Years ago, on a trip to Kyoto, I serendipitously discovered the classical skin polish that transformed the tone and texture of my skin. One afternoon, I visited a small boutique in the quaint neighborhood of Gion that geisha frequent for its snow-white face powder, ebony eyeliner, and other beauty items. Immediately, I was struck by how straightforward everything seemed in the tiny, softly lit jewel of a shop—especially compared to the sprawling, overstacked, and often confusing cosmetics counters in Western department stores.
As I browsed the narrow aisles, geisha came in and shopped with purpose. They knew exactly what they needed and I watched many of them pick up strawberry-sized pouches of powder, tucked between rows of lacquer-handled lip brushes and sleek pots of pigment. I had to know more about these dainty satchels. A geisha explained to me that they were filled with finely milled rice powder for exfoliating the skin. Intrigued, I bought a few.
That night, once I rinsed away the powder, I was amazed by my skin’s glow and newborn-like feel. In that moment, I realized that the luminous visage I sought with makeup, prescription topical ointments and other treatments could be achieved with a commonplace and often overlooked ingredient like rice.
Heritage: Before geisha apply their signature white base—which can highlight, rather than conceal, any skin imperfections—they must create the perfect canvas by pressing a light layer of wax known as bintsuke-abura onto their skin. This veil conceals pores, refines texture, and locks in moisture. (In essence, geisha have used face primer since hundreds of years ago.) To remove the wax and surface pollutants that collect on their skin throughout the day, they gently exfoliate their faces, often with this fine rice powder.
Secret ingredient: Rice bran or komenuka has been a staple of Japanese beauty rituals for centuries because it’s a vital source of vitamins A, B2, B12, and E, as well as naturally moisturizing proteins. Women used the leftover water from rinsing rice in their baths for soft, smooth, and luminous skin. In learning about this technique, I was reminded that my own mother and grandmother did this in Taiwan. They taught me to save this milky liquid known to soften my hands and add silkiness to my hair. Historically in Japan, grains were also ground down to make a gentle enzyme for the face and body.
Why it’s essential: This humble dietary staple effectively removes impurities while providing skin-nourishing oils. A natural enzyme exfoliant, rice bran boasts potent antioxidants and nourishing moisturizers. When activated with water, rice powder not only decongests your pores, but also brightens skin tone, diminishes hyperpigmentation, and enables skin to better absorb the next steps in your ritual. Many conventional Western exfoliants contain seeds, salt, or ground shells that can tear and tug at the skin—even weekly use can cause irritation. Rice powders are beloved because they can be used everyday without stripping or pulling at your skin. Instead, the foam delicately removes the dead skin cells that make your complexion appear dull.
When it’s most effective: Exfoliate as the first step of your ritual in the morning (if you choose not to cleanse) and as the second step, after purifying skin, in the evening. As I gently massage the creamy rice bran foam into my skin, I think of the meditative mantra, “begin again.” Rinsing away impurities and tired skin cells feels like I’m creating a fresh start to my day and a new beginning for my skin.
How to indulge: Many exfoliants contain harsh abrasives and can only be used weekly. For your daily polish, look for a rice enzyme powder that is gentle enough to be used every day. Wet your palms and splash a handful of warm water onto your face. Pour approximately half a teaspoon of powder (the size of a small coin) into one hand and gently rub your palms together to create a creamy, luxuriant foam. Massage gently with your fingertips onto your face in circular motions for 10 to 20 seconds, avoiding your eyes. Rinse well and pat your skin dry with a soft face cloth.
Each small lesson I’ve learned while treasure hunting for Tatcha has culminated in Pure Skin, which captures many of the pearls of Japanese beauty wisdom I’ve gathered along the way. I hope you will join me on this special journey.