Chemist-y Lifehacks: Body Problems

Hi there! I know I haven’t contributed to the Great Web of information in a while, but I’m hoping to change my habits. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing some exploration and experimentation, dreaming up, sketching out and testing some new “lifehacks.” Here are some of my best tried-and-true body problem hacks:

  • Giant Pus-filled Pimples? => Cut the top or, better yet, the bottom off of an onion and rub it over the pimple (prepare to cry). Onion juice is disinfecting and rich in nutrients. The pimple should dry out and scab within a day. Vitamins A and C and the B vitamins are good for healing skin.
  • Bad Bloody Nose? => Plug your nostril(s) with a wet tissue or handkerchief. Blood and water don’t mix well. I’ve found that damming with water speeds up the clotting process without creating “back pressure” (leading to blood swallowing). Awesome!
  • Burning Belly? => Cool it down with an ice pack wrapped in cloth. Simple, but it works. If you don’t have ice or an icepack, try rubbing something with (-)-menthol, like peppermint leaves, over the area. In a pinch, press cool metal objects against the skin.
  • Yeast Infection? => Brew a strong cup of chamomile tea. Rub anywhere there are signs of a yeast infection. There are other herbs that kill yeasts, but not all of them are as skin-friendly as chamomile.
  • Got a Good Chemist-y Body Hack? => Feel free to share in the comments!

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are for information purposes only. I am not a medical practitioner, and this is not medical advice. I intend no harm or deceit. I am not responsible for any negative result that could arise from reading this blog post.


Fish-friendly Dish Washing

This method was basically developed out of laziness.  Although I want to be the person that cleans their dishes and pans right away after eating, I usually let them sit around for a while.  As a result, when I do go to do the dishes, they are caked with a tough, greasy layer.  Since most of my pans have a ceramic coating that is easily scratched, I have to clean them very gently.  While finding a way to do so, I came up with an energy-efficient, fish-friendly, effective method of washing dishes:

  1. Boil water. I use an electric kettle to do this quickly and with little energy input.
  2. Pour boiling water into pan. Do not disturb any caked on food. Just let sit 1 min or until pan becomes hot.
  3. Dump out hot water from the pan.  Dump into another dirty pan or the sink.  The softened, moistened food and most oil stays behind.
  4. Wipe hot pan with paper towel(s).  This can go into the compostable waste disposal.
  5. If necessary, repeat adding boiling water to dirty pan and wiping with paper towels.  If there is a char layer, gently remove it with baking soda or chalk.
  6. Add small amount of boiling water to wiped-clean pan.  Dump water and dry the pan with a clean (preferably linen) towel.  Allow the pan to cool before putting it away.

This method is fish-friendly, because it doesn’t involve any soaps or detergents, including saponins.  It saves a lot of water and energy involved in heating water (lower water and heat bills).  It’s also ‘antimicrobial’, because most unicellular organisms are destroyed during the time spent in boiling water (spores may survive).  Any remaining microbes are unable to effectively reproduce on a nutrient poor, dry surface.

Additional Comments:

In general, I’ve changed my ‘green’ cleaning habits to use less water or other solvent and more dry materials, like starch, chalk and paper towels.  Many eco-minded people are switching *away* from paper towels.  I worry about the amount of water needed to clean very soiled cloth towels.  Grease and oils, which are effectively grabbed by cellulose fibers in paper towels, should not be put in waterways.  Not buying paper products does not save forests.  Paper is made from wood or woody plants.  Forests are cleared for building things, like housing, commercial buildings and highways.  As I sadly witnessed, they may even be partially cleared for windmills.

How I Prep Brussels sprouts

Although I’m a lady chemist, I’m not the cook in our home.  I don’t think that standing over a hot pan is fun, and there have been complaints about my dinners being served an hour too late!  I do, however, like to help with food prep, and I’ve become pretty efficient, not because I move quickly but because I move smartly.  One vegetable that I love to eat but dreaded prepping in the past is Brussels sprouts.  These little vitamin bombs are definitely worth the little bit of brain power I used in developing a streamlined prep process, which is shared below.  I hope that this helps those of you who aim to eat more fresh, seasonal vegetables this year but are not excited about the work that this may entail.

