The 7 best things you can do for your face

Anyone who knows me well knows that I go through seasonal obsessions. I decide to learn everything I can about a particular topic, and then I move on to the next topic.

This past season, my obsession was skincare science. (Who can say where these things come from? The prior season, it was native plants.) I spent untold hours reading articles, peer-reviewed papers, blogs, reviews, and ingredient dictionaries. I still don’t really understand chemistry, but I now have a decent grasp of the science behind what you put on your face.

So, buckle up: Here are the seven most important things I’ve learned.

1. Sunscreen every damn day.

Even in the winter. Even if you don’t like it. You have to wear sunscreen. It doesn’t matter if you use antioxidants and moisturizers and the whole shebang: If you don’t wear sunscreen, everything else you’re putting on your face has been rendered worthless.

There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens physically block the sun and are usually composed of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun and are also known as organic sunscreen. Both work; it depends on what your skin prefers.

SPF matters. Your daily SPF should be at least 30 (broad spectrum, protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays). Anything much over 50 isn’t really giving you additional protection, so don’t go crazy and think that SPF 150 will protect you from the sun’s rays for all eternity. Chill.

Finding an excellent sunscreen is The Great Quest for all skincare adventurers. It is very difficult, and you will fail many times along the way. Thankfully, there are many others walking this perilous path who have written great reviews; this is a nice place to start, and here is a very helpful overview about how to wear sunscreen well and why it matters.

Skincare science post
Current favorite sunscreens.

Favorite sunscreens I’ve tried

  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid Daily Sunscreen, SPF 70 (I know that the 70 is overkill, but the composition is excellent and it layers beautifully)
  • Clinique Pep-Start Daily UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 50
  • Olay Complete Daily Defense All Day Moisturizer with Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30 (Olay needs to COOL ITS JETS with the product naming; my fingers are so tired from typing that)

2. If you’re over 20 and you’re not using a retinoid, you might as well just end it all now.

Just kidding. I only found out about retinoids last year! But they are the powerhouse ingredient of skincare. There’s, like, nothing they can’t do: even your tone, texture; reduce acne and sun damage; lessen wrinkles and fine lines, etc. As Into the Gloss says:

“The results are almost too good: With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, acne, and blackheads. Science can’t prove that retinoids will make you a more likeable person, but doesn’t hurt to try for that, too.”

Before you go crazy, here are some basic rules of thumb:

  1. Start using retinoids gradually. Start using it just once a week until you build up a tolerance. Retinoids are known to cause irritation. I destroyed my moisture barrier by going crazy with retinoids, so don’t be like me. Go slow.
  2. Use a retinoid or retinol product at night. There’s some evidence to indicate that retinoids are rendered useless when exposed to sunlight.
  3. You only need a small amount. Slapping on more product doesn’t make it work better.
  4. Don’t give up! Retinoids take weeks, like 8-12 weeks or even longer, to start making a difference. The biggest mistake people make with retinoid is quitting too soon. Don’t be like those people. Fight the good fight.

Um, what are you waiting for?

Skincare science post

Favorite retinoid products

  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. There’s really nowhere else you should look, IMHO, for a retinoid. This is the most potent, gentle, AND affordable thing on the market. I feel like I should buy it in bulk. I’ve been using this one for about 5 months now, and it’s a dream. Never caused me any irritation and my fine lines and skin texture have improved dramatically after months of faithful use. I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!
  • Differin. I didn’t have a bad reaction to Differin; I just preferred the texture of The Ordinary’s product, so that’s what I’m using. Differin is also cheap and now available in drugstores without a prescription. It’s strong (you only need a pea-sized amount for your whole face), and it may cause you to purge (i.e., break out even more) at first.

3. Don’t trust product claims: Read and understand ingredients.

Everyone is trying to sell you something. If there is anything Americans need to learn, it is this.

Companies will say literally anything to get you to buy stuff; they will promise you the moon and invisible pores in just one week.

Trust no one. Instead, school yourself on some skincare science and cosmetic ingredients.

This is very exhausting if you are not a chemist, but again, the internet is Full of Wonders. I’ve learned so much about what to look for and what to avoid after just a few hours of education. Resources below.

Semi-related caveat emptor: Don’t get sucked into the popular myth that all “natural” beauty products are better for your face. There ARE a lot of natural ingredients that are awesome for your skin, but a lot of “natural” cosmetics companies have poor formulations that are not well tested, not backed by research, and/or do next-to-nothing for your skin. Some natural products are downright damaging on your sweet little face (e.g., lemon, vinegar, essential oils, coconut oil if you’re acne prone, etc.). Step away from the pantry. Trust science and solid formulations. (There are some “natural” brands I love, like Yes To and Derma E, and there are also many natural brands that are just overpriced garbage.)

Don’t forget the primary lesson: Trust no one. “Natural beauty” companies are not charities: They also just want to sell you something (and look righteous while doing it).

Favorite resources

  • Paula’s Choice: Ingredients dictionary: Don’t recognize an ingredient? Look it up here! This is a fantastic place to get thorough, scientific, and yet understandable explanations for which ingredients are great and which will murder your precious epidermis.
  • Beautypedia: Take some reviews with a grain of salt, but in general, this is a pretty trusty place to get science-based reviews of beauty products. This site is the brainchild of Paula Begoun, she of Paula’s Choice fame, who is worshipped (and sometimes decried) by skincare enthusiasts the world over.
  • CosDNA: Don’t get scared about the Chinese. This is a crowd-sourced database where people can analyze the ingredients of a million cosmetics products. The system then flags common irritants or inadvisable ingredients.

