Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images.
African Beauty Trends That Have Stood the Test of Time
African women are known for their beauty and flamboyance. It isn’t surprising, then, when discovering the many ways in which the ancestors shaped the way Black African women exercise their beauty routines today — even on a global scale. From Queen Cleopatra’s legendary sour milk baths to the “red women” of Namibia, beauty has informed African culture in more ways than most are aware of.
Black African women have the gift of being highly melanated — the more melanin you have, the more protection you have against photoaging and sun damage. Many Black African women take pride in their appearances and follow routines necessary to keep them looking their best. Ninety-Six Percent of Nigerian women aged 18-25 believe that it’s important to look good in public, while daily skin routines are followed by 64% of Senegalese women, 61% of South African women, and more.
In this article, we explore African beauty trends that have stood the test of time, and taken front stage in the global mission to be beautiful.
Editor’s note: This article includes affiliate links.
African Black Soap
African Black Soap’s magical properties have dazzled the world with its abundance of beautifying properties. “Alata samina” or “Ose dude” is a plant-based soap gifted to the world from West Africa’s Yoruba people. The cleanser has demanded worldwide recognition for its countless skin and hair benefits. The recipe is one that survived because of womanhood – Yoruba mothers would pass it down to their daughters.. Ingredients include water, cocoa pod powder, palm oil, shea tree bark, and the ashes of dried plantain skin.
African Black Soap is considered a “holy grail” beauty product as it’s generally considered to be beneficial for all skin types. It has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, and is rich in Vitamins A and E — making it a great tool to fight acne, too. Some studies even suggest that African black soap is more effective at removing bacteria than medicated soaps. African Black soap has also been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines, dark spots, stretch marks, and razor bumps. It’s naturally exfoliating and fabulously moisturizing. Seriously, it’s magic.
Heed caution when using African black soap on your face, however. Our eyes are too sensitive for the soap and, speaking from experience, the burn is unbearable. Be careful.Due to the growing popularity of the product, African Black Soap is widely available for purchase. Our Earth's Secret currently has 2lb available for $18.95 available on Amazon.
Shea Butter (Karité)
All across Africa people use shea butter for hair care, food, medicine, and skin care. #insider #sheabutter #africa #sheanuts #beauty
Shea butter has been a staple within African culture for centuries. Besides its beauty benefits, the lotion is used as a skin protectant against the sometimes brutal African sun. Known to have been the beauty secrets of Queens Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and The Queen of Sheba, the moisturizer is predominantly sourced from West African countries Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Benin, Nigeria, Togo, and the Ivory Coast — with a pronounced presence across Central and Eastern Africa, too. Shea butter is a natural fat extracted from shea nuts grown on African shea trees. When raw, the butter is a rich ivory color and is usually dyed yellow with borututu root or palm oil when prepared for distribution. The benefits include but are not limited to: relieving dry and itchy skin, providing adequate sun protection, and being a fantastic way to retain moisture and suppleness in the skin. Amazingly, shea butter boasts anti-aging benefits, too, with its high count of Vitamins A and E, which are known to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and scarring on the skin. It’s also edible. In countries like Benin, shea butter is utilized as a cooking oil and is widely used as an ingredient in medicines for its anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and water-absorbing properties. Your favorite lipstick, lip gloss, face lotion, and hair conditioner is most likely packed with shea butter, too.
Shea butter is called “Women’s Gold” as it is predominantly manufactured by African women. Around 16 million African women are behind the shea butter sold across the world.
Jamaican Black Castor Oil
Despite its name, Black Castor Oil originated in Africa and the slave trade brought it over to the Caribbean Islands. Now, having become a staple of Jamaican ancestry since the early nineteenth century, our Caribbean comrades have perfected the recipe used to produce thick, luscious, and healthy hair. Before that though, it’s alleged that Ancient Egyptians used the oil as fuel to produce light in 4000 BC. One such allegation also says Queen Cleopatra used it to keep the whites of her eyes extra bright.
Black castor oil is created when castor beans are pressed together, producing a thick, tacky olive oil-like substance. The product has maintained popularity within Black, African, and Caribbean communities for its stunning ability to strengthen and thicken natural Afro-textured hair. Black castor oil supports hair growth while also helping rid the scalp of toxins and fungi, and, when used in deep conditioning, protects hair from breakage.
Tribal paintings and cosmetics
The Karo tribe is a tribe that lives in the southwestern region of the Omo Valley near Kenya, Africa.
Stock photo via Getty Images.
Traces of South African makeup powders dating to 164,000 BCE lead us to believe that Africans have a longstanding history with makeup and cosmetics. Tribal face and body painting is practiced by tribes and cultures across the world and continent, manifesting in so many different ways. While no two styles of face and body art mean the same, beauty, status, and identity are centered in the activity.