My Brussels sprouts routine:

  1. I pick out a batch of LARGE Brussels sprouts (at least 1 in or 3 cm in diameter) at the supermarket or farmer’s market.  The sprouts need to be handled individually during prep, so 100 large sprouts are a better choice than 150 small sprouts.  I also think the flavor of larger sprouts is better, and less waste will be produced when you shed the outer leaves during prep.
  2. I DON’T wash my Brussels sprouts.  I’m not forbidding anyone from doing so.  It just seems like a waste of water and time.  I discard the outer leaves and ends, so any dirt and bugs are shed.  The sprouts are eventually steamed and sauteed, so any microbial contaminants are destroyed.
  3. I chop off the butts and halve each sprout, making a butt pile on my right (right-handed) and a halves pile on my left.  This takes only a few minutes.
  4. I peel the outer leaves from each halved sprout and collect the sprouts in my prep bowl.  The outer leaves should fall right off, because they were attached to the butt only.  This takes a few minutes more.  Thus, I can clean a kilo of Brussels sprouts in under 10 minutes, and my sweetheart and I can prepare a hearty meal of sauteed Brussels sprouts, bacon and onions in about 20 minutes.

How I De-bug my Rugs

My method for removing dust and invisible pests from floors and rugs:

  1. Obtain normal cooking/table salt.
  2. Pour salt into mortar (of mortar and pestle), add one drop of bergamot essential oil and grind salt into a fine powder.  Keep away from skin.  Make sure there is enough salt to cover all rugs.
  3. Sprinkle powdered, scented salt onto rugs.*  Let sit for at least a few hours but preferably for a few days.
  4. Sweep up resulting salt-dust patches.  Breathe easier.

*If using essential oils, make sure pets, especially cats, are not in the vicinity.   To avoid inhaling the powder, fill a salt shaker and sprinkle close to the floor.


I haven’t confirmed (with a microscope and experience) that this method is effective in getting rid of dust mites after an infestation.  A real infestation would require more work, like laundering, steam cleaning and fumigating.  I use this method instead of my previous washing soda/baking soda method to get a more thorough floor and rug cleaning, so it is a (fun) weekly routine that I follow to prevent an infestation and the sickness that comes with one.  In the summer, the hot and humid weather can encourage an infestation, and in the winter, the heating, darkness and reduced air circulation also favor dust mite growth.

I got the main idea for this procedure from a patent for killing dust mites with various salts (US5271947 A).  I’m not sure that table salt (sodium chloride) alone is a powerful acaracide (mite killer), but I believe that it is very effective when powdered and mixed with bergamot oil.

Sodium chloride is a well-known dessicant, so it could dry out the mites.  Grinding the salt into a powder makes it more effective, because the newly exposed surfaces can absorb more moisture from the air, cloths and insects.  The powder can also travel deeper into rugs than regular salt crystals from the box.  The real danger of dust mites are the chronic allergic reactions that can occur in response to their feces and dead body parts.  The salt can help grab these allergens (through electrostatic interactions), so that the allergens can be swept up along with the salt.

Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) oil is a somewhat well-known antibacterial, fungicidal and insecticidal agent.  It contains furocoumarins, in particular bergamottin and bergaptenGrapefruit also has these compounds and effects, and the ‘grapefruit juice effect‘ (interaction with many medications) is due to certain furocoumarins.  The furocoumarins are also toxic to insects and mammals that come into contact with them and are exposed to sunlight (phototoxic).  Raw bergamot/grapefruit oil should not be applied to the skin (without proper medical instruction).

I love the calming, other-worldly smell of bergamot from the salt (also in Earl Grey tea) and haven’t had any reaction after walking on the scented salt barefoot, but I am still cautious with the concentrated chemicals.  I only use one drop each time and don’t go out in the sun right away.  The salt is used to absorb/release, dilute and disperse the essential oil throughout the area.

Alternative uses for common cooking oils

For cooking, I prefer to use oils/greases with a high concentration of saturated fatty acids (not omega-x fatty acids and especially not trans fats) to avoid unwanted chemical reactions during cooking (conversion of cis double bonds to trans, generation of free radicals, etc.), so for hot meals, we use butter, Schmalz (rendered animal fat) or coconut oil.  For cold meals, like salad, we use cold-pressed vegetable oils, mainly extra-virgin olive oil (unrancid) in Mediterranean-themed salads.

