Do You Have A Duty-Free Problem?


By necessity, I’m a judicious shopper. If something cannot fit in my 4x6 coffin-like closet, or, will become lost in my cosmetic desk drawer, I will not purchase it. As a result, my wardrobe is nicely streamlined. My beauty products are largely essentials. My willpower is something to behold. That is, until, I find myself with a long layover—after an even longer flight—in a duty-free shop.

When it comes to duty-free placement, airport architects are up there with Dutch urban planners—utter geniuses. Bleary-eyed with my carry-on in tow, fresh from contortionist sleep, stepping into Duty-Free feels like suddenly stumbling upon heaven on earth. There’s Bobbi Brown! Guerlain! Dior! All beckoning me so they can soothe, if not fix, the kink in my neck, the dark circles under my eyes. Willingly, I let them try. And by let them, I mean spend an unreasonable amount of money on them.

Some of my purchases are justifiable. Like when Shu Uemura stopped selling their eyelash curler in the US for a brief while. Others, like a cleansing oil (made me break out) or a deep sea mist (nice but unnecessary) I picked up in Narita, I could have done without.

I attribute my weakened discipline and poor decision-making to the delirium that sets in after stumbling off a 5-plus hour flight. Also, to terrifyingly low humidity. There’s nothing like flying in the pressurized cabin, reemerging on solid ground, and glancing in a mirror to realize you’ve never needed—really, truly, emphatically needed—beauty products more in your entire life until that very moment. The flaky, parched skin and tired, raccoon eyes. Not to mention those tricky time zones. Waking up at 5am, flying for 10 hours, only to land in a place where it’s barely noon, is enough for me to suspend the belief that reality even exists and that my decisions are of consequence.

What is it about is a duty-free purchase so damn satisfying? Is it because—though not cheaper—it is tax-free? Or maybe it’s that other mind boggler, currency conversion? Could it be atonement for trying virtually every product in sight? Any and all answers welcome below.

—Alexis Cheung

Illustration by Beth Zimmerman.