In the first installment of my Best of 2020 list, I mentioned how the events of 2020 forced me to learn how interconnected all of our pursuits are and how important our habits can be for keeping our heads above water, mentally.
Two of the three favorites in this list are health and wellness products, so before we go any further, I need to give a disclaimer. I am not a doctor, a dietitian, a nutritionist, or a certified physical trainer. The reviews and recommendations I’m making are not a substitute for medical advice. YMMV still applies here. As with my skincare reviews and recommendations, these are based on my layperson research and personal experiences, and on the anecdotes of friends and readers.
With that being said, my 2020 favorites have done a lot for me, and that’s why I’m sharing them. So let’s dive in!
Some of the products featured in this post were provided by the brands for review. This post contains affiliate links, which allow me to earn a small commission on purchases made through those links. Affiliate links are marked with an asterisk(*).
The US supplement industry is minimally regulated and full of very questionable claims. There’s always some much-hyped alleged panacea making the crunchy blogger and biohacker rounds. To me, apple cider vinegar (ACV) always seemed to belong to that category. It’s hard not to side-eye a supplement whose proponents claim it can do just about anything: control blood sugar (and therefore help manage diabetes), improve digestion, aid in weight loss, lower high blood pressure, reduce the risk of certain cancers, and even make your hair and skin prettier.
We are not going anywhere near any of the medical claims around diabetes, blood pressure, or cancer, because oh my God we’re not going to do that. Neither can we talk about using ACV topically on hair or skin, because I don’t do that. What we can talk about, however, are the more minor but still important ways that taking ACV has helped to optimize my insides.
Apple cider vinegar is made by using yeast and bacteria to ferment apples, turning them into vinegar. The fermentation process, as we know from fermentation in skincare, breaks compounds down into smaller and theoretically more bioavailable ones, maximizing the benefits of applying or consuming the substance in question. Fermentation also creates new compounds, some of which may deliver additional benefits. Finally, in unfiltered apple cider vinegar (and other fermented products like kombucha), the “mother”–the little slimy clump of bacteria starter that catalyzed the fermentation process–is a probiotic that might improve the bacterial makeup of the gut microbiome.
This last part is important. Within the more pseudosciencey, snake oily corners of social media, “leaky gut syndrome” and other gut flora-related buzzwords abound, but while the claims made in those shadowy corners are outrageous, there appears to be more than a grain of truth to the idea that gut flora can have a significant effect on health. The ecosystem in our guts appears to influence our ability to digest and metabolize what we consume, which can impact body weight and efforts to change it. Gut flora also affect inflammation and the immune system, with effects potentially reaching as far as the brain.
This is a fairly recent area of research, so there are still more questions than answers. And of course taking a probiotic supplement isn’t going to magically fix everything in our bodies that might be negatively affected by our intestinal ecosystems. That’s kind of the point of this section of best products, though. All or nothing is a counterproductive approach to take, whether in skincare, health, or anything else in life. The accumulation of smaller positive changes makes a bigger difference in the long run than expecting miracles that never happen and giving up when they don’t.
Since I started taking the Goli ACV gummies, however, I have noticed an accumulation of several small changes that add up to…a six-gummy-a-day habit, at this point.
The most significant change I’ve noticed since I started taking these last year is my digestion. The ACV seems to have moderated my digestive process. Things now move along at a steady, reasonable pace: No sudden stops, no unexpected acceleration. It’s like the Platonic ideal of a four-lane highway. (If you knew my digestive history, you’d see what an impressive difference this makes to my quality of life.) And the digestive process…concludes…in a more pleasant and effortless fashion than I’m used to. Sorry for the euphemisms. This isn’t really something I ever expected to discuss in a public space, much as I and my girlfriends talk about this stuff between ourselves.
Claims about ACV’s usefulness for weight management run rampant online. I’ve even seen some people specifically promoting Goli gummies as an appetite suppressant. So before I explain the next benefit I’ve noticed, I want to make it very clear that I neither use these (or view them) as appetite suppressants, and I don’t think appetite suppressants are a good idea anyway. I do have thoughts on weight management and nutrition, but my thoughts are more along the lines of finding the balance of macros that works best for you and is sustainable for your lifestyle in the long run.
A few weeks after I started taking the Goli gummies, I realized I’d almost completely stopped craving sugary and starchy foods. I’ll still enjoy a cookie or a baked good or some bread once in a while, but the thought of carby treats doesn’t fill me with longing. I find myself not thinking about starchy snacks at all in between meals. I had previously been going through a protracted, months-long, “give me every single chip and bread you can, and while you’re at it, I need two packs of Hawaiian rolls also” phase, so the change was striking.
There’s some interesting circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis that gut microbes may influence our food cravings, potentially inducing their hosts (us) to alter our diets in such a way that we end up providing the more dominant species in our digestive system with the food that suits them best. The idea that bacteria in our digestive systems may be responsible for our uncontrollable longings for soft, buttery warm Hawaiian rolls is terrifying but does make sense.
