Monday, September 18, 2017

Favorite Skincare Products

I like to change skincare brands when I finish a bottle of product so every year I'm trying something new out on my skin. I'm really lucky that right now my skin is pretty normal. The only issues I have is a few milia on my forehead and blackheads on my nose. Milia are tiny skin colored bumps that no amount of physical exfoliation will get rid of and they don't go away on their own. To remove it you have to make an incision into the skin, not like popping a zit where you can just squeeze the skin with your nails, you have to use a tiny needle.  Best to go to an esthetician and ask for extractions. But you do have a few options at home with chemical exfoliation in the form of light peels, BHA and retinols.

Right now I'm using Paula's Choice products which is an affordable skincare line that does not test on animals. I used her products 10 years ago, but then got caught up in all the pricey things at Sephora, but have now decided to go back to her. Her line is only sold on her website but she has free shipping.

I use this product twice a day which helps to exfoliate my dead skin and smooth the bumps. BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid, also known as salicylic acid which helps skin prone to blemishes and clogged pores. It also helps to diminish the look of fine lines, improve uneven skin tone, and smooth out rough texture. As we age our skin sheds dead skin slower so a chemical exfoliant helps the renewal process. I apply this immediately after my toner, without waiting for my toner to dry first and then immediately apply my other products without having to wait for the BHA gel to dry. You can use a BHA in conjunction with a retinol as a retinol does not exfoliate the skin. The BHA removes the dead skin on the surface layers which help retinol absorb better.

RESIST Brightening Essence
This product is made of licorice extract, arbutin, vitamin C, and niacinamide, along with peptides to help brighten uneven skin tone.

RESIST C15 Super Booster
A Vitamin C serum has been a key part of my skincare routine for a long time, everyone should be using one. It helps with collagen production and reduces the appearance of skin discolorations. When choosing a vitamin C serum you want to make sure it's in an opaque bottle to protect it from light, has a dropper to protect it from air, and the ingredients list "ascorbic acid". I've used many different brands and they are all priced at $100 for 1 oz and make your face sticky. Paula's Choice serum also has hyaluronic acid in it which helps hydrate skin.  Vitamin C helps retinol work better by making it more effective longer.

I use a Clarisonic brush to cleanse my skin a few times a week for extra exfoliation, but I've also started using the PMD tool which is a once a week microdermabrasion treatment that exfoliates and removes the top layer of dead skin. The tool uses suction and a disposal spinning disc that is embedded with aluminum oxide crystals that exfoliate away dead and dull cells from the surface of your skin. This helps skincare products penetrate your skin deeper to maximize their results.

Occasionally I also use Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel Packettes. As their most popular product, it has a combination of BHA and AHA (glycolic and lactic acids).  I think it is a holy grail product that I always hear that everyone loves.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Dip Powder Nails: Alternative to Gel Manicures

I used to love gel manicures, and thought it was the best thing ever since it didn’t chip as fast as normal nail polish and was just perfect for my 2 week summer vacations. Then I tried keeping them for 6 months and after wearing them for that continuous stretch my nails were so weak. After I removed the gel my nails wouldn't hold regular nail polish for more than a couple days so I had to quit nail polish for awhile to nurse my nails back to health, it was horrible let me tell you. lol Once they were back to normal, my nails used to break all the time and I never got any length. I very quickly got sick of how often I was thinking about them as they were always splitting and peeling. Then I heard about dip nails.

What is that you ask? Well it's not a new trend, it's been around a long time but wasn't talked about much. The dip nail polish is actually a powder that is sealed in between coats of wet sealant that dries instantly without a UV light. The one thing I hated about gel nails was that LED light on my hands and worried about the exposure to my skin since not all salons offer gloves for the process. Like gel, dip nails lasts chip free for 3 weeks! I could probably even stretch it out longer if I wanted to.  The removal process is easier on your nails than gel. You soak your nails in a bowl of acetone  for 15 minutes and it easily dissolves. The most popular brands of dip powder are SNS and Nexgen and thus it's often called one of those names instead of just "dip". The powder has vitamin E and calcium in it to help strengthen your nails and has no smell. I pay $40 to have this done and have been really happy with the results. The nails are thin to the touch but don't quite feel like naked nails when you scratch yourself. The whole process takes about one hour to do. I've done it 3 times now and am addicted!

