May 25, 2014

An Inside Look at My Wish List

It's a holiday weekend so I'm taking things easy. Tonight, I browsed my ever-growing Amazon Wish List to see if I still want everything on it and add a few things. If you're curious, here are some things on my lists, most of which I'll never buy, but I love to make lists of interesting products.

Skincare and Cosmetics
EltaMD Facial Cleanser and EltaMD PM Therapy Moisturizer
I absolutely love my EltaMD AM Moisturizer, so much that I want the PM formula and cleanser.

Optimum Care Essential Nutrients for Dry Scalp
I bought a small package of these at Sally once. My scalp felt so much better, but I never get around to ordering more.

Jan Marini Age Intervention Retinol Plus
I'm on the hunt for a retinol product to try and this is a good company with a solid product. I'll order it eventually, hopefully sooner than later.

Sewing and Crafts
Couture Sewing Techniques
I browsed this at Barnes and Noble. A great overview of couture techniques.

Dritz Tailor's Ham
I just don't have one and could use it.

Clover Silk Pins
I can never have enough good pins when I sew.

Swedish Tracing Paper
I love the size of this paper. It's strong but transparent enough for pattern tracing.

For Miss P
Zutano Girls Sunfish Top
I love this girlie top that isn't too commercial or branded with cartoons. Perfect for school, which doesn't permit the cartoon images in Children's House.

Richie House Pants
Miss P hates jeans and it's hard to find a good summer alternative. These look perfect so I'll probably order them soon. The weather is getting very warm finally!

Flynn the Fire Engine
It's a Thomas toy. She'd love anything Thomas. We have a ton of trains and tracks and a table and random gear. Thomas overload.

My Little Pony Rainbow Dash Hoodie
I thought this was adorable. Miss P loves My Little Pony and I'm okay with a little cartoon clothing for such a cute hoodie.
2015 UPDATE: This was P's favorite hoodie, worn nearly every day, and many nights. She's now got a stash of favorite hoodies, but this one has survived many washes and wearings and still looks new six months later. Well worth it, in my opinion.

Kitchen Supplies
Block Oil
Needed for our cutting boards.

Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry
I want to step my canning up a notch in the fall.

Granite Ware Canning Kit
I was relying a lot on random items in my kitchen, so this season, I'd like to can a bit more properly.

OXO Good Grips Multi-Purpose Pastry Scraper
I usually use a chef's knife to cut dough but this would be more efficient. It's been on my list for years.

For My Husband
Syma X1 4 Channel RC Quad Copter
He really likes toys. I got him a little helicopter a few years ago and this is kind of an upgrade.

Victorinox Swiss Army Tools
He just wants this. Not a high priority but he likes that it's well reviewed and would be useful to have around.

Guitar Amp
He plays bass and electric guitar and needs a new amp when he's playing in the basement.
2015 UPDATE: I ended up getting this as a Father's Day gift for my husband just a few weeks later. He says it has the features he needed and he can use it with headphones. He can match tones as needed and it works with both his guitar and bass.

May 23, 2014

My Take on SodaStream: Value & Flavor

I can't remember exactly when we made the switch to SodaStream. It had been around a while but I was quite hesitant to try it. I'm picky. I pretty much like Diet Coke. I'll have an occasional regular Coke when I have a migraine and since I live in a Pepsi-dominated restaurant area, I'll suck it up and order Pepsi when out.

My husband had pushed for a while to buy a SodaStream because he's not a huge soda drinker and is more open-minded about flavor. He drinks a lot of plain fizzy water and likes the idea of controlling what goes in the water to avoid sugars and sweeteners sometimes. Buying 12-pack La Croix waters each week is expensive, about $250-260 per year! I was spending about $200 per year on Diet Coke at home. So my husband figured if the cost of the unit, the gas, and the syrup is less than $450 per year, it's a worthwhile investment.

