Thanaka: The Natural Secret to Burmese Beauty

If you’ve ever met someone from Myanmar, you might have noticed something about their skin. 

The Burmese people, particularly Burmese women, are known to have some of the most pristine skin in the world. It’s as if something about their skincare regime keeps their complexion glowing and blemish-free. 

It’s not just the women, though. Men, children, and the elderly all seem to share these features. 

It must be genetic, right?

Well, the answer might surprise you. 

In Myanmar (officially the Republic of Myanmar), people don’t typically rely on complicated skincare formulas packed in glass bottles like much of the rest of the world. 

Instead, they use an all-natural cosmetic product called thanaka. 

Thanaka is an all-organic material used for cultural expression, health, and beauty, and it is an age-old symbol of Burmese culture.

Thanaka comes from the thanaka tree. Thanaka is a common tree throughout Southeast Asia and grows well into India and Sri Lanka, and they have played an important role in Southeast Asian cultures for hundreds and thousands of years. 

The thanaka tree’s bark, or sometimes the stem bark (roots of thanaka trees), is ground down into a pale-yellow powder before being mixed with water to make a liquidy paste. 

People use thanaka for numerous purposes. Natural sun protection, makeup, artistic expression, and religious reasons – and many swear by its ability to keep their skin vibrant and flawless. 

Thanaka products aren’t religiously specific, either. It’s worn by Muslims, Buddhists, and various ethnic groups around Southeast Asia. 

If you ever step foot in Myanmar, you can expect to see nearly everyone dawning this bold, beautiful yellow paste. 

Below, we take a closer look at the many benefits of this raw-material product and explore why it’s such an integral part of Burmese culture. 

We also give you insight into where to find thanaka products and how to use them for envy-inducing skin.

A Brief History of Thanaka Paste in Southeast Asia

a burmese woman sells thanaka powder at an outdoor market

Let’s travel back to the 14th century. 

The first mention of thanaka was in a poem from King Rajadhirat’s Court. 

The poem spoke of how the queen loved the smell of thanaka and how it did wonders for her skin. Thanaka gave her skin a soft, blemish-free glow, enough so that the ancient Burmese lyrics are still referenced today. 

Thanaka was also mentioned in the 15th-century literary works of a Burmese monk-poet by the name of Shin Ratthasara (1486-1529). 

Who knew a paste made from tree bark would be part of daily life for ancient royalty?

Although thanaka wasn’t documented by writing until a 14th century poem, it has likely been used for much longer. 

Stone slabs used to grind thanaka bark (Kyauk Pyins) were found on numerous regional excavations, some of which are estimated to be over 2000 years old. 

Thanaka Benefits

infographic explaining the benefits of thanaka

Many people, especially in Southeast Asia, swear to numerous benefits of thanaka paste. 

The thanaka tree, known in other parts of the world by common names of sandalwood, contains coumarin and marmesin – the active ingredients that provide all the magic. 

Coumarin is the primary source of the earthy fragrance and acts as a natural moisturizer with beneficial bioactive compounds, while marmesin is confirmed to be effective against the sun’s harmful UV rays. 

The natural consortium of ingredients in thanaka tree bark is 100% organic, and all elements work together to brighten, moisturize, and protect the skin against free radicals. 

Thanaka is rich in vitamin E and provides a cooling sensation or cooling effect for your skin on hot days. It even prevents wrinkles without any harmful effects on those who wear it.

The properties of thanaka are great for all sorts of health issues, and it even protects against e. coli.

Talk about an all-around product!

Does Thanaka Help with Acne?

pieces of thanaka wood in a basket next to a Kyauk Pyin

If your skin is prone to breakouts, thanaka has your back! 

Since pure thanaka powder is known to have antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-microbial properties, it is widely used in Myanmar as an acne treatment for certain skin types. 

Thanaka can also effectively remove acne scars and skin blemishes. 

Combining thanaka powder with turmeric powder, a standard anti-inflammatory skincare product, can do wonders for your skincare routine, giving you soft, blemish-free skin. 

Is Thanaka Used for Hair Removal?

