Fear of Floating


SHOW OF HANDS: Who’d like to be buried alive in a watery grave? Right. I’ve had that same reaction for years to the prospect of a flotation tank (née: sensory-deprivation or isolation tank—sounds like a dungeon for violent criminals).  On the one hand, I’m an avid swimmer and like a warm bath as much as the next girl, so the elemental power of water is not lost on me. On the other hand: A moderate claustrophobic, I panic trying to extricate myself from a sports bra.  Closing the lid on a body-sized box with me still inside seemed a non-starter, even if the benefits are transcendent and the popularity soaring.

When Soulex Float Spa opened in DC, though, I was finally intrigued enough to cautiously check it out. Okay, the website video is serenity itself, and every photo radiates peace and calm. The first picture of a pod, though, and my breathing gets shallow. It’s roomier than I’d imagined, but, I mean, the thing has a lid! That completely closes! Tight, like a clamshell! Happy as a clam, my ass…. But then comes a shot of someone floating with the lid ajar—ah, hadn’t dawned on me that this was an option. Even better, there’s a room with a topless tub, totally open, a shallow mini-pool. Once all the lights are out, it shouldn’t make any difference, of course, but knowing is everything. Float tank, my claustrophobia accepts the challenge!

I book the open pool, chide myself for being chicken and switch to a pod room. Everything at Soulex is spotless, gracious and soothing; showering while the pod fills, it all feels eminently approachable. With the lid about two-thirds closed, I slide into body-temp water so Epsom-salted that I am mostly submerged yet securely buoyed. Lulled by candy-colored lights and vague gentle sounds (which will fade out after several minutes), it’s all going so swimmingly heh heh that I gradually inch the lid down…down…all the way down. NO no no no no. Abort! Abort! Lid up! Which in turn brings home the point that opening the lid lets in cooler air. Interesting battle of primitive needs here; the urge to stay warm wins. The lid comes back down, darkness and silence descend; I grab the hand grips on the sides of the tub to verify my ability to haul my ass out of there in a heartbeat, and settle in for some transcendence. And…you know what? It’s fine, in fact, really quite fine.

Having opened the lid once seems to have reassured me about an escape plan. So now I can just relax. Go ahead. Go on. Relax. Atta girl. I don’t think I’m relaxing right. How can I not know how to relax? Other people do it—how do they do it? Okay, clear your mind. Shoulders loose. Let yourself just experience. Feel the soft support of the warm water, feel the chill on the fatty bits that bob above the waterline. Brrr. Briefly submerge those parts (must be done sequentially), and start over. Belly breathing now. Iiiiiin and ouuuuut. What was that movie where Alan Arkin is trapped in an isolation tank for a week and his brain turns to jelly?  Uh, more positivity, please. Let the thoughts flow by. Let it all go. I am a happy little drifting otter. Knees and stomach aren’t bad, but my breasts are for real not into the cooling properties of evaporation. I put my hands on them—well, that’s not very relaxed. I cross my arms over them. Better, but way too suitable for a casket. C’mon now. Sloooow and loose. Consciously relax each muscle. I’m not sure how tipped back my head should be. Well, what’s comfortable? I have no idea. Sixty-three years old, and I don’t know how my head attaches to my neck. Simon!! That was the movie. The evolution scene hahahahaha. Okay, settle down. Goodbye, Simon. Move on. Let your mind empty. Deep breaths. Yeah…no, but seriously—the nipples!

After what felt like a very long time, I finally spaced out to some kind of zen-ness for five or ten minutes, or so it seemed. (That was after I stopped “relaxing” long enough to grab the washcloth intended for wiping salt from your eyes, and drape it over my chest—big help.) Most interesting to me: when, after almost an hour, the lights returned, signaling time to wrap up, I was not particularly eager to lift the lid. As relatively unmellow as I mostly was, I can only blame my brain, which doesn’t even like low gears, let alone—clearly—idling.  Ultimately, amazingly, I was relaxed even while entombed—that has to be some kind of victory over claustrophobia. Maybe even a long-term one—I’ll find out next time I’m tangled up in my underwear. And while I did not emerge feeling in full harmony with the universe, or physically reborn, I did feel good, and as though my normally revving brain had had a nice nap. It was fun and interesting and I’m tempted to do it again because I’m sure I could get quite good at it, the relaxing thing, if I just work at it a little harder.

—Catherine Clifford

Catherine Clifford’s previous contributions for MyLittleBird include posts about botox, balayage  and how to talk to your hair stylist.

♦ Mother’s Day is coming. An hour-long float with a gift basket of custom-blend  herbal tea and bath salts is $85 at Soulex Float Spa.

A Uniform Advantage

FEELING DISGRUNTLED by the time and energy it takes to decide what to wear every a.m., last week we asked readers how they solved the problem of finding something to wear. Did they have a streamlined uniform of interchangeable black Petit Bateau Tees, cargo shorts and Converse sneakers a la Deb Waterman Johns of Scout Bags? Managing Editor Nancy McKeon said her look was black and white, summer and winter. And, although there were a few outliers, most of you who responded concurred that varying combinations of black and white were your go-to solution. And, oh, by the way, so did Jackie Kennedy Onassis, as famous paparazzi photos of the former first lady in a black T-shirt and white pants attest.

So, here’s what you told us about your go-to uniform for summer days.

Alice Kresse
Alice Kresse of AKresse Jewelry Design, says, “Right now I’m wearing black yoga pants, a black T-shirt and a light gray hoodie. I’ve been on the black and white train for years now. When it gets a little warmer, I’ll take off the yoga pants and hoodie and put on black shorts. I work mostly at home or in an art studio so that’s it. I swim several days a week in the summer. I’ve had the same style Karla Colletto bathing suit since 2009. I really liked the black one I bought back then, so I got a red one too. When the black one died and the red one got a broken underwire, I bought the navy version, then the gray one. I want to wear this style suit forever—imagine never having to go bathing suit shopping ever again!

Freelance writer Catherine Clifford in her favorite summer look.

