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Ancient Gems: A Historical Survey of African Beauty Techniques

By Sophie Adekola

In the beauty world, there is a long history of practices unique to each culture. Many of these practices are still in use today, and yet much could be learned about their relevance and origins. 

The history of African Beauty, or A-Beauty, is of particular note in the beauty industry because of the cross-functionality of common ingredients and a focus on local sourcing. Often, ingredients could be used for both skincare and haircare, with different applications. 

African Beauty techniques stemmed from finding ways to make do with what was locally available at the time. As a result — from minerals to plants that grow in Africa — beauty ingredients all came directly from the earth. 

With links between hair, skin, and make-up, here are some of the most notable gems from Africa’s beauty history.

Black Hair Secrets 

Due to its unique structure and texture, Black hair can be challenging to care for and style. It also has unique properties found in no other kind of hair, and many parts of Africa have developed hair techniques that are dependent on the location and the natural resources available.

African Hair Threading

African hair threading is also known as “Irun Kiko” among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, a West African country where this practice is noted as early as the 15th century

To the Yorubas, the hair was considered as important as the head, and caring for both was believed to bring good fortune. Threading and weaving were the main ways this was carried out.

While weaving is often mentioned in relation to hair braiding styles today, threading is less discussed. This protective hairstyle involves the use of flexible wool, cotton or rubber threads to tie hair sections and wrap them in three-dimensional corkscrew patterns as depicted in the images below. 

Examples of hair threading. Images found here.

The threaded hair was then twisted and manipulated into shapes and decorated with ornaments such as cowrie shells and beads, which were used to indicate social class and personal style. 

Beyond its spiritual and social significance, threading was also a simple way for women to stretch their hair or retain length as this style protected the hair from breakage.

Chébé Powder

Threading techniques were only one aspect of hair care, and natural elements were used to keep hair healthy, regardless of style. Sourced from the Northern Chad mountains in Central Africa, the seeds of the Chébé plant were rumoured to be the secret to the long, lustrous hair of women of the Bassara/Baggara Arab tribe in Chad.

The brown Chébé powder was produced by drying and grinding the Chébé seeds into a fine powder which was then mixed with water to create a paste applied to the hair. Although it did not have the ability to stimulate hair growth, it was believed to aid length retention by filling hair shaft spaces and sealing the cuticle. 

Alternatively, the powder could be mixed with moisturising substances such as Shea butter, and applied in sections to hair already hydrated with water. Chadian women would braid the moisturised hair to lock in all the hydration and keep their hair protected. 

The use of Chébé powder was passed down through generations and is now a long-standing staple in Chadian families. It has also evolved into a source of income for Chadians that produce Chébé powder ethically today.

Skin Care

With a focus on moisturising and cleansing, natural products like Shea butter and Rhassoul clay have long ensured gentle care for the melanin-rich skin of Africans.

Shea Butter

Shea butter is a thick, yellow paste derived from the nuts of a tropical tree native to Africa, the Karite tree. Karite trees are found in the eastern and western regions, in the Sahel belt, which spans from Senegal to Sudan.

Shea butter from the Karite tree and the Sahel belt, found under the Sahara Desert.

Often used as a base for Chébé powder for hair, Shea butter was also used as a skin moisturiser. The use of this nutrient-rich butter dates back to as early as Queen Cleopatra’s reign and is familiar to many people today throughout the world. 

Shea butter is believed to have many skin-friendly properties including an ability to trap moisture and restore damaged skin. Packed with vitamins A, E and F, Shea butter also offered UV protection and well-ageing perks for African women. In addition to being an effective moisturiser, it is non-pore-clogging and long-lasting.

Rhassoul Clay

Rhassoul clay or Ghassoul clay is a sedimentary rock obtained from deposits in Morocco, North Africa. 

The word “Rhassoul” translates into “land that washes”, and this stays true as Rhassoul clay is known for its effectiveness in cleansing, exfoliating and soothing skin. The naming was attributed to the mountains where the rocks are sourced in Morocco,“Jebel Rhassoul”, Arabic for “mountain of the washer”.

