Today's Iceland is not unlike the Tokyo in Lost in Translation: exceptionally cool without sacrificing that authenticity which made it cool in the first place. The little island in the North Atlantic is covered in sprawling mountains and meadows, where palomino horses run free and the midnight sun shines overhead. Half of the population in Iceland believes in elves. It also happens to be home to Björk, Kit Harington’s hair (while he's filming Game of Thrones), and life-changing hot dogs.
But walking down Laugavegur, in Reykjavík’s knockout shopping district, one thing is abundantly clear: Icelandic women have a specific kind of ethereal beauty. Like, Botticelli-Birth-of-Venus style. Katrín, my glacier guide, was a dead ringer for that glow-y young Kate Moss that's having a never-ending moment under the #tbt section of Instagram—and there was a Katrín or two on every corner. This might have to do with the fact that, according to The Independent, Iceland is the best place to be a woman. They enjoy the greatest measure of gender equality when you take into account politics, education, health, and employment indicators. Which, you know, is probably the secret to perfect skin.
Visa-less, I scouted the city's shops and pharmacies to find a more attainable key to Icelandic beauty. There was one store in particular that caught my eye, thanks to the ruffled sheer chiffon tee in the window—think Comme des Garçons meets Delpozo—and I was lucky enough to meet its designer, Eygló Lárusdóttir of EYGLO , who was working behind the counter that day. A former intern with Jeremy Scott, Eygló is one of nine designers that co-owns Kiosk, Reykjavík's fashion co-op (like a down-to-earth version of Dover Street Market). We got to talking after she caught me admiring one of her cropped and darted sweaters, and I fell in (sartorial) love after she offered to custom make one in my size at no extra cost. After that, I knew Eygló would be keen to reveal the secret to her amazing waist-length hair, and she kindly looped in another Kiosk designer, the similarly ethereal Hilda Gunnarsdóttir of Milla Snorrason (a former Erdem intern), to chat about a typical Icelandic beauty routine.
Thanks to the many active volcanoes and natural steam vents, hot water is free and plentiful in Iceland. Even hordes of tourists can’t keep locals away from Blue Lagoon, the country’s most popular spa, probably because of the wooden crates filled with free mud masks. Then there are the public pools. These are not your average American neighborhood public pools. Inexpensive but luxurious, people frequent them weekly. The country is also crazy for all-natural everything. Most local brands tout their pure, organic products—particularly coconut oil (or kókosolía). Icelandic women really love their coconut oil.
Hilda: "In the morning, I always splash my face lightly with cold water straight after I wake up. I think it's important to not wash away all the natural oils that have built up during the night. I try to use mostly organic products. For the face, I use Lavera New Basis Moisturising Cream With Jojoba & Aloe Vera, or the Weleda Almond Soothing Facial Lotion. Every night, I use the Lavera Cleansing Milk, and I use organic coconut oil to remove mascara. Coconut oil is something I use a lot. I also use it on my body after I shower, instead of an expensive body lotion. There are a lot of nice Icelandic beauty products now. If I want to treat myself I buy the Bioeffect EGF Serum. I also have a bottle of Sóley Organics Lóa Krem hand lotion in my studio. It has an amazing birch scent. The Blue Lagoon products are great, of course, especially their Silica Mud Mask. I also take Lysi everyday, which is the Icelandic cod liver oil. This is very important for healthy skin and hair."
Eygló: "I think the most important thing is to keep my skin well moisturized. I feel more comfortable when I have less makeup on, actually. We’ve had quite a few cosmetic brands popping up in Iceland over the last couple of years. First, I want to mention Sóley Organics GLÓey Purifying Exfoliator. It’s almost like my name! They also have a day cream called eyGLÓ. The exfoliator has wild Icelandic herbs and peppermint in it—no preservatives, parabens, or other weird things—and is good at getting dead skin off your face. Bioeffect makes really good daytime cream. I haven’t been using too many active creams on my face, but it’s good occasionally. I’m over 30 now, so I’ll probably be using more of those soon. I've never been a fan of body lotions, but if I feel like moisturizing my body, I just use a little bit of cold-pressed coconut oil. For a mask, I would recommend using the Blue Lagoon Algae Mask. It makes your skin feel super-duper soft after each use."
