Myanmar's Signature Skincare Product

No 38

When the women—and, sometimes, men—of Myanmar apply thanaka, they are performing a self-care ritual that goes back more than 2,000 years. Thanaka is a pale yellow, floral-scented paste made of crushed Hesperethusa crenulata bark. In patterns that range from simple swathes of pigment to elaborate leaves and spirals, it adorns the faces of young and old Burmese alike. And not just those of the Burman ethnic majority; the use of thanaka crosses ethnic and religious boundaries.

Part of the substance's appeal is aesthetic. But as long as the people of Myanmar have used thanaka, they have also appreciated its multitude of topical benefits. Users daub it onto the skin, often as a morning routine, to prevent sunburn and rashes. Thanaka acts as a coolant in the country's tropical heat. Mothers apply it onto their babies, and schoolchildren brandish it as proof they've had a bath. As an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and mild anti-bacterial, thanaka is used to treat or prevent all manner of epidermal conditions.

Only recently has Western science seriously examined its purported benefits, and with mixed findings. But this uncomplicated homegrown product may descend into folk novelty before any definitive results are in. In the few years since the country opened itself up to Western trade, big-brand dermatological and cosmetic products have flooded the marketplace. Young and upwardly mobile Burmese in particular, drawn by the perceived glamour of the modern, are giving up thanaka in favor of industrially produced substitutes. (Meanwhile, as with argane oil in Morocco, enterprising sellers are packaging dubious versions of thanaka to foreign tourists.) And so this beautifying skincare routine, so long ingrained that it features in ancient Burmese lyrics, is starting to fade from the surface. New ways of identifying oneself as Burmese may well emerge. But it is unlikely they will come straight off the tree.

Lauren DeCicca is a photographer based in Yangon, Myanmar. For a Q&A with her on our blog, click here.


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