Catherine Clifford
Freelancer and MyLittleBird contributor Catherine Clifford noted this about her black-and-white penchant. “Very unoriginal of me, I see. White jeans/capris/Bermudas/pencil skirt and black or striped T, or sometimes the same but turned upside down. (See her photo at right.)

Joanie Ballard
“My go-to summer uniform is basic and not really from a designer line but actually from Chico’s, says Joanie Ballard of R. H. Ballard, a gift store in Washington, Virginia. “I work every day in my shop/gallery and need affordable, comfy, easy-care, easy-movement basics while still looking a little pulled together. I open boxes of shipments and do lots of displays, so I need comfort above all. I switch out my white Lia no-iron shirts with blue and gray tops, but always love leggings and slim jeans in either black or white. Why white as a basic? I get asked that a lot as it seems that white would get dirty easily, however, I swear by Oxiclean and stay calm when I accidentally spill my morning coffee on anything. I have several long necklaces and earrings that I interchange to get a different look, all I have had for years. Love my new watch from Taki. And my summer shoes? I found the most comfortable heeled sandal ever just a week ago. It’s from Aetrex, and I feel like I am wearing sneakers.”

Kathy Legg
“Geez, I sound like everyone else,” says MyLittleBird’s art director. “White pants/black pants and a variety of white/black shirts/tops. I often see women in bright, beautiful printed summer outfits and feel envy, but every time I’ve tried to go that route I’ve felt totally wrong. It just isn’t me. The one thing I do go out on a little limb for is shoes; pink shoes, orange shoes, turquoise sandals, chartreuse slingbacks, purple slip-ons and, of course, a variety of black-and-white styles. For me shoes are the vehicle for variety. I hate having to think about what I’m wearing. I just want to be comfortable.”

Bonnie Kogod
For the president of the board of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company and a shrewd shopper, white is right and so is some black. Her daytime look is white or pastel cropped Paige jeans with either a white or pastel linen or cotton shirt. “I must have at least 15 white shirts—all of which I wear. For evening, I adore my Dolce & Gabbana black jacquard ankle length pants with either a great white cotton off the shoulder top I found at Zara or the chic Lavin white silk charmeuse deconstructed tuxedo jacket I found at a final sale.”

Dasha Karelina
Black and white doesn’t necessarily fit the bill for MyLittleBird ad hoc fashion advisor, who says she’s  “a dress girl for the summer. “I used to have this fabulously simple T-shirt dress by Organics by John Patrick that I got at a Steven Alan store (and somehow managed to misplace at the end of last summer) that was perfect. And I like the summer dresses from Cotelac: lovely thin fabrics, fit me well and easy to wash. Also Indian cottons from Roberta Roller Rabbit in the summer, or anything linen. Sometimes it’s Everlane tanks and embroidered shorts.”

Ada Polla
The CEO of Alchimie Forever  says her usual wardrobe is a black dress, or black pants and a black T-shirt/top/ blazer—with some nice accessories, but all in all, black on black.  BUT, “during the summer, I like to wear a bit of color, and more dresses.  A bright fuchsia dress that makes me feel put together, elegant and always surprises people that know me ‘the rest of the year.’ Other colors include white, blue, orange. One thing that does not change is my shoes. Four-inch heels always, black, pink or nude. Year-round. And my red lip—a signature. This may not be the most exciting summer wardrobe, but it is my uniform. It’s one less decision to make every day, and helps me get in my ‘work frame of mind.'”

Lauren Greenberger
Master gardener Lauren Greenberger e-mailed a pic of herself in her daily work uniform of shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.  “Not sure it conforms to what most people will be wearing,” she jokes.


—Janet Kelly

Lovable Little Libraries

AT THE END of a single-lane, dead-end dirt road in the Adirondacks, several miles from the nearest village (population: 333), is the start of a trail through undeveloped state land—and a Little Free Library. I’d seen these take-one-leave-one birdhouses for books proliferate suddenly in my Chevy Chase neighborhood—three within as many blocks from me over the past few months. But my Labor Day sighting of an offshoot among a handful of houses at the edge of a forest brought home how much the phenomenon has shot from novelty to ubiquity.

Born in 2009 when Todd Bol erected a schoolhouse-shaped box of books in Hudson, Wisconsin, as tribute to his teacher mother, the idea spread slowly until in 2012 the homegrown nonprofit Little Free Library organization was thrilled to reach its goal of more than 2,500 ancillary athenaeums. Four years on, the tally is now 40,000, in every state and province in the US and Canada, and 70 other countries; the new goal is to top 100,000 by 2017. Bol has spent September traveling with a Little Free Library road show, sowing the seeds of new stations, finishing up with a booth and book-box building at the National Book Festival being held at the Walter E.Washington Convention Center on Saturday (September 24, 2016, 9am to 5pm at Expo Floor Booth #520; many other festival exhibits will be open until 10pm).

A very rough count on Little Free Library’s map suggests that within the Beltway alone there are close to 200 Little Free Libraries—indeed, local friends confirm having seen them pop up throughout DC neighborhoods like mushrooms in monsoon season. Even that total is not comprehensive; none of the three I pass daily appears on the map, for instance, nor does their North Woods sibling. Two of my neighboring branches have the official charter plaque with registration number, but builders can opt to leave their whereabouts off the map. The third, I realize upon closer inspection, would appear to be a rogue—nothing officially links it to Little Free Library. Does LFL frown upon such interlopers? “Oh no, not at all,” says Lynnea Chelstrom, communications assistant at LFL. “They are not allowed to use the Little Free Library name, but we are all for anything that encourages reading and book sharing.”

Becoming an official LFL “steward,” however, entitles you not only to signage, but also newsletters, book labels, press materials, offers of new and discounted books, plus a private Facebook group to share stories, suggestions and solutions to issues from condensation to fighting City Hall. (Yes, these delightful little boîtes of bonhomie have occasionally run afoul of zoning laws and attendant crackpots and busybodies [opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect blah blah]. Luckily, consequent public outcry has typically been swift, just and effective.)