4. Respect the pH of your face.

If, like me, you have a problem with breakouts and texture, and swing between dry and oily skin, balancing the pH of your face is crucial.

Your skin’s natural pH is about 5.5. Many popular cleansers and products, however, have pH levels that fluctuate in wild directions on either end of the scale (lemon, for example, has a pH of 2; many foaming cleansers have a pH of 9).

The most important components of this lesson are to choose the right cleanser and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Use cleansers with solid ingredients that have a pH between 4 and 6; 5 is ideal. Many popular cleansers are really harsh, which I was surprised to discover. Oil-based cleansers can’t be pH tested, and I love them. They’re super gentle and not stripping, so I heartily recommend them as well. Here’s a place to start to determine the pH of your cleanser, using the crowd-sourced genius of the web.

Skincare science post
Current favorite cleansers.

Favorite cleansers (all with good ingredients and low pH)

Fun fact: Drinking water is great, but it really doesn’t do much to hydrate your face. (At least, there’s little evidence that it makes a difference.) Instead, commit to high-powered hydrators and moisturizers every day. A common misconception is that people with oily skin don’t need moisturizers. They do; I do. Balance your skin’s overproduction of oil by keeping it balanced and moisturized. Every day!

Skincare science post
Current favorite hydrators and moisturizers.

Favorite moisturizers

  • Hada Labo Gokujyun Hydrating Lotion. Miraculous stuff! It’s like a hydrating toner that turns into a super-light moisturizer. Incredibly affordable and immediately effective; I put this on my face twice a day, every day, and it’s helped me tremendously with hydration. The bottle will also probably last me a year.
  • Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. I’m in love with this weird-smelling stuff packed with snail slime. Powerful ingredients, and you only need a tiny amount to cover your whole face with goodness. It’s the last step of my nightly routine.
  • Glossier Priming Moisturizer. I’m not enamored with this moisturizer, but it’s been working well for me for the past few months. I imagine I’ll need something heavier in the winter, because it’s very light, but it delivers what it promises.

5. Exfoliate with acids instead of with bits of rock.

Exfoliation is a critical part of having a smooth, even complexion, but I had no idea that you could exfoliate chemically. Physical exfoliation—harsh scrubs that everyone used as a teen and still can’t put down, rotating face brushes—can work too, but you’re at a much higher risk of damaging your skin. Korean women, the ruling goddesses of skincare, rarely, if ever, use physical exfoliants and they have perfect skin, so I’m listening to them. Instead, be like a Korean goddess and exfoliate chemically, with acids!

There are two kinds of acids that are great for your face: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). I have worked both into my routine, but I am trying to help myself reintroduce them gradually, because they’re potent and I freaked my skin out a bit at first.

Here’s some great advice from Paula and from facialist Renée Rouleau about adding chemical exfoliants into your routine.

Skincare science post
Current favorite chemical exfoliants.

Favorite exfoliants

  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. When you start reading skincare blogs, this is THE most-mentioned holy grail product in the acids space. Everyone raves about it. My advice: Go slow! Don’t be like me. Start once a week and then increase use based on how your skin tolerates it.
  • Derma E Overnight Peel (AHA). Solid ingredients and easy to use.

6. Up your antioxidant and vitamin game.

Your face needs vitamins too! Antioxidant-rich serums and moisturizers are an important step toward healthy, glowing skin. Vitamins and antioxidants can be a little tricky, because there are so many of them, and sometimes they don’t play well with others (especially the acids), but they have tons of benefits. I’ve worked a few favorites into my normal routine.

Skincare science post
Current favorite serums.

Favorite antioxidant serums

  • Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum. I’ve done more reading about vitamin C than any other skincare product because vitamin C is (a) really great for your face, but (b) really difficult to get right in the formulation. The big problem is that it’s very unstable (i.e., it oxidizes, or goes bad, rapidly), and it often does not mix well with other products. That’s why people like this Mad Hippie serum, because it’s a more stable form of the vitamin, mixed with the super-beneficial ferulic and hyaluronic acids. Here’s an incredibly persuasive review of the stuff.
  • Glossier Super Pure serum (niacinamide, or vitamin B3, and zinc). Helps with blemishes and congestion! Have been using this for a few months in my morning routine, and I think it’s helped keep breakouts at bay. Next, I’m going to try The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% because it’s a lot cheaper.

7. Listen to your skin.

Glowing reviews are seductive. We’ve all been there: rushing out to buy something a friend told you was amazing, only to be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t work for you (or causes a pizza-level breakout).

The primary thing I’ve learned in my skincare voyage is what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. You may hate a lot of stuff that I love, and that’s OK. Every face is different!

Learn to love and respect the skin you have. Heed the messages it sends you.

And this, my friends, ends the skincare saga. For now.

Disclaimer: I was not paid or asked to say any of these nice things about these products. This is all from the goodness of my skincare-obsessed heart and depressed wallet.

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Baby your face: Forays into Korean beauty

I don’t know how it happened or who is to blame,* but I have fallen down the weird and wonderful rabbit hole that is Korean beauty. I buy sheet masks like it’s my job and think about my skin in an absurdly devoted way. Pros: I am taking better care of my skin than I ever have, and it’s about time, because I’m hurtling toward 30. Cons: I think I may have experimented with too many things all at once, because I was seeing more breakouts at first. So, go slowly, if you decide to venture into the wild, magical wonderland of South Korean skincare.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, familiarize yourself with the 10-step Korean skincare routine. Yes. Ten steps! Each one more valuable than the last!

