Spend any amount of time in Burma and it won’t be long before you begin to notice the profusion of faces daubed with a kind of yellow-white paste, and you’ll probably begin to wonder why and what it is? This is what is called thanaka.
What is Thanaka?
Thanaka, a natural Burmese cosmetic paste, is made by grinding the bark, wood or roots of certain varieties of tree with water on a round stone slab (called a kyauk pin). Out and about, you’ll see thanaka smeared mainly on women and children (but sometimes men and boys, too) throughout the entire country, wherever you go, and it’s been this way for over 2,000 years.
Though the reason is partly aesthetic – many people apply thanaka in attractive patterns, such as leaves and swirls – the paste has a whole raft of other benefits. When applied to the skin it has a pleasant fragrance and gives a cooling sensation much to be desired in the summer heat (for this reason many Burmese people apply thanaka before they go to sleep – men just as much as women!). It provides protection from sunburn – so people in rural communities apply it liberally over face and limbs while they work in the fields. In terms of benefits to the skin, it also helps to prevent oiliness and spots, tightens pores and generally promotes smoothness.
Used medicinally, meanwhile, thanaka has been employed to treat a great variety of different ailments. Mixed with lemon, bark, roots and herbs, applied as a paste, made into poultices or its fruit eaten raw, it has been used to treat acne, fungal infections, skin sores, measles, leprosy, malaria, epilepsy, poisoning and fever, to name but a few.
Though thanaka trees grow elsewhere, and the paste is sometimes used in countries such as Thailand and India – nowhere is it so popular as in Burma. Though many young people nowadays (especially those who work in cities) opt not to wear it, there are still plenty who choose to continue the tradition – even if only outside working hours, and if you visit Burma you’ll be sure to see plenty of it!