As I made my way to my room at the Howard Springs quarantine facility in Darwin, a small package waited for me on the deck. It was an assortment of essentials such as a detergent, a hand sanitiser, some masks, a toilet roll, etc. – everything one can expect in a welcome box at a quarantine centre, except for one thing: a sunscreen. As I read the information on the bright orange tube, I wondered why an SPF 50+ sunscreen was added to the kit, and mechanically put it away as I had no intentions of using it.
Growing up in New Delhi during the pre-globalised 90s, I did not have much access to international bath and beauty or skincare products – a thing of an opulent life unknown to many at the time. There were fewer brands, mostly local, and options were limited. I had a very simple and basic skin care régime (if I can even call it that). For face and body wash, the most famous and commonly used products were Lifebuoy or Mysore Sandal (made from sandalwood), or the fancier, more expensive Lux. During summers, Vicco Turmeric cream was the top choice (remember Vicco Turmeric, naheeN cosmetic, Vicco Turmeric ayurvedic cream?), while for the winter season, nothing beat Boroline and Nivea creams.
The most indulgent I got was in my mid-20s when I lived and worked in Bombay, and got my first face wash, scrub and a multani mitti (fuller’s earth) mask. Thanks to my genetics, I have largely clear low-maintenance skin, so I have never had to worry too much about its health or the skincare products I use in general. Besides, because brown skin like mine does not usually burn, only tans as it’s naturally sun protected through melanin. So, I only tanned when I was out for a very long time but remained mostly unaffected otherwise during shorter exposure to direct sunlight. I quite liked my dusky tone and felt that the darker it gets, the better it looks and feels, and thus I never wore sunscreen.
The one and only time that I applied sunscreen on my face was at the insistence of the anchor of the TV show that I was directing. She was concerned about my sun exposure and insisted that I wear her sunscreen. She poured a generous dollop on my palm and I applied it as per her instructions, but that first look in the mirror after the application almost gave me a mini heart attack. I looked ridiculous. My face looked like I had smeared mayonnaise on it from the sandwich I ate earlier. I was horrified and immediately washed it off. She later told me I should have waited 20 minutes for the sunscreen to absorb into my skin, but I was still recovering from the initial shock of seeing my ghostly mayo face and thus politely refused. I promised never to look at sunscreen ever again, and I kept my promise until that day at the quarantine centre when it unexpectedly landed in my hands once again.
Holding the sunscreen tube brought back a mental image of my mayo face. I was convinced (misguidedly, of course) that every sunscreen would make me look like I had applied foundation base which was at least seven shades lighter than my original skin tone. I had left India on a three-day notice due to an unexpected visa approval and a sudden repatriation flight invite. I barely had any time to pack and forgot to bring with me a lot of things, including that one jar of moisturiser that I owned. That was, for obvious reasons, a non-issue until two days into my quarantine in Darwin.
I started waking up to dry, dehydrated and dull looking skin. Initially, I pinned it to travel fatigue (the journey from India to Australia was exhausting to say the least, not to mention the delays from the extensive COVID-19 protocol). When I wanted some fresh air, I would go to the deck and immediately notice the harsh, almost stinging Australian sunlight. Still, I did not pay much attention to it. As my skin went from dehydrated to extremely dry, I began to notice a very subtle correlation between the state of my skin and my mental-emotional wellbeing. Both of these were completely new feelings – not having healthy skin and its emotional effect on my overall wellness. It was at the end of the quarantine that I decided something had to be done. At the Airbnb a few days later, along with house hunting, I also started hunting for skincare products. Rescuing my skin and repairing its state suddenly became a priority for me.
I was in a new, unfamiliar territory. I knew nothing about Australia except for its koalas, kangaroos, beaches, forests and closed borders - and I did not have a place to call home, yet. I knew the emotional stress was also taking a toll on my inner and outer existence. Despite all of this, I was not willing to let my skin bear the brunt of this significant shift in my life, and wanted some semblance of assurance and control. This is where my resolve to take care of myself in the form of a personalised skincare régime came in. Along with yoga and vipassana (Buddhist meditation), my skincare journey slowly became a strong and reliable life anchor. However, since I knew nothing about this topic, this was a mammoth and time-consuming task. I wasn’t sure but the lifelong learner in me wanted to at least try.
I started reading self-care articles and watching YouTube videos. I was initially overwhelmed by the information online about the world of skin care products – there were cleansers, creams (different ones for day and night), serums, acids, humectants, exfoliants and of course, sunscreen. I was meticulous with my research and made copious notes and lists. I still remember my first purchase:
Hydrating cleanser - because you cleanse according to skin type.
Moisturisers with ceramides – because skin needs hydration.
Rosehip seed oil - because skin needs oil.
Vitamin C - because antioxidants.
Sunscreen - because sun!
When I began, I didn't know the exact sequence in which to apply the products and to avoid making a mistake, and because I am a hopeless and lifelong nerd, I made a little note with the AM and PM (layering) routine and conveniently stuck it to the bathroom mirror. Every day, without fail, around 9am and 7pm I would begin my ritual. Cleansing and moisturising became comforting and soothing. Discovering good drugstore sunscreens without the dreaded white cast slowly erased my mayo face trauma. Slowly, as taking care of my skin became a constant, in a country where absolutely nothing was familiar, my skin care regimen became a familiar territory. As I stood in front of the mirror, I started to feel a definite calm and deep tranquility in my being. Very similar to how an asana and pranayama practice makes me feel. Through a simple yet effective pattern, I began to anchor myself more and more as I found these 10 minutes extremely meditative. Even so, I was mindful that this skincare routine does not turn into an obsession with how I look, how many wrinkles I have or buy into the misguided and misconceived anti-ageing spiel.
These past six months have taught me three significant lessons. I learned that a personalised form of therapy brought me lasting joy and showed me how skin care extended to self-care. I found myself feeling better every day and looking forward to periodically exfoliating and oiling my skin. In hindsight, taking charge of my skin was surprisingly an empowering decision. It provided me with my own safety blanket. In a country where life was new and challenging at times, I recognised that taking care of my inner and outer world helped me find my balance.
I have also learned that mental and emotional wellness is a combination of several little things that are done consistently and from the heart. This daily 10-minute investment in myself taught me the meaning of self-care and empowering oneself all over again through little and simple steps.
On the integration front, I am happy that slowly but surely Australia is becoming my new home – the place where I started my journey to finding a healthy balance for both my inner and outer self without creating artificial identities or investing in superficial ‘externalities’.