An Ayurvedic Makeover: India’s inside-out approach to skincare lets you toss the toxic cosmetics, luxuriate in herbal treatments, and tap into the source of true beauty.
By Shannon Sexton
Gina Simo had struggled with cystic acne for six years. A 20-something actress and model in Manhattan, she ran from dermatologist to dermatologist trying to suppress the eruptions—so painful at times that she couldn’t touch her own face—with antibiotics, Retin-A, and specially prescribed injections. But the antibiotics gave her yeast infections, the Retin-A made her skin dry, itchy, and prone to sunburn, and the injections (aimed directly into the swollen, sensitive cysts) were “incredibly painful.” When she heard about Pratima Raichur, an ayurvedic consultant in Manhattan and the author of Absolute Beauty: Radiant Skin and Inner Harmony Through the Ancient Secrets of Ayurveda, she wondered if she could find relief through an all-natural avenue.
A few weeks later, swathed in a regal sari, Raichur led Gina down the sweet-scented hall to her office at Pratima Ayurvedic Skincare Spa Clinic, held a magnifying glass to Gina’s face, and “read” her skin. Raichur diagnosed her with a pitta imbalance (which causes acidity and liver congestion) and a sluggish colon burdened with ama (toxic residue). She asked detailed questions about Gina’s lifestyle, diet, and stress levels. Raichur told Gina that to heal her skin for good, she needed to address the root of her problem instead of simply managing the symptoms. “Pratima told me that the skin is just a mirror for what’s going on inside,” Gina recalls, “and that health and beauty go hand in hand.”
After a 21-day home detox and three months of lifestyle changes, herbal supplements, and an ayurvedic skincare regimen, Gina’s acne had dramatically cleared. Within about a year, she says, it was completely gone.
Healthy Body, Beautiful Skin
Ayurveda’s fresh-from-the-garden holistic approach to beauty is gaining momentum around the world, from America to Italy to Singapore. According to a 2007 study conducted by the International Spa Association, 31 percent of spas offer ayurvedic beauty treatments like facials and oil massage. Ayurvedic aestheticians like Raichur report that her clientele (now totaling more than 10,000 people) has been steadily climbing for over a decade. Raichur’s patients aren’t just women—about 30 percent are men, from up-and-coming models with dry skin to 60-something bankers with psoriasis. She also treats infants and children with eczema, along with acne-addled teens.
What’s so appealing about ayurvedic beauty care? For starters, it’s 100 percent natural. Consider Gina’s case: Instead of squirming under needles and taking drugs with side effects, she luxuriated in what Raichur calls “a gourmet feast for your skin.” Raichur showed her how to apply an acne-specific face mask made with red sandalwood, neem, and lodra herbs; exfoliate her skin with lentil powder; and moisturize with a warm, nourishing oil massage.
All of Raichur’s treatments are “edible,” she explains, because the skin—the body’s largest organ of absorption—eats whatever you put on it. “Think of your beauty products not as cosmetics but as food,” Raichur tells her clients. “If you cannot eat it, do not use it on your skin.”
Second, unlike allopathic methods, ayurvedic beauty care is highly individualized. Raichur customized each of Gina’s skincare mixtures to her specific needs. (Raichur learned the recipes from her elderly neighbor, a vaidya, or ayurvedic physician, in Mumbai. She apprenticed with him as a teenager, writing down his prescriptions, and decades later, fine-tuning them for American skin types.) “Ayurveda shows us that the for-mula to achieve balance is different for each person, depending upon his or her innate body type and temperament,” she writes in Absolute Beauty. “As a result, there is no single type of treatment… that can work for everyone, because not everyone is born with the same type of constitution or the same type of skin.”
Third, ayurvedic beauty care is integrative. As Raichur explains, “A line or a blemish on the face—like any sign of stress or illness—is only one puzzle piece in a diagnostic picture that encompasses the entire range of an individual’s life, from the innermost aspects of mind and emotions to the outermost aspects of lifestyle and environment.” She cautions that although external treatments can significantly improve the health of your skin, “they do not address the root causes of disease.” For that, each client also needs an “internal beauty routine”—a customized dietary, herbal, and yoga regimen to balance his or her prakriti (constitution).
