Thanaka

The Secret to Burmese Beauty

Myanmar (Burma) is a special place with its own unique flavor & style, from the delightful tea leaf salads to the fashionable longyi. However, there is perhaps nothing more quintessentially Burmese than thanaka (pronounced tawn’-uh-kuh).

selling thanaka outside a temple in Bagan

Selling thanaka outside a pagoda in Bagan.

What is thanaka?

Thanaka is the name of a slow-growing tree that thrives in the arid central parts of Myanmar. It is widely said that the trees must mature for at least 35 years before becoming viable, but many newer thanaka ‘farms’ are able to put product on the market after just 3 to 7 years of growth. The eponymous paste is made from grinding the bark against a flat, wet stone and then applied to the face. Although parts of the thanaka tree are used medicinally in other parts of Asia, it is only in Myanmar that it is used cosmetically. It is said that Burmese have been using thanaka this way for 2,000 years, but the first written evidence of it comes from a 14th century poem.

A beautiful girl with thanaka that we met in Mrauk U in January 2014.

A beautiful girl we met in Mrauk U in January 2014.

Why use thanaka?

To hear locals tell it, it’s a good protection from the sun, lightens the skin, and even works against acne. In addition, it can be very cooling (as any liquid drying on your skin would be). Understandably, not a lot of research money has been poured into studying thanaka, but one 2010 Thai study found that “extracts from thanaka bark showed strong anti-inflammatory, significant antioxidation, mild tyrosinase inhibition and slight antibacterial activities.” (Inhibited tyrosinase would indirectly have a lightening effect on the skin.)(Source.) From the ageless beauty and flawless skin of the Burmese people, I’m inclined to believe. A PubMed.com search for peer-reviewed, journal-published studies on thanaka yields three results (including the one listed above). In addition, a 1998 study examined the efficacy of thanaka as a mosquito repellent in malaria and dengue affected areas of the Thai-Myanmar border. You can read the abstract here by clicking here. You can also read the abstract of a broader overview in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology by clicking here.

thanaka baby in bagan

A baby with a healthy, protective mask of thanaka.

Who wears thanaka?

Every day you’ll see most females and many boys and young men sporting thanaka patches on their faces. Although the cheeks are typically the most visibly coated, there is usually a thin layer across the entirety of the face. All children usually sport a pretty thick mask, which I believe accounts for such smooth skin later in life. It’s the sun damage we acquire as children (oops) that ages us so dramatically as we get older. An ever-present thanaka mask from birth until ten years old goes a loooong way toward anti-aging later in life. Although used for sun protection during the day, thanaka is also applied at night after bathing in order to receive the other anti-inflammatory therapeutic benefits.

How is thanaka applied?

My friend Zaw Zaw grinding thanaka in her home in neat Ngapali Beach, December 2013.

My friend Zaw Zaw grinding thanaka in her home near Ngapali Beach, December 2013.

When you walk through a Burmese market you’re sure to see a pile of cut branches, ranging from an inch thick to 6 inches thick, in various lengths. The flat grinding stones (called kyauk pyins) also come in various diameters. Although it involves a lot of elbow grease and a surprising amount of water, grinding the bark is my preferred method of creating thanaka paste. However, there are loads of different pre-made pastes, creams, powders, and pressed powder bars on the market. Unfortunately, their convenience comes at a price, as they are undoubtedly adulterated with who knows what (no, really—who knows what, because I don’t read Burmese). These pre-packaged products invariably smell like Lemon Pledge or cheap night cream, so I’ll stick with the stick. One of my favorite things is seeing the thanaka “logs” in convenience stores next to the other more conventional beauty products. You’ll have a line of moisturizers, creams, masks, and then—boom, a big old stick right in the middle of all of it. For 13 years I worked for Whole Foods Market, most of that time in the natural supplements and body care department. Customers always wanted the cleanest, most straightforward product. Well—here’s your stick and your stone, get to work.

