Like many a smart working woman in Kingston, Jamaica, the hustling-bustling capital city, Michelle Yap-McKay pooh-poohed goats’ milk, dismissing it as a common beverage consumed only by the people living in the rural parts of the country where goats roamed free. Even if the grannies and aunties of the villages touted goats’ milk as an elixir for tight, glowing skin and overall good health, it was definitely not on Yap-McKay’s list.
“I was getting physically exhausted and sicker spiritually, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. An herbalist recommended she drink goats’ milk, and very quickly, Yap-McKay realized her grandmother had always been right.
“My skin was softer, clearer, like the layers of old skin had been peeled off and my baby skin was coming out,” she says. In addition to drinking it, Yap-McKay—who also credits goats’ milk for the improvement in her overall well-being—discovered that the fat in it contains high amounts of alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), in particular lactic acid, which sloughs off dead cells when applied topically, “in order to reveal absolutely new skin underneath and lighten and brighten the complexion.” Goats’ milk is also packed with vitamin A, which repairs damaged skin tissue, she says, and minerals such as selenium, which can guard against the effects of the sun.
Today, Yap-McKay is a self-confessed goats’ milk convert and the creator of Ital Blends, a brand of soaps and skincare products that seek to leverage the many benefits of goats’ milk and further enhance its properties by blending the milk with a range of different kinds of plants and herbs that are found in the cool Blue Mountains region of Jamaica where she now lives.
She is also one of a small but growing number of Caribbean beauticians, scientists and entrepreneurs who are pioneering a movement to bring back the many natural treasures that the region abounds with and shed light on the cornucopia of plants, leaves, fruits and flowers of the islands that, although a staple part of health and wellness in the past, have been overshadowed in the region’s recent history.
The islands of the Caribbean weren’t always the resort-laden, tourist havens that they are today. These islands have literally been built up from nothing, and for years, their residents just had to make do with whatever was around them. The list is long, and includes the likes of aloe, sorrel (a variant of the hibiscus flower), papaya, prickly pear cactus, licorice and castor oil seeds, to name a few. These and many others can be found throughout the Caribbean, and in the past were used as health, beauty and nutrition staples by generations of island residents simply because, like the sea that surrounds them, they were just there.
Through the years, poverty, economic duress and distance from the mainland have all posed multiple challenges to development in the Caribbean, but so too has the weather, in particular the blinding heat of the tropical sun. It’s almost a blessing that nature has been so bountiful and that plants like the miraculous aloe, whose leaves contain a gel that is simply bursting with nutrients, enzymes, vitamins, amino acids and minerals, and which calms and cools the skin and protects it against the sun, should abound in the Caribbean. The succulent inner layer of the aloe leaf, which Caribbean folk cut out and consume either as juice or as is, is also full of polysaccharides that help enhance the immune system by enabling cells to weed out the toxins and retain nutrients.
Generations of Caribbean men and women have also used aloe for smoothening out their hair. They have fashioned softening and hydrating face packs out of the papaya fruit, which contains, among other ingredients, lycopene (which protects the skin against UV damage), lutein and enzymes that soothe the skin, and used the leaves of the quaco-bush in lieu of soap for its cleansing properties and as a cure for the common cold.
Aching and sore feet have been relieved with Pepper Elder leaves, which have cooling properties similar to menthol, and the prickly pear cactus, a relative of aloe that contains a rare form of antioxidant known to lower blood sugar levels, has also been used to scrub out sand from between toes and fingers, since it contains lignin that when released, takes on a soap-like consistency.
But as much as bush medicine and natural health and beauty remedies played an important role in the Caribbean’s history, that same history has also shaped and conditioned beauty ideals. The historical inevitabilities of slavery and colonialism in particular have left their indelible mark on the region, so that today, the most coveted facet of beauty is, ironically, the least attainable: light skin.
“The color and the fear of being darker than you are is something that I am sad to say I grew up with, and it is still a top concern in the Caribbean, but not so much from a health angle,” says Patrice Yursik, aka Afrobella, a widely known blogger (she’s on Ebony’s Power 100 list, alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Oprah and the Obamas) who celebrates the natural beauty of black women. “I mean, it’s never presented as ‘you should stay out of the sun because you may get skin cancer,’ but ‘because you will get darker,’ so it’s all about skin bleaching instead of sunscreen.”
Indeed, the widespread usage of skin whitening creams is a huge problem on many islands, particularly Jamaica, where skin bleaching has reached such alarming levels that even the poor are spending fortunes they don’t have on commercial products that claim to lighten the skin, some of which may be loaded with noxious chemicals.
That aside, the prolonged usage of commercial skin lighteners and whitening creams is in and of itself dangerous and extremely detrimental to the skin in the long run, says Cheryl Bowles, a former chief chemist for Nestle and the founder of the Cher-Mere line of natural skincare and beauty. Dark skin produces melanin and this makes it naturally prone to dark spots and hyperpigmentation, she says, both of which become exacerbated by the usage of bleaching creams, particularly in a hot and sunny climate.
Like Yap-McKay, Bowles is also looking to bring more women and men in the Caribbean full circle back to where things began, by focusing her line of skincare products and soaps on the idea of overall well-being. Bowles, who now runs spas in her native Trinidad & Tobago and in Barbados, and who is looking to open outlets in Canada and the United States, is bringing her scientific knowledge and experience back home and works closely with the University of the West Indies to study the Caribbean’s many natural plants and flowers to lend scientific backing to traditional beliefs in their properties.
Take sorrel, for instance. The bright red flower is made into a juice that’s drunk at Christmas time throughout the Caribbean, “but our studies have shown us that it is packed with antioxidants and with vitamin C and E that are vital for good skin, so even if our grandmothers did not have the scientific rationale, they knew from intuition and a sense of nature,” she says. Bowles is also studying the properties of bois-bande, a tree species from St. Lucia whose bark was traditionally consumed for its aphrodisiacal properties, but also has very strong astringent properties (she’s integrated it into a line of aftershaves for men); and licorice, which contains glabridin, an element that suppresses the formation of melanin and therefore lends itself well to the skin lightening many Caribbean women desire.
Thanks to product lines like Cher-Mere, a new generation in the Caribbean is slowly but surely coming back to their roots, Yursik says. But the benefits of the herbs and plants of the region are universal, since the power of nature always transcends boundaries.