Another exciting and interesting use for thanaka is hair removal. 

When mixed with safflower oil, thanaka paste can briefly remove hair from your body. 

If the mixture is used for extended periods (typically 3-4 months), it permanently weakens the hair roots, makes hair thinner, and eventually stops growing altogether. 

Interesting fact: Thanaka is also called healing bark, and rightly so!

What Types of Products are Made from Thanaka?

products made from thanaka wood

There are numerous applications and uses for thanaka, many of which are applied in different forms. 

Thanaka bark is pulverized and made into a fine powder, thanaka cream, thanaka paste, natural medicine, handmade soap, and more. 

One shop in Mandalay sells over 80 different thanaka products – all of which serve varying and diverse functions, such as natural sunscreens, makeup, whitening cream, detox solutions, and skincare products. 

How is Thanaka Harvested and Processed?

light brown colored thanaka wood on a grey stone slab

Thanaka trees (Hesperethusa crenulata) are harvested in the dry regions of central Myanmar. They commonly grow along the Irrawaddy River banks, which flow north to south in Myanmar. 

While you can use any thanaka tree to make thanaka products, the local people prefer naturally grown or wild thanaka, as it is believed to hold more “magic” than farmed thanaka.

Thanaka trees are perennials that usually grow for about 35 years before they are considered mature enough for thanaka powder. The wood’s age is said to have a direct effect on the quality of harvest – so most thanaka products and materials are sourced from mature trees. 

The tree branches are cut down and sawed into smaller hand-size pieces – ideal for grinding. The small logs are then dried in direct sunlight to alleviate moisture and prevent bacteria from forming. 

How is Thanaka Paste Made?

Thanaka products come from the bark of the thanaka tree, which has a number of different names, including sandalwood, wood-apple (Limonia acidissima), curd fruit tree, or monkey fruit tree. 

Thanaka bark is pulverized and ground into a powder using a flat, circular stone slab called a kyauk pyin – somewhat similar to a pestle. A small amount of water are added to the bark during the grinding process to help break down the wood material. 

The production process is an uphill task and takes several hours to complete. 

After the bark is made into a powder, it dries in the sun for up to a week. After it’s finished, the thanaka powder remains active and good to use for 2-3 years. 

Are Thanaka Products Environmentally Friendly?

Yes, yes, and yes! Thanaka products are environmentally friendly and contain all-natural ingredients. They produce no waste and are as natural as the plants used to repel mosquitoes

Think of it like this: when you use traditional thanaka products, you work towards making your skin flawless while minimizing the use of modern makeup, which can have awful environmental consequences and include synthetic chemicals. 

Modern makeup also produces a lot of waste, so avoiding makeup translates to a reduced carbon footprint. 

Thanaka trees are regenerative and are grown locally with the help of sustainable farming techniques. It’s an ecological product with minimal destructive traits, so the environmental safety of thanaka is a non-issue. 

How to Use Thanaka at Home

burmese boy wearing pale yellow thanaka paste on his face and holding a bright pink umbrella

So, how should you apply thanaka once you get your hands on it? 

Thanaka can be used in a variety of ways, most of which involve applying it to the face. Some people don’t draw the line there, though.

Some Burmese people mix ground thanaka powder with water and drink the mixture.

For the sake of this article, and since we don’t know much about thanaka as an edible plant, we’re going to stick to using it as a skincare product.

To use thanaka at home, you can apply a thin layer on your face and neck like a moisturizer. This should keep your skin happy and healthy when done routinely. 

As we said above, thanaka is also a fantastic product for sun protection. To use thanaka as a sunscreen, apply a thicker layer on the cheeks, forehead, and the bridge of the nose – as those areas are more exposed to the sun. 

To apply the yellowish paste artistically or culturally, use your hands or a brush to create a design. You can even cover or smear your entire face and wear it like a face mask. 

In Myanmar, the Burmese people often use their hands to pattern attractive designs differently every day. Depending on the day or occasion, tools may be used to create a more intricate or a more spiritual pattern. 

The elegant leaf design is a particularly popular design used by the people of Myanmar.

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