A book a day…

I was inspired by a meme to get my toddler son twenty-four books – one a day for the first twenty-four days of December, a kind of library advent celebration that we can enjoy together, minus the candles, though hey, candles sound fun and we might just do that too.  And then, having re-posted the meme, other people said they wanted to do the same, and now EVERYONE IS DOING IT AND SO SHOULD YOU!  Even grownups.  Though, granted, not all grownups have enough time to read twenty-four books in the prelude to the holiday, but maybe you need to realign your priorities.

Just saying.

Anyway, I’m here to encourage you to play this game too, and challenge you to give at least a few (if not twenty-four) books as gifts.  Some inspiration, in case you needed any:

Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess is one of my favorite kid books of all time, and it’s also one of my favorite books, period.  Yes, it’s a board book.  If you’re under-one, you can literally devour it, and if you’re over one, you can savor the delightful (feminist!) story.

Plot spoiler: the princess heroically rescues the prince, then discovers he is a materialistic knob and decides not to marry him.

For more rollicking fun, I recommend:

Michael Rosen’s We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, which does not actually involve harming any bears, is wildly fun to read, though I admit it won’t calm anyone down enough to go to sleep.

For sleepytime, there is always the classic Good Night Moon, or if those pages have been turned so many times they’re falling out (or have been torn out by a parent weary of turning those same pages so many times), you might enjoy the more realistic I Just Want To Say Goodnight.

And for the garden-lovers:

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Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt is my favorite book for nature-minded kids, and it has helped turn my tot (who is naturally very dirt-loving) into a botanist-minded dirt- and bug-lover.

And finally, for a slightly-older (or more patient) reader, I recommend George Saunders’ The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.

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The plot is sublime, and the message is clear: we’re all in this together, for better or worse, and it’s not fun for one of us if the rest of us are miserable.

And with that, I bid you adieu, and wish you the happiest of book-shopping, and though I’ve offered handy links above, if you can, please do visit a real, in-person bookshop.

Do you have any book recommendations for young readers?  If so, please leave a comment so we can add your favorites to our list!

Happy reading, friends!

frozen tomatoes

I’ve gardened for as long as I can remember, and inevitably, this time of year, I have a counter full of tomatoes and no idea what to do with them.  I’ve made sauce, I’ve eaten them raw, I’ve made soup with them… and now there they sit, waiting for me to come up with other ideas.

The homesteady part of me thinks:  “I should can them!”  And then the realistic part of me says:  “That’s insane.  Who wants to spend hours over a hot stove during these beautiful sunny days?”  And really:  who wants to sit and peel tomatoes?

So here’s a trick I learned from my mama:  You don’t have to peel the tomatoes or can them to save them for the winter.  Just wash them off, put them on a tray and freeze them, and then dump them (they will look and feel and even sound a lot like billiard balls) in gallon freezer bags.   Then when a recipe calls for a can of tomatoes, head to the freezer instead of the pantry.  Pull out as many tomato billiard balls as you think you need, and run them under warm water until the skin is barely softened.  Use a knife or your fingers to remove the skin, which comes of incredibly easily.  (Alternately, you can just let them sit on the counter for about fifteen minutes, and then the skins will come right off.)

Use the peeled tomatoes just like you would use canned ones.  The skins are full of nutrients but add an unpleasant texture (imagine rubber bands in spaghetti sauce), so I pop the skins back in the freezer in my bag of scraps for stock-making.  Other people dehydrate the skins and grind them for use in sauces, which sounds like a great idea that I just haven’t gotten around to trying.

How many tomatoes you freeze will depend on how many you have and how many you think you’ll need over the winter.  I have limited freezer space, so my tomato stash is usually around two gallons, and that serves us well.  If I had a larger family, yes, it would make sense to can the tomatoes so it wouldn’t be taking up freezer space, but since our household is so small, this works just fine.

And, really, there are few things more satisfying than getting to taste home-grown tomato flavor on a cold winter day.

Of all the things I recommend to my clients to improve their health, growing a bit of food ranks high on my list.  Gardening is great exercise, it gets you outside, in contact with the soil (which helps ground us and also exposes us to healing bacteria), it re-ignites our natural wonder at the world (“how did a tiny seed turn into THAT?!”), and, of course, we get to eat what we grow, and what we grow always tastes better than anything we can buy.

