The world is changing to prefer plant based skin care, and thank goodness for that. Yes, there is a place for synthetic ingredients. But when it comes to your largest, most visible organ, natural wins hands down every time. This goes for the long term safety of use as well as lasting results.
The formulator of the award-winning Bellabaci Genie in a Bottle Natural Wellness Massage oils has shared her insights to what is important to know about plant based skin care.
Plant Based Skin Care – What you need to know
By Dr Sandi Nye
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Hamlet [Act 2, Scene 2]
Plants have been used since the dawn of time for food, medicine, and beauty. Some may have been good for the skin, some not so good. And while many ingredients used for skincare have received negative press at some point – even olive oil [for being too occlusive] – plants can and do have a very profound effect on the skin, if used properly. It is understandable why the cosmetic and toiletry industries are increasingly focusing on a source that is green, renewable and eco-friendly.
For a long time plants, such as herbals, were used for skincare based mainly on traditional experience or empirical evidence. With the advent of science, the vast complex of active phytochemical ingredients that are able to soothe, restore, heal and protect the skin have been revealed. This sound scientific research has backed up many anecdotal claims. Add to this consumer-driven awareness and demands, and it becomes self-evident why there’s a good reason for so many people and companies ‘going green’ these days.
Botanicals – The new choice for Skin Care Brands
The serious commercial interest in botanical ingredients started in the 1990s and is still on the up-and-up today. A botanical ingredient, as a component of a cosmetic or skincare product, may be defined as a substance that originates from plants e.g. herbs, leaves, roots, flowers, fruits or seeds. I must declare that when it comes to plants and cosmetics, as a formulator, supplier, and teacher of natural cosmetics, I have a potent bias towards using natural and organic substances whenever and wherever possible. I do however recognize, and appreciate the value and merit of many other cosmetic ingredients that go into formulating effective and stable products.
When it comes to plant based skin care, it’s important to differentiate or take into account the use of ‘simple’ plant materials or extracts versus ‘functional botanicals’. Simple plant materials may include substances such as cold-pressed or otherwise extracted vegetable oils, and distilled or expressed essential oils, whereas complex functional botanicals reside more within the scientific cosmetic arena. According to a report by Aburjai and Natsheh, plants can be used in three forms in cosmetics: either as total extracts of the whole plant e.g. aloe vera gel; as selective extracts of the plant e.g. wheat germ, or as isolates i.e. single molecules isolated from the extracts e.g. vitamins.
The proof is in the pudding!
There is good scientific research to back up the efficacy of some of the functional botanical claims, so it’s not all marketing smoke-and-mirrors [though there is a lot of that too if some of the adverts for skincare products are analyzed, as a measure of the industry’s creativity]. I must admit I do state, in one of my product line information snippets, ‘Inspired by Nature ~ Enhanced by Science’ – not just for wordsmith-value, but because I have found it to be true.
The plant world has so many useful materials to soothe and calm the skin that it is impractical to even attempt to mention them all, but I’ve chosen a few that have been well-researched, or are well-known, to highlight. To illustrate – a hand cream made using water [or a hydrosol i.e. a plant-water], a couple of oils such as almond, avocado, olive etc., and a few essential oils like geranium and chamomile – along with an emulsifier to bind the ingredients together, and a preservative system to stop bugs growing in this happy medium – is perfectly fit-for-purpose and relatively simple to create.
On the other hand [no pun intended], if the hand cream is designed specifically for gardeners, where the skin may end up being inflamed, irritated or otherwise damaged, it would be beneficial to include some ingredients that could soothe these symptoms. This this is where the addition of commercial functional botanicals could raise a simple hand cream to other heights [besides raising the blood pressure due to a potentially increased price ticket!] The same applies to face creams. But levity aside, while simple and/or complex natural ingredients can work wonders e.g. German chamomile.
The same applies to face creams. But levity aside, while simple and/or complex natural ingredients can work wonders e.g. German chamomile [Matricaria recutita] a potent anti-inflammatory essential oil or tincture, specialized botanicals do have a place – even for DIYers. But for purposes of this article, let’s keep the focus confined, and give attention to a few ingredients that are specifically known to soothe inflamed skin conditions.