It’s a little overwhelming, I know. I’m not doing all 10 steps, but I am taking some principles to heart. Namely: Cleaning my face a lot better and pampering my skin.

Here are some of the favorite things I’ve tried in the past four months of adventuring in Korean beauty.

Korean beauty blog postBenton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. This face cream has snail mucin (aka snail slime) and bee venom in it. Yes. And it dramatically helps with scarring and pigmentation. I have some persistent acne scars from my youth that I am eager to erase, and this cream is one of the few things I have used that seems to make a difference. I use it nightly. ($20)

The Face Shop rice water cleansing oil. Cleansing oils are where it’s at. If you’re not using one, trust me, your life has a particular sadness about it. This stuff is incredible, and it’s super-affordable too. You massage it into your dry face, and then you start to rinse it off slowly. It gets the day’s grime and your makeup off in the most refreshing and thoroughly cleansing way. Your face will feel like silk. ($10)

Korean beauty blog post

Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence. I still don’t know what an “essence” is, but I love this. (They say an essence is like the love child of a toner and a serum, but that just confuses me.) It is the most calming and cleansing final step before moisturizers. And I am always a little appalled at how much comes off my face. This is the thing that is least convincing to me, in terms of end result, but I find it so pleasant and satisfying that I am loath to give it up. ($49)

Korean beauty blog post

Belif moisturizing and firming eye cream. I used to have a bit of milia under my eyes. Then I started using this eye cream. Now I don’t. It’s divine. ($48)

Belif foaming cleanser. This is the most luxe and moisturizing face cleanser I’ve ever tried (and I’ve tried a lot). Will be buying a full size once my travel size cleanser runs out. ($26) *Pro tip if you want to try some of these Belif products without shelling out the big bucks: Buy their really generous travel sampler for $20 (limited release). It will last you quite a while, and I think you will love everything in it, as I have.

Korean beauty blog post

Sheet masks. Of course. The grand foundation of all Korean skincare. I am still getting used to them, to be honest. My face is apparently rather small, and the masks tend to be a little large for my face. And they make me feel weird for the first five minutes (and scare Guion and the dogs), but my pores afterward! The texture of my skin! It cannot be matched. I’ve bought packs of Tony Moly sheet masks on Amazon and ration them like a troll. Fun fact: Urban Outfitters has also started selling a lot of legit Korean sheet masks.

Up next to try: Missha snail repair ampoule and the cult classic Beauty Water.

If you’re curious about more of the Korean beauty revolution, the blog The Klog is an excellent source for product reviews and information.

*My friend Wei is to blame for this obsession. I think. In any event, we are acolytes in the Church of Collagen and Sheet Masks for Life.

Disclaimer: I was not asked to write any of these things. I write about beauty products out of the goodness of my vain and snail-mucin-loving heart.


Sidebar: Because I feel like I have to say this to people all the time now: Your beauty products are not killing you. Just remember, ladies: The word “natural” on a bottle doesn’t mean anything. It is not regulated by government agencies. “Organic” does not mean it’s safe for your skin. Companies can call just about anything “natural,” and many are gung-ho on misleading labeling (like saying conditioner is “sulfate free,” when conditioners never contain sulfates in the first place). Don’t get suckered by the “green” beauty craze without doing some research first. As the author of that post says, “beauty is a business; it’s not a philanthropy.” So-called “natural” cosmetic companies want to sell you their wares just as much as NARS does.


Previously in me writing about beauty products for fun/no monetary compensation:

How about you? Using anything fun on your face lately?

Beauty routine

The last time I was in Sephora, I was offered a job by the manager because he overheard me recommending products to my mom. “You really know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I know,” I replied, without a touch of embarrassment or bashful hedging. “I know. I really do.”

I don’t like to look like I am wearing a ton of makeup, but I love to study it, read blogs about it, and spend an unadvisedly large monthly sum trying products. I am unapologetic about how much I enjoy makeup and skincare. Someday I’ll delve into the theoretical roots of why putting things on my face and on others’ faces interests me so much, but for now, here is what I am currently doing to my body.

Cosmetics postMorning

I don’t wash my face in the morning; it dries my skin out. I also think there’s something to be said for letting your skin do its own thing (and preserve the actually useful balance of oils) in the morning.

Cosmetics postI put on Aveeno Positively Radiant 15 SPF moisturizer, and then this miracle product: Diorskin Nude Air serum. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted: coverage that lets your skin show through but actually gives you a beautifully even complexion at the same time, SPF, and the faintest hint of perfume. PTL.

I touch up my extremely veiny eyelids with Benefit’s Fake-Up concealer, which is marvelous because it has a Vitamin E component, so it doesn’t dry your tissue-fine eye skin out. Gotta fret about that tissue-fine eye skin. If I need extra help, I use the Sonia Kashuk concealer palette and apply with a tiny concealer brush from E.L.F. It lasts all day and can disguise the most hideous blemish.

In the summer, I then dust all of this with a very light application of MAC Studio Fix powder, which easily lasts me a year and a half, if not more. I tend to forgo it in the winter because my skin is dry enough to not need it. Then, a cheekbone-directed swipe of The Balm’s Hot Mama blush, which is like a less glittery version of NARS Orgasm.

