DIY skincare is everything in my culture.

Anmol Irfan
Feb 10, 2021 @ 5:23 pm
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south asian beauty tips
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For centuries, Western beauty standards have defined the beauty industry and society's way of thinking. Thankfully though, globalization and the increase of access to information about global cultures have made the world a lot smaller. Bollywood and through it, South Asian culture and beauty practices have long seemed charming and even exotic to the rest of the world. But it's important for the Western world to remember that these beauty and wellness traditions are so much more than passing beauty trends.

Every ingredient and DIY recipe has been passed down through generations and often hold years' worth of family histories within their simple concoctions. The importance of these beauty practices is not just about the ingredients themselves, though. Our beauty traditions come with stories passed down from our grandmothers, and along with those are memories we hold dear. Amongst all the tips and homemade products many of us grow up with, there are a few that have been tried-and-true for generations. From turmeric paste and besan scrubs to rose water serums and henna dyes, here are some of the most popular South Asian beauty tips passed down from our grandmothers and what they mean to us.

Haldi (turmeric) paste for glowing skin:

south asian beauty tips turmeric
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Growing up, my grandmother told me how brides would use a turmeric paste on their skin to boost its glow and reduce discoloration before their big day. Apart from being used in days leading up to the wedding, Ubtan, the turmeric-based bridal scrub, is also used on the bride's face in a traditional ceremony that marks the start of the wedding festivities. Studies back up what we in Pakistan have known for generations: topical application of turmeric helps relieve chronic skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, and atopic dermatitis. 

Turmeric's known medicinal properties are not new in South Asia—Sanskrit medical treatises show a long history of the medicinal use of the popular golden spice. However, it's gained mainstream popularity in the West over recent years. Now, it's found in many pricey brightening skincare products. The fact that turmeric's in skincare doesn't surprise me; after all, my culture has been using it for centuries. What surprises me is the hefty price tag considering it's such an everyday household item in my home country.

Besan (gram flour) as an exfoliating scrub:

A tried and tested method for many grandmothers, mothers, and inadvertently, their daughters, gram flour, fresh cream, and a few drops of lemon juice were seen as the ultimate solution for all skin-related problems. Gram flour is made from chickpeas, which are high in zinc, which fights infections to reduce acne and also reduces the production of sebum in the skin to counter oiliness. This DIY cocktail is good for both face and body scrubs and was often a staple part of young women's beauty routines a few generations ago, with many still swearing by its benefits.

The tradition remains alive and well up to this day. Sajeer Sheikh, a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan, says that out of all the concoctions she's tried, it's the besan scrub she has kept as part of her beauty regimen. "I do have a skincare routine outside the home-based products I grew up with, but from time to time, whenever my skin is feeling dull, I'll go back to using besan because it really does make my skin better," she explains.

Mehendi (henna) as hair dye:

south asian beauty tips henna
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My favorite traditional South Asian beauty practice is the art of Mehendi (henna). Many people may be familiar with henna tattoos, but the beautiful red dye is used for more than just that. Henna is used as a hair dye and is considered an ultra-nourishing conditioner, giving hair a moisturizing treatment and giving it a boost of shine. Sascha Akhtar, the Pakistani author of Necessity and Wanting, says that her mother had a monthly ritual of applying a Mehendi paste to her hair, both for the cooling effect and the rich red color it gave off. 

Despite the variety of hair dyes and salon treatments now available, many older women still prefer the effect of Mehendi on their hair—and for good reason. Studies prove that the henna plant is a rich antioxidant, has antibacterial properties, and is anti-inflammatory, too. It's worth mentioning that the antibacterial properties also make henna a great dandruff treatment and other scalp conditions that could cause hair breakage and loss.

Glycerin-based DIY facial serums: 

My family WhatsApp group has 45 women of all ages, and the key beauty tip that kept coming up came from a popular moisturizing skincare ingredient: glycerin. My great aunt, or as I call her, Amna Chachi (Chachi means paternal aunt), recommends using crushed orange peel powder and adding a few drops of glycerin and almond oil for facial care. She credits her glowy and youthful-looking skin to this fresh-smelling homemade mix. 

Akhtar also has a glycerin-based tip to share. She grew up well in tune with the desi totkas (local beauty trends) of Pakistani society, and her grandmother swore by a bottle of glycerin and local rose water that she applied to her face daily. "My grandmother believed that washing our faces with any kind of soapy wash was the worst thing for it [as it can be drying and stripping], and instead believed you should clean it with glycerin and rose water [to keep skin hydrated]," she shares.