“One of the first things Pratima did was change my diet,” Gina recalls. “It turns out I was eating all the pitta-aggravating foods. I’m a good old Italian American, so what was I raised on? Pasta, cheese, tomatoes, garlic, onions.” Gina learned to substitute cooling drinks like aloe vera juice and coconut water for coffee; whole grains and legumes for pasta, cheese, and red sauce. She toned down heating spices like garlic, oregano, and salt, and turned up cooling ones like parsley, dill, and mint. And she began to eat more vegetables and fruit, while avoiding pitta-aggravating nightshades and citrus.
In terms of her lifestyle, she says, her move from a sleepy town in Connecticut to high-speed Manhattan had made her anxious and frenetic. “My adrenals were on overload,” she says, “so Pratima gave me herbs and told me to do gentle yoga and alternate nostril breathing just to calm down.” Although these ayurvedic prescriptions won’t solve your skin problems overnight, Raichur says, they can lead to lasting change.
In Gina’s case, it certainly worked. “I’m forty-one,” she says, “but people tell me I look like I’m thirty. I have a stressful life, but I have no wrinkles, no acne. I only use edible products on my skin, and I live a healthy lifestyle.” Today, her whole family sees Raichur for health and beauty issues, ranging from her own sinus infections to her daughter’s diaper rash to her husband’s prematurely graying hair.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for ayurvedic beauty care lies within its ancient philosophy: authentic lasting beauty radiates from the inside out. “We can learn a lot about inner beauty from Eastern systems,” says Kim Inglis, author of Ayurveda: Asian Secrets of Wellness, Beauty, and Balance. “Their tenets not only help in self-esteem and spiritual matters, they result in external beauty as well. For example: grace in posture and movement; freshness and vitality that come from a peaceful mind imbued with self-knowledge. It’s a more profound understanding of beauty.”
In the West, Inglis remarks, we’re obsessed with “market-driven ideals”—a supermodel figure, flawless skin. Indeed, the beauty industry is one of the biggest moneymakers in the world; new anti-aging, acne-suppressing, lip-plumping products hit the market every week. When we fret over pimples, age spots, and wrinkles, we impulsively reach for these products, despite evidence that many of them don’t work. We dye our hair with potentially carcinogenic chemicals and use synthetic treatments to reverse hair loss. As Raichur observes, it is much easier to pop a pill, apply a cream, or pay for chemical peels, Botox, and even face-lifts than it is to change our habits and get to the root of our skin problems.
But here’s the good news: “You don’t have to be a classically beautiful person, whatever that means in your culture, to attain beauty,” says Melanie Sachs, author of Ayurvedic Beauty Care. “Ayurvedic beauty is about loving the skin you’re in, about learning how to bring out your best and be your best.”
How do we do this? By addressing imbalances on the physical, mental, and spiritual levels, says Raichur. According to ayurveda, all skin diseases are due to imbalances of the five elements: air, earth, water, fire, and ether. This leads to an imbalance of the doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha, the subtle energies that comprise your prakriti. Much of ayurveda revolves around techniques designed to keep your doshas in balance.
Ayurvedic Beauty Secrets
Although cultural definitions of beauty vary from culture to culture, Raichur observes, they share one prerequisite: radiance. “Archetypal beauties” from India to Greece to Africa are depicted with a healthy glow that comes from deep within.
“Ironically, many [of us] think that being beautiful will make [us] happy, but the truth is the other way around,” she writes. “Without happiness, lasting beauty is an unattainable goal…. And if you want to be beautiful, you must first create a whole and happy inner life.”
Eventually, Raichur says, such an inner life leads to a state of consciousness called sat-chit-ananda, a Sanskrit term she translates as “a state of pure unbounded happiness” and identifies as “the essence of Vedic beauty.” All ayurvedic practice is designed to help us reach this elevated state through a healthy balanced life-style infused with spiritual practice.
