From volcanic glacial clay in Iceland to rainforest super berries in Brazil, “backyard” elixirs offer the secret to true beauty for women in all corners of the world. How society defines “beauty” changes across cultures, of course, but tending to one’s appearance has always been a special preoccupation for women. “Women in every society have been valued by their beauty, whether it’s for their hair, their skin, or their figure,” says Mary Thé, owner of Mary Thé Skincare in San Francisco. “But what I love about indigenous beauty secrets is that they tend to honor the body as a whole. To glow and look confident is the goal, rather than our culture’s obsession with wanting instant results.”
If you want in on some of the secrets of any given country, look no further than its kitchens. “A region’s agriculture and their culinary traditions can tell you a lot about their beauty lore,” explains Lela Rain Barker, founder of Bella Luccé skincare in Columbia, South Carolina. “Food and beauty are intimately tied together, and it’s amazing to see the creative solutions women come up with based on what they have available.” Call it intuition, but so often the same local ingredients women choose to cook with (those high in antioxidants, minerals, and healthy fats) end up on their faces and hair, where the nutrients they contain feed the skin.
With the advent of lightning-fast communication and high-speed travel, the best of these tonics are making their way into high-end skincare products faster than you can say “babassu butter.” So join us as we take a trip across all five oceans and uncover the ingredients making waves.
Morocco. For thousands of years, the Berber tribeswomen of Morocco have been the sole cultivators of vitamin E-rich argan oil. Nicknamed “the gold of Morocco,” masseuses still use argan for skin massages in the traditional hammams or steam baths. Its high concentration of unique phytosterols and EFAs make it especially good for combating dry skin, wrinkles, and even psoriasis.
Try: Mixed with other beneficial oils, the argan oil in Liz Earle Superskin Concentrate ($70, 1 oz; www.lizearle.com) is sourced from women-owned cooperatives in southwestern Morocco.
Egypt. A fairly common seed of the Mediterranean region, fenugreek was prized by pharaohs for its restorative qualities—one ancient papyrus even mentioned it as a tonic that could “turn an old man into a young man.” When crushed, the seeds have a well-earned reputation as a skin softener.
Do-It-Yourself: Crush 1 teaspoon of dried fenugreek seeds with a mortar and pestle and mix with 1/4 cup of almond oil or moringa oil (known as behen oil in its native Egypt). Allow the seeds to sit for 30 minutes; strain the oil and apply it to your face for a time-tested youth serum.
Or Try: This seed’s oil extract also strengthens hair and keeps dandruff at bay. Find it in Dr. Hauschka Shampoo with Apricot and Sea Buckthorn ($13, 8 oz; www.drhauschka.com).
Japan. Many of us already know that drinking green tea, brewed from the Camellia sinlensis leaves, acts as an internal age-defying tonic. But who knew (besides the Japanese) that the oil extracted from camellia seeds delivers its own external skin-saving benefits as well? Omega-3 fatty acids make up more than 80 percent of the oil, giving it the penetrative power to stimulate collagen and elastin growth.
Try: Aubrey Organics White Camellia Oil ($15.98, 0.36 oz; www.aubrey-organics.com) works as a body or facial moisturizer or even as a hair mask. Smooth it on wet skin to seal in moisture. Or apply it to dry hair for at least 20 minutes before rinsing it out.
China. From maintaining silky hair to cultivating creamy complexions, Chinese women know the secrets of soy. “My grandmother would make her own soy milk and use it for everything,” says Jennifer Yen, actress and founder of Purlisse skincare. “She’d drink it, of course, but also use it to wash her face. It gave her skin a creamy appearance and left it supple and soft.” Studies have shown that topically applied soy milk actually increases the skin’s production of hyaluronic acid, an essential component of younger-looking skin.
Do-It-Yourself: If you’re not keen on letting straight soy milk dribble down your face, soak rolled oats or barley in it for 30 minutes, then apply the mixture to your face as a soothing mask.
Or Try: White tea and oatmeal extracts combine with soy milk in Purlisse soap-free Pur~delicate cleanser ($38, 5.1 oz; www.purlisse.com).
India. Whether they are lathering on rich coconut oil or applying henna dyes, Indian women understand how to treat their hair right. One of their favorite tress tonics? Amla fruit, also called Indian gooseberry, which can be rubbed straight onto the scalp to prevent hair loss and dandruff, or mixed with soap nuts (the dried fruit of the soapberry tree, native to China and India) to create a luxurious shampoo.
Try: Amla teams up with sesame oil in AyurBalance Amla Herbal Hair and Scalp Oil ($13.75, 8 oz; www.ayurbalance.com) to make a cooling tonic for those suffering from premature graying or thinning of the hair.
France and Italy. The great grapes of wine country, from chianti to chardonnay, have found their way onto women’s faces as time-stopping tonics. Their polyphenols and linolenic acids make ideal free-radical fighters—primary enemies in the aging process—but the true superstar is resveratrol, a potent antioxidant credited with protecting the skin from cancer-causing UVB rays.
Do-It-Yourself: Cut a grape down the middle and rub the flesh over your skin, or mash whole grapes with almond meal and use as a mask to reap the additional benefits of the nutrient-dense grape skin.
Or Try: Each handmade batch of Om Crème Eclat Antioxidant Body Hydrator ($50, 6.7 oz; www.omaroma.com) is filled with chardonnay grapeseed oil, shea butter, and silk proteins.
Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The tiny edelweiss flower of the Alps grows between 6,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level and blooms in spring and early summer. Its proximity to the sun’s beams has given it UV light-absorbing chemicals, and Eastern European women reap the flower’s protective benefits by steeping it as a tea to use as a face rinse.
TRY: Certified as 100 percent natural by the French label standard ECOCERT, Athanor Edelweiss Anti-Aging Serum ($42.95, 0.51 oz; www.swissalpinecosmetics.com) uses edelweiss flowers grown in Switzerland.
Brazil. When the nuts of the 65-foot tall babassu palm fall to the ground, local women, known as “babassu breakers,” gather the kernels and cold-press them into a rich oil. Much like coconut oil, the Amazonian babassu oil stays solid at room temperature, but melts instantly when applied to the body, making it a protective emollient and good cooling treatment (since the oil uses the body’s heat to melt).
Try: Inara Babassu Sugar Rub ($35, 9.5 oz; www.inaraorganic.com) uses all organic ingredients and sources its oils from women’s cooperatives in Brazil.
Caribbean Islands. The acerola berry, also called the Barbados cherry, beats out all other fruits for its vitamin C content relative to its size (over 30 times the amount found in an orange). When mashed up and used as a mask, the berries deliver a shot of ascorbic acid that helps brighten skin and stimulate collagen growth. Acerola berries also contain a hefty store of minerals like magnesium and potassium, both essential components for new skin cell growth.
Try: Ikove Acerola Shampoo ($9.99, 8.45 oz; www.ikove.com) uses acerola’s anti-fungal properties to ward off dandruff and oil buildup on the scalp. An added plus—the berries come from fair-trade cooperatives.
New Zealand. Noted for busting bacteria better than many antibiotics, manuka honey is harvested from the bees that feed on the manuka bush, which is native only to New Zealand. Combating both inflammation and dryness simultaneously (as well as serious problems like eczema and chapped skin), the honey makes a favorite face mask among Kiwi women of all skin types.
Do-It-Yourself: If you can’t find manuka honey at a local health food store, try using regular honey as a healing and moisturizing mask. Mix 1 tablespoon of honey with an egg yolk, and leave the resulting potion on your face for 10 minutes before rinsing with cool water.
Or Try: Blended with citrus and other essential oils, Bella Luccé Manuka Honey Drizzle ($29.50, 16 oz; www.bellalucce.com) makes a soothing addition to a warm bath, or you can apply it as a whole-body mask.
Australia. The Aborigines have long known the benefits of emu oil as a natural sunscreen, arthritis fighter, and wound healer, but scientific studies are now backing up its claims as a skin soother and inflammation buster. Extracted from the back fat of Australia’s second largest bird, the oil absorbs easily and delivers essential fatty acids to sustain and support the skin’s lipid layer.
Try: Marie Veronique Serumdipity ($39.99, 30 ml; www.m-vskintherapy.com), formulated to combat scars, stretch marks, and wrinkles, contains a hefty amount of emu oil, sourced from a reputable farm.
Tahiti and Fiji. Found only on a few islands of the world, the tamanu nut contains barely any oil when it first falls from the 80-foot-high trees on which it grows. Only after the nut has dried for two weeks does oil start to appear on its surface. Tahitian women put the oil on wounds to speed healing, and even on their babies to prevent diaper rash. Its skin-regenerating properties, thought to come from the unique fatty acid calophyllolide, make the tamanu nut oil especially useful for reducing the appearance of scars and wrinkles.
Try: Though formulated especially to combat stretch marks, Tutta Bella Belly Balm ($38, 1 oz; www.tuttabella2.com)—with its high concentration of tamanu oil and other moisturizing ingredients—can be used to revitalize dull or dry skin.
Indulge Your Inner Beauty Queen
Region-specific beauty tips go beyond the best local ingredients. Here are a few techniques—ranging from the mundane to the out-of-this-world—guaranteed to get your whole body glowing.
Dry brushing: This daily exfoliating technique is popular in both Japan and Scandinavia. Brushing the skin (skip your face) with a dry, vegetable-fiber loofah (or brush) in circular motions towards the heart stimulates lymph flow, which helps the body eliminate toxins that can otherwise show up as blemishes or dry patches. For best results, begin in the shower. Start with your feet and brush your whole body before you turn the water on. Alternating warm and cold water in the shower can help boost circulation even more to further aid the detox process.
Thalassotherapy: Literally translated as “sea therapy,” this Mediterranean healing treatment transforms salt water, sand, and seaweed into a spa therapy. As the skin’s positive charge pulls the negatively charged salt water deep into the epidermis, the trace minerals and nutrients in the seawater help balance and detoxify the skin. True thalassotherapy centers should only be a few thousand feet from the coast (the only one in the US is Gurney’s Inn in New York, but you can also find them in Mexico, Ireland, Scandinavia, and the south of France). Treatments usually include seaweed wraps, exercise in seawater pools, and yes, even long walks on the beach.
The Lulur Ceremony: Javanese princesses enjoy this rejuvenating experience every day for 40 days before their wedding. The ritual starts with a coconut oil massage, followed with a scrub of turmeric, ground rice, and ginger to clear away dead skin. The scrub is removed with yogurt, and the bride finishes her treatment in a bath filled with jasmine and frangipani petals. A little luxury goes a long way, according to royals; they believe that the more relaxed the bride, the higher her chance of conceiving on her wedding night. Soon-to-be-married or not, you can find an abbreviated version of this pampering process at spas across the US.