leave my skin 'gently refreshed', albeit not necessarily my eyes, though there were no overt warnings not to use it on the eye area.  Well, as the next day wore on, my dark circles may have been history, but I swapped them for swollen eyelids that were both red and weirdly crepey - so-called 'lizard eyes'. It was a scary transformation, and not something I would have expected to happen while using such a premium brand.

Now you don't tend to see pics of women looking like s*** in any of the women's magazines, or even in some actual adverts for / articles on eczema products. Here is an image from an article in Allure magazine on the subject - she really has it bad as you can see...

But thankfully some of the beauty bloggers who suffer from eczema are brave enough to post pictures of themselves to raise awareness of the problem and its possible causes. Some have been lifelong sufferers, others, like me, have only started to have problems in later life.

So here goes - I would like to get the word out that some of the ingredients in so called 'dermatologically tested' and 'gentle' products are anything but. Or they can be for some people, say.

Moreover, this was not the first time I had had a bad reaction to a cleansing product, but over two years had elapsed, and I was fervently hoping the previous occasion was a one-off. I was down in Norwich, also at a gig(!), and had bought some 'emergency' cheapo, Spa brand 'cleansing eye makeup remover pads' the day before, prompting an identical flare up of the red, swollen, wrinkly variety described above. I spent half the evening hiding in the toilets at the venue, but at the end of the night when the lights went up there was no hiding place. I had warned the band of my dermatological crisis, and one of them, on seeing me, tactfully observed: 'You just engraved?' And trust me, that was being kind.

Spa?!?! Not as relaxing as it sounds

So while I was free of incidents between January 2014, and April of this year, I was starting to be aware of my skin's growing sensitivity in general. And now, since the Clarins 'do' in April, I have had frequent though intermittent problems, including one or two that were so bad friends said they wouldn't have recognised me! (Not that I left the house much at those times.)

I have now been 'under the doctor' since the beginning of August, and have had good results with a very mild hydrocortisone ointment. I know it has form for thinning the skin, but in a sufficiently low dose (0.5%) and used for a finite amount of time (two weeks), it really did help. But I did have a minor recurrence after I came off that, so the doctor put me on an immuno-suppressant called Elidel (pimecrolimus), also for two weeks.

It hurt like hell for the first week, as it is known to do, but my face got used to it after that and the cream has really made a difference. If anyone ever finds themselves in this unfortunate position, and is prescribed Elidel, I can definitely recommend persisting with it. The idea is that the medication turns off the allergic reaction to the affected area.

Irritating preservatives

Meanwhile, the doctor asked me to see if I could possibly identify what ingredients I might be allergic to, although I will also be going for patch tests at some point. Eyeballing the ingredients on the cheap wipes from 2014, my eye immediately lit on 2-BROMO-2-NITROPROPANE-1, 3-DIOL, a formaldehyde releasing microbial preservative, which is also in Simple wipes, would you believe? I have used those a lot down the years, but they were starting to bother me, now I think of it.

Then the Clarins cleanser has a controversial preservative in it called METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE - that I can actually spell now without looking it up each time! I note that people suffering from an allergy to this have their own Facebook page, and it isn't pretty, like that pic of me below. The European regulations changed in 2005, allowing a much greater concentration of this chemical in beauty products, and dermatologists are witnessing an epidemic of cases of allergic contact dermatitis, especially in the past two years - perhaps these things have a cumulative effect, and are now just reaching a tipping point?

Here is a sobering article on the matter - I am that soldier, no question!

Truly shocking 'double decker' scenario - don't remember me this way!!

Now of course I don't know for certain that these are the two offending ingredients, but having done a triage of toiletries that have made my skin sting and those that don't, the pile containing one or other of these ingredients tells its own story. Yes, all unwittingly over the summer, I had regularly been using a hand wash (by The White Company!), a shower gel (by Molton Brown!), a supposedly nourishing shampoo with argan oil and a Micellar water, ALL with MI or some kind of formaldehyde-releasing chemical in it. Anything with 'urea' in the name is a giveaway of the latter. 

I also learnt in my reading up on the subject that there is a distinction between so-called 'leave-on' products (creams and to a degree also cleansers), and 'rinse off' products like liquid soaps, shampoos etc. The latter should be less of an issue in theory, as the residue is meant to be washed off your skin. In practice, however, I ain't so sure, plus there is the risk that you might inadvertently rub your eye with a finger that has just touched something really quite aggressive - which shampoos are as a rule. 