Even if you only have a little bit of space – or just a patio, or a sunny window – you can grow food!  So get gardening, and let me know what you grow!

breast milk soap

Because our skin is so absorbent, what we put ON our bodies matters as much as what we put IN our bodies.

Back when I had serious skin issues, I didn’t realize that most store-bought soaps can really inflame skin and cause pain and irritation.  I didn’t know what good soap was until I bought a bar from a homeschooling, goat-tending family in eastern Washington state at a farmers’ market.  I tried the soap… and I fell in love.  I became one of their best customers, placing big orders regularly and spreading goat milk soap love to all my friends and family.

So that’s why, when the kids closed their goat milk soap business, I was devastated.  I looked at some local makers of goat milk soap and was a little astounded by the price – $6 a bar!  So I decided I needed to learn how to make my own.  The only problem… I don’t have a goat.  (Serious problem!!)  But I *do* have a stash of breast milk in the freezer, so I thought… why not try it?!?

Spoiler alert:  it worked!  Better than I could have imagined!  The soap is luscious!  After making it, I found the most amazing goat lady who sold me some of her girls’ milk, and I’ve been making both goat milk AND breast milk soaps ever since.  I’m getting kind of good at it!  And, since a lot of people are asking for details on how to do this, I thought I’d share here.   This post covers both goat milk and breast milk soap.  You can use either milk – but I wouldn’t suggest substituting other milks.  Goat milk is recommended for skin because the ph of the soap it makes is supposedly closest to human skin ph.  But if goat milk is close, is human breast milk spon on?  I haven’t tested this, but based on my skin’s reaction to the soap, I’m willing to bet it is.

Before embarking on this soap journey, I did some research.  I searched online and found a few blogs wherein people chronicled their experiences with making goat milk soap.  I noted all the safety warnings – first, that lye is caustic and will burn your skin, so you need to wear rubber gloves and safety glasses and protect against any spills or splashes.  Lye also releases harmful fumes when it’s hydrated, so it’s best to mix it with the milk outside.  (If you must mix it inside, open all the windows and turn on a fan so that your work space is well ventilated.  But if you can – go outside.)  Another concern is that liquid added to lye can cause an explosion (didn’t we learn this in Fight Club?), so you always add the lye to the milk, and not the milk to the lye.  And lastly, lye heats up as it hydrates, so in order to keep the lye from overheating and cooking (or scorching) the milk, you should start with frozen milk, and add the lye to the cubes or chunks of frozen milk, and stir continuously until the lye is dissolved and the milk is all thawed.

So yes, I was out on my porch in what looked like a white lab coat, wearing green rubber gloves and red safety glasses, doing a kind of science experiment involving a digital scale, chunks of frozen breast milk, and a white granular substance in a container marked with numerous bright red “WARNING: EXPLOSIVE” labels.

All my neighbors think I’m totally normal.  Especially when I assuage their concerns by yelling out “Don’t worry!  It’s just BREAST MILK!!!”

To make soap, you need to choose a recipe.  You can NOT just willy-nilly dump oils and milk and lye together and hope for the best, because soap is really more science than art.  It’s like the difference between cooking and baking – you can cook without a recipe or measuring things, and it will usually turn out fine, but if you try to bake a cake and don’t measure or use a recipe, you’ll bake something, but it probably won’t resemble a cake.  The same is true for soap.

You can use any recipe you find online for goat milk soap, and just swap out the goat milk for breast milk, or you can fashion your own recipe using the fats and oils you prefer.  It’s a good idea to read a bit about the qualities different oils have, so you can choose ones that will suit your skin and your needs.  (This website was very informative on that subject.)

A note about palm oil:  I’ve been using palm oil in my soaps because the goat milk soaps that I fell in love with were made with palm oil, so that’s just what I bought.  But since reading about how destructive palm oil farming is to the environment, I’ve decided to switch up my soapmaking and will be using very high quality leaf lard (from pastured pigs) for my next batch.  I just purchased some from the awesome farmers at Warren Wilson College, and when I told them about my plans to make breast milk soap with it, they were super excited, and they want to buy some!  (See?  Not everyone thinks I’m nuts.)

