The film may have had its problems — like the famous arguments between Taylor and her 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 taking a bath and being pampered, as the character would have been in real life. The beauty rituals of the wealthy in ancient Egypt were lengthy and complex, starting with long baths of milk infused with saffron oil.
But none of these elements was by chance. 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 that runs from Spain in the west to Kashmir in the east, saffron is known as “red gold” for its intensity and cost of production.
The flowers need to be picked by hand at dawn and their thin branches are delicately shaved. It takes almost 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 rise even more.
Rose oil can be used as an anti-inflammatory to soothe irritated skin — Photo: Emmanuel Lafont via BBC
Compared to the futuristic appeal of some of today’s best-selling products, the stark reality of saffron’s origins may seem irrelevant. After all, who cares about where things come from while applying a super cream that costs R$ 500 a pot?
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 PFAs (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds). , parabens and phthalates.
In response to the industry’s 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 gather individual certifications to face the considerable impacts caused by the industry.
Interest in natural and organic ingredients continues to rise, reaching $11.9 billion in 2020 — up 2.9% from a year earlier, according to the research firm. UK Ecovia Intelligence.
And, in this brave new world concerned 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 seek products ‘straight from the lab,'” says natural beauty guru Imelda Burke in her 2016 book The Nature of Beauty.
“But while the new developments are important, there is much 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 nurtured its passion for purified rose water for two thousand years. Currently, the oil can be found in modern versions, selling for a considerable amount.
And it’s no wonder: packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to hydrate the skin, the world’s most admired flower is an anti-inflammatory that can be used to soothe irritated skin, while still offering its typical 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 about five to eight times more potent than vitamins C and E,” pharmacist Shabir Daya, from the British company Victoria Health, told Vogue magazine.
Beauty treatments with products of natural origin have been present for centuries, in all cultures — Photo: Emmanuel Lafont via BBC
In India, brides and grooms apply turmeric to their hands and faces before marriage as a symbol of purification and blessing. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin — which can also have side effects, however.
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 soaking Tahitian gardenia petals in coconut oil, was created 2,000 years ago by the native Maohi people, who recognized its softening properties for the skin and hair. .
And in Costa Rica, the Bribri and Cabecar peoples use green tea to improve their skin, help lighten blemishes and reduce inflammation.
All 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 tawdry leftover from colonization. The beauty industry is seeing an increasing number of black and indigenous women take ownership of their historical heritage with the rebirth of ancestral rituals and ingredients, in a way that celebrates their cultures, rather than appropriating 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), created their product line based on natural herbs, such as sage and lavender, which are used by their communities for decades.
Many of the founders use their brands to generate jobs for their communities, ranging from gathering ingredients from the wild to selling the products at farmers’ markets and stores.
This vital understanding of society is a symptom of other changes happening 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’re seeing more and more sustainable ingredients… Many organic and natural beauty pioneers wanted to develop products that were better for human health and the environment. Initially, the formulations were plant-based to have less impact on human health. But as sustainability became an important part of the industry, these pioneers really took the lead in terms of sustainable initiatives. It’s no longer just about being natural and organic; it’s about broader green issues.”
These concerns are not isolated.
“In light of Covid-19 and the accelerating climate crisis, causing floods, droughts, crop losses and displacement of people around the world, we are recognizing that nature is defending itself,” says Kathryn Bishop, strategic planning consultancy The Future Laboratory.
“It’s time for human beings to recognize that there needs to 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 and the planet and their entire lives, looking for practices that reassure them and connect them to something bigger.
Ancient customs inspired by nature and natural ingredients are being recovered and explored as a means of restoring balance — and as a way of reconnecting with what really matters on the planet.
Australian wellness brand Subtle Energies brings together traditional Indian methods of Ayurveda and the benefits of aromatherapy. Their skin care products contain essential oils of palmarosa, jasmine arabian and frankincense, with base oils of jojoba and Indian ginseng.
“Essential oils are wonderful tools given to us by mother nature”, 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 consciously about themselves and the planet.”
“Old practices and approaches to caring for the body, mind, skin and hair were taken from the Earth and nature,” Bishop tells BBC Culture.
“Often they are related to specific seasons and seasonal events, celebrating the Earth and the flora and fauna that it so kindly provides and that are respectfully used as adornments, for cleaning or as food and drink.”
“These practices predate the Anthropocene, when the impact of humans on Earth surpassed that of nature,” she adds.
“But with people increasingly concerned about their footprint on the Earth, whether it’s the carbon footprint or the use of resources, these planetary-conscious beauty practices and ingredients are helping people reduce the impact of their daily routines. 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 slide along the skin and activate circulation. .
Gua sha has been used for centuries to help fight problems such as muscle pain and tension and has been adopted by the Western beauty industry. Fifteen minutes of sliding a cool stone across your forehead and cheeks can help reduce everyday 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 swipes it methodically over her face in smooth, elegant motions every night.”
“I was obsessed with this ritual as a child. I would sit at the foot of her bed and watch, ecstatically, as she smiled at me in the mirror. She once let me hold the gua sha, and I remember from the cold, heavy feeling in my hands. When I got older, she showed me how to do it. Today, I do my own gua sha ritual once a week with a rose quartz roller. I hope one day my grandma will give me her jade gua sha instrument.”
But perhaps there are few things that encourage users to slow down and do deeper reflection than the use of heat, adopted by many cultures over the centuries, including the Aztec.
For at least 700 years before Spanish settlers arrived in ancient Mesoamerica, temazcals were the volcanic saunas where weary Aztecs bathed—not in water, but in steam.
Temazcal comes from the word temāzcalli, which means “house of warmth” 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 has shown the Aztecs to be right. Steam can help clear blocked respiratory systems and alleviate other health conditions.
The ancient Mayans often performed temazcal ceremonies for warriors returning from battle, combining Mesoamerican chants, meditation, and heated rocks dipped in herbal-infused water to create aromatic vapor. Today, saunas continue to offer similar benefits.
Irani has high hopes for the return of ancient rituals.
“Breaking apart 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 us and then for the environment around us — we will see positive changes in the way we live. .”
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