I still remember the first time my Nani (my maternal grandmother) told me that for much of her life, she’d never used or even known about store-bought cosmetic products. To me, a young kid who’d never known a life without soaps, shampoos, and moisturisers, this was nothing short of shocking.
But as I would come to learn later in life, families in India have historically approached beauty from an entirely natural perspective. For centuries, skincare and hair care in India has made the most of the country’s rich biodiversity. These ingredients are either applied directly or combined into homemade formulations that are then handed down through the generations as a form of ‘beauty legacy’.
While there isn’t a lot of specific research to support the efficacy of all of these DIY generational beauty tips, they are often vouched for by grandmothers, family anecdotes, and word-of-mouth among relatives. Every Indian family you meet is sure to have their own versions or tweaks on existing beauty formulas that pass around like secret recipes through the years.
If you want in on these generational beauty tips too, here are some of the most popular ones that you can easily incorporate into your skin and hair care routine:
1. Nuts for coconuts
This ‘cure-all’ ingredient and its many, many benefits in the beauty (as well as culinary) world are well-known around the globe. But in India, one of the world’s largest producers of coconut oil, it enjoys a particularly enthusiastic brand of popularity.
In households across the country, coconut oil is the go-to solution for a number of skin and hair troubles. It’s incredibly effective as a face and body moisturiser, lip balm, and makeup remover, and its anti-inflammatory properties make it ideal for soothing skin rashes and irritation.
However, its supreme beauty purpose is as the ideal oil for champi (traditional hair massage). Families often credit coconut oil, and the regular champi sessions that accompany it, as being the secret behind long, strong, and luscious hair that runs across generations.
2. The only ex you need is exfoliate
Long before plastic microbeads in exfoliants gained traction and eventually fell out of favour, women in India were scrubbing off dead skin cells by making ingenious use of all-natural ingredients.
Honey — the antioxidant, antibacterial saviour of dry skin — is often combined with natural rough particle ingredients such as rice flour, ground cinnamon powder, or oats, to form soothing, homemade face and body scrubs. Combining vitamin C-rich ingredients such as tomato juice or papaya mashed with yogurt (which is rich in lactic acid) also makes for a popular DIY exfoliant recipe.
3. A henna of an ingredient
Henna is most commonly known in the beauty and skincare world as a trendy yet natural hair dye option with a long-lasting, rusty, auburn colour. And it certainly has a favourable reputation among Indian grandmothers too. They often credit henna, and its regular application over the years, for the lustre and deep colour in their hair following them well into old age.
But apart from its role as a popular hair dye, henna is also a source of beauty, joy, and usefulness in traditional Indian households in a variety of ways. It’s used to draw intricate patterns on the palms of to-be brides as a sign of good luck. Moreover, its antibacterial properties make it a popular DIY ingredient for hair masks to promote hair health and reduce hair loss. There are some who even like to apply henna directly on their nails, not only for a bit of colour, but to improve nail health and prevent them from cracking.
4. Keep oily skin in check with lemon and honey
When you live in a tropical country and grow up with grandmothers doling out beauty secrets, you’re bound to inherit a tonne of tips on how to keep your skin oil-free. While some focus more on the dietary side of things, like avoiding dairy, others focus on simple homemade recipes to keep your skin feeling oil-free but not dehydrated.
That’s why the combination of honey and lemon juice is a popular beauty secret in Indian households. While the natural acids in lemon help control excess oil production and get rid of that sticky, sweaty feel, the humectant (moisture-retaining) properties of honey ensure that your skin still manages to feel hydrated.
5. Embrace rose water, nature’s beauty potion
Who says you can’t be great at more than one thing? Rose water, one of the most versatile ingredients of the beauty world, proves this belief wrong all the time. Not only does it have a wonderful, lingering fragrance that’s been used in perfumes around the world for centuries, but it’s also a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties that make it the perfect companion for skin, hair, and oral health.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a skincare enthusiast in India who doesn’t have a bottle of this elixir lying around at home. For generations, Indian grandmothers have been making, using, and recommending rose water for roles ranging from being a brightening ingredient in face packs, a soothing ingredient in hair masks, to adding aroma to all-time favourite desserts.