If you make up your own recipe or change the amounts of oils at all, you need to use a lye calculator in order to determine the amount of lye to use for the fats and oils you have chosen.  They each behave differently with lye, and you don’t want to end up with too much lye in your soap (it will burn your skin) or too little lye (it won’t make soap).

If this is sounding a little complicated, trust me, I can relate.  But really, it’s not that bad.  I used the lye calculator at Majestic Mountain Sage, which is here.  It’s a very simple, useful tool that allows you to input the number of ounces of each fat you are using, and with one click, the calculator will tell you the amount of milk and lye to use.  I use the amount it recommends for a 9 percent “superfat” soap.  Most guides also recommend using 60 percent “hard” oils and 40 percent “soft” oils.  Here’s an excellent post on how to formulate the “perfect” soap for your needs.

My recipe has varied for each batch I’ve made, depending on what kind of soap I want and what kind of oils I have on hand.  For the last batch, this was my recipe:

10 oz organic coconut oil
4.5 oz palm oil
1.5 oz organic red palm oil
3 oz castor oil
3 oz grapeseed oil
2 oz organic extra virgin olive oil
1 oz plantain-infused extra virgin olive oil
1 oz plantain-infused sweet almond oil

I mix these oils together in a 2 quart glass measuring container, and I heat them in a pan of water on the stove until they are all melted and combined.

Then I remove the measuring bowl from the hot water and let it sit until it is 100-120 degrees.

While the oils cool, I don my science lab outfit and head to the porch to mix up the lye and milk.  For this recipe, I used:

9.2 oz of breast milk (you can use anywhere from 7-10 oz)
3.89 oz lye

goat milk cubes with some lye added to them

If your milk is frozen in little baggies, cut the baggies open with a scissors and pry the frozen milk out of the baggie and into into a glass bowl (don’t thaw and re-freeze).  Then measure the lye (use a digital scale – don’t rely on measuring cups or spoons) on top of the frozen milk chunks.  I used a stainless steel spoon to mix it all up, stirring constantly until the milk was all melted.

goat milk with lye dissolved in it (note how the goat milk is whiter than the breast milk in a lower photo)

The lye heats the milk up in a hurry, so if you don’t stir a lot, you risk burning the milk.  (And any woman who has ever pumped milk for any period of time will give you a dirty look and a stern lecture about how every ounce of that milk is PURE GOLD and NOT TO BE WASTED.)

So be careful.  And avoid the wrath of a pumping mama.

Leave the bowl of lye/milk slurry out on the porch (yucky fumes, remember?) and head inside to check the temp of the melted oils.

When the oils have cooled to that hot-bathtub-water temp, you’re ready to mix the oils with the lye/milk.

breast milk and lye on the left, melted and cooled oils on the right, immersion blender ready to go!

Note that this is when you have the greatest risk of spills/splashes, so cover all your skin.  Put your gloves and safety glasses on.  And then carefully pour the lye/milk solution into the oils and begin to stir the mixture.  You have to mix it until it reaches what’s called “trace,” meaning the oils start to thicken and when you pull your spoon or immersion blender across the surface, the mixture will hold little waves on the surface.  If the mixture is still completely soupy and the top of it stays flat when you pull the mixing implement out, it hasn’t reached trace yet.

Not at trace:

breast milk soap that is still very soupy and liquid, needs more mixing.

At trace:

this is a batch of goat milk soap, at or a little beyond “trace”, meaning I mixed it slightly longer than I should have (but the soap still turned out great)

How long does it take for the soap to reach “trace”?  That depends on myriad factors, including temperature, type of fats used, and most importantly – what you’re using to mix.  If you use a spoon, it’s going to take so long you’ll think your arm is going to fall off.  If you use a whisk, you’ll still feel similarly.  Think 15-20 minutes of constant stirring.  That doesn’t sound that bad until you actually try it.  (I tried it.  My arm is still growing back.)  If you want your soap to “trace” in a much shorter time period, use an immersion blender.  Make sure it’s spotlessly clean (you don’t want any leftover broccoli soup in your soap, do you?)  Using an immersion blender, my soap usually “traces” in a few minutes.  When it does, I immediately stop blending and add essential oils.  For this batch, I used:

40 drops sweet orange essential oil
20 drops organic patchouli essential oil

Note that this isn’t a lot of essential oil – it makes the soap very lightly scented, which is how I prefer it.  If you like a more scented soap, you’ll want to use more essential oil.  You can learn more about safe dilution rates here.

