Don’t overlook the benefits of using medicinal herbs externally to soothe, heal, and pamper your skin.
Most of us know by now that echinacea has been shown to lessen the severity and duration of colds and flu and that licorice is an effective remedy for stomach ulcers. We also know that ginseng is used to boost energy and that chamomile is helpful in soothing us to sleep.
But did you know that these and many other herbs we think of strictly as medicines to be taken internally are equally as effective in treating skin ailments such as wounds or psoriasis, or cosmetic problems such as acne or wrinkles? If you read the labels of skin-care products carefully, you’ll realize that there may be nettles in your shampoo and ginseng in your night cream.
After all, herbs were not only the first medicines—they were the first cosmetics. In fact, the two were often interchangeable. At the turn of the twentieth century, a popular facial toner may have been used as an anti-inflammatory, a digestive aid, and a cough remedy. The famous “Three Thieves Vinegar,” which contained garlic, wormwood, and sage and was said to prevent robbers from catching the plague while stealing from their victims’ bodies, was similar to the “Queen of Hungary’s Water,” a facial toner that contained rosemary and lavender and retained the youth of a woman who married a much younger man.
It is now common to find full cosmetic lines based on chamomile, ginseng, or green tea. And rightly so, as all of these herbs lend value to skin-care products. Many herbs contain antioxidants, the first line of defense against aging skin. Some herbs protect the skin against the damaging effects of the sun’s rays, which can lead to premature aging. Others provide important nutrients and vitamins to the skin or improve the production of connective tissue components such as elastin and collagen. Still others address inflammatory conditions, eczema, wounds, or herpes lesions.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
The external applications of this herb are overshadowed by its popularity for internal consumption to stimulate the immune system. Research suggests that echinacea in ointment form may be helpful in treating wounds, burns, varicose veins, ulcers, herpes, and psoriasis and may protect the skin against ultraviolet light-induced damage. Frequent application of an ointment, poultice, or compress is most effective.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
The anti-inflammatory properties of this common herb transfer easily to skin-care applications. Chamomile is often found in eye creams to moisturize and reduce swelling. In Europe, many pharmaceutical preparations containing extracts of chamomile or chamomile essential oil are available to treat various skin irritations, including dermatitis and bacterial infections. Its flavonoid constituents support elasticity in small capillaries, supporting its use in the treatment of tiny broken blood vessels in the face. The topical use of chamomile is extremely safe, with few reports of allergic reactions.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
This circulatory stimulant, popular in the management of Alzheimer’s disease, was found effective as a free radical scavenger applied preventively to reduce cellular and tissue damage provoked by ultraviolet radiation. This antioxidant herb increases microcirculation, which benefits aging skin, and is added to many products for treating cellulite and varicose veins. It also inhibits the formation of scar tissue.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
This well-known ulcer remedy, cough suppressant, and expectorant relies on glycyrrhizin (glycyrrhetinic acid) for many of its beneficial effects. Used topically, licorice provides anti-inflammatory relief in atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. Some studies have used it locally in conjunction with hydrocortisone for greater effectiveness than cortisone alone.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
This safe, gentle sleep herb packs a great antiviral punch effective in the treatment of herpes simplex (cold sores) and related herpes outbreaks (genital lesions). For two decades, a pharmaceutical product with lemon balm extract has been available in Europe for the treatment of the herpes virus. In a 1994 study, this preparation (one percent of the extract in a cream form) healed ninety-six percent of the 115 trial participants by day eight. The cream was well tolerated, showing a decline in the lesion size, and speedier healing time than the placebo group. Sixty percent of the group was healed by day four.
So Many Herbs
The list of medicinal herbs that can be employed in skin healing goes on and on.
St. John’s wort is an excellent anti-inflammatory for bruising, nerve damage, and pain.
Calendula is a superior antiseptic and healer of burns and wounds.
Ginseng increases skin’s elasticity and is an effective moisturizer, increasing hydration.
Witch hazel is an effective astringent for varicose veins, mild wounds, dermatitis, inflammation, and rheumatism.
Ginger contains enzymes that exfoliate dead skin cells, reducing the appearance of fine lines.
Green tea contains antioxidants, reducing free radical damage that contributes to the breakdown of collagen and elastin that otherwise keep skin firm.
Other free radical scavengers that reduce the damaging effects of overexposure to sunlight include milk thistle, grape seed, turmeric, and hawthorn. Many highly pigmented plants support collagen integrity or repair by preventing the enzymes responsible for their destruction. These herbs can be used as compresses, tea rinses, and ointments, or the extracts may be incorporated into creams.
So the next time you reach for that tincture bottle to treat your cold or insomnia, you may want to add a bit to your body lotion first!