Before the Wellness-as-Beauty Boom, There Was Ayurveda
Do you know the ancient origins of your favorite skincare and wellness ingredients?
What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.
A major retailer introduced a "wellness" section in its stores in 2019—and it was about 4,999 years behind the trend.
While the concept of "wellness as beauty” may have only recently taken over the beauty industry—see: skincare supplements, commodified self-care, all things Goop—it’s actually over 5,000 years old and stems from Ayurveda. “Ayurveda is an Indian medicinal science that served as a healthcare system before modern medicine,” explains Michelle Ranavat, the founder of Ayurvedic beauty brand Ranavat Botanics and the daughter of Indian immigrants. “It translates to ‘science of life.’” It’s also referred to as “the world’s oldest healing system,” so all of that “New Age” terminology? Couldn’t be more of a misnomer.
“It was originally an oral tradition, passed from person to person and teacher to student, before it was ultimately recorded in Sanskrit more than 5,000 years ago as part of the Vedas,” adds Shrankhla Holecek, founder of Ayurvedic wellness brand Uma Oils. (The Vedas are a body of religious texts from India that “span a multitude of subjects and ideas about health and wellness, including spirituality, environment, botany, behavior, art, and astrology,” she says.)
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The system is complex in execution but simple in theory: It’s all about balance.
Ayurveda takes a holistic, preventative approach to health by encouraging a lifestyle of daily self-care tailored to each individual’s needs. It “has been long revered for its long-lasting results and its focus on curing the root causes of skin and wellness issues, rather than merely the symptoms,” says the Uma Oils founder—who, thanks to her Indian heritage, started practicing Ayurveda “at birth.” “It encompasses not only science but also philosophy, whereby the whole of life’s journey is considered sacred.” There’s a strong emphasis on the mind-body connection as well as detoxification (whether that’s detoxification from physical toxins, negative energy, or destructive emotions).
“The practice is so vast, but it includes diet, including supplements and herbal medicine; mindfulness, like meditation; and the body in general, which includes skin and hair,” Ranavat adds.
If all of that sounds familiar, it’s because Western wellness culture seems to have successfully co-opted both the broader concept and many of the individual teachings of Ayurveda. The hot lemon water you sip every morning? The turmeric in your fancy new face mask? The adaptogens in your latte? The yoga you practice? Your beloved dry brush? All Ayurvedic.
So how did Ayurveda become the invisible force behind the beauty industry’s wellness craze?
“It started with yoga being popularized and, eventually, the proliferation of meditation and mindfulness,” Ranavat muses. “Eventually, crystals and ‘energies’ started to become the norm—even astrology, which also has a really interesting history in India, among other countries. Over the last few years, we combined everything and added supplements and adaptogens into the mix. Now I’m seeing these adaptogens land in skin care, Ranavat Botanics included, which is super exciting.”
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“Intuitively speaking, it's hard to argue that your skin looks its best when you haven't been sleeping well or are going through periods of stress,” Holecek adds. In other words, it’s become harder to argue that your diet and lifestyle choices don’t affect your appearance (a long-prevailing myth in the skincare space). “I think the demands on our time and performance have grown manifold both professionally and personally, which is exacerbating issues of wellness,” she says. “Sometimes we ignore the signs until they are visible—often in the way of hormonal acne, hair loss, or dull skin. That's when many of us are forced to have that moment of reckoning, because we may be using the very same serums and tools, but they suddenly don't seem to be working quite as well.”
When consumers collectively began to realize that some of these symptoms were outer manifestations of inner imbalances, Big Beauty jumped on the bandwagon—and Ayurveda offered a time-tested roadmap to help it navigate the new “wellness as beauty” boom.
What’s more, in the millennia since the healing system’s creation, modern science has been able to support many of Ayurveda’s ancient teachings (the health benefits of gotu kola, the stress-reducing power of meditation). “I have a strong background in science and come from a family of doctors and science professors,” Holecek says. “The science [of Ayurveda] is still being proven with modern methods of understanding how things work…but I see traditional Western medicine and Ayurveda as inherently complementary.”
