The Experience: I Discovered the Ancient Beauty Secrets of Marrakech
Morocco is a melting pot: with Arab, Berber, French, Spanish, and Sub-Saharan African influences. Most of the inhabitants learn to speak Arabic, French, and English at a young age, and the Berber language for some as well — thus communicating is no problem. Morocco is also a constitutional monarchy and you cannot help but remark at the beauty of the King’s palace while traversing from the New City into the Old (even though it is protected by a rampart). The sense of tradition is strong and within your first few steps into the medina, it’s apparent that Marrakech’s herbalists (referred to as herboristes) want you to partake in their customs…and the offers are too beguiling not to do so.
The zest for Moroccan beauty has steadily grown since products like Moroccan oil and Argan oil hit the international market. UNESCO even declared the Argan forests a biosphere reserve in 1998 because of its unbelievable demand.
Herbalist shops are no rare presence in Marrakech. Men in white doctor’s coats beckon you in to offer you the country’s customary mint tea, before you even browse the slew of products and spices they have on the shelves. You might see a woman churning argan nuts into a thick paste in the shop’s front, or a bevy of women laughing while applying henna to a giddy tourist’s hand or foot. The sheer amount of goods on display is astounding, and though you may have just traipsed in for a look, you will be happily taken through each and every product’s purpose, should you ask for it. The prices are low and both dirham and euros are accepted — this is where the negotiating begins and the thrill of it all starts to set in. After just a week in the city, I had returned home with enough merchandise to make me weary wondering whether or not my suitcase would give up and bust. While my friends stateside were obsessing over the newest items from M.A.C. and Saint Laurent, I was more than ready to dive into my spoils from continents away. Here, some of the treasures I found and their most potent uses!
ARGAN OIL ~
At this point, if you are into beauty in the slightest, you have heard of Argan oil. Many domestic and international brands use some of it in their products, with that number having tripled since it became popular back in 2007. The Moroccan government is now on track to double its annual production by 2020.
What is it? The plant oil is produced from kernels of the argan tee, which is native only to Morocco. There are two kinds: one used to moisturize the skin and the other used for eating. The argan tree’s fruit is very small and covered by a dense peel, encapsulating the nut. The nut might then contain one to three kernels that are rich in argan oil and once the extraction process begins, 30% - 50% of the oil in the kernels might be captured — depending on the method. This is surely one of the reasons why you are warned from the start of your beauty shopping journey in the the city, that not all argan oil is made equal.
What does it do? Argan oil extraction has a bit of magic to it, as mechanization attempts have proved unsuccessful. This means that it is all done by hand, usually by Berber women who have been doing it for ages. You can spot the real deal if sediment has settled at the bottom of the bottle — the result of the oil having sat for a couple of weeks’ time after being tapped.
Moroccans use it cosmetically to moisturize their entire body and their hair, as it results in incredible softness and a radiant glow. It prevents wrinkles and has traditional uses of treating burned skin and problems with connective tissues and joints.
The quality is important and you’ll need to do a bit of hunting and asking around to find the real deal. Despite the excess of it everywhere you turn, pure argan oil isn’t so easy to come by: it’s in such high demand all over the world, thus what you’re seeing (and most likely purchasing) is still good, but a bit watered down.
BLACK SOAP ~
Black soap has been around for centuries and your African friends would most likely balk at your new revelation of its healing properties. It is an exfoliant that leaves your skin feeling healthy, rejuvenated, smooth, and has long been used to remedy problematic skin and aid in eliminating blemishes, dark spots, and eczema.
What is it? The soap is crafted from the ash of plants that are harvested in Marrakech (palm tree leaves for instance) — the reason for its dark color. Like argan oil, it is often made by women, by hand, and is a key component of weekly hammam visits. The leaves are dried in the sun and then roasted in a pot or kettle. Water, shea butter, and oils including coconut and palm kernel oil are then cast into the mixture and stirred for no less than a day. The soap is then left to set for a couple of weeks (seemingly a magical number in Moroccan beauty production), after which it is bottled and ready for use and at times, fair traded.
What does it do? The soap is rich in iron and Vitamins A and E and you can instantly feel its power by just scrubbing a bit of it on your hands. It is very strong, so it isn’t recommended for daily use. It comes in round, deep bottles with flat tops — those that will last at least half a year if not longer, depending on your usage. It also comes in actual bar soap form which is great for travel and purchasing loads of it to throw into your checked suitcase.
What is it? Hammams are an integral part of Moroccan culture and the ritual is usually performed on Sundays for Moroccans. Two to three hours can be spent there at a time, though the visit can span even longer. The hammam has its roots in Islam and calls on one of its Five Pillars, which is prayer. Ablutions are often performed before prayer: wudu which is a cleansing of the face, feet, and hands with water and ghusi which is a cleansing of the entire body.
There are both public and private hammers — the former similar to Turkish baths with many people in attendance and men and women bathing separately and the latter which is often built in the homes of Berber villages and throughout riads in the city.
