Every morning for the eight months I lived in Rangoon, Burma—a nation
that, in the iron grip of a harsh military dictatorship, was more or
less cut off from the rest of the world for decades—a lady named Mrs.
Campbell would apply a pale yellow paste named Thanaka to my cheeks,
nose and forehead.
It was 1979 and Mrs. Campbell—born of an English father and a Burmese
mother toward the tail end of the British Raj—was my tutor. Every day,
she traveled across Rangoon (now called Yangon) with a small amount of
Thanaka nestled in her purse, a powder made from the bark of a tree that
grows in Burma and has been a Burmese beauty staple for centuries. As
she mixed it up into a smooth paste with a bit of water, she told me it
would protect my skin from the harsh rays of the tropical sun and leave
it soft, smooth and clear for years to come.
Back then, though, I was a child with no notion of aging, sun damage
or the passage of time, and I despised the cakey feeling of the Thanaka
as it hardened on my face. The moment I could, I scrubbed it off, much
to Mrs. Campbell’s chagrin. “Just 20 minutes,” she would beg. But I
Flash forward to today: I am in my mid 40s and, for better or for
worse, my skin is what it is. Burma (aka Myanmar) is slowly
transitioning toward democracy. And the Grande Dame of the Burmese
opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, after remaining under house arrest for 15
years, plans to run for president in Burma’s 2015 elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Long an icon of freedom and human rights, Suu Kyi is quickly
becoming a beauty and style icon, too. This year, TIME included the
68-year-old on its list of 100 most influential people in the world,
while the British newspaper The Guardian featured her in its “50
Best-Dressed Over 50” list.
When I see Aung San Suu Kyi’s perfect skin, I regret my lack of
diligence with Thanaka. But I do believe that it’s better too late than
never at all, particularly because science shows that Thanaka has
valuable properties for anyone at any age. Even today, says David
Honegger, founder of St. Gallen, Switzerland-based Argo Naturals (which
earlier this year began importing pure Thanaka powder from Burma), when
westernization is sweeping through Burma and international cosmetic
giants are eying the country as the next great frontier for their
products, the Burmese still swear by what’s been their beauty staple for
more than 1,000 years.
“In Burma, women, children and even men apply Thanaka first thing in
the morning,” Honneger says. “Some of them paint designs on their
cheeks, some cover their entire face with it. Some leave it on for half
an hour, some keep it on all night. It really is a unique Burmese
tradition and the Burmese are very proud of Thanaka.”
The Hesperethusa crenulata or Limonia acidissima,
as the Thanaka tree is formally called, is a common tropical plant
species that grows not only in Burma, but also in other parts of
Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It’s believed that both the
bark and the fruit of this tree contain valuable medicinal properties
(in China, the fruit is said to cure stomach problems), but only in
Burma is the tree bark traditionally ground down into a powder and then
mixed into a watery paste to be used for skincare and cosmetic purposes.
According to a 2010 study performed by researchers at the University
of London’s School of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Science at
Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, and published in the
Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
properties of the Thanaka bark, together with UV absorption properties,
make for an ideal daily face pack. The study showed the powdered bark
is rich in free radical fighting agents, has an extremely low toxicity
and contains properties that inhibit tryosinase, the enzyme responsible
for melanin synthesis and skin discoloration, which means it also
possesses significant skin-whitening properties.
The gentle, non-toxic nature of the Thanaka bark is safe to use
everyday, the research concluded, and as such, “it could be a good
candidate source for cosmetic ingredients.”
And that’s exactly the way things are headed.
“Basically Thanaka contains a number of substances that act similar
to tannins, which work as an anti-itching product, tighten your skin and
work against wrinkles,” Honegger says. “In addition to protecting
against free radicals and UV radiation, Thanaka has properties that
protect the skin against acne, so if you use it as a face mask, it
controls your facial oil and its anti-bacterial properties can remove
blackheads and so on.”
Thanaka powder is so versatile that it is compatible with other
skincare products, Honneger says. “So if you have a face mask that you
use regularly, you can mix Thanaka powder into it, get the benefit of
your regular face pack and a lot more.”
Today, more countries across the globe—Thailand, Malaysia, India and
some European nations, to name a few—are discovering the virtues of
Thanaka, and some cosmetic companies are starting to incorporate the
powder into their products.