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The unique power of ubtans

In an excerpt from ‘Ritual’, author Vasudha Rai talks about the benefits of natural ingredients for skincare

Whether it is to reduce the fuzz around the face, exfoliate dead cells or add glow, the magic of an ubtan is that it is inexpensive and effective, writes Vasudha Rai
Whether it is to reduce the fuzz around the face, exfoliate dead cells or add glow, the magic of an ubtan is that it is inexpensive and effective, writes Vasudha Rai (Unsplash)

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I love the romance and versatility of an ubtan. It is a natural powder made with flowers, herbs and lentils, which changes function depending on the binding agent to create a hybrid mask/exfoliator. It can be mixed with milk, rosewater, honey, aloe vera or a fruit such as overripe papaya, which also bring their own qualities to the ubtan paste.

In older times, a paste of herbs and lentils was used on the daily. Though some people still follow this practice, it has become laborious for those with a busy lifestyle. Whether it is to reduce the fuzz around the face, exfoliate dead cells or add glow, the magic of an ubtan is that it is inexpensive and effective.

The making of an ubtan

Legumes and grains form the base of an ubtan. They have a gummy texture that binds with the liquid onto light, fuzzy hair and dead skin to remove them from the skin. This is what differentiates a traditional ubtan from a clay mask—clays have a tendency to fall off the skin when rubbed, whereas something like besan becomes sticky.

Several herbs are added to this base of lentils and grain, the most common being turmeric (to disinfect, heal and brighten) and sandalwood (to soothe and clarify). In fact, the most common recipe for an ubtan is besan with a bit of turmeric and sandalwood, which has been found to have potent free radical-scavenging capacity, protecting and healing the skin. The beauty of the ubtan, however, is that you can make your own recipe according to the season and your skin type. So, if your skin is dry, you can use almond meal as a base; if you’re sensitive, use a combination of milk and colloidal oatmeal; and those with oily complexions can enjoy herbs mixed with aloe vera gel.

Also read: How dermatologists are staying relevant in a WFH era

Though there many traditional formulations, the best recipes are made by combining modern and old-world ingredients. For instance, I like to add raw cacao powder to an ubtan because it gives it a creaminess that is very beneficial in winter. When my skin breaks out, I like to stir in a bit of spirulina powder and apple cider vinegar to reduce redness and shrink acne. Part of what makes ubtan a ritual is the fact that we mix the proportions with our own hands, choosing what is good for us and putting in our own energy. It’s like massage, in that sense, because there is human touch involved.

You could make it as basic or complicated as you wish, though I like to keep it simple, only because it’s easier to observe what works and what doesn’t. Keep it to four ingredients at a time: one that like an ‘active’, another to complement the main ingredient and boost its healingpowers, plus a supporting ingredient either as a soothing agent or to boost the powers of the main active ingredient. The last ingredient is a binder, which could be either water, milk, yoghurt, honey, aloe or fruit pulp.

To understand this, let’s take the example of one of my favourite ubtan recipes made with equal parts kasturi manjal (wild turmeric), sandalwood powder (either red or white) and orange peel or mulethi powder. The main active ingredient in this is the kasturi manjal, which helps brighten the skin and reduce pigmentation. I add cooling sandalwood to this because the turmeric is heating in nature and may cause a burning sensation. The last ingredient is either orange peel or mulethi because both also work to brighten the skin. However, since mulethi is a sweet herb it is gentler on the skin than orange peel. If I want to make this mask even more gentle, I will add rose petal powder, which is also very cooling. To bind, I choose honey instead of water because I want the mask to stick to my skin longer. I prefer not to use lentil powders in this because I sometimes use AHAs on my face and don’t want the extra exfoliation. If I were to use it on my body, I would add lentil powder to it.

Published by Penguin Random House India
Published by Penguin Random House India

If you’re making an ubtan for beauty, be creative and don’t hesitate to modernize the recipe. That’s not to say that traditional recipes aren’t relevant. In fact, in several instances tradition is the way to go, especially when it comes to utilizing the knowledge for mind-body benefits.

Brightening Ubtan

1 tsp kasturi manjal powder

1 tsp red sandalwood powder

1 tsp orange peel/mulethi powder

Raw honey/milk/yoghurt to bind

A dash of rose water to loosen the paste


 Mix all the ingredients to a smooth paste

 Apply over face and neck

 Leave on for 15 minutes to an hour

 Wash off or use as a gentle exfoliator, but gently rub it off in circular motions

Calming Ubtan

1 tsp rose petal powder

1 tsp white sandalwood

1 tsp jatamansi powder

1 tbsp colloidal oats

1 tbsp aloe vera gel

Milk/yoghurt to bind

(If you’re vegan use coconut milk)


 Mix the ingredients

 Pat on to the skin

 Wash off without rubbing the skin after 15 to 30 minutes

Also read: Meet today's beauty customer


Excerpted from Ritual: Daily Practices For Wellness, Beauty & Bliss by Vasudha Rai, with permission from Penguin Random House India

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