Ever since I hit puberty, I’d learnt the following gospel to be true: scrub, toner, moisturizer. The holy skincare trinity. This is what I’ve been told is the key to good skin. However, while on the road, a good skincare regime can be difficult or expensive to maintain. This is how I’ve been maintaining my skin on a backpacker’s budget for the past couple of years.
For a couple of years after the brand led an aggressive marketing campaign in Singapore, I swore my life upon Hada Labo. The Japanese skincare brand had plastered ads on double-decker buses in Singapore, and had claimed that a Hada Labo product is sold every 2 seconds. There was a kawaii girl with big eyes and porcelain skin accompanying the claim. I totally fell for it. It was a revolutionary product for me, surprisingly. It really agreed with my skin. It wasn’t top of the line skincare, but it was still a bit of a stretch for my student allowance.
Fast forward a few years later.
I guess I only started to become more conscious of the consequences of my actions when I really got into travelling. I see the direct consequences of human behaviour and on the planet – trash filled beaches and scorched earth that used to be teeming with life – and it truly makes me want to cultivate better habits.
I became a lot more selective of what I put into my body, and consequently adopted a skincare regime that was a lot more organic. That meant kissing my drugstore skincare superheroes (Hada Labo, Garnier et al) goodbye, and discovering that artisanal, organic, all-natural alternatives can come with a hefty price tag.
Most of what I work with is available in the kitchen and are super simple to create. I’m not a lavish traveller at all, and I often grab what’s most available or cheapest to take care of my face with.
One time I got so desperate for a face scrub while I was on Gili Trawangan. I was volunteering with an environmental non-profit and spending long hours in the sun, so my skin was feeling a little icky. I refused to buy any run off the mill face scrub from the local store out of sheer suspicion of its contents. I couldn’t bring myself to use sketchy soap knowing that it washes into the drain and out again into the beautiful waters of Lombok. So I did what a conscious traveller would do. I went to the pantry of my hostel and helped myself to green tea, brown sugar and honey.
I mixed a bit of water and green tea until it turned into a paste, and then added sugar and honey. The sugar is used to exfoliate, sloughing off dead skin. Honey is naturally antibacterial, so it’s great for acne treatment and prevention. Honey is also extremely moisturizing and soothing to the skin. Both green tea and honey are also full of antioxidants, and is great for slowing down ageing. The polyphenols in green tea help neutralize harmful free radicals, which can cause significant damage to the skin. I scrub my face for a minute with this mixture and then leave it as a mask for a bit longer. Afterwards, my skin felt smoother and looked brighter as a result.
This homemade toner is the best I’ve ever used in my life, but I admit I was pretty lucky to have access to it in abundance. When I was travelling in Portugal, there was a wall about a 20-minute walk from my house that was covered thickly with wild white roses. The entire wall was covered with vines and the roses when in bloom were the size of my hand. I would pick a bunch, pluck and clean the petals and then simmer them to make rosewater. You would know it’s ready when the petals turn transparent.
I would wash my face twice a day with this miracle water and my skin became as soft as a baby’s butt. It was amazing. Rosewater helps control the skin’s pH balance and also controls excess oil. Rosewater has anti-inflammatory properties, aids in unclogging pores, and is also highly rehydrating. Plus it smells so damn good that apparently, Cleopatra used the scent to seduce Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar.
Anyway, each batch of rosewater only lasts for about a week and a half before it starts turning bad. But it’s no big deal since it’s so easy to make a fresh batch. Unfortunately, the roses bloomed at their peak in spring and there was gradually less of them when the weather got warmer.
A lot of people are already tuned into the healing properties of coconut oil. It’s my go-to daily moisturizer too of course, but I like mine mixed with (100% pure) Tea-tree and Lavender essential oils. The ideal mix would be 30 drops of lavender oil and 8 drops of tea-tree with every 250ml of coconut oil. Tea-tree oil is anti-bacterial while Lavender is soothing and anti-inflammatory, and the three oils mixed together does magic while moisturizing my skin. This one smells really good too, like a floral herb cookie.
During my travels in winter, I like to make a deep moisturizing mask to combat dry skin. My favourite one is yogurt, honey and turmeric because if I made too much I’ll just eat the rest. Sweet, spicy and tart. Yum.
Yogurt contains lactic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid, that dissolves dead skin cells. This gentle exfoliation not only helps to create a natural glow and prevent breakouts, but works to diminish the appearance of lines and wrinkles. Yogurt is also a great moisturiser, that can also relieve sunburn and reduce discolouration. It’s an all-around skincare multi-tasker!
Tumeric is known for its amazing ability to reduce acne and dark spots due to its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits. Plus, turmeric is an antioxidant that fends off free radical damage that can cause premature skin ageing and sun damage, and it can also help to correct an uneven skin tone. Tumeric is also said to heal wounds, even if it does sting a little bit.
However, turmeric tends to stain your skin with a yellowish tinge and requires a bit of effort to wash it off. A small price to pay for clean, glowy skin. Turmeric can be difficult to find in western countries, and can be substituted with lemon juice, which works the same way in correcting dark spots.
I’ve long accepted that my tropical skin will never be fair, so I never bother with trying to brighten my skin. However, I’ve seen the Chinese grandmother of an ex-boyfriend rub her face with the squishy insides of a lemon, and if a grandmother is doing it, you know it’s legit. I have tried lightening dark spots with lemon juice, but I can’t tell if it really does take forever to fade or if my impatience is making it feel like forever. Lemons are rich in vitamin C and citric acid, which helps in lightening skin when used over time. Apparently, apple cider vinegar does the same thing too, due to it containing alpha hydroxy acids that will remove dead skin. I have also successfully managed to shrink a culoid I’ve had for years, with the help of a mixture of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. Powerful stuff.
The effects of lemon juice, however, are intensified by exposure to UV-A rays of the sun, so it is recommended to apply lemon juice on the skin for only 5 minutes before rinsing it off.
Thankfully I’ve never used this one for myself, but I’ve had success in treating another person’s boil with ginger and turmeric. The ginger is finely grated and mixed with turmeric to form a paste that is applied onto the affected area and bandaged for a few hours. Repeat process with a new bandage at regular intervals. Within that time, the boil would have reduced considerably, if not completely drained. The person’s boil healed completely within 48 hours. He was impressed and said that the last time this happened he got a round of antibiotics from a GP and the boil took a few days to heal. Nature: 1, Big Pharma: 0. The staphylococcal bacteria, which causes boils, is contagious and prone to recurring.
Turmeric also proves to be a competent substitute to antibiotics, when taken orally. It’s also way more delicious. I like mine with steamed milk, otherwise called a Golden Latte.
The above list is non-exhaustive, and based purely on the easiest things to get, but just about anything in the kitchen can be used in your skincare regime: papaya, avocado, strawberry, egg whites, oats, olive oil. I could go on forever. All it takes is a basic knowledge of nutrition and a commitment to healthier habits.