How Bird Fat Fights Wrinkles & More Strange Beauty Tricks
Australia: Emu Oil as an Anti-Ager
In the Land Down Under, the oil from the fat of an emu (the world’s second largest bird after the ostrich) is an effective hydrating treatment, thanks to natural antioxidants and fatty acids that almost mimic those found in human skin. Emu oil also has powerful cell-regenerating properties to thicken skin, and it tests low on the comedogenic scale so it won’t clog pores in the process. Emu oil has also been studied as an anti-inflammatory agent for burns and aching joints.
Cultural practice: Australian Aborigine would wrap each other in emu pelts to cure aches after a particularly intense hunting outing.
Brazil: Carrot Juice as a Tan Enhancer
Perfecting a deep, long-lasting tan is practically an art form in Brazil’s beach communities. And while gradual sun exposure and safer self-tanning agents are both employed in the pursuit, many locals attempt to enhance their glow from the inside out by drinking pigment-packed carrot and beet juice.
Cultural practice: Fresh juice stands are often situated near the praia (beach), enabling simultaneous sipping and sun worshiping.
Ireland: Seaweed as a Curative Soak
Seaweed may be most associated with Japanese cuisine and culture, but the Irish have a long, deep tradition of soaking in seaweed-infused baths to cure dermatological ailments. For the treatment, seawater is pumped directly from the ocean into large cast iron tubs (chosen for their heat retention), and then piles of locally harvested seaweed are added in. Within a few minutes, the plants release alginic acid, a silky compound of essential oils that nourishes and heals the skin.
Cultural practice: In the Edwardian era, dedicated seaweed bathhouses dotted the coastline in County Sligo and County Kerry, with people of all ages using the baths medicinally and recreationally, enjoying a pint or cocktail while they bathed and strolling along the seafront post-soak. After a drop off in popularity, the tradition has recently experienced a resurgence, as psoriasis sufferers rediscover the treatment's healing benefits.
The Atlas Mountains: Rhassoul as a Cosmetic Clay
Morocco’s most buzzed-about beauty export may be argan oil, but another endemic ingredient has equally impressive benefits. Rhassoul—a brown clay found only beneath the Atlas mountain range—has been used for more than 1,500 years to maintain the supple, blemish-free complexions of local women. Like all clays, it works by drawing out impurities as it dries, but thanks to unusually high levels of silica, calcium and potassium, rhassoul actually replenishes and nourishes the skin after it’s rinsed off.
Cultural practice: After mining the clay from local quarries, locals let rhassoul sun-dry before it’s pulverized into a fine powder that will be used as a body cleanser, facial mask and scalp treatment. Many hammams (traditional Moroccan bathhouses) incorporate rhassoul into their treatments.
Bali: Boreh as a Rejuvenating Body Treatment
Often a postscript to an intense Balinese massage, boreh is a healing paste made from various combinations of herbs, roots, spices and tree barks (cardamom, cinnamon, chilies, shredded coconut, ginger and galangal usually make an appearance, but specific recipes are often kept secret.) The ingredients are ground in a mortar and pestle, then smeared all over the body and allowed to dry.
Cultural practice: Boreh is intended as a warming, circulation-enhancing treatment, with the added benefit of softened, toned skin. Traditional occasions for boreh include weddings and seasonal shifts, but young Balinese (and tourists) may partake at local spas whenever the mood strikes.
Czech Republic: Nettles as a Hair Volumizer
Due to the plant’s high levels of formic acid, touching a stinging nettle in the wild will make your skin burn. But once the leaves are dried and boiled, nettles become an effective—and perfectly safe—treatment for oily hair. Modern Czech women, who likely remember their grandmothers making homemade foraged nettle hair rinses, now rely on store-bought nettle-based shampoo to keep their tresses grease-free for as long as 36 hours.
Cultural practice: The older generation may still make a home-brewed nettle rinse by boiling chopped leaves in water, while younger devotees pick up astringent nettle hair care products at the supermarket.
South Africa: Rooibos Tea as a Skin Tonic
In South African traditional medicine, a daily cup of rooibos—a low-tannin, caffeine-free red tea indigenous to the country’s small Cedarberg mountain region—is said to keep eczema, psoriasis and rashes at bay. And Western science has lent its support to the practice, showing in recent studies that aspalathin, a flavanoid unique to the tea, helps protect cells from inflammation and age-related skin damage.
