It all starts with a satisfying splash of hot water in to a bowl I otherwise use to make salads. The bowl is full of a mix of dried natural ingredients including rose petals, flecks of chamomile and fennel seeds. The facial steam, made by Toronto-based Gold Apothecary, is the first step in an hour-plus self-care beauty routine that I've crafted over the last two years. On a Sunday – or any other day I'm feeling loopy – the ritual is a gateway to temporary bliss. Clara Gold, who started selling her steam treatment and line of bath salts in 2014, provides instructions for maximum enjoyment in the steam's user guide, such as: "Listen to three great songs while you relax!" So I put on a few groovy tunes by Blind Faith, Jaco Pastorius and Yes. Then comes the extractions. It's a step I'm sure many facialists would advise me not to try at home, but there's the instant gratification that comes from the unpleasant task of liberating your pores of dirt and oil – and my skin has never looked better. A series of masks follows – sometimes thick, creamy and applied by hand, other times a goopy sheet covered in snail slime. I choose one to further detoxify my skin (typically a gel mask that hardens and is then peeled off), one that addresses a specific issue (extra hydration, for example) and one to refine and tighten my skin (usually clay-based). Then comes a quick mist and moisturizing face oil application, both parts of my daily cosmetics regime. While I occasionally dabble in the realm of K-beauty (the glut of skincare products made in Korea that are currently dominating the "innovations in beauty" market), most of the products I use are all natural and locally crafted.
It's rare to find ways to close the loop between doing what you want, what makes you feel good, and what has a positive impact on others as well. I try to live my life by the motto, "do the best you can." While the sentiment is found in my shopping habits (primarily vintage) and grocery lists (organic leafy greens), the most tangible way I've discovered to reconcile my wants, my needs and my community impact is through what some might call an entirely self-serving act. By setting aside time for a thorough skincare routine, I've found a way to disconnect from the world, but also to engage with the world closest to me. The growing interest in self-care – perhaps today's buzziest beautification concept – means many other frazzled people and the brands that want to help us slow down are discovering it too.
For most of my life, I took my skincare for granted. While in high school I was smitten with the idea of adhering to Clinique's famous three-step routine (cleanse, clarify, moisturize). If I really wanted to treat myself, I had a facial and typically walked out of the spa with an expensive cream that ultimately didn't yield much in the way of results. Investing in my skin's well-being wasn't a priority, only a frivolous expense that ended up pushed to the back of a bathroom cabinet.
Many months ago, on a weekly basis, I started to set aside an hour on a free evening to focus on a skincare regime. I was primarily inspired by the launch of Gold Apothecary's steam; it seemed decadent yet earthy, and a good way to decompress at the end of a long week. I came to crave the moment I could put the kettle on, looking forward to a few hours of self-improvement. I also found pleasure in following the brand's Instagram feed, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Gold's products mixed with snapshots of other customers sharing how they took the time to practice self-care. From bath soaks to face masks, each photo told the story of reclaiming time. They also revealed how intrinsically linked using locally made products and "me time" had become.
A swipe through the #selfcare hashtag's history revealed that many of my other favourite local brands, including Province Apothecary, had embraced the idea, using it to entice followers to book a treatment at their skincare clinic but also to encourage them to DIY their own beauty products using everyday kitchen items, such as honey. Province Apothecary founder Julie Clark, a certified esthetician and aromatherapist, notes that while these food-based hacks are a fun and easy way to improve the skin, the biggest concern for self-care practitioners is the health and efficacy of the natural ingredients (especially essential oils) that many independent skincare companies use. Health Canada recently proposed changes to the way natural products are labelled, meaning brands will have to take extra care in the way their products are marketed. "Right now everything is very uncensored," says Clark. "I think it's going to become a little more like food, and I think that's a positive thing."
Audrey Electra Bankley, who recently launched an eponymous line of skincare products, is careful to note that her offerings are rooted in the science of plant-based wellness. "I'm very much pro-Western medicine, but equally pro-natural as much as possible," she says. "Initially I was a little wary to study aromatherapy because I didn't want to end up with an instructor who endorsed alternative only." Bankley's products are centered around a four-step regimen, a mini-ritual of sorts. Applying her Burre Beauté, a cleansing balm that contains oils including pumpkin, bergamot and avocado, and removing it with a hot towel is no less luxurious than a spa treatment but requires much less time and effort. "People forget to do that," she says of the near-meditative aspect of skincare routines. "I do sometimes, but as soon as I assign that time, I feel so much better."
These small pauses on a frenzied life are the inherent luxury of a self-care routine. But unlike some, I don't always completely tune-out while pampering myself. Though I'd prefer to read a book while letting each of my face masks dry, sometimes I have to do laundry instead. And that's fine. "I don't like when people poo-poo how others choose to do it," says Rachel Sheehan of self-care routines. Sheehan is the creator of the line Ghost, which includes handmade soaps and candles; she also owns a vintage store, Penny Arcade, and admits that it's not always possible to be away from her phone and emails for the full duration of her self-care window.
Indeed, one of the benefits of a self-care routine is that you can tailor its parameters. To some, it's a massage treatment at a swish hotel spa. To others, Epsom salts in a bath with a glass of wine will do. This flexibility has encouraged businesses like Body Blitz to deepen its range of beauty treatments. Launched as a therapeutic waters and massage treatment business in Toronto, the brand has opened Facial Bar locations across the city and in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighbourhood. It also sells a line of products including a clay mask and several face serums to treat specific skin concerns like acne scars and anti-aging. The development of these products ensures that even when customers aren't getting a treatment by Body Blitz, they're engaging with the brand's vision of wellness.
Tina Griffin, director of Blitz Facial Bars, has noticed that as the abundance of self-care information grows, so too has the knowledge of their customers. "There's so much accessible to us now. Clients do come in knowing what they want and understanding what's available to them," she says. Yet as other beauty entrepreneurs have noted, there's an important level of awareness that the professional development of products and methodologies adds. "What we do is education," Griffin says, suggesting one of the most satisfying aspect of self-care is discovering what works for you. "Not every [skincare] trend is right for everyone."