This plan did assume we wouldn't buy any brand name sodas or waters going forward, which isn't our reality. I still pick up a 20oz of soda when I'm out, usually to bring home with a snack and we buy non-fizzy waters like Propel.

For my husband and I, the benefits of SodaStream seem to be:

1. Convenience: This is more my husband's opinion. He likes not having to go to the store for drinks as often. Since I'm already grocery shopping frequently, I wouldn't say it's more convenient. It may be quick, but I don't like the time I spend measuring syrup, filling bottles, pumping to carbonate, adding the syrup, and letting it rest for a bit before drinking. On the other hand, there's no waiting for a bottle to chill. We use cold water right from the fridge. So, the number one benefit here is a bit debatable in our house.

2. More Earth-Friendly: I'm not really sure if I'm saving the Earth. I still generate garbage and probably impact the air negatively, but it does seem better to recycle an occasional syrup bottle compared to the many plastic bottles and cans of Diet Coke I had before SodaStream.

3. Variety: If you are very picky about Coke vs Pepsi, SodaStream may not be for you. I got used to the Diet Cola flavor. The flavor is a bit like Diet Pepsi, but the carbonation level (6 buzzes) reminds me of Diet Coke. If you are okay with generic colas, you'll probably be okay with SodaStream. My husband suggests that the unique choices are great because you can make a little of this or a little of that without opening a big bottle that would go flat if you didn't finish it quickly. You could have orange soda today and peach tea tomorrow without having to buy large bottles or 12-packs all the time.

What about the potential cost savings?
My husband estimates we spend more than $300 per year on SodaStream and while that is less than what we spent on brand name products, he'd call it closer to a wash when you factor in that it hasn't 100% replaced other beverages at home. His feedback is simple. "I wouldn't do it just for saving money. Initial upfront cost takes a long time to recoup."

Here's the breakdown:

CO2 is $180 per year
You are stuck using proprietary CO2 refills, which cost $15 each. We get a refill once a month and my husband said that would be fine if they were $5 or $10 each, but at $15, he feels like he's being gauged on the price. He's heard that there are people who hack the system, but that violates the terms of service and could lead to a lawsuit, so don't do that.

Syrup is $135 per year
How much syrup we use varies, mostly because my husband's desire for fizzy dranks varies. I'm consistent in that I fill a liter every 1.5 days or so, nearly always Diet Cola. The occasional regular cola costs much more than the Diet Cola because the naturals variety are more expensive and produce fewer liters per syrup bottle. Based on my drinking habits, I'm averaging 20 Diet Cola syrups a year. My husband has been working through samples forever, so he believes he's using three syrups per year plus a couple of the larger colas.

Initial Investment was $80
We are on our second SodaStream. We switched to the now discontinued Fizz model so we could better tell when the fizz was getting low. It was a flawed system that SodaStream no longer sells. It fizzes fine. It's the sensor that wasn't so good. If you find a deal or rebate, you can get a SodaStream system for under $100.

Here's some more info on SodaStream:

  • The SodaStream Diet Cola is sweetened with a blend that includes Splenda®. I like Diet Coke, which is sweetened with aspartame, hence the very different taste.
  • Each bottle of syrup (not including naturally sweetened varieties) makes 12 liters of soda.
  • Naturally Sweetened Cola makes half as much soda (6 liters) and costs twice as much. It tastes pretty good though. I'm a fan of the flavor. I just don't like drinking a lot of sugary drinks.
Making a Bottle of SodaStream Diet Cola
Below is a photo series showing how I make a bottle of SodaStream Diet Cola. I included a short video of the buzzing process so you can get a sense for how loud that is. I don't make soda when anyone is still sleeping in the morning or right at my daughter's bedtime because it's pretty loud.

First, I fill a bottle with water to the fill line. I usually add a couple ice cubes to make sure it's extra cold or I have to chill the bottle for a while. The fridge water dispenser isn't as cold as I like my drinks to be. The ice method works well.

SodaStream bottle filled with water
Next, I put the bottle in the SodaStream machine. This requires two hands. It's a bit awkward but I have seen improvements in newer designs. I think the company continues to work on making this process easier. I buzz 6 times to make it fizzy. That's usually 10-12 presses. You basically press to dispense air until it buzzes and count the buzzes until it's how you like it. Six is good for colas.

Inserting SodaStream bottle into machine
I pour a capful of Diet Cola syrup. It's very hard to see the fill line. I wish this was easier to see when I'm pouring. A little too much tastes too sweet and too little tastes sour. It has to be just right.

SodaStream Diet Cola syrup
I then pour the syrup into the bottle gently, turn it up and down a bit to mix and pop it in the fridge for a few minutes. You have to be kind of quick here, but it's easy to get the hang of it after a couple of tries.

Mixed SodaStream Diet Cola
And then, here's my poured soda, ironically (not sure if that's the correct use of this word), in a Coca-Cola glass.

A fresh glass of SodaStream Diet Cola
If you are curious, here's a video of the buzzing process:


Do you have a SodaStream system? If so, which version did you buy and what are your favorite syrup flavors?

May 20, 2014

InstaNatural Organic Oils for Hair, Nails, and Skin

Disclosure: I got this product as part of an advertorial.

When I signed on to review one of InstaNatural's products for hair, nails, and skin, the company was super nice and sent three products to try: an argan oil, rosehip seed oil, and a Vitamin C serum. I'm familiar with argan oil and serums, but rosehip seed oil was totally new to me.

For review purposes, I stopped using my preferred Vitamin C serum for a few weeks and solely relied on what InstaNatural sent me. I did try other argan oil products during the last couple weeks, but not at the same time I used InstaNatural. My husband admitted to borrowing the rosehip seed oil this week, so I'll share his thoughts on that product too.

InstaNatural Serum and Oil Products
100% Pure Certified Organic Argan Oil
InstaNatural emphasizes the benefits of using their pure argan oil, which is chemical and preservative free. This is a product the company suggests for skin and hair, using it as a moisturizer, anti-inflammatory, complexion enhancer, and nail strengthener. There's a list of suggested uses on the InstaNatural website that also includes protecting hair while styling, softening the skin on hands and feet, and helping with premature aging. I'm not a huge believer in a good one-size-fits-all product, so while I tried it for skin and nails, would choose to just use it for hair ongoing.

What is Argan Oil?
I've reviewed other argan oil products but I've never shared anything that explains what argan oil actually is. I knew it came from a tree or tree nut, but never did much homework on the source until I decided to write this post.

Argan oil is an emollient source of Vitamin E, great for very dry hair or skin. It's non-fragrant (that doesn't mean it's odorless) and comes from the kernels of the argan tree in Morocco. According to the Paula's Choice ingredient encyclopedia, for skin, argan oil is good, but not better tha many other non-fragrant plant oils in cosmetics. I don't have the inside knowledge on its use for hair, but my stylist promotes its use for dry, frizzy hair and I trust her judgement.

My Experience
InstaNatural's 100% pure argan oil was more effective at taming my hair than the other argan oil I tried during the last few weeks (read that argan oil review here). To me, it's about the same as Moroccan Oil, which has other ingredients, some of which I'm unfamiliar with. My only dislike with InstaNatural is the lack of fragrance. Even a simple natural added fragrance would be better than the natural odor of the argan oil, which is kind of unpleasant.

100% Pure Organic Rosehip Seed Oil
InstaNatural promotes the benefits being a way to reduce skin damage and dryness, cell regeneration, diminishing the appearance of marks and scars, and to soften and increase the shine of hair.

What is Rosehip Seed Oil?
I had to Google to find out what rosehip oil is used for. It's extracted from the seeds of rose bushes in the Andes, South Africa, and Europe, according to Wikipedia. It's generally considered to be a good emollient oil. InstaNatural mentions Vitamin A on their website, so it's a good antioxident and emollient but it's not retinol and would not be a direct substitution for Retin-A.

My Experience
I didn't have much reason to try the rosehip seed oil but I have a visible scar from a port used during chemo, so I tried it on that. Like a lot of scar-reducing products, I'm betting it takes months to notice a difference, rather than weeks, so I'll keep using it a few times a week to see if I notice a difference. I also tried it for a couple nights after yard work left my hands cracked and painful. It was a bit greasy but didn't burn like a regular lotion would on cracked and bleeding skin.

Below you can see my dry hand on the left and after applying some oil on the right. No, my hand wasn't that red after - bad lighting in my bathroom.


My husband used the InstaNatural rosehip seed oil for both a recent scar from a cut requiring an ER visit and on his cracked hands after a hard day working on a landscaping project. He said, "it's fine. It's stinking and oily, but that's expected." He assured me the oil absorbed quickly but he has been adding a spray lotion after using the rosehip oil because he really didn't like the rosehip oil smell. He isn't sure if the rosehip oil is helping but feels like the scar is healing well.

Vitamin C Serum
I use a vitamin C serum almost nightly and for a few weeks, substituted my usual serum for the one from InstaNatural. InstaNatural's serum includes good choices for preservatives that are not known to be irritating and comes in a dark bottle to minimize light exposure on the vitamin ingredients. That said, I'd rather have seen a serum in a pump bottle rather than a dropper since each time I open the bottle, I'm exposing the content to air. Vitamin C isn't easy to keep stable and effective when exposed to the air.

What is Vitamin C Serum?
Vitamin C serums include a potent antioxident which can reduce the appearance of discoloration and help with signs of aging. It's good for collagen production, which is probably why my skin feels tighter. The main thing to know is whatever you choose, your Vitamin C product should be packaged in a way that minimizes exposure to light and air. That's important for product stability.

My Experience
I like what Vitamin C does for how my skin feels. I feel like my skin is tighter and more firm. Truthfully, it could all be in my head as no one has ever said, "Sam, your skin is so tight and firm," hehe, but I'm okay with that. I'd say InstaNatural worked as well as what I'm used to, but I wasn't a fan of the dropper, which was kind of drippy, which then wastes product.

Overall Experience
Overall, I'm struggling with the smell. I want to smell good. I don't wear a lot of perfumes or strong scents, but I don't want to smell like a tree nut either. It's just unpleasant. So, no, I probably wouldn't go buy InstaNatural's argan or rosehip oils, but there's a chance I would consider a switch to the Vitamin C serum if the dropper could be fixed or the product dispensed in a pump.

See below how the product drips out? This happened with all three products. I'm not squeezing the dropper. It just drip, drip, drips and therefore, is messy and wastes product. If it were one bottle with this problem, I'd assume it was just a manufacturing error, but with all three, it's hard not to assume this is a persistent issue.

One other thing I do wish for was that the company was more open and forthcoming about who they are. They have a website but it offers limited information on who founded the company, who works there, or just general details beyond the products themselves. I like to know about companies I'm buying from, especially when I'm looking for products that have strong claims like cosmetics and skincare companies often do.

Related Posts:

I received one or more of the products mentioned above for free using Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

May 19, 2014

So Many Oil Brands! Trying HSI Professional Argan Oil

Disclosure: I got this product as part of an review opportunity. 

I have crazy frizzy, wavy, thick, obnoxious hair. Thanks to generous use of hair products and a flat iron, I don't normally look like my hair is nuts, but it really is.

Remember this before picture from an earlier post?

That's what I look like after air drying. It's much worse blown dry. I try round brushing but round brushing ones own hair is tricky. I simply don't have enough arms.

My hair is so frizzy that I'm always trying new products to tame the madness. My stylist swears by Aveda's Smooth Infusion product line and Moroccan Oil, but I still struggle to get those fabulous salon results at home.

