A ’90s Guide to DIY Beauty From the Pages of Vogue

Zoe Ruffner, Marina Rust
·18 mins read

In 1993, one intrepid Vogue columnist conducted a survey of at-home beauty products for the magazine’s October issue. Now, as many of us try to contend with wax strips and figure out how to touch up pesky roots with our own two hands, her guide to do-it-yourself self-maintenance is a light-hearted reminder that there’s no place like home for saving time and money on beauty services.

“Self-Service Beauty,” by Marina Rust, was originally published in the October 1993 issue of Vogue.

An editor from Vogue calls: “We’re looking for a writer.”

They’re looking for a guinea pig.

She’d like me to conduct a survey of at-home beauty products. My assignment is to eschew salons, use these products for a month, then report back how I look at the end.

“Sort of like the Biosphere,” I say.

“Heh, heh,” she says, humoring me.

Later that afternoon I’m on the telephone with Celia, my high-maintenance friend.

“What, beauty for shut-ins?” she says. Celia has trouble grasping the concept.

“No. I expect most women do these things at home.”

“Why?”

“To save time and money.”

“Really,” Celia marvels.

I take the assignment.

What role does the salon play in a modern woman’s life? In George Cukor’s 1939 film, The Women, the characters spend seemingly idle time at a salon. There they gossip, displaying their claws, Jungle Red. Their purpose is neither relaxation nor escape but social swordsmanship. Today’s women have no time for such pettiness.

Although of the same era, The Wizard of Oz suggests a more modern salon concept. Like in the nineties, Dorothy and friends check in at the Emerald City day spa for renewal after their exhaustive travels. The Scarecrow is restuffed, the Tin Man buffed and polished, while the Cowardly Lion takes delight in his army of attendants, finally king of the forest.

Today time spent at a day spa can run upwards of $250. If time is money, both can be saved by staying at home. But can the same results be achieved?

“If you don’t like a product, say so,” says the editor.

This might be fun.

Preparation

Spa advertisements urge you to “escape and shut the world away,” but what better place to do that than in the sanctuary of your own home?

As a child, I dreamed of a bathroom like Veronica Lodge’s. Archie Comics’ Veronica was American girlhood’s first lady of maintenance; her bathroom was the size of a basketball court. There Veronica would take up full-page panels lounging in a sunken whirlpool tub, speaking on a Princess phone. A lady’s maid would paint the nails of one extended hand while another hovered with fresh towels and a fruit plate.

Preparing for the experiment, I equip my bath with a Brookstone kit ($24.50), which includes a blowup pillow, body and nail brushes, a loofah, and a filing board for calloused feet. Taking a tip from Veronica, I stock up on towels and fruit. A friend donates a New Age CD featuring the sounds of falling water and crickets. I am ready.

Hair at home

The shipment from Vogue arrives.

The first thing I find when I open the crate is a small brown leather case with the attached note: “Marina, Here are some scissors—the exact model that Stephen Knoll uses.” I reject the idea. If my editor would like to ship me New York-hairstylist Stephen Knoll that would be fine. Otherwise, no dice. I cut my own hair when I was eight and learned that lesson well.

Hair color

Gentle….Easy….Low peroxide. Low peroxide?

“Kate?” I say, holding the box of red hair color out to my houseguest.

“No way.”

The neighbor’s cat, lounging in a spot of sun in my doorway, flees. Clairol Brights by Nice’n Easy ($5.49) promises to bring out natural highlights. The color I’ve been sent is “clear.” This sounds reasonable, until I notice that peroxide’s listed on this ingredient panel as well. I’m confused. If the color’s “clear,” why the peroxide?

Call 1-800-223-5800 for a personal consultation with a Clairol representative*, urge the instructions on the box.

“It also has nonoxynol-9,” says Kate, reading while I dial. “Isn’t that the stuff in spermicide?”

The line is busy, no doubt with others asking the same question. But eventually we reach a color consultant, a nice man who confirms that Brights would indeed lighten my hair, “just as in summer,” and that the bonding agent nonoxynol-9 is indeed a spermicide.

The cat does not return.

Hair care

Alberto V05 Hot Oil Treatment, the tried and true, has a new Split Ends Control formula ($3.29). I try this and like the results. My hair has more body, holds its shape, looks healthy.

A day later the effect is ruined by Anasazi Shampoo ($4) and Anasazi Conditioner ($5.50), inspired by the heritage and culture of our NativeAmericans. My hair feels like prairie straw.

At the end of two weeks of shampoo switching, my hair is exhausted. Detergents have stripped it of moisture, while conditioners have coated the shaft, resulting in dull buildup. The editor suggests I speak to Philip B., whom she calls, reverently, “the master of oils.”

