Students often help their teachers discover interesting things, and thanks to my pupils, a few years ago I learned a great deal about an area of American culture that has been largely neglected by scholars. I noticed that many of my students used hand lotion almost constantly, and when I teased them about it, they informed me that this “practical cosmetic” is immensely popular, and not just with young people. Confucius said that if everyone likes something, it must be examined, and I therefore decided to investigate the appeal of hand lotion.
I know that some people will consider this a lightweight topic, and they probably regard hand lotion as merely another manifestation of our national obsession with self-adornment, but I am convinced that something subtler is also involved in its popularity. Important matters often reveal themselves in small things, and I believe that hand lotion is a quietly eloquent example of the poetry inherent in American life. I therefore ask readers to put aside their skepticism and consider the results of my research into the surprisingly lyrical character of some of these immensely popular emollients.
My first stop was at a local Yuppie Store; I rarely shop in this place, because it is largely filled with overpriced items designed to satisfy the status hunger of socially insecure people. But I was pleased to discover that my cynical views about this shop were at least partially modified by what I found on its cosmetics shelf. Its hand lotions bore lovely floral names, such as Lavender and Freesia, and it was delightful to find a distant echo of pastoral gardens in the aisles of a pretentious boutique.
Alas, my hopes for yuppiedom were soon dashed, for I found a lotion that contained nonfat dry milk (for hands on a diet, I suppose), avocado, and shea butter in its blend. When I asked the clerk if shea butter is what fans of the New York Mets spread on their toast, she stared at me uncomprehendingly and then said, “I don’t have a clue. I’m just here to sell product.” I immediately left the place and headed for the New Age Emporium.
The staff at this establishment is invariably friendly and informative. After smelling an aggressively floral concoction, I asked a sales clerk why it is necessary to so heavily perfume some lotions. “Sir,” she replied, “have you ever smelled an unlotioned hand?” I stood before her, utterly mortified, my offensively lotionless hands hanging at my sides. Later, when no one was looking, I gave one of them a surreptitious sniff, and though it was not stenchful, I confess that it did smell of soap, and unscented soap, at that.
Most of the labels on New Age lotions follow the same pattern: They tell what the product is for and then list its ingredients. For example, people in need of “Relaxing” can cover their hands with a blend of rose, lavender, camomile, and safflower essences – a very attractive combination. For individuals who require “Renewing” (And who doesn’t?), the shop offers a lotion that contains rosemary mixed with oils of spruce and pine – another appealing blend.
I was tempted to try a lotion laced with the essence of Green Tea, a concoction that advertised itself as an “anti-oxidant” that would help to keep hands young. But I finally rejected this emollient, mostly because I think that my hands should age at the same rate as the rest of me; I don’t want to end up in some circus sideshow being gawked at by people who paid a dollar to see “The Old Man With Baby Hands.” Nor was I inclined to follow the clerk’s suggestion and cover my entire body with the stuff. My appearing in a classroom smelling like tea would be an invitaiton for one of my clever students to pelt me with stale crumpets.
My favorite discovery at the New Age Emporium, and a fine example of populist poetry, is something called Star Dust Lotion; I did not care a whit about its ingredients; just holding the bottle in my hand made my aura tingle.
I concluded my investigations by visiting the
Hippie Store, an establishment that still maintains a steadfast loyalty to the social activism of the 1960s. Happily, a former student of mine works there, and she proved a knowledgeable and judicious guide to the store’s many lotions.
I first sampled something called Borage Dry Skin Therapy; the word “therapy” is nearly always a provocation for me, and in this instance it seemed to suggest that my hands needed to deal with their “wrinkle issues.” But this lotion had a lovely aroma, and the word “borage” is somehow conducive to fantasy. I would like an attractive lady to ask me, “My dear sir, do I detect the heady fragrance of borage emanating from your person?”
Another hand lotion proclaimed itself an Intercellular Cleansing Gel; now I’m not happy with the filth that has accumulated between the cells of my hands, even though I hadn’t been aware of the problem until I visited the Hippie Store, and I hope that I haven’t unintentionally offended anyone with my manual impurity. My parents never instructed me in the importance of intercellular hygiene, and I cannot recall my mother ever saying, “You’ll get no dinner tonight unless you wash your hands thoroughly; and we’re having company – so I’ll be checking between your cells.”
My guide allowed me to sample a lotion with the lovely name “Milk and Honey,” and at first I thought that I might purchase some, but then she said, “All the girls who work here use this, and they tell me that it really attracts men.” After reflecting for a moment, I decided that perhaps I needed a different sort of hand lotion.
Some of the lotions had names that are saucily impertinent (Wild Banana and Vanilla), one excited my Inner Coach (Skin Fitness), others had a Woodstock-era tone (Coconut Skin Trip), while some were so exotic (Caribbean Heat) that they immediately filled my head with pleasant daydreams: I imagined myself in the company of a beautiful Oriental woman who tells me, “The scent of your hands is attractively tropical.” I reply, “Yes. You are right. It’s my hand lotion. I bought it at the Hippie Store.”
I actually purchased some hand lotion at the Hippie Store, a delicately fragrant blend called “Chinese Botanical” – a name laden with irresistible implication for an Asian Studies teacher. It contains about twenty ingredients, and all of them have alleged benefits. Here is a sampling: Asparagus for healing – though I do not customarily think of my hands as sick; Wild Ginger for its anti-inflammatory properties; I rarely set fire to my hands, but I now keep a small bottle of wild ginger extract next to the stove; Chrysanthemum for clarifying; while my hands have frequently been dirty, I cannot recall an instance when I thought of them as nebulous, but I intend to examine them carefully on the next cloudy day; Peony Root for its nourishing qualities; I had never before considered the matter, but I cannot remember the last time that I fed my hands; the poor things must be famished.
One ingredient in “Chinese Botanical” deserves special mention – Kudzu Root, which, like asparagus, supposedly helps to heal. I have a suggestion for State Highway Departments: Advertise the “healing qualities” of kudzu root in a few New Age journals, and I predict that very soon this pestiferous weed will be picked clean from our roadways.
While I am amused by our collective preoccupation with hand lotion, I am also charmed by the poetry that sometimes informs these products and by their capacity to nourish the imagination of those who use them. Americans have always been visionaries – our Republic is itself a noble dream – and it is therefore not surprising to find in even the humblest and most unexpected places an affirmation of our love for romance and adventure. Some might scoff at such claims, but I believe that, in its own modest way, hand lotion is another expression of our depthless capacity for wonder, and I am delighted by the several ways that, beneath its cosmetic appeal, it ministers to our national spirit.