by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Dedicated to all my fierce femme of colour disabled and chronically ill warrior fam.
When I think about access, I think about love. I think that crip (disabled and chronically ill) solidarity, and solidarity between disabled folks and non(yet) disabled folks is a powerful act of love and I-got-your-back. It’s in big things, but it’s also in the little things we do moment by moment to ensure that we all- in all our individual bodies- get to be present fiercely as we make change.
Embedded in this is a giant paradigm shift,. Our disabled and sick bodies aren’t seen as liabilities, something that limits us and brings pity or something to nobly transcend. Our crip bodies are gifts, brilliant, fierce, skilled, valuable. Assets that teach us things that are relevant and vital to ourselves, our communities, our movements, the whole god damn planet.
If I’m having a pain day and need you to use accessible language cause I’m having a hard time language processing and you do, that’s love. And that’s solidarity. If I’m not a wheelchair user and I make sure I work with the non-disabled bottomliner for the workshop to ensure that the pathways through the workshop chairs are at least three feet wide, that is love and solidarity. This is how we build past and away from bitterness and disappointment at movements that have not cared about or valued us.
I know that love is not a simple word. For those of us who are
disabled and chronically ill, “love” is sometimes a word used to control us. We have to be loved and liked to get access- access that should be a fundamental right. Our biological families might tell us they love us when they are controlling our movements and freedoms and choices.
However, the kind of love I’m talking about is something different. . I’m talking about a kind of love that is fierce and revolutionary enough to ensure that no one is left out of our fam. That sick and disabled QTPOC bodies aren’t abandonned by non disabled/temporarily able bodied QTPOC. That we shift our communities so that we do the work to understand how it is impossible to defeat the WSCCAP (white surpemacist capitalist colonialist ableist patriarchy) without going hard on defeating ableism.
This love is a place where we practice and continue to practice access intimacy. You can read MIa Mingus’ beginning thoughts about access intimacy here: http://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/, but a basic definition she offers is:
“Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.”
One small (and huge) thing you can do to ensure access is to work towards being scent/fragrance free. Folks who have chemical disabilities need to be able to participate in the worlds outside our bedrooms- in our parties, queer/trans of color cultural events, the subway, the grocery store, etc. It’s easy to get inexpensive scent/fragrance free products at Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Whole Foods (they suck, but they make $3 scent-free shampoo, conditioner and lotion), independent health food stores and co-ops, and you can also just get some cocoa butter, coconut oil or shea butter in the raw and make your own products, which is cheap and fun. Cutting out scents may seem like a pain in the ass, but it means that awesome, ass-kicking community members you love can attend events you’re at and make out with you without having seizures, throwing up or otherwise getting really sick.
Are you curious about going scent-free but totally overwhelmed by the prospect of having to replace your whole product line of fiercely researched POC body care products? You’re not the only one. Fear not! When I started performing with Sins Invalid in 2009 and had to give up my Carol’s Daughter Hair Milk addiction in order not to give co-performers seizures, I started a multi-year process of exhaustively researching every god damn fragrance free hair, skin and facial care product I could find, with a focus on looking at POC products. A brown mixed curly girl who grew up with white mama hair damage, I was determined that my curls were going to continue to look good. I am here to bring all my Taurus chronically ill femme of colour skills to your product line!
Many POC hair and products are scented like what. Why? Maybe we like pretty scents. Maybe we’ve got some damage from being told by racist ass white people when we were growing up that we smell funny/strong/like curry/ like fish, etc. Maybe we’ve got some more baggage from parents who raised us to never, ever, smell or be dirty. And while some of us grow up with great bodycare products that work for us, some of us have some serious hair and skin trauma from going without, and don’t find products that make us feel beautiful until adulthood. Many of us struggle to go fragrance free because it might’ve taken us a looooong time to find products that worked for our hair and skin, and we don’t want to give them up.
But why do I care about this? Isn’t that just something a few (whiney, annoying) white hippies care about?
