Beautiful skin is healthy skin. Used on the outside of your body, herbs and other botanical ingredients can help keep skin looking fresh and youthful by exfoliating dead skin cells, improving skin tone and blood circulation, and keeping skin supple and hydrated. They can soothe irritated skin, combat inflammation, fight skin infections, and help to heal wounds, sores, and burns. The botanical world is also rich in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). These acidic plant compounds help exfoliate and soften skin and are used in many of today’s antiaging skin products.
Having radiant, healthy skin does not depend solely on what we put on our skin — what we put into our bodies matters, too. Taken internally, many herbs — including burdock, nettle, and red clover — have a long history of traditional use for treating skin problems. Drinking plenty of water is also essential to keeping skin hydrated and looking its best. Skin, hair, and nail health all require and benefit from a balanced diet that includes plenty of plant-based foods — nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthful oils, and especially those foods that are rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids. Regular exercise promotes blood flow, resulting in a healthy glow that keeps skin looking fresh and youthful. And never underestimate the cosmetic value of adequate sleep — it’s called “beauty rest” for a reason.
Other lifestyle choices are just as important to healthy skin as proper diet and exercise. Exposure to the sun’s rays and cigarette smoke are recognized as two of the leading causes of skin wrinkling and other signs of premature aging. Experts advise using adequate sun protection, such as sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat, whenever you’re exposed to the damaging rays of the sun. Avoid secondhand smoke, and if you yourself smoke, give it up — your entire body will thank you for it.
BEAUTY THROUGH THE AGES
The desire to look and feel our best is universal. All over the world, people have spent time and energy — and money — to develop herbal products for cosmetic and medicinal use.
When other civilizations were still in their infancy, Chinese herbalists were experimenting with the possible uses of plants, seeking the combination of herbs that would do the most to nourish and cure. The ancient Egyptians used eye pencils, depilatories, deodorants, hair tonics, and cleansing creams made from limes, lilies, frankincense, and myrrh. In India, both men and women used makeup and perfumes to adorn themselves for religious ceremonies, as early as the second century BCE.
Ancient Romans used lavender to scent bathwater and linens and to soothe wounds — in fact, this herb’s name comes from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash.” In biblical times in the Middle East, perfumes and bath oils were made from saffron, cassia, cinnamon, and camphire (henna). By the 9th century, Arab scientists had perfected the process for extracting an herb’s essential oil via distillation. Over the centuries that followed, much of the Arab world was using aromatic baths, powders, and salves to cure a variety of ills.
WHY SKIN SAFETY MAT TERS
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. Its surface area can be as much as 3,100 square inches. Although we tend to think of our skin as a barrier to the outside world, it’s really more like a living sponge. Skin can absorb thousands of chemicals, feed them into your bloodstream through the network of tiny blood vessels just below its surface, and immediately circulate them through your body. When these compounds are toxic, they can do damage over both the short and long term.
To experience how easily and quickly compounds can be absorbed into your skin, try this simple test: Place a drop of spearmint or peppermint oil on your forefinger and rub it with your thumb. Be careful not to smell the oil — hold your hand as far from your nose as possible. Look at a clock with a second hand. If you are like most people, you will feel a small sensation — I call it a “puff” — of peppermint taste at the back of your throat or inside your mouth in less than a minute. Your skin has absorbed a fragrant compound, and the compound has circulated through your body, where you sense it in your throat.
No peppermint or spearmint oil lying around the house? No worries — just rub a crushed clove of garlic on the bottom of your foot. A few minutes later, you will have a mild taste of garlic in your mouth.
The toxic and irritating compounds in the personal-care products and household cleansers you use enter your body in the same manner. But the truth is, so many known or suspected toxins are allowed to be used in personal-care products and household cleaners (to name just two categories) that we all need to examine labels carefully and choose products wisely. Opt for those with simple, natural ingredients — or make your own.