Cosmetics postNext, eyes. Depending on the day or mood, I’ll use a MAC eyeshadow in some neutral shade, or possibly a Laura Mercier gold eyeshadow stick. My current favorite eyeliners are both from Bobbi Brown: the long-wear gel eyeliner in a pot or the very easy gel eyeliner pen.

The best mascara ever is Maybelline’s Colossal Volum’ Express mascara. I am not responsible for its stupid name, but it’s the best. And it’s $5 or $6 at a drugstore. If I’m feeling luxe, I will use an eyelash curler.

I comb my brows and most days apply Benefit’s Gimme Brow. I’ve used several brow products, and this is the best by far: it doesn’t become tacky, it looks extremely natural, and the tiny mascara-brush-like wand doesn’t rip out any hairs like a pencil does. Worth every penny.

Lips come next. I prep with Yes to Coconut lip balm, which is about 500x better than Burt’s Bees; you should all switch right now. It actually hydrates your lips. Lip color changes all the time depending on mood, season, and clothing, but some current favorites are NARS satin lip pencil in Rikugien, Clinique Chubby Stick in Bountiful Blush, and L’Oréal Fairest Nude.

Cosmetics postFinally, perfume, if the mood strikes. My current favorite is Tocca’s Stella, which my mother-in-law introduced me to several Christmases ago. It is intriguingly spicy without being too heavy or floral. It’s perfect.

Writing all of this out makes it look like this excessive process, but it takes me about 10-15 minutes to get ready in the morning. When you’re got a routine, you execute it like a cosmetics Olympian. No hesitation. Just drive and focus. This is the morning you have trained for.

Shower/Hair

I use Sachajuan scalp shampoo, which is the first thing that has given me the freedom to wear black clothes. It is a godsend.

I follow with Davines OI conditioner, which is the most luxe conditioner perhaps ever made. You will smell like a goddess all day after using it, and it is extremely rich and moisturizing for your poor dry strands. Once that runs out, however, which will be soon, I will resume using the Organix coconut milk conditioner. Once a week or every other week in the winter, I’ll also do a SheaMoisture manuka honey intensive hair mask, which makes my hair very happy.

Shower time is also exfoliation time. Currently, I’m alternating between Boots Botanics microdermabrasion polish and Clinique’s 7-day face scrub cream. I have also used and liked Acure’s brightening facial scrub with seaweed.

When I get out, I put in Trésemme curl mousse. It’s typically $5 at the drugstore, and it’s better than every other expensive curly-hair product I’ve tried over the past 10 years (and I have tried dozens).

On second-day dry hair, I use Davines This Is a Sea Salt Spray, which is fabulous. And smells like a summery day.

Evening

I take off eye makeup with Neutrogena’s oil-free eye makeup remover, which I have been using since high school, on a cotton round.

Then, I wash my face with this amazing cleansing balm by Boots Organics that we discovered in London, but it’s not yet sold in the U.S. I’m glad we stocked up while we were there, but I think I will switch to Glossier’s Milky Jelly cleanser once I run out. (Wei let me try it when she was visiting, and it is divine.)

Cosmetics postI have a rotating shelf of serums and night creams, mostly samples that I’m working through right now. But the Boots Botanics facial oil* is usually in the rotation in the winter, along with something from Caudalie. I’m interested in trying some heavier night creams for the winter, because the winter is dark and terrible and hateful toward my skin. (*This seems to be a product they have stopped making, which is devastating news. It was so inexpensive and so great.)

Mario Badescu drying lotion is my second life-saving product, after Diorskin. This is the #1 greatest solution for pimples. I could not live without it. Or, I could, but my life would be a formless void.

Jewelry

Cosmetics postTara Montgomery is my primary source for jewelry; almost everything I own and wear was made by her, and it’s all perfect. I consider her my personal jeweler. I get a compliment almost without fail whenever I’m wearing Tara’s jewelry. You can’t go wrong.

*I was not asked by any of these brands to say these nice things about their products. But maybe they SHOULD have asked me to; I’m a great saleswoman.

And now for something frivolous

10 things I am currently loving in my face routine.

1. Diorskin Nude Air Serum

I think this is what I have been looking for all my life. This tinted serum provides sufficient coverage and SPF 15, and it goes on like silk (not at all heavy or cake-y). Mom treated me to this at Christmas, and it’s a sincere delight. $53 at Sephora.

2. Boots Botanics Organic Facial Oil

It took me many years, but I have finally come to understand that my face was producing excess oil because I was not moisturizing properly. Now that I finally have that cycle under control, my skin has never looked better. And I am all about some organic face oil. This stuff is extremely affordable, and that little bottle lasts forever, and it makes your skin feel like velvet at night. $7 at Target.

3. Marc Jacobs Highliner Gel Eye Crayon

Apparently, I have greasy eyelids, and eyeliner is always smudged right under my brows, which makes me batty/annoyed. I have been on the hunt for a long-lasting, non-smearing eyeliner, and I found it in two products—this, and no. 4 below—and I’m never going back. This one is particularly easy to apply and worth the price. $25 at Sephora.

4. Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner

It has been an adjustment for me to acquire a steadier hand, to apply this eyeliner from a pot with a thin angled brush, but I am loving it as well, and this stuff really does not budge all day long. Also very much worth the price. $26 at Sephora.

5. Make Up For Ever Rouge Artist Natural Lipstick (N9 Copper Pink–Satin)

This is a glorious shade of lipstick, so glorious that I cannot describe its color in words (a sumptuous vision of a tawny rose), except that it makes me feel like a pulled-together goddess when I wear it. I got it as a Sephora sample a year ago, used it up entirely, and then had to buy it for myself. I wear it all the time. $20 at Sephora.

