In the 1963 film “Cleopatra”, the Queen of Egypt played by Elizabeth Taylor rejects an invitation from Mark Antony’s messenger, as she lies naked in a milk-filled bathtub covered with flowers, playing unassumingly with a golden ship. .
The film may have had its own problems, such as the famous quarrels between Taylor and his love interest, Richard Burton, but its iconography is well known. In ancient Egypt, queens and goddesses were admired for their power and sensuality and for their deep associations with the natural world, motherhood and healing.
Taylor’s Cleopatra is often seen bathing and being pampered, as the character would have been in real life. The beauty rituals of the rich in ancient Egypt were long and complex, starting with long baths of milk infused with saffron oil.
But none of these elements were accidental. Lactic acid would help exfoliate the skin, while turmeric has been used to treat a number of conditions for thousands of years.
This spice is carefully harvested from the orange stigmas of the purple flower. crocus sativus. Grown in the hot, dry belt from Spain in the west to Kashmir in the east, saffron is known as “red gold” due to its intensity and cost of production.
The flowers need to be hand-picked at dawn and their thin branches are delicately shaved. It takes nearly 9,000 flowers to generate just 50 grams of saffron threads.
Today, its price is already high and, as climate change threatens its cultivation, it should go up even more.
Compared to the futuristic allure of some of today’s best-selling products, the stark reality of saffron’s origins may seem irrelevant. After all, who cares where things come from while applying a super cream that costs R $ 500 a jar?
A report by the NPD group, which specializes in market research, concluded in 2021 that 68% of consumers want skin care products formulated with “clean” ingredients, that is, without artificial chemicals such as PFA (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds). . , parabens and phthalates.
In response to industry demands for greater accountability, a group of major beauty brands launched the EcoBeautyScore Consortium to establish an environmental impact assessment system with global transparency.
And, in a similar initiative, the new Coalition B Beauty intends to collect individual certifications to address the significant impacts caused by the sector.
Interest in natural and organic ingredients continues to grow, reaching $ 11.9 billion in 2020, a 2.9% year-on-year increase, according to UK research firm Ecovia Intelligence.
And, in this brave new world that deals with social and natural equality, the rituals and natural ingredients used by Cleopatra provide a rich source of inspiration.
“We were taught to ignore traditions and look for products ‘straight from the laboratory’,” according to natural beauty guru Imelda Burke in her book. The nature of beauty (“The nature of beauty”, in free translation), from 2016.
“But while the new developments are important, there is a lot we can learn from our ancestors.”
Rose oil, for example, has a long history in the Middle East. Turkey, which is still one of the world’s largest producers, has been cultivating its passion for purified rose water for 2,000 years. Currently the oil can be found in modern versions, selling for a considerable amount.
And no wonder: packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to moisturize the skin, the world’s most admired flower is an anti-inflammatory that can be used to soothe irritated skin while retaining its signature garden scent.
Turmeric is another example. Although its demand in the Western world has increased in recent years (not just in café au lait), this bright yellow root has been essential in Ayurvedic practice for over 4,500 years.
“Turmeric is a good immune booster, has strong antioxidant properties and is five to eight times more potent than vitamins C and E,” pharmacist Shabir Daya, of British company Victoria Health, told Vogue magazine.
In India, newlyweds apply turmeric to their hands and face before marriage as a symbol of purification and blessing. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which however can also have side effects.
Berber women in Morocco still collect argan oil from the thorny branches of trees. Rich in omega 3 and 6, which is good for the skin, argan oil has been marketed as a coveted beauty product in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years.
On the other side of the world, in Polynesia, monoi oil, produced by dipping Tahitian gardenia petals in coconut oil, was created 2,000 years ago by the native Maohi people, who recognized its skin and hair softening properties. .
And in Costa Rica, the Bribri and Cabecar peoples use green tea to improve their skin, help lighten blemishes, and reduce inflammation.
All of these ingredients have found their way into Western skin care products. But the question is no longer whether Western brands have incorporated exotic herbs and spices as the next “new thing”, in some tacky leftover from colonization. The beauty industry has seen an increasing number of black and indigenous women appropriate their historical heritage with the resurgence of ancestral rituals and ingredients, in order to celebrate their cultures, rather than appropriate them, and always in accordance with your needs.
Brands such as Cheekbone Beauty, by Canadian Jennifer Harper (from the Anishinaabe people), and Prados Beauty, created by the American Cece Meadows (from the Chicano people), have created their line of products based on natural herbs, such as sage and lavender, which they have been used by their communities for decades.