Cultural practice: South Africans have brewed rooibos for generations, enjoying both the vibrant red version we’re familiar with in the U.S., as well as a younger, green rooibos. Locals also use soaps and lotions infused with the tea and, for severe skin conditions, hospitals offer rooibos baths as a topical treatment.
Polynesia: Tamanu Oil as a Wound Healer
The island nations of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Vanuatu revere the oil of the tamanu nut, found in the region’s ati trees, for its ability to promote the formation of new skin tissue and heal wounds, scars and burns (the oil was even used in the 1920’s to treat leprosy and wounds.) Scientists aren’t sure how the oil works, but research is underway to unlock its unique chemical qualities.
Cultural practice: Tamanu kernels require several weeks of drying to release their oil, which is thick and fast-absorbing. The end product is applied topically to Polynesians and Melanesians of all ages, including infants, and relied upon by Tahiti’s tough-as-nails athletes, who compete in the country’s traditional outrigger races and Ironman-style contests.
Nile River Delta: Black Seed Oil as a Hair Thickener
The Pharoahs relied on black seed oil, derived from a variety of cumin seed, to thicken and condition their famously lustrous hair, and thousands of years later, people living near the Nile massage the oil into their scalps for the same effect. Some even credit the treatment with preventing premature graying, which is rare in Egypt.
Cultural practice: The seeds are milled into unrefined, highly fragrant oil that is applied directly to the scalp. (City-dwellers often buy the oil in easy-to-used capsules that can be mixed into shampoo.)
West Africa: Shea Butter as a Moisturizer and Sunblock
Found in ancient tombs, lauded in historical documents and fought over during colonial wars, shea butter has been vital to the economies and cultures of Senegal, Mali and Togo for centuries. A pale yellow fat extracted from the walnut-sized nut of the shea tree, the salve is known for its “meltability”—the fact that it liquefies upon contact with the skin and absorbs quickly, leaving no greasy residue behind.
Cultural practice: Shea butter is truly an all-purpose salve, used on its own as a lip balm, hair conditioner, medicinal ointment and natural sunblock, and blended into soaps and cleansers.
Indonesia: Tamarind as a Natural Skin Peel
Beloved by Southeast Asian cooks for its unique sweet-sour taste, the tamarind fruit is also a traditional Indonesian beauty treatment for scars and age spots. Packed with enzymes, fruit acids and vitamin C, the pulp works as a gentle skin peel, much like papaya and pineapples, exfoliating the top layer of the skin.
Cultural practice: The fresh pulp of the pod-like fruit is either massaged directly to the skin (no pureeing needed) and left on for a few minutes, or mixed with water or honey and used as a mask.
Tahiti: Manoi Oil as a Facial and Massage Oil
One whiff of the divine scent of this traditional 2,000+ years old Tahitian oil and you you’ll be smitten. Made by steeping tiare, a local fragrant bloom (known as the “Queen of Tahitian flowers”) in a coconut oil called haari, monoi is prized for its lush, romantic aroma, intense hydration and the glow it imparts to skin. Its natural salicylic acid content also helps camouflage uneven skin tone, and its sweet scent repels mosquitos. A popular massage oil, monoi is also used by traditional mahoi priests to bless newborn babies.
Cultural practice: Local tradition dictates that a woman tuck a tiare flower behind her right ear to indicate that she’s looking for love, and behind her left ear, if she’s taken.
Japan: Rice Powder as a Facial Exfoliant and Detoxifier
Japanese beauty rituals range from earthy (facials of nightingale droppings) and practical (anti-aging beverages packed with collagen) to downright scary (pedicures that include soaking feet in a basin swimming with flesh-eating fish). But one of the most beloved beauty ingredients is also one of the most common: rice.
Each tiny kernel boasts an array of skin-friendly characteristics. The rice starch milled into a fine dust is used as an oil-absorbent face powder. Rice bran, the brown outer layer, is rich in hydrating minerals and antioxidants, and the hull is often ground into a gentle but highly effective exfoliant. Even sake, a rice-based liquor, has been prized as a beautifier since the time of the geishas, who would reportedly splash their faces with it to let the liquor’s naturally-occurring kojic acid help lighten discoloration and eliminate age spots.
Cultural practice: Many Japanese women add a few glassfuls of sake to a warm bath for a glow-inducing and detoxifying effect.
