Ethnobotany and Beauty Care

Paul Alan Cox, Michael J. Balick, and Vanessa Penna

From Cleopatra's obsession with kohl eyeliner and fragranced oils to Indian henna painting rituals and Japanese Geisha makeup, traditional cultures have shaped our vision of modern beauty. These ancient rituals and recipes have been practiced since the earliest times and are now being revived by people searching for the natural path to beauty.

These days it's not difficult to find exotic ingredients like Ayurvedic herbs from Nepal, babassu nut from Brazil, or shea butter from Ghana in your everyday shampoos and shower gels. Just browsing the cosmetics aisles can leave you with the feeling of having trekked across the globe. And you can't pick up a beauty and fashion magazine today without reading about the newest botanical ingredient featured in everything from facial cleansers to hair gels. The obvious connection between these "exotic" extracts is that they all come from Mother Nature, and nearly all of them are plant-based. The ideas behind many of today's best selling beauty potions come not from the laboratory, but from the knowledge of indigenous peoples—ancient cultures that have age-old knowledge of the environment and the plants that surround them. The future of the beauty industry, it seems, can be found in the past. So, what beauty editors may dub as the newest anti-aging formula might just be a recipe that's been kicking around for a thousand years or more. As ethnobotanists—scientists who study the use of plants by indigenous cultures—we suggest that plants in nature produce a more dazzling array of beneficial molecules than could the most modern chemical laboratory, and that indigenous peoples, so-called "primitive tribes" living in remote villages, are more sophisticated in their choice of these plants, their preparation, and their utilization than highly trained beauty consultants in our most modern cities.

From the tropics and deserts to arctic regions, indigenous tribes have relied on plants and their remarkable chemistry to treat and prevent illness, and to help protect and increase their own natural beauty. But how do they identify which plants are useful as medicine or beauty aids? In our ethnobotanical studies with traditional healers around the world, we have found that the sources of discovery are often hidden in the mists of time. Some scientists believe that through trial and error, indigenous peoples who have been resident for generations in a single area, have learned which plants are useful and which are not. Sometimes indigenous peoples tell us that the uses of the plants were revealed in dreams, or by their ancestors. Regardless of how plant uses were originally discovered, when specific plants are used for generation after generation, their accumulated knowledge begins to approach the results of thousands of human clinical trials and years of market research.

As more people seek environmentally friendly and safer ways of making themselves feel better about the way they look, they are turning to plant-based beauty products; many of the ingredients in these products are based on centuries-old knowledge of traditional cultures. Our vision, as ethnobotanists, is to ensure that companies share the benefits from these discoveries and products with the indigenous peoples who have developed them.