The Science Behind Traditional Indian Skincare Practices

Top 5 Traditional Indian Practices and The Evidence Behind Them - Nutrova

Most desi girls would agree that having our grandmothers as beauty advisors has been an exciting part of growing up. From whipping a face mask with traditional ingredients to plucking herbs from the garden to formulate a cleanser or scrub, nanis and dadis have been our rescuers when battling pesky zits or stubborn tans. 

Their expert remedies are also proof that natural skincare products have been in use since ancient times - long before they were commercialised. Today, an estimated 41% of the personal care market consists of natural products (according to a 2017 Neilson survey). [1]!

As age-old natural beauty hacks continue to intersect with science, we’re now able to discover the evidence that backs the benefits of ancient Indian skincare practices!

Traditional self-care routines and the scientific evidence behind them:

1. Ubtan powder - A mixture that tops the charts for reducing pigmentation and dark spots

Top 5 Traditional Indian Practices and The Evidence Behind Them - Nutrova

A combination of powdered turmeric, black gram (known as chana or besan flour), and sandalwood, Ubtan is used as herbal therapy for skin. What gives this natural body scrub the green signal in self-care is its unique, scientifically proven blend of components [2].

Humans differ in their skin tones, and the reason for this diversity is the varying levels of a pigment (called melanin) produced in our skin cells. A higher range of melanin contributes to darker skin, while a lower degree is responsible for lighter complexion [3].

Melanin’s first step of production requires an enzyme called tyrosinase. For this reason, it becomes essential to inhibit tyrosinase, in order to reduce hyperpigmentation [4].

This is where ubtan comes into play. The curcumin in turmeric, α-santalol from sandalwood, and coumaric acid from black gram/chickpea (along with the vitamin C that’s naturally present in ubtan) all successfully inhibit tyrosinase from enabling melanin production, helping lighten dark spots [2, 5, 6, 7].

Application: As a cleanser, ubtan can be used daily by massaging it into moist skin. Alternatively, as a face-pack, you can mix it with rose water, leave on for 10-15 minutes before rinsing well with water.

2. Rose water – The sensitive skin’s preferred partner

Top 5 Traditional Indian Practices and The Evidence Behind Them - Nutrova

Prepared by either steeping rose petals in water or steam distilling, rose water has been a popular choice for a range of cosmetic and health purposes in the Middle East for ages. 

Plants contain polyphenols (powerful antioxidants), which help protect our skin against damage [8]. Anthocyanins are a type of polyphenols present in rose water, and also have anti-inflammatory properties. Since people with sensitive skin are prone to inflammation and redness, this gentle element makes it ideal for them [9].

It also provides relief to people who complain of skin irritation when their skin is exposed to the sun. An unusual response due to UV-light exposure is caused by the release of an enzyme called COX2, which is largely responsible for creating inflammation in the skin [10].  Cytokines, a type of molecules present at the site of infection, also contribute to this sensitivity [11]. Applying rose petal extract has shown to have a soothing effect on both COX-2 and cytokine [9].

Application: A spray bottle with rose water comes in handy, allowing you to sprinkle it as mist to protect your skin when you’re outside during the day. It also makes for a great toner, given that its calming effects - and its all-natural composition makes it a much better alternative to chemical-based toners, which can dry out the skin.

3. For acne, neem and turmeric can be your best buddies

Top 5 Traditional Indian Practices and The Evidence Behind Them - Nutrova

Neem leaves have long been regarded by Indians for their blood-purifying properties, and as an Ayurvedic medicine. As for turmeric, it is a beneficial herb often used in acne products.

Neem is held in high esteem nationwide because it contains bioactive compounds such as Nimbidin, Nimbin, and Azadiractin, which can fight bacteria and keep acne lesions from recurring while also keeping the skin healthy. On the other hand, the curcumin present in turmeric is a strong soldier in fighting inflammation. It acts as an antioxidant to prevent cell damage and has antimicrobial properties that wrestle harmful bacteria and fungi. These characteristics of neem help control skin infections caused by P. acnes and S. epidermidis (bacteria found on our skin surface), making it excellent at treating skin-related conditions [12, 13].

The best thing is that both neem and turmeric, when used as active ingredients in a facial cleanser, are very effective at reducing and preventing mild-to-moderate acne without any side effects  [14].

