I am making my way through my mid-40s and live in a dry, intensely sunny mountain town. This has been a wakeup call to start caring more for my face. I wasn’t bad before. After a couple of awkward teenage years, I’ve generally not used unhealthy cosmetics, harsh cleansers, or even soap on my face. But at a certain point, it may be good to put in a bit more effort. Not just for those of us of a certain age who’ve suddenly become vainer, but also to prevent cancer-promoting changes in the skin.
Aging is one of the biggest factors in our skin’s health and appearance. With age comes increased damage to cells by free radicals and a breakdown of the underlying connective tissue that keeps our skin firm and supple. Cumulative exposure to UV rays from the sun (or from a tanning salon) is the other biggie. This is called “photo-aging.” Other important factors include nutrition and lifestyle habits.
The focus here is what the plant world has to offer for healthy skin. Along those lines, here are a handful of my tried and true skin care allies:
1. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile is traditionally used for sun damaged, sensitive skin and skin prone to broken capillaries. The flowers can be used as a tea for a face rinse. Or you can infuse the flowers into a carrier oil like almond oil for several weeks to use as a morning and evening facial treatment. Or you add a small amount of the (expensive) essential oil to carrier oil or natural unscented lotion or cream and use that for your face.
Chamomile is a fantastic anti-inflammatory and antioxidant aid for the skin. Research shows that it increases the sun protective factor (SPF) of other UV blocking products and that it improves skin hydration by reducing water loss through the skin. Topical use of chamomile also decreased roughness and wrinkles associated with photo-aging.
2. Helichrysum (various Helichrysum species)
Helichrysum is a valued botanical for skin care. It’s probably the top one I use for myself and for mature skin. Like Chamomile, and the other botanicals in this article, Helichrysum has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity for protecting the skin from damage. Also like Chamomile, Helichrysum is great for sensitive skin. An extract of the flowers has some UV-protective effects, though none of the botanicals here is effective enough alone or even when blended together for strong sun protection when you’re out hiking and getting blasted.
A nifty thing that Helichrysum does is also inhibit an enzyme called elastase that contributes to wrinkle formation. Elastase breaks down the protein elastin that keeps our faces looking smoother. Less elastin means less skin tone.
3. Elder Flower (various Sambucus species)
Elder flower has been valued for centuries as a cosmetic. It was an ingredient in Marie Antoinette’s facial care routine for its anti-aging effects. The flowers are cooling, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and can help folks who have either oily or dry skin. (Dry skin is more common with aging.) They can be used as a tea, or even as a flower facial mask followed by gentle rinsing with water.
Some folks have a ruddy complexion that is referred to as “couperose.” This is where the skin is red, and sometimes there may be broken capillaries visible. As the skin loses elasticity, the blood vessels that feed the skin become dilated. This is where the redness comes from. A combination of elder flower topically and elder berry syrup, extract, or tea taken orally may help with this by toning the skin and strengthening the blood vessels. Elder is another botanical that helps reduce the effects of sun damage on the skin and has mild UV-protective effects.
4. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary was the main ingredient in Queen of Hungary water, a famous cosmetic and perfume recipe going back as far as the 14th century. Rosemary leaves as a tea or infused oil can be used, as well as the diluted essential oil. Aside from smelling good, rosemary is a very strong antioxidant. It helps with sun damage and can be used for either dry or oily skin, along with those having the aforementioned couperose (ruddy) complexion.
One study found that a component of rosemary essential oil may help reduce cancerous changes induced in the skin by UV exposure. Another found that a different component of rosemary may reduce the enzymatic breakdown of connective tissue that is triggered by UV exposure. Connective tissue is what helps keep the skin firm. Rosemary also helps other botanicals penetrate deeper through the skin.
5. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender flowers have been used for hundreds of years to reduce wrinkle formation. Lavender is another frequent ingredient in Queen of Hungary water. Either lavender flowers (and the strongly scented leaves) or the diluted essential oil are great for sensitive or sun damaged skin. As with all of the botanicals here, lavender reduces inflammation and free radical damage on the skin and it smells lovely. Lavender can be used by itself or together with elder flower and chamomile for couperose skin. Lavender is also a great botanical for scar reduction, as it promotes cell regeneration. I did try it for a chicken pox scar that I’ve had on my face since I was 12. Not so successful, so maybe 30-something year old scars aren’t going anywhere…
6. Rosa (various Rosa species)
Rosewater, from distilled rose petals, is one of the most popular cosmetics in the world and it’s easy to make. Rosewater used to be considered a byproduct of essential oil distillation, but is a great preparation in its own right. Rose petal tea or rose essential oil are also great allies and can be used for a wide range of skin types. Note that rose absolute, which is solvent-extracted rather than distilled, may be a skin irritant with regular use due to solvent carryover from the extraction process. The essential oil is distilled and is harder to find.
Both rose absolute and rose essential oil are expensive, so you can just use the actual petals! This will also let you take advantage of the well-known toning effects of rose petals, which are why rose is so popular with those of us beyond a certain age! The petals also inhibit enzymes that contribute to skin aging. Rose is yet another botanical that helps with sun damage, helps tone and shrink dilated blood vessels that cause redness, and reduces skin inflammation.
Not to be outdone by the petals, rose hips, when used regularly, were found to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and improve skin moisture and elasticity. They taste great and can be used as a powder, syrup, extract or tea.
As a reminder…skincare is more than just what you apply to your face. Eat a healthy whole foods diet with lots of veggies, dark berries and healthy fats. Drink lots of water and avoid dehydrating beverages. But with that as a foundation, these botanicals can really help your skin glow!