Six herbs that can mitigate various skin problems

For radiant skin, try these potent, all-natural skincare ingredients

YOU DRINK HERBAL TEA, toss fresh herbs into recipes for extra flavor, and take medicinal herbs to ward off colds. Now you can have herbs in your skincare, too. Effective for fighting signs of aging (like wrinkles, dark spots, and inflammation), herbs also cleanse, moisturize, and exfoliate the skin — without the use of synthetic chemicals. "There are thousands of biochemicals in herbs," says Barbara Close, an herbalist, aromatherapist, and owner of Naturopathica, a holistic spa in East Hampton, New York. "The principle is synergy: Your skin recognizes these substances as biocompatible and absorbs them more readily than it does mineral oils or petrochemicals."

Because of their biochemical complexity, herbs may not wear out as quickly as ingredients created in a test tube. Herbs also enhance one another: The right blend — such as antiseptic pine and soothing sage — can make a product more effective. Knowing how to combine herbs is crucial, which is why herbal products have been available primarily from manufacturers with an extensive knowledge of botanical properties. As the demand for natural ingredients increases, companies not typically known for natural formulas are tapping the benefits of herbs for their own product lines. To determine how much herb is in the formula, check the label, says Close. "If you see botanicals listed high up, you'll know there are more in the formula than if they're called out at the very bottom."

We've found six herbs — horsetail, licorice root, marshmallow, milk thistle, sea buckthorn, and sage — that can mitigate an array of skin problems, from lightening spots to softening lines. These healing botanicals, which include minerals that calm and fatty acids that soften, are considered some of the most effective herbs making their way from the garden to your bathroom shelf.
Equisetum arvente

The fatty acids in horsetail soften your skin, and the rich mineral content (especially silica) reduces redness during breakouts. High in tannins, biochemicals that are natural vasoconstrictors, horsetail constricts blood vessels and skin tissue, so it's often used as a skin-firming ingredient. "It's included in masks for that reason," says James Hammer, a cosmetic chemist in Easton, Mass.
licorice root
Licorice Root
Glycyrrhiza uralensis

Licorice root is considered an effective natural ligntener for brown spots. Instead of bleaching the skin, it blocks tyrosine, a skin enzyme that controls production (and overproduction) of melanin, the pigment that colors your skin, says Diane Madfes, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City. For best results, use it for mild discoloration and pair it with an alpha-hydroxy-acid cream that has a natural fruit acid like vitamin C (from citrus) or malic acid (from apples) to slough off dead skin. Alternate the licorice root and fruit acid, morning and night. "A two-pronged approach produces better results than using one of these alone," advises Madfes. There's another benefit: Licorice acts as a buffer against irritating ingredients. It inhibits enzymes in the skin that provoke prostaglandins (chemicals in the body that can lead to inflammation), a plus for those with sensitive skin. "That's why you often find licorice combined with fruit acids," says Madfes. "It helps prevent the acid from irritating skin."
Althaea officinalis

Unlike the sugary, fluffy stuff that tops your cocoa, natural marshmallow is a plant that grows in mucky, swampy areas. In the watery environment, the roots and leaves soak up tons of moisture to create a slippery sap that can relieve and heal dry, chapped skin. "It's helpful for any inflammation, including wounds, irritated skin, and insect bites," explains Dieter Kuster, Ph.D., a chemist in San Diego. The herb may also help protect skin from the stress that causes acne. According to Kuster, compounds in marshmallow deactivate a stress-triggered enzyme that stimulates excess oil production, which can lead to breakouts.
milk thistle
Milk Thistle
Silybum marianum

The seeds from this spiny plant contain the chemical silymarin, a powerful antioxidant that's been shown in studies to have an anticancer effect and to prevent certain skin cancers. "Silymarin is part of the polyphenol family, along with green tea and resveratrol, which comes from grape skins," explains James Spencer, M.D., a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Fla. Cancer scientists at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver are continuing to study its sun-protective benefits, including its potential use in sunscreen formulas. Antioxidants, in addition to their role in preventing skin cancer, are believed to safeguard skin cells from damage that can lead to fine lines, wrinkles, and roughness. Because milk thistle is naturally anti-inflammatory and nonirritating, it's often found in products made to pamper, calm, and turn back the clock.
sea buckthorn
Sea Buckthorn
Hippophae rhamnoides

Sea buckthorn is rich in fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6, which form an occlusive seal on skin that traps in moisture and shuts out bacteria, so skin can mend and look fresher and healthier. "It helps control evaporation of water, which encourages healing," says Close. The botanical — a wild shrub found at high altitudes and a staple of herbal medicine — is also packed with vitamins and minerals (A, C, E, zinc, and copper), which may play a part in its restorative powers. "No study confirms it, but it appears to help wounds heal faster by allowing cells in the epidermis to re-form around broken skin," says Fredric Brandt, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami.
Solvia officinalis

Sage has a rich history as a protective herb. Native Americans burned it to drive away evil energies — the smoke was believed to be purifying. "Even today, many new homeowners burn sage to 'clean' their homes," says Celeste Lutrario, director of research and development for Burt's Bees. Although sage is often tapped for its calming, earthy scent, its extracts are antibacterial, making it a gentle skin cleanser for blemished complexions, says Lutrario. You'll also find it in natural deodorants, where it's used to kill bacteria without irritating freshly shaved skin. The herb may also fight cancer: Researchers from American University in Beirut were able to significantly decrease the size of skin tumors by applying sage oil in regular, controlled doses, suggesting that the herb may help thwart abnormal changes in skin that could otherwise develop into cancer.