Add the oils and then stir using a silicone spatula, and then pour into your mold.  I used a small cardboard box lined with parchment paper as my mold.

Then I put the box of soap in an insulated cooler to keep it from cooling off too quickly.  (I read that this will help prevent the formation of a thick layer of white powder on the top of the soap – which happened with my first batch.  The powder is known as soda ash, and it’s supposedly harmless but not very aesthetically pleasing.)

Cleanup requires some special safety precautions, too.  Even though the lye is mixed into the fats, it hasn’t yet been neutralized, so the soap mixture can still burn your skin.  (Ask me how I know this!)  Because of this, you need to keep those gloves on while you wash your equipment.  And even though you’re washing off “soap,” your soap’s not truly soap yet, so you need to use some dish soap to break down those fats.

After a few hours, I open the lid of the cooler slightly so that moisture can escape.  Two days later, I take the soap out of the mold and use a chef’s knife to cut the soap into bars.  I put the soap on a baker’s rack so that air can circulate around the bars.  This is to allow it to breathe while the fats and lye interact completely.  This process is called “saponification,” and it’s what neutralizes the lye so that it no longer burns your skin.

The process of saponification takes 24 hours to six weeks (or longer!)  I wait six weeks for all my soaps, and then I check it to see how my skin reacts to it.  Many soap-makers do pH testing, which is discussed in great detail here.  I’ve toyed with it but got widely varying results, and sort of gave up.  My skin is the real test.  First I try it on my hands.  Then my arms.  And finally my face.  I pay close attention to how my skin feels after using the soap.  Does it make my skin feel itchy?  Dry?  Greasy?   (Almost all commercially made soaps cause these issues for me – but none of my homemade ones have.)

A final note about safety:  As I researched and read about making soap, a question crossed my mind: Is it SAFE to rub breast milk all over your skin?  Crunchy mama groups would have you believe that breast milk will solve all that ails the world, but there’s also the real-world consideration that breast milk is formed from blood, and blood can carry disease.  (Hepatitis B and HIV, to name two of the scarier ones.)  So it occurred to me that you probably shouldn’t use breast milk soap unless it was made using milk from someone who has tested negative for these blood-borne diseases.  (I’ve been tested and am negative for both.  Indeed, I think all pregnant women receiving regular maternal care get tested for both prior to giving birth.)  So – buyer beware…?  It’s probably not a bad idea to exercise caution.  But then I also wondered:  do goats carry blood-borne diseases?  And if so, can they harm us?  Would any blood-borne disease still be able to infect a person given the chemical process of soap-making?  Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions.  If you do, please weigh in, because I’m curious.

I’m not a generally squeamish person.  In my household, the five second rule is more like the five-hour rule, and even that has pretty lax enforcement.  Also, I know that my own milk is safe, so I’m not worried.  But would I slather breast milk soap from an unknown mama all over my body?  I don’t know.  Probably no.

But… given that a lot of commercially made soaps contain ingredients that we know to be harmful to health (parabens are especially concerning due to their ability to disrupt hormone production), maybe I’m over-thinking the breast milk safety issue.   I’m curious to know others’ thoughts on the issue, though.

Happy soap-making, friends!  Let me know how it turns out!

Compost it!

The other day, my two-year-old wanted to light a candle.  After I lit it, he said, “let’s say blessings.”  I asked him what he wanted to bless, and he said, “Grammy and Papa.”

“Anything else?”

“Sally” (Sally is his teacher.)

“Anything else?”

“Compost!”

I couldn’t not laugh.  And I’m with him 100%!  Blessings for compost!

Why?  It’s good for the soil, which means it’s good for the plants, which means it’s good for the bees and the birds (and people!), and ultimately, it’s great for the planet.  Win, win, win, win, win, and win!

So does composting have any down-sides?

[thinks for a minute]

Nope.  So let’s get you started!

First things first:  don’t over-do this.  You don’t need a big giant fancy composter to compost.  If you’re squeamish about natureish things, or you predict there may be problems with rats or other troublesome pests, you can opt for a rotating-style composting bin, which works well.   Or if you are all *for* natureish things and want to make some really high-end compost, I recommend a worm bin.  Here’s a nice one you can buy, and I’ll post sometime soon about the one I built (and give credit to our hard-working worms!)  Though it sounds counter-intuitive, you can even do worm-composting in an apartment!

If you have the yard space and are not concerned with critters getting into your compost, then feel free to just make a pile on the ground.  If you live in a place that gets lots of rain, it’s a good idea to cover it with something.  (A tarp? A bin? An unused kiddie pool?  Use what works for you.)  Your composting set-up can be as fancy (or as simple) as you like.  It’s not rocket science.  You’re just setting aside some space for things to decompose.

Because I have limited space in my yard (and because I’m thrifty), I opted for a simple hardware-cloth bin.  To make it, I bought a 10 foot roll of 48 inch high 1/2 inch hardware cloth, unrolled it, and secured the ends together with wire to form a cylinder.  Then I put all my compostables in it, and I just let them sit.

You may be wondering a few things, so I’ll try to address the most commonly asked questions about composting.

First, what stuff can be composted?  Anything that comes from a plant – and some things that come from animals.

Things that belong in the compost bin:  vegetable scraps, rotting fruits, peels and rinds and skins from fruits and vegetables, carrot tops, the spinach you intended to eat but didn’t, the zucchini that’s nearly liquefied in the produce drawer, shredded paper (nothing shiny – only matte papers), fingernail clippings, hair, coffee grounds, coffee filters (no k-cups!), tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, stale bread, leaves, grass clippings, weeds from the garden, egg shells, chicken, cow, horse, goat, or rabbit manure, animal bedding (No, not a dog bed.  Think something like straw used in a chicken coop).

Things that do not belong in the compost bin:  dog poop, cat poop, human poop, plastic, metal, oils, meat, milk, cheese.

NOTE:  If you’ve used chemicals on your lawn, don’t put the clippings on your compost pile.  And stop putting chemicals on your lawn!

There are some things for which you need to use your judgment.  When I lived on a rural farm, I buried five gallons of fish guts in my compost bin!  It reeked to high heaven for a few days, and it got so hot I thought I might start a fire, but then it turned into the best compost I’ve ever made, period.  But would I do it with neighbors nearby?  (Neighbors I like.)  No!

(I wouldn’t even do it with neighbors I don’t like.)

I collect compost in the house in a gallon-size plastic bin that was originally meant to hold cereal.  It has a lid that snaps shut, which keeps the compost from stinking up my kitchen, and it also prevents problems with ants or fruit flies.  I store mine under the sink, next to the rubbish and recycling bins, and – you might have guessed this – even my two year old knows what goes in it and what does not.  Well, mostly.  We have disagreements about whether playdough is compostable.

(It’s not!  Too salty!)

If you prefer to have a bin out on the counter-top and you plan to empty it frequently, you can opt for something like this stainless steel pail, which is attractive and convenient, and it has a charcoal filter to keep the fragrance to a minimum.

You can be creative with this, too, and use something you already have on hand.  Do you have a giant unused pickle jar with a lid?  That would make a great compost storage container.

If you already have issues in your kitchen with ants or fruit flies, I highly recommend keeping your bucket or bin in the freezer, and storing your compost there until the bucket or bin is full, and then you take it to the pile.

I generally do not stir or mess with my compost, and after about eight months, I pull the cylinder off and start harvesting compost from the bottom.  I sort out any un-composted matter and put it in the bottom of the bin in a new location, and start all over.  If you have a tumbling composter or regularly stir/turn/mess with your compost, it will be ready to use sooner.

How do you know when it’s done?  It will look like rich, crumbly black dirt, but feel lighter, and smell sweet.  (It won’t smell like rotting fish.  Even if you composted rotting fish!)  If it stinks, or if it has chunks of recognizable matter in it, it’s not finished composting.  Leave it alone for a while longer.

Some people say you have to use specific proportions of “green” matter to “brown” matter, and they spend a lot of time futzing with this and arguing about what things are brown and which are green.  I don’t bother, and my compost turns out just fine.  Just be sure that you add *some* amount of bulky dry matter (think leaves or grass or shredded paper) with your kitchen scraps, because if you do only kitchen scraps, you’ll get a pile of too-moist goo.  Use your judgment.  And your nose.  Does it seem too goopy and soupy?  It needs some dry matter.  Is it too dry and not doing anything?  Give it some watermelon rinds.  An occasional handful of soil from the garden is also a good idea, as it introduces helpful bacteria to the mix.  (Even better is a handful of finished compost.)

