Thanaka: A Traditional Beauty Commodity in Myanmar

Mother and son with thanakha ⓒ Pisi (U2 Photo Studio) photography

Lady with thanakha at a five-day market in Hsi Hseng , Shan State ⓒ Mg Chit Pan (Taunggyi) photography
The cosmetic value of thanaka is nationally recognized in Myanmar. Extracted from trees, thanaka holds a high level of public trust due to its connection to the traditional life of Burmese people. In the past, thanakha was worn as a natural cosmetic concoction during the period of Myanmar kingdoms. During the monarchy period, lighter and more fragrant thanakha was used for royal families, and it was added with tiny gold powder while commoners used the pollen of flowers named gant gaw (Mesua ferrea). In addition to it being considered a beauty product, thanaka is also used by farmers and sun-exposed workers for sun protection.

Since Myanmar is in a tropical climate zone, thanakha can give cool sensations and heal sunburns. When thanakha is applied on the face, it becomes a moisturizing treatment that primarily soothes the skin. It also has antibacterial properties that help clear the skin of pimples. As a result, thanaka paste is an essential part of our beauty routine. The glorification of thanaka is well-reflected in Myanmar’s idealization of beauty, particularly female beauty. The ideal woman is perceived to have a long hair, wearing Myanmar’s traditional attire, and using thanaka. This idealization is portrayed in media culture of the country, as well as in folk literature.

Little boy with thanakha applied ⓒ Sai Moon (tgi) photography
People make thanaka throughout the Myanmar. Following simple traditional procedures, it is taken from thanaka tree (Limonia acidissma Linn). Ten-year-old thanaka trees are downed and made logs about fifteen centimeters long. Thanakha paste is extracted from the bark by grinding it with a bit of water on a stone slab called kyauk pyin, until it becomes a yellow paste. The yellow paste, thanaka, is kept in a small container for daily use.

In recent times, Myanmar has seen the proliferation of foreign cosmetic brands in the country, specifically in urban areas. Despite this, thanaka is still used by many and promoted by concerned associations, as it represents Myanmar culture. Although people in the countryside faithfully use thanaka, the collective perception of people about it as a cultural component of ideal beauty should not be missed in understanding the intangible heritage of Myanmar.

Applying thanaka