For hundreds of thousands of years, people from all over the world have tapped into their surroundings to create skin care remedies and makeshift cosmetics, from Cleopatra’s rumored donkey milk baths to a young Dolly Parton using red pokeberries for lipstick. Thanks to innovations in technology and ingredients, the world has come a long way with its heritage beauty formulas. Never in an ancestor's wildest dreams did they think people would be programming a flat iron to custom fit their hair type or curl their lashes with a magnetic mascara.
While you pretty much have every beauty possibility at your fingertips, many of the sacred ingredients and traditions society once swore by years ago are still being embraced today. Rice water, for instance, was used in ancient China and Japan as a skin toner and hair wash, and is experiencing a boom on TikTok and in the consumer market, with more mainstream beauty brands like Shea Moisture and Garnier offering rice-infused products alongside Asian-founded companies like Yensa and MyKirei by KAO.
But beauty can also be thought of as a great connector. Using heritage ingredients in one's beauty routines is a way to honor one's cultures and ancestors, while sharing them with the world, similar to a family recipe. "A lot of older rituals and practices have started to come to the surface," says Gabriela Hernandez, founder of Bésame Cosmetics, cosmetics historian, and author of Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup. "I think people are going back to these traditions that have been passed down through families as something reliable. These are Old World ingredients that have been around forever, but they do work."
Hernandez also points out the impact the pandemic may have on one's desire to use ingredients that are meaningful in their cultures. "We've been separated from other people for a long time, so if you had any connection to older people in your family, you probably are missing it, or have lost it," she says. "We're seeking comfort, and that's another reason why we're going back to the things our grandmas did or mom did. I think it has also prompted an appreciation of things that our people used, and adopting some of these practices, we feel a closeness to that part of our family and can also connect with our roots."
Ahead are six culturally rich ingredients and formulas that you should consider adding to your beauty routine, and the brands that are helping them come to life in the modern beauty world.
Heritage Beauty Ingredients: Aceite de Moska
Aceite de moska ("fly oil") is a scalp oil that originates from the Dominican Republic and is commonly used in Latinx households to encourage hair growth, increase shine and moisture, and improve the overall health of the hair. However, according to Babba Rivera, founder and CEO of hair care brand Ceremonia, the old-school aceite de moska formula doesn’t come with a transparent ingredient list to support those claims, and typically contains mineral oil and an artificial blue dye that doesn’t have any real benefit.
Ceremonia pays homage to the tradition of aceite de moska with a more modern approach. "With our formula, we wanted to create a new-age version of this long-cherished ritual by formulating it with a nutrient-rich cocktail of natural ingredients and following today’s standard for clean beauty," says Rivera. The entrepreneur made sure to source ingredients that were "as clean and effective as possible, with the belief that there’s so much power in Mother Earth." One look at the ingredient list and you’ll notice native plants and super fruits that are known for their hydrating and restorative properties, such as aloe vera, maracuja, açaí, and babassu, alongside which Latin American countries they were sourced from.
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Heritage Beauty Ingredients: Beldi
Morocco is the birthplace of many ancient beauty traditions and secrets, from the hammam spas to using red lava clay as a face mask. While traveling to Morocco, Dehiya founder Mia Chae Reddy met a fourth-generation herbalist whose pharmacy had been in his family for over a century. "I fell in love with the way their beauty rituals were closely connected to the land and nature," she says. Reddy returned to the U.S., inspired to share the Moroccan beauty traditions in a beautiful and meaningful way. Beldi, also known as Moroccan black soap, has been used to cleanse, exfoliate, and moisturize the skin for centuries. While the original beldi soap is made with olive oil and ground olives, Dehiya’s uses 100% organic, cold-pressed argan oil sourced from the Argan Forest of Morocco.
Reddy also says it was important for her to take a critical look at beauty on a global level just as it was to formulate the products using high-performing, plant-based ingredients. "When we talk about natural and whole plant beauty, there is little credit given to enslaved African herbalists, healers, doulas, and witch-doctors who shared their knowledge throughout the African diaspora," explains Reddy. "I wanted to celebrate some of these ancient practices and include them in the narrative."
Heritage Beauty Ingredients: Pili Oil
While the benefits of many ancestral beauty ingredients from all over the world are well known and used by many brands today, there are also those that are just now being discovered. Take, for instance, the pili nut. Pili trees are grown in the Bicol region of the Philippines, and the pili nut has long been known among Filipinos (including my Bicolana mom) as a delicious superfood snack packed with nutrients. But what’s even more interesting about the pili tree is that it produces two types of oils, each with its own different benefits.
