How a Kalamazoo pharmacist becomes a creator of cosmetics

When a woman loses the child she is carrying, the hit to her heart and health is difficult enough. For Christine Arseneau, the pain did not end there. Shortly after her miscarriage two years ago, doctors noted an odd fluctuation in her hormonal levels. Further tests revealed that some of the placenta cells had developed into a type of cancer called gestational trophoblastic disease, or GTD.

What good can possibly come from that?

Good things did. Arseneau went through 12 weeks of chemotherapy, and in the process, as one door closed behind her, she began to detect an open window.

"I feel I was meant to help people," Arseneau says.

It was hardly the first time she'd had that thought. After all, that was why Arseneau had earned a six-year degree in pharmacy at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. Graduating in 2008, she now works as an in-patient pharmacist at an area hospital.

"I enjoy being a pharmacist, but it also frustrates me," she says. "We learn more about prescribing pills to patients in medical school--often not enough about changing the lifestyles that caused their disease."

Therein was Arseneau's window to her own business based in Kalamazoo.

The young pharmacist's view through that window had been shaped by two cultures, adding one more perspective than most enjoy. Arseneau was born in Virginia, lived in the U.S. for some years, but moved to Germany, her mother's home, for years between, moving back and forth. She was an "army brat." Her father was a career army man, serving 26 years, and she grew up to think of Germany as her true home. She did not return to the States until she was ready for university.

"Europeans use many more herbal and natural ingredients," Arseneau says. She grew up comfortable with the use of natural and alternative healing methods. She knew she wanted to help people in the medical field, "but I wasn't really a fan of the blood. So I studied pharmacy."

When Arseneau was fighting her cancer, she observed other cancer patients in treatment being served cookies and other sugary treats. In her work as a pharmacist, she has observed that "the average patient is on five or six medications, some on as many as 15. In medical school, there was only one course available about natural medicines."

Not quite knowing how to process her observations, Arseneau began writing a blog, Tina's Pharm, about her experiences as a cancer patient with the perspective of a pharmacist. She was seeing sick people being given unhealthy foods. She was seeing an increase in prescribed medications. She was seeing people get sick younger and younger, even babies born with cancer already in their tiny bodies.

"I was intrigued by Eastern medicine, acupuncture … I did research, watched documentaries. Going through cancer, I learned to start listening to my body."

As Arseneau recorded her thoughts and observations on her blog, she started to eat healthier, and became increasingly concerned about the food, the most natural medicine of all, she was putting into her body. Eating organic was the obvious conclusion.

But what about what she was putting on the outside of her body?

"I realized that the cosmetics I use every day have carcinogens in them, too," she says. "The liver works as a filter for poisons going into our bodies. But when we put the chemicals found in most cosmetics on our skin, there is no filter. Carcinogens are absorbed directly into our blood streams. I could argue that what we put on our skin is even more important than what we eat!"

Arseneau won her battle with cancer. Along that journey, she acquired healthier eating habits and a healthier lifestyle. Using natural cosmetics was the missing part. "So I thought … I won't put anything on my skin that I couldn't eat."

Arseneau got busy. Doing research, doing countless experiments of trial and error, she began to create a line of her own cosmetics. She called her edible lip balms and body butters by the same name as her blog: "Tina's Pharm."

She is carefully growing Tina's Pharm one product at a time.

Cosmetics by the delicious names of "Simply Chocolate," "Lusciously Lavender" and "Perfectly Peppermint" are available at $15 for body butters and $3.50 for lip balms. Unscented versions are in the works, and an all-natural deodorant is being developed.

Ingredients include coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, cocoa butter and beeswax. What you won't find on the ingredients list are the parabens, phthalates, fragrances, mineral oil or petroleum products, or sodium lauryl sulfates.

"Parabens disrupt hormones linked to breast cancer and fertility tissues," writes Arseneau on her blog. "Phthalates are linked to birth defects in boys. The term 'fragrance' can be used to disguise hundreds of ingredients, many of them toxic or carcinogenic. Mineral oil and petroleum products are carcinogenic, yet many cosmetics, even baby products, contain these ingredients. They coat the skin, clogging pores and preventing elimination of toxins. Sodium lauryl sulfates are used in cosmetics that foam. The manufacturing process contaminates this ingredient with dioxane, a carcinogen."

Arseneau sells her natural, food-grade cosmetics online at Tina's Pharm, on Facebook, at local health fairs such as the Wellness Expo at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, at the Honore Salon (146 S. Kalamazoo Mall), and at chiropractic offices.

The fledgling business also now has products available on the West Coast. Her body butter and lip balm are sold at Conscious Skin Care in Alameda in the Bay area and she expects to offer them at local retail outlets soon.

In the near future, Tina's Pharm products will be on sale at the Holiday Vendor Extravaganza on Saturday, Nov. 3, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., in the Southridge Church Gymnasium, 6726 Texas Drive, Kalamazoo.

"Proceeds from the Extravaganza will go to help a friend, a 34-year-old mother who has been diagnosed with cancer," Arseneau says. "I will probably always work as a pharmacist, but I want to take this cosmetic line as far as I can. It's not enough to prescribe pills. We need to change how people live every day."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.