6. Yes to Coconuts Lip Balm

Yes To Coconuts Naturally Smooth Lip Balm - 0.15 oz

I’m going to share a bit of personal blasphemy, but I am just not that into Burt’s Bees anymore. I don’t think its widely touted lip balms are that great; they are not long-lasting, and I think their formula actually irritates my lips. Enter this magical little product by the “Yes To” line, which works wonders for me, especially in the winter months. This is a daily staple in my life nowadays. $2.99 at Target.

7. Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer

Aveeno® Positively Radiant® Daily Moisturizer with Broad Spectrum SPF 15- 4 Oz

Drugstore staple! No complaints here. This is just a great moisturizer for daily use; it’s not greasy, it soaks into skin swiftly, and it has SPF coverage. What’s not to like? Guion and I share a bottle, and we’re both very happy about it. $13 at Target.

8. Sumbody Body Butter

Body Butter Pot - Tropical Delight

Not sure why it took me so long to try straight shea butter, but this stuff is magic (discovered in a Birchbox sample, actually). So deeply moisturizing! My skin is soft all day long. I now regard shea butter as some kind of delightful witchcraft. Birchbox sells a trio for $23, or you can buy them individually for $7.95 each from Sumbody.

9. Glossier Perfecting Skin Tint

As an avid reader of Into the Gloss, I have been utterly pleased by their release of their own line of skin care and makeup. (I’m especially excited about Phase 2.) This is a great, very lightweight “tint” for the skin; it’s lighter than even a BB cream, which makes it so easy to apply in a flash, especially if you are having a “good” skin day and don’t need much coverage. It also seems to be naturally somewhat moisturizing, so I don’t feel like I need to pile on some face cream before applying. $26 at Glossier.

10. Tocca Stella perfume

This is the best perfume. Really and truly. My mother-in-law gave it to me for Christmas several years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s somehow both spicy and complex and alluring without being too powdery or flowery. $34 to $68 at Sephora.

Previously: Beauty products I was into in 2014

(I am not a famous blogger and therefore no company asked me to say any of these nice things about their products. Yes, I am praising these cosmetic items out of the goodness of my heart.)

Lead me to water

Garden updates, 4 May 2015
Columbine in the front yard finally bloomed.

Some of our best friends in town are getting married tomorrow, and we are flush with excitement, almost as if we were getting married again. We are so happy for them and we have been anticipating this day for years now. Guion reported that when someone asked him to make plans this week, his first thought was, “Oh, I can’t do anything this week; it’s wedding week.”

Late April

One of my chief pleasures is eating lunch during the work week on the back deck, with the dogs milling around the yard and the carpenter bees and wasps congregating near the table. I think I have already written about this, but this practice provides my mental and emotional state with so much energy and relief. It is probably just the benefit of being outside, after four hours in a cube, staring at a screen, but my outdoor lunches can improve the gloomiest mood. I eat slowly; I drink a LaCroix; I read a novel; I throw a stick for Edie; I watch the chickens; I listen to the birds; I feel like a million bucks. (And then I go back to the office.)

We saw Sufjan play in Richmond this week (a moving, excellent show; I’m always in the mood for him). One of the memorable, nonmusical delights of the evening was spotting an old friend from college up in the balcony. We texted from afar, confirming our identities, and I waved repeatedly. We shouted to each other briefly, him from the balcony down to me in the orchestra level, but we weren’t able to meet up afterward. Still, just seeing him filled me with this satisfactory nostalgia. Here we are, after so much time has passed; happy and complete in our adult lives.

I keep a little notebook now, to ease myself back into the practice of keeping some form of a handwritten diary. After about 16 years of daily journaling, I abruptly stopped once I got married. It was as if keeping a diary wasn’t important anymore, now that I had a spouse — which admittedly is a very odd psychological conclusion. But I’d like to get back into the practice, if only to keep up the habit of composing sentences by hand. Even if they’re not very good sentences. The notebook is a hodgepodge of loose diary entries, vocabulary words, and notes on what I’m reading.

I am usually writing about what I am reading there, but I realized the other day that I am only taking notes on fiction. I mentioned this to an acquaintance, and he remarked that that was a very odd habit. “Why wouldn’t you take notes on nonfiction instead?” he asked. “To, you know, remember actual facts and information?” I didn’t have an answer then, but I think I record fiction passages and resultant thoughts because I am often so much more moved by a novel than by a factual account. I am impressed by the beauty, and that is the sensation I don’t want to forget. Data will ebb and flow. But it’s the art that’s worth remembering.

Naturally curly and not ashamed

There is a common and nearly universal narrative among naturally curly women, which tends to follow this trajectory:

People thought my curls were cute when I was little, then I became a teen and hated them; committed all sorts of sins against my hair, including flat-ironing; had a string of abominable hair cuts by curl-ignorant stylists; but then, the clouds opened, I grew up, and I embraced my natural hair and started taking care of it. And now my life is good.

I think I’m finally reaching the happy ending of this shared story.

Curly heritage

I owe my hair, naturally, to my family; specifically, to my paternal grandmother and my mom.

I hope to have hair as awesome as my Gran someday. Her curls have always looked incredible, and I love the way she wears them (in her beautiful, natural light gray color, in tight ringlets):

Southern Living
Gran, hiding; summer 2013.

And my gorgeous mother is most directly responsible for my hair:

Visit with Mom to the Botanic Gardens
Mom, May 2013; Botanic Gardens in DC.

