Indian Beauty: a (Re)Discovery

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on September 28, 2022
5 min read

Sandalwood, turmeric, saffron, coconuts … in India, skin care has traditionally come straight from farms and forests, foraged by women to create pastes, powders, and oils for everything from lustrous hair to glowing skin.

It was not an easy process: Gathering the ingredients, then laboring over a hot fire or a heavy mortar and pestle to make the concoctions, and finally the messiness of strands coated in greasy coconut oil or skin slathered with gloopy turmeric paste.

Fast-forward to today, where you can’t get through a beauty aisle without finding at least 20 best-selling products based on this subcontinent’s 5,000-year-old heritage. 

What happened? 

It’s simple: The Western world discovered ayurveda. And both adapted to each other.

Today, we don’t need to go looking in forests; instead, we can walk into the nearest department store or even order online, making Indian beauty more accessible than ever before. 

And given new extraction and formulation techniques, textures are more lightweight and less messy. Ghee (clarified butter) comes pressed into beautiful face balms, while coconut and almond extracts are poured into lightweight oils.

Western science has caught up – and backs up these principles. Turmeric has antioxidant, antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Coconut oil nourishes the hair shaft. And almond oil is also a natural moisturizer.

Today, Indian beauty syncs the ancient teachings of ayurveda with Western scientific research for the best of both worlds. 

Despite all the changes, one thing remains constant: The reliance on natural ingredients. So, this is what you want to look for while taking a dip (or a deep dive) into Indian beauty.

Ayurveda considers ghee (clarified butter) as the perfect skin salve. And science shows why: Ghee is rich in fatty acids that nourish and moisturize the skin, and its antioxidants may also help fight skin damage. It also assists in wound healing, improving the appearance of scars and hyperpigmentation. 

Just a tiny bit, whether applied straight from the jar or as part of a moisturizer, is enough to restore softness and suppleness to even the driest complexions. 

There are many legends about the beauty benefits of almonds. And they have endured because these nuts are a skin care treasure trove – a fact that is backed by modern science.

Almonds are exceptionally rich in fatty acids, calcium, and minerals, which make them extremely nourishing. They are also packed with antioxidants that stop environmental damage and help keep skin healthy. Almond oil and paste nourish skin without leaving a greasy residue.

Original Indian skin care recipes call for the nuts to be soaked overnight, then made into a paste by rubbing them against a terra cotta pot. A quicker solution for the present day? Buying a bottle of pure almond oil and using it instead of your regular night cream.

Saffron is the unicorn of the beauty world: Rare, potent, and pricey. What makes this spice so special for skin care? To begin with, it has two powerful antioxidants: crocin and crocetin. They help guard against the stress and environmental damage that would otherwise lead to fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of radiance.

The tiny red strands are also packed with minerals, vitamins, and have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. When used topically, saffron not only brightens the skin but also reduces pesky hyperpigmentation.

You'll find saffron in many products, from masks to moisturizers. But it’s a case of buyer beware. With international prices of Indian saffron (which rates as having the highest quality worldwide) averaging $1,500 a pound, if a moisturizer seems too inexpensive, it may be misleading in its claims.

Here, you may be better off with one of the country’s time-tested skin care recipes: Simmer six tablespoons of freshly grated coconut with a pinch each of saffron and turmeric powder. You will get a beautiful oil that can be used as a moisturizer. All you need are five to six strands, so the tiniest tin will last a long time.

There’s a reason why turmeric has transcended its Indian origins and become a cult ingredient worldwide. This yellow-colored spice is a potent anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial, antioxidant, and detoxifier. Result? It keeps skin soft, smooth, and glowing; tackles acne; and helps fade dark spots. 

But many of us balk at putting turmeric on our skin for fear of looking like a character out of The Simpsons. And in contemporary times, we don’t need to go this route. Instead, look for turmeric-based moisturizers and masks that contain this potent spice, sans the yellow aftertones.

Coconut oil is garnering praise – and igniting debates – all over the world, with opinions divided over its beauty benefits. 

On one hand, its rich concentration of omega-6 fatty acids means coconut oil is a powerful skin soother. It also contains vitamin E, a potent antioxidant; and lauric acid, which is antimicrobial. 

This makes coconut oil an excellent skin salve. It can reduce acne-causing bacteria, keep skin soft and supple, and help lock in hydration. Indians have been known to scoop a dollop straight from the jar and apply it all over their face and limbs.

But contemporary research also shows that coconut oil is occlusive and comedogenic, which means that it works by sitting on top of the skin to trap the moisture underneath. While this makes it a great balm for drier complexions, it’s not what you want if your skin is prone to congestion and blackheads!

Then there is the hair factor: Coconut oil makes a great hair moisturizer. It helps reduce hair breakage by keeping the scalp well-balanced and strengthening the hair shaft. 

The original Indian way of applying coconut oil, which was to slather liberally and let it sit until the next wash, is no longer a feasible look. Instead, try massaging a few tablespoons of the oil into dry hair, leaving overnight, and washing it away the next morning. This way, you can reap the benefits, sans the greasy locks. 

Indian sandalwood oil is rated as having the highest quality worldwide. It has antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties that may help acne-prone skin. The golden oil also works brilliantly at lightening scars and hyper-pigmentation.

As for premature aging? Sandalwood is an excellent antioxidant, protecting against damage at the cellular level. By boosting the skin’s natural collagen, it also guards against wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging. 

Finally, this precious oil is a powerful hydrator that helps keep skin soft, supple, and plump, without the greasiness found with many other natural moisturisers. 

Hence, sandalwood oil is nowadays used as a base in several moisturizers – or you can go the original route and purchase a tiny bottle of pure oil to smooth into your skin.