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September 14, 2015

Chinatown 101: Buying the best-hidden beauty products at these Philly pharmacies

Beauty Chinatown
Chinatown Beauty Buys 4 Bonnie Arbittier/for PhillyVoice

Holding Tiger Balm & Green Oil at Long Life Chinese Herbs Inc.

One of the first signs of becoming a beauty junkie is when you willingly spend time at your local CVS. Drop me off at any pharmacy, leave for an hour and you’ll return to find me in a euphoric state with many plastic bags in hand. But lately, browsing the aisles of an American drugstore has no longer given me that same buzz. I now felt prepared for my next feat: the Chinese pharmacy.

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The author researching products at Yangtze Trading And Travel with the help of the store manager. (Bonnie Arbittier/For PhillyVoice)

Asian beauty products are having a major renaissance. The modern medicine cabinet includes a variety of Eastern essentials, ranging from cult classics like Tiger Balm to the incredibly bizarre Nature’s Nest. Yes, there is an edible, Khaleesi-approved bird’s nest, but more on that later.

My only request before you read about the hidden, holistic and skin-saving gems specific to Philly’s very own Chinatown? Skip the Amazon shopping spree, grab a bubble tea and bring this guide with you to either Yangtze Trading And Travel, 933 Arch St., or Long Life Chinese Herbs Inc., 1011 Arch, to experience the idiosyncrasies of a classic Chinatown pharmacy. Here's a crash course to help you navigate the never-ending options on Arch Street.

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Sanjin Water Melon Frost , Ginseng extract and White Flower (Bonnie Arbittier/For PhillyVoice)

Sanjin Water Melon Frost (Xīguā shuāng, 西瓜霜)

Uses: The Sanjin Water Melon Frost may be labeled a breath freshener, but it can also be used to take care of breakouts and irritated skin. Remember when you used to put toothpaste on a pimple to dry it out? Consider this spot cream another alternative.

Review: You know the saying: Don’t judge a [bottle] by its color. The Sanjin Water Melon Frost looks like a combination of Sun-In, nasal spray and a Pokémon card, but there is way more to this yellow bottle - a lot more. My friend Billy (who patiently explained to me the uses of each product) said Melon Frost can treat canker sores and cold sores in addition to that highly dreadful pimple. Suggestion: do not use this as a breath freshener if you are really sensitive to taste.

Ginseng (Rénshēn 人參)

Uses: Ginger lovers rejoice! Benefits of this brown gooey gloriousness include providing an energy boost, lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reducing stress, promoting relaxation, treating diabetes, and alleviating sexual dysfunction in men. Convinced? Thought so.

Review: Ginseng makes for the perfect palette cleanser, especially after enjoying an excellent Malaysian meal (Penang anyone?). Upon discovering Ginseng, I have made a conscious effort to take a teaspoon of this throughout the day to stay energized.

White Flower Oil (Báihuā yóu, 白花油)

Uses: Hoe Hin’s White Flower Analgesic Balm is multifaceted. Traditionally used for temporary relief of minor aches and pains, this oil is also used to clear sinus infections. It can also be applied to mosquito bites to alleviate itching.

Review: Having just been eaten alive by mosquitos at a summer wedding, I found the White Flower Oil is just what the doctor ordered. In the morning, I also rubbed the oil on my temples and began the day feeling relaxed. Note to self: keep oil on hand during stressful situations.

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Nature's Nest aka a Bird's Nest (Bonnie Arbittier/For PhillyVoice)

Edible Swallow's Nest (Yànwō, 燕窝)

Uses: Undoubtedly, Nature’s Nest was the most fascinating product for any Chinese pharmacy novice. So how does one go about eating the former home of a bird? Boil it and voila, you have Bird’s Nest Soup. The bird’s nest is apparently very rare, as it is collected in caves. If you have a weak immune system or joints, invest in this.

Review: Nature’s Nest costs more than a Benjamin so it was just too expensive for this Eastern inspired experiment.

Cordyceps sinensis (Dōngchóngxiàcǎo 冬虫夏草)

Uses: Upon discovering Cordyceps sinensis, Billy immediately told me these tiny tablets could really help your immunity and cure a cough. Specifically, if you have weak lungs or suffer from asthma, try out this esteemed traditional Chinese medicine.

Review: Before cold season hits, I’ll be making another pharmacy run to stock up on sinensis.

Green Mint Oil (Lǜ yóu jīng, 绿油精)

Green mint oil is very similar to White Flower Oil (see above). Dab some on your fingers and then tap on your temples to cure a headache or help that painful hangover.

Review: Take one sniff and you will feel minty fresh and awake.

Bamboo Salt Toothpaste

Yes, you should absolutely brush bamboo salt on your teeth. From preventing gum and tooth decay to leaving you with a white smile, this toothpaste can really transform your oral health (and make or break that first kiss).

Review: Goodbye Crest, hello Bamboo Salt! Yes, I fell in love with Bamboo Salt toothpaste. I have already introduced one friend to the powers of refined peritectic bamboo salt, which is effective for cleaning and caring.

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The author, post-Chinatown shopping trip. (Bonnie Arbittier/For PhillyVoice)

And, then there is the post-shopping after party. I don’t know if it was just the novelty of playing with new products, but the packaging of these goodies made me feel like I was a kid in a candy store. And it only got better. Opening each box was like unwrapping a Kinder Surprise: I didn’t know what kind of toy I was going to get!

Warning: Not all of the Benjamin Button results promised on the products are guaranteed, so spend your dollars wisely.