My beauty cabinet looks like a mad scientist’s laboratory, teeming with enough chemical concoctions and artificial elixirs to send Patrick Bateman into a coma. Whether it’s Botox or bakuchiol, polypeptides or pantothenic acid, the wonders of modern science are dizzyingly limitless—and keeping up is, quite frankly, exhausting.
I, for one, have recently been in desperate need of respite from it all. There are only so many retinoids and ceramides a girl (and her ever-depleting bank account) can take. So, what better way to restore balance to my skin-care routine than by turning to some time-honored beauty rituals that women throughout history have sworn by?
When I think of the ancient world, my mind floods with images of women across the globe harnessing the magic of nature for wellness purposes in a plethora of ways. And in today’s tumultuous times (*gestures widely*) is it any wonder that so many of us ache for a sliver of this slow simplicity in our own lives? That’s why, in the midst of today’s rapidly evolving beauty landscape, ancient beauty practices are experiencing a renaissance. Lucky for us, a new generation of women is owning their cultural heritage and breaking through the noise of the Western beauty industry by founding brands centered around their ancestral wellness rituals, with a few subtle but modern tweaks.
After some research, I came across four ancient beauty rituals I simply had to try: Ayurvedic hair oiling, Persian saffron baths, and Greek yogurt face masks. I wanted to try these centuries-old wellness practices on for size to determine just how well they’ve stood the test of time.
Ayurvedic hair oiling
Hair oiling may have recently reached virality on TikTok, but the practice has long been a mainstay of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian holistic system of medicine that dates back over 3,000 years. “I grew up having my hair oiled by my mom and grandmother," says Michelle Ranavat, founder of RANAVAT, an Ayurvedic hair-care line. “I found the act of hair-oiling to be an opportunity for a deeper connection with my family.” Inspired by her upbringing and the rituals of Ayurveda, Ranavat created her namesake brand in a bid to “bring this to the US in a modern and approachable way."
One of RANAVAT’s bestselling products is the Fortifying Hair Serum ($44), crafted with just three ingredients: Sunflower oil (which is rich in vitamin E), jasmine oil, and amla (Indian gooseberry) extract. According to Ranavat, amla is “an antioxidant powerhouse and key ingredient for hair health and growth. In India, amla is the ingredient everyone looks to for healthier hair”.
After reading countless rave reviews, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this product. However, before the serum even touches my split ends, I’m taken aback by the divine smell emanating from the little glass bottle it comes in. This cocktail of nourishing, natural ingredients packs a powerful punch, emitting the most intoxicating fragrance.
Once I began applying the serum, I realized just how ceremonial the practice of hair-oiling can be. Slathering my hair in this vitamin-rich oil blend and deeply massaging it into my scalp felt so hypnotically decadent that it sent me into a trance. Simply for its meditative power alone, hair-oiling had me hooked from the get-go.
According to Ranavat, while “hair oiling is for everyone, those who would benefit most in the immediate are individuals who suffer from tender scalp, sensitivity, and dry flaky irritation.” As someone who has dealt with itchy dandruff for as long as I can remember, I was excited to see if this was the solution my scalp was crying out for. I decided to leave the serum on as an overnight mask before washing my hair as normal the next day.
When I showered the next morning, I opted to let my hair air-dry, to really see the raw results without any interference from heat or styling. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was blown away.
Normally, when I let my hair dry naturally, I can always rely on my ends to look drier, duller, and more dehydrated than the Sahara Desert. However, when I combed through my freshly-oiled locks, I couldn’t help but notice that my hair was significantly glossier, brighter, and softer than usual. After using the treatment again the following week, I found hardly any trace of the dry build-up that had plagued my scalp for so many years.
Thrilled by the results, I was determined to share the wonders of hair-oiling with my own mom. I treated her to an hour-long scalp massage, something that turned out to be a deeply intimate and cathartic bonding experience for both of us. The healing powers of this ancient ritual come from more than simply the ingredients within it. Oiling the hair of someone you love is grounding, tender, and heart-wrenchingly human.
Persian saffron baths
In her 1950s’ Hollywood portrayal of the ancient icon Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor can be seen during one particularly memorable scene sumptuously soaking in an intricately carved marble bath, playing with a model gold ship and attended to by her equally glamorous ladies-in-waiting.
But a bathtub filled with plain old water alone would never have cut it for the real Queen of Egypt, who was rumored to have bathed in goat milk and saffron. Cleopatra was drawn to these two natural remedies—goat milk for its hydrating, anti-aging properties, and saffron for its ability to impart radiance to the skin (and, as an added bonus, its reputation for being an aphrodisiac).
Cleopatra wasn’t the only one who was in on this beauty secret. “Saffron was used across Ancient Persia as medicine, as an offering to the gods, and as currency. When it comes to bathing, the practice is known in Ancient Persia to have originated from Cyrus the Great,” explains Nikki Bostwick, founder of THE FULLEST, a wellness brand inspired by Bostwick's Persian heritage. “He, who later inspired Alexander the Great for the same reason, believed it helped heal his battle wounds."