China: Gua Sha as a Circulation and Metabolism Booster
Acupuncture is a well-known traditional Chinese healing method, but gua sha or “spooning” is just as revered. Translated literally as “to scrape away fever,” , gua sha is performed by applying pressure to lubricated skin with strokes of a smooth, rounded instrument that looks like a Chinese soup spoon.
The practice removes, or “scrapes away,” blood stagnation; the blood rises to the surface in response to the stimulation, resulting in long red marks called petechiae that fade after a few days. Gua sha helps normalize circulation and metabolism, and can also be used for ailments like chronic pain or stiffness, headache, and respiratory and digestive problems.
Cultural practice: Many Chinese practice gua sha at home to treat common ailments like fever and fatigue.
Morocco: Argan Oil as an Emolient
This wonder oil comes from trees that once grew wild in Morocco’s arid semi-desert regions, but are now endangered and protected by UNESCO. One of the few species of trees that has survived from the tertiary era (more than 65 million years ago), the argan is extraordinarily hardy. It can live to age 200 (and, rumor has it, it can even be revived from the dead years later), has an incredibly durable root system and is able to withstand extreme heat and drought conditions. The oil itself is packed with vitamin E, linoleic acid and beneficial mono and poly-unsaturated fats, which combine to nourish and smooth hair, and address fine lines, stretch marks and acne scars.
Cultural practice: Argan oil is highly valued by Moroccan’s Berber people, who use it as a medicinal ingredient and in their daily diets.
India: Turmeric as an Acne Fighter and Moisturizer
First used as a dye in India more than 2,500 years ago, turmeric is now valued for its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, detoxifying and pain-reducing properties. It has even been studied for use as part of cancer-treatment regimens. As a beauty treatment, turmeric is used to combat acne (make a paste with water and honey and apply to breakouts) and to soften and add radiance to skin.
Cultural practice: For the ultimate glow-inducer, a bride would traditionally cover herself head-to-toe in a turmeric-based blend, to soften and smooth the skin the night before her wedding. As an added bonus, turmeric is considered a symbol of prosperity and fertility.
Russia: Platza treatment
Called Platza (Yiddish for back or shoulders) in the U.S., and Venik in Russia, the vigorous procedure involves steam, ice water, intense massage and beatings with fragrant bundles of leafy oak or birch twigs called veniks. Available at most Russian spas or bathhouses, the procedure involves lying in a steam room where you are alternately massaged and whipped with the venik before being plunged into ice cold water. The shock to your system is designed to help improve circulation, boost metabolism and detoxify, as well as exfoliate and act as a natural astringent.
Cultural practice: The venik is often kept in Russian homes to protect them from evil spirits. It is also used to spank children.
Mexico: Chocolate as a Moisturizer
The cacao tree was discovered more than 2,000 years ago in the South American rainforests, but it was the Mayans and Aztecs in Mexico who began to transform cacao into chocolate. Chock full of antioxidants, chocolate is moisturizing (remember, there’s cocoa butter in there) and softening for the skin.
Cultural practice: The ancient Mayans mixed chocolate with chile pepper and drink the spicy, bitter brew for energy.
Egypt: Milk as a Cleanser and Exfoliator
Cleopatra’s beauty is the stuff of legend, and one of her favorite rituals was a bath of milk and honey. The lactic acid, which occurs naturally in milk, acts as a mild exfoliant, whisking away dead skin cells, while vitamins A and D help nourish and soften. The white stuff can also work wonders on lackluster hair, sealing split follicles to give your mane a healthy shine. It seems that milk really does do a body good.
Cultural practice: Egyptians have been using dairy, goat and camel milk as part of their cleansing rituals for many centuries.
Indonesia: Jasmie Flower as a Calming Pain Reliever
The scent extracted from the petite, bright white star-shaped blooms is present in some of the world’s most legendary perfumes, but jasmine has many purposes beyond fragrance The highly fragrant oil is a potent pain reliever; in Indonesia it’s rubbed on women during labor to combat childbirth trauma. It’s also used in aromatherapy for its calming effect. Jasmine-infused tea is used as a natural anti-depressant. Jasmine is also considered an aphrodisiac.
Cultural practice: Called melati putih in Indonesia, jasmine is the national flower (along with the moon orchid and giant Padma) and is symbolic of love, purity, beauty and sacredness. Visitors to Indonesia are often greeted with a garland of jasmine flowers, and traditionally brides string their hair with dozens of Jasmine blooms on their wedding day.
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From spicy body masks to seaweed soaks, the world's women turn to nature in their quest for perfect skin and lustrous hair.