Don’t be surprised to fill your bin up and then come out a day or two later and have it look like you only put a couple gallons of stuff in it.  Compost is sort of magical in how much it shrinks and settles and turns a lot of fluff into a small pile of rich, loamy stuff.

Indeed:  compost is magical.  You take a bunch of rotting, ugly stuff that would otherwise be “waste,” and you transform it into something soft and sweet and rich with life, with the potential to grow amazing flowers and food… well that’s magic.

It’s that simple!  Now get to it… because I’ll be posting soon about how to use that compost to convert some of your lawn into an easy, no-till garden bed!

If you have questions about composting, ask away in the comment section!

And in the meantime… many blessings to your compost!

Anti-itch Plantain Balm

If you could harvest mosquitoes and eat them, I’d…

…never mind.  You probably can eat them.  I don’t want to!

Mosquito season is upon us!  Which means I’m dotted with red welts and can be spotted out in the yard wearing long pants and sleeves, despite it being in the 80s!  Fortunately, nature offers a good remedy for the itch, on those days when I just can’t be troubled to wear pants and sleeves.  Plantain to the rescue!

Plantain, also known as “white man’s foot” because it grows in areas trampled by foot traffic, grows just about everywhere, and you probably have some in your own yard.  Here’s some in mine:

Look for it at the edge of your lawn, or on or next to a walkway.

You can recognize it by its wide leaves and rosette-style growth pattern.

You can pick a clean(ish) leaf of plantain, chew it up, and then use the pulp to cover up a bite.  It will take the itch away in seconds!  Just leave it on until it falls off on its own.

If you don’ want to be covered in green splotches of plantain/saliva goo, there’s another method that works too.  Gather a good bunch of leaves and take them to the house.  Chop them up finely, and stuff them in a jar.  Then pour olive oil (you can substitute other skin-healing oils like fractionated (liquid) coconut oil, sweet almond oil, etc) over the plantain to cover completely, and fill the jar all the way up.  Use a chopstick to push down on the plantain to allow any trapped air bubbles to escape.  Then top it off with oil so that it comes all the way to the top, so that there is essentially no air left in the jar when you screw the lid on.  Label the jar with the herb (plantain), the type of oil you put on it, and the date.  Store in a dark place at room temperature, on a surface that won’t be ruined by seeping oil. (I put my jar in a yogurt container, just to be on the safe side.)

After six weeks, strain the oil off of the plantain and toss the plantain in the compost bin.  The oil is now ready to be applied to bites as is, or you can take it a step further by making a healing balm.  I make a balm and store any excess plantain-infused oil in the refrigerator for future batches.

To make the balm, use:

4 ounces (1/2 cup) of plantain-infused oil
1/2 ounce beeswax (if you don’t have a scale and are using beeswax pastilles, it’s about 2 tablespoons)
20 drops essential oils (optional)

Put the plantain-infused oil and beeswax in a glass jar, and put the jar in a saucepan half-filled with water.  (This works as a double boiler.)  Heat the water on the stove and stir occasionally until the wax is completely melted.  Then remove from the heat and add essential oils, if using.  Oils I have added to this mixture that promote skin healing are lavender and frankincense, and in a recent batch I used basil and rosemary, because they are anti-inflammatory and also help to repel bugs, hopefully keeping me from getting bit even more!

After adding the essential oils, pour into small containers, label, and enjoy!  I use these little 5 gram tubs because they are inexpensive, reusable, small enough to carry with me everywhere, and they’re a great size for gifting.  I put a penny in the photo so you can see how small they are.

I also make an effort to re-use small cosmetic containers – those little tins that beard balm and the like come in are great, as are small glass jars and pots.   I keep a 1.5 oz. honey-jar of this balm in a kitchen drawer, because I use it so often.

This balm is great for bug bites, but it’s also helpful on lots of other skin conditions.  The balm can be used anywhere for skin irritation, itchiness, minor scratches, or even as an all-over moisturizer.  If you omit the essential oils, it makes an excellent balm for healing diaper rash.