Exploring Thanaka, the Unofficial SPF of Myanmar

At the height of summer, we welcome all sunscreen recommendations.

PockLan  sporting a coating of thanaka in Myanmar this summer

PockLan sporting a coating of thanaka in Myanmar this summer

In Myanmar, a region where the sun is often bright and humidity is high, locals have been whipping up a traditional formula to protect skin from harsh UV rays. For centuries, men, women, and children have slathered thanaka, a thick paste made of ground tree bark, onto their skin in an effort to prevent the damaging effects of sun exposure. The thanaka is most commonly applied to the parts of the face that are most exposed to the sun like the forehead, nose, and cheeks.

"Thanaka has become a must-try for travelers visiting Myanmar," says Vientiane, Laos-based traveler Phonevalee Thavitham who visited Myanmar this summer. "It's well-known for helping to brighten up the face and to prevent acne."  Thavitham (better known as PockLan), says a Myanmar local led her through the tradition of mixing and applying the thanaka. "First, we mixed the thanaka powder with [equal parts] water. When it became creamy paste, we applied it to our faces—I applied it to my whole face because I loved its smell so much!" PockLan describes the scent as redolent and refreshing. "Its fragrant smell hits the nose better than many perfumes," she says. "Surprisingly, the thanaka dried very quickly—within five minutes— and became a thick dry mask." Best part, PockLan confirms that the thanaka mask lasted up to six hours while she explored the charming city of Bagan. An evening downpour did, however, force her to reapply the paste later on.

"[Though] we could not feel much of a difference the first day of trying it, we kept the mask on overnight and woke up feeling good after rinsing it off. I like it that it is rinsed off easily."

In addition to its whimsical appearance—yellowish gray in color, thanaka looks almost like face paint and is occasional drawn on in leafy designs and playful shapes—the formula is also beloved for its skin-nourishing properties. The bark of thanaka trees are known to soften and soothe dull and irritated skin. In the event that you skipped thanaka (or your traditional sunscreen application), the paste can be used to ease the irritation of a sunburn. And for those with medium to dark skin tones prone to hyperpigmentation, thanaka has a brightening effect, fading dark spots and creating a radiant, even complexion. Discoloration is often a primary concern for many Southeast Asian natives with olive skin tones.

Due to a shift in beauty trends, the tradition is being threatened in Myanmar. Now, many young women wear makeup when they go out, or apply store-bought SPF. However, it isn’t uncommon to spot locals in smaller villages like Mandalay, the former capital, with their faces proudly painted in thanaka.

And thankfully, products with a similar composition to thanaka are on the rise, stateside. Creams and masks infused with sandalwood as a main ingredient, are strong alternatives. Sandalwood has properties that, like thanaka, offer sun protection and can also be used to treat sunburns. Additionally, sandalwood's purifying properties can help clear breakouts and draw unwanted oils from clogged pores.

Here, a roundup of thanaka and sandalwood-enriched skin care products for you to try to reap the benefits of the centuries-old beauty ritual.