When a justifiably irate reader commented on my review of DoshaCare Sakala sunscreen that its ingredients hardly qualify as Ayurvedic, I had to reconsider the meaning of this often-used, seldom-explicated holistic term. Does an Ayurvedic beauty regime owe itself to a nebulous borrowing of ancient practices? Do modern cosmetics laying claim to Ayurvedic features imply a shared understanding of health and balance? Or does a product with an Ayurvedic stamp only have to incorporate a couple of key time-honored ingredients?

Let’s start with the basics. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old natural healing system that originated within the Vedic culture of India. Traditional Chinese, Tibetan, and early Greek medicine all have roots in many of the concepts described in the classical Ayurvedic texts. Though based on ancient eastern traditions, it is today considered one of the leading forms of holistic medicine available in the west. Ayurveda translates literally to “the science of life,” conveying a purpose much greater than the treatment of illness.

The Ayurvedic approach extends to the realm of beauty by virtue of its inclusive understanding of the human body. According to Ayurvedic teachings, all individuals have a unique combination of mind/body constitutions that determine their internal and external characteristics. These constitutions, known as “doshas,” decide what practices will nourish the mind and body. A mental, emotional, or physical imbalance indicates a departure from the path paved by one’s dosha. Where it gets complicated is in Ayurveda’s malleable dosha model: A person’s dosha can change at any time thanks to an eternally active state of wellness.

The three doshas of Ayurvedic tradition- Vata, Pitta, and Kapha- can be present in varying degrees within a person’s nature. Most people have a single primary dosha, as well as a secondary dosha, that dominates their mood and behavior. You can loosely determine your own dosha by trying out one of many online assessment tools (i.e. Chopra Center, Personal Alchemy, Pratima Skincare). At this point in time, these quizzes for the most part agree that my main dosha is Pitta, with a side of Vata. Though I beg to differ on a few of a Pitta's key traits, I feel an affinity for its tendency toward sensitive skin that rebels against synthetic cosmetics.

The dosha classifications are generally broad, touching on every aspect of a person's inward disposition and outward appearance. A predominance of the Pitta dosha lends to smart, competitive, and determined characteristics with an athletic build, fair skin, and straight oily hair. Individuals who are primarily Vata tend to be active and quick with poor circulation, a light frame, and dry hair and skin. A majority of Kapha in one's nature entails compassionate, comfortable, and stable qualities marked by heavy bones, oily skin, and thick wavy hair.

As with any personality test, it's all too easy to see yourself in multiple categories or to mold your personal assessment to fit within a particular dosha. I think that this ambiguity, combined with the vacillating Ayurvedic condition, makes designing a skincare regimen based on one's dosha a difficult (and costly) endeavor. It also seems like not much more than a clever marketing ploy. Probably for this reason, an endless array of cosmetics brands attempt to make use of dosha prescriptions in doling out product advice. Pratima has been one of our favorite Ayurvedic finds for its Neem Rose Face Sunscreen and Turmeric Facial Mask.

While adhering to the guidelines based on one's dosha is Ayurveda's path to optimal beauty benefits, there are also general recommendations that accomodate all skin types. The Ayurvedic system's path to outer beauty is through the inner physiological processes involved in digestion, metabolism, and proper tissue development. Beyond what is put on the skin, Ayurveda advises on what goes in the body and how the body is handled. Self massage is important for healthy blood flow, and oil pulling is a popular regimen for cleansing toxins from the body. Among the many nourishing foods suggested by Ayurvedic medicine are leafy antioxidant-rich green vegetables, sweet juicy fruits (i.e. grapes, melons, plums, pears), mixed grains (i.e. amaranth, barley, couscous, quinoa), and detoxifying spices (i.e. black pepper, coriander, cumin, turmeric).

As with Ayurvedic dietary guidelines, a recurring theme in all Ayurvedic-anointed skincare products is the use of fresh ingredients plucked from nature. Turmeric is one of the most commonly used spices in the Ayurvedic traditions, from cooking to skin care. Gotu Kola is a traditional treatment for enhancing collagen synthesis. Kapha skin types benefit from ginger and black pepper, while Pitta doshas are matched with fennel and licorice.

However, simply tossing an organic extract in a cosmetic formula does not mean that it automatically takes on Ayurvedic healing powers, since many extracts can be ineffective when used alone or dangerous when used in inappropriate combinations. Truly Ayurvedic preparations often involve complex combinations of different herbs and spices that work synergistically without damaging side effects.  The ancient system of Ayurveda is sophisticated and holistic, eschewing a fragmented approach to skin care. If you are familiar with any Ayurvedic lines that correctly incorporate notions and potions of balance, please share with us.