Why do I love wearing thanaka so much?

First and foremost, I find it incredibly beautiful. Not in a precious, exotic way, but rather in a way that makes me feel comfortable and confident. I immediately gravitated toward it the first time we landed in Myanmar. It kills me that I can only really wear it in Myanmar, as my affection for it would be no match for the frustration of explaining it a thousand times a day in other countries.

Impromptu community thanaka application in In Dein (Inle Lake).

Impromptu community thanaka application in In Dein (Inle Lake).

In addition to the actual therapeutic benefits, I relish the opportunity for connection it provides, the “in” for a conversation. I don’t typically jump on any stylistic bandwagons on our travels; I don’t wear bindis or saris in India and I don’t wear sarongs in Bali (although I’ve stuck the odd frangipani flower or two behind my ear). I don’t feel it’s my place and quite honestly, I feel a bit goofy co-opting local styles elsewhere. But in Myanmar, thanaka feels like a second skin; the smiles I get and ensuing conversations always reinforce my love for it. Thanaka crosses ethnic, religious, and class boundaries across Myanmar, which is another reason I adore it. Buddhist or Muslim, farmer or banker, Shan or Karen, every day I see woman of all walks of Burmese life rock the thanaka. Women, particularly in more rural areas, are always willing to share their thanaka with anyone interested (and believe me, they are pro’s at thanaka application. I suppose when you’ve been wearing something every day of your life, you get good at it; I’d like to think I know my way around some liquid eyeliner….)

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Myanmar and the thanaka calls out to you, I encourage you to try it. Maybe you’ll find a new beauty regimen to bring home—centuries of beautiful Burmese women can’t be wrong!

UPDATE:

I get a lot of email asking for Thanka recommendations in the U.S., and although I have not tried any thanaka products purchased outside Myanmar, I feel comfortable recognizing quality products that have clean ingredients. I’ve linked to some products on Amazing that appear to be pure unadulterated thanaka powder (although I have not tried any of these and cannot fully vouch for them). 

I would avoid any pre-mixed creams or lotions, as they are sure to have tons of preservatives and perhaps even bleaching agents in there.  Many of these powders say to mix it with oil, but I can tell you that it is traditionally mixed with water, not oil. I suppose if you have dry skin, though, that may be of benefit.

Please let me know if you have purchased any thanaka online that you can recommend!

Click the links below to be taken to the product’s page on Amazon.com.

41 Comments

  1. Dan

    Hi,

    Thank you for your interesting report.

    Best regards

    Dan

    Reply
    • will

      I get my Thanaka powder in the U.S. from Truly Thanaka. They are the best ive found so far, remember not all Thanaka powder is the same some are not good but this thanaka from Truly Thanaka is amazing. It has an amazing smell and worked wonders on my acne problems.

      Reply
      • Lauren

        That’s a great recommendation, thank you, Will!!

        Reply
  2. Esther (@DaughterForHim)

    About 5-6 years ago, my friend gave me a big jar of thanakha and I was hooked. When it was done, it took me a long time to find that same good quality kind… but did. I always stick with one kind of thanakha (shwe pwi nann), and it works amazing, I never like using Ebay, but thanakha is worth it! ☺ My Karen friends tell me it’s “too expensive”, but in reality, it’s a much cheaper skin care product than what we have in Canada! Plus it works! ??

    Reply
    • Lauren

      I’m so happy to hear you use and love thanaka! The jars are SO much more convenient than the sticks, LOL, so I imagine if I used it every day I would get on board. I’ll have to look into that brand!

      Reply
    • Lovelen

      Hello. I have lupus and my skin isn’t doing to well. My I ask where did you buy your thanakha?

      Reply
      • Lauren

        For better or worse, I buy mine when I am actually in Myanmar. However, I am sure there are some reputable companies which sell pure powder product (perhaps something like this: http://amzn.to/2iCu6XQ ?) I hope you have success!

