#1 SKIN WHITENING
Although Chinese notions of beauty have changed over its long history, one thing that has stayed constant is the desire for fair skin. Today, skin whitening products represent a multi-million dollar growth industry not only in China but all across Asia.
In 2011, Taiwanese scientists found that compounds isolated from an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine could also be used to lighten skin. They showed that linderanolide B and subamolide A from the Cinnamomum subavenium plant could inhibit the production of melanin, the dark pigment that gives skin its color.
When they tested the compounds on zebrafish embryos, which normally contain a highly visible band of black pigment, they found that exposure to a low dose of the compounds was sufficient to turn the embryos white.
The Chinese were one of the first to redden their lips, using a lip balm made with the pigment vermilion. Derived from naturally occurring mercuric sulfide ores, vermilion was also used in art and lacquerware, so much so that it became known as ‘Chinese Red’. In fact, the Chinese are believed to have been the first to make synthetic vermilion as early as 5000 BC.
Instead of covering the entire lip surface as is done in modern times, Chinese during the Han period only painted a portion of the lower lip and a pointed section of the upper lip, covering the rest of their faces with white powder. The ideal lip shape evolved over time, with different conventions in the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Today, however, vermilion has fallen out of favor due to its toxic properties and has largely been replaced by cadmium red.
Closely related to the common tea plant, Camellia japonica is an evergreen shrub valued for its attractive flowers. The plant has been cultivated in East Asia for centuries, even appearing in art and porcelain from the 11th century.
Japanese women, particularly geishas, have traditionally used oil cold-pressed from the seeds of C. japonica to make their hair glossy and sleek. Called tsubaki oil, it is rich in fatty acids like omega-6 and omega-9 that make it an excellent emollient for both hair and skin. It is applied to damp hair after a bath, either by hand or with special combs made from tsuge or boxwood.
Tsubaki oil has spawned an entire industry, with shampoos, bath products and an array of sprays all eager to lay claim to its natural benefits. However, commercially extracted tsubaki oil is often processed with chemicals and high heat, which may reduce its effectiveness.
Korean cosmetics might be all the rage today, but a concern for beauty goes far back into the history of the country.
According to the Dongui Bogam, a book of traditional Korean medicine published in 1613, a mixture of ground mung beans, azuki beans and soybeans called jodu makes for an excellent facial cleanser, softening skin and providing a whitening effect. Mung beans contain high amounts of saponin, a chemical compound that produces a soap-like foam when shaken in water.
In 2013, a study led by scientists from Korea University showed that mung bean saponin indirectly slows inflammation by preventing the multiplication of immune cells known as T helper cells. Saponins from other plants are currently being developed for applications ranging from surfactants to cancer treatments.