More and more people are coming out about having chemical sensitivities, or what some folks refer to as chemical injury. There are many of your friends who have asthma, have MCS, have been through chemo, etc, who don’t mention it cause they don’t feel entitled or want to get in a fight, but if you cut down on scents, they will be really happy. A lot of people are chemically injured through doing industrial labor- cleaning houses, using or being exposed to pesticides as farmworkers, and growing up in neighborhoods with a lot of industrial pollution. Chemical sensitivity is a POC issue.
Folks who have everything from asthma to chemo to rheumatoid arthritis have noticed that cigarettes, perfume (which legally can have stuff like arsenic in it and the makers don’t have to declare it), scented personal care products, pesticides, and car exhaust make them really sick. I have friends who throw up for a couple days sometimes after a chemical exposure. I got motivated to go fragrance free when I had friends and lovers who literally couldn’t go out without getting really sick because of all the smoke/fumes/ chemicals/perfume. I don’t have MCS,but I do have fibromyalgia, and after a while, I realized that I was feeling a lot better when I wasn’t around a ton of fragrance. I also have born witness to my friend family of beautiful, brilliant ones who lose days and weeks of their lives due to getting sick from toxic exposures- friends who have everything from cancer to rheumatoid arthritis to MCS and beyond.
Going fragrance free is a process. At first, I’m not gonna lie, I mourned being able to choose from 30 kinds of conditioners in the store to, like, three. I felt bored. I missed being able to use Nubian Heritage lotion, Carol’s Daughter hair product and other POC brands of more-natural hair and skin care that I had a lot of cultural ties and sweet memories to. Brownness had smelled like Honey and Black Seed lotion to me, and it took a while for that to fade. After a while, though, my perspective shifted. It actually felt really cool to be less brand oriented. I was saving money because I was using pure oils for a lot of things (hair, skin, etc) and could just throw a bottle of coconut oil in my bag when I was travelling.
Basics: Look at the ingredient list. If it says, “perfume” or “parfum” or “essential oil” or “fragrance” or “natural fragrance”… guess what? It’s scented.
If it’s say, a stick of cocoa butter, and the ingredients just say ‘cocoa butter’ and you smell it and it doesn’t smell inert, but there is no big COCONUT or LAVENDER or other smell… you’re good. Fruits, flowers, oil, etc, all have scents – that’s fine. The problem comes with chemical, ‘natural’ (which basically means nothing on a label nowadays) or essential oil scents. Essential oils have been heavily marketed as natural. Unfortunately, while they are based on natural substances, they are produced in a factory and are super concentrated and can cause reactions in lots of folks.
If you get your nails done (or when you do your nails) let them off gas a few days before you hang out with your chemically injured friends. 8 hours to a day is good for basic nails; if you get acrylics or silk tips, allow more time. All nail polish has toxic shit in it. You can go for the super-natural kinds of nail polishes; if you go to salons, look for ones that are “3 Free” (or free of formaldyhyde, toelene and something else bad.) This is good for your nails and good for the workers who have to breathe that shit in otherwise, all day every day. Some cities also have super natural nail salons that are might be a little more expensive then the $20 manipedi (like, $30) but are a lot less fumey.
ETSY IS YOUR FRIEND. Some of the best products for folks with curly/kinky/dreaded hair are to be found on Etsy- just do a keyword search. Because the folks there make the products by hand, it can be easy to ask them to make your without adding fragrance.
If you’re in Walmart or Target or CVS, look for anything that says “hypoallergenic” or “sensitive skin”- it’s likely to be unscented.
If you wear perfume or scented products sometimes (when you’re not around your chemically scented friends, once in a while cause you have a hard time letting something go, etc) wash your clothes with some baking soda thrown in, and try to let them air dry outside if you can- it’ll help your clothes not hold on to the scent.
If you are working on reducing your scent use, the #1 thing you can do is to use fragrance free detergent and eliminate using fabric softener and dryer sheets (or substitute baking soda or the scent free kind). Fragrance in laundry product is especially “sticky” and is designed to stick forever- which is why you clothes might still smell like Downy even if they’ve been in storage for a year.