        Reply
        • vanitha

          Hello, I wanted to buy pure thanaka power for unwanted hair removal, can i buy from the this link which u have given, please give me suggestion

          Reply
          • Lauren

            Hmm, I don’t know that I would recommend thanaka for hair removal. Not that it wouldn’t be safe, I just don’t think it would be effective. Perhaps over the course of 10 YEARS of daily use, haha, but nothing immediate or noticeable. I don’t think thanaka is the ideal ingredient for your purposes, I’m sorry!

  3. anthony

    Hi, I’m going to Myanmar in Sept 16 – what is the etiquette on thanaka ? can the man wear it, if a a local offers and applies it – should i pay them, if so what sort of price range

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Hi Anthony! How wonderful you’re going to Myanmar next month! Unfortunately, it is not typical for men to wear thanaka. Very young boys wear it, but I don’t think I’ve seen any boys past around 10 years old wear it. It doesn’t seem fair, since it’s good for everyone’s skin, but that’s the way the Burmese gender cookie crumbles. Also, I believe it is not often that someone would really offer to apply it to anyone outside a tourist setting where they are actually using it as a tool to sell thanaka (my experience during my 2nd time at Inle and at my friend Zaw Zaw’s house was pretty unique). I’ll be back in December, and I’ll be curious to see if anything has changed with the greater number of tourists.

      Enjoy Myanmar, and eat a ton of tea leaf salad for me! You’re seen our Burmese food blog, right? http://www.retreatours.com/2014/01/food-in-burma-myanmar/

      Reply
      • Michele

        hello we are in Mandalay at the moment (after being in Yangon), and I can confirm that I have seen many Young men wearing tanaka on their face

        Reply
        • Lauren

          Great! Were they boys or teenagers? I’m glad to see it on as many people as possible! Enjoy your time in Myanmar!!

          Reply
  4. Sonya

    Lauren, I’m planning to buy some of the little mini-pots of Thanaka as gifts to take home. Just curious if you know whether you can you take them in carry-on luggage or do they need to be checked through?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Hi Sonya! I would base it on the size–if the jars are over 100ml, definitely check them. Less than that, just apply the airlines’ liquid rules (in a 1 quart bag, under 100 ml bottles, et) and I don’t see why it should be a problem. Good idea for gifts!!

      Reply
  5. Emily

    Lauren. I have allergies to sunscreen as it’s chemical compound is strong . And as I surf a lot would the thanaka paste hold in the water ? I needed an alternative to chemical sunscreen

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Hi Emily! I really don’t think that thanaka would hold up in the water at ALL, unfortunately. I hate chemicals sunscreens, too, and while there are a lot of great mineral-based ones out there (like DeVita), most feel too delicate to withstand any water. If I had to pick something, I would say using and reapplying the MyChelle Sun Shield would be your best bet. It just feels more hardy than other mineral sunscreens, but still doesn’t turn your face bright white. It won’t last all day in the water, but should provide *some* protection if you are avoiding the chemical waterproof sunscreens. Let me know if you try it (or if you find something even better, because I’m always looking for great mineral sunscreens!!) (PS, looks like it’s on sale over at Vitacost right now:: http://www.vitacost.com/mychelle-dermaceuticals-sun-shield-spf-28-unscented-2-3-fl-oz)

      Reply
  6. Mabel

    Hi Lauren!
    I’m actually a Burmese woman, born and raised and just want to let you know that this is an AMAZING article! I hope you visit Myanmar again soon! As a word of advice to anyone who needs it, I recommend getting the stone slab and the wood because even in the pots there are chemicals. It’s also a great arm work out haha! I personally apply it to my face in the traditional way (thin layer over my entire face, and then some more over my chin, cheeks and nose) and go to sleep on it. I wake up with super soft skin, after washing it ofc, and think that it’s the best way so you dont have to wear it out if you’re in another country. Again, I love this article! I hope this is good advice and would be more than happy to answer any questions. Again, I am a burmese person so I can tell you the things you can’t google.

