These are the ancient beauty rituals that actually work – and are still used today

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From turmeric face masks to gua sha facial massage, four women share their current day beauty rituals that stem from their cultural upbringing.

This week’s guest editor, the inimitable Yara Shahidi, has spoken widely about how her Iranian background has inspired the use of cardamom to cleanse her skin.

To celebrate that, we spoke to four women and asked them to share how their own cultural upbringing plays a part in their beauty regime today.

Keep reading to discover the benefits of a homemade turmeric face mask, the multiple uses African black soap has, how black castor oil’s magical properties can work wonders on thirsty hair, and the joy of incorporating daily gua sha facial massage into your routine.

Hanna Ibraheem employs the skin brightening benefits of a turmeric face mask, made from a family recipe used by her Yemeni mum

Ancient beauty rituals: turmeric is used for its skin-brightening properties

Long before it became a staple in morning lattes, turmeric – also known as ‘haldi’ – has been heralded in Asian culture for its skincare benefits.

The first time I became aware of it, I was 12 years old, and my mum was sat on the sofa with a clear glass bowl containing less than a quarter teaspoon of turmeric powder mixed with half a spoon of gram flour (to avoid staining, I later learnt) and a drizzle of olive oil – or a small dollop of aloe vera oil. It’s a recipe that’s been passed down through generations for centuries, and she would sit and mix it for two minutes until it transformed into a gloopy, orange paste. 

Then I would stare at her in awe as she smeared it all over her face. A few years later, when my interest in skincare started to grow, I asked her to mix up a mask for me, too. I soon learnt that applying this homemade concoction once a week, leaving it for around 15 minutes at a time, did wonders for my skin. It looked and felt fresher, brighter, clearer.

From then on it became an inherent part of my routine: the ritual of making the mask and slathering it on my face reminded me of home when I moved away for university. I came to rely on my mum’s trusty formula, and while my friends were splashing their student loans on expensive products from department stores that never seemed to work quite so well, I was able to continue making my own without going into my overdraft. It left me feeling quite smug, as if I was privy to a revolutionary beauty secret that just so happened to date back centuries. Eager to share the recipe, I used to mix masks for my friends who felt brave enough to try it, the ones who weren’t worried that it would end up staining their face.

Turmeric’s skincare properties are now celebrated, with many big brands using it in their products. As well as leaving skin radiant, it’s also anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial – so it helps to stop the spread of potentially harmful bacteria – which in turn helps prevent future blemishes. In fact, its benefits are so wide-ranging, the ingredient is applied to Asian brides’ and grooms’ faces, necks, hands and feet during a ‘pithi’ ceremony to help cleanse and purify skin before their wedding day. Friends and family take it in turns to smear the turmeric – which is mixed with oil, milk or rose water (it differs family to family). Centuries ago in India, some families performed the ceremony up to five times in the run up to the wedding day.

Even now, 18 years later and in a job that means I have a plethora of incredible face masks at my disposal, I still find myself turning to that same recipe that I learnt from my mum. It’s part of my heritage and, in an industry where my culture sometimes feels forgotten, it remains an intrinsic part of my beauty routine.


Ancient beauty rituals: Gua sha is used in traditional Chinese massage

When my paternal grandmother got married in 1952, her family could only afford two things for her dowry. The first was a set of porcelain bowls, hand-painted with coral chrysanthemums, a symbol of hope for a bountiful table and a big family to dine at it. The second was a gua sha, a wedge of jade used in traditional Chinese facial massage. Long before Gwyneth Paltrow Gooped-out over scraping your face to encourage lymphatic drainage, my Amah was doing it as part of her heritage. A true trendsetter.

To this day, she takes her gua sha and methodically runs it over her face in smooth, elegant motions every evening. I was obsessed with this ritual as a child. I would sit at the foot of her bed and watch her, rapt, as she smiled at me in the mirror’s reflection. She once gave me the gua sha to hold, and I remember how cold and heavy it felt in my hands. When I got older, she showed me how to do it myself, taking my big, clumsy wrist in her tiny hands to guide my movements. Today, I do a gua sha ritual of my own once a week with a rose quartz roller purchased from, er, Goop. I hope one day that my grandmother will pass on her jade gua sha tool to me.

I’m mixed-race and have sometimes struggled to connect with Chinese approaches to beauty because I don’t adhere to many of their cultural standards. I’m darker-skinned when lighter skin is prized as a status symbol. My hair is a big, wavy mass rather than poker-straight. Like Lucy Liu – the only Asian face I remember seeing in magazines growing up – I have so many freckles, which are considered a blemish by some Chinese women. But learning about gua sha when I was young made me feel Chinese when perhaps I wasn’t having my Chinese-ness reflected back to me in the media.