"Pili oil has been used for centuries by the locals in the Bicol region as an aide for the traditional hilot massage and albularyos (herbal healers) to help cure certain skin ailments faster," says Pili Ani founder Rosalina Tan. The brand’s Ageless Concentrate is the first and only product that uses both of these oils — pili oil, which is made from the pulp, is rich in antioxidants and has deep moisturizing properties; and elemi oil, which has firming and antibacterial properties. Tan also hints that elemi sap has been used by “a famous French brand” in its firming cream for more than a decade. "Elemi has a very calming and soothing aroma that helps quiet the senses and has been used for ages by fragrance companies," she says.
Tan says that the pili tree was valued only as a food for the longest time. "I saw it as a great opportunity to help uplift the lives of the local farmers and started buying these oils, and before I knew it we were able to create a new livelihood for the farmers," she explains. Eventually, her daughter Mary Jane took the business to the next level by investing in clinical studies and laboratory tests to help formalize pili nut oil into a sustainable business. Tan explains that Pili ("chosen" in Tagalog) and Ani ("harvest") was a way to broaden awareness of this hidden treasure, and to show the world that the Philippines can be on par with other global beauty brands that share the same goals and ideals of sourcing their ingredients through sustainable and ethical means. "We want to be transparent to every customer, to know that in every part of the process, that we did it right from seed to skin," she says.
Heritage Beauty Ingredients: Pearl Extract
Before she launched Orcé Cosmetics in 2019, Yu-Chen Shih spent over a year studying Asian skin and developing her formula with the help of an Asian dermatologist and top chemist. She focused on ingredients that would tackle concerns specific to Asian skin, one of these being Tahitian pearl extract, which has a special place in Shih’s heart. "When I was a little girl, my mother would feed me a tiny teaspoon of grounded pearls," says Shih. "She told me that it was the 'Rolls Royce of all beauty treatments.'"
Shi says that pearls have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and that the Empress Wu Zetian of China was known to incorporate pearls in her health and skin care regimen. "Pearls contain nacre, which is clinically proven to stimulate collagen production, boost moisture levels, and speed up wound healing," she says. "It is also known to help brighten skin and fade hyperpigmentation."
Heritage Beauty Ingredients: Kajal
Kajal, also known as kohl, may be a commonly known eye product in the beauty world, but it has a long history for many South Asians. "Wearing kajal is so embedded in our South Asian heritage that, often, it's not even considered makeup. Nazar, or the evil eye, holds a place across continents and cultures; and in ours, kajal is utilized as an amulet for protection against it," explains Kulfi Beauty founder Priyanka Ganjoo. Often, babies are dotted with kajal when they are born, which is what Ganjoo’s parents did. "Applying kajal is a ritual which infuses love, care, and protection," she says. "As a teenager, it was the first beauty product I stole from my mom’s vanity and got scolded for it. So to be able to recreate it for Gen-Z and millennial South Asians, that’s very special."
Traditionally, kajals were made with the black ash from burnt almonds and mixing it with ghee or castor oil to form a thick paste. Kulfi took inspiration from the original method, creating vibrant pigments using a unique combination of emollients and waxes that are infused with moisturizing and soothing aloe vera and vitamin E. When Ganjoo spoke to other South Asians for research, she realized that some of their makeup journeys started with kajal but they moved away from it. "I think subconsciously I wanted us to reclaim that carefree look where we draw colorful lines around our eyes and feel beautiful," she says. "So many people are intimidated by eyeliner because they can’t get that perfect wing. I set out to not let this idea of perfection get in the way of play."
Heritage Beauty Ingredients: Turmeric
The ancient Indian healing system Ayurveda has become more prevalent in the Western world in recent years, thanks in part to the benefits of turmeric. It’s been used for thousands of years to treat everything from arthritis to indigestion, due to its scientifically-proven anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. This, among turmeric’s other advantages, easily lends itself to skin care. Yellow Beauty CEO and co-founder Jaz Fenton only used turmeric for cooking until her husband and co-founder Jamil Bhuya introduced it to her as a beauty ingredient. "When Jamil suggested I try it on my skin, I was so intrigued! It made sense, turmeric's amazing anti-inflammatory power doesn't just work internally, but topically too," she says.
Bhuya points out how Ayurveda has been popular in South East Asia for centuries, even though it may seem like a new trend. "I think it's great that we have so much knowledge at our fingertips, but we can't forget the history of where these wellness practices came from," he says. "I think as humans, we're inherently drawn to the idea of holistic, natural healing in a world full of quick fixes that ignore the root of the problem."
It's clear modern consumers are looking for an authentic link between an ingredient or trend and its history, while also demanding more transparency across the board, says Michelle Ranavat, founder and CEO of Ranavat, a botanical skin care brand inspired by Ayurvedic principles and the beauty rituals of Indian royalty. Like Hernandez, she points out how the pandemic has affected our beauty and wellness routines, but to a different point. "The events of the past year have really further clarified how important stress management and diet and lifestyle contribute to beauty. Ayurveda is exactly about this mind-body connection," she says. "We’re no longer chasing a specific look or trend. like baking and contouring, but rather embracing our skin and using makeup to enhance, but not change."