In Northern Africa, Rhassoul was used as a body care solution by mixing with little rose water to create a paste that could be applied onto the skin. The clay was rich in magnesium, an ingredient proven to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects against acne when absorbed into the skin. 

A major ritual component in the Moroccan Hammam baths, this magnesium-rich clay was said to leave the skin clean and soft.


The makeup techniques in African beauty history served both aesthetic and medicinal purposes.  In particular, the history of black kohl and the red powder, Aker Fassi, stood out the most to us.


Perhaps the most familiar of the many African beauty techniques represented here, Kohl was frequently used during the Egyptian Dynasties, up to 5000 years ago. 

The word “kohl” was used to refer to a fine, dark powder for lining the eyes and accentuating the lashes and brows. This powder was made of stibnite, a lead-grey, iridescent mineral with a pyramidal structure.

Kohl has been worn by men and women of all ages, including children, since the Naqada III era. It was originally used for protection against sun glare, eye diseases and what was termed the “evil eye”. With the aid of water and water-soluble gum, it became a beauty product that was used as a brow gel, mascara and eyeliner in one.

Kohl recipes varied from tradition to tradition as this product was found in other regions besides Ancient Egypt. It was also referred to as a variety of names including “Tiro” by the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

Aker Fassi

Derived from a blend of sun-dried red poppy flowers and barks of pomegranate trees, Aker Fassi is a red powder that has its origins in the beauty rituals of the Berber women of Morocco, also from the Atlas Mountains. It is a fine, red powder with vitamins, iron, zinc and other minerals and antioxidants.

Aker Fassi was sold in traditional Moroccan markets as a terracotta pot onto which a paste of the red powder was painted. Water is then applied to the pot, and the red power is made into a paste that can be applied to the skin.

Aker Fassi’s purpose was in its ability to purify skin whilst giving an overall pink tone that gave the semblance of smooth skin. As a result of its intense red colour, it was also used to add flush to the cheeks and lips, serving as a blush and lipstick.


From body butters to bestseller pigmented blushes and eyeliners, much of current beauty culture is rooted in discoveries that were made millenia ago, with rich histories rooted in ancient African gems.

Sophie Adekola is a writer from Nigeria with a passion for topics in beauty and health. She is interested in the intersection of modern culture and the historical application of beauty techniques.


Additional Reading 

African Beauty — or A-Beauty — has its roots in ancient African traditions and uses multi-functional ingredients. You can get more information here: 

Adekola Ogunbiyi, Nkechi A. Enechukwu. African Black Soap: Physicochemical, Phytochemical Properties and Uses. 2021. Wiley Online Library. 

Jebel Rhassoul - Morocco. IndexMundi. 

Hande Sipahi, Duygu Orak; et al. A Comprehensive Study To Evaluate The Wound Healing Potential Of Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) Fruit. 2022. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, ScienceDirect. 

Marabel Riesmeier, Jennifer Keute; et al. Recipes of Ancient Egypt Kohl More Diverse Than Previously Thought. 2022. Scientific Reports. 

Shaw Ian. The Oxford History Of Ancient Egypt. 1961. Internet Archive.  


The history of African beauty techniques is one that deserves much more coverage and exploration, and due to their nature, there aren't traditional, textual, primary sources that we would normally rely upon in exploring the history of this subject. When doing your own research in the Rabbit Hole Below, the search phrase is "African Beauty History." Please use your discretion. In linked documents and additional sources, we chose to highlight sources that are from the locations discussed, when we were able.

Because of this lack of primary texts, and because Africa is such a diverse continent with a multitude of cultures, there are few credible online sources that we can point to in a general search. We recommend searching Google Scholar first for more specific information, or searching for terms found in this article. General Google searches about African beauty products will likely result in commercial or consumer sources, not educational.

We hope that this article is just the beginning of more historical work on this important topic.


Do Your Own Research




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