LEARN MORE: To make your own herbal concoctions, visit for a recipe from herbalist Letha Hadady.

PHOTO (COLOR): find horsetail in Clockwise from top left: The TRUE RESTORING MOISTURE MASK ($35;, a weekly treatment that comes with a bow! and brush for a smooth application, is rich in neem, olive, and grapeseed oils. CARE BY STELLA MCCARTNEY PURIFYING FOAMING CLEANSER ($35; protects the skin with hawthorn while gently cleansing. Refresh your skin with a minty splash of GRASSROOTS LIQUID ALARM CLOCK ($13; JURLIQUE DAY CARE FACE LOTION ($36: jurlique .com) is a light, everyday moisturizer with chamomile extracts to soothe skin and jojoba oil to moisturize. DERMA E DMAE ALPHA LIPOIC C-ESTER SERUM ($23; contains lemongrass, a mild astringent, and horsetail to strengthen skin.

PHOTO (COLOR): find licorice root in Clockwise from top left: JUICE BEAUTY SOOTHING SERUM ($36; combines aloe vera and licorice to reduce irritation. TAMMY FENDER HOLISTIC SKIN CARE THE CLEANSING GEL ($60; tammyfender .com) contains naturally antiseptic rosemary and tangerine. The glycerin in CLINIQUE COMFORTING CREAM CLEANSER ($17.50; adds moisture, and the licorice prevents irritation. ALMAY PROTECT & PERFECT DAILY HAND LOTION ($10; drugstores nationwide) includes jojoba seed oil to soften skin.

PHOTO (COLOR): find marshmallow in: Clockwise from top left: The skin-softening cocoa butter of LUSH MELTING MARSHMALLOW MOMENTS LUXURY BATH MELT ($8; makes every bath a luxurious soak. An effective cleanser, DESERT ESSENCE AGE REVERSAL FACE CLEANSER ($12; is made with hydrating sunflower seed oil and calming chamomile. The marshmallow, mango-seed butter, and grapeseed oil in BURT'S BEES MARSHMALLOW VANISHING CREME ($15; help hydrate dry skin. MUNDO WOODSPRITE BLOOM ORGANIC DAILY MOISTURIZER ($32; is loaded with antioxidants like green tea and nourishing extracts like seaweed and marshmallow.

PHOTO (COLOR): find milk thistle in: Left to right: The lime, blood orange, and ginger in NATUROPATHICA ZESTY LIME SHOWER GEL ($32; make this an uplifting cleanser, and the gentle lather is perfect for sensitive skin. NUTRA-LIFT SKINCARE ARTICHOKE MASK ($24; contains milk thistle to calm skin and vitamins C and E to ward off the free radicals that can develop from exposure to the sun. SUNDARI OMEGA 3+ & ALGAE DAY SERUM ($46; uses brown algae to improve elasticity in the skin and milk thistle to soothe.

PHOTO (COLOR): find sea buckthorn in: Clockwise from top left: Similar to shea butter, the shorea butter in LAVERA NEUTRAL HAND CREAM ($20; hydrates cracked hands. NEAL'S YARD REMEDIES ORANGE FLOWER FACIAL OIL ($60; is full of light oils like sea buckthorn, which protect skin against aging. Super-hydrating DR. HAUSCHKA NOVUM LIPGLOSS ($17; has nourishing sea buckthorn and anthyllis extracts. Cucumber and aloe soothe skin in AUBREY ORGANICS SEA BUCKTHORN & CUCUMBER ESTER-C MOISTURIZING CREAM ($17;

PHOTO (COLOR): find sage in: Clockwise from top left: Rich in emollients like sunflower and jojoba oil, NATURE'S GATE ORGANICS ADVANCED CARE IN THE BEGINNING GENTLE CLEANSING LOTION ($20; is perfect for dry skin. PANGEA ORGANICS CANADIAN PINE WITH WHITE SAGE SHOWER GEL ($14; is concentrated with antiseptic pine and the antioxidant power of white sage extract. ORIGINS MAKE A DIFFERENCE SHEET MASK ($35 for six; is saturated with botanical extracts to even tone and soften skin. The goat's milk in ZUM BAR ALL NATURAL GOAT'S MILK SOAP IN LEMON-SAGE ($6; soothes skin. CRABTREE & EVELYN NATURALS BODY MIST IN VERBENA & SAGE ($15; is infused with copper, zinc, and magnesium to nourish the skin.



By Mary Rose Almasi

Photography by Andrew McCaul

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