Very elderly shower gel on its last gasp

I should also say that my problem may not just be caused by preservatives in cleansing products, though they were definitely triggers. I sense that I may be guilty of contributory negligence of every stripe over the years, creating an underlying climate of intolerance which has finally blown! The other two villains in my triple pronged campaign of skin abuse may well be:

Using old makeup / skincare products

Hey, I have blogged about this more than once, have even been proud of myself for not being wasteful, and defiant in the face of the dire warnings of bad reactions to bacteria-ridden mascaras. Well, that was flagrant and chronic hubris on my part for which I may now be paying!

Using too many products at once

Certainly in the past two years, I have been testing and trying out loads of products in every skincare category imaginable, toggling between 2-3 serums or eye creams or toners in any given week, complicating my beauty regime to such an extent that my skin may not have known if it is coming or going! Goodness knows how Korean women get away with it, with their 21 step routines - but I think my skin was very possibly registering a protest vote...

After extensively reading blogs by fellow sufferers, I have now switched to a new set of skincare products, which also retains a few tried and tested favourites:

Facial cleanser / makeup remover - La Roche-Posay Toleriane and Fushi Organic Sweet Almond Oil (I also have their Coconut Oil, but have yet to try it.) I cannot speak highly enough of the Toleriane cleanser - it is totally bombproof, however sore my face is feeling.

Daytime serum - Olay Regenerist Daily Regenerating Serum (several years in, and counting!)

Daytime facial moisturiser - Nivea Light Moisturising Day Cream with SPF 15 (on cloudy days) and Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense with SPF 30 (for sunny days ;) )

Body lotion - Fushi Organic Virgin Unrefined Shea Butter. I would probably use most things, as it is only the face that is sensitive, though I would wash my hands well afterwards.

Shampoo - Dr Organic Vitamin E shampoo

Hand Wash - Marsiglia BioOliva with olive oil liquid soap, but anything wholesome-looking from T K Maxx will fit the bill

Night cream - either The Fushi Organic Sweet Almond Oil above or Dr Organic Manuka Honey Rescue Cream

Washing up liquid (for my dishes, I hasten to add!) - good old Ecover

And that's it so far, but I might gradually - and very tentatively - try to introduce a few other things at some point. Also, I don't think soap is the problem, nor perfume - oh, I do hope not! Nor parabens or SLS or other additives that often come under suspicion. I am just being really careful while I try to figure out if my hunch about the preservatives is correct.

Trusty staple Nivea has never been anything other than benign

And even now, I can't be sure if the dermatological demons were just resting on shoulder for a while or have dug their forks in for the long haul...But with my new armoury of truly gentle products, a policy of wearing only new-ish makeup, and not too often at that, I am least doing everything I can to keep them at bay.

Me today, not a scrap of makeup - first such photo on here in 7 years!

And the good thing to have come out of all of this? The fact that I have had to wear no makeup almost all summer. Unthinkable, really. And to my astonishment, I have still been served in shops and some friends have said they didn't even notice - whereas I thought I looked completely different. I haven't not worn makeup since I was 18. So the summer has been character building, and a real eye opener in a good way, as well as harrowing and depressing at times.

Have you suffered from eczema of any kind? Do share your own tips and remedies in the comments!

Monday 12 September 2016

My Bonkers blogging bunker: proper post postponed in 'office move'

Well, I seem to have got into a bit of a routine of blogging on a Sunday, and had every intention of doing so yesterday, when the day took a completely unexpected turn...I have been troubled by my glasses for about a year now: one of the arms fell off and the optician replaced it with some random arm from another pair they happened to have lying around at the back of the shop. (To give you an idea of how random, my glasses are a sort of toffee colour, while the arm was two-tone black and lime green. I was still most grateful to have any kind of 'prosthetic', and amazingly no one called me out for this flagrant mismatch of colour schemes in a single pair of specs.)

Now the arm was never tight to start with, and progressively worked itself looser and looser, and in doing so dragged the overall fit of the spectacles sideways and down my nose, making for an unfortunate skew-whiff look and less than optimum vision. Compounding this, I am 'under the doctor' at the moment, and applying a special cream for the eye area, which has a tendency to sting and make your eyes water. To top things off, I realised that the bright light shining through the window directly behind my computer may have been causing additional eye strain, because for some weeks now I have been reading the screen with one hand permanently glued to my forehead to shade my eyes from the glare. Which is no way to carry on!