HSI Professional sent me a sample of their Argan Oil Leave-In Hair Treatment. As a leader in heat styling products, I had high expectations of their oil leave-in treatment. I tried first on damp hair and then on dry hair. I tried styling flat and leaving frizzy. The flat iron seemed to help set in the smoothness, but I can't say my hair looked any better than with other argan oil products I've tried.

One particularly frizzy day, I decided to make myself a relaxing spa bath at home. While soaking, I dampened my hair and added nearly half the bottle (approx 1oz) to my hair and let it sit with a hair cap on in the steamy bathroom for about 30 minutes. I then washed and dried as usual. That did the trick. My hair was smoother, shinier, and softer.

See below, just air dried with no added product.

I can't say it would be worth it for me to spend that kind of money to dump half a bottle in my hair once or twice a month, but it's tempting. The overall softness lasted about a week before it was back to the usually craziness. The thing is, while I could do this at home, my salon stylist would be happy to do a conditioning treatment with similar results when I come in for my hair cuts every other month. It would be hard to justify buying the HSI oil just for this.

I can't speak for everyone, so take this as my opinion. You might find HSI's argan oil treatment works really well with just a few drops. Everyone's hair is different.

HSI recommends using their argan oil as thermal protection with heat styling tools. It's not too greasy, doesn't build up residue, and is suitable for all hair types.

For more information about HSI, check out the HSI Facebook page.

 I received a sample of HSI argan oil for free using Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

May 12, 2014

eSalon: August 2013 Review

Want to try eSalon? Let me refer you and get $10 off your first order. Subscribe to their service and your first order is just $9.95 plus shipping!

Disclosure: I switched the order of two eSalon posts because the old one keeps coming up in search results when I'd prefer my readers find the new post first.

Since August 2013, my opinion of eSalon has drastically changed. I've had the pleasure of touring their facility and having a personal color consultation and application at their headquarters in Culver City, CA, and their team has gone above and beyond to help my parents and my sister each customize a color to try. While I'd prefer you read the newest post which features my trip and color experience, I will continue to host the old post below.

Below is my original review of eSalon from August 2013:
After seeing ads online for a while, I decided to try eSalon. The appeal of customized color drew me in, and a deal to pay just the shipping charges convinced me to see how it works.

eSalon begins by asking questions about hair length and texture, and coloring habits. I shared my natural color, my current color, and my desired color. Based on eSalon's images, I picked 5.1 Medium Ash Brown and included a note explaining that I want to counteract the brassy red tones in my hair and get a cooler color. I also shared my stylist's feedback on what level my hair color currently is. 

This is what I uploaded to eSalon
A short time later, I received my hair color kit, which included 6.0 Light Brown (note -> the eSalon coloring advisors must have changed it based on my photos). I had no problem with the switch to light, appreciating their help as choosing a color online is tricky. However, the switch from an ash tone to a neutral was unexpected. I decided that perhaps eSalon's ash tones are meant for graying hair and the neutral would be a better fit, and went forward with the coloring process.

The eSalon kit feels overpackaged. It's attractive, yes. But it feels a bit wasteful. I'm not entirely sure how to improve this without risking product damage, but just simple changes like packaging the two sets of gloves together or omitting the extra box that holds the accessories might help. 

Unfortunately, all that packaging didn't stop the developer bottle from leaking during shipping. It wasn't too much of a leak but I took out all the pieces before I found the gloves and got some on my hands. It's hard to see, but the shiny area on the bottle below is leaked product.

I brushed out and sectioned my hair, then applied the stain guard stuff to my hairline (it's basically Vaseline). Unfortunately, since I didn't think to read all the way to the end of the instructions first (my bad), I didn't realize I was sent a kit for root touch up. There was absolutely nothing in the instructions about coloring all my hair!

This was a WTH moment. I was coloring my hair to tone down the brassy rust color and the instructions only have me coloring my neutral brown roots? I worried there wouldn't be enough product! 

I am grateful I was able to spread the color through all my hair, with just a bit left over for the final step - a color rinse.

