Thanaka: All Natural Suncare

Image used for illustrative purposes only

Thanaka has started to receive increasing attention in recent times as many local Myanmar and Thai cosmetic companies have now incorporated the Thanaka stem bark powder as an ingredient in many of their cosmetic formulations.

One of the first things you notice in Myanmar (formerly Burma) is the ubiquitous, pale yellow paste called Thanaka that decorates the faces of men, women and children. It is used as skincare and applied like face paint: dots on the cheeks, circles across the face, or even as fun designs like stripes or swirly leaves to add a cool factor. 

Image for illustration purpose only.

Used for centuries as a beauty aid in Myanmar, Thanaka’s antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-ageing and antioxidant properties are now being introduced across the world by Asian cosmetics brands. Interestingly, despite the limited research into the chemical constituents and biological activities of Hesperethusa crenulata bark, the Thanaka paste is ubiquitous and used as a Sunscreen, to reduce skin oiliness, to tighten pores and improve complexion. Marmesin is the component of Thanaka responsible for sun protection. When,Marmesin from Thanaka bark was extracted by researchers, to determine its molecular structure, it was found that Marmesin contains UV-absorbing chromophores, with maximum absorption 335 nm, it was concluded that Marmesin could be a commercially useful UV-A filter.

 Thanaka can be made from several tropical tree species that grow in parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent – but only in Myanmar is the bark from these trees used as a cosmetic. Thanaka is said to have been used in the country for more than 2,000 years. It is available in various formats viz pastes, creams and powders but most people in Myanmar prefer using the actual wood from the Stem Bark of Hesperethusa crenulata tree and grinding it on a stone slab called the kyauk pyin, and making a paste with some water. When Thanaka is wet, it’s almost translucent and when it dries, it becomes a yellow crust.

Image used for illustrative purposes only

The wood of several trees can be used to make Thanaka paste, with the Naringi crenulata (toothed-leaf limonia) and Limonia acidissima (wood apple) trees being the most common. The dry central regions of Mandalay and Bagan in Myanmar are ideal for these slow-growing trees. A tree must be at least 35 years old before cuttings can be taken from it. Traditionally, Thanaka wood is sold as individual small logs or in bundles to be ground by the purchaser. It can be grown through sustainable farming techniques because of its regenerative nature. Fragrant Thanaka has been used by royalty in the country, with a hint of gold powder added to it; farmers use it when working in the fields, children going to schools have their faces smeared with the paste, and men wear just a hint of it on their cheekbones and eyelids.

Just as the ancient Greeks used olive oil as a sunblock, Egyptians used rice and jasmine extracts, the nomadic race of people in Southeast Asia called the Sama-Bajau use a paste of water weeds, rice and spices and the Indians used Sandalwood paste, the Burmese use Thanaka.

Acknowledgement:  Research Papers*

  • Biological activities and safety of Thanaka (Hesperethusa crenulata) stem bark authored by Sakulna Wangthong, Tanapat Palaga, Sirirat Rengpipat , Supason P. Wanichwecharungruang, Panpilai Chanchaisak, Michael Heinrich
  • Marmesin, from the bark of Thanakha, Hesperethusa crenulata L. J Plant Biol; UV Absorbent Author – Joo SH, Lee SC, Kim SK,

 *For Research papers: email

Author : Sheela Iyer

Sheela Iyer is an observer of the Indian Cosmetics & personal care industry and the editor of ‘Cosmetech’. She regularly video interviews industry experts on Cosmetech TV and has her fortnightly podcast ‘Cosmetics Today’