Beauty, Health, Exfoliative and Environmental Benefits of the African Traditional Bath Sponge

I looked forward to the experience of bathing with the loofah once again, especially with my deep convictions about the wisdom of our ancestors and their deep connections to the wisdom of nature.
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On a recent trip to Nevada in the United States, I had reasons to visit an African grocery store. Lying at a corner of the store were coconut husk-derived African traditional bath sponges or loofahs, that were being sold for one dollar a piece. The sight of the sponges brought back memories tinged with nostalgia; of my childhood, of my grandmother and of my mom using them to bath, as well as my bathing with them myself. For much of my life, however, I have bathed with the softer, regular plastic-derived bath sponge.

I paid for a piece. As I picked the traditional sponge and felt the extremely coarse texture, my feelings of excitement wavered. A picture flashed through my mind, of me after bathing with the sponge, bloody lines drawn all over my skin, as if I just had a fight with someone with long and sharp nails. I waved the false, fearsome vision away and fought to replace it with the more positive images of my mother and grandmother’s supple, wrinkle-free skin. Emboldened, I looked forward to the experience of bathing with the loofah once again, especially with my deep convictions about the wisdom of our ancestors and their deep connections to the wisdom of nature. The results I noticed on my skin within a matter of days of bathing with the coconut loofah have been outstanding, to say the least.

Around the time I bought the sponge, I was due for a full pedicure visit, which my overly tight schedule had led me to postpone to the week after my Nevada trip. Imagine my surprise when after using the sponge for about three days, the tiny emerging dead skin cells I noticed earlier around my toenails disappeared. Replacing the dead skin cells were smooth and shiny, beautiful-looking toenails and surrounding skin. The toenails were ready for me to apply nail varnish if I decided to do an at-home pedicure. Underneath my feet only needed a little scrubbing with a pumice stone. I was thrilled. As far as I can say now, I will always have neat toenails 24/7 and will only need to visit the pedicurist for that extra professional touch, when and if I want to.

The African sponge is such a great alternative to harmful nail salon practices of cuticle pushing and clipping, even if we provide our own equipment. Nail cuticles act as a barrier between the inner toenails and the external world that is filled with bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Dermatologists are in agreement that the cuticles should be treated with extra caution to avoid infections that could even prove serious or fatal. Scrubbing the feet with the African traditional sponge is a great alternative.

For bathing, I also noticed a new suppleness and clarity on my skin and complexion. Age spots began to clear within a matter of days while some stubborn spots started fading away. My skin took on a radiance that was new and appealing. I was impressed. It dawned on me that plastics do not scrub the skin that well.  It is not a natural product and does not have the same exfoliative properties as the traditional African sponges. A beautiful, healthy complexion is the result of regular exfoliation.  Exfoliation (i.e., the removal of dead cells from the skin) makes the skin glow. Exfoliation aids in the absorption of moisturizer. When you don’t exfoliate your skin, moisturizers merely sit on top of it. Exfoliating the skin is the finest method of ensuring that your moisturizer is well absorbed. The anti-ageing properties of exfoliation are well known. Exfoliation improves skin tone and texture, resulting in a more youthful appearance. There are many exfoliating chemicals out there, some of which come with skin-damaging side effects. The African traditional bath sponge is one exfoliating sponge that works without side effects.

 The impact of the loofah goes beyond the skin surface to reach deep within the skin. Local warming of the skin can cause the blood vessels to open up, with both local sensory nerves and nitric oxide combining to play a role in this process. The gentle friction provided to the skin during the use of an African traditional sponge ensures improved blood circulation that is sustained over several hours.

African traditional sponges are usually made from two major naturally occurring plants. Some sponges are made from coconut husks or fibre, while some are made from loofah sponge gourd which grows mostly in the tropics. When young and green, loofah sponge gourd may be consumed as squash or fresh cucumber alternative. When the gourds are tan, light, and dry in the autumn and the seeds vibrate within when shaken, mature loofahs may be picked. The next step is to soak the fruit in water for about 10 minutes after which the skin can easily be peeled off. Once the seeds and pulp are removed, then the pulp is ready to be used for bathing.

Both the coconut scrubbers and loofahs can be used instead of the prevalent plastic sponges, which are not eco-friendly.  Coconut scrubbers and loofahs are compostable, biodegradable, chemical-free, non-toxic and come with a lot of health benefits. Additionally,  plastic sponges clog the waterways across Africa resulting in flooding and poor waste disposal management. When eaten by fish and other water animals, plastic sponges result in the decimation of biodiversity in the water, among other undesirable effects.

Plastics also do not scrub the body that well and can trap bacteria which can result in body odour and other such skin issues.

Essentially, African traditional sponges should be promoted across Africa and in the diaspora. The economic, health, beauty and environmental benefits are much needed for the continent of Africa and for the world at large.

You may follow Dr Esiobu on social media @dr.chikaesiobu

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