The use of ancient South Asian cosmetics is directed towards longevity (aayush), health (aarogyam) and happiness (anandam):

  • Different lepās (masks) are recommended. The Ashtānga Hridaya gives 6 different formulations
  • Special cosmetic Tailams (medicated oils) and Ghritas (medicated ghee) are used for facial beauty
  • Many remedies are designed for hair growth and premature graying
  • This includes oral hygiene as well. Fragrant bath powders and body deodorants also find frequent mention.
  • Many of these ancient practices intersect with dinacharyā, the Ayurvedic daily routine
  • In this work for instance, 210 botanicals and 314 formulations are listed and described.
  • These recipes are called Anubhoga Vaidya Bhāga, which means “recipes tested by experience”

Several treatises and texts discuss herbal cosmetics and beauty treatments:

  • Charaka Samhita: One of the main Ayurvedic scriptures, it contains some sections on beaut, cosmetics, natural ingredients and their cosmetic uses. It emphasizes the importance of using herbs and minerals for skin and haircare
  • Sushruta Samhita: Includes information on beauty enhancements and recommendations for improving one’s appearance.
  • Bhavaprakasha: A comprehensive Ayurvedic text that addresses medicine, anatomy, dietetics, pharmacology and therapy, as well as the manufacture of aphrodisiacs and elixirs. The work also includes a remedy for syphilis.
  • Harita Samhita: Provides recipes for making natural beauty products with the use of herbs, minerals and other ingredients
  • Ratnāvalī: A Sanskrit play from the 7th century that includes references to beauty practices and cosmetics, offering insights into the beauty culture of ancient India
  • Kamasutra: Contains information on grooming, personal care, and beauty

These treatises also provide knowledge on beauty regimens and practices to enhance the physical appearance overall.

A few ancient cosmetic formulas

The Raja Serfoji II of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu had established an Institute of Medical Research called the Dhanvantari Mahāl, where experiments were conducted, and he selected a few thousand efficacious recipes after actually testing them:

  • Cure for dandruff – “Pound Khas-khas seeds (Papaver somniferum) in milk and apply to the scalp. It will cure dandruff”.
  • Breast development – “Powder together the root of Aswagandha (Withania somnifera), the fruit of Gajapimpali (Scindapsus officinalis), the root of Kosta (Saussurea lappa) and the rhizomes of Vacha (Acorus calamus). To this powder add butter made from buffalo’s milk and massage the bust with this medicated butter. This will increase the bustline and make it firm and shapely”.
  • Cure for pimples – “The application of plaster composed of Dhana (Coriandrum sativum), Vacha (Acorus calamus), Lodhra (Symplocos racemosa) and Kushtha (Saussurea lappa) pasted together is also recommended for curing pimples”.
  • Deodorant powder – “The powder from the barks of Sahakara (Mangifera indica) tree and Dalimba (Punica granatum) tree, mixed with Shankha (Fragrant Shell) powder and applied to the relevant part of the body, removes bad odor. The powder made of Chincha (Tamarindus indica) and Karanja (Pongamia glabra) seeds, if applied also removes bad odor.”
  • Lip balm / lip salve – “Cracked lips, besides being painful, spoil the beauty of the face. The following remedy was recommended in such cases – “If the rind of Bael fruit (Aegle marmelos) is levigated (i.e. powdered and mixed) in a woman’s milk and the paste thus prepared is applied to the cracked lips, within 10 days the cracking will stop and the cracks will heal.”
  • Skin lightning and exfoliating scrub – “The following paste used to be applied to the body to make the skin a shade or two lighter and give it a natural glow – “Pound together the root of Kushtha (Saussurea lappa), Til seeds (Sessamum indicum), the leaves of Sirisa (Albizzia lebbek), the leaves of Chopda (Pongamia pinnata), the wood of Devdar (Cedrus deodara) and the wood of Zadali Haled (Berberis aristata) Roast this mixture between dried cakes of buffalo dung, then take it out and grind it properly to a fine powder. If the paste made from this compound is applied to the body for three consecutive days, the above mentioned desired results will be obtained”.
  • Depilatory – “Pound together dried fruits of Aavalakatti (Emblica officinalis) and dried fruits of Pippali (Piper longum). Soak this mixture in the milky latex of Nivadunga (Euphorbia nivulia) If this compound is applied to the desired place, the hair from that area will fall off”.
  • Face pack – “Take Masura (Lens culinaris) and pound with Madhu (Honey). The paste so prepared, rubbed for seven nights, gives the splendor of the petals of the White Lotus flower to the face”.
  • Hair remedy for premature graying – “Juice of Bhringaraja (Eclipta alba), together with Lohakitta (Iron-rust: Non-botanical. Iron oxide, normally Red oxide.). Triphala, cooked in oil when applied (to the scalp), would cure dandruff, itching, alopecia and would also darken the hair”.

Reference: Herbal cosmetics in ancient India