Africans use a variety of natural ingredients and products on their skin including shea butter, cocoa butter, aloe vera, argan oil, coconut oil, and more. Traditional remedies are common, often using local plants. Skin lightening products are also popular in many parts of Africa. Overall, Africans take care to nourish and protect their skin from the harsh African sun.
Africa is home to over 1 billion people across 54 diverse countries and regions. With varying climates, skin types, cultures, and beauty ideals, African people have developed a wide array of skin care remedies and regimens using local natural resources. From ancient beauty rituals to modern commercial products, skin care is an important part of life and health across the continent.
In this article, we will explore some of the most common and popular substances and products used by Africans for skincare and beauty. We will look at traditional plant-based oils and butters, homemade treatments, commercial products, and discuss the practice of skin lightening. Understanding African skincare provides insights into beauty ideals, cultural practices, local resources, and innovations in natural beauty.
Traditional Oils and Butters
Africa is home to a variety of natural oils and butters that have been used for centuries by indigenous cultures for skin and haircare. These natural products moisturize, nourish, and protect the skin from a harsh climate. Shea butter and cocoa butter are two of the most popular today.
Shea butter comes from the nuts of the shea tree, found in the savannah regions of West and East Africa. It has been used since ancient times by groups like the Wolof, Fula, Malinke for skin and haircare. Shea butter is naturally rich in vitamins A and E and essential fatty acids, making it an excellent moisturizer. It is used to hydrate dry skin, treat irritation and sunburn, and protect the skin from weather extremes. It is also appreciated for its anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties. Raw, unrefined shea butter maintains its nutrients and has become a popular ingredient around the world in skincare products.
Cocoa butter is extracted from the cacao bean which grows in tropical regions of West Africa. The Ashanti people of Ghana, and Yoruba and Igbo people of Nigeria traditionally used cocoa butter to moisturize and heal skin. It contains antioxidants and natural plant compounds that make it an effective moisturizer and skin nourisher. Cocoa butter is often used to prevent and reduce stretch marks during pregnancy. It’s nourishing properties also make it effective for healing scrapes, scars and burns. Like shea butter, cocoa butter is commonly found in commercial skincare products globally.
Natural plant oils have been used for centuries by Africans for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Common carrier oils from seeds, nuts and fruit still used today include:
Has moisturizing fatty acids and antibacterial properties. Commonly used in East and West Africa.
Absorbs easily into the skin. Used by Namibians and South African tribes.
High in vitamins A, D, E, and F. Used across West Africa.
Hydrating oil used extensively in Southern Africa.
Moisturizing oil from nuts grown in Southern Africa.
These natural emollients provide fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to nourish and hydrate the skin. They protect against dryness and damage from the elements. Africans incorporate these oils into body and haircare routines. Today, many are key ingredients in manufactured cosmetics.
Essential oils have been used since ancient times by Egyptians, Moroccans and other North Africans for perfumes, incense, medicines and embalming. Distilled from flowers, leaves, stems and roots, essential oils continue to be incorporated into skincare regimes across Africa. Some oils commonly used include:
Provides antioxidant protection and has a balancing effect on skin. Used in Madagascar.
An astringent that tones, firms and nourishes skin. Popular across Mediterranean Africa.
Stimulates blood flow and has antibacterial properties when applied topically. Used in Egypt and Morocco.
Soothes skin and has healing properties. Grown and used across North Africa.
When combined with carrier oils, essential oils impart therapeutic skin benefits. Natural perfumeries in North and Mediterranean Africa have created signature beauty blends using local botanicals. Interest in aromatherapy has revived the use of essential oils in homemade skincare.
Aloe vera grows prolifically across Africa and has incredible cosmetic and medicinal properties. Egyptians called aloe the “plant of immortality”. Cleopatra reportedly used it as part of her beauty regimen. Aloe’s moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, and healing properties make it a versatile skincare ally. It hydrates skin, treats burns, infections, acne and more. Aloe is grown commercially across North and Southern Africa today. It is found in everything from homemade facial treatments to mass-produced lotions and potions globally.
Argan oil comes from the nuts of the argan tree which grows in the deserts of Morocco. Berber women have used argan oil for centuries to nourish skin, hair and nails. The oil hydrates deeply, reduces signs of aging, protects against sun damage, and boosts cell regeneration. Argan oil has spread in popularity beyond North Africa and is now a ‘miracle ingredient’ in cosmetics worldwide.