That, plus my grandmother’s simple approach to skincare, which consists of a good moisturiser and lots of water, along with my Australian mum’s devotion to sun protection helped me build my own beauty identity. A little Australian, a little Chinese, and all mine.


Ancient beauty rituals: African black soap has been hand made for centuries

When I was growing up I went to Nigeria every summer to visit my grandma. I’d spend weeks in the village where she lived, watching her make black soap – something that’s been treasured for centuries by Africans thanks to its natural healing properties.

First, she’d gather leaves from different plants, vegetables and fruit – things like cocoa pods and plantain. Some of them grew around where she lived, but others she had to travel far to collect. I distinctly remember watching her pound everything together, mixing the leaves before burning it all to turn it into ash. Then she’d mix that ash – which is where the soap gets its colour and name from – with shea butter and press it together with her hands. The softer it was, the better. Then it would be stored in a hole that she’d dug under her hut, a place away from direct sunlight so it wouldn’t melt.

I didn’t really understand what she was doing until I was older, but black soap has been a crucial part of my personal regime since I was about 12 years old. I remember having a rash and my mum suggested I try using it for a week. That was the same time I learnt how sensitive my skin was, but using the soap didn’t exacerbate the problem; instead it helped to fix it. Now I’ve been washing with it every day for almost 15 years. I did deviate for a while, mostly while I had acne. I wanted to use different products to resolve it.

After trying – and failing – with other ingredients, I eventually learnt that simplicity worked best, so I went back to black soap and water. The other thing I like about it is that it’s entirely natural: there’s a big focus on natural skincare at the minute and I don’t like using things like face wipes because of the effect they have on the environment, but the joy of this is that it’s quick, simple, effective and it doesn’t have any repercussions on the planet. I’ve even introduced it to my friends who were looking for natural skincare remedies – 100% natural versions can be hard to find in the UK, but it’s usually found in its purest form from most black-owned beauty brands or on Amazon.

Sadly, my grandma died last year but I like that I can use black soap and be constantly reminded of the memories from those summers I spent watching her make it. I didn’t appreciate the cultural impact it had back then, but now I really understand the importance and that makes me feel more connected to my roots.


Ancient beauty rituals: Black castor oil helps condition hair

When I was six years old, my dad decided my hair was Bad. He’d wrestled with it since the day I was born – my mum recalls him cradling me on the day I came home, slicking down my tight coils with claggy creams only for them to instantly spring back up towards the sky.

Raised on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada by an old-school matriarch, he was only acting on that he’d been led to believe: that afro hair is messy, that it needs to be tamed, that it’s perfectly normal for a child to cry every time their hair is combed. By the time I was six, my dad realised he was fighting a losing battle. He sat me in the bath and slathered my hair with pungent chemicals until it fell limply down my back. It was Good at last.

Over the next few years, my hair barely grew an inch. Dry and damaged, it drew tuts and shaking heads from my aunties and cousins in Grenada when we went to visit. “It’s a shame what you’ve done to the child. Don’t you know her hair needs castor oil to keep it strong?” one said, another already parting my hair and rubbing the tar-like oil onto my scalp like it was second nature. There was no pulling, tugging or taming, just soft hands working away, nourishing my endlessly thirsty hair. It felt wonderful.

I listened intently as my cousins told me what to ask for at the local hairdresser (“black castor oil, 100% natural, make sure there’s nothing nasty added in”) and I went home with six bottles tucked in my suitcase and the instruction to use it as an overnight treatment once a week. In their straight-talking way, the Caribbean women in my life had given me the single best piece of beauty advice I’d ever receive. Back then, I only knew that the castor oil made my hair feel more hydrated and healthy than anything that had come before. Now, I know its unique blend of fatty acids and antioxidants brought my hair back from the brink after years of chemical relaxing, cleansing my scalp and locking in moisture in a double whammy that helped it flourish in its natural state.

To this day, I marinate my thick curls in castor oil once a week without fail – its earthy scent marks the beginning of my Sunday evening self-care routine. My hair is now healthier and longer than it’s ever been, and I have no doubt that’s down to the castor oil. Despite it being readily available where I live, whenever one of my relatives comes back from a trip to Grenada they dutifully pass on the black bottles my family have sent for me – a gesture of love and a reminder that my hair is worthy of it, too.

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Photography: Agata Pec / Getty

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Lucy Partington

Freelance beauty editor Lucy Partington is obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she'll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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