Organic Beauty: Exploring Africa’s Natural Beauty Practices

Organic Beauty: Exploring Africa’s Natural Beauty Practices

Most people agree that beauty is one of those concepts with an ever-changing definition. If anything, the beauty industry is as fast-growing and dynamic as the definition of the concept itself. It seems that the more advanced we become, the quicker the race for the cosmetics industry if it must keep up with the latest beauty trends. Business must be good though, because the cosmetic, beauty and skincare market is worth billions of dollars globally. Traditionally, it is dominated by cosmetic and pharmaceutical giants who invest vast sums to the formation of new products, and mostly synthetic-chemical laden new products.

In more recent times, demand for organic beauty has been on a steady rise. The revenue of organic cosmetics in the United States was about $750 million in 2016 and is forecasted to reach approximately $1.65 billion by 2025. It is as if there is an awakening, a renewed desire to return to a time where ‘beauty’ was not used in the same breath as animal testing or the possibility of contracting cancer. As public interest in sustainability continues to climb, many consumers today are seeking more natural and environmentally-friendly emulsifiers and ingredients for their products. The benefits of “green” beauty products extend beyond trends — particularly in light of the toxicity of conventional cosmetics, and the natural cosmetics market continues to grow consistently.

Organic Beauty: Exploring Africa's Natural Beauty Practices
Photo: Sora Shimazaki.

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Nowhere does this inspiration and experience with homemade organic beauty items run deeper than in Africa. Here, for hundreds of years, women have depended exclusively on natural products for their beauty needs. The recipes and formulas for these products have been handed over from one generation to the next. While these beauty practices have usually been associated with women, generally, they are as genderless as they are timeless.

For instance, my mother’s family is named after the Uri tree; from which generations of Igbos have made black eyeliner. The Igbo Uri and it’s other versions across the continent are the ancestors to the modern eyeliner and mascara. Henna is the ancestor of modern nail polish and lipstick. One of the modern favourites is shea butter and this has been used in West and Central Africa for centuries for all its incredible qualities. For the skin, it serves as a  natural UV-protector and moisturiser. When mixed with some sea salt, it becomes a natural exfoliator. Its more recent incarnation is the popular “African Black Soap”.

In Sudan, the women have a skin tanning practice called the ‘dukhan’, which means ‘smoke’ in Arabic. In the Dukhan practice, acacia and sandalwood are added to smoking charcoal placed in a container. The woman disrobes and carefully sits on a chair or stoop above the container, covered in a blanket, creating a small body tent while the sweet smoke billows around your body. This practice detoxifies the skin, is warmly relaxing and also works to ease joint problems and arthritis.


A similar beauty custom in the Somali household is the ‘Uunsi’ where sugar resin, frankincense and rich oils are added on top of the coal. What’s released is an alluring smoke that hugs onto everything in sight. The Somali women sit and let the smoke envelop their skins, leaving them with purer skin and a deep, sensual scent that lingers for weeks at a time. The hair is not left out. In Ethiopia, men and women rubbed ghee butter on their hair to make it shiny, thick and fluffy. In Northern African, women would use rhassoul clay as face and hair masks. Gotten from the Atlas Mountains, this clay is rich in silica, iron, magnesium, and potassium and works wonders on the skin and hair.

As we make a gradual return to organic beauty, I cannot but wonder why we left it in the first place. One of the setbacks has been that the knowledge about these practices has been “anecdotal” and there was no real research behind them. Another reason of course is that of packaging and marketing. A lot of these practices have remained the same over millennia and have never really been ‘re-packaged’ for mass consumption. Take the henna for example. This practice has not changed much. Henna drawing is an art; it takes time to learn, to apply to dry even. And while its application is the experience, it is not suited for the mass convenience and appeal. You can therefore see how acetone filled nail polish may have more appeal.

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Fortunately, this situation has begun to change. African organic beauty brands have taken the task of bringing these practices and products into the mainstream beauty industry. Brands like Malee for instance have transformed this cultural heritage to world class products. These brands, some of which are small family-owned businesses, are sharing years of tradition and family culture with the world and this makes me very proud.

Organic Beauty: Exploring Africa's Natural Beauty Practices
Henna hands of a woman in Morocco, Marrakech. Photo: Emily Marie Wilson.

Whether it be smoke, hair butters, skin oils, ghee, Uri, or henna; these beauty practices share one common feature: they are all organic and absolutely harmless to the environment. They are organic products which is to say that they work with nature, not against it. More than this though, the difference between these and their synthetic counterparts is the philosophy behind their use. I asked my mother about this a while ago and she pointed out the philosophy was that traditional beauty items were intended to makeup and not to drastically transform. This feeds into the larger context of slow beauty not just in how they are made, but in what they are expected to achieve. Nature is slow and gradual. If you can understand this, then you would question all various forms of beauty that seek to harm first before it can beautify.

Thus, it is important that as we adopt natural beauty products and practices, we also adopt the philosophy that comes with it. And that is the philosophy of slow beauty. This is because no matter how organic the products or how sustainable the practices, in the hands of mega-corporations, it will not be enough. In the hands of a customer base who want more and more instant results from their cosmetics, organic will never be enough.

Modern beauty is obsessed with “transformation”  and “instant glow”.  It has become something nearly everyone wants to achieve, regardless of its detrimental impacts to our bodies, our minds and our society. It is this drive that has created a certain kind of buzz, loud enough to drown out natural and organic beauty, replacing them with chemical-laced beauty items along with a spike in skin diseases and other human health issues. Our skin is the largest living, breathing organ of the human body. When you envisage a healthy lifestyle, understand that the concept isn’t limited to your fitness and nutrition. Using organic products – beauty and otherwise – will add a lot of life and vibrant energy to your years for one simple reason: what you put on your body is just as important as what you put in your body.

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Cover image by Askar Abayev.

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