From teas for tartars to evil-warding remedies, we explore the cultural significance of some of your favourite beauty product ingredients.
It's a story of romance and seduction for ylang-ylang, long cherished as a symbol of femininity and sensuality throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands. Its heady, sweet, exotic scent is revered as a powerful aphrodisiac, explaining why native Indonesian women hid ylang-ylang flowers in their hair, and newlyweds were often met with a sprinkling of blossoms across the bed. Ylang-ylang oil is also well known to calm overactive nervous systems and boost the spirits in times of stress and sadness.
Some say it looks like root ginger, others Jerusalem artichoke. Galangal (or 'Siamese ginger') is a rhizome from the Zingiberaceae ginger family. A pungent, fragrant spice – which takes an earthy and citrusy note – galangal made a common appearance in medieval Europe. Thought first introduced by Arabian or Greek doctors, the spice was used in cooking, as a homeopathic stimulant, and to heal sickness, fevers, circulatory disorders, and even halitosis! In Russia galangal featured in vinegars and liqueurs, while tartars enjoyed luxurious teas brewed from the spice. Today you're most likely to experience galangal in Thai soups, curries and other South-East Asian dishes.
Decidedly less tropical, yet no less fascinating, mint holds cultural significance as a token of hospitality. Guests are welcomed by steaming fresh mint tea in the Middle East, bunches of mint are hung in doorways in some parts of The States, and tables are rubbed with crushed mint leaves in Greece. Mint's name actually has roots in Greek mythology, with the nymph Minthe drawing the attention of Pluto. Who would've thought our classic herb has such a romantic past? Of course mint also holds medicinal benefit, energising while easing an array of digestive disorders, calming heart palpitations and inflammatory complaints.
Mistress of the night, the king of flowers, the queen of flowers, fragrant flower, poet's jasmine, a gift from God, star jasmine, night blooming jasmine... this flower is utterly encompassed by an air of devotion and mystery! And it's thoughts of mystery and magic that led ancient Indians to scent their hair with jasmine oil. Some believed it would heighten their spirituality, while others simply appreciated its Ayurvedic cleansing benefit. Another aphrodisiac and another sedative, jasmine is a wonderful mood-lifter, softening stress and anxiety, with its intoxicatingly sweet scent said to break even the worst of moods.
Neroli oil, distilled from the blossoms of the bitter orange tree, was named after the 16th century Princess Anna Maria de Le Tremoille of Nerola, Italy. It's believed the princess introduced the scent to her country and was so fond of its alluring floral notes she used it to fragrance her bath water and gloves. Orange blossom petals were soon associated with purity, with brides opting to wear the blossoms in their hair. On a less romantic note, neroli helped beat the plague, proving a potent remedy against fever and anxiety!
Shea butter is a prized commodity throughout Africa. Extracted from the nut of the shea tree, the butter has served as a topical skin treatment for centuries. It's famed for its ability to protect, moisturise and heal, and is now being studied for its deeper medicinal benefits. Back to times gone by, it was from the shea trees that African kings' funeral beds were carved. It's long also been used as a mildly nutty cooking oil (said great for frying and spreading on toast!) and even a source of lamp fuel.
Cacao (whose beans are roasted to make cocoa) is another ingredient shrouded in magic! The Mayans and Aztecs thought cacao to have divine properties, which is why the ingredient played such a role in many of their life rituals. Now hailed a top superfood, cacao is also a former currency. It's been told that 100 beans could once be traded for one live hen! Rich in magnesium, protein and fibre, cacao's fat is often extracted for use in cooking and an array of beauty products. Topically, it's fantastic for skin health – softening scars and stretch marks and offering protection against oxidative damage.
Himalayan Pink Salt
Himalayan pink salt (or 'Himalayan crystal salt') was once referred to as 'King's salt' as it was treasured for royal use. A powerful detoxifier and healer with its 84 minerals (including sodium, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc and copper among the many others), Himalayan pink salt was also held in great esteem by Chinese physicians. Many of whom treated patients' various ailments with nothing but the salt and water. Himalayan pink salt detoxifies through osmosis, meaning that while bathing in its solution the body absorbs its healing benefits while the salt draws toxins from the skin. Of course, it can (and should!) also be used in place of regular table salt as a delightfully mineral-rich seasoning.
We hope you'll enjoy perusing your ingredient labels from a new perspective. Tell us, which tales fascinated you most? And is there a favourite we've missed?
Image source: Ylang-Ylang flowers by Elizabeth White