That’s why Raichur emphasizes a second step in beauty care: adjusting your daily routine—with special attention to diet, asana, pranayama, and meditation—to keep your doshas balanced, improve your health, and give you a sense of fulfillment. She tells her clients: “You can bathe with milk, put sandalwood on your face, give yourself oil massages—all these things are extremely helpful and nourishing—but if you don’t have the wisdom and knowledge of who you are and what life is all about, then you will lack the inner radiance that leads to lasting beauty.”
This wellspring of inner radiance infuses longtime yoga practitioners like Angela Farmer and Lilias Folan with a warm, peaceful luminosity well into their silver years. Which leads us to the second secret: When it comes to aging, ayurveda and its sister science, yoga, remind us that beauty is more than skin deep. We all want to be vibrant and beautiful; in fact, the sages describe this as our natural state. But if we limit our conception of beauty to a physical ideal, sooner or later we’re doomed to fail. After all, nothing in the world, including our mortal form, lasts forever, or even stays the same.
“When I came to this country in 1977,” Raichur recalls, “I saw the way women were buying all these cosmetics, creams, anti-aging products—they’re so afraid of being old. In my culture, aging is a fact of life. The older you are, the more mature you are, the wiser you are. I thought, I should tell Americans about ayurveda’s philosophy: Stop worrying about aging. Make the best of what you have, and the best will come to you.”
As we approach and journey through midlife, the vata dosha—the subtle energy responsible for movement that can lead to disease when it’s imbalanced—increases and the body begins to dry out. As Sachs explains, “If you want to look your best for a long time, you have to address vata, because vata causes premature aging—and it’s rampant in the modern world.” Her advice? Slow down and stick to a routine. Eat healthy, nourishing food in a mindful manner. Drink plenty of fluids, practice good sleep hygiene, and give yourself a full-body oil massage every day—it’s one of the best vata-pacifying, anti-aging practices in the world. Together, these activities can pave the way to lasting beauty.
Ayurveda maintains that the ultimate secret to radiant beauty is ojas. Loosely translated as “that which invigorates,” it is one of the three subtle vital essences that promotes health, well-being, and vitality. When ojas is healthy and strong, we experience what ayurvedic and yogic texts, ranging from the Charaka Samhita to the Vedas, celebrate as the signs of natural beauty: glowing skin, thick lustrous hair, bright beautiful eyes, and strong limbs, along with robust immunity and a joyful mind. When ojas is low, our skin becomes dry, pale, wrinkled, and prone to skin disease. We lose the sparkle in our eyes; our immunity declines; and we struggle with fatigue, anxiety, mental fuzziness, and negativity.
How can we replenish this vital essence? Raichur explains: “By creating a lifestyle that is in harmony on all three levels—physical, mental, and spiritual. That means eating properly, breathing properly, thinking properly, and using the right oils and herbs for your constitution. Harmony creates health, health creates peace of mind, and peace of mind gives you a healthy glow.” She recommends a two-pronged approach to ayurvedic beauty—an external routine and an internal routine.
Ideally, you should work with an ayurvedic beauty professional who can custom-tailor a program to your specific needs (or, at the very least, try taking dosha tests and consulting ayurvedic books with body-mind beauty practices suited to your prakriti). In the meantime, you can experiment with these tips and homemade recipes from our favorite experts. They’re safe for men, women, and children of all skin types.
Ayurveda outlines three steps to beautiful skin: cleanse, nourish, and moisturize. If that sounds like standard operating procedure in the West, think again. While Americans use soap to cleanse the skin, Raichur (a chemist by trade) writes that such products “dry the skin and alter its pH balance, causing it to become more alkaline.” As a result, we reach for synthetic moisturizing creams, “which can be too dense on the molecular level to permeate the tissue adequately.” Instead, ayurveda suggests using ubtans (pastes made from herbs, flours, and legumes) to cleanse and exfoliate the skin, and then nourishing and moisturizing with organic unrefined oils.
Raichur recommends the following recipe for full-body skincare. Try doing it daily; according to Raichur, “the skin sheds cells at the rate of a million per hour,” so it is important to remove those cells on a regular basis.
