The first thing that I found interesting about Brussels was not its Manneken Pis mascot (chalk it up to the uniquely Bruxellois sense of fun) and not even the common sight of beer drinking at 8am (chalk it up to the grey weather). It was the dense concentration of beauty and hair salons. Every street, whether elegant or run down, has several of them, ranging from omnipresent franchises like Olivier Dachkin to tiny hole in the wall places that look like someone’s living room. Judging by the perfectly coiffed and perfumed grandmothers, age has no bearing on the desire to be beautiful.
The women in my family take their beauty rituals seriously, but spas and luxury salon treatments rarely tempt them. Ask my mom or my grandmother about their tips for silky hair or luminous skin, and you will get a lecture, along with handwritten recipes. My great grandmother left behind several thick notebooks filled with beauty and health advice. Nothing can inspire me to take better care of myself than leafing through the yellowing pages that smell of vanilla and sawdust and wondering if as a young woman, my great grandmother really made hair masks of egg yolks and cognac and rubbed her hands with cucumber juice, as she advises in her delicate, loopy handwriting. The recipe I follow most often is a simple almond oil treatment. The note next to it says, “will make your skin as lustrous as mother of pearl,” and it was all the incentive I needed to go to the store and buy a bottle.
The almond oil won’t require a trip to France and not even a visit to Sephora. It won’t put you back more than $10-15 per bottle. It’s my strong belief that the simplest treatments are sometimes the most effective. Of course, you won’t find them in fashion magazines filled with sponsored product placements and ads for $200 creams. When luxury seems to be defined chiefly by the price tag, I find comfort in simple pleasures that are easy to enjoy.
The almond oil treatment itself could not be easier. Rub a spoonful of oil onto your damp skin after the shower. The idea is simply to coat the skin with a thin layer of oil, not to mimic a glistening body builder readying for a promo shot. Then, rinse off the excess with warm water and towel dry. Almond oil, which is rich in Vitamins E and D, leaves skin soft and smooth. Any flaky or dry patches will disappear in time, and you will find yourself not needing creams or body lotions. I do this treatment twice a week in our relatively humid climate, although you can try it as often as once a day. A friend who has lived most of her life in Spain mentioned that the almond oil rub is a common Spanish beauty trick, believed to protect skin and prevent stretch marks.
When I feel like creating something even more luxurious, I make a scented scrub on the basis of almond oil. I usually use finely milled sugar, but my Spanish friend recommends sea salt. Either way, it’s an excellent treatment that will make you feel as if you’ve just splurged on an expensive spa treatment. In reality, the only thing you will need is a few basic ingredients and 10 minutes of your time. And isn’t feeling good in one’s own skin the greatest luxury of all.
Rose and Vanilla Almond Oil Scrub
1 cup of sea salt or granulated sugar
1 cup of almond oil
3 Tablespoons rosewater
1/4-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mix all of the ingredients well in a large widemouth jar, cover with a lid. Store in a dark, cool place. You can use the scrub right away, but the perfume gets stronger and more well-rounded as it macerates. For the best scent, give it a whole week of maceration time.
Use 1-2 Tablespoons of the scented salt after your shower. Rub into damp skin, concentrating on the dry, flaky areas. Start with your legs and slowly move up. Be extra gentle when rubbing the skin on your chest and other delicate areas. Rinse off with warm water and towel dry.
Variations: if you prefer, you can leave the scents out or use other aromas of your choice. You can use other oils, such as untoasted sesame, apricot seed kernel or grapeseed oils . Olive oil is another great alternative, with excellent benefits for skin, but its heavier scent will be more difficult to mask. You can also mix in dried flowers, such as roses, jasmine and lavender (be sure to use a drain sieve to prevent your bathtub from being clogged.) Also, take care to clean the bathtub, as the oily residue can make it slippery.
Almond oil is available from grocery stores,”natural food” stores, and online from amazon.com. To find the rosewater buying instructions, please click on the rosewater tag.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin