Editor's note: This story was reported in late 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are many reasons one might visit Jaipur. To tour a stucco confection of a palace where maharajas hold court. To feel the magic of exploring a city painted almost entirely in pink. To climb to a hilltop temple that belongs to the monkeys and watch as the sunrise bathes all those rose buildings in gold.
Me, I came for millennia-old beauty rituals: masks made of turmeric powder and homemade yogurt, scrubs of chickpea flour and saffron, and, of course, oils. So many oils. Hair-oiling (it’s also a verb in India) is a national pastime and a family affair. "Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at the feet of my grandmother as she massaged oils into my hair," says Lekha Shah, a Mumbai-based hairstylist and salon owner. "As I got older, that became the time we caught up, talked about school and friends and anxieties."
Indian women use all kinds of oils, including coconut and sesame. But castor oil is the ultimate powerhouse. "It's rich in omega-6 fatty acids that are so nourishing for the hair," says Shah, who also runs castor oil over her lashes every day. "I’ve seen an amazing difference in fullness and length." (I cannot attest to her "before" situation, but the "after" is impressive by any measure.)
12 hours post-oiling (and pre-shampoo).
For my introduction to hair-oiling, Shah combined castor oil with coconut oil and olive oil (castor oil alone can be too heavy to spread evenly), warming them all first in the salon's towel-heating machine (at home, she says, you can place a bowl of oils over a saucepan of hot water and heat until warm). For 15 glorious minutes, she massaged the blend into my scalp and pressed it into every inch of my hair. When time is tight, Indian women shampoo soon after oiling, but ideally you oil before bed and wash it out in the morning. I had traveled over 7,000 miles for the ideal. It was 10 p.m. when Shah pulled my hair back into a braid and sent me off to bed. In the morning, much of the oil had been absorbed into my hair — but a lot remained. It took two thorough shampoos to get it all out, but the effort was worth it: My hair dried into the silkiest it's been since before bleach, before pregnancies, before anything bad ever happened to it.
The glossy impact of castor oil on my hair.
Indian editor Vasudha Rai sharing her beauty wisdom at Jaipur’s charming Caffé Palladio.
Until then, I've got a few new products to keep my hair satisfied. With advice from their India R&D team, Pantene infused its latest formulas with castor oil. The line, called Nutrient Blends with Castor Oil Collection, contains a sulfate- free shampoo, a conditioner, and an overnight serum that I’ve been reaching for to get extra shine when I’m too busy/lazy for a full oiling treatment.
Beyond its oils, India bears many beauty gifts. Here are just a few of them.
This yellow spice is a staple in Indian cooking — and medicine cabinets. It contains curcumin, which is both an antioxidant and antibacterial. Rai's favorite exfoliator is a pinch of turmeric added to a paste of red lentils soaked in milk.
"It's really the only cleanser I use," says Rai. "Add in a drop of neroli oil if you need extra moisture, or a drop of tea tree oil if you're breaking out. I put it on as a mask when I wake up in the morning and then rinse it off in the shower."
It's a wonderful skin toner, but that's not how Rai uses it: "I spray it in my eyes to get rid of redness. My grandmother used to do it." But caveat emptor: The Indian rose water Rai reaches for is pure and steam-distilled. (She loves the one from Kama Ayurveda.)
And masking has become a daily occurrence: "I mean, when did I ever have time to put milk and honey on my face for an hour? Well, now I do." Rai's favorite recipe is half a teaspoon of raw honey and one teaspoon of milk, infused with a thread of saffron. "It turns into a gel that you can leave on your face and neck for up to an hour," she says. "The honey hydrates, the milk has exfoliating lactic acids, and saffron can give you a more even skin tone over time."
And in the spirit of looking up, there’s also this silver lining for a country on pause: "I can see a blue sky," says Rai. "I've lived in Delhi my whole life — there's never been a blue sky. I moved my desk out to my patio so I can see it."
Mumbai hair salon owner Lekha Shah is also seeing her bustling city in a completely new way — the stay-at-home restrictions there have been intense. "There are cops everywhere, and all public areas are closed," she says. "If you walk down the street, a cop will stop you and ask you to go back home." She lives in a multi-building apartment complex and, "if you go to get groceries, they check you for a fever before you leave and when you come back. They make you write down why you're going out, and when you're leaving and coming back."
Shah thinks hair salons will be some of the last businesses to reopen in Mumbai, but she's already thinking about what that will look like: "We're talking about staggering appointments, so there are only one or two clients in the salon at the same time. To accommodate more people, we’ll extend our working hours. People need to feel safe enough to come in again."
In the meantime, Shah feels lucky that she had enough savings to continue paying her employees thus far, and she's embracing the quiet. "Hopefully we'll never have this time again," she says. "I want to make the most out of it." She's been able to give herself frequent hair-oiling treatments, like the one she gave me last year. "With no excuses and nowhere to go, I do it twice a week: I massage almond oil all over my hair and then dip my finger into castor oil and apply that only around my hairline, where I really want to see more growth." And her DIY mask of choice? "Half a teaspoon of coffee powder mixed into a paste of yogurt and honey. After 20 minutes, you really see a new brightness to your skin."
After my call with Shah, I tried her recipe the next morning — right after five minutes of alternate-nostril breathing (sorry, Vasudha, but I’m easing in). By the time I sat down for a day of Zooming, my face, and my mood, were indeed brighter, calmer, clearer. And I was smiling at the thought of a time (it will come!) when I will be lucky enough to again sit down in person with beautiful, brilliant women in magical corners of the world.
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