If you want to read more about chemical sensitivity and fragrance free stuff, this website, by an amazing white queer femme writer with severe disabilities http://www.peggymunson.com/mcs/fragrancefree.html, has tons of good info.
From Puerto Rican/Jewish badass writer, artist and performer Aurora Levins Morales: “Re natural fragrances, the issue isn’t just chemical processing. I can get sick from 100% pure organic essential oils because my body’s become sensitized by the chemicals to other fragrances. For example, organic lavender makes me violently ill. Fresh organic flowers like lilies can give me a headache. Once our bodies get super-reactive, otherwise benign things can be a problem. I sometimes react to coconut products with a strong coconut smell. So don’t assume rosewater will be OK for all the people you come in contact with. I find that all floral scents are worse for me than aromatic ones like rosemary and peppermint.” So- reducing fragrance overall is the goal; it’s also good to check in with individual friends who have chemical injury about what their particular scent triggers are, and not to assume that a particular lower scent option will work for everyone.”
Note: Much of this information is weighted towards products available in North America because that’s where I live and where I know about products. I’m happy to add info about products available outside the US and Canada if people send it in.
Super basic products:
Aloe vera (the kind in a bottle or squeeze tubs- works beautifully for curls as a gel on its own, and is readily available at both Walgreens and health food stores)
Coconut oil or sweet almond oil or shea butter, Just like that, or as a booster to smooth frizz if you use an aloe based product. Coconut oil is something sold in health food stores, but is also hella accessible (and much cheaper) at desi, Caribbean, APIA, and African grocery stores and big cheap supermarkets in neighborhoods where we live.
Great, inexpensive source of pure shea butters: www.back2africa.com
Products you can buy: (many of which are POC made)
Fierce Bodies (my #1 fave: made by a mixed Arab queer and genderqueer chronically ill badass) – amazing Hair Mud, curl cream, pomade, scalp oil and more, all scent free. www.fiercebodies.com
Beijaflores (on etsy, http://www.etsy.com/people/beijaflores)- great shea butter hair lotions and pomades. You can request that she make it scent free when you order.
Darcy’s Botanicals (http://www.etsy.com/people/darcysbotanicals), nice shea based cremes and pomades
Every Man Jack (nice pomades, I can buy them in Walgreens in Cali, health food stores, beauty supply places, online. Has a masculine packaging that may appeal to some.)
Magick Botanicals (super old school gel and hairspray, but its cheap)
Alba Botanicals (available widely, has scent free hair products including gel, spray and curl styling creme- a little chemical/drying feeling for my hair. Can get at many beauty supply places as well as health food stores)
Miss Jessis’s Curl (Black owned hair product line; the ‘sensitive sniffer’ curly creme is unscented. People have wildly different opinions on Miss Jessie’s- some love it, some think it’s super drying and overrated) http://www.missjessies.com/, and available at Target, Black hair supply places, beauty supply places and some well-stocked Walgreens.
Oyin handmade– really nice Black-owned indie natural/handmade bodycare line. Their body oils, deoderants and Shea Puddings come unscented. www.oyinhandmade.com
Kinky Curly Not no scent, but the Spiral Spritz and Knot Today creams are low-scent- lavender water and aloe. Check with your friends- some folks would be able to deal, some folks have violent reactions to lavender. Reasonably priced and you can buy it at Target and some Walgreens. www.kinky-curly.com
Got a fav local, small Black/Brown hair product maker at your local flea market? I bet s/he’s got at least one unscented curl lotion/loc promade, or s/he would make an unscented line if you asked.
I alternate between Fierce Bodies, Beijaflores Curl crème, and Kinky Curly Spiral Spritz, and have started just rolling my hair with aloe vera and coconut oil and called it a day.
