There’s an old saying in Asia that the most beautiful women have Indian eyes, a Thai smile, and Burmese skin. I wouldn’t dream of disputing that, but it’s not as easy as you’d think to verify the last component of that combination. Why? For the same reason that the adage is true. Thanaka. Burmese women cover their faces with it.
When it comes to unique norms of beauty coming out of Myanmar, most of us who grew up with National Geographic automatically think of the Padaung or Kayan women of the Karenni ethnic group, who wear brass coils around their necks, making them look long and stretched. But the Long Neck Ladies of the Kayan are an oddity even within Myanmar. A far more widespread cosmetic custom—and just as much a cultural identifier to all the people of Myanmar as the brass neck rings are to the women of the Kayan—is the use of thanaka.
Thanaka (pronounced “tah-nah-KAH”) is a cosmetic made of the ground bark of the thanaka tree that grows in the drier areas of Myanmar. Combined with a few drops of water, the ground thanaka bark makes a thin, creamy paste of a color my mother would have ever so daintily referred to as “baby shit yellow,” but that I’ll call more of a Dijon mustard color. Thinly applied to the skin while wet, the thanaka dries to a soft, powdery, buttercup yellow.
The people of Myanmar have used Thanaka for centuries. You can see ancient thanaka grinding stones in museums, so it’s been a part of their cultural identity for a long, long time. Today, all over Myanmar, even in the big city, people use thanaka as a daily cosmetic, sunscreen, fragrance, and overall skin protection/improvement treatment. It’s supposed to perform all manner of complexion magic, from preventing acne, lightening sun damage, shrinking pores, even killing fungal infections on the skin. But, mostly, folks just think it’s pretty to paint it on their faces. Or their arms. Or hands, especially if the person works outside. But mostly faces.
Usually swiped lightly across the cheeks and forehead, or boldly painted into decorative patterns, thanaka is used by everyone. It’s an equal opportunity beautifier. You don’t see it on grown men too often, but pretty much everyone else uses it every day. Women:
In the local markets, you can buy a chunk of a thanaka branch, and use the special round stone and some water to grind your own thanaka paste, like so (if video doesn’t show below, click here):
If that looks like too much of an upper arm workout for every day, you can buy a cake of pre-ground bark paste, and just rub that on a wet surface—even your palm—to create the thin lotion to put on your skin.
Alternatively, it comes as a prepared concentrate, in jars, sometimes mixed with other cosmetic additives or fragrances. Everyone I talked to said to avoid the ones with added stuff and just get the plain, organic one. Don’t mess with a classic.
Everywhere I went, women were trying to smear me with thanaka. I had a thanaka massage—which was lovely and refreshing—and before she let me up, the massage therapist thanaka’d my face, to go. I visited a rural village, and the matriarch dragged me to the thanaka stone and fixed my face (that’s her in the video above). I just looked unfinished to them without it.
It smells nice, kind of soft and fresh, faintly woodsy, and herbal. But the most awesome thing is that it gently tingles and cools your skin, which is so welcome in the Myanmar heat. It also keeps your skin dry, when it would otherwise be glistening with schwitz.
I got some expert advice from some girls who work in a department store in Mandalay. They busted me, in what I thought was an empty aisle of the store, singing and doing the cha-cha to the Asianized instrumental version of Copacabana that was on the piped music system, and once we were all done laughing at what a dork I am, they started patting my cheeks and saying “you need thanaka!” So, I enlisted their help in choosing a prepared product to try at home, because I wasn’t investing in a stone to grind my own anytime soon.
I knew to get the plain, organic kind, but still, you have to be careful which brand you choose. Some factory-made thanaka products are banned all over Southeast Asia because of dangerous impurities that have caused nasty cases of lead poisoning. Apparently, some kids in Missouri died of lead poisoning after using tainted thanaka paste (it was news to me that there was a Burmese community in Missouri, but apparently, there is). So, beware, and make sure you get the pure, organic kind. The girls at the store told me this one—“Shwe Pyi Nann”—is good. Several other women later told me, yes, this one is their trusted brand, too. I think you can even get it on Amazon now. I just never would have known to look for it before, or what to do with it if I had discovered it by accident.
My department store girlfriends told me to dig out a small glob of the paste and mix it with a little water until the consistency is right—like paint—and then go to town. So, I went native and had myself a little thanaka party. I think I need some practice. Okay, so maybe this was a lesson in how NOT to wear thanaka!
Although I don’t think I’ll be sporting thanaka-face in public outside of Myanmar, I didn’t toss that jar of thanaka when I left. It makes for a nice weekly facemask that really does shrink your pores, and leaves your skin feeling so clean and fresh. In fact, I’m using it now, as I write! So, thanaka you very much for the wonderful beauty tip, Myanmar! My pores and I are ever grateful.