Wannabe Little Free Librarians are generally bound by few rules, however. LFL offers helpful guidelines and cautions, but does not dictate size, placement or kinds of books, and requires only a $42-$77 (how fancy a sign do you want?) registration fee. You can buy kits or ready-made houses from them—including some (pricey) gems—but much of the fun seems to come from dreaming up your own. Some build a simple rustic shed; some labor lovingly over detailed doppelgangers; some clearly have a lot of fun (personal favorite here); and some think way outside the wooden box, making earth-friendly use of abandoned phone boothsnewspaper vending machinesbreadboxes, even dorm refrigerators (a trip-wire, no doubt, for those fussy neighbors). The LFL Flickr page and Pinterest boards have many hours’ worth of adorable, amusing, impressive, inspirational browsing. But since this is, in the end, about love of words and books, perhaps the perfect tour of Little Free Libraryland is via—what else?—the The Little Free Library Book, with plenty of photos of favorites, plus individuals’ stories, helpful instructions—an all-around introduction to the charming, caring/sharing worldwide literary community that Little Free Library is trying to build, box by box.

—Catherine Clifford

Editor’s Note:  More celebration of book culture:  The DC Public Library marks the start of Banned Books Week (which actually extends through October 1) on Monday, September 26.

To BB or Not to BB

MyLittleBird illustration / Photo by iStock

Next time you’re in the cosmetics aisle, here’s Catherine Clifford guide for demystifying the alphabet soup of skincare creams. 

THAT CLASSIC ANXIETY dream where you’re suddenly facing a test on material you never learned? I’ve been feeling that way in the makeup aisle. You can’t walk through any cosmetics section without being bombarded by BBs—BB Creams, and their younger siblings, CC Creams. Sephora and Ulta each boast almost 80 versions. Was I the only one absent the day everyone else was apparently informed about these? (I felt better when even my young, hip hair stylist said , “Yeah, what are those??”—and she works for a company that makes some.)

The alphabet bandwagon and I first crossed paths a couple years ago when a beauty-sampler box included a small tube labeled “BB cream.”  Bewildered but assured by accompanying copy that it supplied, in addition to sun protection, a golden glow flattering to all, I skimmed on a light layer. I looked like I’d face-planted in Grey Poupon. I tossed it, but over the next year, I started seeing BBs, then CCs extolled in magazines, ads and websites as magical, the best of makeup and treatment in one, the single must-have product—but without specifics of what they are, what they do, or even a definitive answer on what the letters stand for. So here’s the scoop: BB is short for Beauty Balm. Or Blemish Balm. Or Blemish Base. Or Beblesh (Beblesh?? No clue.) Balm. The CCs are for Color and Correcting–except when they are for Concealing or Covering or Complexion or even Clay.

OK, but behind the non-consensus on names, let’s get to basic attributes. Most BB creams contain sunscreen, usually in a significant 20-30 SPF range, but more than a few have none. Some contain acne-fighters, others aging-fighters. The lowest common denominator is that all have some color, provide some coverage and have at least one added skin treatment/protectant/enhancer. That makes them different from CC creams in…um…no way. CC creams are sometimes purported to be slightly sheerer, but there’s so much variation between brands that, basically, the terms BB and CC are interchangeable. . (Exhibit A: One cosmetic-chemist columnist recounted working on an upcoming product that was changed pre-launch from “BB Cream” to “CC Cream”— no change in formulation whatever, just the name.)

Whether called BB or CC, however, they are breathlessly touted as a whole new breed of products!! Well, not so’s you’d notice. What years ago were discrete categories—you had foundation, you had moisturizer, you had treatment cream, you had sunscreen—have long since overlapped as, just for instance, salicylic acid was added to foundation to help with breakouts, retinols added for wrinkle-smoothing; color was added to tint moisturizers; sunscreen was added to just about everything. Alphabet creams are just one more iteration. The many benefits variously claimed by BB and CC creams—sunscreening, hydrating, priming, brightening, anti-aging, color correcting, refining, skin-lightening, blemish hiding, blemish-treating, dark-spot-erasing, pore-minimizing, mattifying, nourishing, firming, redness-reducing, vibrancy-enhancing and on and on—testify to the wide range of choices, which leaves you reading labels and possibly checking ingredient lists, same as you would choosing any moisturizer or foundation to see if it has what you’re looking for. Note, too, that the boasts are often embroidered and then some. Scan the list of 10 or 12 or 15 promised beauty-boosts on a single product and you may notice eye-roll-inducing redundancy: Brightens! Reduces dullness! Makes skin radiant! That’s not three different things!

Although some brands offer up to ten shades, the typical BB/CC cream gives you only three to five, so matching skin tone can be a challenge. Women with darker skin in particular have complained about being overlooked, but the odds of anyone finding a great match are suboptimal. A few brands provide just a single “self-adjusting” color–and if anyone can give a convincing or even plausible explanation of how a cosmetic “self-adjusts” to match different skins, I’ve yet to hear it.

So they’re nothing unique, with limited shades and confusing claims. Is there a reason to even give BBs and CCs a try? Sure. If you don’t already use a foundation or tinted moisturizer/sunscreen that covers similar bases, a BB or CC could be your single morning-time-saving shot. I realized I’ve basically been making my own equivalent for years now, daily mixing daubs of foundation with salicylic-acid moisturizer or sunscreen in my palm. Just throw a bit of color into your favorite primer/moisturizer/sunscreen/acne/wrinkle whatever cream(s) and—presto! But besides being messy, you could be combining ingredients that don’t play together well: one ingredient may nullify another (Vitamin C is especially fragile), or you may get too much of a good thing (piggybacked exfoliators might irritate skin). Furthermore, a BB or CC cream may be innately safer than multiple products. The Environmental Working Group, which favors minimizing the number of ingredients (the fewer the chemicals, the less likely we’ll react badly to one), found that someone who used, say, separate moisturizing sunscreen, foundation and concealer would be exposed on average to 70 ingredients, versus 40 in a typical BB or CC cream, and the number of ingredients EWG considers hazardous would typically drop from three to one.

