Desert Perfume - Beauty Secrets of the Himba

For many visitors to Namibia, its vast desert landscape is the subject of striking photos, a backdrop for wildlife watching, a giant playground for off-roading, sandboarding and trekking. But for those who have lived here for centuries, the desert is their larder, their hardware store, their pharmacy… and even their cosmetics counter.

Strewn throughout the arid terrain are valuable plants which produce scented resins, moisturising oils and soothing balms. Himba women – widely regarded for their beauty and incredible hairstyles and body adornments – favour a myrrh resin from the commiphora plant, which they call omumbiri. The resin is gathered during the dry season, mixed with red ochre and animal fat, and stored in small containers made of cow horn. The women rub this paste into their bodies, giving them their characteristic red skin, and the rich, warm aroma of myrrh.

Himba woman covered in ochre

The Himba women stain their skin with the red paste, scented with myrrh, Photo by Mikael Castro

But now the secrets of the Himba perfume are being shared with the world. The Namibian Essential Oil Challenge competition was launched in order to encourage Namibians to create cosmetic products from omumbiri. Working with communities including the Himba, who know how to harvest the resin sustainably, the innovative participants produced an enormous range of products just from this one essential oil, including lip balm, soap, body scrubs, skin oils, body butters, incense and air fresheners.

In order to bring these delicious smelling products to a wider audience, a small factory has been opened in Opuwo, Kunene, to extract the myrrh oil. A visitor’s centre is also under construction, which will educate visitors about the harvesting and extraction process and offer a tour of the factory. There will also be a shop selling cosmetics, oils, incense and soaps produced by Namibian artisans.

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A Himba woman grinds ochre to make the traditional perfumed red paste, Photo by Mikael Castro

The project continues to monitor the harvesting process to ensure that it is being carried out sustainably and that the plants are not being over-exploited. At the same time, the income supports local communities who have little other means of income generation, and encourages them to manage their natural resources and environment so that harvesting can continue into the future.

More cosmetics to sample in Namibia

  • !Nara seed oil: The !Nara melon is harvested as a valuable food source by the Topnaar people living along the Kuiseb River. The seeds of the melon are pressed to extract the rich oils – which have been used for centuries by these desert-dwellers to protect their skin against the harsh, arid climate. !Nara oil is now available in various products such as soaps, creams and skin peels – so you too can benefit from the ancient moisturising secrets of the Topnaars!

  • Baobab oil: This characteristic African tree is more than just a pretty sight – the oil extracted from its seeds is rich in vitamins and extremely moisturising. It is also used to treat mild skin complaints, and some women in Africa may use it to treat their hair.


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!Nara seed oil products on sale in Swakopmund

Further information

  • The competition was organized with financial support from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA-Namibia) and the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich.

  • The winning products – Sophia Snyman’s “Desert Secret” and Tamarind Nott’s  - ‘Rare Scent” will be handed out to delegates during the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit, held in October in Namibia.

  • Shop for Namibian essential oil and resin products in Windhoek’s Craft Centre and Maerua Mall, and Swakopmund’s Kubatsirana Arts and Crafts Shop.

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