I am thankful that she has always embraced her natural hair and thus encouraged me to embrace my own as a child. For many years, we shared the same products, but now we’re venturing out and sharing our curly-hair discoveries with each other. It’s really nice to have a curly ally who is so closely related to you and your hair journey.

Mom is very attractive
The two of us; July 2011.

And Dad also deserves credit for my curls (which he clearly got from his mother, aka Gran), as you can see from this absolutely glorious photo of him and our most beloved childhood dog, Emma:

Dad and Emma

Hair history

I don’t have photographic proof at the ready, but my hair has been curly since I was tiny. I had strawberry-blond ringlets as a toddler, which gradually morphed into a mass of blond frizz, into its present color today (brown with red undertones).

As a teen, I tried to live with my curly hair:

Kelsey and me, circa 2000?
Kelsey and me, circa 2000?

But I always wanted it to be straight. The only time boys told me I was pretty was when I flat-ironed my hair within an inch of its natural life. As a young girl, I took this information to heart. Pretty = straight hair; ugly = curly hair. Many naturally curly women have received this message their whole lives. I have often felt like I had to work harder to be beautiful because of my hair. And it’s not an uncommon feeling among the naturally curly; it’s the message you receive from culture and from society at large.

350/366
Super-curly hair, December 2008; first year I was dating Guion, the Amish man.

By the time I got to college, however, I was tired of fighting it, and I was finally able to accept the fact that my hair just wanted be free.

My hair today has much looser curls than I had when I was younger (as you can see from this photo progression). The loosening of my curls began when I started birth control, so be forewarned that hormones can play strong tricks with your hair follicles. (Mom, for instance, says that her hair straightened out considerably during her four pregnancies, only to spring back up again postpartum.) I’m getting used to this straighter texture. Although I still miss the tighter ringlets of my youth, I’ll admit that these half-hearted curls and waves are somewhat easier to trick and tame.

One continuous unexhausted reading #haircut #woolfdefinesheaven
Much looser curls today; circa September 2014.

Curly identity

My mother often makes the point that the two of us ought to live into our hippie roots, by virtue of our hair. There’s a cultural assumption that women with curly hair have personalities like their hair (wild, crazy, natural, unpredictable), which I find interesting (if often frustrating).

For this reason, curls are often seen as unprofessional, unkempt. In media portrayals, a tough modern woman never has curly hair. But feminists, backyard farmers, and commune dwellers have curly hair. I’d like to think that opinions on this could change, and I think they are, slowly. Hair styles several generations ago seemed to be intent on making your hair look as unnatural and plastic as possible. Then there was a wave of “big hair” in the 1980s, but I’m not sure anyone was flattered by that trend. Today, I’m encouraged by the rising tide of women who are embracing their natural hair, throwing away their flat-irons and hair dryers, and living into the hair the good Lord gave them.

Wedding ready! #firstselfie #wildhair
Big hair, don’t care! October 2013.

The question that I often get from people that surprises me is: “Oh, is that your natural hair?” I always want to say, “Um, yes, of course it is. Would you pay money for this??” The answer is no, no way. And then people want to touch it. And the answer is always NO. Absolutely not. I’ve had complete strangers come up to me and touch my hair, which makes me want to do something obscene in return. (I don’t even let Guion touch my hair. It’s just not a thing that curly girls can allow. If you are one, you understand what I am talking about. Hands = frizz.)

Life-changing tips

  • No shampoo! Sulfates are bad news for everyone but they’re especially damaging to curly-haired people. So, I don’t use shampoo anymore and just use sulfate-free conditioner. Conditioner can clean your hair, yes.
  • I only clean my hair once every three days. Curly hair rarely, if ever, gets greasy. Curly hair is naturally extremely dry. And shampooing it just dries it out even more.
  • Don’t touch it. As mentioned above, keep your hands off your curls. Don’t touch it when it’s drying; don’t let anyone else touch it; your curly head is a sacred, sacred space.
  • Find a product that works for your type of curls and don’t use too many products. I have wispy curls now, so most gels are too tacky and heavy for my hair. I’m using mousses and creams now, but I may return to gels if my curls get tighter again.
  • My newest resolve is to only go to curly-hair stylists. I’m so tired of fighting with hairdressers about how to cut my hair. Most stylists will not cut your hair dry, even though they should if you’re naturally curly. I found a Ouidad salon about 30 minutes away, so I am taking the trek there for my next hair cut.

Are you a naturally curly comrade? Share your story and tips!

Resources for the Naturally Curly

Cosmetics roundup

Model applying lipstick, vintage photograph

I have never been shy about how much I love beauty products. Furthermore, I am unabashed in my adoration of French cosmetics, although I rarely can find it in myself to shell out the cold, hard cash for products of such Parisian perfection (even though I believe they’re worth every cent).

Without further ado, here are some products I’ve recently been using and loving.

