Wise women were – well, wise about a few things. How to cast love spells. How to predict the weather from the rustling of leaves. And above all, how to transform herbal ingredients into fabulous, skin-saving salves, balms and creams. Beauty technology may have advanced apace, since then: we live, after all, in the age of the cosmeceutical, of nano-tech, of creams inspired by NASA scientists. But personally? Give me herb-powered concoctions, every time. (Albeit a little more glamorously-packaged than you might pick up from your friendly neighbourhood, broomstick-riding crone…)
You don’t have to be an expert – or anything approaching a wise woman – to enjoy the skin- and hair-boosting power of herbs. However, I would say that if you have a particular skin challenge, it might be worth seeing a registered herbalist: herbs are acknowledged in many circles for their efficacy at treating conditions like eczema, psoriasis, acne and other generally itchy/unsightly conditions – both via herbs applied topically and perhaps taken as tinctures or remedies internally.
Certainly, as herbalists know, not all herbs are created equal when it comes to their skin-boosting powers. So here’s a little run-down of some of my favourite aromatic herbs.
Borage (Borago officinalis L.) The name of the plant comes from the Latin burra, or hairy garment – because the leaves and stems are almost bristly. (It’s also known as ‘starflower’.) But appearances can be deceptive: the juice of the plant is soothing to damaged or irritated tissues. The leaves can be made into an infusion, or tea and used to bathe the eyes. The flowers are also gorgeously chic in salads – but may be much more than decorative: eaten like that, according to legendary herbalist Gerard , ‘they do exhilarate and make the mind glad.’ How beautiful is that?
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.) Yarrow is rich in compounds which suppress skin flare-ups, remove dead cells, slow down sebum production and help close pores – making it a wonder ingredient for greasy or problem skins, in particular. (A simple tea of yarrow works as a dandruff-blitzer, too.) One note of caution, though: prolonged use of this aromatic plant has, in a few cases, been linked with photosensitivity, so be conscious of that if you’re planning to go in the sun, and always use an SPF15 zinc- or titanium-based sunblock, for protection – advice that applies to every skin type. Yarrow is a key ingredient in the Taer range, from Iceland, a longstanding fave of mine.
Marigold (Calendula officinalis L.) One of nature’s most healing, skin-soothing elements. Gentle enough for babies’ skincare. What more could you ask? Marigolds are rich in beta-carotene, antioxidants and salicylic acid. Hands, in particular, respond to marigolds’ TLC – and when I get an eczema breakout (usually from using some just-launched wonder cream from a beauty company), I’ve found that a calendula salve is the fastest way to settle my skin down again. Blondes can use marigold to add a gold tinge to hair – just as they did in 16th Century Europe, when William Turner, Dean of Wells, wrote in The New Herbal: ‘some women use to make their heyre yellow with the flowers of this herb, not being content with the natural colour which God hath given them.’
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) A phenomenal bug-buster, thyme encourages the flow of blood to the surface of the skin. Used in beauty care, thyme’s good for problem skins (which need to be kept scrupulously clean), for any kind of stimulating facial tonic and as a soap ingredient. Thyme’s highly effective in deodorants – and (like rosemary) helps to keep hair soft, silky and free of dandruff.
Comfrey (Symphytum Officinale) Comfrey makes skin go ‘aaaaah’: it’s fantastically soothing and healing, with elements that bind tissues and stimulate new cell growth. (And not just skin: comfrey’s been known for centuries as ‘knitbone’, because it can help repair fractures; the Romans called it conferva – join together – hence ‘comfrey’.) Herbalists deploy comfrey for eczema and psoriasis. The magic skin-calming ingredient is allantoin (which you’ll often find listed on ingredients labels, although the cosmetic industry often relies on a synthetic ‘copy’ of this beauty wonder-plant). Comfrey’s an amazingly balanced herb – both astringent and emollient, seeming to adapt to what individual skin needs; use it in lotions, creams or balms for oily, problem and dry complexions (while hands just adore it).
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) The herbalist Culpeper recommended rosemary ‘to take away spots, marks and scars in the skin.’ He was onto something: science now confirms rosemary contains an active ingredient that really does help strengthen fragile capillaries, and may even work to fade the appearance of broken veins. It’s wonderfully invigorating to skin and scalp – but can be a little too invigorating for some people: if you’re using rosemary essential oil in a face pack, stick to a drop or two, as too much can be irritating.) Rosemary may even be rejuvenating: readers of Banck’s Herbal (1525) were advised to ‘smell it oft and it shall keep thee youngly’…
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