Global Beauty Spotlight: The Art of African Beauty
From marula oil to African dramas (yes, it’s a thing!), expect to see a lot more skincare, makeup, and style coming from the continent.
The African continent is home to a growing and vibrant community of beauty artists who draw upon millennia of traditions, customs, and breathtaking landscapes to express their art. After all, Cleopatra was famed for taking baths in honey and milk, and the now-trendy rooibos (red bush) tea, rich in antioxidants and zinc, which helps cleanse skin from within, has been a staple in Africa for centuries. From Egypt to Zanzibar to Namibia to South Africa, beauty practices are a daily feature in historical traditions and current customs, yet African skincare and art rarely feature in the global beauty scene.
Globally, Asian beauty trends tend to dominate, and it’s no wonder. Korean beauty’s emphasis on glowing skin and “transparent” makeup embraces an aesthetic that can win over even risk-averse skincare aficionados like myself. And the hallyu wave has opened the gateway for Korean beauty products and practices to encompass the world. Ten years ago, sheet masks in North America were a rarity unless you shopped in specialized stores. Now they’re almost mundane. Skin woes? There’s a K-beauty solution for every imaginable one! From foot peeling masks to massaging tools to zit stickers, K-beauty is a wonderland I hope to be lost in for as long as I have disposable income.
Before I practiced Korean beauty, however, I was a daughter of Indian beauty customs. Rose water and turmeric masks, the beauty products of Mughal-era queens, still continue to surprise me with their potency and power to transform my skin. And while living in South Africa and Botswana, I was introduced to beauty practices and products that were natural and worked wonders for my skin. I continue to draw on trends and innovations I see from African makeup and style artists. I’m proud of their vibrancy and originality and would love to see more of the global beauty community celebrate African beauty.
For me, African beauty stands out because of three things: its all-natural beauty products, the celebration of darker skin tones, and its risk-taking fashion and makeup looks.
Shea butter: the holy grail for dry skin
I had tried a variety of expensive body lotions to combat my winter skin woes, but nothing worked until I bought raw shea butter and made my own lotion. Inspired by my years in southern Africa, as well as friends who continued using it in their beauty care routines, I swear by shea butter as a remedy for dry and flaky skin.
Shea butter is a complex fat extracted from the nut of the shea (karite) tree, which typically grows across West Africa and is harvested in several African countries. A Nigerian friend recently confessed to me that she has a “secret place” she buys shea butter from whenever she visits home. I was intrigued and even more intrigued when I did a quick scan on Beautytap’s website and found that popular products like Hanyul’s Pure Artemisa Watery Cream and Innisfree’s Jeju Cherry Blossom Lotion contain shea butter. Shea butter is a popular base ingredient for a plethora of skincare products, thanks to its hydrating properties and the fact that very few people react adversely to it. It melts into the skin and locks in moisture.
I’d advise against slapping raw shea butter on your face if you’re prone to acne though. I’ve personally found it far more effective in body lotions. Whenever I make my shea butter lotion, I literally can’t stop hugging myself!
African black soap: an all-natural cleanser
In a quest to make my skincare practices more sustainable, I’ve switched to a facial bar soap. African black soap has been touted as an all-natural soap that can purportedly addresses skin concerns such as eczema and acne. Chock full of antioxidants, it is also an environmentally friendly skincare product processed from plantains, cocoa pods, palm kernel oil, and our friend shea butter. It also deep cleanses and exfoliates the skin, helping to reduce inflammation. I recommend patch testing first or restricting use to once a week for those with sensitive skin.
Marula oil: hydrating, non-greasy, and anti-aging
Growing up in Botswana, the marula fruit — the same one that is rumored to make baboons and elephants tipsy — was a seasonal treat for me. While this rumor is unsubstantiated, marulas are a beloved snack for both animals and humans, containing eight times as much vitamin C as an orange.
I had never dreamed that the tart, juicy fruit I loved as a child would emerge as a serious contender in the skincare world. Marula oil is a lightweight oil that helps in anti-aging for both dry and acne-prone skin. Like its Moroccan predecessor argan oil, marula oil can be used for both the face and hair — a couple drops is all you need to seal in moisture without greasiness.
The trendsetters in African beauty
While I like Korean beauty’s emphasis on natural looking makeup and skincare, I believe makeup is an art that is enriched with visions from a diversity of sources. And as a dark-skinned person, I struggle to find colors that suit my skin tone. If I buy specific Korean lip products, I often have to watch a number of YouTubers closer to my shade swatching the products to guesstimate how they’d show up on me. Despite my love for K-beauty, the consistent emphasis on white skin as the apex of beauty can feel both disempowering and denigrating.
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Recently I’ve been returning to African makeup artists to regain inspiration and applaud my dark-skinned sisters for their beauty and creativity. Makeup artists like Bimpe Onakoya and Valary Mdeizi routinely bless us with their artistic renditions, but I’ve also found inspiration from @jhulesb on Instagram and @Clara Chimeloane for everyday looks with a splash of bravura.
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African dramas as a gateway to African beauty and style
Growing up on the African continent and consuming movies with subtitles on a regular basis eased my reception of Korean dramas in my early 20s. Artists and directors of African heritage are creating some of the most exciting and innovative content and giving audiences a chance worldwide to explore and savor their creative offerings. A couple of my favorite shows are An African City and The Mistress of a Married Man (Maitresse D’un Homme Marié).
An African City is a female-led and -produced web drama that I promise is as cracktastic as a Korean drama. It follows the adventures of NanaYaa as she returns to Ghana from New York and has been likened to Sex and the City.
NanaYaa and her cadre of friends attempt to navigate the murky waters of professional and romantic success while dealing with family expectations, power cuts, and social beauty practices like skin whitening. I stumbled across the show when it first aired and don’t regret it at all. Those outfits! I think I spent the entire show drooling over those outfits.
For those who want more serious fare, the Senegalese show Maitresse D’un Homme Marié (The Mistress of a Married Man) takes a deeper look at the social implications of the choices women are forced to make. You can watch it with French and English subtitles!
Are you familiar with African beauty artists or shows? If so, what are your favorites? I’d love to hear more recommendations!