Many of the founders use their brands to create jobs for their communities, ranging from gathering ingredients in kind to selling products at farmers’ markets and shops.
This vital understanding of society is a symptom of other changes taking place in the industry.
“The discussion is shifting from natural and organic to sustainable,” Amarjit Sahota, founder and president of Ecovia Intelligence, told Cosmetics Design Europe in December 2021.
“We are seeing more and more sustainable ingredients … Many pioneers of organic and natural beauty wanted to develop better products for human health and the environment. Initially, the formulations were plant-based to have less impact on human health. But since the sustainability has become an important part of the industry, these pioneers have really taken the lead in terms of sustainable initiatives. It’s no longer just about being natural and organic, but about broader environmental issues. “
These concerns are not isolated.
“In light of Covid-19 and the accelerating climate crisis, which causes floods, droughts, crop losses and displacement of people around the world, we are recognizing that nature is defending itself,” says Kathryn Bishop, consulting firm. of strategic planning The Future Laboratory.
“It is time for humans to recognize that there must be symbiosis and respect for nature.”
The relationship between beauty, cleanliness and the environment, always connected, is finally becoming a priority. Consumers are looking for products that reflect and respond to their concerns – about beauty, other people, the planet and their entire lives, looking for practices that reassure them and connect them to something greater.
Ancient customs inspired by nature and natural ingredients are recovered and explored as a means to restore balance and as a way to reconnect with what really matters on the planet.
Australian wellness brand Subtle Energies brings together the traditional Indian methods of Ayurveda and the benefits of aromatherapy. Their skincare products contain essential oils of Palmarosa, Arabian jasmine and frankincense, with base oils of jojoba and Indian ginseng.
“Essential oils are wonderful tools that mother nature has given us,” says Farida Irani, founder of the brand.
“They are the life force and with their use we are increasing our life force. It is ancient wisdom in modern times, helping people to live more aware of themselves and the planet.”
“The old practices and approaches to body, mind, skin and hair care have been taken from the Earth and nature,” Bishop tells BBC Culture.
“Often they are tied to specific seasons and seasonal events, celebrating the Earth, the flora and fauna it offers so graciously and which are respectfully used as ornaments, for cleaning or as food and drink.”
“These practices predate the Anthropocene, when the impact of humans on Earth exceeded that of nature,” he adds.
“But with people increasingly concerned about their footprint on Earth, whether it’s carbon footprint or resource use, these planet-conscious beauty practices and ingredients are helping people reduce the impact of their own. daily routine. self-care and hygiene “.
Simple routines also make up gua sha, a traditional Chinese method of self-massage that uses a hand-sized stone with rounded tips (usually made of jade, rose quartz, or black obsidian) to glide along the skin and activate circulation.
Gua sha has been used for centuries to help combat problems such as muscle aches and strains and has been adopted by the Western beauty industry. Fifteen minutes of running a cool stone across your forehead and cheeks can help reduce daily tension.
Writer Hannah-Rose Yee described her grandmother’s gua sha ritual to British magazine Stylist: “To this day, she takes her gua sha and methodically swipes it over her face in smooth, elegant movements every night.”
“I was obsessed with this ritual as a child. I would sit at the foot of his bed and watch, ecstatically, as he smiled at me in the mirror. Once he let me hold the gua sha, and I remember from the cold, heavy feeling in my hands. I grew up, he showed me how to do it. Today, I do my gua sha ritual once a week with a rose quartz roller. I hope someday my grandmother will give me her jade gua sha tool. “
But perhaps there are few things that encourage users more to slow down and think more deeply than the use of heat, adopted by many cultures over the centuries, including the Aztec one.
For at least 700 years before Spanish colonists arrived in ancient Mesoamerica, temazcal were the volcanic saunas where weary Aztecs bathed, not in water, but in steam.
Temazcal comes from the word temazcalli, which means “house of heat” in the Nahuatl language, spoken by the Aztecs. The temazcals, for the most part, looked like domed structures made of volcanic rock and symbolized the womb of mother nature, suggesting the idea of rebirth.
Modern science proved that the Aztecs were right. Steam can help clear blocked respiratory systems and relieve other health conditions.
The ancient Maya often performed temazcal ceremonies for warriors returning from battle, combining Mesoamerican chants, meditation, and heated rocks dipped in herb-infused water to create aromatic vapor. Today saunas continue to offer similar benefits.
Irani has high hopes for the return of ancient rituals.
“The breakdown of the very elements that make us up has caused many of the problems we see in the world today. But if we bring balance to the elements, first for ourselves and then for the environment around us, we will see positive changes in how we live …”