My even older broken glasses with nifty tape bond 

So just as I was sitting down to start a blog post on a proper subject, I had a rush of blood to the head and decided to turn my desk round, so that I was only receiving lateral light at least.

Some five hours later, which saw the relocation of the camp bed some readers may remember(!), much untangling and reconfiguring of cables, the removal of dead flies from those tricky interstices you find at the intersection of carpet and skirting board, a bit of touching up with paint of scuff marks on the wall, a spot of hoovering and rug dragging, and a good deal of weeding of box files and folders of old papers, this is how the room looked! The nerve centre of Bonkers HQ - now facing the wall rather than the window.

My wardrobe-cum-filing-cabinet

And for anyone who wasn't reading back in 2012, here is how my office looked like shortly after moving in.

I had it all to buy - and do! - as they say. Two months later, it had got this far...

I do feel that the way I have it arranged now is more conducive to working or writing of any kind, and this morning I have at last sent off my broken glasses to a repair company, who promise to turn the job round in a matter of days, compared with several weeks from the labs used by the optician. (Who would of course much rather you bought new ones!)

So for now I am making do with an even older broken pair from about six years ago, which my friend Gillie kindly bodge fixed by sticking a bit of tape over the bridge where the specs had sheared into two. Weirdly, my prescription may be going backwards now, as I can see a lot better with these than when I tried them a year ago. So I should certainly be able to manage for a few days.

All being well, normal service (or whatever passes for 'normal' on here) will resume shortly!

Look - no cables! (Almost)

Sunday 4 September 2016

Loose Women: a tale of three perfumistas and a bottle of Penhaligon's Tralala

Ever since it came out, I always knew I was going to need a bit more than a purse spray size of Penhaligon's whisky-laced 'comfy jogging bottoms' scent (copyright @Tara of A Bottled Rose), Tralala, which I reviewed around the time of its launch. Not least because I quickly drained said spray and had to make do with sniffing the vestiges around the nozzle. So when 'suddenly last summer' Tara herself kindly offered to buy a bottle of Penhaligon's Tralala and split it three ways with Asali of The Sounds of Scent and me, I jumped at the chance. Nick Gilbert was still working there at the time, and Tara liaised with him to make her purchase, before decanting 25ml bottles for the two of us.

But in July, before my share was despatched, I happened to be at a northern gig've guessed it!...The Monochrome Set. Over a curry beforehand, one of the band piped up: "So what perfumes are you into at the moment?", whilst being fully aware that whatever answer I gave was most unlikely to ring any bells with them. So it proved, only my answer was unintentionally even more baffling than they bargained for.

"Ah, well I am looking forward to getting a split of Tralala."

The table promptly erupted into merriment, and I was asked to explain this impenetrable comment forthwith, which I did.

"That would make a good lyric for a song actually", observed the singer,"either that or whatever it was you said back there about Uttoxeter."

This was a reference to an earlier remark I had made about being quite happy to pay my way at the restaurant, having expressly been to a cash point on the way up...although this actually came out as:

"It's fine, I got wedged up in Uttoxeter." Which of course I also had to clarify.

Fast forward, and my split of Tralala duly came, courtesy of Tara. Now I could spritz with impunity and abandon. Fast forward some more and The Monochrome Set's 13th studio album, Cosmonaut, is poised for release on September 9th. And one of the tracks - called 'Stick Your Hand Up If You're Louche!' - whose arcane and oddball lyrics are a talking point amongst the critics who have reviewed the CD already, contains the line:

"Do you daub your body with a split of Tralala?"

To be fair that is about the only lyric that makes any sense to me - it's a very odd song indeed, which probably would not reward further attempts at deconstruction. But I feel chuffed to have contributed even in such a very minor way to its overall opacity and "stylishly warpedness". And I could not have done it without the good offices of Tara and Asali...'it takes two to tango' as the saying goes, and a minimum of two to three to split. ;) So thanks, both!

You can listen to an extract from the track here - it is the second song down and fourth line in!

And here is a review from Mojo, and one from Louder than War, both singling out 'Stick Your Hand Up If You're Louche!' for special mention. This one from Uncut even lobbies for 'Louche' to be released as a single, with its own video.

"If Tapete don't issue a 7" of Louche with a supporting video and live dates, there's no justice in this cruel world."

Obviously, I can recommend the album unreservedly. ;) Val CQ Sperrer is also a fan of the band, forsooth, should you require further endorsement.

(Oh, the Uttoxeter quote ended up on the cutting room floor due to insurmountable rhyming issues.)