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Wow, thanks, Mabel! I am actually
      Writing this on a bus in Hpa-An, lol, so I made it back! Do you still live in Myanmar? I’m here for another 2 weeks (Kinpun, Bagan & Yangon); if you are anywhere in those areas, I’d love to meet!

      And yes, I think there are soooo many unnecessary chemicals and fragrance in the pots–wood is the only way! I have just started applying a full face at night to see how my skin looks after a month.

      I may email you with a question about how lyongis should be fit properly, lol…. I think I am having a bit of difficulty.

      Thank you again for the kind words!

      Reply
      • Mabel

        Haha! I still struggle with Longyis too! So I wear ones that are clip ons, they’re super easy to put on and are secure so you dont have to worry about it dropping lol. The length should go down to right as your ankle, longer ones look better than shorter ones. It should start around your waist and fir snugly. And the shape at the butt that is sewn in (for clip on ones) should lay perfectly and not be crooked. If you’re having trouble with what to pair, a semi loose shirt tucked in or a set that comes with the longyi should look fine! It really depends on what the event may be.

        In a month or 2 your skin should start to clear (if you have acne prone skin). I also recommend getting some Thanaka logs and a small stone slab, trust me the natural one is WAY better than the potted ones! You will not regret it! Hope this helps!

        Reply
    • Odane

      Hi Mabel does thanaka powder and safflower oil paste really provides permanent hair removal?

      Reply
      • Lauren

        I know you’re asking Mabel, but…. I don’t believe there is any truth to that at all.

        Reply
        • Odane

          Thanks Lauren for your reply, is thanaka powder made from just the bark or is the entire log grinded into powder?

          Reply
          • Lauren

            It’s my understanding that it’s just the bark. The wood can be used for other things (I have a great set of mala beads made of thanaka wood!)

  7. Odane

    Thanks very much Lauren for the valuable information that you provided.

    Reply
    • Lauren

      It’s 100% my pleasure. I love thanaka and want to do my part to spread the word! Enjoy!

      Reply
  8. Josh

    I would like to purchase some Thanaka in the United States. Do you have a recommendation of what brand to purchase and where I can find it?

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Hi Josh! I wish I had a rock-solid suggestion for you in the U.S. but I’m afraid that I get my powder when I am in Myanmar. However, if you look for just a pure thanaka powder (not any creams) on Amazon and scope out the reviews, you may find something good. I think this one looks good: http://amzn.to/2rBEHaV …and this one, too: http://amzn.to/2q2UHli And this also caught my eye, actually (a thanaka and collagen mix!): http://amzn.to/2q2UNJG Good luck–let me know if you find one you love and I can share the brand! 🙂

      Reply
  9. Allena

    Hi lauren,

    Thanks for the great article. I’m happen to know about thanaka 4 years back from a friend. I have a thanaka bark then, but rarely use it. I’m just curious, is thanaka bark has expiry date? How to know if the bark is still usable or ‘rotten’ already?

    Reply
    • Lauren

      That’s a great question that unfortunately I can only guess at. I would say that if the bark is extremely crumbly or flaky, perhaps it’s a bit too aged, so to speak? If it absolutely falls apart when you to grind it on a wet stone? That would be my guess. 4 years sounds like it could still be viable–let me know what you find out if you try it soon!

      Reply
      • May

        Hi,I can confirm that thanaka won’t expire. Old people like to say “The older it is,the better it is.” Trust me because I was born in Myanmar and I used thanaka almost everyday.

        Reply
        • Lauren

          Thank you, May!! Good to know!

          Reply
  10. Jamie

    Hi Lauren, I’m currently in Yangon and tried Thanaka yesterday for the first time. I want to bring a log home with me but my husband says it won’t be allowed out of the country. Curious if you have ever brought a log out with you or do you only bring home the jars? Thanks for the great article!