Having tried out a handful of both BBs and CCs in a few different brands, I can’t say I’m a convert. All tended to go on thick—“spackle” and “drywall compound” came to mind—without any dramatic beautifying illusions that I could perceive. Despite promises of radiance, dewiness or natural-looking perfection, results from my samplings were too heavy, too matte, too dry, too dusty (they roused ancient memories of the powdery, rouged cheeks of my grandma’s friends), making me wonder if there was any skin-of-a-certain-age that would consider these a friend. I did finally try one that was pretty OK—after I’d first mixed in moisturizer, then sprayed with a hydrator afterwards. Which, of course, dilutes the sunscreen, scotches the one-step aspect and kind of misses the whole point.

Maybe I simply missed the one all-in-one that is my perfect match, though I wasn’t inspired to search further. My aloofness towards alphabet creams shows I’m clearly out of sync with the beauty-buying public, however. BBs and CCs are still happening big-time, with DD creams hot on their heels (DD for—steel yourself—Dermatalogically Defining or Dynamic Do-All or Daily Defense). In fact, searching online for double-initialed skin preps, if you include prescriptions there are only a handful of letter pairs out of 26 that don’t get some result (yes, there is more than one ZZ cream). And this time, I did hold onto the tubes I tried out—as one more element to play with in my cosmetic paint box, maybe I’ll eventually figure out what all the fuss is about.

–Catherine Clifford
Catherine Clifford is a frequent contributor to MyLittleBird. 

One-Step ‘Highlighting’ for Gray Hair?



I FIRST HEARD THIS IDEA decades ago from a famous colorist, and have come across it regularly ever since: a great option for women with some gray sprinkled through their hair is to use an all-over semi- or demi-permanent color, one or two shades lighter than their natural. Because these products don’t lighten hair, the color won’t show on the darker hair, only on the gray. So apply, say, dark blond to mostly-brownish hair and—presto, instant highlights that last for weeks and weeks. Back then, tired of shelling out hundreds for highlights, I longed for the day I’d develop some grays. Ha.

If “covers just the gray” color works for you, God bless. But despite ubiquitous no-lift claims, i.e., that they will not bleach hair, my disappointing experience trying highlight-color demi-permanents has been that they don’t lighten much—just enough to create a mild root line and a little brass. Worse, the gray hairs remain blithely resistant, taking up little if any color, and losing any that did stick almost immediately. Wha hoppen? Well, true semi-permanent color sits in the surface layer and washes out quickly. But demi-permanent color (which includes many, maybe even most, products labeled as semi-permanent—yes, confusing) opens up the hair shaft, generally with peroxide, so color can penetrate somewhat deeper, lasting weeks. I’ve read repeatedly that the small amount of peroxide is not enough to lift color. Uh-huh.

Grousing recently about this to master colorist Krista Depeyrot of Salon Bisoux, I was absurdly thrilled when she told me about a relatively new product that approximates the desired effect: DiaLight. “It’s an acid-balanced color that L’Oreal Professional reformulated to give no lift but vinyl-like shine,” explains Krista. “It lays on the surface of the hair shaft and sort of tints the gray hair. It won’t look exactly like highlighting, but it’s a bit lighter than the base color, and blends the gray hair in.” Meant for salon use it is, of course, available for direct purchase by those brave or foolhardy enough to self-experiment (which will probably be me at some point). Worst case: It will fade out gradually over four to six weeks anyway. It may not be my holy grail of self-haircolor—I’ll probably be all gray before I discover that—but no lightening, a little color on the gray, a lot of shine all over: it sounds about as close as I can come for now.

— Catherine Clifford
Catherine Clifford is a frequent contributor to MyLittleBird.
Read her last post on The Best Blonding Yet?


The Best Blonding Yet?


The balayage (“sweeping”) method of hair coloring produces natural-looking highlights and lowlights, as seen on the author’s hair. / MyLittleBird photo. / COVER PHOTO: from CuteDIYProjects http://cutediyprojects.com/beauty-style/top-30-balayage-hairstyles-to-give-you-a-completely-new-look/

BALAYAGE is the hot new trend in haircolor. Balayage has been the hot new trend in haircolor on and off for a decade or two, but the term still draws a blank from lots of us. Finally, now, it seems to be getting really, no kidding, big, and late adopters may want to jump on this bandwagon, stat. Even if you disdain fads (Ombré? Outré. Dip? Skip.), balayage is your baby if you’d like to be blonder with less bother.

To understand the technique and give it a go personally, I checked in with one of our area’s prima colorists, Krista Depeyrot, who worked her way to the top at Bruno Dessange and Christophe before she and stylist husband Philippe started Salon Bisoux almost three years ago.

Everything about Bisoux is cool: the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria  with its funky/arty/independent shops and cafes; the clean-lined, mod space; the beautiful co-owner couple. The vibe, though, is warm, relaxed and neighborhoody, a bunch of friends who happen to render (or have rendered unto them) great hair.

Our author with regular highlights a few months ago, right, and with her new balayage color, left. / MyLittleBird photo.

Our author with regular highlights a few months ago, right, and with her new balayage color, left. / MyLittleBird photo.

Basically, balayage [bal-eye-AHZH, French for “sweeping”] is the wilder, looser cousin of highlights. With highlighting, color is applied in a uniform manner— regular row upon row of foils, each with its layer of precisely spaced strands. The hair is saturated with color that gets baked through the strand inside those heat-retaining packets. Results can look beautiful but also a little mechanical. “Balayage is more organic-looking,” explains Krista. “Small sections of hair are taken up one by one, and color is painted on the surface of each freehand, in a sort of V shape, so the bottom and inside stay darker, and the whole strand gets lighter toward the ends. The distribution of color is less regular, so it’s a softer look.”

As with highlighting, results can be bold or subtle, and women wedded to the ombré effect can have color start far from the scalp so it still progresses significantly dark to light, but with more play and variation, less solid blocks of shades. If you’re camouflaging gray, ribbons of lowlights can be woven in too. “It’s very adaptable—you can go with big, chunky sections or delicate glimmers,” notes Krista. “Balayage is very tailored to your cut, your hair, your preferences.” That takes time, and is reflected in the cost; balayage is typically pricier than foil highlights (at Bisoux, it starts at $200, $230 if you want Krista).

