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Tracing the Roots of Self-Care Rituals and Ingredients

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Véronique Jensen
Skincare Analyst @ Starseed AI

Our beauty routines are enriched by words and practices from cultures around the world. Skincare regimens, makeup products, hair treatments, and wellness activities like yoga have origins in humanity’s shared history of exchanging ideas, ingredients, and innovations across borders. Tracing beauty terms back to their diverse roots reminds us how intercultural connection makes language, culture, and our self-care rituals more vibrant and meaningful.

Shampoo — This common hair washing product originated from the Hindi and Urdu word “chāmpo,” which meant to massage or knead. The word was anglicized to “shampoo” in the 1760s when the product was brought to Britain from India. Europeans learned that gentle scalp massaging with cleansing plant extracts could clean hair without stripping natural oils.

Henna — The reddish-brown dye used to color hair and decorate skin comes from the Arabic word “ḥinnā.” Derived from ancient Sanskrit, henna’s first recorded use was in Egypt around 1400 BCE. This longest lasting natural dye has been used cosmetically for over 5000 years in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Kohl — The dark eye makeup prominently used in South Asia and the Middle East traces its name back to the Arabic “kuḥl.” Historic texts reference kohl use in ancient Egypt, India, and the Islamic world. Kohl originally contained galena, a natural mineral that helped protect the eyes from light and infection. This eye beautifier is still used today for both style and health.

Mascara — Long luscious eyelashes are created with this product whose name emerged in the 1880s from the Spanish word “máscara” meaning mask. Just as a mask transforms your face, mascara transforms your eyes. Early mascara formulas used ash, elderberries, and other natural ingredients to tint lashes darker. Modern mascara traces back to 19th century France and Britain.

Avocado — The rich, creamy fruit used in hair masks and skincare originated in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs where “āhuacatl” meant testicle! Maybe because of the avocado’s shape? The word became “avocado” in Spanish before entering English. Cultivated by Central American civilizations like the Mayans for thousands of years, the superfood provides moisturizing vitamins and minerals.

Yoga — This popular practice for mindfulness, flexibility, and strength traces its name to the Sanskrit word “yuj” meaning to join or unite. What a meaningful root for this unifying discipline! Developed in ancient India, yoga emphasizes the connection between mind, body and spirit. Yoga has proliferated globally, retaining its purpose of fostering inner peace.

There are also many beauty ingredients and treatments from around the world that are less familiar in the English speaking world but still used in their original cultures:

Thanaka — This yellowish cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark has been used in Burma for over 2000 years as sun protection and decoration. Its natural properties cool and soothe skin.

Tamarind — Originating in Africa and popular in South Asia, this pod fruit can be pulped to use in nourishing hair and skin recipes. Tamarind extract adds vitamins, antioxidants, and fruit acids to rejuvenate dull complexions.

Fenugreek — With origins in southern Europe and western Asia, fenugreek seeds are used in hair care and skin remedies, especially as an antidotal treatment for hair loss. The nutrients and proteins repair damage and stimulate growth.

Multani Mitti — This medicinal clay from India makes a clarifying face or hair mask. Abundant minerals from riverbed deposits create a gentle exfoliant that detoxifies, brightens, and tightens skin.

Lulur — Meaning “body scrub” in Javanese, this indulgent spa treatment exfoliates with turmeric, sandalwood, and aromatic flowers. The ritual dates back to Balinese royalty who gifted bridal couples this beautifying experience.

The diversity of our beauty vocabulary and treatments reminds us how intercultural exchange enriches language and culture. Skincare rituals connect us to heritage across borders and time periods. Beauty traditions have been shared for millennia through exploration, migration, and trade routes like the Silk Road. Although beauty norms change with time and place, self-care practices reveal our common human need to nourish the body and spirit.

What lesser-known beauty ingredients or rituals can you share from other cultures? Whether local family traditions passed through generations or exotic discoveries on a foreign trip, comment your experiences below!