Potatoes are a perfectly versatile food: You can fry them, bake them, mash them. And they're always good. But when I learned that the Quechua people, an indigenous group living the Andes mountains, use potatoes to soothe their wind-chapped skin, my first thought was—wait, what? And here I thought potatoes were a simple comfort food, able to cure little more than hangovers and heartache.
But apparently, spuds have untapped potential as a natural beauty product. This is no trend of the Gwyneth Paltrow variety, though. It's a strategy people have been using for centuries to treat topical cuts and burns, as well as counter the skin-irritating effects of unforgiving mountain air.
"The compis potato"—shown below—"has been used to treat burns and infections since ancient times," says Maria, a 27-year-old Quechua woman who I met while on a hiking trip with the travel outfitter Mountain Lodges of Peru. "We learned this method from our grandparents," says her sister, Savina, 24.
I'm speaking to the sisters through a translator as they show me how to slice the potatoes into slivers so thin that they're translucent. Between giggles, Maria and Savina stick the slivers to their faces. They're not accustomed to using expensive sunscreens or lotions—one Quechua village spends less than $50 in an entire year, according to my guide—so they place a premium on what the land provides. And as it turns out, the land provides potatoes: The Andean region is home to more 4,000 varieties.
The process the sisters use is pretty simple: After washing, peeling, and thin-slicing the potatoes, they arrange them into masks over the irritated parts of their faces. Typically they do this before bed and leave the skins on overnight. In the morning, they use water to rinse them off. The rinsing part is crucial, they tell me. Without it, you risk damaging your skin as you peel the dry slices off.
While the Quechua people learned this skincare technique out of necessity, science suggests that potatoes may actually have some healing properties. In one small study of subjects with blisters and leg ulcers (Google Image that second one at your own peril), the combination of boiled potato peels and gauze bandages reduced dryness and increased tissue regeneration better than bandages alone, according to research conducted in India. Factoring in the low cost, the researchers suggested potato peels as "the dressing of choice for burn wounds in our developing country."
For everyday skin issues, the Quechua people use the potatoes' flesh, rather than the peel. That could be because the slices essentially serve the same protective function as a gauze bandage. "Wounds heal better when they're covered and protected," says Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital. "But in addition to offering a protective barrier from the environment, the sugars and starches in potatoes may also help calm inflammation." And since inflammation is a factor in a range of skin conditions—eczema, rosacea, sunburns, even run-of-the-mill dryness—these potato masks could conceivably help with a wide range of irritations.
With the support of both my new Quechua friends, I decided to give this overnight potato mask a shot. After spending a week 10,000+ feet above sea level, my skin was feeling dry, so I covered my face with slivers of spud. I arranged them like little potato puzzle pieces over my nostrils, around my eyes, and under my bangs, each one chilling my skin and reducing my chances of having sex with my boyfriend by about a billion percent.
The potato slices didn't want to stick. The wet flesh tried to slide off of my face, so I arranged them carefully and laid on my back until they dried up and held. By the morning, I had lost only a few pieces in my bedsheets (yum), but by and large, my potato face was still intact. And true to what Maria and Savina told me, I needed water to loosen them up without pulling my skin off.
They left a few soft red blotches on my face, but the marks faded quickly, leaving my skin feeling softer and more moisturized. While I can't say the result was better than a department store face mask, it was definitely cheaper—and it left me with a newfound respect for the humble potato. More than a simple comfort food, it's loaded with untold secrets. I'll try to remember that the next time I'm about to polish off a plate of fries.