Photos illustrating the effect are invariably of hair in the l-o-n-g, loose spirals and swirls sported by almost every current starlet, and that does show balayage in its greatest glory. But it works beautifully for almost anyone, including women with short curly hair who have been cautioned against highlighting. “It is definitely a preferred technique for curly hair,” says Krista. “It creates depth and dimension without stripes. Very pretty!”

While  I was being worked on in the color area, I took note of the numerous other Bisoux balayage customers as they wrapped up—long hair and short, brunette and blonde, millennial to boomer—and I’m telling you: To a woman, their hair was great, the color natural-looking and gorgeous. Sure enough, I was delighted with my finished product, a layered bob now with soft but lively chiaroscuro. That the starting line for color shifts from strand to strand points up a most persuasive selling point: as graceful a grow-out as it gets. Just as natural sun-streaks don’t reveal a horizontal root line as hair grows, balayaged locks have no obvious demarcation. You can keep the pipeline humming with frequent refreshers, or wait many months to touch up (at $200+, that sounds good to me), or allow them to ease out through attrition with minimal awkwardness. Balayage, I am fully on board.

—Catherine Clifford

Smarty Plants and Mega-Mushrooms


So many products to choose from at the redesigned Origins store in Clarendon./ Photo Catherine Clifford.


A DEVOTEE OF Clinique and Prescriptives, I never looked at their sister brand Origins when it launched 25 years ago—at the time, the emphasis on organic botanicals just seemed gimmicky. Now older, wiser and leerier of lab-born topicals, I seized on this weekend’s opening of the redesigned store in Market Common Clarendon to see what I’ve been missing. The feel of the new decor is modern globe-trotter mixed with old-time apothecary—large scenic screens and a world-map wall backdrop, plant specimens under glass and flasks of mysterious fluids—less perplexing once I understood Origins’ mission to scour obscure corners of the continents to unearth exotic, overlooked but therapeutic flora.


A skincare treatment table awaits customers. / Photo courtesy of Origins.

An immediate payoff: Everything smells fantastic—not fakey fabric-softener, but authentically fruity or earthy or herbal, and blessedly underpowering. As I look at blond-wood shelf after shelf of products pledging to improve (mostly) skin, however, I get the overwhelmed, intimidated freeze I often feel in beauty departments: There are a zillion of these things! Offering hydrating, firming, lifting, illuminating, rejuvenating, energy-boosting—how do other people know which they need? Why wouldn’t I want all those things? Kristen, one of the Origins’ team, comes to my rescue, explaining which products address specific concerns or skin types. Typically, one “Kristen” or another sits down with a new customer for a nice long chat about needs, wants, weak spots, spots—anything bothering your birthday suit (hair included). But even better, she shows me their chart. Now we’re talking!! I love, love this—a cheat sheet to help me keep straight what does what for what, with what operative ingredients, so that, girded with Kristen’s counsel, I can confidently poke about, play around with testers on my own.


Smarty Pants CC creams, plant specimens under glass and ginger scrubs. / Photo by Catherine Clifford.

Happily doing so, I find at least a few must-haves (or must-gives). The Ginger collection in general is instantaneous aromatherapy as far as I’m concerned, but the rustic packaging and crystaled amber of the body scrub stands out, screaming to be gifted (if not eaten–but, you know, don’t).

Sampling Smarty Plants(♥!) CC creams, I stumble on a personal HG (Holy Grail, for those who don’t read beauty blogs): an expected hit of sheer color and cover and moisture, plus sunscreen, plus salicylic acid (helps with many issues, including wrinkles and acne)—I’ve investigated literally scores of BB and CC creams and this is the first I found combining the latter two.

I am running out of inner-arm room, playing with clay masks, moisturizers, makeup. Cleanup brings me my last (for now) great find: Mega-Mushroom Skin Relief Micellar Cleanser, which is notable for what it doesn’t have: soap, alcohol, oil, parabens, sulfates, phthalates; and for what you don’t need: water. Perfect for travel—impressively road-tested by Kristen’s uncle, who took it with him to avoid unsafe water in the Amazon jungle. I’m reassured now that it will be equal to the job when I can’t wash my face because it’s late and I’m lazy.

Catherine Clifford
Catherine  Clifford is a freelance writer living in Chevy Chase, D.C. 

The Care and Feeding of Color-Treated Hair

AFTER A GOOD HAIRCUT, hair color is the biggest investment you can make to maintain your mane year-round.  Particularly now, in the depths of winter, color-treated hair can be showing signs of strain: dry, dull, fading fast. What’s a grown-up girl to do?

Colorist Rita Hazan

Colorist Rita Hazan

We spoke with international celebrity colorist Rita Hazan for words of wisdom.

GA: Rita, is there anyone left who doesn’t color their hair?

RH: This makes me laugh out loud! No. Even kids color their hair these days.

GA: Is there any kind of hair type or texture that should NOT be color-treated?

RH: No. You just have to be careful if the hair is fragile.

GA: How does color affect the health of the hair? Can it actually improve it?

RH: It’s definitely a myth that color damages hair. It’s not the color, it’s the person using the color. It doesn’t matter what color you use; all color is a little bit harsh on the hair because you are changing the naturalness of the hair. Color gives hair volume and plumps the cuticle, while glosses can make hair look shiny.

GA: How is color-treated hair different from virgin hair in terms of choosing the right shampoo and conditioner?

RH: People with color-treated hair need to use shampoos and conditioners especially for color-treated hair because others are too harsh. It makes a big difference. It is important to use a sulfate-free shampoo because others can be stripping. Dandruff shampoos also have a stripping agent unless it says it is for color-treated hair. If you change shampoo you might see a 90 percent difference in how long your color lasts. You can use any shampoo or conditioner that says “color protecting” because they all have similar ingredients that help preserve color. Color-safe shampoos usually have a complex in them that is specific to keep the color from fading and getting dull.

GA: Where have people gone wrong when they say they have color damage?

RH: It’s the person who must know how to control the damage. The colorist is in charge of the color process and over-processing should never happen with a skilled colorist. Some people over-color their hair.  Every three or four weeks will cause damage. You have to respect the process. Overlapping and continuing to color the same hair over and over again – hair doesn’t need to be colored all the time; retouching the roots is fine. Also, not conditioning and not using the right [at-home] products is damaging.