Philip B. works out of his studio in Los Angeles. Dachshunds and an assistant greet me as I arrive. I am offered chocolate-chip cookies as I watch Philip blow-drying a beautiful strawberry blond woman. I am impressed by her hair’s shine and suppleness. “Feel it,” the woman says. I do, finding it heavy and silky, the hair of a romance-novel heroine. “And it’s colored,” whispers Philip. The woman tells me that she’s been coming to Philip for years, that he’s changed her life completely.

After his client leaves, Philip explains that everything he did for her today I can do at home, using exactly the same four products. Philip worked with expensive French-oil treatments in a salon before developing his own line of botanical treatments.

Philip says his success is based on giving American women what they want: “simple, instant gratification.”

Philip takes me through the steps.

“The oil goes on while the hair’s dry. Remember, oil and water don’t mix.” Philip B.’s Rejuvenating Oil Treatment contains only natural botanical oils, including sesame, almond, lavender, and geranium. “It isn’t water that hydrates the hair,” Philip explains, “it’s oil,” adding that his oils remove product buildup as well.

Next the Peppermint and Avocado Shampoo is applied to the oil-treated hair, before adding water (again, “oil and water don’t mix”). Then with water the shampoo lathers, and the peppermint stimulates the scalp, leaving hair squeaky clean. A Shea Butter Conditioning Creme and an Apple Cider Vinegar Finishing Rinse follow.

I rush the products home. After using them I am truly amazed. My hair is transformed. Suddenly I have the hair I saw and touched at Philip’s—soft, supple, shining, spread-across-the-pillow hair. Simple, instant gratification.

All week long friends comment on my hair. I can’t keep my hands out of it. I’ve never had it so good.

Too many steps? Not really. The first step—the oil—is done once a week, the finishing rinse takes but a moment. The cost? The oil, at $25, is the most expensive; the bottle contains five to six applications. The shampoo ($ 16), conditioning cream rinse ($ 18), and finishing rinse ($15) will all last much longer.

To me, they’re worth every cent. As my salon-blond friend Pamela says, “Your clothes can be Gap if your hair looks good.”

Waxing

Every summer I visit a secluded island off the coast of Maine. It’s a half-hour ferry ride to the mainland, the mainland specializing in chowder and sail-makers, not salon services.

The isolation is lovely, until you need a bikini wax.

The three Lancaster sisters live in an enormous shingle house overlooking the bay. On sunny afternoons lean tan girls gather on the kitchen porch eating blackberries and sipping herbal tea, as inside, the youngest Lancaster, Tina, fires up a double boiler of wax.

Expertly Tina performs leg, lip, and bikini waxes on her friends. I am impressed by her professional demeanor. “This will only kill for a moment,” she says, calming an initiate.

Salon wax formulations vary. New York’s Elizabeth Arden salon (bikini wax, $ 17) uses real beeswax and recommends the home use of a loofah to prevent ingrown hairs. What the Lancasters do in their kitchen with wooden spatulas and strips of clean cotton is not so different from the $17 salon procedure. But as professional wax on the range top is messy, I’m relieved to see a couple of “simple” at-home kits in my Vogue crate.

The Clean + Easy Personal Roll-On Waxer ($29.99; refills, $5.99) appears aptly named: a plastic lavender hot pot with easy-to-handle cartridges. Plug it in, wait 30 minutes, roll hot wax on, remove wax with press-and-pull cloth strips enclosed. Clean, easy, and practically painless. Too bad it didn’t remove any hair.

Gigi Hair Removal Strips (body, $9.99; face, $7.99) boasts an All Natural Honee Formula. Simple, easy, and safe. I look at the ingredient panel and honey is not listed. Neither is “honee.”

Twenty-four strips for $9.99. I need only two for the bikini line. That’s 83 cents a month, not bad.

The flat packets of cellophane are decorated with a misleading honeycomb pattern. I open one and apply it to my bikini line. When I first pull away the strip, the results are no better than with Clean + Easy. So much sticky wax remains, however, that I then proceed to remove the hair manually, tuft by tuft. Ouch, but effective. In two minutes I have a bikini line clean as a stripper’s.

But for legs I’d recommend a razor.

Hands and feet

“You only have four o’clock available? OK, four is good….”

“Cheater,” hisses Kate as I put down the phone.

“I’m not good at my own nails,” I say.

“It’s simple.”

Sheepishly I call Georgette Klinger and cancel my appointment.

“Besides,” sniffs Kate, “you’re on deadline.”

Kate is wildly self-sufficient. Yes, she explains, her toenails are that lovely Russian red because she painted them herself last week.

