Self Care as Health Care: Three Local Beauty Experts Weigh In

A local hair stylist, esthetician, and spray tan expert share how skin and hair care can help battle illness and build up body image in vulnerable times.

By Allison Jones June 29, 2015

Around the city, every day, salons, spas, yoga teachers, and massage therapists are given the gift of trust from clients going through cancer treatments, battling chronic pain, or fighting tough illnesses that require a gentle hand—and, often, a body image boost. Here, three inspiring Portlanders share how self care like getting facials, a fresh style, a spray tan, or indulging in great products can help people feel better when they are fighting an illness, and offer tips to local beauty pros who want to serve these sentitive and strong populations will heart and healing.

The Empathic Skin Care Pro

Sherry Okamura Leonard, licensed empathic esthetician, salon director of Urbaca Salon, and creator of primarily organic beauty line Okamura Farmacopia, is passionate about supporting people with sensitive and compromised immune systems—as well as anyone with a skincare challenge.

"Before I started Okamura Farmacopia I trained and volunteered with a national not-for-profit organization working primarily with women with cancer.  As part of their program we were obligated to use donated beauty products chock full of chemicals, artificial fragrance and harmful preservatives. It was such a disconnect to try to provide supportive healing energy while using parabens on a woman with breast cancer, or even just a strong chemical fragrance on someone going through chemo. My own mother-in-law was battling cancer for the 5th time and I wanted to help her with something more organic, yet still effective.

Sherry Okamura at work

Relaxation is key both in sickness and in health. Stress weakens the immune system and self care—including massage and facials—can reduce stress and help boost our body's healing process. The moments where you feel like a person, not a patient, are crucial and can be few and far between when battling illness. The hands of a skilled holistic practitioner (with a doctor's approval, of course) can promote wellbeing on a different level than the traditional medical system.

Skin care during cancer treatment is a huge challenge, because skin becomes very dry and sensitized from chemo, people are sometimes burned from radiation, and there may be scar tissue from surgery. And that's just the physical manifestation, there are emotional challenges as well—fear, anger, grief. This is where aromatherapy comes into play, our sense of smell is closest linked with memory. Aromatherapy is one of the keystones behind Okamura Farmacopia, not all products have it, in deference to people sensitized to smell during treatment. But the products that do, the aromatherapy sprays, beard and anointing oils, washes and conditioners have essential oils intended to bolster comfort, balance, peace.

Some of the most effective treatments I ever gave was to a women dying of cancer. At the end of what turned out to be her last facial she started to cry and said that the way I held her head made her feel like her mother was cradling her again.  It seemed to give her tremendous peace."

Sherry's advice for Portland practitioners: "The best we can do is pattern self-acceptance and compassionate honesty, and help set people on track with firm education and hope for the future. We can't do the work for clients, but any technician worth their salt—from stylist to nails, skin to other holistic mediums—wants people to feel good about themselves and can be an invaluable resource when it comes to seeking additional self care. It's unfortunate that people generally have to seek out their own self care when facing a serious illness. For many people, this is their first time doing so. Other than word of mouth and online reviews, it's really hard to pick a modality, let alone a practitioner. Wouldn't it be helpful if oncologists gave referrals to this massage therapist, that skin care specialist, or this acupuncturist? This is where an organization like the Holistic Chamber of Commerce comes in handy, it's a world-wide organization of holistic practitioners who have been vetted by HCC's governing body. If you are looking for a complimentary holistic approach to self care, it's a great place to start!"

The Hair Care Guru—and Survivor

Two-time breast cancer survivor Lowry Beall just opened Nightbird, a chic boutique salon and apothecary, on an up-and-coming stretch of NE Broadway. Here, she shares how battling cancer in her twenties changed the way she thinks about chemicals in the products she uses at home and at her salon.

"There is no better time to focus on yourself than during a serious illness, whether it's with a fresh haircut or a complete makeover. Before my cancer treatment where I went totally bald, I gave myself a pretty badass mohawk. It empowered me and made me feel more in control of a situation that often felt totally out of my control. Along with adjusting personal diet and exercise, it's also a great time to invest in healthy beauty products and research what is actually going on your skin and into your body, by finding out where and how your beauty products were created so you can fine tune and tweak your beauty regimen.

During my own treatment I began slowly weeding out beauty products that I discovered were potentially harmful to my health. Our skin is our largest organ and it absorbs every beauty product that goes on our bodies—which is why it's wonderful that there are so many incredible natural, chemical free skin and hair beauty products available now. At the salon we try to steer clear of parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, phthalates, and GMOs. Most of our products are small batch, artisanal beauty brands—and I'm constantly on the hunt for and inspired by new independent beauty brands."

Lowry's advice for Portland practitioners: "Those of us working in the beauty industry are here to give our clients a relaxing, confidence-boosting treatment—and also provide the tools necessary to recreate the same experience at home. We all struggle with our own individual health challenges and body image issues. It's so important to be kind to ourselves and nurture our bodies as well as our spirits. Most of us are constantly busy, running around thinking a million thoughts at once. It's hard to find balance. Embracing 'slow beauty' is what I try to subscribe to and encourage my clients to do the same. Whether that's enjoying a luxurious bath with essential oils, giving your hair a deep conditioning mask or receiving a spa treatment, it's all about taking the time to treat your body with love."

The Spray Tan Crusader

Shannon Milligan, co-owner of the Pearl District's new Echo Natural Beauty and owner of NW Portland's Fraiche Skincare—which uses an organic, vegan DHA solution naturally derived from sugar beets to offer custom spray tans—believes that anything that serves as a natural, quick pick me up is beneficial to those who are battling an illness.

"An airbrush tan or a self tanner can can go a long way to bring confidence and a little bit of glow—it can make someone's week a little more tolerable, and when they feel their outer appearance is improved their energy often increases. I have seen several clients who have had skin cancer and will not spend time in the sun or indoor tanning beds, so I definitely feel I am making a difference with the services I provide—lessening the true sun exposure for my clients. Younger clients are coming in for a spray tan and saying they have heard how important it is to stay out of the sun, and older clients were previous sun worshippers and have the skin damage to show for it want to continue having a bronzed look and enjoy the safer alternatives available.

I like to educate my clients on limiting sun exposure, always wearing sunscreen, and getting spray tans instead of sunbathing. What's more, I am an avid label reader. I enjoy learning more about cosmetic chemistry and clean ingredients, and I am really excited about the trend in the beauty industry toward cleaner ingredients and I see it spreading to the mainstream brands and stores as well. 

Shannon's advice for Portland practitioners: "We can really help through education. We can talk with and educate our clients, who in turn talk with others. As beauty professionals, we also have a responsibility to stay informed on different health issues and how to work with clients who may be experiencing an illness. And for everyone, I think it is important to find healthier alternatives to daily routines that are fulfilling to one's life. If a tan makes one feel good during any season, then a spray tan is a great healthy way to maintain that feeling."
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