Found It: Best. Hand Cream. Ever.

Photo: Courtesy of Santa Maria Novella.
For some people, international travel is about immersing oneself in another country's rich culture. They plan their trips around seeing the sights, meeting locals, and sampling culinary delicacies. Me, I just want to go to the pharmacy. Like any red-blooded American woman, I am obsessed with drugstore beauty products. When it comes to international drugstore products, I am essentially a smuggler, dragging home suitcases jammed with contraband lip balm and retinol creams the FDA doesn't need to know about. Then, last summer, I nabbed the holy grail when I visited the world's first pharmacy and purchased a jar of its very first product: almond paste.

If that sounds a little anti-climactic, then I'll say it Italian: Pasta Di Mandorle. Still not impressed? Well, then I'll add that this stuff is — dry and chapped hands down — the greatest hand cream in the world. Period.

Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy, was founded in the 13th century by Dominican monks. Those dudes knew their way around skin care. They're the ones who distilled the first rosewater and produced hundreds of ancient remedies using plants gathered from the hills surrounding Florence. Today, this "drugstore" also makes more contemporary products, but many of their OG formulas are still being sold — and some are online, lucky for you. I stocked up on heaps of violet soap and "hysteria water" (ask me later), and none of it disappointed. But the almond paste was the one that gave me new respect for Dominican monks.

First, the aroma is so delicious you'll want to eat your hand. It's like marzipan but not too sweet and not too strong. Along with sweet almond oil, it's made with grapeseed oil, virgin beeswax, and egg yolk. You'd think with all these rich ingredients, the cream would be a thick and greasy mess, but that's where the magic comes in. Rub it on, and there is no residue — none. I don't mean it sinks in quickly; I mean that you put it on and it's just gone. There's no evidence of hand cream, except of course hands that are no longer dry or irritated. That, and a divine whiff of almond.

I wouldn't even call it a cream, in fact. There's no ideal comparison to this stuff, because I've truly never used anything like it. "Paste" sounds too thick for how light it is, and "mousse" is too airy to describe its richness. In texture, it's closest to rain-sodden mud, but that doesn't sound like something you want to rub all over your hands. And this is definitely something that you do want to rub all over your hands, all winter long.

Instructions suggest you apply a "generous amount" once a day, then put on some cotton gloves and sit around to let it really absorb. Sorry, monks, I have a life to lead. What I don't have is buckets of disposable income to blow on "generous amounts" of $50 hand cream. Anyway, I've gotten great results using the same jar for months by doing it my way. Every night, I scoop out a heaping fingerful and rub it all over my hands before bed — before sleep, actually. I wait until I'm done with my phone stuff, I've put my book down, and I've gone to the bathroom for the last time. It's not about smearing because, again, this stuff doesn't smear. I just want to make sure to keep as much of this product on my hands overnight as possible.

In the morning, my hands feel soft and happy, but the best part is that they stay that way all day. I might use a dab of regular old hand cream after I've washed dishes or done some other skin-drying activity. But when I regularly use just a little paste at night, my hands never get that tight, itchy, ragged-cuticle look that I'm used to sporting during cold-weather months. They look like the hands of a much fancier lady than I am. They look like hands that have touched the Holy Grail (of skin care).

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