Natural beauty products are the best.
By Elie Calhoun
Since I was small, growing up in Nairobi, I’ve used natural oils and herbs to take care of myself. I spent at least half of my allowance at ‘Healthy U’ in the Sarit Centre, buying lavender bath salts and white clay for my face. When I got my period, I scooped myself a woodsy mixture of herbal barks and plants for a soothing tea that helped with my cramps.
I saw that plant medicine worked just as well as synthetic medicine and I liked feeling connected to older traditions. I liked the feeling of tapping healing energy that grew in a field or a forest, under the sun, not in a faraway factory. As my teenage income grew, so did my collection of herbal teas and essential oils. I was obsessed with natural beauty care and would read home remedies in the Egyptian newspapers, then try them at home. Yoghurt on my face, egg wash in my hair.
Everything worked. It took preparation and was often a little messy, but using the kitchen to care for my hair and skin made sense. If I wouldn’t swallow it, what was it doing on my body? I started buying natural shampoos and conditioners — still the two things I find hardest to replace naturally. (Let me know if you have a good recipe for natural shampoo or conditioner: email@example.com!)
In Cairo, I learned about essential oils from the glowing shops, brightly lit, that sold musk, jasmine, sandalwood and all kinds of flowers, barks and resins, crushed into glass bottles, amber and golden, lining mirrored shelves. The shops themselves were entrancing, never mind that after five minutes you’d have both arms swabbed in ‘Queen of the Nile’ and heady dabs of jasmine if you weren’t careful.
I quickly learned to be firm in those perfume shops, refusing imitation ‘Channel No. 5’ and asking insistently for the natural ones. Rose oil, precious and dispensed by the smallest smear from a glass topper, gradually transformed into deeper scents the longer it stayed on my wrist. We would drink a coffee, medium sugar, and I would ask questions about where things came from, pointing to bottles on the shelves with names in Arabic, eager to keep them talking.
It was when I moved to Dakar that I really hit the jackpot. Senegal is surrounded by some of the richest agricultural land in West Africa, and in Guinea and Burkina Faso, shea butter — or karite, as it’s called in French — is an easy-to-find commodity. Sold by the kilogram in plastic take-out containers, it comes smeared and thick, solid except in the fiercest sun. Cooperatives of women come to Dakar’s FIDAC Agricultural Fair and compete amongst each other, offering tests of their karite, which comes in large plastic barrels.
For over 20 years, I’ve been making my own skin and body care products with local African ingredients. I’ve imported most of my essential oils, but with more and more artisanal producers are showing up from the continent, I’m eager to start buying more local. I say use what you’ve got, where you are, and take the opportunity to ask the older ladies and the women in the market what they use for skin and body care. You might learn something new!
Here is a quick run-down of my favorite natural African beauty product ingredients. I’ve included a few simple recipes for homemade face cream, body lotion, sunscreen and more. This list is specific to West Africa, and we hope to create one (with your help!) for East Africa, Central Africa, South African and North Africa as well.
* Whenever possible, we like to buy organic, GMO-free products from local farmers paid a living wage. In this way, we support the long-term sustainability and biodiversity of our treasured farmlands, and help local people prosper. We encourage you to do this when you can. Often just asking “Do you grow anything organic” or “Are your products GMO-free?” will start a conversation and get people thinking. When we put our money behind the values we believe in, we support farmers and growers in our communities who are helping to build a resilient future.
So here are the “5 West African Natural Beauty Products You Can Make at Home”:
1. Baobab Oil
Baobab oil is made by pressing the seeds from the delicious and nutritious fruit of the baobab tree. It is highly nutritive, helps replenish collagen stores in skin cells, and can be used directly as a serum on delicate skin (although you might want to test some on your inside wrist first). We mix baobab oil into shea butter to make a thick winter face cream (1 tablespoon for every 1/4 cup) or a richly restorative body treatment after a shower (about 2 tablespoons for every 1/4 cup shea).
2. Shea Butter
Called karite throughout West Africa, shea is a solid off-white at room temperature and takes a few moments to melt into the skin. It’s solid state in all but the hottest weather makes it easy to transport. Add a few drops of essential oils like rose and lavender to a small tub of shea butter for anti-aging and protective qualities, and use it as a face cream. Heliochrysum essential oil acts as a very low-SPF natural sunscreen, and added to shea butter, can help protect your skin (along with long sleeves and a hat). Mixed with orange oil, evening primrose oil or other oils, shea becomes easier to spread and use, and accumulates other healing properties. Use your own discretion with mixing, as you can always adjust the consistency by adding more shea or more oil.
3. Sesame Oil
Used directly on the skin after a shower, sesame oil is a light body oil especially good for grounding and soothing dry skin. It also makes a non-sticky massage oil that isn’t as likely to stain the sheets. Sesame is a good carrier oil and is often used as a base for essential oils that will be used directly on the skin. It is very gentle and appropriate for skin that has been sun-damaged and exposed to harsh environments.
4. Neem Oil
The neem tree is a natural insect replant for mosquitos, so using neem oil mixed into shea butter and applied directly on the skin can keep away mosquitos, although we like our “Citronella Insect Repellent” more. Traditionally, neem oil is used directly on ringworm, skin fungus and other strange skin issues.
5. Orange Oil
Made from the pressed skin of ripe oranges, orange essential oil is a natural mood-lifter and an excellent addition to shea butter as an evening body treatment. Used directly on the skin, buffered with a little sesame carrier oil, is is a sunny pick-me-up and a simple aromatherapy treatment.
The one thing you need to know about using any citrus essential oil is that, for some people, it causes photo-sensitivity, which means you’re more likely to get sun-burned in the few hours after you use it. Orange oil and other citrus oils are best used in the evening for this reason, as the photo-sensitivity is short-lived. Orange and citrus oils are lovely pick-me-ups, so please don’t let this discourage you from using them!
We hope you are encouraged to try these natural body care ingredients in your own blends and concoctions. Please be aware of any sensitivity that you may have towards some of these ingredients, and use them with care.
Elie Calhoun is a writer, chef and social entrepreneur. She lives in West Africa.