botanical beauty products

What is the secret to a plant’s success? It doesn’t move. I learned this from a fascinating book called “What A Plant Knows.” Unlike mammals that can flee from danger or environmental stress, a plant is quite literally rooted to the spot. This means plants have evolved incredibly powerful defense mechanisms, and these defense mechanisms can be harnessed to protect, cure and repair us.

A botanical is a plant part or extract used in skin and hair care products or a medicinal preparation derived from a plant. There has been a rekindling of interest in using plants cosmetically and medicinally. Of course, plants have been used in so-called “folk medicine” for years, but in the last century they lost out to the kind of opinion expressed to me by a dermatologist only a few months ago: “Natural ingredients don’t work.” So, what’s the truth about botanicals?

Flower power

Plants have 64 times more antioxidant power than other foods. Antioxidants protect our cells against free radical damage. Flavenoids are the biggest class, with more than 5,000 variations (some offer UV protection), and there are polyphenols and carotenoids. For a useful table of extracts and their constituents, click here.

Given that plants draw energy from sunlight without getting fried in the process, it isn’t surprising that they could be a source of natural sun protection. Some researchers have found that a 16% concentration of propolis (from maritime pine) acts as an SPF20 and a sunblock when tested on mice. Other plants may soon revolutionize sunscreen, including broccoli and grapes.

Recently, plants have been harvested for their stem cells. Plant stem cells never undergo the aging process but constantly create new specialized and unspecialized cells. Plant stem cells have to be taken from the meristem, which is where undifferentiated cells reside.

Getting the goodness

There are different techniques for extracting plants, including infusions, solvents and even fermentation (see my review of Innarah for more on plant fermentation).

A topic of controversy is whether to use whole plants or focus on extracting an active compound. An example would be pineapple extract. Are you better isolating bromelain from pineapple or going for the whole fruit? There seems to be differing opinions on this. Some claim that a concentrated extract with a full spectrum of plant actives is superior to a single isolated active. In Chinese medicine, whole plants are used because it is believed that the effectiveness is due to synergies between the constituents. Others argue that an isolated active will be faster and more potent.

Either way, botanical extracts are typically highly concentrated and only small amounts are needed.

Not all botanicals are good

Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be bad for you. In a survey of 400 dermatology and allergy patients, 60.25% of respondents reported the use of “natural” topical products. Of those 400 patients, 6.22% of users reported unpleasant skin reactions to one or more of their botanical products. The most prevalent allergens were to Compositae (a diverse group that includes chamomile), tea tree oil, lichens and geranium. But overall, the review concluded that “allergic contact dermatitis to topically applied botanical products is relatively infrequent given their widespread use.” In medicine, there is more cause for concern that professed cancer cures such as the plant-derived antioxidants quercetin and ferulic acid may aggravate some forms of cancer.

Not all natural products are natural

I feel I can make my case with popular drugstore brand Aveeno. It claims that its “products harness the power of Active Naturals, ingredients sourced from nature and uniquely formulated.” Aveeno Active Naturals Skin Relief Moisture Repair Cream does, to be sure, have some botanical extracts — three variations on oat, plus some shea butter. Other ingredients include distearyldimonium chloride (a synthetic that is often used in hair conditioner and gives skin a superficial silky feel), petrolatum (a by-product of petrol), isopropyl palmitate (a chemical derived from palm acid) and methylparaben (a controversial preservative associated with cancer).

Botanical sustainability

Cosmetics come with origination myths, and some conjure images of intrepid explorers seeking out rare species on mountain tops and in impenetrable forests. Some so-called rare plants (Swiss apple stem cells or fragile alpine edelweiss) can’t be considered rare given the rate that the cosmetics industry is using them — they are either being commercially cultivated or they are in danger of extinction.  Hence, the FairWild Foundation was set up in 2008  to promote “the sustainable use of wild-collected ingredients, with a fair deal for all those involved throughout the supply chain.”

A sign of things to come

Last year Lucas Meyer, a major cosmetic ingredient maker of synthetic peptides (you’ll recognize ChroNOline and B-white as anti-aging ingredients), acquired an Australian supplier of botanical ingredients. The company’s CEO said there was significant potential in botanicals, and they intend to become a leading player.

Marta Wohrle is an anti-aging skin care and beauty expert and the founder/CEO of Truth In Aging. Marta is dedicated to uncovering the truth behind anti-aging product claims.