While the spice is notoriously expensive—at certain points in history, it cost up to three times as much as gold—scientific research has determined that there are, indeed, far-reaching dermatological benefits to saffron. “The active compound in saffron is known as crocin. It has natural antioxidant properties,” says board-certified dermatologist Chris Adigun, MD, FAAD. "There is also some evidence that saffron promotes wound healing and helps hyperpigmentation."
It makes perfect sense that Bostwick, a first-generation Iranian American, is no stranger to the magic of saffron; Iran is responsible for producing 90 percent of the world’s saffron, and the country’s culinary culture lives and breathes it. “I grew up understanding the powerful medicinal benefits of saffron," she says. "But it wasn’t until I came across a double-blind placebo study shortly after my time at plant-based culinary school that I was inspired to develop a product with therapeutic doses of saffron."
When I discovered the Saffron Milk Bath from THE FULLEST, I knew I had to seize the opportunity to put this ancient ritual to the test for myself. Would the addition of saffron help elevate my bath game to the next level? I was determined to find out.
Prior to using the Saffron Milk Bath—which marries anti-inflammatory saffron with soothing goat’s milk powder—I set the scene the only way I know how: By lighting every candle I own and turning my bathroom into a sacred sanctuary. I then poured a healthy 1/2 cup dose into running water and followed Bostwick's directive to stay out of the tub until it was completely filled. “This is an important part of bathing so that you don’t continually add warm water to a bath while you’re in there and mess around with your body temperature," she says.
I then slowly submerged into the golden saffron-infused waters, and noticed almost immediately that my dry skin became coated in a blanket of moisture. I put this down to the addition of goat’s milk powder which, “is rich in both fatty acids and cholesterol, both of which exist naturally in our skin barrier," says Dr. Adigun.
I soaked in the bath for twenty minutes, the amount of time Bostwick recommends to reap the bath’s full benefits. Typically after getting out of the bath, my skin develops a heat rash and all-around itchy sensation, neither of which happened this time. I also noticed while I was in the bath that a fresh wound on my ankle—a pesky blister—didn’t sting when in the water, but rather felt soothed. The experience itself was thoroughly rejuvenating and uplifting, and that night I slept like a baby.
It’s easy to see why so many continue to swear by this deeply spiritual and restorative practice today, though it carries a hefty price tag. However, incorporating saffron into your baths once a week is the ultimate healing luxury—which, if it’s in your price range, makes it worth its weight in gold.
Greek yogurt masks
Though the idea of plastering your go-to breakfast across your face may sound bizarre, Greek yogurt is an ancient superfood that Mediterranean women have been using in skin care for centuries.
“Its use in skin-care can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who recognized its soothing and nourishing properties for the skin," says Lena Korres, founder of KORRES, a skin-care brand that uses Greek yogurt in its formulations (along with other traditional Greek skin-care ingredients). "Today, Greek yogurt is a skin-care remedy used by yiayias (Greek grandmas) to soothe inflamed, irritated skin.
I’ve dealt with rosacea and sensitive skin for most of my life, so when I was given the opportunity to try out the KORRES SuperDose Greek Yoghurt Face Mask ($52), I was a willing test subject. “This mask is unique because it contains the highest percentage of real, pre-and-probiotic Greek yogurt compared to other skin care product," says Korres. "Greek yogurt is known for its soothing and gentle hydrating properties, making it effective for all skin types”.
The KORRES Superdose Greek Yoghurt Face Mask is unique because it combines ancient wisdom with modern science. Alongside Greek yogurt, the mask contains chamomile and ginger extract, marine algae extract, and something known as WaterPatch, which Korres tells me is “a high-tech time release system that provides intense, time-released hydration over 48 hours."
Per Korres' advice, I put the mask in the refrigerator before using it, and upon application the cooling sensation made me feel instantly refreshed
Once I'd liberally doused my face with a thick layer of the mask, my skin began to tingle ever so slightly, but not in an uncomfortable way. I initially started to panic, though, because for someone with sensitive skin that feeling is usually a bit of a red flag. However, Korres warned me beforehand not to worry if this happened: “The active ingredients in the mask may cause a tingling sensation—this is normal!"
After I washed off the mask, I was relieved to discover that there were no signs of redness or irritation. Immediately, my skin felt more hydrated and nourished, and when I looked in the mirror the next morning there was a noticeably brighter, more radiant reflection looking back at me.
When it comes to Greek yogurt as a skin-care superfood, I think the yiayias are onto something.
Each and every one of the ancient rituals I tested out are now set to become non-negotiables in my self-care routine. Of course, they were effective (my skin and hair have never felt more nourished), but there's more to it than that. There’s a magical, spiritual quality to all of these ancient rituals; Whether it’s the act of hair-oiling or taking a saffron bath, the experience alone was entrancingly peaceful and grounding. These rituals not only made me feel more in tune with myself, but they also made me feel a deep sense of connection with a wider tapestry of women. It's an honor to experience ancient wisdom derived from different cultures, and I am grateful to Ranavat, Bostwick, and Korres for sharing their heritage with me and the world.
This sojourn into the world of ancient skincare satisfied my urge to slow down and escape the clamoring din of the modern wellness industry, reminding me what’s important when it comes to beauty: Despite us all chasing the latest product that promises to banish our wrinkles or diminish our pores, true wellness is not just skin-deep.
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