Geishas have been shrouded in mystery since their first emergence in Japan in the 1800s. Trained in the skills of music, dance, and conversation, the entertainers and hosts are elegant and lithe like ballerinas, and instantly recognized for their entrancing stage makeup: stark white skin, red lips, and an intricate chignon called a shimada. Nowadays, there are still thousands of practicing geishas in the Japanese town of Kyoto who adhere to the traditional beauty rituals of their generations-past counterparts.
Needless to say, we wanted to know everything possible about said skin, hair, and makeup routines. To give us a glimpse behind the curtain, we spoke with Vicky Tsai, founder of Tatcha, a skincare line based on a book of geisha beauty secrets Tsai came upon in a visit to Kyoto. Tsai also frequently goes back to Japan to visit Tatcha’s muse, a modern-day geisha named Kyoka. “What’s awesome about modern-day geishas is that they haven’t changed what they do,” she tells us. “They’re kind of like time capsules—they’re the same way they were 300 years ago when it comes to their beauty routines.” Suffice it to say we were intrigued. Keep scrolling to take a look at the fascinating beauty routine of modern-day geishas!
There was a time when geishas were considered modern symbols, much like haute couture is nowadays. “Average women wanted to emulate them, so someone wrote everything down,” Tsai explains. “Back in the day, there weren’t department stores or beauty brands, so in order to do something for their skin, they had to use what was within reach.” This meant they became quite the skilled DIY'ers, using ingredients from their kitchen or their local herbalist and utilizing teachings from Traditional Chinese Medicine, which had just traveled to Japan. When Tsai found the only written account of geisha beauty rituals, she was surprised by what the translator told her. “You would think their secret would be a rare flower that only blooms at midnight, or something like that,” she says. “But their ingredients were super-simple—it’s basically just incorporating all the elements of the traditional Japanese diet.” Think about the traditional dinner: It would most likely include sushi—which is made with rice, seaweed, and fish—and green tea. And… that’s basically the basis of their entire skincare ritual. “Green tea has an antioxidant in it called EGCG, which is a particular kind of antioxidant that is especially efficient at neutralizing the kind of free-radical damage caused by the sun,” Tsai explains. “It’s very good for your skin.” Like the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a geisha’s skincare routine has a very inside-out approach, with a combination of diet and lifestyle changes. They make topical beauty treatments that often mirror what they ate. So, for example, rice: It might seem like just a carb, but the husk (which the Japanese call komonuka) stores a potent combination of antioxidants, moisturizers, UV absorber, and brighteners for the skin. This is the basis for Tatcha’s Classic Rice Enzyme Powder ($65).
Seaweed and squalane are two more ingredients often used in a geisha’s skincare routine. Tsai explains that seaweed contains polysaccharides, which are basically little sponges that retain water so they don’t dry out in saltwater. This would explain why, when you use it on your skin, it keeps water from evaporating and is what Tsai calls a “miraculous moisturizer.” Squalane is an ingredient that used to come from shark liver oil, which is identical to the oil that’s already in your skin when you are baby; in fact, supposedly 13% of your skin is made of this oil when you’re an infant. Tsai says that nowadays, you can get squalane from olives—it’s molecularly identical.
When it comes to their actual skincare ritual, Tsai says geishas focus on gentle purification, as opposed to the often harsh soaps and cleansers we’re used to here in America. “Anything with oil needs to be dissolved with oil,” Tsai says. “Rather than bubbling cleansers, geishas like Kyoka use cleansing oils—they have no choice, really, because they wear stage makeup, and soapy cleansers won’t get it off.” Putting a full face of makeup on each night can be exhausting for your skin (just ask any stage performer), which is why geishas use a secret trick to keep their skin clear: bintsuke, a wax they would melt to create a “barrier” between their makeup and their skin. It’s the same wax sumo wrestlers put in their hair, and it retains moisture while keeping the makeup out of their pores. The only way to dissolve the wax is to use a gentle enzymatic exfoliator, usually made with rice. “Not only would it dissolve the wax, but it would sweep away debris from the skin very dramatically,” Tsai says.
For the rest of their skincare routine, geishas like Kyoko avoid any toners with alcohol and instead opt for treatment tonics and light, weightless moisturizers. “Geishas never strip their skin with bubbles and alcohol, so they never have to feed the moisture back in,” Tsai explains.
When it comes to a geisha’s traditional stage makeup, Tsai says the white makeup and dramatic lip and eye are actually much more subtle by candlelight (which is how geishas traditionally perform). “Their makeup comes from the kabuki heritage, specifically so that people can see their expression on the stage by candlelight,” Tsai says. “It’s much more translucent in person than it is in pictures.” They buy a white powder at their local apothecary and mix it with a solution to create a paste. The red lipstick, however, is the most interesting part of their makeup routine. “We call it Kyoto Red, made from beni, which is a pure extract from Japanese safflower,” she says. “When they make it, it doesn’t look like a lipstick—it looks like a watercolor, and it’s dry.” She says the dry watercolor-like paste looks red in some lights and green in others, and the geishas apply it by wetting a brush, which turns the mixture a true red. Then, they just paint it on their lips. “Sometimes, they’ll pour the liquid beni into a seashell so it coats the inside, like a lacquered coating,” Tsai says. “Then, when people see it, they don’t see a lipstick—they see it as a seashell.”
Coconut oil might be the craze here, but in Japan, geishas love using camellia oil, which comes from a flower that grows in the snow. “It’s considered one of the healthiest cooking oils,” she says. “Geishas ate it, drank it, put it on their face and hair, everything.” It’s especially effective when used to condition their hair, much like a DIY coconut oil hair mask here in the states. For shampooing, they opt for formulas that are made of rice and seaweed (something to look for on your next visit to Japan, no?). “When they are trainees, their hair is done by a stylist, and they melt the same bintsuke wax and style it into a dramatic updo, then sleep on buckwheat pillows so it doesn’t get messed up,” Tsai says. “When they become full-fledged geishas, they use wigs!”
Shop two of our favorite geisha-inspired products from Tatcha below.
Were you surprised by any of these rituals? Click here to find out five beauty secrets from ancient China!