To cleanse: Make an ubtan by mixing equal parts chickpea flour (a gentle natural exfoliant) and dry milk powder (which is nourishing for the skin) in a jar. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons into the palm of your hand, add water to make a thin paste, and scrub lightly over wet skin in the shower. Rinse off and pat dry.
To nourish & moisturize: Make a body oil by mixing 1 ounce of almond oil with 10 drops of essential oil appropriate to your prakriti: for dry “vata” skin, use sweet orange or geranium; for sensitive “pitta” skin, jasmine or sandalwood; for oily “kapha” skin, lavender or bergamot.
Warm your bottle of oil in hot water for a few minutes, and then prepare to give yourself an abhyanga (self-massage with oil). For an introductory practice, Raichur recommends the following: Pour some oil on your palm and massage your scalp, the tops and bottoms of your feet, and the rest of your body, including your abdomen and spine. Use long repetitive strokes along your limbs and circular strokes on your joints and scalp. “As you anoint yourself with the oil,” she says, “reflect on the fact that the word for oil in Sanskrit, sneha, is also the word for love. So this self-massage ritual is essentially spreading love and nourishment to all of the tissues in your body, as well as to your mind and senses.”
According to the Charaka Samhita, abhyanga pacifies the doshas, enhances the complexion and the luster of the skin, tones muscles, and acts as a natural moisturizer. For these reasons, Raichur explains, ayurvedic body massage is “one of the most effective means of slowing the skin’s aging process…. It works to purify, nourish, and tone the body on a deep cellular level.”
The same principles—cleanse, nourish, and moisturize—apply to facial care. You can tailor your regimen to your prakriti by reading instructions in ayurvedic beauty books, or try this simple, five-minute routine recommended by Melanie Sachs.
1. Bathe your face thoroughly with warm water. “Dead skin cells will soak up the water like little sponges and plump up, which makes them easy to remove,” she says.
2. Make an ubtan with 2 tablespoons of oat flour and 1 tablespoon of water. Bend over the sink, dip your second, third, and fourth fingertips into the ubtan, and gently press the paste onto your face. This removes the dead skin cells without stripping the skin of its natural oils.
3. Put some plain water or rose water in a spray bottle and spritz the face a few times to moisten the skin.
4. While the face is still wet, apply a thin coating of jojoba oil to seal in the moisture. According to Sachs, jojoba oil is closest to the skin’s sebum; as a result, it is highly unlikely to cause irritation.
Ayurvedic beauty experts agree: To cultivate glowing skin and a sense of inner balance, design a dinacharya (daily routine) with the following health-boosting activities. (These are basic guidelines; to tailor a program to your particular needs, consult a qualified ayurvedic practitioner.)
In general, ayurveda recommends a healthy, whole foods, largely vegetarian diet for all types of constitutions. Raichur says that fatty, fried, refined, and processed foods, salt, sugar, seafood, and red meat can cause skin problems—so avoid them when you can.
Exercise & Sleep Hygiene
Ayurvedic experts suggest exercising at least five times a week until sweat forms along the spine and under the arms. Exercise promotes sweating (which rids the body of toxins), increases circulation, and calms the mind.
Stick to a restful regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. How do these activities help? In his book You: Being Beautiful, Mehmet Oz, MD, writes, “Sleep and exercise stimulate growth hormone, which promotes fibroblast health and allows more production of collagen and elastin to keep your skin taut. They also accelerate the production of epidermis.”
Incorporate a balanced hatha yoga practice into your day (if you haven’t already). It helps circulate the lymph and blood, tones the muscles, and helps you connect with your breath—three actions that improve your beauty on subtle but important levels.
Make time for pranayama (yogic breathing exercises). Raichur notes, “Respiratory changes affect the skin and body as well as our moods: shallow breathing pales the complexion, for example; heavy breathing makes it flush. If the natural breathing pattern is continuously disrupted as a result of stress, prana becomes depleted. Without sufficient prana, which is the moving life force that…[helps] engender ojas, the skin loses its vitality and glow.”