GA: What causes color depletion and how can we stop or delay it between treatments?

RH: A lot of fading happens naturally through washing as it strips color. It naturally happens over time and the vibrancy fades away. You have to maintain the color at home. You have to do treatments and use good shampoos and conditioners. You can also use my Ultimate Shine Color Gloss because it will prevent fading while also keeping the hair shiny and healthy.

GA: How (if at all) does a single process versus highlights affect color duration and overall hair health?

RH: Single process is the least harsh and damaging on the hair. It is done with either semi-permanent or permanent color. Highlights are typically done with bleach to give you the extra lift without turning orange.

GA: In terms of maintaining hair health, is there any difference between foil highlights and balayage?

RH: I only use foils because it’s less damaging to the hair long term, and it’s faster.

GA: What effect does sunlight have on colored hair? How can we prevent UV damage?

RH: UV rays do the same to your hair as they do to the skin. It gets dehydrated and loses its vitamins, and then you lose the pigment. Use products that have SPF and UV protection. Apply to hair a few times while in the sun – it protects hair just as you would put SPF on to protect your skin.

GA: When looking for a colorist, what qualities or credentials should people be looking for?

RH: If you see someone and like their color, ask who does it. Also, when you call a salon, the person who answers the phone can direct you. Ask them who the best person is for what you’re looking to get. Educate yourself as much as possible then research that person. You don’t have to book right then. You can look on Instagram; a lot of people post their work.

GA: What are your favorite shampoo and conditioner brands for color-treated hair? And how important is a weekly moisturizing mask?

RH: I love Shu Uemura and Inphenom. A weekly moisturizing mask is important because you are only at the salon every two months so you have to maintain your hair at home. Between shampoo, straightening and blow-drying, you have to add nutrition back into the hair from torturing it at home.


More Suggestions:
Below are some product recommendations to help keep your colored tresses as vibrant and healthy as long as possible. All are botanically based and sulfate- and paraben-free.  You’ll get the best results by using shampoos and conditioners from the same family – they’re meant to work hand-in-hand – so they’re grouped accordingly.

Aveda Color Conserve Shampoo ($8-$63) and Aveda Color Conserve Conditioner ($8-$79) are plant-infused and organically fragranced. The lavender soothes and refreshes; and ylang ylang smells great and helps lock in color and shine.

The color-preserving, hydration-boosting, 100 percent vegan duo of ColorProof Evolved Color Care SuperRich Moisture Shampoo  and ColorProof Evolved Color Care SuperRich Moisture Condition, each $29.95, contains sunflower seed oil; rosemary and leaf extracts; UVA and UVB protection; and a protein complex for extra strength and repair.

Available in silver, golden, red, chocolate, copper and tobacco sets, each shampoo and conditioner in Davines Alchemic Collection ($24.50-$28.50) targets your specific hair color to impart more color with direct pigments. Provitamin B5 and hydrolyzed milk proteins hydrate and add richness, tonality, and freshness.

Kérastase Réflection Bain Chroma Captive Colour Radiance Protecting Shampoo Colour-Treated Hair ($39) and Kérastase Réflection Chroma Captive System Capture Masque ($62.50) help preserve color depth, smoothness and shine with linseed oil and Vitamin E. The Capture Masque is a bit of a misnomer; it’s actually a super-nourishing conditioner meant to be used after every shampoo.

Oribe Shampoo for Beautiful Color ($14-$132) and Oribe Conditioner for Beautiful Color ($15-$147) pack a gently reparative and hydrating punch with watermelon, lychee and edelweiss flower extracts that shield hair from oxidative stress, photoaging and natural keratin depletion, and protect it from dehydration. Bioflavonoids, which give fruits their brilliant hues, keep hair’s color from fading and discoloration. Baobab tree extract moisturizes parched, over-processed, and color- and chemically-treated tresses. Oh, and it smells like heaven.

Phyto Paris Phytocitrus Color Protect Radiance Shampoo Color-Treated, Highlighted Hair ($8-$22) and Phyto Paris Express Conditioner Color-Treated, Highlighted Hair ($22) have grapefruit extract to seal the cuticle and impart shine; sea buckthorn, whose anti-free radical properties lock in color intensity and prevent fading; sweet almond proteins to help restructure damage; and hydrating elderflower extract to restore softness and suppleness to the capillary fiber. In English, that means added density, body, and shine.

The Shu Uemura Art of Hair Color Lustre Collection of shampoo, conditioner and weekly masque feels, smells and performs like a million bucks, thanks primarily to refining lipids; musk rose oil, rich in fatty acids and Vitamin A to deeply nourish the hair fiber; and Goji berry extract, which helps protect colored hair from fading.


–Gigi Anders
Follow Gigi Anders, a frequent MyLittleBird contributor, on Facebook and @gigianders.






Pills Not Past Their Prime



SINCE I AM FAMOUS among my family for iffy waste-not frugality–cutting the mold from “perfectly fine” bread or cheese, for instance–my daughter was alarmed when I dug an ancient bottle of ibuprofen out of the glovebox during a long headache of a car trip this summer. Urged to check the expiration date, I told her that almost no medicine expires per se, and she decided I was too insane to argue with.

I recalled this factoid from a long-ago interview with a pharmacologist, and when my daughter scoffed, I scrounged the web and found that indeed there have since been studies confirming that expiration dates are, to say the least, overeager. Although the FDA‘s website cautions consumers sternly against taking expired meds, it was an FDA study that first exposed the dubiousness of drug expiration dates. Conducted at the behest of the Department of Defense (which was hoping to salvage warehouses’ worth of stockpiled medications), the analysis of 122 overage remedies–prescription and over-the-counter medications up to 15 years past their pull date–found that almost 90 percent of them retained acceptable potency. A more recent study from the Universities of California at San Francisco and Irvine looked at 14 active ingredients in eight prescription drugs that were 28 to 40 years past the discard date, and found that 12 of them still packed 90 percent or more of their pharmacological punch. Granted, in the first study, the drugs had been stored unopened in an ideal environment (i.e., not as half-used bottles at the back of a medicine cabinet subject to daily steamings) but not so with the second study–authors were “unable to confirm ideal storage conditions”,  and most of the drugs still came out kicking.

