Asia has long been renowned as the land of amazing beauty products and youthful skin, despite often harsh climates. The small southeast Asian country of Malaysia offers a rich sample of some of the traditions and trends revered by a global audience. An area amassing parts of the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo, the country is known for both its biodiversity and its melting pot of peoples, hosting Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European populations. The climate is hot and humid, akin to a Bikram yoga class, all day and even late into the evening.
I lived on the island of Borneo for almost a year, working as a Fulbright scholar in a small town amidst the rainforest. While I sweat through my baju kurung, the Malaysian traditional dress, and collected pimples in mountainous formations across my face, I noticed that my local coworkers’ skin was consistently...flawless. Their makeup always set, they never seemed to have the blackheads and huge pores that I came to acknowledge as my permanent state. How did they do it?! To quote skin connoisseur Michelle Pagnon, “Asia skincare is simply in 3019.”
Upon interviewing local women, I found there were a few obvious commonalities; drinking plenty of water (at least 64 oz), finding vitamin C through diet and topically, and keeping skin covered (a must anyway in conservative Asia). Many women also say that limiting MSG, despite a culture of Ajinomoto in street food, is crucial for avoiding clogged pores. “MSG breaks me out and gives me a red flush. It can be hard to avoid at food stalls, but I’ve learned to specifically ask about it,” my young neighbor Flo says.
Another parallel among women with glowing skin seemed to be fruit consumption. “I drink an all-natural avocado smoothie every day, with the avocados from my father’s farm. No pesticides or anything like that. And he grows them with love,” says 29-year-old Mary. The elder, yet still youthful-looking, women in my village consistently grew and ate dragon fruit; coincidence or correlation? Unclear, but I will probably continue to hit the Asian market for these, if even for the juicy goodness alone.
Many women also swear by coconut milk and other coconut-extracted formulas. Mother of two, Nurhakmah says, “I use coconut milk kind of like using shower gel. I notice it makes my skin supple and moisturized. You can also use it in your hair as a conditioner- here, we swear that it prevents gray hair.” She also tells me about a special purple flower that grows in the village, used by women to lighten scars on their hands. Borneo residents have truly learned to utilize the land and reap the benefits of what grows naturally.
While many skincare regimens are based in geography and culture, others stem from religious tradition. Some of my Muslim coworkers attributed their smooth skin to special facial cleansing methods during wudu, a purification ritual of Islam. Wudu is meant to provide both physical and spiritual hygiene in preparation for prayer. “Wudu provides a time for cleansing, both inside and outside. I wash my face, but also create a peaceful mental space each day. I think this is why my skin is clearer,” says 25-year-old Norashikin.
Keeping it simple and clean, like most of life here, seems to be the skincare secret in this jungle village along the South China Sea. Through my conversations, what stood out to me the most was that each woman I interviewed attributed her glow to some kind of regimen. All of these women had insane schedules, taking on housework, farm work, multiple children, and additional jobs, yet they took a few minutes of their day to calm both mind and body. While the term wasn’t necessarily in their vernacular as a collectivist culture, they recognized the value of self-care.
A moment that stands out to me is one of my earliest memories of the year. I had just moved to my placement, and I sat on the harbor with my soon-to-be best friend, Hakmah. Hakmah’s skin truly glows; she is one of those women whose goodness honest-to-God shines from the inside out. I was quiet, anxious about my new life in this small, seemingly isolated place. She had encouraged me to get outside amidst the chaos of moving. As we sat together, blanketed with that perfect sea breeze over crystal-clear water, my anxiety slowly dissipated with the waves. Hakmah leaned back in her seat, arms outstretched. She never seemed to get anxious or upset. She simply glided through this life with swan-like grace. “I love to feel the breeze in my face, the wind in my hijab!” she exclaimed, her moisturizer shimmering under the Equator sun.
Perhaps creating a ritual, just a few minutes of self care each day, is a key component of better skin, and even a calmer mental state. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t snoozing my alarm, then sprinting out the door harried and sunscreen-less. Whether making a healthy meal, meditating and praying before sunrise, or just taking a few minutes to cleanse her skin and put on moisturizer, each of these women found a moment of quiet and gratitude for herself. I think we all deserve that.