Color applied to my hair
Thirty minutes later, while in the shower, I mixed a small amount of water with the remaining color and worked it through my hair for two minutes. I've never done this before, but eSalon's instructions suggest this step helps increase the shine. It's a little messy, but easy enough.

What was weird and unpleasant was how my hair felt while rinsing. It felt like I was trying to rinse glue off my head. I had what I'd consider a normal amount of product in my hair while coloring, but after getting it really wet, it was just, well, weird. I had a moment of panic because it felt like my hair had dissolved into mush. LOL

It took using the provided color safe shampoo and conditioner to get my hair more normal feeling. My hair felt dried out so I used some leave-in conditioner and let it air dry.

So, the color? It's fine. It's slightly darker than what it was before and still very red-brown (not what I wanted) but I believe the bottle gave me pretty much what the neutral light brown looked like on the eSalon website. It was my choice not to return the neutral or contact them when I got it, so I can't blame eSalon for the color on my head. I am annoyed I didn't get ash in the first place and that I was sent a touch-up kit and not a full head application (or the instructions were wrong?).

eSalon should have contacted me when they changed my color. That would have given me the chance to understand why and ensure the change fits my color goal.

Not much different, eh?
I want to be very clear that the color came out totally even, which is pretty awesome since I had about an inch of root growth. 

For those who haven't used eSalon before, you'll be automatically enrolled in auto-shipping. As soon as your order goes out, you can log in to your account and turn that auto-shipping off. No tricks. That's what I did and all is well. If you forget, you could end up with an unexpected box of color and a credit card charge in 6-8 weeks, however.

I would like to hear from others who have tried eSalon, or those who decide to try it out. Let me know if you get the right product, if their staff make changes to your order, and if they do make changes, do they let you know?

Perhaps I should have done a better job Googling eSalon reviews. Myra, of Musings of a Housewife shows just how odd the communication and color result can be with her eSalon review. Jessica of InTruBeauty had a better experience with eSalon, as well as Kristey of The Zookeeper blog.

I really wanted to find out why I received a non-ash color and a roots kit when I ordered for covering my reddish color with an ash brown, so I wrote to eSalon's customer service team. The response, which doesn't really address either question, is below.
Dear Samantha,
Thank you for filling out our Feedback Questionnaire!
We apologize that your hair color turned out differently than you expected. Just like a salon, we can adjust your custom formulation based on your feedback.
To help our colorists determine the best way to reformulate your order, please send us a current picture of your hair. By seeing your hair, we will be able to better evaluate and make recommendations for your hair color selection. A picture taken outdoors in natural daylight, or in a well-lit room, showing your hair, hairline, and face, would be best.
You can send us the photo by attaching it to your reply email. We look forward to reviewing it and providing personalized recommendations.
The eSalon Team
P.S. To better serve you, we've made it easy to find answers, quickly and efficiently through our website. If you have any questions please follow this link:
Very soon after I emailed eSalon's customer service, I got a phone call. There's nothing I like more than a pleasant, helpful customer service rep calling to personally answer my questions. It's so much more sincere than email. I'm sure there are plenty of people who'd rather keep emailing back and forth, but not me.

Anyhow, I have a very logical explanation for the color I received and the instructions, both of which have to do with my color. eSalon's hair color is highly pigmented, which means I could end up with a color I don't want if I go any darker. However, using a lighter color makes it more likely to have reddish tones. It's a catch-22. What's awesome is the compromise is something I'd not have thought of myself - they're sending me a shampoo that will help tone down the brassiness. I'm very appreciative!

In full disclosure, the rep mentioned eSalon is looking at ways to package the two sets of gloves together as a way to be more kind to the environment. That's a sign of a company that cares about their brand and their customer.

Please visit my May 2014 post about eSalon! It depicts my current feelings about the company and their product. The above, older, post is out of date and no longer reflects my opinion of eSalon.

Want to try eSalon? Let me refer you and get $10 off your first order. Subscribe to their service and your first order is just $9.95 plus shipping!