The last time I had my polish removed, I couldn't believe how long my nails had grown! And they felt strong naked without the dip powder on them. Unlike when I'd remove gel and my nails would feel weak. The only downside of the dip nails is that the salon uses an electric file to buff my nails. Not sure if that damages them or not? The other issue is all the customers are dipping their fingers into the same jar of powder. I'm not asked to wash my hands  first, but maybe having soaked my fingertips in acetone sterilizes them?

I have a friend who does these at home and she recommends  this starter kit  to see if you like the process of doing it yourself. And she soaks off her nail polish in this bowl. I've been toying with the idea of doing it myself but don't want to commit to the start up costs of buying all the colors when I already have so many regular colors. But the idea of having dip nails without the filing done at salons by the dremel tool does appeal to me.

I am now totally obsessed with dip nails! My nails never chip and I'm finally able to grow long nails, it basically makes your nails bulletproof. And there's a huge range of colors to choose from including sparkle. With dip nails you only have to deal with your nails every 3 weeks and don't have to think about them because your nails are indestructible.  I have been doing dip nails for a couple months now and now my nails never break and seem to be very strong so I'm hooked!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cookies & Cream Low Cal Ice Cream Review

Cookies and Cream has been my all-time favorite ice cream flavor since childhood! The other day my co-worker brought in two packages of Oreo cookies: Dunkin Donuts Mocha Oreo and Oreo Thins, both were completely inedible to me. First I don’t like coffee so a coffee flavored cookie is just wrong. And the thins are half the cookie and half the filling, why would you do that?

thins to regular comparison
My favorite ice cream brand Halo Top just announced that they've updated the Cookies & Cream flavor. If you've never heard of Halo Top Ice Cream, it's a low-calorie, high-protein low-sugar ice cream that tastes amazing. I talked about it here and reviewed their chocolate flavor. They only use social media to advertise and yet have grown 2500% in sales in 2 years! Hence no surprise Breyers is now copying them, even with their pint label design.

Breyers Ice Cream recently released it's new Delights low calorie line. Both Halo Top and Breyers are sweetened with Erythritol, a natural sugar alcohol. Both pints of ice cream come in at about 330 calories and have 20g of protein. Which tastes better? Well I did a taste comparison of the two Cookies and Cream flavors for you.

Halo Top is made with eggs so it has an off white color while the Breyers has a pure white vanilla ice cream base. The Breyers has larger cookie chunks so you you can really taste the oreo cookie. But this comes with more grams of sugar than Halo Top. I wanted to share the label from their website but oddly all the Delights flavors don't have nutritional content on the Breyers website. They label the sugar content in a tricky, non-straightforward way.

The Halo Top Cookies & Cream tastes really good, and if that's all you had you would be satisfied. But when you compare the two together against each other, there's a slight difference that crowns the Breyers the winner because it tastes more like real ice cream. While Halo almost, but not quite, tastes more like frozen yogurt. It's a very subtle difference probably due to the sugar difference.

Halo Top also recently announced that it has released new flavors that I'm super excited to try! Mochi Green Tea, Pumpkin Pie, Cinnamon Roll, Candy Bar, Rainbow Swirl, Pancakes & Waffles, Caramel Macchiato and Chocolate Covered Banana.

I found Breyers Delights and Halo Top at my local Safeway. I've also seen Halo Top at Giant, Whole Foods, Walmart, Aldi, Target, Costco and Harris Teeter. This wide spread availability must have prompted Breyers to enter the low-cal ice cream game, because let's face it they could have done this a long time ago right? What's your favorite Halo Top flavor?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Postcards from Havana

Cuba is quite the popular destination these days! It's much easier for Americans to travel there (see my Tips for Travel to Cuba), but that may soon change as our President announced a policy change coming soon for Cuba so you should hurry up and go! I spent a week in Cuba in May with two full days in Havana, one day exploring the city for 14 hours straight!The first day started with a walking tour of Old Havana learning about Cuban history. I walked along the narrow cobblestone streets to see the colorful colonial architecture and many dilapidated buildings. I also enjoyed walking off the beaten path down narrow streets to people watch. Did you know that Havana has a population of 2.2 million people? Cubans pronounce their country as "Koo-ba".

Here are the top 10 sites and experiences to see in Havana:

 1. Plaza Vieja - One of the central plazas in Havana, this beautiful architecturally eclectic square is a World Heritage site built in 1559. All the buildings in this plaza have been refurbished. There's a fountain in the middle of the plaza which is surrounded by a micro-brewery, art galleries, cafes and a school. The statue is of a woman riding a rooster holding a giant fork. There are a few restaurants with balcony seating surrounding the square. At the corner of Plaza Vieja is Cafe Taberna where you can listen to live Cuban bands at night.

 2. El Capitolio -This grand 1920s building is a replica of Washington, DC's Capitol building but is slightly bigger. Is was the former congressional building but was closed in 2010 for renovations. Since it towers other buildings, you can see it from many points in the city so you can use it a marker to figure out where you are. Across the street is the Gran Teatro de La Habana which houses the Cuban National Ballet. The area around the Capitolio acts as a central traffic hub for the city so you will see plenty of communal taxis, classic cars, and horse carriages waiting for tourists. The $10 hop on hop off bus tour also has a stop here.  You can see from my pictures it felt like stepping into an Old Hollywood movie set to see all the classic American cars from the 1950s, iconic models that have banished from the US.

Seven years ago I threw a Havana Nights party where I made everyone wear purple and the invite was of a purple classic car. I served mojitos and chocolate cigars. At the time never dreamed I would ever go to Cuba since it had been off limits to Americans.

 3. Classic 1950's Convertible Cars - For me the biggest trademark of Cuba is their glorious collection of antique cars from the 1950’s. Cuba has 70,000 of these cars still operating and many covered with house paint, no seat belts and the engines replaced with new diesel engines since that's cheaper than gas.  The classic cars are used as taxis and taxi drivers have the highest income making $600 a month compared to $25 a month for everyone else. We took a ride in a classic car one evening and it was really strange riding in the front seat of a car without a seat belt!

Che Guevara's image was everywhere

 4. Ernest Hemingway – The author lived in Cuba for 20 years and La Floridita was his favorite bar in the 1930s. At the bar is a life sized bronze statue of Hemingway on his favorite bar stool and the walls are filled with black and white photographs of famous people who have visited. The bar was filled with tourists while a local band played music for us. The daiquiri is the drink to order here that they make in many different ways. In the suburbs of Havana you will find Hemingway’s house and the fishing village he frequented with his boat– Cojimar.

5. Music - Expect to hear the song "Guantanamera" everywhere you go because it's the best known Cuban song and most patriotic song as the lyrics come from a poem by the Cuban poet José Martí. He's the Cuban national hero and so many things in Cuba are named after him including the Havana airport. Then I'm sure you've heard that Justin Bieber song "Despacito", well the original version is super popular in Cuba right now. Check out my playlist at the bottom of this post.

 6. Tropicana Show - I read that Havana has as many cabaret shows as Las Vegas! The Tropicana cabaret show is an iconic Cuban show that has been around since 1939. The vibrant costumes are extravagant, especially the heavy headpieces! This is definitely an iconic, must see experience. For $75 we sat in an outdoor theater,  the show begins at 10pm and lasted 1.5 hours. The ticket price included a bottle of champagne for the table, peanuts, and Havana Club rum of course, more than we could drink. Men get a cigar. If you want to take pictures of the show that costs extra.

our ride home

 7. Morro Cabańa - For a sunrise view we visited the Fort just across the bay from Havana. It has a wonderful view of Havana. We saw a cruise ship coming in the narrow harbor channel while we were there which was a sight to see. The fort was built to protect against pirate attacks. Every night at 9pm a cannon is fired.

8. Fusterlandia - Cuban artist José Fuster has turned his neighborhood into a masterpiece of mosaic tiles of every color and description all whimsical and stylized. Fuster’s own house is fully decorated from the ground level to the roof with artwork and all kinds of sculptures.

see the mosaic tiles on the wall behind me

 9. Vedado – This neighborhood is off the beaten path but has some of the most stunning residential architecture. Many mansions were abandoned at the start of the revolution and now are crumbling. They was once inhabited by American investors involved in Cuba’s sugar industry and some today have been converted into offices. They're a beautiful rich relic from another time.

10. Hotel Nacional – We ended a long day of sightseeing with drinks on the back lawn of the Hotel Nacional overlooking the sea. Built in the 1930s, it's Cuba's most famous hotel modeled after The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. It has a palm tree lined entrance and gorgeous garden in the back where you can sit and stare at the water. This is also the site of the Cuban Missile Crisis and you can still see the tunnels that were once set up with missiles aimed at the US. Key West is only 100 miles away! It has the perfect view of the Malecon, the avenue along the seawall that has fantastic sunset views. Great place for people watching as well. Also on the Malecon, I was surprised to see they had an American embassy (but no Ambassador).  I was watching the news last night and saw this bizarre story about American diplomats in Cuba.

 Cuba was one of my all time favorite trips and I'm hoping to go back soon to see more of the island! I'm going out tomorrow night with some friends to see a Cuban band perform.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Tips for Traveling to Cuba

Cuba has been on my bucket list for a very long time and I finally had the opportunity to visit in May. Being there is like stepping back in time, colorful vintage cars, salsa music, Cuban cigars, Havana Club Rum, colonial architecture, cobble stoned streets and Che Guevara image everywhere. It was everything I imagined. The beautiful island of Cuba area wise it’s roughly similar in size to the state of Virginia, hence it’s the largest island in the Caribbean and its neighbor Jamaica is only 1/10th its size.  I spent one week traveling around Cuba visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and I felt very safe there.

How to get there:
There are currently only a limited number of airlines that fly into Havana: Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are the main ones. Delta has their own Cuban department now so you can get your tourist visa over the phone with them or at the departure counter. Jetblue has direct flights from Orlando, Ft Lauderdale and New York JFK. This year a few cruise lines started going there including Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, however the port only has room for one ship at a time. The harbor was oddly empty of boats, unlike any other seaside town you'd visit.

As an American citizen you are required to get a visa saying you will participate in people-to-people cultural exchanges, it’s the only legal way to go. I got a certificate when I left saying I completed my people-to-people cultural exchange. You are also required to keep a log while you are there of what you did. The US government may audit you on this for up to 5 years later. Keep your Cuban visa (separate from above, given at entry) with you during the trip as you need it to exit, it’s a separate piece of paper.

American credit cards and ATM cards do not work in Cuba. You must bring cash, enough for your entire trip. However there is a 10% penalty charged when exchanging American dollars so you may want to bring Euros, Canadian or Mexican pesos instead. 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 USD but you will only receive 87cents on the dollar. If you plan to use the bathroom anywhere (even museums) expect to tip the bathroom attendant for that privilege so keep coins on you. There are two different currencies in Cuba: CUC and CUP. The CUC is the Cuban Convertible peso that tourists use. The CUP is the Cuban peso that the locals use. The conversation rate is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. Don’t get scammed and understand the difference between the two currencies.

Is only available at 35 hotspots in public parks, universities, and high priced hotels. (The average hotel costs around $350 a night, so look into airbnb and casa particulars.) Only 5% of Cubans have access to the internet. No one has it in their home unless they have specific permission from the government and then it’s dial-up. The wifi access is monitored by the government. To use it you must first purchase a wifi card from an ETECSA store which have very long lines or from an illegal internet "dealer" you can find on the street. lol So save a google map of Cuban cities offline for directions when you're walking around. I saw people using pay phones everywhere which are extinct in our country. The few people who had an iphone got one from a relative abroad. 

The classic car are primarily used as taxis and charge about $40 to be driven around for an hour and all of those drivers speak English. The cheapest way to get around is shared taxis. In Santiago de Cuba I saw they have a motorcycle taxi, a person would flag the driver down, tell him where they wanted to go, the driver gave the passenger a helmet and off they went, a 1 seat ride!  A cheaper alternative is the coco taxi which is a 3 wheeled yellow egg with 2 seats glued onto a moped. There was also the bicitaxi otherwise known as a pedicab or bicycle taxi, that's great to get around Old Havana where cars aren't allowed. The bicitaxi drivers are friendly and will chat you up. Another cheap way to get around Havana is to take the Hop on Hop off double decker tour bus which only cost $10.

The week I was there in May didn't rain but it was so hot and humid. Officially the temperature was in the high 80s but the humidity made it unbearable. Bring a fan and expect to wear your hair in a ponytail the whole time. The sun was so strong I always wore a hat and only took it off for pictures.

The famous restaurants like the one Beyonce and Obama went to require reservations in advance. As a vegetarian my experience will be different from yours so I won't go into that.  Bring snacks with you because there really aren't supermarkets around to just pop in and grab something. Cuban Rum is cheap and popular cocktails you'll find on menus are Cuba Libre (rum and coke), mojitos, and daiquiris. The word for papaya in Cuban Spanish is "frutabomba", the word "papaya" in Cuba is a vulgar slang term for a woman's privates, so you don't want to ask for that anywhere. lol Download AlaMesa app, it lists restaurants and bars in Cuba and works offline.

Papier-mâché car models were seen everywhere.

Cuban cigars are expensive even in Cuba. Farmers are required to sell 90 percent of their tobacco crop to the government for a set price. There are 9000 tobacco farms which is the most important crop of the island, not sugar which makes rum. Since Fidel Castro was always seen smoking, he made the cigar the symbol of the revolution. He founded the Cohiba brand which is considered the best brand. Cigars are hand rolled and the factories have strict product quality control in place to ensure that every cigar leaving the factory is well made, properly rolled, and does not contain flaws or imperfections. The paper ring around the cigar is called a vitola and is a piece of art to distinguish the brands. Cigars come in 200 sizes and shapes, the bigger the habano the richer the taste and cooler the smoke. The average cigar takes half an hour to smoke. Don't buy them on the street, you won't know what you're getting, could be banana leaves inside. Last year the US lifted the embargo against Americans bringing home Cuban cigars, but you are limited to $100 worth. 

My next post will show more about Havana. Cuba was one of my favorite trips of all time and I can't wait to go back and see more of it!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Wild Horses, Beach, and Glamping Girl's Weekend

Who remembers the episode of the Wonder Years when they take their annual summer fishing trip to the lake? Last weekend my girlfriends and I took a road trip and went glamping. What is glamping you ask? It’s glamorous camping. You can sleep in a real bed, have a/c, indoor plumbing, a fridge and microwave. Yet can still step outside to roast s’mores over the campfire while drinking rose (which we consumed plenty of). We enjoyed gazing at the night’s sky to admire all the stars you can’t see in the city. We fell asleep listening to frogs croaking and woke to the chirping of birds. We got closer to the real outdoors yet had the best of both worlds!

For the last ten years I’ve always wanted to go to Assateague island. Twice I almost went camping but something came up. After this trip, I’m glad I had the more comfortable experience of staying in a cabin. Just 150 miles away is Assateague National Seashore, not far from Ocean City. Your parents probably read the classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry based on the wild horses in Assateague Island.

Assateague Island is a 37-mile long barrier island located on the Maryland -Virginia state line. There are approximately 300 wild horses that live on Assateague. They were brought in by early colonial settlers 400 years ago. Technically they are called ponies as they aren’t tall enough to be classified as a horse. They roam in small herds of 5-10 and eat a very limited and harsh diet of dune grass and drink water from ponds as the sea water is too salty. There are rangers around to keep the horses away from heavily populated areas of the beaches. It’s illegal to feed the horses.

 Assateague consists of both a National Park and a State Park. We visited two beaches on the National Park that did not have life guards, but the facilities included large port a potties, changing stalls and open showers. The National Park charges $20.00 per vehicle per week so keep your receipt.The sand was a pretty light beige color, unlike the red sand beach we went to in Annapolis last year. I collected some pretty white and purple seashells and saw small clams running into their holes in the sand. I saw lots of people surfing in the high tide. Along the drive to the beach we passed people fishing and some oyster farms. The picturesque Assateague Lighthouse is free to visit, but we got a great view of it from our evening cruise.

We stayed in the charming coastal town of Chincoteague which has lots of gift shops, restaurants and tons of hotels. Our drive to Chincoteague was very scenic as we stopped at a winery first then had lunch in the historic small town of Berlin, MD. The movie Runaway Bride starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts was filmed there. The town has art galleries including a glass shop, restaurants, a brewery and an amazing antique store! The drive also passed NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility where you can watch rocket launches from the beach!

The weather was near-perfect while we were there with sunny 90s and the ocean breeze kept most of the mosquitoes away. Although I did get a couple bites at night by the campsite. You know I had to get my mural photo in! lol

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