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).
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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!
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!