Through other bloggers and some experimentation, I have discovered that there are a lot more possible applications for oils other than cooking.  The following are the uses that I recommend to get the most of your precious plant oils and to use them up before they go bad.

Coconut Oil:

Like many other people who are unhappy with standard toothpastes, I use coconut oil for oil pulling.  Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a fatty acid with antibacterial and antifungal properties.  Unlike sunflower and sesame oil, which are traditionally used in oil pulling, coconut oil does not stain teeth yellow; it actually makes them look whiter (without bleaching).  I actually did extensive research on oil pulling for a research project proposal and was convinced that oil pulling with coconut oil can at least (1) greatly reduce the chance of mass colonization by Candida albicans (a pathogenic yeast) and Streptococcus mutans (a pathogenic bacterium) and (2), after reacting/combining with saliva, act as a ‘soap’ that can access small gaps in and between teeth.  If you have healthy teeth, oil pulling once or twice a day is probably enough, but I’ve been needing to also thoroughly brush mine with a salt mixture, since I have recently had very rough, demineralized teeth and am working on remineralizing them.

Coconut oil is touted to have many other ‘alternative’ benefits (Dr. Axe), especially when virgin (minimally-processed).  I’ve tried using coconut oil on my skin, but it made my skin smell bad and felt like it was clogging my pores, which makes sense when considering that long fat molecules were coating my skin.  The experience may be different for different skin types and climates.

I also use coconut oil to remove the dust from candles.  This basically replaces the dust layer with an oil layer, which helps prevent further dust collection.  I have a lot of real-wax LED candles that often need ‘dusting’.  Coconut oil is as safe to burn as waxes, and coconut oil is even used in combination with wax to make candles.  I haven’t tried this, because I don’t burn candles anymore.

Safflower Oil:

This is my skin conditioner, especially after a shower.  My skin, especially dry flaky parts, absorb this oil very well.  Because it’s made from a thistle (hardy, fast-maturing plant), it’s also rather inexpensive.

I use an oil squirt dispenser to make application easy and quick.  I feel oily at first but end up with (surprisingly) super-smooth, healthier-looking skin an hour or so later.  I started out using sunflower oil on my skin, since I saw that it is in a lot of baby skincare products, but I found the oil to be greasy.  It also made my skin ‘sparkly’, which I didn’t like, but other people might.  Safflower oil and sunflower oil both have a high content of linoleic acid (about 75% and 66%, respectively), an unsaturated essential fatty acid that can be converted by skin cells to other compounds that benefit the skin and therefore the body.  The oil might also help the skin absorb and store oxygen molecules, which are nonpolar and dissolve well in the nonpolar oil compounds.

Since it is so soothing to my skin, I also use safflower oil as a shaving oil and aftershave to get a close shave without razor burn.

Rosemary infused Rapeseed Oil:

Rant-like side note:  That’s right, I use rapeseed oil.  Couldn’t they come up with a better name?  Well, it’s basically canola oil, which is made from the rapeseed plant, but canola oil is, by definition, low in erucic acid, and many canola oils in the USA are derived from genetically modified plants.  The concern was that erucic acid might cause heart disease, based on animal studies and the toxicity of Lorenzo’s oil, a pharmaceutical containing erucic acid, even though there haven’t been reports of toxicity from dietary rapeseed oil (wikipedia).  Nevertheless, rapeseed has been bred naturally, on both sides of the ocean, to have lower EA concentrations.  Now, since everyone-and-their-mom uses canola oil, the canola plant is being genetically modified to have other qualities such as herbicide resistance to make ‘weeding’ easier.  This may sound like a good thing, but I’ve learned to ask, ‘Good for whom?’.  This issue requires more attention and another blog post, since choosing organic foods or not is now an everyday thing.

I use this Housewarming present (not Gift, which translates to ‘poison’ in German) of rosemary infused rapeseed oil (the rosemary was likely pressed along with the seeds to make the oil) to clean and condition my bamboo cutting boards.  Many people think that bamboo boards are not sanitary and are difficult to maintain.  I live in a damp and generally overcast area and have not had issues with mold on bamboo boards or utensils.

