What is Ayurvedic Beauty? Founder Shrankhla Holecek sits down with Refinery 29

In this illuminating Q&A, UMA Founder Shrankhla Holecek shares with Refinery 29 her perspectives on Ayurvedic Beauty, its recent popularity and what she believes is the most important thing to get right about Ayurveda's approach to beauty.

What are the defining principles of Indian skin care and beauty? Fundamentally, there is grave emphasis within Ayurveda on the fact that 'skin care' is typically your final step in achieving 'beauty' - there's a tremendous body of recommended work around detox, diet, sleep, working out - even managing your emotional lifestyle - as the essential building blocks to achieving radiant skin, lush hair, a balanced body and so forth. Within skin care, Ayurvedic beauty, like the rest of Ayurveda - is loosely put, "kitchen pharmacy" in that many skincare solutions are built from foods we use to nourish the body and heal ailments. Like fresh face masks made from aloe very, honey, turmeric, chickpea flour and so forth. Hair masks made from lime juice, curry leaves and yogurt. Cucumber and rose waters as your skin tonics. There is also a lot of emphasis within Ayurveda on freshness. 

Can you break down the concepts of the doshas and how they factor into beauty routines? 

Vata skin tends to be dry, darker and with a tendency for roughness. Cool to touch, and often thin, this type of skin is especially likely to be worse for wear (excessive dryness, flakiness, even eczema) in times of stress. Early traditional signs of aging are the biggest concern for this skin type.

This skin type needs most nurturing and protection on account of its delicate nature. Cleanse carefully, while being mindful of over-drying or over-exfoliating. Rice or nut powders (mixed with hydrating rose water, or even milk) can provide great natural alternatives to chemical-based exfoliants that can particularly aggravate vata skin. 

Essential oils of geranium – that can help battle dryness, and frankincense – that can help gently turn over skin cells to battle fine lines and signs of aging – are particularly beneficial for this skin type. Citrus essential oils – such as neroli and orange – can help with better absorption of Vitamin C into the skin to reverse signs of damage and age spots, that vata skin tends to be more vulnerable to than other skin types. For a carrier oil – pomegranate is best on account of its vitamin and antioxidant rich profile, as well as potent doses of punicic acid that help collagen production for plumper looking skin.

When aggravated, vata skin is quick to become excessively dry and flaky, even develop conditions such as eczema (NB: eczema is complex - it is also associated with pitta imbalance). In these times, essential oils of helichrysum and chamomile can be deeply healing and restorative. A thicker carrier oil such as Avocado, Rosehip or Hemp should be used on affected areas to heal the aggravated skin.

Pitta skin is typically soft, oily, fair to pale with a warm complexion. Medium thick, this type of skin is more prone to rashes, acne and sores when experiencing an imbalance. Redness, sensitivity, heat is often a concern for this skin type.

Pitta skin type tends to be most sensitive and prone to redness, aggravation and sun-sensitivity. Aloe vera gel applied directly to the skin for five minutes, 2-3 times a week and removed with cold water, can help with the much needed “cooling” for pitta skin.

Essential oils of sandalwood and rose are particularly beneficial for pitta skin types. Sandalwood balances pitta, keeping the skin balanced and flawless. Rose has astringent properties which battle redness while its moisture retentive properties helps reduce the water loss that can further irritate pitta skin. Lavender is another skin-calming essential oil, beneficial for pitta skin types. For carriers, jojoba and moringa oils with their nutritional content, but lightweight nature, are preferred.

When experiencing a pitta style flare up – such as Rosacea -  skip your skin-aggravating morning face wash for honey. Apply a layer of honey to the face before jumping in and remove with a warm washcloth while in the shower. A chamomile compress can be very helpful also be very helpful for pitta skins, as chamomile is an excellent natural treatment for the redness. A cold cucumber paste applied to the skin can also provide rapid relief.

Kapha skin is thick, oily, typically very light, and cool to the touch. Kapha skin tends to most show enlarged pores, blackheads and water retention in times of imbalance. Acne and clogging is typically the biggest concern for this skin type.

For this skin type, gentle cleansing and exfoliation is key to maintaining skin health. Try gently scrubbing the face with a mixture of sea salt and honey followed by a herbal steam therapy with mint leaves 2-3 times a week for keeping pores clear and maintaining the optimal oil balance.

Given Kapha skin type’s proclivity to overproduce oil, essential oils of turmeric and clary sage can be wonderful in helping maintain skin’s natural sebum balance and manage inflammation. When imbalanced, kapha skin type is most likely to develop blemishes. Essential oils of tea tree and clove can be excellent aids in helping potently – yet gently – contain the redness and other concerns that accompany breakouts. In terms of carrier, Grapeseed tends to be excellent for kapha skin due to its ultra lightweight nature, combined with potent doses of Omega-6, anti oxidants and linoleic acid – which fight the inflammation associated with acne-prone skin. 

