By Ngozi Bolin, Founder, Shinkafa Inc.
I was born just a couple of years before the devastating Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War) broke out in Nigeria. The war seemed to drag on and on, and as we took shelter from sustained bombings in the bunker on our property, all we understood was survival. Food was scarce and many children, including my friends, died of kwashiorkor, due to severe malnutrition.
Since survival was our primary concern, skincare and haircare needs were rather secondary. To brush our teeth, there were no toothbrushes and there were no toothpastes. Instead we improvised. We used dogonyaro (neem) chewing sticks which we dipped in charcoal that was left over from our wood and coconut husk cooking. Charcoal played a huge role in my hygiene quite early on.
For skincare, I learned to cleanse with clays that I collected by the streams where we would fetch fresh water. The water was saved in clay pots for drinking and had a delicious tinge of clay to it. Sometimes we added a bit of alum (aluminum sulfate) in the water to purify it in the pot. My family always had the black soap (ncha nkotain Igbo, my native language), which we made at home with cocoa pod ash, shea butter, palm kernel oil, coconut oils and plantain leaves.
To moisturize in the harsh Harmattan season, which is marked with dry dusty trade winds that dried off everything in sight, I learned to extract oils from nuts. We’d grind them up with mortar and pestle and use water to extract the oils. When we could not use the tools, we simply chewed the nuts and spit out the juice. And voila!
After the War, Came More Harm
When the war ended and the international embargo was lifted against Biafra, we were integrated back into Nigeria. A very trying time, I daresay. On the hygiene side, we now had access to toothpastes, soaps, body creams and a great deal more. But with those products came a new insidious threat: toxic and harmful chemicals. One particular offensive blend of colonial degradation and the era of new trade was the influx bleaching soaps and creams. Women all around Nigeria began bleaching their skin with these toxins and harmful chemicals, believing those soaps and creams would make them more beautiful. The ingredients of choice are hydroquinone and mercury.
For me, however, the euphoria of seeing the flood of new products wore off rather quickly, as most of the soaps and creams had rather pungent smells. I came to find out later that these pungent smells came from the hydroquinone and mercury that these products were laden with. I say “came to find” because most of those products did not come with any list of ingredients.
Finding Ways to Soothe and Cleanse Skin – Naturally
So, it came that as I was growing up in Nigeria after the war, I was harassed mercilessly for refusing to bleach my skin. I was constantly told that my dark skin would make me unable to attract a “suitable” husband. Though I was tempted to succumb to the pressure, I found that everything about those soaps and creams was unpleasant, pungent and irritating to my skin. Most of the women had what we referred to as “Fanta face and Coca Cola legs.” Meaning the face was very light in complexion and the legs were a lot darker. Some had unhealthy greenish complexion with serious hyper-pigmentation in most cases. For some, they looked good, but only for a time. That is partly what happens when melanin is suppressed so that the skin whitening or skin lightening agents can work. This is quite harmful and we have addressed this in a previous publication that is captioned “The Poison To Lighten Dark Skin.”
I was so repulsed by the chemicals and scents of these soaps and creams. I knew that what I wanted and needed was gentle cleansing and hydration of dry, ashy, irritated, cracked and itchy skin. I wanted my skin to remain soft with a healthy glow. But I just couldn’t get that with these chemical-filled creams that seemed to dry me out even more than I already was. The ones that lubricated one’s skin were made with greasy by-products of petroleum. Nigeria, at this time, was a booming petroleum-producing country – it still is. So, I returned to the oils, butters, charcoal, clays, and black soaps of my Biafran years.
But this time was different. I could now walk into the market and buy oils and butters that had been freshly made and squeezed. I now had the pleasure of working with freshly squeezed coconut oil, freshly made shea butter, and mixing the oils and butters with fresh honey to make skin balm with an aroma that is out of this world. I started to brush my teeth once in a while with charcoal once again. I began to properly condition and hydrate my hair. I continued the detoxing use of charcoal and clays. And I started making my own face masque to pull out make up additives from my face, once I was old enough to wear makeup.
Bringing No-Harm to The US
After receiving my law degrees and being admitted as a Barrister & Solicitor under the British Commonwealth of Nigeria, I immigrated to the United States, where I was admitted to the bars of the State of New York and the State of California. Once I got comfortable with my new home, I started exploring the abundant ingredients in the USA. I started going to ingredients trade shows. I just loved it all. I visited the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website as often as possible, I was able to meander my way into the incredible abundance of ingredients here in the US.
It turned out that those toxins and harmful chemicals were not just in products that only went to Nigeria. They were also here in the great USA! They are not as obvious, but they were and are here nevertheless. So, within 3 years of my being here in the USA, I resumed making my own washes, creams and oils in my kitchen. I decided to invest in a few books dealing with compounding cosmetics. Though I was making these creams, washes, oils and masques for myself, friends and family began asking me to share what I use to retain such youthful and healthy skin and hair. These creams, masques, washes, and oils that I made and shared formed the basis for my Shinkafa skincare and haircare lines formulations, crafted without harmful chemicals.
The Next Problem Hit Me: Asthma
Although I thought leaving harmful chemicals out of my products was enough, in 2013 I was hit with a new challenge right before bringing Shinkafa to the market. The house I was living in with my husband and children was found to be infested with toxic mold: stachybotrys, aspergillum, and penicillin. This caused severe respiratory issues for me and my family, including asthma.
With asthma comes health-induced aversion to chemicals. You have to watch what perfume you can wear without going into sneezing fits. You have to watch what you wash with, clean with and what you use for your pets. You most definitely have to watch what you put on your hair and skin that does not pose respiratory triggers for you.
This reinforced my resolve that Shinkafa must be free of all harmful chemicals, down to the scents used in Shinkafa’s products. Alcohol-based perfumes were out of the question. With this, I needed about a year and a half more to finish Shinkafa. I crafted the signature scents from essential oils, creating one signature blend for the haircare line and another signature blend for the skincare line. We made sure that both lines work well in perfect harmony.
Do No Harm For All
When I think back to how Shinkafa started I am amazed that these do-no-harm products began through war and grew through other mishaps. I know that my Shinkafa haircare and skincare lines are beloved by women, men, and children around the world. And more importantly, I know that all of the wonderful people using my products are safer because of the ingredients inside. For me it wasn’t about all-natural or even organic ingredients, but simply about using the best, most effective and safest ingredients to deliver superior and effective luxury products that do no harm.