Ingredients for cleaning and conditioning bamboo

Bamboo is easy to sanitize by spraying and wiping with vinegar or citric acid/lemon juice spray, rinsing when necessary.  I do not use baking soda or detergent, because they remove the oils, leaving more holes behind for microbes to populate.  To condition the cutting board, I squirt a few drops onto the board and wipe with a paper towel to remove any stubborn fat particles.  I then squirt several more drops and use the palm of my hand to spread the oil into a thin layer and let this absorb overnight.  I’m sure that other rosemary infused cooking oils, like olive oil, would work.  Rapeseed/canola oil is fairly balanced in short and long chain fatty acids, so I think that it is suitable for reaching deep into the wood AND forming a waterproof layer at the surface.  The rosemary scent is due to the ‘essential oil’ compounds, which hopefully we all now know are small molecules with therapeutic and antimicrobial properties.  The pressing method also captures the hydrosol (volatile, water-soluble) compounds and anti-oxidants (notably carnosic acid), which help preserve the essential oil compounds and may also prevent microbial growth.  Since I want to destroy and displace, not trap, bacteria and yeast in the wood pores, I prefer to use the herb infused oil instead of plain rapeseed oil.

Flaxseed oil:

Also called ‘linseed oil’, flaxseed oil is relatively high in omega-3 fatty acids, namely alpha-linolenic acid (about 47%).  The one that I use was cold-pressed with vitamin E and stored in a dark amber bottle, both important to prevent oxidation of the α-linolenic acid.  I did a test of the oil after reading this helpful article on SFGate (How to know when flax is rancid).  It passed the appearance (golden yellow, not cloudy) and aroma test (nutty, grassy), but the taste, although green and nutty, was also bitter.  The bitter taste could be from the extra vitamin E. Flaxseed/linseed oil is used for many non-culinary uses, such as treating wood (after processing).  Although I planned on using it regularly as a vitamin supplement, I only think about it when I have a bad stomach ache or constipation.

Coming soon:

Edible makeup!  I am working on mixing oil with fruits and flowers to create skin-supporting makeup that is shelf-stable and safe to eat.

Red wine vinegar: something that I don’t want to be without

I haven’t blogged in a while, and it’s not because I don’t have a lot to share.  I just didn’t feel up to it.  During this hiatus, however, I did became closer to my red wine vinegar.  I say ‘my’, because I cultivated it myself, from grape juice.

At the drink store, I found a great direct-pressed Merlot juice, too sweet for drinking but clearly rich in tannins and other good stuff from the skins.  I poured the juice into an emptied (but not cleaned) wine bottle (Cabernet Sauvignon), diluted it with 1/3 the volume of water and corked it (cork had small hole for air exchange).  After about a month, I cleaned out my projects (many went badly) and discovered that the grape juice had developed into a delicious vinegar, which I then pasteurized (briefly) by boiling and strained into an empty grappa bottle.  The bottle has a rubber cork, which is better than a metal screw-top, since the acids in vinegar react with the metal (as I unintentionally confirmed).  A hard non-reactive plastic screw-top also works.

Some things that I use red wine vinegar for are

  • Stopping a bloody nose:  This vinegar really helps speed up the blood clotting when I have a bloody nose.  I pour some onto a sheet of toilet paper and shove this up the affected nostril, and then I replace the vinegar-paper while placing the used one in the toilet to be flushed, repeating until the bleeding stops.  This usually only takes a few minutes (vs. up to 20 mins of using tissues alone).  I think that drinking some of the vinegar also helps.  The ability of the vinegar to tighten the skin, clot the blood and close the wound is due to the organic acids and tannins.  Red wine vinegar is usually higher in tannins than white wine vinegar.
  • Energy and blood circulation:  Coffee makes me sweat but doesn’t energize me very much.  I think that this is related to my poor blood circulation (cold hands, cold feet).  After drinking vinegar, I can feel my body warming and energy rising.  As an astringent, vinegar constricts blood vessels, temporarily causing Thinning of the Blood (caution!) and redistribution of blood within the vessels.  Since undistilled vinegar contains yeasts and their metabolic products, this vinegar probably also contains some B vitamins, which also boost energy.
  • Healing itchy broken skin:  I had a weird itchy rash near my ankle that may have been from chiggers.  Anyway, it was itchy enough that I couldn’t sleep.  I rubbed this vinegar over the area, had instant temporary relief and, after a few re-applications, had complete relief the next day.  Vinegar kills many microbes, both bacterial and fungal, and, as already stated, helps close wounds and heal skin.
  • Hemorrhoids:  I saved the best for last!  The vinegar works the same way that it does for other kinds of bleeding/broken skin:  stops irritation temporarily and speeds up healing.
  • NOT for swelling:  I had hoped that red wine vinegar was a panacea for all of my problems, but it was not.  It was not very effective in quelling my swollen lip (from strong sun exposure) or swollen mosquito and fly bites.  I found instead that fresh aloe vera gel was good for soothing the skin and reducing the swelling.