Last but not least, practice meditation. Over time, it will give you a glimpse of pure consciousness, and you will have moments where you experience yourself as ageless and eternally vibrant.
Small, gradual adjustments in your daily life can make you happier, healthier, and hence, more beautiful. Try this ayurvedic regimen for one to three months and keep a journal about your experiences. Ask yourself: “Is my skin clearer? My body healthier? My sense of inner wholeness expanding?” The answers will be written all over your face.
Home Spa Treatments
If you’d like to get a taste of ayurvedic beauty care in the comfort of your own home, try our experts’ tips for rejuvenating body baths, healthier hair, and brighter eyes.
Ancient ayurvedic texts like the Ashtanga Hridayam celebrate the benefits of body baths, including improved sleep, sexual vigor, and spiritual purification. Indian royalty once bathed in milk and honey to give their skin a celestial glow. Try this luxurious recipe from Pratima Raichur:
Combine the pulp of 1 banana with 2 tablespoons of milk, 1 teaspoon of ghee, 1 teaspoon of yogurt, and 1 teaspoon of honey. According to Raichur, these ojas-rich ingredients (known in ayurveda as “the five perfect foods”) balance the five elements—earth, water, air, fire, and ether—in the body. Massage the mixture from head to toe and soak for 10 to 20 minutes in a warm bath “to nourish, soften, soothe, and revitalize” any type of skin in any season.
According to ayurvedic author Monisha Bharadwaj, Indian literature and lore have celebrated long lustrous locks for thousands of years. Here are a few tips you can try for a head of healthy, shiny hair.
Weekly Scalp Massage
In Indian households, lovers, parents, and children give each other scalp massages to reduce stress, induce sound sleep, and stimulate hair growth. According to Raichur, many major marma points (sites of vital energy) are located at the scalp; the pituitary and pineal glands are located underneath it. The massage “helps secrete serotonin and melatonin, creating a calming effect on the body and mind.” She recommends the following treatments:
For dry or sensitive skin: Massage 1 teaspoon of warm oil (in hot weather, coconut oil; in the colder months, sesame) into your scalp for 10 minutes at bedtime. Wrap your head in a hot towel and leave on for 5 to 10 minutes. If you have sensitive “pitta” skin, do this practice once a week; for dry “vata” skin and dandruff, do it twice a week.
For oily skin: With your head down, dry-brush “kapha” hair 50 times from the roots to the ends to evenly distribute the natural oils.
In Vedic times, as Bharadwaj writes in Beauty Secrets of India, women “oiled their hair with coconut oil scented with jasmine, rose, or sandalwood.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Here’s a conditioning recipe you can try at home, with flowers you can find locally.
Heat 17 ounces of coconut oil in a wok until it is hot, but not smoking. Remove from the stove and add a handful each of dried hibiscus, holy basil, and marigold petals, along with 1 teaspoon of black tea leaves. Steep for one day, strain into a glass jar, and apply to your hair once a week, letting the oil soak in for at least 15 minutes before lathering several times with regular shampoo to wash it out. Short on time? Just warm up coconut oil—it’s cooling and hydrating in the summertime.
Bharadwaj says that to develop alluring sparkling eyes, we must first reduce eyestrain—which is characterized by redness, puffiness, and often crow’s feet.
For eyestrain: She recommends soaking cotton pads in rose water (which is cooling) and placing them on the eyelids for 10 minutes.
For dark circles: Place a slice of apple on each eyelid for 10 minutes. Apples, she says, “are rich in assimilable minerals such as potassium, vitamins B and C, and tannin, all of which assist in eliminating dark circles.”
For puffy eyes: Apply a compress made with a weak solution of sea salt and water for several minutes. Keeping the eyes closed, rinse them with cool water to wash away the salt before it stings. “The salt draws water away from the tissues and leaves the eyes looking fresh.”
For wrinkles: Apply a light coating of almond or olive oil 20 minutes before bedtime to soften the skin. Wipe off gently with a wet cotton ball before going to sleep.
Former Yoga International editor Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.
Photo: Teddy Sczudio / Getty Images