My father’s mother tried to teach me to care for my nails. Hers were healthy, unpolished ovals. Twice a week, she’d show me how to file neatly, to push back the cuticles, to buff in one direction, but I was a tomboy and resistant.

There are many fine at-home nail treatments. Salon manicurists often flash a bottle of dime-store magic from under the table. “For strength,” they’ll whisper. “For growth.”

One coat of Sally Hansen’s No More Breaks ($4.25) keeps my nails split-free for a week. A nightly application of Hansen’s No More Dry Cuticles ($3.50) accomplishes just that.

“Now keep all your tools organized in the caddy,” says Kate (a Caboodles cosmetic organizer tray [$ 11.99] provided by Vogue).

Red toenails require steady hands and a good hamstring stretch, but even if results don’t stand up to close inspection, who gets that close to your feet? I am pleased with my presentable results, pleased not to spend a Tuesday afternoon in paper slippers hopping around the hot asphalt of the Klinger parking lot waiting for my car, and my $30 toenails to dry.

How proud my grandmother would be.

The Body Shop’s Peppermint Foot Lotion ($3.40) and wooden Footsie Roller ($10.25) put fun into foot care. Kate uses the roller gleefully, claiming it is tremendous for flatfooted persons.

“And your cream will work in better if you slather it on before bed and sleep in cotton socks,” she says, rolling away with enthusiasm.

Skin care—body

Enough of peroxide and base coats. On to the good stuff.

My living room is piled high with products designed to make skin softer and firmer. Some of the products want me to smell like a tropical rain forest, others like tropical-fruit Life Savers.

Elizabeth Arden’s Spa Collection comes in friendly, bounceproof plastic. The Sensual Botanical Body Moisture ($21) and Euphonies Soap ($5) smell wonderful, while the pale blue Sea Salt Body Rub ($20) leaves skin fresh and tingling.

Less-expensive lines provide similar benefits. Twelve ounces of Alba Botanica’s Gentle Body Smoother can be found at health food stores for around $ 10; Alba Botanica’s Honey Mango Body Bath ($6.95) smells as intoxicating as a Trader Vic’s special.

The instructions on Freeman’s Beautiful Skin Raspberry and Almond Smooth Body Scrub claim that it can also be used on the face. This seems foolhardy with a scrub that smells like a Slurpee, but at $3.99 the colorful six-ounce tube looks adorable on the edge of the tub. Freeman’s Beautiful Skin Buttermilk and Wheatgerm Ultra Rich Hand Creme ($3.99) works just as well on the feet, and again the tube has a cheerful, upscale look at a drugstore price.

A spa or salon mineral or herbal wrap is relaxing because it uses heat to make you sweat. You can save time and money by sweating at home, adding two cups of Epsom salts to a hot bath. The salt, the heat, dim lights, and a 20-minute tune-out work to relax even the most uptight system. Standard Epsom salts are available at drugstores for less than $2 a half gallon, while health food stores carry Batherapy’s glamorously green mineral salts ($5.50 for a sixteen-ounce jar).

A salon salt rub is basically just sea salt rubbed over skin already slathered in essential oils. Again health food stores carry the required materials. Exfoliation can also be done with a simple body brush used on dry skin before bathing.

As I’ve mentioned before, my friend Celia is high maintenance. Regularly Celia visits Tucson’s Canyon Ranch, where bunnies hop outside her guest-room door and experts speak of toxins and colonies. Here in L. A. she practices Pilates, drinks teas that come with instructions, declares that her “dream is to have a home-yoga room.”

“Ohhh...Aveda,” Celia coos as she peruses the boxes on my dining-room table, the test products grouped according to function.

“They’re yours when I’m done,” I say, turned off by Aveda’s strong, earthy smells, which are nothing like Life Savers.

“This stuff is wonderful,” Celia says of Aveda’s Intensive Hydrating Masque ($26).

“It’s got seaweed in it,” I say. (Aqueous Extracts of Organic Aloe, Kelp, and Lavender.)

“Seaweed is good for you.” Celia launches into her speech on how the Ocean Gave us Birth.

There’s this seaweed craze out there in high-maintenance land, and Celia’s bought into it.

“Kelp is full of minerals,” she says.

Naturistics’ Herbal Natural Body Scrub ($6) practically bubbles with photosynthesis. With loofah, sea kelp and apricot seed. Not tested on animals. Let’s test it on Celia. The stuff is alga green, thick and slippery, like swimming in kelp. “I love it,” she says. “It’s like being in the ocean.” No, I tell her, it’s like being in propylene glycol and sodium laureth sulfate, as these are primary ingredients on the back label.

