I smiled at the woman sweeping the sidewalk. What WAS that yellow stuff on her face? Trying not to stare, and unable to communicate, but also ridiculously curious, I pointed at my cheeks and gave a questioning shrug. She pointed at her yellow-swirled cheeks and then pointed at the sun. Aha! Sun protection? From beautiful swirls of yellow on her face? I had to know more.
I was visiting herbalist Homprang Chaleekanha at her traditional Thai Herbal Medicine school outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. So the next time I saw Homprang, I just had to ask about the yellow swirls.
Turns out, the yellow swirls were a traditional Burmese beauty treatment made from Thanaka wood (pronounced “Ta-Nah-Kuh”.)
Yes, we were in Thailand, but the popularity of Thanaka wood as a natural sunscreen and beautifying treatment had made its way across the border.
So on my continuing mission to rediscover traditional remedies and beauty treatments, I had to try it myself. (Not that this one needed “rediscovering” – it’s still very alive and well in Myanmar! But it was new to me, so I had to try it…)
Homprang happened to have a Thanaka wood log and traditional grinding slate available (perfect!) so we jumped right in.
Thanaka wood (Murraya spp.) is a perennial tree that grows widely in Myanmar and parts of Thailand. The bark is typically used to apply topically to the skin, and it can take around 35 years for the tree to grow big enough to use for these purposes! (source)
When you’re grinding the wood, it has a woody smell (obviously!), similar to sandalwood. Traditional usage for the wood is for sun protection with a cooling sensation, but also as an acne treatment or for evening out the skin tone. I couldn’t find any studies about the actual SPF of Thanaka wood – but a study from 2010 showed that not only was Thanaka wood safe for the skin, but it contained strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidative compounds in it as well as mild tyrosinase inhibition (to prevent hyperpigmentation.) (source)
How To Make a Thanaka Wood Face Mask
You’ll need a piece of Thanaka wood (which is widely available in markets in Myanmar, but may be available elsewhere.) and a grinding slate.
First, you wet the slate, and then you start rubbing the wood across the slate in a circular motion.
Keep grinding, and occasionally sprinkling on a bit more water, this will take several minutes.
Eventually you’ll start to see a yellow paste forming. When the paste is opaque (so there is a good amount of wood in the water), you can stop and apply it to your skin.
Just apply it with your fingers over your cheeks and forehead in swirls, or you can make artistic patterns. Get creative!
The Burmese women wear Thanaka paste all day long on their skin. So leave it on as long as you’d like. When finished, simply rinse off with water and enjoy your soft, glowing skin.
Have you ever tried a Thanaka wood face mask? Share your experience in the comments.
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