You are probably familiar with skincare products like toners, essences, serums, and creams, the regular, modern-day products used to achieve your beautiful flawless skin. But have you ever heard of “Thanaka”, a paste suitable and effective on all skin types? Find out more about this unique, ancient beauty secret from Myanmar.
If you live in Singapore, then it is likely that you have come across these chalk-like patches painted on the faces of Burmese ladies or men who can be spotted shopping along Peninsula Plaza. Have you ever been intrigued by these chalk-like patches painted on the cheeks or forehead and wondered what they are or represent?
Myanmar is a vast and beautiful country full of rich tradition and culture. It is sometimes called “The Golden Land” because of the temples and shrines that dot the landscape and their four million pagodas covered with gold leaf. Myanmar’s delicious food and gorgeous untouched landscapes - soaring mountains, pristine beaches and meandering waterways - attract visitors from all walks of life to visit and have cajoled many a wearied traveller to fall in love with this wondrous ancient land.
That’s not all. Other than being known for its historical sites and landscapes, the locals can be differentiated from the tourists by a prominent, pale yellow paste called “Thanaka” that adorns the faces of women, children, and sometimes even men.
The locals swear by this paste that it helps to make your skin soft, cure acne, combat wrinkles, act as a sunblock alongside many other skin benefits. The list is endless! The best part of it all, this paste is suitable for ALL skin types, be it oily, dry, sensitive or acne-prone.
I really can’t wait to share with you more about the benefits and effects of Thanaka but to help you understand why this product is so incredible, it is important to give you a little more context on the history, the types of paste and how to use it.
Sun-Bright Symbol Of The Health and Beauty In Myanmar's Culture
The history of Thanaka dates back to 2,000 years ago, with the first historical reference appearing in a poem from the court of King Rajadhirat, the 14th-century unifier of Burma. During the period of Myanmar kingdoms, Thanaka was worn as a natural cosmetic concoction. A lighter and more fragrant Thanaka infused with tiny gold flakes was used for royal families, whereas commoners used the paste with pollen of flowers named gant gaw (Mesua Ferrea).
Just like the longyi, the Burmese sarong-like national skirt, men and women wear these paste proudly as a sun-bright symbol of health and beauty in their culture. They are generally applied like face paint in patches and circles across the face, mainly on the cheeks and foreheads. Some would even apply fun designs like stripes or swirly leaves to add as a cool factor. Delicate leaf patterns are a common Thanaka style among younger users.
Unlike modern makeup, Thanaka is not meant to be subtle, to hide flaws or accentuate features. Rather, it works to provide skincare benefits as stated, “Store-bought cosmetics actually destroy your complexion. Thanaka does the exact opposite. It repairs it.” says Ma Tin Hla, 36, a Thanaka seller.
Magic Yellow Paste or Powder?
Thanaka can be made from several tree species, including Naringi Crenulata and Limonia Acidissima, or otherwise more commonly known as wood-apple, sandalwood, elephant-apple, or curd fruit trees, that can be found in parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
The process of creating this paste can be quite laborious. The most traditional way, and the most popular still amongst the locals, would be grinding the log, which was sawed into smaller pieces from tree branches of a ten-year-old tree, with a little of water on a stone slab caller Kyauk Pyin until it becomes a yellow paste.
Though Thanaka can be purchased in two forms, either in a ready-to-use powder form or in a log that would require you to grind it into a powder yourself. Most locals would prefer the log form as they tend to last longer, up to 2 to 3 years with proper care and maintenance like keeping the log at a dry place to prevent mold or bacteria from growing on it.
Grind! Mix! Apply! And The Results...
Thanaka has become a multi-purpose cream/powder which has all of the skin-loving effects that leave no room for doubt that it’s all-natural, organic and has no chemical properties.
Its active ingredients of Coumarin and Marmesin have antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-ageing properties. After applying it regularly, one’s skin can be seen to be less inflamed and fewer breakouts.
It also helps to remove dead skin cells and control excessive facial oil that balances the moisture all day. Thus, being suitable and recommended for oily skin types, especially for those who stay in hot and humid climates, like Singapore!
Additionally, Thanaka is an effective moisturizer. Its hydrating and cooling effects make it ideal for post-sun exposure. With the regular use of Thanaka, it can brighten and improve your skin’s complexion too.
If you are looking for the perfect sunblock, look no further! Marmesin present helps to provide extra sun protection. Although it is not like your regular sunblock lotion which would be absorbed and leave no traces behind, it acts as a physical shield against the sun while also nourishing the skin with its rich antioxidant properties.
Acts as a moisturizer, toner, sunscreen, has anti-acne, anti-bacterial paste and antioxidant properties, helps to prevent wrinkles, AND IS ALL NATURAL. What more could you ask for?
We all have different skin needs but regardless of our different skin types, I can confidently say that Thanaka works. My mom, aunts, cousins, Burmese friends, religiously wear it and I have seen the magic worked on their skin. As they have all quoted to me “Once you have tried it, you’ll never, EVER stop applying it.”.
About the writer
Linn Let Min, a girl born in Myanmar but raised in Singapore. She makes it her mission to embark on a new adventure every day and not to waste her youth. Her motto in life would be to "live in the moment, think later".