Cosmetics first emerged in Ancient Egypt, 5000 years ago. One of the most iconic makeup depictions is that of the almond-shaped circles drawn around their eyes with kohl—a mixture of copper, antimony, lead, ash, and ochre. In 4000 BCE, the Egyptians were also fans of using malachite—a bright green paste made from copper minerals—and were known to use rouge made up of crushed flowers to brighten up their cheeks and lips. In Morocco, Berber women draw a kohl line from the base of their bottom lip down to the chin to signify their marital status. The use of makeup in Africa is functional as well as for pleasure. The kohl liner drawn around the eyes was used to enhance the appearance of the eyes, while also protecting them from the sun and germs. The red ochre paste Namibia’s Himba women cover their hair and bodies with is used as a sun and insect protectant.
Nowadays, Africa is inundated with Western and Asian beauty products and trends. Social media has also influenced a somewhat homogenized idea of what makeup should look like. African women, however, tend to stand out as they tend to don brighter, braver colours as they shine against highly melanated skin.
Tribal painting is introduced to Africans from childhood. Each expression has its own meaning and technique. Face paintings can signify a person's religion, traditions, military position, to scare off enemies, or for hunting purposes. Tribal makeup also allows for clear social and generational markers – distinguishing boys from men, men from women, and tribe members from outsiders. Most importantly, tribal painting honours the beauty and identity of the beholder as they step into their proudest self, unashamed. The paints are usually made from clay and various colours are created by crushing in leaves or flowers.
Hair and Braiding
A model gets her make-up done ahead of the first Central African Fashion Week in a makeshift dressing room at the Ledger Hotel in Bangui, December 17, 2022.
Photo by Barbara DEBOUT / AFP.
Hair in African culture holds so much significance—in some cultures, having your hair unkept is a sign of insanity. As the most elevated part of the body, many African tribes consider the Afro to be symbolic of the trees grown in nature, while comparing the Afro-bearer to Mother Nature. Many do not let strangers or enemies touch their hair, as it is considered to be a means to connect and communicate with the Gods. Long, healthy hair also symbolised a woman’s ability to produce strong children
On the continent, hair is considered sacred and can tell you a lot about the person, their culture, and their character. Braiding has been used as a tool to beautify, as well as to communicate marital status, wealth, age, and rank within society. Intricate, unique, and exuberant braiding styles have marked much of Africa’s history and its ability to dominate global beauty trends with little credit or consideration. Some braiding styles take days to complete, encouraging companionship among community members and strengthening female relationships. Braids are often adorned with colourful beads, gold or silver coins, and many more beautifying accessories. Now, with the introduction of colourful synthetic hair extensions, brighter plaits are welcomed and celebrated amongst Black women – especially as we acknowledge how other ethnicities have policed our hair and identities over history.
Portrait of a Mundari tribe woman with scarifications on the forehead, Central Equatoria, Terekeka, South Sudan on November 17, 2019 in Terekeka, South Sudan.
Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images.
Western culture may have unmerited authority in the world of tattoos, but no one does body modification like Africans, man. Scarification, teeth sharpening, and the use of mouth plates — among other things — in African culture have long been scoffed at by those who do not understand the cultural context:
The art of scarification on the continent takes many forms and happens for many different reasons. Take Marvel’s character Killmonger from Black Panther as a flavorful example. The scars dotted across his body signified the number of kills he had orchestrated as an assassin. Scars, within this context, demonstrate an individual's tribe, family, and social ranking. The generational practice is also used to signify beauty and support individuality as no two people don the same markings. Despite the general rejection of the practice, scarification for those who partake is a symbol of pride in self and lineage. In West Africa, scars are used to indicate milestones in a person's life – like entering puberty or matrimony. The scars are made by cutting, carving, or burning symbols into the skin, and then filling them with pigments like ash, mud, or ink to ensure a lasting effect.
Scarification in the 21st century has seen a decline as fears of contracting ailments due to customary tools used in the practice. Nowadays, you’re most likely to see elders or pastoralists still rocking their modifications.
Perhaps the most stunning modification that the continent has exposed us to is the use of mouth plates or lip discs. Contrary to popular belief, this beauty practice is mainly a right of passage for African women. Mouth plates are utilized across the continent, namely by the Sara women of Chad, the Makonde people who are spread across the Eastern coastline, Ethiopia’s Surma and Mursi tribes, and Ghana’s Lobi tribes use metal or stone rods called tembetá.
To achieve the distinct look, a young girl’s bottom lip is cut, and a wooden peg is put in place to allow the incision to heal without closing. Then, progressively larger plates are installed until the desired size has been accomplished—some exceed 12 cm (five inches)! Many tribes are no longer practicing, though, making this one art form we may outlive.
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