Deoderent: You don’t have to use the crystal if you don’t want to! You can pick up unscented natural hippie deoderent- the crystal, Tom’s, Jason’s, the one that says it has “all the power of lichen” on the label, etc. It’ll work, but you are going to need to carry it around and re-apply every few hours if you sweat like I do. You can also get frag-free or ‘sensitive skin’ versions of a chemical, commercial deoderent like Dove, Almay or Arm and Hammer. Trader Joe’s also has a frag free deoderant. Sniff it first. Dove and Almay have worked for most folks I know. If you want to go super no-product, you can also try using baking soda dusted on your pits, or witch hazel. Oyin makes a super nice frag free product, as well.
Shampoo, conditioner: Jason’s conditioner is my favorite- it’s the most humectant conditioner I’ve found, and it’s about six-seven bucks. Everyday Shea will give you a huge bottle (a quart), with pump, for $9.99- some folks think the conditioner is a little drying. Whole Foods makes super cheap shampoo, conditioner and lotion (2.99). I’m not a giant fan of the quality and they contain a lot of alcohol and fillers, but if you want basic products and you’re broke and they’re close to you, they’re okay. There’s also Desert Essence. I don’t use shampoo, so I’m a little out of luck when it comes to recs. 😉
Lotion: There’s a bunch of unscented products out there. I am a big fan of raw coconut oil or olive oil as a moisturizer- and I’m over 30, so that works for my face, too. Many folks I know also use cocoa butter or shea butter, which you can find the pure, uncut versions of in many online stores, Black and Brown owned businesses and markets, supermarkets that sell POC products (esp desi, Caribbean and African stores for coconut oil) etc. You can also find many small sellers who have unscented versions of their shea puddings and butters on sale next to the scented one. In the Bay Area, a lot of folks I know buy their shea butter from sellers at the Ashby Flea Market, which is at Ashby BART every weekend and where a lot of small scale POC folks sell stuff. In NYC and Philly, ditto, a lot of folks buy shea butter from Black and Brown folks who sell on the street or in weekend markets. This is a great way of supporting low income, self employed POC.
Queen Helene cocoa butter stick and plain cocoa butters.
Oyin Handmade (the whipped shea butter)
Kiss My Face
Trader Joes (frag free body/hand lotion, they also do a nice frag free sunblock)
lots of small, made by Black and Brown folks shea butters
Kiehls (lots of frag free options, and they have an unlimited free sample policy- when they’re not sold out.)
Burt’s Bees Sensitive facial cleanser
Body Shop Aloe line
Use plain oil as a makeup remover
The rosewater toner or glycerin/oil cleanser recipies at the end.
Soap: Kiss My Face Olive Oil, milk and almond, oatmeal, African Black .. just look for ‘fragrance free’ and/or no perfume listed on the thing. If you like nice, interesting soap, check Etsy, there’s tons. http://www.etsy.com/listing/32969410/no-wavocado, http://www.etsy.com/listing/29502725/no-waloe-vera for two examples. If you’re in a walgreens, look for anything that says “hypoallergenic” “sensitive skin” Sappho Hill is a basic, cheap frag free soap line that make unscented oatmeal, clear and honey soaps.
Great African Black soap based on shea butter: www.back2africa.com/personal-care-body-care/category22_88/product3345/pure-african-shea-butter-soap/
- Clearly Natural Unscented Glycerin Soap
- Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castille Unscented Baby Mild Soap
- Green Mountain Soap Co. Soap
- Kiss My Face Pure Olive Oil Bar Soap
- Magick Botanicals Simmons Special Unscented Soap
- Nature Clean Face and Body Bar Soap
- Neutrogena Original Unscented
- Pangea Organics Pure & Scentless
- Tom’s Unscented Natural Moisturizing or Deodorant Body Bar
Laundry: The number one thing you can do to be more chem safe is to de-scent your laundry. if you live near one, just go to Trader Joe’s and get their big, cheap, lovely frag-free laundry powder- 64 loads for $7.99. You can get hippie stuff too- Seventh Generation Free and Clear, bulk stuff from a co-op or natural food place, etc. Just look for the ‘free and clear’ or ‘no added fragrance’ one, not the Lavender and Chamomile one. On the commercial tip, try Arm and Hammer. Be cautious about the many “free and clear” Tide, Cheer, etc, clones- often they say they are free of fragrance, but are actually using fragrance and then using ‘fragrance masking’ chemicals to cover up the smell. Tricky! Smell them. Do you smell a lot of chemical weirdness? Look elsewhere.