I talk about the effects of these gummies pretty often with readers who’ve been taking them and have learned I’m not the only one who’s experienced a reduction in sugar and starch cravings–it’s actually fairly common. With that being said, it isn’t an absolute. Others haven’t noticed a change to what they want to eat. My entirely unsupported hypothesis is that the difference lies in why people crave sweet or starchy foods. Some of us apparently crave them because our gut bacteria tell us to. Others may crave them for different reasons.
Speaking of sugar and starch, I’ve never handled them particularly well. My ideal diet heavily emphasizes proteins and produce, with very little pasta or bread, because historically, carbs make me incredibly sluggish after consumption. This is most likely a blood sugar thing, which is why I found it interesting that after I started taking the Goli gummies regularly, I don’t have that problem anymore after an occasional pasta meal. My energy levels overall feel much more even; I’ve stopped crashing at midday the way I always have.
Again, anyone else’s experience with these will vary, just as everyone’s experience with skincare varies. My experience with these (delicious, delicious) gummies has been overwhelmingly positive, and so has the experience of many people I’ve talked to, but it’s by no means universal. If you are interested, I would suggest giving them at least one bottle’s worth of time to see how they work out for you. If they work out well, you might find your health improving in noticeable ways! And if they don’t, they are at least super delicious and won’t destroy tooth enamel like drinking ACV can.
I’ve anchored this section around one particular brand, but in reality, this section is about more than just Bala and their delightfully aesthetic weights (which we will get to in a bit). This section is about the joys I’ve found in taking better care of my body, and how it’s helped me stay on an even keel through what has turned into almost a full year of incredible highs, incredible lows, and much more pressure to perform than I can ever remember experiencing before. This section is also about how overcoming our self-limiting internal narratives can dramatically expand the scope of our lives.
Pretty much my entire life, I’ve thought of myself as someone who hates working out and who would never be a “fitness person.” I was terrible at PE as a kid. I could never climb the rope higher than a few feet or run a mile for a fitness test without either cheating, finishing last, or feeling like I was going to die afterwards. One of my least favorite childhood memories is getting hit right in the face with a kickball. I only ever went to the gym as an adult if dragged, and my resentment about being dragged to the gym played a substantial role in at least one breakup.
All this is to say that no one was more surprised than me by the enthusiasm I found myself bringing to home workouts. I discovered that I love fitness so much I’ve started talking about it on my Instagram as well. I have an entire story highlight for workout posts, and hearing friends and social media followers tell me that I’ve inspired them to start working out makes me just as happy as being told that I’ve inspired someone to wear sunscreen every day or to wash their face every night. What started as an occasional half hour of gentle stretching to alleviate back and shoulder pain has turned into regular power yoga, barre, Pilates, and HIIT workouts and an entirely new and more rewarding relationship with my body.
No sugarcoating: I originally branched out from my occasional restorative yoga practices into other workouts out of sheer vanity. One of the reasons I love skincare is the feeling of control it gives me over the appearance of my skin, and one of the reasons I love fitness is the feeling of control I’ve now gained over the appearance of my body. I might have been born with the stereotypical East Asian concave butt genes, but thanks to squats, lunges, donkey kicks, gradually increasing weights, and copious amounts of protein, I no longer have a concave butt in jeans.
Which brings us to hyper-aesthetic fitness brand Bala and the weights they gifted me last year.
When it comes to skincare, I freely admit that I need more than just effectiveness and utility in my products. I need a sense of joy, some fun factor that will keep me coming back for more even on days I wouldn’t otherwise feel like putting in the effort. In skincare, that fun factor sometimes comes from an interesting ingredient story and sometimes from a product’s aesthetic appeal or sensory experience. In fitness, I find some of it in the Bala Power Ring and Bala Bangles that I add to my workouts.
It may look like a steering wheel (and you can hold it like one for certain movements), but the Bala Power Ring is actually a 10 lb cross between a dumbbell and a kettlebell, and made to fit easily in to existing workout routines. I hold it in front of me for squats, lunges, and the endless variations on the plié that make up some barre classes: it adds just enough extra weight to increase the difficulty level of a familiar workout, and the act of holding it up helps keep my core engaged, which has improved my balance by leaps and bounds. The Power Ring’s slim profile makes it easy to lay on my chest while I’m doing core work on the floor, too, making every crunch-type move count far more. The possibilities are almost endless. While I do wish Bala had heavier versions now that I’ve advanced far enough in fitness to want heavier options, I’ve recently realized I could probably manage holding two at a time instead of one if I really want to crank up the resistance.
Similarly, the Bala Bangles wrist and ankle weights are extra-cute ways to add a little extra challenge to bodyweight workout routines. They only range from 0.5 to 2 lbs right now, so I don’t rely on them for serious strength building (I have heavier ankle weights to stack on top of them for that), but I almost always wear them for barre, yoga, and even HIIT routines, to push a little bit harder than I could without them. They stay put on me even during squatty jumpy large range of motion cardio bursts, and they’re easy to keep clean and non-smelly thanks to the silicone outer coating. Plus, their cuteness makes me happy, and they now also come in lavender. Which I am extremely tempted to get.
As I mentioned, I started working out for vanity. It didn’t take me long to love exercise for the sake of exercise, though. The sense of accomplishment and growth is addictive. It feels incredible to be able to do something easily that used to feel completely impossible, and knowing that growth is possible transforms the burn of an intense workout from a form of mild torture into something that I look forward to and actively seek out.
Don’t get me wrong. I like having a hint of a booty, and I really like having defined shoulders and upper arms. But I love being able to carry a full laundry sack one-handed, turning down help when I’m walking to my door with both hands full of heavy groceries, and flinging a full 13 gallon kitchen trash bag up and over a gate and into the dumpster without a hint of struggle. The knowledge that I did that, I made my body capable of doing these things, has been as positive for my mental health as the actual work has been for my physical health. Especially in a year when so many things got put on hold and so many normal aspects of life felt stagnant or nonexistent, growing and moving forward in something as tangible and ever-present as my physical form were priceless.
It’s not something I suggest everyone take up to the extent I did. I’ve been privileged enough to work from home through the pandemic and to be able to afford to subscribe to several fitness apps (current favorite being the Peloton app for its huge library of fun, easily filtered classes, which include Bon Jovi power yoga). But in conversations with friends and readers at a variety of different ability and commitment levels, we’ve all agreed that anything is better than nothing. Even seemingly minor growth and improvement act as both reward and powerful motivator. Some of my friends have made significant overhauls to their lifestyles after we started sharing our workouts with each other and cheering each other on. Others are on their way. And all the lifting, stretching, burpee-ing, and debriefing afterwards has brought us closer together in a very positive way.
Finally, I’m going to make the world’s most awkward segue and bring the conversation back to beauty, because I have one more item that a) didn’t fit with the skincare theme of the first part of the Best of 2020 series, and b) didn’t fit the length of that post, which already clocked in at over 5,000 words. ACV gummies and fitness accessories deal with the body, and hair grows on our bodies, so here’s my favorite new haircare product of the last year. Also, this fits the “head above water” metaphor I used at the beginning of this post.
I love Aquis microfiber hair turbans*. I love them so much that I own three, only one of which was a gift from the brand (and that one was gifted after I’d already purchased my first one anyway).
When I bought my first Aquis turban, it came with a mini bottle of something called a Water Defense Prewash, which seemed like a pointless extra step to me, but which I figured I’d try out anyway, given that it was free and already in my possession.
Hair is weaker and more prone to breakage when it’s wet, which can be a problem considering how we have to get our hair wet to keep it clean on a regular basis. As my hair gets longer due to the whole “salons are closed and I refuse to trust myself to cut my own hair so I guess I’ll just wait, growing more and more Cousin It-like by the day” thing, I’ve noticed it breaking and snapping more often after a wash. The Water Defense Prewash is supposed to protect hair from that.
The main ingredient in the product is amodimethicone, which my friend and legitimate beauty chemistry expect Michelle Wong at Lab Muffin Beauty Science has declared her favorite hair ingredient. As Michelle explains, amodimethicone selectively attaches to more damaged sections of hair, forms a durable protective film, yet resists buildup, resulting in increased softness, shine, and strength, without a reduction in volume.
To use, you spray the product on hair and brush it through a few minutes before getting in the shower. (I usually do this, then do my lash extension shampoo and cleansing oil steps, then start the shower and get in when it’s warm). After that, you shampoo and condition as usual.
Hair can show the effects of the products used on it more or less immediately, and oh my God. My first use of the Water Defense Prewash was a revelation. I could feel the extra silkiness in my hair when I was rinsing. That silkiness persisted through a quick comb-through with a wide-toothed comb after my shower. It then lasted through the next day, all the way to my next wash. My hair felt smooth and soft and looked noticeably shinier than usual. And that is why I now own a very large bottle of this stuff.
It isn’t cheap, so I don’t use it every time I shampoo. I reserve it for a couple of times a week, particularly for shampoos after which I’m planning to heat style my hair. Even though I don’t use it every night, however, the breakage protection lasts. I almost never have to cut hair off of my vacuum’s roller brush anymore, the hair mice in my shower drain take several times longer to grow than they used to, and my hair overall looks and feels much healthier at all times.
It’s good stuff. It sparks joy. And so it stays.
I’m publishing this post on Lunar New Year’s eve, which feels like a bonus new beginning for a year that has already felt much more hopeful than the last. I plan to keep on enjoying the products I talked about in this post and the previous one, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what new things I find to love this year.