Since drugs don’t go “bad” in the same sense that food does–no fostering of malevolent microorganisms, transmuting into gut-wrenching poisons–expired drugs won’t actively hurt you (with the possible exception of tetracycline–researchers disagree on whether it’s dangerous if it degrades). The only danger comes from not getting enough of the active ingredients to achieve the desired effect.

So, common sense: for anything your health truly depends on–heart medication, insulin, antibiotics–don’t risk coming up short: play it safe with only current supplies. Go similarly conservative with solutions like eye drops, which may rely on age-vulnerable preservatives to prevent contamination. Last, if a medication looks funky–discolored, powdery pill surface, separated suspensions, formerly clear liquids now cloudy–and the ick factor alone doesn’t deter you, consider that its appearance is telling you something about how not-well it has held up.  But in general, for staples like decongestant, skin creams, antacids, allergy pills, cough and cold preps, stomach soothers, most painkillers (aspirin was one of the two compounds that clocked in at less than 90 percent potency in the UC study)–in short, most of the standbys stocking the average medicine cabinet–you can wing it with what’s on hand. They will most likely have all the pharmaceutical muscle they need for years, and maybe years, to come.

–Catherine Clifford
Catherine Clifford  is a frequent contributor to MyLittleBird. 

Overheard …

Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon

Beautiful at any age, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon.

FOR THE “LADIES, COULD We Love Ourselves a Little More, Please?” file:  At book group recently–roomful of worldly, educated middle/late-middle aged women–we are discussing The View from Penthouse B, a witty novel about midlife sisters, one divorced, one widowed, sharing an apartment and reentry into romantic life, by the delightful writer Elinor Lipman. A question arises about the age of the main character.  A few offer that she was around 50, but some others say no, they thought 40. Well, says she married late, had a long marriage, so hmmmm…. And one attendee counters, “But there were lots of references to how pretty she was…” and others chime in: right, they kept saying she was so pretty, so early 40s at the latest, right?


“Pretty: Pleasing or attractive in a graceful or delicate way.” I know lots of women well into their lives who warrant that description, in fact some who did right to the end. It’s tough enough to battle the pro-youth bias that pervades our culture’s concept of beauty. But could we as women at least stop colluding wholeheartedly with the age=ugly attitudes undermining our own self-image with each additional year? If I could, sans surgery, rewind my face to age 30, sure I’d be tempted. But cede all claims to  attractiveness without “for her age” qualifiers? Never! If not for me, then for all the friends who may be wrinkled, weathered even–and still pretty, beautiful, gorgeous and glorious!

— Catherine Clifford
Catherine Clifford is a  frequent MyLittleBird contributor. 

Plastic Purgery


Glass water bottles come with silicone sleeves to soften falls.

THIS SIDE OF HERMITRY or time travel, I know I can’t live plastic-free—it’s in everything from soup cans to register receipts to air fresheners. But the recent controversy over BPA-free plastics—whether some of them contain chemicals worse than BPA—has stepped up my resolve to at least stop eating and drinking any more plastic than I have to.


Ceramic Melitta drip-coffee cone

Knowing that heat helps nasty components leech into food, I had already shunned non-stick pans in favor of stainless steel, cast iron or enamel; swapped the plastic Melitta drip-coffee cone for a ceramic version (Melitta and others make one, but so does World Market for a third the price); and moved half-heartedly toward glass containers for leftovers (a couple of pricey large ones—available everywhere from Williams-Sonoma to Giant—but mainly repurposed jam jars). Now, though, I’m on to a new level of plastics-purging.

I’d opted for stainless travel mugs a few years ago, spurning ones that are metal outside, plastic inside—what’s that about?—but now look askance at their inescapable plastic tops. My new go-to: ceramic (or harder-to-find stainless) tumblers with silicone lids—again, World Market has cheery favorites, but they’re also often available in discount stores and online. (Silicone is purported to be more stable than plastics; if it is awful for you, I haven’t stumbled across the research yet, so…fingers crossed.)  Ceramics are breakable—I’m two for four; my son is no longer allowed to use them—but they’re remarkably leak-proof except where the top has an always-open spot for sipping. Note to self: keep the little (plastic, yes) plugger from next Starbucks cup to see if it fits.

The iced tea in our fridge used to be plastic-packaged store-bought. Now it’s home-brewed by the half-gallon and poured into one of many different brands of glass jugs, all with ill-fitting tops (if you know of one that seals tightly, then easily unseals and pours smoothly, get in touch).

We bought BPA-free Camelbak water bottles a couple of years ago, but these days I’m pushing real glass, in a silicone sleeve to soften falls. Camelbak makes one, but their built-in plastic straw would seem to defeat the purpose, no? The prettiest, by bkr, have silicone tops, and sleeves in a paintbox of elegant mattes—I saw them in two sizes at Core 72;  Anthropologie also sells them, as well as Amazon and bkr . The son who carries his water alongside 50-pound weights in his gym bag, though—he’ll have to stay plastic for now.

It’s never been exactly earth-friendly, but my kids (and I) love straws. The big bag of bendies from the drugstore is on its way out, and I’m about to invest in glass straws at (gulp) about $7 apiece—oops, remembering the broken ceramic mugs and switching to more economical, durable stainless or, less durable but cheaper yet, bamboo, plus a teeny little cleaning brush from Reuseit.


Beeswax wrap, Saran Wrap’s alternative.

An uber-natural alternative to plastic wrap is beeswax wraps—coated cotton meant to retain moisture and keep its shape around a block of cheese or the rim of a dish. Certain versions blend jojoba oil and tree resin into the coating, but some user reviews griped about transfer of unpleasant tastes, so I went with pure beeswax (three-pack: sandwich bag, medium and large sheets).  They’re not going to put Saran Wrap out of business—they can’t be used for meat since they’re cool-water wash only, and the “cling” factor was a flop when I tried to mold it to a bowl—but cheese was enfolded just fine, the string-and-button sandwich bag stayed shut, and the large wrap blanketed a section of baguette, keeping it fresh. Lots of selection at Etsy, limited offerings from Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie and The Grommet but they’re not cheap (almost $20 for 3), so I’m contemplating making my own—quite simple, I’m told. Uh-huh.