FABRIC SOFTENER: THE DEVIL. Fabric softener is from hell. It causes the most reactions in chemically injured people I know. Why? Because it basically a hell of a lot of perfume designed to stick forever- so your clothes will still smell like Bounce a month later. If you have clothes you’ve washe din fabric softener/dryer sheets a lot, try washing them in unscented detergent with a cup of baking soda added, more than once if you need to. Air drying is also good.
You don’t need fabric softener. I dunno, I guess I feel like I don’t- I haven’t used it for a long time and my clothes don’t feel, well, hard. Seventh Generation makes Free and Clear dryer sheets if you feel really wedded to fabric softener, and baking soda works too.
Home cleaning products: Dr Bronner’s unscented castille soap is an awesome product you can use for liquid hand soap, regular body soap, and soap you can use to clean your floors and counters and stuff. Baking soda and vinegar work for a lot of stuff. Bon Ami is a good scrub that doesn’t smell harsh or have too much weird shit in it. I believe in bleach (the safer kind, that’s oxygen based not chlorine based) for some shit that is really gross. The Make Your Space booklet, in the resources, has a lot of good homemade recipes for homemade cleansers.
1/2 cup Rosewater (buy at Arab/desi grocery or make your own by soaking rose petels in water)
2 T Honey
1/2 cup Water
Shake, put in jar, use. Excellent toner and cleanser
Makeup remover: Just use coconut or olive oil! Seriously, this will have you wondering why you ever paid money for a big product in a tube. Just put a little on a washcloth or cotton pad. So easy, works the best
Homemade hair gel (also works as homemade lube ;)): from Ana María Agüero Jahannes: 1/4 cup flax seeds to 2 cups water ratio, boil it and then strain out the seeds. super easy. the longer you let it boil, the thicker.
here’s a video where you can learn how to do it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWaH8GIbLrM
KY Jelly: one femme of colour suggested that this works awesome on curls. for reals!
More sweet homemade beauty product recipies focused on POC hair and skin (but could be good for all.) Just leave out the essential oils when they’re called for!
If you want more info about how to be fully scent/fragrance free, see http://www.peggymunson.com/mcs/fragrancefree.html
Partial list of products: http://takebacktheair.com/pdf/FragranceFreeProducts.pdf
Really, really great list of products, including people of color specific ones, from the East Bay Mediation Center, and tons of info abut MCS and creating accessible communities: http://eastbaymeditation.org/accessibility/scentfree.html
Lots of info about MCS, links between it and Gulf War Syndrome and disabilities faced by millitary folks and folks who are being invaded, global list of MCS groups including Africa, Middle East and Central and South America: http://www.princesstigerlily.com/mcs/mcs_by_area.html
Great doc by Yashna about working towards making her yoga practice frag-free, with lots of info and resources about MCS: http://yogamaya.wordpress.com/about/classes/fragrance-free/
Make Your Space- cute little booklet with lots of homemade recipies for cleansers and body/skin/hair care products that are easy to make frag free :http://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/2333/
MCS accessibility basics (really great article by Billie Rain) http://dualpowerproductions.com/2011/05/01/mcs-accessibility-basics
More fierce crip of colour resources:
“Communities of Care, Organizations for Liberation” by Yashna Maya Padamsee http://nayamaya.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/communities-of-care-organizations-for-liberation/
billierain.com- amazing queer Arab disabled writer, has great MCS resources including
3 Steps to Organizing a Fragrance Free Event:
Skin Deep cosmetic database (rates all kinds of products and tells you what toxins are or aren’t in them) http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/