Everybody was desperate to know what the Queen of Beikthano used on her skin. It glowed. It looked soft. It was a true queen’s complexion.
Her secret? A 2,000-year-old skincare tradition using water and the precious powder of an ancient Burmese tree: Thanaka.
The History of Thanaka: Myanmar’s Traditional Skincare Treasure
Thanaka is a tree native to Southeast Asia. It grows widely on the soils of Myanmar, which is still referred to as Burma. When the stem of this perennial tree is ground and mixed with water, it creates a light yellow paste that has a variety of benefits, from acting as a sun blocker to a potent skin beautifier.
The origins of Thanaka trace way back to Myanmar’s initial development. Rumours are that the Queen of Beikthano, one of Myanmar’s oldest cities, was a big fan of Thanaka and used it on her skin every day.
In 1930, evidence of the use of Thanaka was found when a strong earthquake toppled the famous Shwemawdaw pagoda. A kyauk pyin, a round slab used for grinding Thanaka logs, was found buried in the debris and later donated to a pagoda as a relic.
Why (and How) Thanaka is Applied to the Face and Body
I first encountered Thanaka when I was in Myanmar for a meeting. As people entered the conference room, several of them had a white paste smeared across their faces. I thought it was strange at first, but later learned that this was part of their daily skincare regimen.
Myanmar’s tropical monsoon climate can be scalding from March through April. For this reason, Burmese people smear a protective layer of Thanaka over their cheeks, forehead and sometimes from head to toe—an all-natural sunscreen. Thanaka’s astringent properties not only improves oily skin, but it also contains menthol which has a cooling and soothing effect.
There are even terms to describe each type of application. Thanaka chi zoun gaung zoun means applying the paste on the whole body for a calming and cooling effect. Thanaka bé gya means applying it in circular or striped patterns. The paste may also be applied in artistic geometric shapes and leaf patterns.
From Plantation to Extraction: How Thanaka Paste is Prepared and Sold
The soil of central Myanmar is rocky and dry. Thanaka trees grow widely on this dry soil, yet they also grow on humid Burmese forests, Malaysian islands, Cambodia and certain parts of Thailand.
As with anything, Thanaka trees start small, growing from tiny plants to relatively large trees. The tree usually reaches 7 to 9 meters, depending on the soil fertility.
What makes Thanaka powder so unique is the fact that the slow-growing trees must age for 35 years (minimum) before being considered good enough to cut down. They’re cut by local villagers who specialize in wood cutting.
The smaller logs are sold raw in local open Myanmar markets, while longer logs are processed into powder in manufacturing facilities. Traders who sell Thanaka estimate that daily sales of the bark paste are worth millions of kyat, which is a great opportunity to sustain poor Myanmar market traders.
The barks are then rubbed and ground on the kyauk pyin, whose handy reservoir can be seen around the stone, which is perfect to accumulate the mixture’s beneficial fluids.
Nowadays, Thanaka can also be sold in pastes and creams for ease of use. However, many Burmese women would rather stick to tradition to ensure purity.
(Source: 365 Travel)
The Thingyan (which means “change”) water festival is held near the month of April—the most important celebration of the year in Myanmar.
Filled by Burmese culture, religious customs, dance and music, this festival makes sure to receive all of the attention it deserves. For three-to-five days, festival goers immerse themselves in gratitude, best wishes and fun activities, which include water splashing. People take buckets, hoses, water guns and even use decorated festive cars to splash water over goers and passersby.
During this time, locals have their faces and bodies smeared with Thanaka paste to protect their faces from the harsh sun—a distinctive feature of Burmese culture.
The Benefits of Thanaka (Backed by Science)
For many years, the healing properties of Thanaka were merely beliefs and suppositions. But now, there are countless studies to support the benefits of coumarin and marmesin, the active ingredients contained in Thanaka.
Heals acne: Coumarin is responsible for Thanaka’s mild antibacterial benefits, which may inhibit bacterial growth and potentially improve acne
Protects the skin from harmful sun rays: Marmesin, another active ingredient in Thanaka, is shown in studies to be a useful UV-A filtering property
Fights free radicals: Thanaka paste is also a strong antioxidant and helps to curb environmental stressors that intensify skin aging
Increases collagen and elastin: Studies show that coumarin also accelerates the production of collagen and elastin in the skin
Anti-inflammatory: During an in vitro experiment, researchers discovered that Thanaka diminished the release of nitric oxide (a free radical), which shows great anti-inflammatory action
Slows the aging process: Coumarin to the rescue again! This powerful ingredient promises to keep skin rejuvenated for a longer time
Reduces and prevents hyperpigmentation: Thanaka’s skin-brightening properties come from its ability to inhibit tyrosinase, an enzyme that triggers melanin synthesis, which may improve dull and uneven skin tone
The many benefits of Thanaka are exactly why it’s one of our signature ingredients. Its rich and nourishing properties are hard to ignore.
We use Thanaka in many of our handmade soaps and bath bombs for its skin-tightening properties and calming effects on irritated skin. And our Thanaka body butter is great for evening out your skin tone and soothing stressed skin. If you need to hit pause on your heavy routine and treat your skin, start with skincare products made with Thanaka.