where to go, what to buy
It’s a surreal experience, being a beauty writer in a stranger in a strange land. Despite abundant green beauty and wellness scenes in both Minneapolis and Brooklyn, San Francisco has stolen my heart. It’s no surprise that the original hippie city by the Bay is home to more clean beauty brands, holistic spas and progressive retail experiences than one blog post can hold. This is by no means an exhaustive guide—I’m happily just getting started! I so hope you enjoy these gems on your next visit.
Skin Remedy is special. Located through a secret passageway, behind an old Victorian swathed in sunlight and succulents, it’s the secret garden of skincare. Owner and esthetician Justine Kahn is also the founder of Botnia, a science-based skincare line formulated at her Sausalito microfarm where she grows many of the plant-based ingredients (see what I mean about San Francisco?). A facial from Justine, and her equally capable staff, is a gentle, sensory experience. She moves with purpose and grace, restoring your skin to health.
I was new to Botnia and have been using it ever since Justine introduced me to the concept of feeding my skin versus taking from it. My love affair with exfoliation had taken an unexpected toll, depleting the dermis instead of producing its intended clarity. After a couple months using Botnia Toner and Hydrating Serum and minimizing peels and scrubs, my skin is the plumpest, dewiest it’s been since my 20s.
The mothership for San Francisco facials since opening its doors in 1976, Spa Radiance combines high-tech treatments with old-country techniques. The Spa Radiance story starts in mid-century Moscow, where mother-daughter founders Galina Rovner and Angelina Umansky began their lifelong education and obsession with skincare. Angelina’s Grandma Rose was an herbalist and healer who taught both daughter and granddaughter her craft. Which is to say, this is where you come to get things done.
A facial at Spa Radiance is an experience and an education into the inner workings of your skin. You’ll get to know every layer through Angeline’s observations and attention. She’ll massage and microcurrent, oxygenate, tone and lift with NASA-developed LED light, all the while charming you with the confidence and care of a Russian fairy godmother. If you have a few hours (and a few hundred dollars) to spend on your skin, do it here.
I think of skincare as Before Vintner’s Daughter and After Vintner’s Daughter. When Active Botanical Serum came on the scene, oil-based serums were a tough sell, let alone a luxury formula. But the 22-ingredient powerhouse and its signature push-press application method delivers that elusive, healthy glow that keeps on giving. For me, it’s a foundational product. For many (including too many celebrities to name here) it’s the only product you’ll ever need. Unless, of course, you’re a lucky one who got her hands on the new Active Treatment Essence, which sold out in days when it launched exclusively on Goop. A potent who’s-who of ingredients that rarely coexist—Vitamin C, micro and mini hyaluronic acid, probiotics, plant stem cells, marine microalgae—it hydrates, repairs, corrects, and does the laundry. When I get my hands on a bottle I plan to do as I’m told and layer it with Active Botanical Serum. I may not recognized myself after that.
The plight of the clean beauty shop is real. They have to compete with big box retailers like Wholefoods and differentiate in a saturated, green-washed market. Ayla slipped in when no one was looking and created its own niche: a curated, under-the-radar product mix, custom skincare regimens and sample program, and a studio that makes shopping a JOY.
For someone who prides herself on being a beauty insider, I got schooled at Ayla—and loved every second. Owner Dara, an industry alum, has a gift for unearthing the most ingenius, elegant, and hard-working nontoxic hair, skin and makeup products. Ayla’s assortment is the most holistic I’ve seen, with magnesium-infused deodorant that alleviates anxiety, anti-stress body care that smells like Provence, and happy tea made with organic sea buckthorn to lift your mood. Also a revelation: Guan Sha, a traditional Chinese skin lifting, firming and depuffing technique that use a smooth, nephrite jade stone (next-level jade roller!). Honestly, I could play in here all day and still have more to learn.
Next on my list to: quality time at the new True Botanicals flagship and International Orange, whose minimalist spaces and exquisite skincare mix speak my language, and so many more indie facialists who are doing their own thing. I can’t wait to meet you.