Living with water contaminated with microbes

Unfortunately, for about a week now and still counting, the municipal water for most of the state of Hessen has been deemed contaminated with E. coli [Hessenschau].  The cause is unknown, but there was an outbreak of pathogenic E. coli in 2011 [Eurosurveillance].  To combat this problem, the state is further contaminating the water with chlorine bleach.

Fortunately, this situation forced me to think about when and how much water we use carelessly or unnecessarily.  It also inspired me to think of solutions for people who have similar water contamination problems, temporarily or chronically.

My advice for action after finding out that your water is contaminated with dangerous microbes:

  1. Don’t panic!  The body has many lines of defense, including the skin, mucous-lined airways, stomach acid, pancreatic and bile secretions and inflammatory responses, against pathogenic bacteria, yeasts and viruses [Merck Manual].  Support your body with healthy thoughts and a sufficient amount of nutrients.
  2. Get clean drinking water.  Germany has an abundance of natural springs, so bottled spring water is very cheap (literally cheaper than dirt), possibly more so than tap water, and all bottled water is highly regulated [EFBW].  If you have use for clean tap water, it needs to be freshly sanitized through boiling at a rolling boil for 1 to 3 minutes, depending on elevation/boiling point, to kill bacteria [CDC].  I’ve been using tap water boiled in an electric kettle to make tea, cook grains (for couscous – just add boiling water), blanche vegetables and (after cooling) water houseplants.  Distilled water is also an option but may not be necessary for a microbial contamination.  Caution:  Drinking too much DW too fast can cause bodily distress and even death [How Stuff Works].
  3. Use coldest setting of tap water.  Since tap water can only reach up to 60 deg C (for skin safety and material protection), and since microbes only start to be killed at 70 deg C, using hot tap water to ‘sanitize’ is not justified.  Hot water can remove protective oils and denature structural and functional proteins in your skin, leaving you open to infection.  Hot water also causes pores in the skin to open.  Cold water is astringent, meaning it causes your pores to close.  You can feel this as your skin tightening.  This is good for preventing microbes and toxins from entering your body through your skin.
  4. Shower wisely.  Take a short, cold shower if needed.  Avoid getting water on cuts and body openings.  Consider a sponge bath.  I actually enjoy an oatmeal sponge bath and hair wash:  1)  Fill sock with oats and knot it.  2)  Soak it in warm sanitized water until the oats are softened.  3)  Rub over skin.  4)  Rinse hair with resulting oat-water (looks milky).  5)  Dry/Rub off residue with a towel and apply moisturizer.  This is very soothing for itchy skin.
  5. Use probiotics.  Your gut lining needs microbes, including non-pathogenic E. coli, to properly function.  Antibiotics, synthetic or natural, destroy microbes and open up real estate, which  should then be populated with beneficial microbes.  Good sources of probiotics are easy to make yourself, such as fermented fruit juice (ex: hard cider), kombucha, unpasteurized vinegar (super easy), sauerkraut and kefir (sour, not spoiled, milk).  You can also clean broken skin, fruits/vegetables and surfaces with strong vinegar.
  6. Go medieval on your food.  Wash your food down with mead, wine or (real) beer.  These are probiotic detoxifying digestive aids.  Load raw or difficult-to-sanitize foods (fish, meats, especially chicken) with antibiotic digestive aids, like citrus zest and herbs [learn about medieval herbs on gardeningknowhow].  Traditional Medicine, both Western and Eastern, focuses a lot more on increasing bile secretions and moving fluids through the body than Modern Medicine.  Stretching and exercise are also needed to keep the lymphatic (infection-fighting) system working properly.