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Why Use Herbs in Natural Skin Care?

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Herbal oils in bottles and fresh herbs displayed

Herb definition, (Merriam-Webster): a seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season.

There are thousands of different plants across the globe (approx. 400,000 at the last official tally) and many of these have been used medicinally since caveman times. Herbal medicine certainly pre-dates our current Western medicine! For the majority of human life on the planet, herbal medicine has been the medicine used globally, throughout every culture, race and country, with specific herb choice differing according to the indigenous plants available to the people of each local area. Western medicine as we know it today is a relatively, extremely young science. Herbal medicine derives its stock from herbs, as defined above by Merriam Webster, but also takes substances from parts of trees (bark, leaves, flowers) and seeds and roots of plants that may not technically be considered herbs.

Chinese herbs being scooped

Medical herbalism is a holistic therapy, so whatever the presenting health complaint the person will be looked at as a whole. In Chinese herbalism there are approximately 365 herbs to choose from in the treatment of eczema. The choice of which ones to use will depend on the individual patient’s general condition and the specific characteristics of their eczema. Western herbalism also includes a wide variety of possible eczema herbs, and of course there are plants for treating all the other skin conditions known to humankind too.

Fresh hypericum perforatum herb in a dish and in scoops

But you don’t have to have a degree in plant based therapies to be able to dip into what Mother Nature offers us. There are some classic herbal remedies that help with itching skin rashes, cleansing and detoxing the skin, calming the sensory nerves (such as when you get a cut like a paper cut and it feels so sore for such a little wound), skin healing, helping reduce scar tissue, and aiding the general health and wellbeing of the skin.

Many of us have experienced the benefits of our “Grandmother’s wisdom”, handed down through time, where we instinctively look for a dock leaf to soothe a nettle sting. But how and why can herbs help us?

The simple answer is that they provide beneficial phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and micronutrients needed by the body for maintenance, balance and healing. The main difference between plants used for food and plants used for medicine is that medicinal plants tend to taste strong, they may be bitter or even unpleasant, which is due to the phytochemical make-up of the plant. All culinary herbs are full of phytochemicals too, but even herbs that taste good would not necessarily make a good helping as a vegetable. A few sprigs of mint go very well with new potatoes but I don’t know anyone who would want mint as a portion of greens on their plate.

The phytochemicals in culinary herbs don’t just add flavour to food, they also have an effect on the body. For instance, mint tricks our mouth (or anywhere else it is applied) into feeling cold even though it isn’t. This is due to the action of the phytochemical menthol. Menthol molecules act on sensory receptors that inform the brain about our temperature, and – cutting a longer story short – they distort the temperature sensation, exaggerating the feeling of coolness. If what we’re after is a mint ice cream then that is a real success story, but using mint in a preparation to reduce inflammation and pain is equally impressive. (Think of those mentholyptus sweets for soothing sore throats and helping you breathe. Menthol from mint and eucalyptol from eucalyptus work together to cool and calm the tissues.)

Close up of orange Calendula officinalis flower

Each plant used in herbal skin care preparations is chosen for its natural chemical action on the skin. For example, calendula contains (amongst other things) compounds called triterpenes. These accelerate skin healing, stimulate collagen production, are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. For other bits of info on calendula see the “Did You Know” sections on the New Leaf Organic Calendula Oil and New Leaf Organic Calendula Tincture pages. And while on that subject the Gold Top organic calendula cream is worth a look too!

Nettles aren’t fully understood yet and in my opinion they are vastly underrated. Cooking them neutralises the sting, and they are an absolute powerhouse of nutrients – vitamins, minerals, and very high protein levels too. Their sting comes from chemicals at the roots of the hairs on their leaves. One of these chemicals is formic acid – the same culprit found in red ants’ saliva.

Pot of New Leaf Natural Expresso cream

But the magic of nettles is that they contain their own antidote: chemicals that are antihistamine, anti-inflammatory and anti-itch. They are a principle ingredient in New Leaf Expresso anti itch cream, which is for itchy rashes and eczema.

Does anyone remember Germolene? It is still available but not widely so. That classic smell, that is so reminiscent of childhood scrapes and scratches, originates from the Wintergreen herb. Wintergeen has a naturally high content of salicylic acid, the same ingredient that is in Aspirin. It is a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory. As a cream, Wintergreen can work wonders on the discomfort of fibromyalgia and other tissue, muscular or joint pains. It can be really helpful after overdoing it in the gym, or if you’ve sprained an ankle or wrist. Think of it also for after a fracture. In New Leaf Wintergreen cream a second major player on the field is Rue : Ruta graveolens. Rue has a beneficial effect on cartilage, on joints and on the periosteum (lining) of the bones.

Aloe vera plant and slices

Aloe Vera is a plant that is known to just about everyone these days. It is reported to contain about 150 nutritional ingredients which all work together synergistically to speed healing and improve general health. A study published in the National Library of Medicine showed that burns healed 50% more quickly when Aloe vera was applied daily. That’s why New Leaf After Sun lotion contains a healthy dose of Aloe vera. The main active parts of the plant are amino acids, anthraquinones, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, lignins, monosaccharides, polysaccharides, salicylic acid, saponins, and sterols.

So I’m sure you get the picture. When we eat plants we assimilate their life-sustaining phyto-nutrients. When we turn medicinal plants into preparations for the skin, those life-sustaining, healing, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, collagen-producing chemical compounds can act directly on the skin, without going through our digestive systems. And I’ve only touched on some of the magic, believe me, it is endless…

Illustration of young woman walking in a magic wood

Lesley King plus credentials

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I'm currently in love with Calendula flowers - that Old English Marigold flower that shouts out sunshine, when you see it growing, but hides its enormous light under a bushel. I hope that you might give it a blog all to itself one day, Lesley. After starting to make and drink tea made with fresh flowerheads, I seem to learn a little bit more every day about the marigold magic.

41 years ago, after a difficult breech delivery, my midwife recommended a few drops of Hypercal tincture in my bath. A combination of Hypericum and Calendula. I had never heard of it, but my husband tracked it down and the relief and rapid healing which followed was breathtaking. It started…

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