So, using a hypothetical ‘Gardener’s Hand Cream’ as an example, the inclusion of a standardised extract of Pennywort or Gotu Kola [Centella asiatica] along with an extract of one of the Aloes [vera, ferox, barbadensis] could make significant difference in a formulation, relative to the redness associated with inflammation and irritation, as well as to any cut or grazed skin. Researchers Dweck and D’Amelio found that C.asiatica showed great promise for treating numerous inflammatory skin problems.
Although there are over 500 species in the Aloe genus, only a few have been scientifically validated for clinical efficacy. Most of this clinical data is impressive – due in part to extensive research initiated by the effect of aloe on various forms of burns. For example, the protective qualities of Aloe arborescens against radiation were reported by Sato et al. in 1990, as well as many other reports since then.
Research by Bep-Oliver reveals the active components responsible for this therapeutic activity of aloe to be a glycoside, asiaticoside, the aglycone of which is asiatic acid [triterpenic acid], and in some plants a related glycoside centelloside and the triterpenic acids: centoic and centellic acid.
Although the skincare benefits of aromatic essential oils are myriad, space doesn’t allow for much expansion in this regard, so I’ll confine my enthusiasm to German chamomile, since I’ve already mentioned it above, and because it is probably the oil best-known for its topical anti-inflammatory activity.
In addition, there’s an impressive body of scientific research that validates its properties. For example, a good study by Safayhi et al confirms the anti-inflammatory effects and various components of M.recutita, including the mechanisms for chamazulene; while Merfort et al confirms the antiphlogistic [counteracting inflammation] activity of the flavones.
Chamomile over Cortisone?
There is one particularly interesting eczema study by Aertgeerts et al that compares the conventional treatment for inflammation and erythema [redness], hydrocortisone, with a commercial chamomile cream, in which the cream showed superior action over its cortisone counterpart. In a 1998 review by Dweck the key components were identified as (-)-α-bisabolol, matricin [the precursor to chamazulene] and chamazulene in the essential oil and the flavonoid apigenin and its glycosides in the aqueous extract. Researchers Tyler et al. suggest that the essential oil and its components are more effective than the components of the aqueous extract.
There are four principle chemotypes of German Chamomile based on the comparative percentages of its constituents. It never ceases to amaze me that the tiny little white chamomile flower yields the brilliant blue chamazulene-rich oil. More so since this component is not present in the flowers, but is formed during the process of steam distillation [Bradley]. Isn’t Nature wonderful? Chamomile is a colour therapist’s dream, since there is also a red component to the oil called chamaviolin, mentioned in Leung and Foster’s excellent publication, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients used in food, drugs and cosmetics. They also mention that matricin has a significantly stronger anti-inflammatory effect than chamazulene, which is relevant regarding extraction methods and constituent percentages.
They also mention that matricin has a significantly stronger anti-inflammatory effect than chamazulene, which is relevant regarding extraction methods and constituent percentages. Reverchon et al. report that the essential oil produced by critical carbon dioxide [CO2] extraction is therefore, likely to be more effective than the traditional distilled version [a snippet that may be of interest for aromatherapists and other botanically-inclined readers]. Similar constituents are present in the flowers of Roman Chamomile [Anthemis nobilis], which yields a clear, yellow to hint of pale blue essential oil. The chemistry of Cape chamomile [Eriocephalus punctulatus] also indicates that it has value for irritated and dry skin conditions.
On the home-front, we are so blessed with indigenous and natural plant ingredients in Africa. The fixed or vegetable oils from this continent are just the tip of the iceberg, let alone the many wonderful volatile essential oils and other botanicals, like rooibos [Aspalathus linearis] with which we have been endowed by Mother Nature. In my experience, most of these function wonderfully well – as skincare ingredients – even if there isn’t yet as extensive a body of research to back up this opinion as there is for some other botanicals.