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Hi Jamie! Oh man, I’m so jealous!! Have fun in Yangon! So, I have definitely brought many thanaka logs home with me, out of Myanmar and into the USA, no problem at all. I don’t see any reason why Myanmar would not allow it out of the country, nor do I see why the USA would have a problem letting it in. The majority of jarred thanaka, unfortunately, is garbage (SO perfumed and so many fillers). I hope you love it!! (PS, very cool website you have! I’m in Ladakh right now and am having trouble loading too much on the internet, but from what I can see, you’re a helluva writer!)

      Reply
  11. Ashlee

    Hi! I just came across this article and loved it. I have just recently returned from a visit to Myanmar, we went to Yangon, Bagan and Inle. I really loved it there, it was like nowhere I have ever been before. Already want to go back!

    I am curious, about foreigners using Thanaka – my friend and I (both females in our twenties) used it one day when we went to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda. The locals were staring and laughing, it did not seem to be in a malicious way, more like ‘Oh look at the silly tourists trying thanaka’. We even went to a shop afterwards and the girl could not serve us, she was laughing so hard! She had to go to the back of the shop to regain her composure, and allowed someone else to serve us. It was amusing mostly, but a bit tiring after a while (‘yes, we get it, its funny!’).

    Did you encounter anything like this? Also, this was the day we were most popular for photographs! Most people asked which I never minded (being very pale, blonde, and not very slim, I am used to it in SE Asia), but a lot didn’t and just stuck their phones in our face. It certainly didn’t put me off Myanmar or anything, but I don’t think I will wear thanaka again.

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Ai yi yi–welcome to the world of sticking out in Asia, right? (This is coming from a blue-eyed, also not-very-slim, loud-laughed, 5’9″ behemoth of a lady 😉 So, the young female laugh is something I have not fully understood but come to accept in my travels in S & SE Asia–you’re spot-on in that it’s not mocking, per se, but it still makes you feel uncomfortable. I will say that I’ve never specifically gotten that while wearing thanaka (or at least, no more than usual?) Was it in a funny pattern or stamp? Was it on your nose or any place than your cheeks?

      I wish I could unpack or decode it for you, but I can’t. I know that I got more attention/giggles just from wearing a longyi (sarong) than wearing thanaka, which surprised me. The attention can be draining, for sure, so I don’t blame you for not wanting to wear it again. I always joke that my teens and twenties, when I always had ridiculously colored hair and bizarre outfits, trained me for the unwarranted attention I now get for seemingly ‘normal’ things overseas!

      Sorry about that, Ashlee, and I’m glad it didn’t put you off Myanmar. Thanks for the kind words about the article!!! <3 Next time maybe check out Hpa-An; we just went there (on our 4th trip to Myanmar) and it was delightful.

      Reply
  12. LAURA

    Hello! Thank you for the article. I would like to ask how thanaka works with acne and how long it could take to clear up the affected area? I’m really struggling with horrible, huge red whiteheads on my cheeks and absolutely nothing seems to work. And I am an adult woman in my thirties, so, you can imagine how daunting this might be.

    Reply
    • Lauren

      Hi Laura! I wish I could give yo u some concrete advice and a timeline, but I can’t; I’ve never used on active acne. I will say I think that as an anti-inflammatory agent, it is 100% worth trying, though. If you do try it and have good results, don’t forget to come back here and let me know!!!

      Reply
      • SAW

        I got some real thanatka that I bought it from Burma. I used them on my daily basis.

        Reply
  13. Robinson lais

    Hi Lauren, Can we use thanankha in winter season???

    Reply
    • Lauren

      I don’t see why not! Especially if you are using it for general skin health purposes! 🙂 I’m no expert, but I think you can do anything you want, any season you want 😉

      Reply

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Lauren

Lauren

Co-pilot at RetreaTours
Current motto: "I'd rather be feeding street dogs."
Lauren

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