ApplicationA paste of neem leaves with turmeric powder can be applied overnight as a spot treatment for acne. Cleansers that contain these two key ingredients can also be used daily.

4. Coconut oil works great for skin that’s dry

Top 5 Traditional Indian Practices and The Evidence Behind Them - Nutrova

A residential item in many Indian kitchens, coconut oil is known for its plethora of functions in boosting skin health and preventing dryness. It is extracted from mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm's kernel or meat.

Coconut oil is a popular ingredient in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals because it contains fatty acids like linoleic and lauric acid, which act as emollients - a substance that traps moisture in the skin, by covering it with a protective film, thereby soothing and hydrating it [15, 16]. Since 64% of our skin is made up of water, coconut oil contributes to preventing dryness, as it blocks the loss of water from the epidermis (outermost layer of the skin) to the environment (termed as TEWL or transepidermal water loss) [17, 18]. This thus helps in improving skin hydration. 

Opting for coconut oil in your moisturising regime is quite a bonus because studies have found that it is effective and safe in comparison to other mineral oils [19]. Moreover, it can be used not just for dry skin but also to soothe atopic dermatitis (itchy inflammation) and xerosis (dry, rough, scaly, and itchy skin) [20]. This could be due to its ability to maintain the skin barrier function, as mentioned above, along with its anti-inflammatory properties.

While more studies need to be conducted to support this statement, a study done on rats suggests that coconut oil could lead to increased collagen production [21]. This implies coconut oil may be a significant gunner in your army of everyday products, to help heal wounds and diminish scars. 

Application: Coconut oil helps individuals with dry, flaky skin. It can be applied before taking a shower and even at bedtime (overnight) to hydrate the skin. Since it has the potential to release leftover make-up particles by breaking up water resistant substances (used in eye shadows and mascaras specifically), one can use it as a make-up remover while also treating it as a moisturiser.

5. Aloe vera - for soothing sunburn, healing wounds and healthy skin in general 

Top 5 Traditional Indian Practices and The Evidence Behind Them - Nutrova

A medicinal first-aid plant, aloe vera is a tropical cactus that has been used for centuries to treat various skin ailments. It has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, and wound healing properties, which make it a preferred ingredient in a variety of skincare products [22].

If you’ve seen it in nurseries or have a pot of aloe at home, you know you don’t have to water it every day. This is because it is a succulent plant that stores water. In fact, its gel is made up of  98% water - it can moisturise, soothe, and hydrate the skin [23]. Along with the above-listed characteristics, aloe vera acts as an antioxidant and is immunomodulatory, which means it can positively influence the immune system and reduce the growth of certain harmful bacteria that cause infections [24]. 

Aloe vera also helps treat the regular wear and tear our body encounters in everyday life. It contains glucomannan, which can stimulate collagen production and thereby help repair, cross-link and regenerate damaged tissues [25, 26]This is also the reason why aloe vera is believed to reduce wrinkles (collagen helps maintain the elasticity of the skin).

There’s more to the healing properties of aloe vera, as they may also help relieve the redness and scaling associated with psoriasis (works best as integrative and complementary therapy with dermatologist-prescribed treatments) [27]. It also acts as an active healer of mild as well as second-degree burns. Wrapping wounds with an aloe vera dressing once or twice a day has been observed to be more effective than the current treatments like petroleum jelly gauze dressing used in hospitals - it results in reduced recovery time and faster healing, which is directly correlated to the absence of wound infection and the lack of redness and itching [25].

Application: It can be rubbed directly on skin, or a homemade beauty product can be concocted. Mild burns as well as sunburns can be treated by regular use of aloe vera several times a day, although severe burns would require medical attention.

It is quite evident now that a copious amount of skincare regimes that emerged from pages of jaded, generations-old diaries have found validation in a lab. If you’d been previously viewing these mixtures as unofficial hacks, we hope this blog  sheds some light on their scientific merits. Besides, it’s delightful to dig deep and reach the roots of remedies that have been part of our household for decades, isn’t it?

If you have any further queries, please share them below. We’re just a comment away :)

Kainat Khan Mirajkar, PGD Dietetics and Applied Nutrition

Kainat is a Nutritionist with a PGD in Dietetics and Applied Nutrition and a Certified Diabetes Educator. With over eight years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics, she is Nutrova's in-house research and information expert.

More by Kainat Khan Mirajkar

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