Some of my favorites for skincare include fixed oils from baobab [Adansonia digitata], marula [Sclerocarya birrea], moringa [Moringa oleifera], and Cape chestnut [Calodendrum capense] – to mention just a few, as well as some of the wonderful seed oils like Kalahari melon seed [Citrullus lanatus]. I wish I could do each one individual justice within these space constraints, but that’s not possible, as each one is a treatise unto itself. The same applies to our indigenous essential oils such as Cape chamomile, buchu [Agathosma betulina], rose geranium [Pelargonium roseum] etc., and many other natural local plant wonders.
I love using the Doctrine of Signature analogy, relative to oils from the African content and the skin, when I lecture or teach the Kitchen Cosmetics DIY workshops. The arid terrain in which many of our indigenous plants grow e.g. Kalahari melon seed, generally yields substances, such as oil, that is beneficial for treating dry, cracked skin. I have found these oils invaluable, both for clinical application, as well as in product formulation. They are impressive agents for many skin conditions, besides very effectively protecting the skin from the effects of environmental aggressors such as sun, heat, wind and pollution.
And there are more ‘foody’ functionals such as carrot, tomato, and turmeric that all confer beneficial properties for treating inflamed skin conditions, besides their other actions. Though turmeric has been successfully used in parts of Africa for healing rashes, inflammation and itching, as reported by Chandra and Gupta, and Balacs, I’m not sure if the yellow-jaundiced-tan look is too appealing anywhere other than Essex in the UK! This occurs especially if this substance is applied in powdered root form, which tends to stain the skin a very jolly yellow.
Cellulite treatment is a question that invariably comes up in my DIY cosmetics classes. There are several botanical extracts purported to treat this stubborn condition. The major plant extracts used are Ivy [Hedera helix], Horse chestnut [Aesculus hippocastanum] and Butcher’s broom [Ruscus aculeatus]. Additional materials that are often included in anti-cellulite products are caffeine, to stimulate the tissue – either from coffee [Coffea arabica] or an extract of Guarana [Paullinia cupana] from the seeds of the Brazilian shrub. Some other favourite additives are papaine, a proteolytic enzyme from papaya [Carica papaya] or bromelaine from pineapple [Ananas cosmosus], as well as various marine-based materials, especially Bladderwrack [Fucus vesiculosus].
A few final excellent skincare botanicals that deserve comment, and which are relatively freely available are Rosehip [Rosa rubiginosa], which yields the glorious Rosehip seed oil, and Calendula [Calendula officinalis]. Extensive studies have been carried out with rosehip oil regarding healing and regeneration of damaged tissue by Valladares et al and other researchers. Calendula, both the lipidic extract and tincture forms have also shown excellent effect for a wide range of condition, including inflamed cutaneous lesions. Authors like Greenish, and Wallis, have also referred to Calendula’s healing effect on bruises, which is, for example, one of the reasons I’ve included it in my Gardener’s Friend Hand Balm [Serendipity Quintessentials], since bumps and bruises are occupational hazards most gardeners encounter.
There are so many wonderful plant-based options, such as Shea butter [Butyrospermum parkii] and Cocoa butter [Theobroma cacao], and sound reasons for using them in cosmetics, that it feels like a betrayal not to include them all. However, let it suffice to conclude that we are spoiled for choice, so to speak [and don’t forget the humectant benefits of good old glycerine, which I’ve reported on before]. There’s no excuse for anyone not to try them, whether it’s slathering the inside of your avocado pear skin on your face after eating the yummy flesh. Indulge in patting some olive oil onto your dry hands after making a salad dressing. Get more creative with the natural wonders available to you. Just try it – and let your skin tell the story.
However, let it suffice to conclude that we are spoiled for choice, so to speak [and don’t forget the humectant benefits of good old glycerine, which I’ve reported on before]. There’s no excuse for anyone not to try them, whether it’s slathering the inside of your avocado pear skin on your face after eating the yummy flesh. Indulge in patting some olive oil onto your dry hands after making a salad dressing. Get more creative with the natural wonders available to you. Just try it – and let your skin tell the story.
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