I am still wary of seaweed.

“That’s because you had one bad experience,” says Celia, knowing that years ago I once got sick after a salon seaweed wrap. (“You must be eliminating a lot of toxins,“ said the receptionist when I called the next day, still nauseated.)

For my money, I prefer the toxins to stay put.

Toning

Clarins’ Contouring Body Cream ($44) is said to “minimize the appearance of excess fatty deposits, especially on waist, abdomen, hips, and thighs.” For best results, it is to be massaged in daily until the cream is absorbed.

After just one use I am surprised. Experts would say it’s all in my head, but I do notice a difference.

“It’s massage that eliminates cellulite,” a masseuse tells me. Well it certainly can’t hurt.

Neither can this: “For best results,” read the Clarins instructions, “maintain a balanced diet.”

“Ready?” says Kate, stretching on the floor in gym shorts. She holds the remote control to the VCR. Vogue has sent a video, The Firm Aerobic Workout with Weights Volume 2, featuring Janet Jones-Gretzky ($49.95). The video recommends variable weights; the workout is suitable for both beginners and experts.

“Why bother,” I say, “when the Clarins cream works so well?”

“Because the Clarins cream costs $44 a jar.”

I see Kate’s point.

Skin care—face

Celia stands in the kitchen brewing one of her special cleansing teas, culled from the assortment she carries in her purse. She offers me a cup, but I refuse, my policy being not to consume anything unless the ingredients are listed in English.

“I’ve found the most wonderful Japanese facialist….” Celia’s saying.

I’ve never had a facial. I’ve found that the less I do to my skin the better. For years I’ve used pHisoDerm Unscented Cleanser ($7.59) without complaint, moisturizing with Vaseline Petroleum Jelly ($1.79). I am therefore ignorant of the new alpha hydroxy acid formulas, which tout the ability to reveal “new” skin.

Avon was among the first to introduce these products. Its Anew Perfecting Complex claims to “retexturize and refine” within two weeks of use. There are three formulations (all $ 15.50): one for the face, one for chest and neck, one for hands and body. Vogue has sent all three.

Applied, the clear chest and neck gel feels slightly sticky. The thicker hand and body cream goes on smoothly. I have no adverse reactions. The facial cream goes untouched, as I will under no circumstances put something on my face that carries a warning reading KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.

Makeup

One service often included in a salon treatment package is a makeup lesson. Cosmetics companies have followed suit, producing instructional videos. Cover Girl’s video features Christie Brinkley in front of a silver Mylar stage curtain sharing “personal tips” (apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp). Christie does a good job convincing me that modeling is fun but hard work, that silly things happen on shoots, and that my skin is a “cool” tone. But when Christie calls blue mascara a “fun fashion accent,” I turn off the TV.

Linda Mason’s video will be more cutting edge, I think, noticing that Mason names her color palettes after the natural elements.

Although Mason’s video shows six remarkable makeovers, each is so complicated, so eye- shadow intensive, that only the most cosmetically obsessed would be interested. I notice the date on the video. Ah, 1986. Makeup videos, like milk cartons, should be stamped with an expiration date.

Along with Avon’s skin care, I have been sent Avon’s makeup—still available through neighborhood representatives. It surprises and impresses me. The blushers ($3.99-$5.99) and eye shadows ($2.29-$4.49) go on smoothly and do not fade throughout the day. The colors do, however, send me in a dizzy flashback to sorority rush. When I recover, I decide that the clear pinks and reds would be lovely on a southern matriarch lording over her garden.

For expert instruction, the M.A.C. stores in New York and Los Angeles are staffed with moonlighting makeup artists. The products aren’t cheap; a M.A.C. blush is $13, a lipstick is $12, but the wisdom gained at the counter is worth it.

Lessons learned

My editor calls to ask how the last few weeks have gone. We get into a discussion as to “what is value?”

I tell her this. That power walks and a low-fat diet work better than firming creams.

That Philip B.’s products are priceless.

That Christie and Linda are to be ignored.

Do women need to spend $250 a day relaxing in a spa? I’d rather relax at home, far from traffic, trains, and planes.

People who tweeze their brows at home don’t just save money but avoid the risk of a complete stranger wielding hot wax and a photo of Kristen McMenamy.

Salon dependency is dangerous. What if you’re to drive to the beach tomorrow morning at six and no one can fit you in for a bikini wax?

I may never have a bathroom the size of Veronica’s, but I’ve grown to like staying home. With a little practice, salons won’t be missed. Just think of that scene in Bull Durham, the one where Kevin Costner paints Susan Sarandon’s toenails on her bed. Sensible girl, that Susan, always watching her pennies.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue