What’s the difference between a routine, a regimen, and a ritual? They’re all the same, in essence: a series of steps taken towards a goal. But only one of these often-interchangeably used terms carries with it an element of magic. A ritual implies purpose and intention, focus and reverence. There’s pleasure in a ritual, whereas a routine or a regimen—well, they sound about as much fun as going to work.
That’s why self-care at its most powerful is inherently a ritual: Even if it’s as simple as washing your face or applying a hand cream, it’s a moment when everything else stops. Taking time for yourself is precious (dare we even say sacred?), and the reason why these moments matter most isn’t just that they’re making our faces and bodies prettier and healthier (they’re doing that, too), it’s because they’re also conferring benefits on our minds, our emotions, our actual beings. Beauty rituals help us feel calmer and more centered in the midst of the swirling chaos that is modern life.
“Grooming is primate behavior; it’s hardwired into us to take care of ourselves and each other,” says Elizabeth Trattner, a Miami-based integrative medicine practitioner, Chinese medicine specialist, and acupuncturist. “There are studies with senior citizens showing that when they’re doing self-care rituals, even just combing their hair, they feel happier. There’s a very positive neuro-feedback loop that happens in your body when you’re grooming yourself—you begin to secrete the chemical oxytocin and other neurotransmitters that make you feel better about yourself.”
Self-care at its most powerful is inherently a ritual: Even if it’s as simple as washing your face or applying a hand cream, it’s a moment when everything else stops.
Standing in front of the sink and regarding your reflection while applying a serum or moisturizer can be meditative—that is, if you’re not being critical. “When you’re in the right headspace, beauty rituals can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness and self-soothing,” says LA-based psychologist Jenny Taitz, Psy.D. “Both learning to keep your mind in the moment and comforting yourself rather than nitpicking are nice ways to immediately feel better. For example, if you’re entirely focused on the texture and scent as you apply face cream, you can get some space from your worries and stress. The key is to approach your routine from a place of loving yourself rather than focusing on your perceived imperfections.”
To maximize the holistic halo of your beauty rituals, the key—and perhaps the biggest challenge—is to disconnect from everything else. “I say time and again, get off your phone,” says Trattner. “It’s super fun to go in the bathroom and look at Instagram, I know. But when you’re getting ready for bed, turn off the TV and get off social media and really focus on what you’re doing. Whether you’re washing your face or using a facial roller, it takes you into a zone. And that’s where we’re most intuitive and peaceful.” The pay-off can be immense. “I think that millennials in particular have so much coming at them that they really need to unwind in these little ways,” Trattner continues, “but whether you’re 22 or 42 or 62, these rituals ground you, reduce stress, and induce sleep. It creates more space for what we call yin in Chinese medicine—the quietness that we create by doing these rituals, especially at night.”
The good news is that beauty rituals need not be super elaborate to have benefits. While an indulgently long bath scented with the finest aromatherapy oils known to man or a 20-minute guasha lymphatic drainage massage may be nice, even just brushing your teeth counts. “I notice some of my patients tend to be overly perfectionistic about their rituals while others don’t give themselves any time at all,” says Taitz. “I’m a big proponent of creating balance and finding the middle path.” Ultimately, it’s about quality over quantity, says Trattner. “Just giving yourself a hand rub or a foot rub can help you de-stress, as can simply washing your face with a beautiful product. People enjoy seeing shelfies for a reason: There’s something so pleasant about looking at beautiful products because it takes you to another place.”