In modern day Myanmar, people still use the traditional cosmetic known as Thanaka, as a daily cosmetic and skin conditioner. Thanaka is made from the branches of the sandalwood tree, (linoria acidissimia) When ground, the bark of the Thanaka tree, it is claimed, acts as an astringent, sunscreen and antiseptic.

Thanaka: The Burmese Beauty Secret.

In Myanmar, Carla Sommers discovers the beauty secrets of the Burmese and finds that beauty is not only skin deep at times, but that one prized beauty product comes not from the factory, but the forest….

Every culture and society had its own notions of beauty. From the pale faces of the Japanese geishas to the tattooed features of the Maoris. To enhance our perception of beauty there are many herbal and man-made preparations that, over the centuries have become de rigeur, from Egyptian kohl eyeliner, to scented hair oils and nowadays, makeup.

I n modern day Myanmar, people still use the traditional cosmetic known as Thanaka, as a daily cosmetic and skin conditioner. Thanaka is made from the branches of the sandalwood tree, (linoria acidissimia) When ground, the bark of the Thanaka tree, it is claimed, acts as an astringent, sunscreen and antiseptic.

It is a common sight on the streets of most towns and cities to see people with swipes of powdery yellow paint on their cheeks, noses or arms. The yellow comes from the juice of the ground bark. There is nothing so unusual about using bark preparations for beauty purposes in Myanmar – hair is made extra glossy by boiling an extract from the tayaw shrub and even elephants get a body scrub with sticks of the aptly-named Soap tree!

In 1904, a French traveller to Rangoon (nowadays called Yangon) described how

“All about (the) small buildings and on the steps of the intensely decorated pavilions…are… sellers of …aromatic barks”.

It is applied in strict routine; first to the ears, then to the throat, the face, and lastly the rest of the body.

Women sometimes mix it with cream, then take a coarse toothbrush and stroke lines through it, while young men may dab it on a blemish, here and there, sometimes giving the impression of a yellow Dalmatian!

The pale dusty powder can range from palest primrose to deep ochre. Children and babies seem to be daubed in it, sometimes with circles painted on their cheeks and stripes along their noses! Even in the cinema posters the local movie stars are portrayed wearing their beloved Thanaka!

Women may use a leaf template to make an elegant stencil on their cheeks, or some carefully paint a square, however most folk just smear it over their faces or bodies, and at night they appear quite ghostly, especially if their lips are painted with lipstick.

Thanaka is a prized wood, in 1958 The Forest Act (a product of the former British colonial government) added Thanaka trees to its list of protected trees such as teak, stating:

“no person shall collect or remove for trade purposes…Thanaka wood and bark”.

The cosmetic appears in many forms; in its raw – and highly prized – state it will be sold in markets in small 10- 18cm long branches and logs. These are ground vertically, round and round, on a special flat circular whetstone with a few drops of water, producing a milky yellow liquid that is then immediately applied to the skin. While wet it is virtually translucent but in an hour, it dries to a rich yellow crust.

Dried tablets of Thanaka in varying sizes are also available from street peddlers, who also sell it in the pre-fabricated form of a strongly fragrant soft paste, like a putty, though many point out that this is the ‘poor man’s’ Thanaka. The most prized Thanaka comes from the region around Mandalay, some say towns like Saigaing on the banks of the Irrawaddy, produces the best logs, others claim Shwepo Thanaka is the best.

Whichever Thanaka you choose, the liquid works fast at tightening the skin and covering blemishes. In hot, arid climates like that of Pagan, dry European skins may find it too astringent, but as an impromptu herbal sun screen it is invaluable.

Even if you do not buy a stick to take home, the sight and smells of the unique yellow-painted faces of the Burmese people are an unforgettable part of the memories of Myanmar, as are the smiles of this great nation of gentlefolk.

Sindhiya Enterprise Bangladesh is the main source of supply of natural products.

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