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Geisha Facials

They know something you don't know, and it has to do with nightingale poop. See more pictures of unusual skin care ingredients.
Eitan Simanor/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

There's an old superstition that if a bird happens to poop on you as it's flying by, you'll have good luck. Some versions specify that the bird poop must land on your head to count, or that the good luck is only related to money. But for most of us, bird poop is nothing to be happy about. It's usually just something we have to wash off our car or maybe ourselves if we're one of the lucky (or not-so-lucky) few.

There are people, however, who are not only handling bird poop by choice, but putting it on their faces -- as a beauty treatment. It's the poop of a specific type of nightingale, the Japanese bush warbler, and it's called uguisu no fun (literally "nightingale feces") in Japanese.

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Using nightingale poop in a facial is an ancient Japanese technique that has recently started to make its way westward. It's said to make your skin softer and brighter. High-end spas in New York and other American cities now offer facials incorporating the poop (called "geisha facials") that can be quite expensive. The spa Shizuka New York offers the service for $180, for example. Mail-order companies also sell the ingredients for home use at about $20 per ounce.

If you're wondering about the smell of bird poop on your face (and how could you not?), users have described it as anything from "doughy" to "musky" to "medicinal," while some say that there's no smell at all.

So is there any real reason to add it to your beauty regimen? Read on to get the poop on, well, the poop.

 

Want to collect some guano? This is what you do it with in Peru.
Want to collect some guano? This is what you do it with in Peru.
©iStockphoto.com/jarnogz

What we think of as bird poop is also called guano (when it's considered useful, that is). It differs from other types of animal poop because birds just have one opening, called the cloaca, through which they excrete both their liquid and solid wastes. Rather than "poop," guano is technically all of the bird's waste material in one substance. In places where specific types of birds, such as gulls, gather in larger numbers, their dried guano is collected and used as fertilizer. This natural fertilizer is making a comeback due to organic farming, after decades of artificial fertilizer use.

Most bird poop is white because of the uric acid, which isn't soluble in water, but different birds have different poop compositions. Nightingale poop contains large concentrations of nitrogen-rich urea (which is also found in urine) and guanine, an amino acid. In addition to being used in fertilizer, urea is used in cosmetic applications because it helps the skin hold in moisture, although typically synthetic urea is used today. Guanine is used in a lot of different applications because it creates a shimmery, iridescent effect in cosmetics, paints, plastics, imitation pearls and other products. It can also be extracted from other natural sources such as fish scales. These ingredients are what make bird poop facial recipients report softer, lighter, brighter skin.

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Given the fact that there are probably other ways to get these ingredients on your skin, is it really necessary to get a bird poop facial to achieve the same result? While users swear by their results, there's no proof one way or the other. In the next section, we'll find out how poop becomes a facial ingredient.

Spreading wild bird poop on the ground to use as fertilizer is one thing, but gathering it to put on your face is another. You might imagine people tracking nightingales and running around to scrape the poop off various surfaces, but there's a very specific process that goes into making bird poop into an ingredient. There are nightingale farms in Japan that exist solely for the purpose of harvesting the poop. Wild nightingales eat things like insects and berries, but at the farms, the birds are caged and fed a diet of organic seeds.

After their poop is collected from the birdcages, it is sanitized, often by using an ultraviolet light. After the poop has been dried out (usually with a dehydrator), it's ground into a very fine white powder. This powder is sold to companies, who in turn sell it to spa owners or shop owners who cater to geisha. Sometimes it's mixed with another product, such as rice bran, for exfoliation.

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To get the facial, the powder is mixed with water to form a paste, and then massaged into the skin for a few minutes before rinsing it off. Users describe it as having the same effect as a light chemical peel, but without the redness and burning -- their skin feels clean, soft, moist and not at all irritated.

Wild bird poop can contain bacteria, fungal spores and other unhealthy substances, but uguisu no fun is safe and clean due to the birds' special diet, controlled habitat and the purification process. So even if it's not a miracle skin product, it's probably not going to hurt you. Some users caution, however, that it's not for very sensitive or allergy-prone skin, and that you should be careful to avoid getting it into your eyes, nose or mouth.

That's all well and good, but why exactly did bird poop facials come into being in the first place? Next, we'll look at the origins of uguisu no fun.

While this may be the first that you've heard of bird poop facials, as we've mentioned already, they've been around for quite a while in Japan. Uguisu no fun is a traditional part of a geisha's beauty regimen. Shops in towns with geisha houses (called hanamachi) sell traditional products catering specifically to them, including their distinctive clothing, shoes, wigs, instruments and cosmetics. Uguisu no fun is just another available product, although that doesn't mean that all geisha use it.

The practice of using nightingale poop didn't actually originate in Japan; it was first introduced to the Japanese by Koreans during the Heian period, which ran from 794 to 1185. This era is considered important for several reasons, including peaks in culture and art. The Koreans used the poop to strip dye from fabric and create beautiful, intricate patterns on clothing. This remained its primary use in Japan until the Edo period, which ran from 1603 to 1868. Although female entertainers existed in Japan prior to this time, the modern geisha is thought to have originated in the 1700s. Kabuki, a style of theatre involving elaborate makeup, also became popular.

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Both geisha and Kabuki actors have traditionally worn heavy white makeup. Originally, it was made with ingredients like zinc and lead, which proved to cause serious skin disease and other problems. Then it was discovered that using uguisu no fun completely removed the makeup as well as served to condition and soothe the skin. Although the makeup is no longer made with these ingredients, uguisu no fun had secured its place. Buddhist monks also began using it to clean and polish their bald scalps.

Want to read more about some unusual beauty treatments? See the next page for more articles.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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  • Downer, Leslie. "The geisha girl unmasked." The Independent. November 12, 2000.http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/asia/the-geisha-girl-unmasked-621785.html
  • Fiore, Marrecca. "This Is For the Birds: Poo Facial Promises Smoother Skin." Fox News. August 13, 2008.http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,402422,00.html
  • Gallagher, John. "Geisha: a Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art." PRC Publishing. October 2003.
  • Graham, Naomi. "You Put WHAT on your face?" Immortal Geisha. 2006.http://www.immortalgeisha.com/editorial_nightingale_droppings.php
  • Leigh, Michelle Dominique. "The Japanese Way of Beauty: Natural Beauty and Health Secrets." Carol Publishing Corporation. January 1993.
  • Landman, Beth. "Japanese Spa Treatment Comes to NYC." New York Magazine. March 30, 2008.http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/45598/
  • Moore, Janet H. "The Nightingale Facial." Asian Wall Street Journal. December 16, 2001.
  • Personal Care Products Council. "Guanine." CosmeticsInfo. 2009.http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient_details.php?ingredient_id=1484
  • Personal Care Products Council. "Urea." CosmeticsInfo. 2009.http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient_details.php?ingredient_id=471
  • Whitworth, Melissa. "Geisha facial, the 'latest beauty secret' of Victoria Beckham, brought to the masses." The Daily Telegraph. October 16, 2008.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/beauty/3365670/Geisha-facial-the-latest-beauty-secret-of-Victoria-Beckham-brought-to-the-masses.html

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