There’s just one problem: Incorporating Ayurveda into Western beauty and wellness products toes the line between inspiration and appropriation.
“I think the wellness space, in general, has historically not been very inclusive to Black and Brown communities, where much of these wellness practices have originated,” Ranavat says. (Virtually every ingredient, product, and practice in the whitewashed “clean” and “natural” corners of the industry can be traced back to communities of color.) “Claiming to invent a practice or concept that has existed for thousands of years in a culture is appropriation,” she continues. “I love the idea of appreciating these practices, but I believe there has been a level of erasure as to the origins.”
A quick search of the biggest beauty sites in the business confirms this belief. On Sephora, “Ayurveda” turns up no search results at all, while the “adaptogens” search page is full. On Ulta, a search for “Ayurveda” highlights just one brand, while there are dozens of results for “turmeric.”
There is a story behind these ingredients that is not being told—and according to Ranavat, telling that story is the difference between appropriation and appreciation.
“Providing space on your website or [in] your marketing that educates the consumer is a powerful and positive thing,” she says. “Also, as a business, it's important to give back to the communities where the ingredients are originating so that they can also benefit from the popularization of their traditions and future generations are being born into a better circumstance.”
That said, Holecek notes that anyone can (and should!) practice Ayurveda if they feel called to do so. “Ayurveda and its teachings belong to everyone,” as the Uma Oils founder puts it. “It was shared generously with the world by sages with tremendous foresight thousands of years ago. I'd love nothing more than [to see] people integrating Ayurveda, in big or small ways, in their lives because it truly has the power to improve wellbeing in such a meaningful way.”
The keys to appreciating rather than appropriating Ayurveda in your personal practice are education and understanding.
“My humble perspective would be to respect the wholeness of the science while trying to have an understanding of its broader context when practicing Ayurveda,” Holecek says. Cherry-picking practices (lemon water, dry brushing) without learning how they fit into the larger view of Ayurvedic self-care not only erases the history of said practice, it also downgrades its intended impact. If the goal is holistic health, the why is just as important as the what.
Interested in diving deeper into Ayurveda? Consider reading Discovering the True You with Ayurveda by herbalist Sebastian Pole or The Idiot’s Guide to Ayurveda by Ayurvedic expert Sahara Rose Ketabi. Even a quick google will do! Start by researching the doshas, also known as one’s constitution or mind-body type, which will inform the Ayurvedic practices that work best for you as an individual. If and when you do begin to incorporate Ayurveda into your life, “be mindful of the fact that to treat root causes—rather than just symptoms—can take time,” Holecek says. The system isn’t about fast results; it’s about lasting results.
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While you’re at it, get familiar with the Indian origins of some of your go-to skincare and wellness ingredients and practices. Turmeric, saffron, jasmine, rose, neem. Ashwagandha, gotu kola, holy basil. Dry brushing, facial massage. All of the above have roots in Ayurveda. To take your appreciation a step further, avoid purchasing from brands that do not acknowledge the Ayurvedic history of the products responsible for their profits. Instead, support companies with authentic ties to Ayurveda: Ranavat Botanics, UMA Oils, Fable & Mane, Banyan Botanicals, and Pratima are just a few.
Ultimately, though, Ayurveda cannot be bought and sold.
“It's critical to underscore that products—or ‘Ayurvedic medicine,’ which, in my interpretation, is the part of Ayurveda gaining greater traction because it is more easily commercializable—is only a small part of the healing process in Ayurveda,” Holecek emphasizes. “I don't want to come off as sounding naive about the principles of business, but I do want to call out my worry that a purely capitalistic interpretation of Ayurveda in the West may result in the erasure, or oversight, of critical tenets and lifestyle guidance that are foundational to truly seeing an impact from Ayurveda—and that go beyond pills and potions.”
The founder points to one of her favorite free, self-reliant Ayurvedic rituals as an example: daily Abhyanga, or self-massage. “This is [the epitome of] wellness as beauty because the practice is as good for your soul as it is for your skin,” she says. And that can’t be found in the aisles of your go-to beauty store.