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Spritz on the questionably tasteful perfume you wore when you were 14, and you will, for better or worse, be transported back to the emotional and sensory experience of the ninth grade. Though I haven’t been inside of a Bath and Body Works in well over a decade, one whiff of Cucumber Melon anything brings me right back to school uniforms and CD players.
The products we use do more than moisturize our skin or take off our makeup: They leave a sensory trail that becomes deeply embedded into our psyche. (Apparently, scent memory is the strongest because the olfactory bulb — the part of the brain that first processes scents — is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain responsible for memories and emotion.) Indeed, I’ve learned that a curious thing happens when life takes you to new countries: You find yourself attached to products you can no longer easily attain — which makes you want them even more.
As an expat freelancer and the American-born daughter of two British parents, I have a note on my phone that’s a shopping list of “Things to buy when next in X.” When I fly to America for a visit, I find myself wandering the aisles of CVS, filling my cart with multiples of items I don’t want to run out of before my next trip. Similarly, I’m almost always tasked with bringing more than a few British products from the much-loved brand Boots for friends and family. Take a look at the re-packing table at the end of the TSA line in any international airport and you’ll see I'm far from the only one bringing products across borders in overstuffed bags.
In a world of Amazon-fueled instant gratification and globalized sameness, there is something nice about having an array of products that can’t be found at the local pharmacy. The scents, the texture, the consistency, the packaging — all these elements of the personal care products we use religiously become kind of a reflection of our background and personal histories. So much so that you’ll never know what you might miss until it’s gone. These are the things I’m always stocking, no matter where I end up.
Pond’s Cold Cream: The smell of thick and gloppy Pond’s Cold Cream reminds me of my mom, who has used it religiously throughout her entire life to remove her makeup before bed. Now that I do the same, the mere scent of it sends me into nighttime mode. Though possible to find in the UK, it’s fallen out of wide use and is thus hard to find. If it is in stock, it’s usually in store brand form on a forlorn bottom shelf. America seems to be hooked on the Pond’s kind, which has a thickness and greasiness that makes it extra satisfying to use to wipe off mascara, which is why I always put it in my basket on semi-annual trips to Target.
TCP: TCP is a curious British product. Its heavy brown glass bottle and foreboding smell make it seem like something you’d find in a Victorian-era apothecary. But get past the stench and the stark utilitarian packaging and you’ll see it is a literal miracle worker. As it’s an antiseptic liquid, you can put it on pimples and cuts, clean your tweezers with it, and gargle it when you have a sore throat. It’s one of those products that’s never changed, and probably never will.
Eyebrow pencils: Fun little secret: the $18 Nars eyebrow pencil you are using is a racket. Wet ’n’ Wild, the makeup brand more known for strawberry sparkle lip balm than Brooke Shields brows, offers the same thing for what is literally a tenth of the price. I never leave a trip to the US without a couple of these from CVS or Walgreens, and my ever-fuller brows can’t tell the difference.
Sephora rose sheet mask: After Britain is done sorting out Brexit, it needs to attend to the other national catastrophe: the glaring lack of Sephora stores on this gray-skied island. Though Europe is cluttered with them, the not-so-United Kingdom has only rumors of one opening in London in the future. This makes the preferred self-care activity of every modern woman — a nighttime face mask — hard to come by. Every trip to Europe or America results in a bag full of rose face masks coming home with me.
Trader Joe’s melatonin: For the insomniac and/or frequent traveler, the homeopathic, non-habit-forming sleep aid that is melatonin is essential. But weird rules in the EU and Britain make it virtually impossible to find, and it sometimes requires a prescription. That’s why Trader Joe’s (actually, Trader Darwin’s) chewable peppermint melatonin is a comforting must-have.
Paracetamol: Once you’ve solved a red wine headache with paracetamol, you don’t go back to mere ibuprofen. My sister in America always asks me to bring these painkillers back, and with good reason: They work, scarily well. And with 16 tablets for less than a packet of chewing gum, you won’t find relief cheaper.
Cetaphil: Every dermatologist I’ve ever been to has told me not to bother with any other brand of face wash, so I don’t. My loyalty to Cetaphil is such that if I run out of the large bottles I buy at Target, I am forced to pay for the small but overpriced UK bottles, which, strangely, are found in the medicinal skin care section next to eczema treatments. Nevertheless, the dermatologists are right: It is the only skincare product I can’t live without.