By the time Padma Lakshmi swings by the Byrdie studio to film a series of videos about her beauty routine (and new MAC makeup collection), I already have a feeling she might have some wise skincare tricks up her sleeve. Despite her demanding career as a model, activist, author, and Top Chef host, the 48-year-old’s complexion is about 4000 times tighter and more luminous than that of anyone I’ve ever met (you know, just to make a rough estimate). After our video shoot, a 30-minute conversation between Lakshmi and me reveals that the quality of her skin, hair, and health overall is no accident. Over the last four decades, the TV personality has become a veritable connoisseur of holistic skincare and wellness remedies, making use of plant-derived and essential oils to treat everything from belly bloat to a depleted mood.
“I love essential oils,” she tells me breathlessly, as if she were talking about a lifelong love. “I use the principles of aromatherapy in my life daily.”
Many of Lakshmi’s favorite holistic recipes and rituals were inspired by growing up with her family in India: “A lot of the traditional Indian rituals around wellness or beauty have to do with herbs, plants, and oils,” she says, recalling memories of her grandmother making her own kajal eyeliner out of plants or burning sembrani root and using the sweet-smelling smoke to dry and perfume locks of Lakshmi’s hair. She remembers traditional brides being rubbed with turmeric paste the night before their wedding so their skin would glow.
During her childhood in India, beauty traditions were built into the very structure of Lakshmi’s family life. “Once a week, we all sat down—my grandmother, my mom, my aunt, me, little babies—and would always have braiding lines. They would go shortest to tallest, and we’d all sit single-file and oil the hair of the person in front of us,” she recollects. “It was always on a weekend, and you’d see all us kids hanging out in our tank tops and underwear.”
Lakshmi and her many cousins all grew up together in a small house with only two bathrooms, so the family’s weekly group beauty sessions were motivated more by expedience than anything. “You got oiled at the same time, bathed at the same time, scrubbed withshika [a nourishing Indian root] at the same time. … It was just easier to hose down all the kids at once,” Laksmi says with a laugh. “It was a nice way to be introduced to grooming. It’s a nice bonding ritual between women and a way to pass down these traditions while still passing quality time with multiple generations in a family.”
In the years since, Lakshmi has become holistic beauty guru in her own right, learning to craft a variety of custom essential oil blends. It makes sense when you consider her background in food.
“Making a custom blend is like any other kind of recipe,” she says, explaining that, like concocting the perfect sauce or marinade, the key to a great oil blend is, first, to know your ingredients, and second, to achieve the right balance of components. “You don’t want to have too many essential oils in one remedy, because sometimes they contradict each other, or it’s just too much,” she says. “It’s like when you put too many ingredients in one dish, it doesn’t work. Same goes for these topical remedies. You don’t want to mix more than maybe five essential oils in one formula.”
To our good fortune, Lakshmi was more than willing to share a few of her favorite essential-oil blends and other alternative beauty secrets. Read on to find out how to de-bloat, re-hydrate your hair, and elevate your mood in no time, all thanks to the power of a few simple plant-based ingredients.
1. Use jojoba oil as a nourishing overnight hair mask.
“Any Indian woman would tell you that most Indians oil their hair once a week,” says Lakshmi. “It’s why we have such strong hair, I think. That, and the diet we eat with curry leaves and other things. Jojoba oil is fairly inexpensive to buy; you can get a three- or four-ounce bottle for under $10 at Whole Foods. You only need about a quarter-cup to do your whole head of hair. So I just stick that in the microwave for 20 seconds, and then I massage it into my scalp to condition it, and I pull it all the way to the ends. Then I French-braid my hair or just braid it really tight, and I sleep with a towel on my pillow and really let it soak in.”
2. Or, add to a hot bath to hydrate the skin.
“What I like about jojoba oil is that it’s not too rich, and you can use it on your body, as well. It’s very close to the molecular structure of human sebum; it’s just a lighter oil. Like, almond oil will make you break out sometimes. So jojoba oil just a good thing to have in the house in general,” Lakshmi says.
“I also add it to a hot bath. It’s a very common practice for Indians to take oil baths once a week. I love a very hot shower or very hot bath, but it’s also really bad for your skin to take such a hot bath like that, so adding the oil into the bathwater with some essential oils is really helpful.”
3. To de-bloat ASAP, all you need are juniper, grapefruit, and black pepper oils.
“When I was going on the red carpet the other week for the Vanity Fair party, my dress was very see-through, so you could see everything,” says Lakshmi, “and yes, I went to the gym and tried to eat well, but because I have hormones that fluctuate due to endometriosis and other things, you do bloat. You get off a plane and you bloat; you get your period and you bloat. In my case, I was doing both those things. So I make a topical diuretic with jojoba oil as a base. Then I add to it two or three essential oils that will help your body detox and expel unwanted water.
“Take two ounces of jojoba oil. I like an essential oil brand called Desert Essence, especially because it has a plastic bottle, so if you’re keeping it in your bath or shower, it won’t shatter, because using oil your hands get slippery. So I buy a four-ounce bottle of Desert Essence jojoba oil, take out about a teaspoon so it’s not super full, then put directly into the bottle: 40 drops of juniper oil, 30 drops of grapefruit oil, 20 drops of black pepper oil (or ginger or clove oil, if you can’t find black pepper, though those two are really hot, so if you’re using them, you probably only want to use 12 or 15 drops versus the 20). Those three things are used because they increase circulation and they help your metabolism; they help you expel water and other toxins. Then if you want something just to smell good you can add 20 drops of geranium, because geranium is really good for the skin.
“So I would put all those drops in the same container of oil and then just shake it up. And if you go to get a massage, you can give it to your massage therapist, because it’s even more effective than just rubbing it all over you. The only thing I would caution is to try a small patch test on the inside of your arm or thigh and wait to see, because this is a very serious potent remedy. You’re going to feel the difference. In fact, I’ve had the same couple of massage therapists for years, and they always want to know what’s in it too because your massage therapist will also detox because they are working with this oil. So make sure you drink a lot of water because you might feel like you’re dehydrated or like you have a hangover or headache the next day. You can also make a less potent formula by mixing that recipe in six ounces of jojoba oil instead of the four that I’m suggesting. Just as a disclaimer so this thing doesn’t give any of you hives or something.“
4. Add citronella oil to your anti-bloat blend to make it double as a bug repellent.
“You can do a mosquito repellent in the summer. I do one that’s actually a topical diuretic and a mosquito repellent if I’m going to be in a bathing suit. I’ve made this for different girlfriends who maybe are going on a swim shoot or lingerie shoot or going on vacation. It’s actually almost the same recipe as the diuretic from before, except you would up the geranium to 25 drops and take down some of the black pepper or ginger by five drops, and then add to that five drops of citronella oil and a few drops of lemongrass, which are great for repelling insects and mosquitos,” says Lakshmi.
5. Geranium oil is the secret to smelling amazing (and to a boosted mood).
“For mood elevation—and it’s not the same as taking Prozac or going to a therapist—neroli from the bitter orange plant, which is quite expensive, is my favorite, favorite, favorite essential oil, mostly because of how it smells. It is the number one ingredient in my personal perfume. I make my own perfume with essential oils because I am allergic to most store-bought perfumes because of the aldehydes, and they’re so strong,” says Lakshmi. “I carry my own perfume I make with essential oils, and neroli is always the number one ingredient, but it is also a mood elevator.”
We don't know about you, but if these essential oil tips can give us skin, hair, and an overall state of being that's anything like Padma Lakshmi's, we have every intention of trying them out ASAP.