You know the feeling when you learn something new, and then suddenly, said thing is absolutely everywhere? Brace yourself: The humble rose—that lovely but vaguely generic symbol of beauty—has somehow made the leap from basic to blowing up. Now go about your day, and prepare to marvel at how rose, in the form of water or oil, is exploding—spritzed all over the increasingly mainstream natural beauty world and splashed into our food in health food stores and trendy restaurants alike.
As a beauty treatment, rose is as old as they come. Cleopatra is said to have bathed in it. Denizens of Ancient Rome, Greece, and across the Middle East used it to perfume people, places, and food. In the Middle Ages, it had its day as a treatment for depression. In recent decades, it’s been the unassuming staple of grandmas’ medicine cabinets and fashion models’ makeup bags. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before it re-emerged as a must-have in the aisles of both beauty stores and cool restos' kitchens.
First, the simplest explanation for our newfound love of an old favorite: Rose water or oil is a simple, familiar, plant-based ingredient, with centuries of use behind it—exactly the kind of ingredient natural beauty connoisseurs love best.
Cindy DiPrima, co-founder of Manhattan’s enormously popular natural beauty destination CAP Beauty, explains, “there is an interest in things that are old tradition, and roses fall into that category big time.” Plus, “there’s also something so alluring about the scent.” Rose is about as universally pleasant a fragrance as there is, so it makes sense that it might find its way into so many products.
DiPrima also thinks rose has risen to the top because of its gentleness. Rose has a good number of benefits: Studies have shown that the Damask rose, which is used to produce most rose extracts, has antioxidant properties. There’s also evidence that rose oil is antibacterial, and that rose extracts can be anti-inflammatory. One study even found that feeding the extract to fruit flies extended their life span.
Other plants have the same or similar benefits (or more), but, DiPrima says, many of the most “active” plants “can cause reactions in people.” Rose, on the other hand, is active “but also very good for sensitive skin,” she says. Almost anyone can use it, and as more people turn to natural beauty products, more people will.
But rose really rose to ubiquity when it made the leap from skin care secret to superfood. Inside as in out, rose water is supposed to be soothing, both for indigestion and anxiety. A handful of places like Erewhon Market, LA’s natural foods paradise, have been putting it in drinks for at least a couple of years.
Just in the past year or so, Sakara introduced a “beauty water” laced with rose and silica, New York’s Juice Press chain debuted a line of flavored waters that included one perfumed with rose, and an Australian entrepreneur named Chanelle Louise left her job with Morgan Stanley to launch a luxury rose extract brand called Cilk. Earlier this year, Allure.com declared “this weird new type of water” a healthful new trend.
Of course, drinking (or eating) rose water is no more weird or new than rose water itself. It’s a common ingredient in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cooking. You can taste it in baklava, in tea, in the Indian ice cream known as kulfi, in the Israeli milk pudding known as malabi, or even in a Persian lamb stew.
As food becomes a larger and larger segment of the natural beauty market—as people turn to tonics and herbs for their inner and outer needs—it was only natural for rose to find its way not only into water but into everything from nut milk to biodynamic chocolate.
It may have helped that Middle Eastern food is in the middle of a parallel rise in the food world. The expanding universe of hot restaurants and cult favorite cookbooks like Plenty and Jerusalem from London chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi is almost evidence enough of this trend, but the crop of new and well-received restaurants pulling inspiration from the Mediterranean and Middle East ranges from Sarma in Boston to Madcapra in LA.
Just this year, the James Beard Awards (often called the Oscars of the food world) for Best Cookbook and Best New Restaurant both went to Israeli restaurants: Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans, respectively. Shaya chef Alon Shaya also won the Beard Award for Best Chef: South last year.
If you’ve noticed an uptick in recipes using ingredients like tahini, harissa, labneh, and za’atar, it’s thanks to these restaurants. Rose water, though it has one foot in the beauty world, is no different. Its boom is analogous to the rise of halvah in dessert and of turmeric in everything.
But there seems to be something else driving rose’s popularity, something besides even the health benefits and the Middle Eastern trend. Rose is elegant in a way that green juice is not. Just look at the Instagram page for Cilk, which is a riot of marble, crystal coupes, and women who seem lifted from the pages of Vogue.
Louise, Cilk's founder, discovered rose water as a beverage when her husband suffered a brain injury and was told he shouldn’t drink alcohol. Louise stopped drinking in solidarity and was “uninspired” by the nonalcoholic options out there. So she began experimenting with rose drinks and found they filled the void.
Not finding many versions on the market, Louise decided to make her own: a concentrate tinged pink with hibiscus, sold for almost $60 in a bottle that looks like it could contain expensive perfume. The typical Cilk customer, she says, “has a penchant for edible beauty, elegance, and enjoyment. She likes to look after herself but craves something more than superfood powders and smoothies.”
In fashion, too, we're in the era of the rose. The release of the rose gold iPhone last year unleashed a wave (not yet crested) of rose gold everything, from headphones to shoes. One of Pantone’s colors of the year this year (for the first time, there are two instead of one) is rose quartz.
Rose the color is currently synonymous with style, making rose the ingredient—especially given its natural benefits and enchanting scent —a shoe-in for the Next Big Thing in beauty and food.