Traditional Homemade Remedies
Using local plants, clays, salts, and oils, traditional healers across Africa have passed down homemade remedies to nourish, protect and beautify the skin. Some examples include:
- Honey & Lemon – Cleansing/exfoliating facial scrub used in Egypt
- Camwood & Shea – Toning combination used by Nigerian women
- Geranium & Yogurt – Soothing cream from Morocco
- Coffee & Coconut Oil – Skin polishing body scrub from Ethiopia
- Aloe & Tea Tree Oil – Healing acne gel from Southern Africa
- Kalahari Melon Seed Oil – Rich night serum from Namibia
These homegrown recipes draw on local botanicals that address skin concerns, customize treatments, and pass on beauty traditions. Interest in natural, organic skincare has brought some homemade practices into commercial production.
Modern Manufactured Products
Alongside natural ancient remedies, store-bought commercial skincare products are widely used across urban Africa today. International brands have entered the market, providing access to globalized beauty standards and products. Key categories include:
Skin Lightening Creams
Skin lightening creams and lotions designed to whiten, brighten or lighten complexions are popular in many sub-Saharan African communities. Products contain bleaching agents like hydroquinone, steroids, mercury, or high-strength retinoids. These products promise to even skin tone, fade flaws, and achieve fairer complexions conforming to beauty ideals. But medical experts strongly advise against using such products because of associated health risks including skin damage, toxicity, and addiction.
Moisturizing lotions help hydrate and smooth dry, ash skin types common across Africa. Intense sun, heat, and environmental exposures require heavier creams and lotions to protect, repair and condition skin. Popular brands include Ambi, Caramel, and Vaseline which cater to local needs.
Harsh weather from wind and dust to sun damage take a toll on skin. Exfoliating scrubs help remove dead skin cells, even skin tone, and renew cell turnover. Products use ingredients like volcanic ash, coffee, oatmeal and microbeads to revitalize dull complexions across Africa.
Plant-based beauty oils like coconut, marula, and jojoba oil are popular across Africa for their nourishing fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants. Manufacturers integrate these into lotions, creams, serums and haircare. Consumers also directly apply pure, cold-pressed oils for hydration.
Traditional sulfur soaps are valued for their antibacterial, exfoliating properties. Often containing camphor and menthol, these medicated soaps combat acne and oily skin issues prevalent in humid African climates. Brands like Grandpa and Dudu-Osun are common across West Africa.
Skin toning and tightening lotions help cleanse oil and impurities while shrinking pores. With hot and humid weather, toners refresh and cool the skin. Brands like Nivea and G&G provide astringent, mattifying toners with Tea Tree, menthol and witch hazel.
Broad spectrum sunscreens help protect African skin from intense UV exposure. Brands target consumers with darker skin tones, providing protection without leaving a white cast. Interest in skin cancer prevention coupled with climate change is increasing sunscreen usage.
The Practice of Skin Lightening
Skin lightening is the practice of artificially lightening one’s complexion using various manufactured creams, soaps, pills and other modern methods. Skin lightening products and procedures are widely available across sub-Saharan African communities. They promise to correct skin imperfections, even out skin tone, and lighten overall complexion.
Skin lightening is controversial but popular for various reasons:
- Colorism – Social privilege is tied to lighter skin in many cultures.
- Pop Culture – Lighter celebrities and models influence beauty ideals.
- Post-colonial legacy – Eurocentric standards remain embedded in society.
- Self-esteem – Marketing links light skin to confidence and success.
- Flaw correction – Products claim to fade scars, marks, and pigmentation issues.
Critics argue that the risks outweigh benefits and can be psychologically as well as physically damaging. The WHO has reported negative side effects including skin cancer, mercury poisoning, steroid addiction, and exogenous ochronosis. Governments including Rwanda, Ghana, and Ivory Coast have banned high-risk chemical skin bleaching agents. However, the practice persists, highlighting deep-rooted complex social dynamics driving colorism.
From traditional plant oils to modern lotions, Africans have used skincare as a therapeutic, protective and cosmetic practice for centuries. Local botanicals, homemade recipes, and commercial products address the continent’s varied climates and skin needs. Beauty practices also reflect cultural ideals tied to complex factors like colorism. While traditional natural ingredients continue to be popular, manufactured imported brands also influence modern skincare routines. African women and men spend a significant amount of time and money on looking after their skin. Given the climate extremes, pollution, and societal pressures, caring for and beautifying the skin remains an important part of health, tradition and social standing across Africa’s diverse regions.