During the cold months, does your skin feel like a desert lizard’s? Blame it on the humidity—or the lack of it. Cold air holds less moisture than warm air does, and it tends to draw moisture from your body. The artificially heated air indoors or in your car does the same thing. Even your skin’s natural defenses are down, as its production of oils, which help to keep in moisture, declines in winter. You may have noticed some new wrinkles or even cracks in your skin.
If moving to the tropics is out of the question, or even if it’s not, herbs can come to the rescue. Take some time for yourself, put on your snuggliest pajamas, and treat yourself to an herbal facial designed to restore moisture to your skin—and boost your spirits to boot.
Throughout history, herbs have been used topically for both their healing and cosmetic properties. The English used lavender soap as much for a clear complexion as to experience its clean fragrance. As long ago as the fifteenth century, calendula petals were recognized for their value in softening skin; today we know that they are astringent, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antifungal.
My great-grandmother believed that a salve of camphor and eucalyptus cured almost any skin eruption. My father swears by a concoction of camphor, menthol, lanolin, and tallow for treating chapped lips and hands. But it was Grandma Lois’s recipes—for potato poultices, mustard plasters, and dill-and-horsetail nail strengthener, to name a few—that first led me to experiment with using herbs topically. I’ve made and used skin treatments for two decades now, and I find that store-bought cosmetics don’t compare to the natural products that I make myself. I continue to be awed by the ability of herbs to help the body heal and repair itself and to help maintain a beautiful, healthy complexion.
Please be aware that “herbal” and “natural” are not synonymous with “harmless”. The properties of herbs that make them effective can also cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Avoid using any ingredients that you are allergic to as food: your skin could react as well. Always test any new formula on the inner fold of your elbow before using it on your entire face. Check your skin after twenty-four hours and don’t use the formula if redness, swelling, or itching is present.
Basic skin care
Any prescription for healthy skin starts with drinking eight glasses of water daily, either plain or carbonated water or noncaffeinated herb tea. When you apply a topical moisturizer to the skin, it penetrates only the top layers, not the germinative layer underneath where new skin is produced; drinking abundant liquids helps to keep the skin sufficiently hydrated from within as well. It can take up to three weeks to feel the benefits of consuming this much water regularly, but rest assured that it will make a difference.
Humidifying your house—by using a humidifier or simmering potpourris, for example—can help keep your skin moisturized. The sun is one of the worst skin agers; even in winter, hats and sunscreen are needed to protect your skin while you are outdoors.
A good basic daily skin care routine is equally important to maintaining a healthy complexion. Here’s the one that I recommend:
In the morning, cleanse your face, then apply a toner to restore the acid balance of the skin. Skin normally has a pH of 4.5 to 5.5, but soaps and other cleansers tend to be alkaline. Toners include astringents such as witch hazel, equal parts of vinegar and water, and equal parts of lemon juice and water; my two toner formulas also include astringent herbs. Then moisturize your skin, preferably with a product that lists both water and oil among its ingredients. Finally, protect your face with a makeup foundation or sunscreen (if you’re going outdoors).
In the evening, cleanse your skin again, apply a toner, then protect your skin with lanolin, available at most pharmacies; cocoa butter, which people who have an acne problem should avoid; or, if your skin is very dry, pure olive, sesame, or sunflower oil applied to a wet face. Using a cream moisturizer in the evening may cause your eyes to be puffy in the morning.
Use an occasional mask treatment to leave your skin feeling wonderful. Choose mask formulas that are appropriate to your skin type, and use them only as often as recommended.
My formulas are suitable for both men and women. They are easy to make and require equipment and ingredients that you are likely to have on hand or can obtain readily at a health-food store, supermarket or drugstore. I use a small electric chopper/mincer—like a miniature food processor—for chopping and blending small batches of herbs, but these steps can also be done by hand.
Use slightly warm, tepid or cool water on your face. Apply all formulas with your fingertips; before you start, wash and dry your hands, then sanitize them with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol.
Small food processor or chopper
4- to 6-ounce heatproof glass bowl
Small spatula or spoon
Glass storage containers with lids (Scald by dropping clean container and lid into boiling water. Remove and allow to air-dry.)
Kathlyn Quatrochi has a doctorate in naturopathy. She and her husband own St. Anley Inn, a bed-and-breakfast surrounded by herb gardens in Oak Glen, California. Kathlyn teaches herbal skin care, maintains a skin treatment practice, and makes Beauty Garden Skin Care Products.