Thick, waist-length hair in perfect waves is everywhere (and I mean, everywhere) in Iceland. There is a subset of Icelanders that likes to dye theirs Khaleesi platinum, but many prefer hair that captures the spirit of the island’s untrammeled nature. Sadly, the secret seems to be something in the water, or, again, the coconut oil.
Eygló: "Occasionally, I put cold-pressed coconut oil on the tips of my hair. I also like Moroccan oil for hair, and skin too, but the coconut oil is just much cheaper. I don’t have any particular hair thing going on, except for the oils."
Hilda: "I use coconut oil as a hair mask. About twice a month, I cover my hair in oil and sleep with it in. It sure ain’t sexy, but it works wonders. My hair routine is pretty low maintenance, and I even cut it myself. I have a simple haircut—straight bangs, long hair—and I don't dye it. I use any type of shampoo, but I always use quality conditioner. Usually Aveda Scalp Benefits Balancing Conditioner, but if I'm abroad, I try to find Kiehl's Superbly Smoothing Argan Conditioner. I always let my hair air dry, and I don't flat iron it. I use The Body Shop Coconut Oil Hair Shine for flyaways and a bit of shine, and Aveda Pure Abundance Volumizing Hair Spray if I want volume. I don't know if Icelanders have better hair than others, but if they do, I think they'd say it's the cod liver oil. Most of us are brought up taking it every day. Also, I do think we drink a lot of water since the tap water is so clean here."
In Reykjavík, where two-thirds of Iceland's population lives, the weather is mild and often misty—not right for a heavy face. Icelanders tend to sport a clean look. The pharmacies mainly stock BB and CC creams—which is to say, traditional foundation can be hard to find. It seems that a common goal is to look like you’ve just finished hiking a waterfall, or that you live on a small ranch in the mountains where you roam misty fields amongst wild horses. There is one product, though, that you’ll find in every Icelander’s bag: a good balm, to protect your lips from the biting Arctic winds.
Eygló: "I don’t spend a lot of time doing my makeup. Usually I just put on a little mascara and that’s it before work. Then, of course, when I go out, I add a little more. I use this Kanebo powder—I don’t even know what it’s called [laughs], and a bright-colored lipstick. I feel better with very little makeup on; otherwise I don’t feel like myself. We have girls that use too much makeup and almost-no-makeup girls like me, just like anywhere else. The number one thing for me is to keep my skin in balance."
Hilda: "For everyday makeup, I use the bareMinerals Original Foundation Powder in Fair, since my skin is so white, but I use very little. I have freckles and don't want to cover them. Then I use Bobbi Brown blush, a tiny bit of brown eye pencil smudged on my eyelids, a bit of light brown eyeliner, and sometimes Lancôme Mascara. I prefer a natural look, so very often now I skip the mascara. I think the product I am most attached to is the Villimey Lip Charm Balm, which includes wild Icelandic herbs. I'm a lip balm junkie, and this is the best one I've ever tried. If I want a bit of color I use the tinted Elizabeth Arden Cream Lip Protectant with SPF 15 in Plum, or a bit of Aveda Nourish-Mint Lip Liner and lip balm over it. I also like MAC lipstick, like Plumful or Craving. If I'm going out I do the same, but sometimes add a bit of mascara and black eyeliner, maybe do a cat eye. If I'm in the mood for a strong red lip, I use MAC in Brave Red or Chanel Lipstick in New York Red [ed note: discontinued]."
On city tours and when chatting with locals in cafés, nine out of 10 Icelanders told me that the best thing about Reykjavík is its proximity to the wilds. Water surrounds you on every side, and mountains lie in easy distance. The city itself is filled with green space—horse rides and bike races in the parks are common—and real fields and tundra are a short drive away. Then there’s the diet. Organic tea, particularly when made with wild herbs like Icelandic moss and birch leaves, is a staple drink (Hilda makes her own), and fish is their staple food—not to mention those cod liver oil supplements. All water in Iceland is not only drinkable, but clear and delicious. Perhaps the answer is as simple as leading a healthy, active life in a city with decent infrastructure—at least when it comes to the water supply. Or maybe it's the elf magic.
Monica Kim is a travel writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler.