A rare look at how Tibetan yak milk soap is made

Dec 02, 2020

For generations, Tibetans have been using yak milk and butter to protect their skin from the harsh conditions of the plateau.

Tibet has one of the harshest climates in the world. The air is cold and dry, while the high elevation leaves people exposed to strong sunlight.

To cope, Tibetans have been using yak milk and butter for generations to protect their skin.

The hearty yak has been indispensable to people living on the Tibetan Plateau, where inhospitable conditions mean few animals can survive.

(Read more: Why yaks are called the ‘treasure’ of Tibet)

Yak wool is used to make clothes, blankets, and tents, while the milk and butter are part of people’s daily diets.

They’re also used for skin protection. Traditionally, Tibetans would take dollops of yak butter, which is the soft layer of protein that forms when milk is boiled, and apply it directly on dry and sunburnt skin.

Soap made from yak milk.
Soap made from yak milk. / Photo: Guo Yong

The milk’s high fat content works as a natural moisturizer, helping to soothe sunburns and skin dryness, according to Dolma Lhamo, who runs Kadhak Organics, a soap-making social enterprise in Garzê, a Tibetan region in southwestern China.

Lhamo started learning how to make soap in 2017, under the tutelage of a soap maker friend in Thailand. When she returned to her hometown of Garzê, she decided to combine what she learned abroad with traditional Tibetan methods to make soap out of yak milk.

A worker at Kadhak Organics stamps soap bars with the company’s logo.
A worker at Kadhak Organics stamps soap bars with the company’s logo. / Photo: Guo Yong

The core ingredient is fat from yak milk, which is combined with lye water and other essential oils and scents, such as Himalayan salt, turmeric, and black charcoal powder.

Aside from introducing the world to yak milk soap, Lhamo wanted her new company to create jobs for women on the plateau. Her company now employs 16 local women, but it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Most of the employees were illiterate and couldn’t identify the different ingredients based on their labels.

(Read more: Inside the world’s largest traditional Tibetan printing press)

So Lhamo started marking the measuring cups with colored tape and colored string, marking different types of oils with colored string. Slowly, the women started learning how to make soap. 

“They prefer coming to our workshop to work so that they can look after their family and also earn a salary, which can help them with their daily expenses and educate their children.” says Lhamo.



Producer: Jessica Novia

Videographer: Guo Yong

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Joel Roche