There was a time when geishas were considered modern symbols, much like haute couture is nowadays. â€œAverage women wanted to emulate them, so someone wrote everything down,â€ Tsai explains. â€œBack in the day, there werenâ€™t department stores or beauty brands, so in order to do something for their skin, they had to use what was within reach.â€ This meant they became quite the skilled DIY'ers, using ingredients from their kitchen or their local herbalist and utilizing teachings from Traditional Chinese Medicine, which had just traveled to Japan. When Tsai found the only written account of geisha beauty rituals, she was surprised by what the translator told her. â€œYou would think their secret would be a rare flower that only blooms at midnight, or something like that,â€ she says. â€œBut their ingredients were super-simpleâ€”itâ€™s basically just incorporating all the elements of the traditional Japanese diet.â€
Think about the traditional dinner: It would most likely include sushiâ€”which is made with rice, seaweed, and fishâ€”and green tea. And thatâ€™s basically the basis of their entire skincare ritual. â€œGreen tea has an antioxidant in it called EGCG, which is a particular kind of antioxidant that is especially efficient at neutralizing the kind of free-radical damage caused by the sun,â€ Tsai explains. â€œItâ€™s very good for your skin.â€ Like the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a geishaâ€™s skincare routine has a very inside-out approach, with a combination of diet and lifestyle changes. They make topical beauty treatments that often mirror what they ate. So, for example, rice: It might seem like just a carb, but the husk (which the Japanese call komonuka) stores a potent combination of antioxidants, moisturizers, UV absorber, and brighteners for the skin. This is the basis for Tatchaâ€™s Classic Rice Enzyme Powder ($65).
Seaweed and squalane are two more ingredients often used in a geishaâ€™s skincare routine. Tsai explains that seaweed contains polysaccharides, which are basically little sponges that retain water so they donâ€™t dry out in saltwater. This would explain why, when you use it on your skin, it keeps water from evaporating and is what Tsai calls a â€œmiraculous moisturizer.â€ Squalane is an ingredient that used to come from shark liver oil, which is identical to the oil thatâ€™s already in your skin when you are baby; in fact, supposedly 13% of your skin is made of this oil when youâ€™re an infant. Tsai says that nowadays, you can get squalane from olivesâ€”itâ€™s molecularly identical.
When it comes to their actual skincare ritual, Tsai says geishas focus on gentle purification, as opposed to the often harsh soaps and cleansers weâ€™re used to here in America. â€œAnything with oil needs to be dissolved with oil,â€ Tsai says. â€œRather than bubbling cleansers, geishas like Kyoka use cleansing oilsâ€”they have no choice, really, because they wear stage makeup, and soapy cleansers wonâ€™t get it off.â€ Putting a full face of makeup on each night can be exhausting for your skin (just ask any stage performer), which is why geishas use a secret trick to keep their skin clear: bintsuke, a wax they would melt to create a â€œbarrierâ€ between their makeup and their skin. Itâ€™s the same wax sumo wrestlers put in their hair, and it retains moisture while keeping the makeup out of their pores. The only way to dissolve the wax is to use a gentle enzymatic exfoliator, usually made with rice. â€œNot only would it dissolve the wax, but it would sweep away debris from the skin very dramatically,â€ Tsai says.
For the rest of their skincare routine, geishas like Kyoko avoid any toners with alcohol and instead opt for treatment tonics and light, weightless moisturizers. â€œGeishas never strip their skin with bubbles and alcohol, so they never have to feed the moisture back in,â€ Tsai explains.
When it comes to a geishaâ€™s traditional stage makeup, Tsai says the white makeup and dramatic lip and eye are actually much more subtle by candlelight (which is how geishas traditionally perform). â€œTheir makeup comes from the kabuki heritage, specifically so that people can see their expression on the stage by candlelight,â€ Tsai says. â€œItâ€™s much more translucent in person than it is in pictures.â€ They buy a white powder at their local apothecary and mix it with a solution to create a paste. The red lipstick, however, is the most interesting part of their makeup routine. â€œWe call it Kyoto Red, made from beni, which is a pure extract from Japanese safflower,â€ she says. â€œWhen they make it, it doesnâ€™t look like a lipstickâ€”it looks like a watercolor, and itâ€™s dry.â€ She says the dry watercolor-like paste looks red in some lights and green in others, and the geishas apply it by wetting a brush, which turns the mixture a true red. Then, they just paint it on their lips. â€œSometimes, theyâ€™ll pour the liquid beni into a seashell so it coats the inside, like a lacquered coating,â€ Tsai says. â€œThen, when people see it, they donâ€™t see a lipstickâ€”they see it as a seashell.â€
Coconut oil might be the craze here, but in Japan, geishas love using camellia oil, which comes from a flower that grows in the snow. â€œItâ€™s considered one of the healthiest cooking oils,â€ she says. â€œGeishas ate it, drank it, put it on their face and hair, everything.â€ Itâ€™s especially effective when used to condition their hair, much like a DIY coconut oil hair mask here in the states. For shampooing, they opt for formulas that are made of rice and seaweed (something to look for on your next visit to Japan, no?). â€œWhen they are trainees, their hair is done by a stylist, and they melt the same bintsuke wax and style it into a dramatic updo, then sleep on buckwheat pillows so it doesnâ€™t get messed up,â€ Tsai says. â€œWhen they become full-fledged geishas, they use wigs.â€
Brown ES, Allsopp PJ, Magee PJ, et al. Seaweed and human health. Nutr Rev. 2014;72(3): 205-216.
Huang Z-R, Lin Y-K, Fang J-Y. Biological and pharmacological activities of squalene and related compounds: potential uses in cosmetic dermatology. Molecules. 2009;14(1): 540-554.
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