Recently I saw one of those sentimental Instagram memes that said: ‘the world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page’. Whilst I would normally roll my eyes and scroll on past this sort of thing, this one struck me as being resolutely true. For travel, as we all know, broadens the mind. Literally. Suddenly you are exposed to new foods, new cultures – and if you’re a beauty junkie like me, a whole host of new experiences in the beauty aisles of the local supermarkets, pharmacies and emporiums.
My first experience with a beauty world entirely different to the one I knew was when in Paris on a French exchange programme in high school aged 14. Trying to be desperately chic and sophisticated, I ventured into a pharmacy just off the Champs-Elysées only to be bombarded with shelves of bottles that made no sense to me. I decided to stand and watch what the Parisian women did and copy them: a fail-safe plan I have followed ever since. My observations revealed one over-riding factor. Whilst the women, all of different skin tones and types, chose a selection of products there was one bottle they all picked up. I reasoned if it was good enough for all of them, I better give it a go too. I picked up the plastic bottle, filled with what just looked like water, handed over my 5 Euros and walked out. It was only when I came home and a make-up artist friend of my mum’s screamed with excitement on seeing it that I knew I had stumbled across a great buy. The bottle turned out to be Bioderma Micellar Water. Little did I know that the humble plastic bottle contained a cult cleanser that is so effective and genius that make-up artists from around the world would make pilgrimages to Paris to stock up as, at that time, it wasn’t available outside of France.
Thankfully, beauty editors from across the globe campaigned for it to be shipped to other regions, the brand listened and now it can be bought around the world – including the UAE. But there is still nothing like picking up a bottle whenever I’m in Paris; it feels more authentic somehow.
From that day forward I have always used any holidays or trips to far-flung destinations to partake in similar experiments, observing what local women are buying and also as a chance to investigate what are the beauty must-haves in that part of the world.
My honeymoon in 2012 took me to the rainforests and rivers of Borneo and even there, in the remotest parts of the jungle, women would set up stalls by the side of the road selling beauty essentials. In that part of Malaysia, having a couple of skin whitening products in your skincare arsenal is de rigueur so that is predominantly what was on offer to the local women. I would have bought some to try – most creams were only the equivalent of Dh13 – had I not been fearful of what was in them. I have a feeling that meeting product safety standards is not a priority in the jungle.
A trip to Asia in 2009 opened my eyes to the weird and wacky world of Korean beauty brands, a firm favourite being Tony Moly – a brand that has cult status and is known for its playful and fun packaging. My eye was drawn to a panda-shaped hand cream that I snapped up for the equivalent of Dh18s. In that part of the world, it feels as though more thought is put into what products look like than what they do – Harajuku culture has exacerbated the need for all things childish and cute and in Tokyo, Japanese women were buying hoards of Hello Kitty shampoo, cartoon-adorned cleansers or panda-shaped anything, just like me.
That’s not to say there aren’t some amazing ingredients and technologies at play in these cute-as-candy products. Nearly all of beauty innovation comes from the East and they truly are at the forefront of ingredient discovery and delivery mechanism innovation – they just prefer it with a colourful twist. It was in Japan that I tried (and fell in love with) my first sheet face mask; a concept I had never heard of before but now has become the way to mask. It also introduced me to the wonder that is beauty vending machines. In nearly all Japanese subways you stumble across vending machines stocking everything you could possibly need either right then – hand sanitiser, facial spritzes, SPF etc – or to use at home later – shower gels, body lotions and cleansers.
In another example of a beauty culture clash, they are predominantly filled with The Body Shop products, which seemed to be the height of sophistication in Japan, yet is considered very middle of the road where I am from in the UK. That’s another fascinating facet of what travelling opens your eyes to: What is one country’s average brand is another’s prestige. The idea of beauty vending machines truly blew my mind, as did everything about Japan. It’s such a simple but effective concept and, of course, is now available in other countries in the world.
I’m lucky enough to travel frequently to the US and that means one essential stop-off. An absolute haven for new beauty finds: CVS. Years ago when I was in New York reporting on fashion shows I stumbled across Maybelline Baby Lips – a fab, inexpensive tinted lip balm that I’d spotted all the supermodels using backstage. Of course, that meant I bought 10! On my last trip to New York and when dealing with the inevitable jet-lag, I ended up doing the only thing that helps me in that situation; watching the shopping channels. That was how I was introduced to that next big brand you need to know about, IT Cosmetics. Created by an ex-newsreader who is a rosacea sufferer, its been developed with plastic surgeons to solve skin issues and beauty problems. The hero product is the CC cream ($38) that covers all pigmentation, acne scarring and redness. But it was the eyebrow pencil, Brow Power ($24) that blew me away. It comes in one shade, but the harder you press down the deeper and darker the pigment gets. I bought it all and it hasn’t been off my face since. And of course no trip to New York is complete without a visit to the beauty standout that is Glossier. A make-up studio filled with just the products you need. No gimmicks, nothing unnecessary, just products to give you your most natural, healthy, glow-y look ever. Their Milky Jelly Cleanser ($18) is their bestseller. Search for it on Instagram – it has its own hashtag – and you’ll see why. Rumours are Glossier is expanding outside of New York, maybe if we start a petition it will come to the UAE? Then again – the fun is in the discovery – finding it far from our shores, right?
In the next few months I have a trip across Europe and another visit to the US planned. It just begs the question, what will I find next?