Like many a smart working woman in Kingston, Jamaica, the hustling-bustling capital city, Michelle Yap-McKay pooh-poohed goats’ milk, dismissing it as a common beverage consumed only by the people living in the rural parts of the country where goats roamed free. Even if the grannies and aunties of the villages touted goats’ milk as an elixir for tight, glowing skin and overall good health, it was definitely not on Yap-McKay’s list.
But then one day, the rigors of the corporate world caught up with her.
“I was getting physically exhausted and sicker spiritually, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. An herbalist recommended she drink goats’ milk, and very quickly, Yap-McKay realized her grandmother had always been right.
“My skin was softer, clearer, like the layers of old skin had been peeled off and my baby skin was coming out,” she says. In addition to drinking it, Yap-McKay—who also credits goats’ milk for the improvement in her overall well-being—discovered that the fat in it contains high amounts of alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), in particular lactic acid, which sloughs off dead cells when applied topically, “in order to reveal absolutely new skin underneath and lighten and brighten the complexion.” Goats’ milk is also packed with vitamin A, which repairs damaged skin tissue, she says, and minerals such as selenium, which can guard against the effects of the sun.
Today, Yap-McKay is a self-confessed goats’ milk convert and the creator of Ital Blends, a brand of soaps and skincare products that seek to leverage the many benefits of goats’ milk and further enhance its properties by blending the milk with a range of different kinds of plants and herbs that are found in the cool Blue Mountains region of Jamaica where she now lives.
She is also one of a small but growing number of Caribbean beauticians, scientists and entrepreneurs who are pioneering a movement to bring back the many natural treasures that the region abounds with and shed light on the cornucopia of plants, leaves, fruits and flowers of the islands that, although a staple part of health and wellness in the past, have been overshadowed in the region’s recent history.
The islands of the Caribbean weren’t always the resort-laden, tourist havens that they are today. These islands have literally been built up from nothing, and for years, their residents just had to make do with whatever was around them. The list is long, and includes the likes of aloe, sorrel (a variant of the hibiscus flower), papaya, prickly pear cactus, licorice and castor oil seeds, to name a few. These and many others can be found throughout the Caribbean, and in the past were used as health, beauty and nutrition staples by generations of island residents simply because, like the sea that surrounds them, they were just there.
Through the years, poverty, economic duress and distance from the mainland have all posed multiple challenges to development in the Caribbean, but so too has the weather, in particular the blinding heat of the tropical sun. It’s almost a blessing that nature has been so bountiful and that plants like the miraculous aloe, whose leaves contain a gel that is simply bursting with nutrients, enzymes, vitamins, amino acids and minerals, and which calms and cools the skin and protects it against the sun, should abound in the Caribbean. The succulent inner layer of the aloe leaf, which Caribbean folk cut out and consume either as juice or as is, is also full of polysaccharides that help enhance the immune system by enabling cells to weed out the toxins and retain nutrients.
Generations of Caribbean men and women have also used aloe for smoothening out their hair. They have fashioned softening and hydrating face packs out of the papaya fruit, which contains, among other ingredients, lycopene (which protects the skin against UV damage), lutein and enzymes that soothe the skin, and used the leaves of the quaco-bush in lieu of soap for its cleansing properties and as a cure for the common cold.
Aching and sore feet have been relieved with Pepper Elder leaves, which have cooling properties similar to menthol, and the prickly pear cactus, a relative of aloe that contains a rare form of antioxidant known to lower blood sugar levels, has also been used to scrub out sand from between toes and fingers, since it contains lignin that when released, takes on a soap-like consistency.