How do you take Ayurvedic beauty traditions and translate them into modern formulas?

With UMA, we've had a unique history and privilege in that the formulas that comprise our products have been developed over centuries for Indian Royalty. These formulas were passed down within my family from generation to generation in utter secrecy, and were developed with the closest attention paid to each ingredient’s interaction with different elements of the face and body (which is core to Ayurveda and our beauty traditions). Ingredients with potent individual properties are combined to multiply the positive effects they deliver alone. These are the very same formulas we developed for Indian royalty 800 years ago and I saw my role as presenting them to our audience in an intimate, truly luxurious format - rather than re-creating them from scratch. I've always had deep respect for time-tested rituals, the wisdom of elders, and educating on something ancient and complex - rather than making it "Ayurveda light" or "Ayurveda inspired", which risks bastardizing the essence of Ayurveda. I see my job as being the bridge between the richness of the East and the contemporary sensibility of the West.

What are the most important ingredients in the Ayurvedic skin-care routine?

Turmeric, aloe, honey, sandalwood, neem, oils, nut powders are some of the Ayurvedic ingredients I consider foundational to a skincare routine.

What makes the philosophy of Indian beauty and skin care so different from what Western audiences are used to?

Apart from the whole body approach to beauty, I think the other key difference is in the idea of investment of time. Both in the time rituals take, as well as the time the "compliance" to an Indian beauty regimen takes to show true, sustainable results. I've found a certain expectation of instant gratification with skincare in the West (which I think is an impetus to the likes of surgery) - but as an Ayurvedic I was trained to remember 'easy come, easy go'. So to see sustainable change, you've to sustain the experience that will drive that change - such as switching out skin-damaging micro-bead/ harsh acid exfoliants with natural gommage exfoliators (which may not show the same results the first time you use them, but will add decades of longevity to your skin as you build the practice, and in a few weeks you'll see the same - even better - results). And within the investment of time is the importance of daily rituals which force you to connect with your body and truly listen to it. Face massages, dry brushing, practicing self-abhyanga (a whole body massage with oil) or hair masking - while these do take time, they can be important gateways and pleasurable rituals to connect more deeply with what's within you.

Why do you think Indian and Ayurveda-inspired beauty products are so popular right now?

I believe the need for treatments that come from ancient medicine such as Ayurveda are growing because people are desperate to seek solutions that go deeper than solving for mere symptoms (e.g., of acne or anxiety or poor sleep); the demands on our time and performance have grown manifold both professionally (how many of us don’t feel the urgency of responding to an email on our phones within minutes of receiving it?) and personally (being a good parent has quickly become about sending your child to the most competitive school or ensuring they’re in at least several after-school activities). You’re spending less time checking in with yourself, and many of us are far out of balance by the time we realize it. 

Ayurveda promises results - tangibly, sustainably, and backed by 5000 years of science and experience. A lot of tenets of Ayurveda - such as Yoga and breathing meditation - are already quite mainstream and practiced widely, often without people realizing that they’re in fact, very deeply Ayurvedic. Incorporation of Ayurvedic skincare and herbal remedies - from face oils to foods such as turmeric and ghee - is the natural next frontier in the exploration of a science that has a highly integrative/ holistic healing philosophy of mind-body balance, and that is deeply resonating with people. As the world gets smaller and information more readily available, people are starting to explore Ayurveda from a scientific lens and evaluating its merits (and discovering a body of practical solutions mired in centuries of experience and results) - which is helping this age-old science emerge from the shadows of skepticism into mainstream acceptance. However, most importantly, I believe people are seeing results and starting to trust their minds and bodies for the results they’re seeing - which interestingly, is also a core tenet of Ayurveda.

What do you think Western audiences can learn from Indian beauty brands and products?

Balance is key, good things take time - time that you deserve to give yourself, and that the pursuit of beauty must encompass the pursuit of health and well-being for success.

Is there anything in particular that people tend to get wrong about Ayurvedic beauty?

Not making it their own. While I see why 'buzziness' of a particular Ayurvedic ingredient of ritual helps create education and acceptance around Ayurveda, which is incredibly valuable - but at bottom, Ayurveda need to be very individual to get the best results. I encourage everyone to look past the bandwagon-ism and explore how Ayurvedic wisdom could be personalized for them (and there's plenty of information available out there, I promise!) - e.g., too much avocado is not good for Kaphas, certain skin types are not recommended the use of coconut oil, and yes - there's also guidance on how certain breathing meditations apply for certain doshas. So go make this beautiful, ancient, supple science your own and see it work magic!

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