Akanksha Singh grew up believing that if something came in a glass bottle with French label and a dropper, it had to be good. But after losing her job, struggling to pay bills, and battling adult acne at 25, she decided to take a leaf from her grandmother’s book.
My first memory of my grandmother’s naturopathic beauty regime was her using milk, yogurt, and powdered orange peels to cleanse and exfoliate. I remember this distinctly because for days (or weeks – for what is time when you’re five?) the peels sat on her kitchen window sill in the sunlight. Once dry, she’d grind them using a mortar and pestle, sieve the resulting powder and decant it into a tiny bottle.
Still, being a third-culture kid, raised in the Emirates and schooled in a very English school, I grew up believing that if something came in an expensive dark bottle with a dropper and a French label, it had to be better. After all, what my grandmother was doing was essentially using kitchen scraps and pantry items to concoct scrubs and masks for herself. And if there was one thing I’d learned from my teen classmates (all of whom wore Liz Claiborne totes as book bags), it was this: free was bad. And, since I was an Indian kid outside India, it was doubly bad. Indians were, according to my classmates, ‘cheap’ - which meant I had to be the opposite, even if it meant rejecting my roots.
While I eventually outgrew the contempt I had for my own culture, the need to buy the best in skincare and cosmetics stuck. And with good reason, I’d thought, since I’d gone through adolescence without much acne.
Shortly after turning 25, though, real life struck. I lost my first big job and found myself struggling to pay bills. My hair started thinning at their roots, and I developed adult acne - the lumpy type that hides under the skin before eventually erupting into a large, painful whitehead. I didn’t have the time or money to go to a dermatologist, and, frankly, seeing as I’d gotten through my teen years okay, I figured it would pass.
I researched what was happening to my hair and skin extensively: hormonal changes, stress, sleep, caffeine, anxiety, stress eating junk food, going off the pill, allergens to beware of, active ingredients that’d ease my vanity. I spent hours researching ‘cures’ on YouTube, and I’d spend whatever little money I could afford on products at the local pharmacy.
And nothing worked.
After wasting more time online in forums, researching what skincare products I should and shouldn’t have in my bathroom, I stumbled across a bunch of naturopathic recipes. The type that involved items that I had in my fridge or pantry.
Despite having avoided the cheap, homemade fixes all my life, I decided to try one. In desperation, I pulled out my never-used jar of manuka honey and dotted it over a few blind pimples I’d already iced, and, as a YouTube tutorial had suggested, stuck plasters over them. When I woke the next morning, the pimples felt ever so slightly less prominent.
I wasn’t convinced: I’m someone who likes instant results, and this is especially true when I’m going against my instincts. For some reason, though, maybe quiet desperation, I decided to commit to this honey ‘treatment’ for a week. I felt better. Calmer; there was hope. So much so, that, when I spoke to my grandmother on one of our weekend phone calls, I told her about my little experiment.
“How did you get into all this?” I asked her, referring to her homemade masks.
“It was just something we did in my day,” she replied, “we had to have good skin - there wasn’t that much makeup around those days and the only soap on the market was Pears. And that’s horribly drying, you know.”
I never considered that my grandmother did these things out of necessity. She didn’t have foundations that fit her skintone entirely, or all the toners and cleansers I did. And, like most people back then, she barely used shampoos growing up - it was soap or nothing. My grandmother, it turned out, used “no ‘poo” before it had a name: “We used to have this jug of dried gooseberries steeped in water that we’d use to rinse our hair in the summer months,” she said.
“My mother used to use a drop of ghee on her face after a shower - while there was still the tiniest amount of water on her face - to moisturise. It’s great you’re doing this… it’s good to know what works for you.”
These beauty recipes, I’d soon find out, were sort of like food ones. Indian women pass them on from generation to generation, and they alter with each iteration. When my skin dried up in winter, at my grandmother’s suggestion, I tried adding dried pomegranate (anar dana) to my face mask to help exfoliate the dry skin.
Eventually, all these home remedies crept into my beauty regime. Everything I’d avoided as a child before leaving India, including my mother’s insistence on oiling my hair every Sunday before tying it into a thick braid, became things I enjoyed. Things I did for me, and things I was glad to know came out of something the women in my life had done for me out of care.
By the time I got back to working, my skin was almost back to normal, and by the time turmeric was trendy, I’d already worked out the ratio of turmeric powder to yoghurt that worked for me. At that point, I had the choice of going back to the products I used when I had good skin, but chose not to. Instead, I continued using rosewater in place of my toner, and conditioning my hair with the tiniest drop of coconut oil, and exfoliating with my grandmother’s honey-orange-milk-yogurt mixture. My skin wasn’t the same by the time I’d gone back to work and neither was I: in it’s own way, my new beauty regime made me closer to my grandmother, and my story.