Recent favorite products

Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré

Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré (24-Hour Miracle Cream) - 75 ml

A long revered French beauty staple, I’ve had this face cream on my wish list for years. It’s worth the hype! I treat it like gold and use the smallest amount on my face at night and feel so very luxe. Makes your face feel like silk. That’s really all there is to it. There’s a whole worshipful post about it on Into the Gloss, if you’d like more convincing. ($28 for 75 ml on Birchbox)

Jouer Matte Moisture Tint

I kind of want to talk to everyone about this. I have tried at least 10 different types of BB creams and tinted moisturizers, and this is the champion, by far. Of course, it’s also the most expensive that I’ve tried. Naturally. That’s how makeup works. This tinted moisturizer offers enough coverage to call itself a BB cream, but it is light as air, has a matte texture, and boasts SPF 15. What else can you say this about? Nothing. Nothing, I tell you. ($38 for 50 ml at Jouer Cosmetics)

Benefit They’re Real! Mascara

Benefit They're Real! Mascara

Benefit is one of my favorite brands, and this mascara is fabulous. It really does make you look as if you were wearing falsies. My only complaint is that it can be a bit hard to remove, but this also means that it has lasting power throughout the day. The medieval-looking spike at the end of the wand is a bit frightening, but it’s a perfect tool for separating stuck lashes or getting the ends of the lash line. ($23 at Sephora)

Benefit Gimme Brow

Benefit Cosmetics - Gimme Brow

A well-groomed brow is an essential part of every lady’s face. This is one of those universal truths that I hold very dear to my heart. And this product by Benefit is incredible. Don’t use eyebrow pencils; they rip out your fine brow hairs. Instead, a lightly tinted wand (like a tiny mascara brush) is just the thing for taming, shaping, and enhancing. Geez. Benefit really needs to put me on retainer. I could write these rave reviews in my sleep…. ($22 at Sephora)

The Balm Hot Mama! Blush

theBalm® cosmetics Hot Mama Shadow & Blush All-in-One

If you are a white lady, it turns out that peach/pink tends to be the most flattering universal shade for blush. And this blush by The Balm apparently mimics the cult classic NARS Orgasm blush, but is $10 cheaper, so it’s a big win in my book. You just need the lightest dusting of this blush. I think my compact is going to last me 10 years. ($20 at The Balm)

Shea Moisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie

Shea Moisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie for Thick, Curly Hair

Shea Moisture might make the best and most natural line of products for naturally curly-haired women. I’ve become a devoted fan in a short amount of time. This tub of coconut oil/neem oil/and other things I don’t know much about can be used to reshape dry curls on the second or third day after a washing, and it really works. Plus, it smells amazing. This tub will also last me maybe 20 years. It’s not a product for women with fine or straight hair; it’d be disastrous for such ladies. Thick, frizzy, naturally curly hair only. ($12.99 at Shea Moisture; also sold in drugstores, Target [for $9.79], etc.)

New routines

I’m also exploring new beauty routines, which I find to be very refreshing.

  • I’m not using shampoo anymore, or using it very sparingly (once or twice a month). In lieu of shampoo, I use a sulfate-free conditioner when I shower. There’s a whole explanation and enormous benefit to it, for us naturally curly folk, which I won’t bore you with, but basically, it’s wonderful, and my hair is happier than ever.
  • I’m taking a break from nail polish, which I think my nails have needed. They’ve never been spectacularly healthy-looking, and I daresay they are appreciating the time to breathe. I love having well-done nails, but it’s a luxury of time that I can’t bring myself to these days. Also, gardening + dogs + calligraphy (certain nail polishes will leave streaks on paper!) = nail polish is low on the cosmetics totem pole.
  • I’ve become very faithful about daily moisturizing, and I think my skin is thanking me for it. My complexion is clearer than it has ever been and has felt more balanced, now that it’s getting an appropriate mix of cleansing and moisturizing. Once in the morning, once at night = face is happy.
  • I’m returning to my Clarisonic, after I finally figured out how to get the brush to stop smelling like feet. I use it once or twice a week, and I imagine that it is doing something beneficial for my skin.
  • I use a bit of perfume now in the morning, especially on work days. Current favorites: Tokyo Milk’s French Kiss ($30 at Tokyo Milk), which my sisters bought for me on our honeymoon and I finally restocked (every time I use it, I’m transported back to our magical honeymoon; c’est très romantique!), and Tocca in the Stella scent ($68 at Anthropologie), a gift from my dear mother-in-law.
  • I’m applying lip balm in the morning before any lipstick, which I’ve found makes a huge difference, as I have a tendency toward dry lips. I swipe it on while getting ready and it stays on through breakfast, until I brush teeth and apply color.

Your turn to dish! What are you loving lately that you’re putting on your face?

Previously in this series: An amateur’s journey in the beauty cosmos and a few of my favorite things.

Also: I feel like this isn’t worth adding, but no one asked me to say anything about any of these products. I bought them all myself with my hard-earned, improperly budgeted cash.

 

An amateur’s journey in the beauty cosmos

I’m not shy about the fact that I LOVE beauty products. I don’t even wear much makeup myself, but I love playing with it. Into the Gloss is one of my favorite and most consistently read blogs. Birchbox makes me giddy about beauty samples and eager to experiment. I love how bold Ruby Woo makes me feel. I particularly love putting makeup on other people and pretending like I know what I’m doing. It’s like getting to be a painter… on someone’s face.

Source: Photopin.com, Creative Commons license.
Source: Photopin.com, Creative Commons license.