Wood-handled toothbrushes with nylon- or natural-bristles.

Maxed out psychologically and financially by plastic paranoia, my next and last step for now is a wood-handled, nylon- or natural-bristled toothbrush (at Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, or from Amazon). They’re not perfect—loose bristles are a common complaint, wood needs to dry thoroughly between uses or it can get germy—but it beats sticking BPA straight into my mouth twice a day. And when I’m ready for the next level of purity (or paranoia), I’ll start at my new favorite website, Life Without Plastic, where some version of virtually everything mentioned here can be bought, plus way way more: plastic-free highlighters, wooden combs, stainless ice cube trays, cotton produce bags, hemp shower curtains, leather fly-swatters….wait, seriously—flyswatters?

— Catherine Clifford
Catherine Clifford is a freelance writer living in Chevy Chase. 






Botox and Emotion: It’s Complicated

Botox and Emotion


When anyone has suggested Botox for the deep lines between my brows (yes, they’re that bad–I worry a lot), my stock reply has been, “Are you kidding? I have teenagers at home—I need to be able to look disapproving!” Besides, I’m (theoretically) opposed to age-erasing cosmetic procedures. But I perked up when I recently came across findings that Botox can be effective in treating—go figure—depression. Huh–if I were less grumpy, I might not need to scowl at the kids so much. Maybe I could justify a round of shots, uh, strictly for medicinal purposes. It turns out, however, that exactly such visual communication of emotion is at the heart of a burgeoning debate about the effects of Botox, for better and worse, on feeling in all its forms. The last few years have seen a flurry of research into the process by which we feel emotion and show it in our faces—and not necessarily in that order.

The mechanism by which Botox may lift mood stems from a counterintuitive aspect of emotion-generation. Good things happen, you feel happy, so you smile; bad things, you feel sad, you frown. Sure, but it works in the other direction, too—your body helps your brain figure out what to feel.

“Forty years of studies have conclusively shown that manipulation of facial muscles can, to some extent, create emotions,” notes  Eric Finzi, dermatologic surgeon at the Chevy Chase Cosmetic Center and author of “The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships.” Subjects in an experiment who are told to smile even if they don’t feel like it, for instance, judge a cartoon as funnier than do those told not to smile. If you are directed to frown, your brain interprets events more darkly than it would otherwise. Sounds primitive. Exactly—it’s been bred into us through eons of evolution.

There are two routes for sensory input to reach your brain, explains Dr. Finzi. One is via the thalamus up to the cortex where the conscious, intellectual part of your brain can analyze it—sophisticated, but relatively slow. Meanwhile, the info has also raced much (i.e., milliseconds) faster along a “low road” straight to the amygdala, an older, more primitive part of the brain responsible for emotions, which has  already sent directives back to the body—crude, maybe inaccurate, but a potentially crucial edge if you’re jumping away from what may be a snake, for example. Since your body is already exhibiting emotion  (e.g., sweating, pulse racing, blood diverted to muscles) while the cortex is still reading the memo, the “high road” uses that data, too, to piece the picture together. Heart pounding, muscles clenched? Apparently, I’m scared. Or: No furrows between the brows—guess I must feel okay. Causes of depression are varied and no treatments work for everyone, but in Dr. Finzi‘s series of studies since 2003, more than half of subjects had their depression significantly lightened by disabling frown muscles.

So people with forcibly unfurrowed brows may be less capable of feeling down—that’s the point, isn’t it? What’s the problem? The controversy arises in their dealings with other people. The Botoxed are less able to “read” emotions in others’ faces, according to a study from the University of Southern California and Duke University (supported by similar findings from several other small studies). The key again is “thinking” with our bodies, which issue orders to our brains. Part of the mechanism by which we understand what someone else is feeling is by (often unconsciously) mimicking or “mirroring” their facial expressions. As above, that triggers our brains to feel what our faces are showing, which in turn becomes empathy toward the person whose face we are reflecting, according to USC psychology professor David Neal. If we can’t make the expressions, we are less capable of feeling those same emotions, and empathy takes a hit. News stories about the phenomenon appeared with headlines like, ”Botox may deaden ability to empathize,” reporting that “people with frozen faces have little idea what we’re feeling”; some accounts railed against the “heavy costs” of “deadened emotions,” of “not caring what your loved ones feel,” against the danger that babies’ emotional growth will be stunted by stony-faced moms. Well….

“If you do a careful experiment, you can show that people who’ve had Botox to inhibit their frown may take fractions of a second longer to read a sentence about anger, for example,” counters Dr. Finzi. “We’re talking about slight differences, a few percentage points, nothing you would see with the naked eye.” As Dr. Neal himself commented in response to one article, the Botox recipients showed “about a 6 percent drop in their  ’emotional mind-reading ability’…significant, but no one is at risk of becoming a sociopath from receiving Botox.”

Furthermore, Dr. Finzi asserts, it applies only to negative emotions: “No one treats their smile or anything that would interfere with empathy for fun, laughter, positive feelings.” And the dark side itself is not utterly at the mercy of a smooth brow. “There’s body language, tone of voice and, even in the face, many other ways of showing negative emotions,” he continues. “The muscles around your mouth will tense, you may grimace, or bare your teeth; a muscle on the lower lid of your eye tenses, your eyes narrow.” So Botox would not impair the fearsome parental authority projected by my deep brow creases? “I daresay that if you’ve had Botox for your frown lines and you’re angry at your children, they will be able to see it.”

And since the overarching point is the inability to separate “mind” from “body,”  who’s to say where the back-and-forth stops? If I feel less negative empathy and look less troubled, will that influence the sad person talking to me to mirror my more serene face, causing him or her to feel a little cheerier? Do other antidepressants cause a decrease in empathy for negative emotions? Do naturally sunny people tend to exhibit a bit less empathy for malcontents? Will my kids turn out better if I spend less time looking worried and angry? I think I know the answer to that last one.

— Catherine Clifford