Today we run through some of Ghana’s best-kept beauty secrets, along with a couple of the more extreme beauty practices. Ghana is rich in natural resources and this extends to skincare, with many Ghanaian beauty secrets derived from nature. In the West African nation, beauty is defined differently from Western countries – being curvaceous is synonymous with wealth and beauty, unlike standards in Europe and the USA, where a slim figure is seen as more attractive.
Aging is another area of difference; in Ghana, people accept aging as a fact of life, as opposed to Western nations where anti-wrinkle creams are all the rage. This can be liberating for women who visit Ghana on a volunteer vacation but of course there are other elements of local beauty that you might want to be more wary of.
Arguably one of nature’s finest nourishers, shea butter is an ancient beauty secret long used by women in Ghana and other African nations. Derived from the nut of the karite - or shea - tree, shea butter is made by crushing and boiling the nuts to remove the smooth, buttery contents, which are rich in natural fatty acids and vitamins.
It is believed that renowned beauty and Egyptian queen Nefertiti used shea butter in ancient times, with tales of her beauty spreading far and wide. Shea butter is absorbed easily by the skin and has naturally anti-aging, healing properties. It also offer low level sun protection and can be used to treat sunburn and other skin conditions, speeding up the healing process.
Richly moisturizing, shea butter can be used to protect lips from chapping, nourish skin before and after shaving and to soothe cracked or rough skin. Additionally, another use is as a conditioner for the scalp and hair, giving users shiny, healthier-looking locks.
African black soap
For centuries, Ghanaian women have used a special type of soap known as African black soap to cleanse their faces and bodies, but also to provide a range of additional beauty benefits. African black soap is made from the skin of plantains, also known as sweet potatoes. Although traditionally made from plantains, African black soap can also be made with the ash and skins of other vegetables, or cocoa pods.
The vegetable skin is sun-dried and roasted in a clay oven before being mixed with water and oils and left to set for a couple of weeks. Suitable for all skin types, African black soap can be used for the entire body and is great for removing makeup, relieving skin conditions like acne and conditioning the skin and hair.
Naturally antibacterial and rich in antioxidants, African black soap can help in the management of oily skin tones while preventing dry patches – the unique product restores the skin’s PH balance and is believed to help reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
Video on Ghanian black soap
Skin bleaching creams
Despite being banned in Ghana, skin bleaching creams still make it on to the market. Influence from the media is often thought to be the main culprit responsible for the popularity of skin whitening among Ghanaian women; many believe paler skin to be a sign of beauty and will go to extreme lengths to achiever a fairer complexion.
Although there are some natural techniques used to lighten the skin, the results can be quicker and more noticeable with creams, many of which contain dangerous chemicals and ingredients. Some of the key components in such creams, like hydroquinone, can actually make the skin less resistant to UV rays and increase the chances of skin cancer.
Other ingredients like mercuous chloride have been linked to poisoning and resulting kidney damage. Because of this danger, the creams have been outlawed in Ghana but it could be a matter of years before the market is free of the goods.
Video explaining this cultural norm in Ghana - The Cost of Beauty
Popular for all manner of ills in Ghana, lemons are commonly used in local beauty routines in a variety of forms. The juice of lemons has skin lightening properties and can be used to whiten patches of dark skin on the elbows and knees naturally, as opposed to using dangerous skin bleaching applications.
Lemon juice can also be used to whiten teeth; mixed with baking soda, the juice can be applied to the teeth with a Q-tip and brushed as usual – over a period of time, brighter teeth have been reported. For fairer hair and natural highlights, lemon juice can also be used; applying the juice to the hair before exposure to sunlight is supposed to be one of the best ways to achieve subtle natural highlights.
Additionally, the refreshing, antibacterial properties of lemons make them ideal as facial cleansers, helping remove blackheads and toning the skin for a firmer complexion when mixed with a little water.
In Ghana, long, luscious hair is favored above short styles as being more beautiful, and many Ghanaian women spend hours in hair salons to achieve the long locks they crave. Hair extensions are popular in Ghana, where women enjoy the variety of styles that can be created with longer hair.
When applied correctly, hair extensions can last for months with minimal damage, but too-heavy extensions or poorly fitted weaves can result in hair matting and tension alopecia – where tension on the scalp causes the hair to fall out. Braiding without glues is preferable to using sticky substances in the hair, which have to be removed with special chemicals.
Many styles of braiding are popular, either with or without extensions; Ghana Plaits - also known as African hair threading - is one such style, creating unique corkscrew curls that can be linked together or left in single spirals.
When you volunteer in Ghana you’ll have a first-hand insight into local standards of beauty. As with anywhere else, beauty techniques and associations have positive and negative elements; the female body shape is admired, which can be empowering for women, but the trend towards skin bleaching highlights the flipside of beauty standards in the nation.
Use of natural remedies like shea butter and lemons show just how resourceful and traditional Ghanaian beauty routines have remained over the years – find out for yourself how these natural ingredients can be used to achieve more beautiful skin and hair when you volunteer in Ghana.