Big lessons learned

  • Your face needs more moisture and hydration than you think it does. Having oily skin doesn’t mean that you should skimp on moisturizer; usually, it means the opposite. You’re not getting enough hydration, and so your complexion overcompensates. Learning this one thing has revolutionized my actual face.
  • Splurge on face products; skimp on eye products. Having the perfect base, foundation, or powder matters. But no one can ever tell if you spent $5 or $50 on your mascara or eyeliner. Spend money on the important stuff.
  • Experiment until you find the right thing. Everyone’s face is different. Just because half the blogging world raves about this one product doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing for you. Shop samples and travel-sized products when you can until you find what really works for you.
  • Curl your eyelashes! Unless you have naturally curly eyelashes, putting mascara on without using an eyelash curler first is kind of a moot gesture.
  • Also, learn what your eyelashes need. Study the composition of your eyelashes. Are they short but full? Long but sparse? I have decently long lashes, but they don’t look that full naturally, so I need a volumizing mascara. A lengthening mascara is a nightmare for me.
  • Embrace your natural brows. Don’t succumb to the sin of over-plucking your eyebrows. Define them, cherish them!
  • Trust your natural hair. Don’t fight your hair. Work with it; love it; embrace the frizz (or the straightness or volume or thinness, or whatever it is you were born with). It’s easy to tell when people are fighting against their God-given hair (and it’s often very expensive and time-consuming for such people). Surrender to your hair.
  • Stop washing your hair so much. Shampooing every day is so bad for your hair. So bad. Stop it. Your hair hates you for it. I now wash my hair twice a week, and it’s immensely happier and healthier for it.

Favorite products right now

Whish Coconut Milk Correcting Gel

Whish Coconut Milk Correcting Gel. $32. This was a Birchbox discovery, and I swear it’s the main thing that’s revolutionized my complexion, because I haven’t changed anything else. It’s a mostly organic serum that’s composed of aloe vera, water, and coconut oil, and I think it might be magic. It’s also marketed mainly to people who are aging and have skin imperfections. I’m aging (aren’t we all?) and I certainly have skin imperfections, and I think it’s really smoothed out my complexion — AND the biggest thing is that I’ve completely stopped having my seasonal acne flare-ups. I’m a bit obsessed.

Garnier Skin Renew Miracle Skin Perfector BB Cream, Light/Medium

Garnier BB Cream. $12. I’ve tried so many different types of foundations and BB creams, even samples of higher-end products that sell for $50 for a tiny tube, and nothing beats this drugstore version.

Ultra Facial Cream

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream. $26.50. Yes, a lot of money for a little jar, but this is the best heavy cream/night-time moisturizer I’ve tried. Somehow I also trust it more because of its lack of fancy packaging? Reverse marketing psychology?

Maybelline Volum' Express The Falsies WP Mascara

Maybelline The Falsies Mascara. $7. I’ve probably tried 25 different types of drugstore mascara, and this is my current favorite. I’m really into the slight curve of the brush.

Benefit Fakeup

Benefit Fakeup. $24. I am a very vein-y person. I have tons of veins on my eyelids, and I’m starting to get a bit of darkness under my eyes. This is the best eye-area concealer, because it comes with a moisturizing ring around the concealer itself, so it’s never flaky or drying, and it blends in perfectly with your skin. Love it.

Miss Jessie's Quick Curls -  8oz

Miss Jessie’s Quick Curls. $28. I went on a quest to find the perfect thing for my naturally curly hair, and this is where I’ve landed. I learned that my softer curls got too crunchy with gels, so I was hunting for curl creams. A lot of curl creams can get too heavy or greasy, but this is the perfect stuff. The cream is light and makes great curls on my head, and it smells very strongly of fresh laundry. Which is maybe kind of weird, but it’s not the worst thing for your head to smell like.

SheaMoisture Olive & Green Tea Body Wash -  13 fl oz

Shea Moisture Olive and Green Tea Body Wash. $9. Love this body wash, and I love how self-righteous it makes me feel! It’s all-natural with no parabens, mineral oils, chemicals, etc., etc.

Favorite brands

I’m not loyal to that many brands, because I’m always experimenting, but these three are my tried-and-true favorites.

  • MAC. The serious side of real-deal makeup, but I love everything I’ve ever tried from them. Their lipstick pigments can’t be beat, and their pressed powders are miracle workers.
  • Benefit. I’m not sure what this brand’s deal is, but I also love everything I’ve tried from them. They’re slightly less expensive than some of the more premier makeup brands, too.
  • Essie. It’s completely a looks-based judgment, but I feel like it’s classier than OPI.

One day, maybe I’ll try the really high-end stuff (Dior, Chanel, YSL), but for now, I’m enjoying the low-end experimentation.

Disclosure: I feel like this is not necessary, but whenever bloggers mention products, I get suspicious, so: I was not paid or asked to say any of this about any of these products. These are my independent and trivial opinions about beauty products.

To the attentive eye

chickadee
(c) Erin Boyle.

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

It wasn’t human nature

Matins
Louise Glück

Unreachable father, when we were first
exiled from heaven, you made
a replica, a place in one sense
different from heaven, being
designed to teach a lesson: otherwise
the same–beauty on either side, beauty
without alternative– Except
we didn’t know what was the lesson. Left alone,
we exhausted each other. Years
of darkness followed; we took turns
working the garden, the first tears
filling our eyes as earth
misted with petals, some
dark red, some flesh colored–
We never thought of you
whom we were learning to worship.
We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love
only what returns love.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Get it, Louise Glück. Happy weekend, y’all. I’ll be spending mine clinging to Guion, begging him not to leave me for 10 whole days, since he’s taking off with Nettles and The Hill and Wood and Camp Christopher (hint: all the same people) to play SXSW! I’m SUPER excited for them, but I’d like to raise this point: Wouldn’t this absence be easier to bear if I had a dog to keep me company? Wouldn’t it?? Le sigh. These days, I feel like June is a year away and I am going to die dog-less.