I Just Got Back from Stockholm, So Here's My American Assessment of Swedish Beauty Shopping

It's great if you love oils.

Living in NYC, there really isn't a whole lot you can't get in terms of beauty. (Also there's the internet, obviously). But traveling to a different country is always an exciting way to discover new beauty products and brands and basically choose-my-own-adventure in terms of reading directions in a language I vaguely understand.

A jet-setter I am not. I mean, traveling by plane involves putting your face in a giant pressurized tin can catapulting over the Atlantic with literally trillions of bacteria colonies living on the hundred or so human hosts incarcerated with you in said tin can. Germ PSA aside, I have just returned from a week in Stockholm that tickled my bourgeois aspirations to travel to chic Western European cities and eat, pray, live, laugh, love... and stuff.

But because inside I am truly a pleb, the thing I love doing most in any foreign country is to visit all the vital markets to see how they compare to America — you know, like the grocery stores, the metro system, the McDonalds (there's one in every single country, I swear!), and of course the drugstore/pharmacy.

The big difference and cool thing about non-American drugstores is that actual chemists work there who can diagnose and "prescribe" you medication, but you don't need a prescription because "drugs" aren't privatized as heavily as they are in the US. Also, I feel very euro-cool being like, "I've got to stop by the chemist" all casual-like.

But I'm not trying to stock up on drugs. (Should I have? Which drugs even? I'm bad at this.) I'm trying to beauty shop in Stockholm.

I feel like there's three tiers: pharmacy (aka Apotek, as I've seen it here), boutique (like actual beauty branded boutiques or beauty supply shops), and department store. Sounds pretty similar, but oh, it is so much more comprehensive!

OK, so the Apoteks are mostly where you'd find low-end skincare, self-care stuff like Epsom salts and arnica gel, and some makeup from global mass brands like L'Oreal. Oh man, L'Oreal is EVERYWHERE — all three tiers. I feel like it's a bit more elevated outside the states; the USD price point equivalent is that of masstige, like Vichy or La Roche-Posay (so, like, fancy drugstore). There are also way more lines of stuff in their skincare offerings and for whatever reason DOZENS of variations of mascaras that I haven't seen back home. (But honestly, I feel like they can cool it with that — it's all pretty much the same mascara, L'Oreal.)

Max Factor is alive and well there, and I even picked up a liquid liner since my year-old Kat Von D Tattoo Liner started skipping out and it was the only one I brought with me on the trip, stupidly. Always bring TWO liquid liner pens with you when traveling because one almost always craps out. The Max Factor Masterpiece High Precision Liquid Eyeliner applies like a dream, and I kind of like the weird flat-head screwdriver-looking felt tip. (But it for sure smudges throughout the day as your eyelids lube themselves up naturally.) And hey, good news: it's available in the US for a limited time.

The next tier is beauty boutiques. There's Make Up Store, which sells makeup in chic minimal black packaging not unlike NARS or Smashbox, but at affordable slightly-more-than-drugstore prices. It's all fine stuff, but I didn't see anything that blew me out of the water there.

There's KICKS, which is kind of a mini-Sephora. It's set up similarly with brand "gondolas" (that's what those display blocks floating throughout Sephora are apparently called) throughout and skincare lining the walls. They have a bunch of Scandinavian beauty brands there that I've never heard of and don't even know how to go about pronouncing, but they looked cool. I walked past an Aesop and a similar boutique, L:A Bruket, both of which deal in that androgynous essential oils apothecary vibe. Also, the original Byredo is there (it's tiny!) since Stockholm is its hometown.

You know what was weird, though? So, H&M (a Swedish company) just revamped and expanded their beauty offerings, which is way better looking and packaged than before. But the H&Ms I went to in central Stockholm (seriously there were FOUR of them in one intersection, all for different lines — men, home, fancy business women, cute trendy girl) had other drugstore brands for sale in addition to the H&M line — Maybelline, L'Oreal, Neutrogena, Nivea (Nivea is everywhere, so I've seen), Essie, etc. It was so weird because as far as I knew, H&M only sold H&M stuff.

The third tier, department store, is notable because it has a sub-tier within itself. Upon the recommendtion of a Swedish commenter (hiiii!), I went to Åhléns, a department store that's kind of the chic Scandinavian version of Bloomingdales or Nordstrom. On the ground floor, there's all the usual suspects for department store beauty — Chanel, Lancôme, Bobbi Brown, GHD, and Biotherm counters, with those people working there only focusing on selling that one brand's products.

But then go down to the sub level and it's a mish-mash of drugstore and boutique beauty brands in a Sephora-like try-before-you-buy setting. Except the only accoutrements were tissues and alcohol gel to go around, so I restrained myself. They had a whole luxury natural skincare section with some super chic (and expensive!) Scandi beauty brands I'd never heard of that mostly offered a cocktail of carrier oils in very beautiful minimalist packaging.

Most the makeup brands catered only to those of a Scandinavian complexion, but I found one makeup brand called Maréna Beauté (I actually first discovered it in the Stockholm ArkDes museum because it won some award for packaging design). The brand offers only three products — cream foundation, powder, and powder blush — in deeper shades for women of color, but it was definitely the nicest-looking packaging in that store.

Whats interesting (to me) about beauty culture in a first world mostly-white-people place like western Europe is that there are such ingrained cultural customs passed down most likely mother to daughter on how one should take care of her face and make it look its own personal best, which I think it's generally about aging beautifully. BUT because there's such old-world tradition in that sense, I could barely find anything even whispering of innovation or science. Just expensive "antioxidant-rich" extracts and oils, which do nothing for me personally.

Walking around Stockholm, all the women had a very "natural" look. No real visible makeup, except for some teenagers who sported Instagram eyebrows and a contour seemingly done solely with blush. But otherwise, nary a bold lip or cat-eye in sight. Not to be an asshole, but I feel like I was seeing a lot of faces with acne and skin irritations...? I mean, I'm not judging anyone, but maybe it's the climate and lack of science-y skincare that could be a contributor. Maybe the diet (all I ate were meat-and-potato meals pretty much)? A bunch of teenage punks I met at a DIY hardcore show in a suburb outside of Stockholm mentioned that Stockholm was the best European city for vegans (there were indeed at least two all-vegan buffets I went to because my traveling companion is indeed a vegan).

I, myself, was going through some skin reactions, probably due to the sudden change in climate and lack of access to my personal apothecary, but I did discover something of a hydration hack: just two or three drops of a hyaluronic acid serum mixed with a few drops of rose hip oil and you get super-hydrated plumpy-looking skin without an oily-looking finish.

Despite being on vacation, I wasn't really moved to buy everything in sight (also it's not like it was any cheaper than US prices sadly) but I did pick up a few items. I really like getting generic lip balm from other countries, and I can say that the department store brand läppbalsam tasted like berry jam and was super-hydrating, while the Lypsyl was basically the equivalent of rubbing a slightly melted tapered candlestick on my mouth.

I did, however, really like this L'Oreal Skin Perfection line. This is basically a BB cream called "Anti-fatigue Perk-up Cream" and its Awakening Eye Cream counterpart. Both have teensy shimmer particles for that radiance sheen, but the moisturizer has micro-spheres with a skin tint to even out skin tone while hydrating like whoa. Plump-face at its finest.

Anyway, this has gone on far too long, but I was in Stockholm for a week, eating my way through way too many meatballs (P.S. this place ruled), and endlessly slathering myself in whatever moisturizing balms I could get my hands on. I don't think I understand Scandinavian beauty anymore than I did before (did I before?) but I've noticed that it's definitely a less-is-more kind of deal, for better or worse (the beauty shops all seem to be focused in touristy/shopping areas).

  • Can anyone explain to me what the Scandinavian approach to beauty actually is?
  • Did I miss anything? (drat!)
  • What countries do you think have the best drugstore beauty?