What does it do? The mud-formed room comprised of a dome ceiling is often quite small, to fully immerse you in the hot and steamy air once the process begins. After sitting in the air for ten to twenty minutes, a woman comes in and begins scrubbing you from head-to-toe with black soap. The scrubbing is indeed intense and if exfoliating isn’t something you do often, you will be surprised at just how much dead skin comes off. You are then doused with warm water to cleanse your skin and then a massage usually follows, to really drive home the point of relaxation. The sensation after it all is a tingling one — you know for sure that you just experienced something great and you’re now wondering how you can get this done on a weekly basis once you arrive back at home.
If you are at all reserved about nudity and showing your body, it is quite the eye-opening experience and quite a contrast at times from your surroundings outside, where women and men are both quite covered and modestly dressed.
For a hammam experience and hour-long massage, the prices averaged at about 480 dirhams, or around $50 USD — an incredibly small amount to pay considering it would be a steal to find an hour-long massage for $50 or less in New York City.
What is it? Henna is not only a plant, but a dye that is prepared from the plant. The temporary tattooing of sorts is called mehndi and has been used as an Indian wedding beauty treatment for centuries. Its origin traces back to Ancient Egypt, North African countries like Morocco, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia. It is native to these regions because henna thrives in both semi-arid and tropical climates, where temperatures range between 90 degrees and 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Henna is traded as a powder most commonly because this allows for the design of the most complicated patterns. It is formed when the leaves are dried, grinded, and sifted. The powder is then blended with a number of things including lemon juice, molasses, sugar, tea, and water to create the paste, as these ingredients will help it to better affix to the skin. After sometime between two hours and two days, it is ready for use.
What does it do? Henna is applied most often with a syringe in Marrakesh to the soles and palms of hands, as well as the feet. The stain occurs in less than ten minutes time, though it is suggested that you let it dry as long as you can for longer lasting results. In a days’ time, you will have a deep red design on your skin, and a few days later, it will begin to disappear as you exfoliate and continue your normal showering and hand washing routines. It represents beauty, good luck, and happiness, which is why it is applied to brides.
As hair dye, henna has been used for nearly six thousand years, starting with the remains of it found on the mummies of Ancient Egyptian princesses. Spanish opera singer Adelina Patti dyed her mane with it in the late 19th century, while icon Lucille Ball made used it to enhance her bright red locks in the 1950’s.
Believe it or not, henna has not been approved for use on the skin by the FDA. It can only be brought into the U.S. as hair dye, but is rarely prosecuted if seized for use as body art.
What is it? This slippery and translucent item is stored at room temperature in large glass bottles, though you can certainly melt it with just a little heat application. I was encouraged to smell it and my nasal passages almost instantaneously cleared up with just one whiff.
What does it do? Its uses are immeasurable: mixed with eucalyptus oil to relieve minor aches and pains, blended with aloe to cool the skin and remedy sunburns, combined with water as mouthwash, as a pesticide, and so much more. The demand for it is certainly higher than the natural supply which is why it is often mixed with other things on the market.
What is it? Mint is an entire genus of plants, with more than a dozen species. It is incredibly aromatic and grows best in moist soil—perfect for the green valleys outside of Marrakech.
What does it do? The leaves themselves are used in the country’s popular tea, but are also used for peppermint oil — great for cleansing the scalp. Beauty shops are overrun with it and it is sold in large clear bags, which are impossible to miss.
Saffron’s value is communicated upfront and you’re encouraged to buy some if you leave with nothing else, as you will find it much more expensive in the Western world. I was instantly drawn to it in cream form in a plastic case with a glass top, as it remedies blemishes and acne.
What is it? Saffron is a spice developed from the saffron crocus flower, whose ovules are gathered and then dried. Though native to Southwest Asia and Greece, it was later genetically cloned and brought to Northern Africa. It has been a commodity for well over four thousand years, with Iran now accounting for nearly 90% of the world’s saffron production.
It has an incredibly rich past, with its development starting over three thousand years ago. Harvesting saffron is quite laborious, as close to 75,000 flowers need to be picked in order to produce just one pound. In order to pick that many flowers, a little less than a day’s work is needed and that weight can cost up to $5,000 — five times as much as it was priced forty years ago!
What does it do? Saffron has a wide range of uses and beauty-loving women use it to give a rosy tint to their lips and cheeks. Pure saffron is pretty hard to come by, but you’ll notice that many scents include it for coloring and fragrance purposes.
As a person who definitely stays abreast of what is going on with beauty industry and tries new products almost monthly, there was something incredibly refreshing about diving into what the Marrakech beauty shops had in store. It made me wonder if I really needed to be investing time and money into the goods I was using back home, and if natural products + ancient techniques were, in fact, the forever best way to go…? At any rate, I was able to get great perspective on an industry that we have been tapping into because of their beauty secrets, and it was enlightening to see the source of so many practices that we have adopted. If you think of yourself as a beauty lover, then the shops in Marrakech are a must-see, and at the very least, an incredibly fun experience.