Every morning for the eight months I lived in Rangoon, Burma—a nation that, in the iron grip of a harsh military dictatorship, was more or less cut off from the rest of the world for decades—a lady named Mrs. Campbell would apply a pale yellow paste named Thanaka to my cheeks, nose and forehead.
It was 1979 and Mrs. Campbell—born of an English father and a Burmese mother toward the tail end of the British Raj—was my tutor. Every day, she traveled across Rangoon (now called Yangon) with a small amount of Thanaka nestled in her purse, a powder made from the bark of a tree that grows in Burma and has been a Burmese beauty staple for centuries. As she mixed it up into a smooth paste with a bit of water, she told me it would protect my skin from the harsh rays of the tropical sun and leave it soft, smooth and clear for years to come.
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Back then, though, I was a child with no notion of aging, sun damage or the passage of time, and I despised the cakey feeling of the Thanaka as it hardened on my face. The moment I could, I scrubbed it off, much to Mrs. Campbell’s chagrin. “Just 20 minutes,” she would beg. But I wouldn’t listen.
Flash forward to today: I am in my mid 40s and, for better or for worse, my skin is what it is. Burma (aka Myanmar) is slowly transitioning toward democracy. And the Grande Dame of the Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, after remaining under house arrest for 15 years, plans to run for president in Burma’s 2015 elections.
Long an icon of freedom and human rights, Suu Kyi is quickly becoming a beauty and style icon, too. This year, TIME included the 68-year-old on its list of 100 most influential people in the world, while the British newspaper The Guardian featured her in its “50 Best-Dressed Over 50” list.
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When I see Aung San Suu Kyi’s perfect skin, I regret my lack of diligence with Thanaka. But I do believe that it’s better too late than never at all, particularly because science shows that Thanaka has valuable properties for anyone at any age. Even today, says David Honegger, founder of St. Gallen, Switzerland-based Argo Naturals (which earlier this year began importing pure Thanaka powder from Burma), when westernization is sweeping through Burma and international cosmetic giants are eyeing the country as the next great frontier for their products, the Burmese still swear by what’s been their beauty staple for more than 1,000 years.
“In Burma, women, children and even men apply Thanaka first thing in the morning,” Honneger says. “Some of them paint designs on their cheeks, some cover their entire face with it. Some leave it on for half an hour, some keep it on all night. It really is a unique Burmese tradition and the Burmese are very proud of Thanaka.”
The Hesperethusa crenulata or Limonia acidissima, as the Thanaka tree is formally called, is a common tropical plant species that grows not only in Burma, but also in other parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It’s believed that both the bark and the fruit of this tree contain valuable medicinal properties (in China, the fruit is said to cure stomach problems), but only in Burma is the tree bark traditionally ground down into a powder and then mixed into a watery paste to be used for skincare and cosmetic purposes.
According to a 2010 study performed by researchers at the University of London’s School of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, and published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the Thanaka bark, together with UV absorption properties, make for an ideal daily face pack. The study showed the powdered bark is rich in free radical fighting agents, has an extremely low toxicity and contains properties that inhibit tryosinase, the enzyme responsible for melanin synthesis and skin discoloration, which means it also possesses significant skin-whitening properties.
The gentle, non-toxic nature of the Thanaka bark is safe to use everyday, the research concluded, and as such, “it could be a good candidate source for cosmetic ingredients.”
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And that’s exactly the way things are headed.“Basically Thanaka contains a number of substances that act similar to tannins, which work as an anti-itching product, tighten your skin and work against wrinkles,” Honegger says. “In addition to protecting against free radicals and UV radiation, Thanaka has properties that protect the skin against acne, so if you use it as a face mask, it controls your facial oil and its anti-bacterial properties can remove blackheads and so on.”
Thanaka powder is so versatile that it is compatible with other skincare products, Honneger says. “So if you have a face mask that you use regularly, you can mix Thanaka powder into it, get the benefit of your regular face pack and a lot more.”
Today, more countries across the globe—Thailand, Malaysia, India and some European nations, to name a few—are discovering the virtues of Thanaka, and some cosmetic companies are starting to incorporate the powder into their products.
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Argo Naturals is also working on putting together an entire line of skincare products with Thanaka as their base, Honegger says. Back in the day, my Mrs. Campbell prized her fair, wrinkle-free skin and though she was proud of her British parentage, her diligent usage of Thanaka had much to do with how she looked.
I never saw her again (I have not had the opportunity to go back to Burma). But I know that as I start once again to apply Thanaka face packs to my cheeks and my forehead, I’ll think of Mrs. Campbell and that period in my now distant childhood.