Defying the Beauty Industry with Our Gardens
If you’ve been alive through any part of the last 30 years, you probably couldn't help but notice the onslaught of beauty products we’re constantly bombarded with. The next "must-have" wrinkle cream, zit serum, dark-spot fader, or "clock rewinder" is always waiting for us just around the corner!
The revenue of the U.S. cosmetic industry is estimated to amount to about 49 billion U.S. dollars in 2022, and about $571 billion globally (source). My issue with this is two-fold-
One: I don’t think the visual aspects of aging should be considered a “problem” that needs to be solved. I think of aging as a privilege not everyone gets, and we should be able to wear it like a badge of honor rather than be expected to battle, mask, or deny it. Our society’s obsession with youth is extremely bizarre and unnerving to me. That said, because of this absurd amount of societal pressure I also think anyone who feels beautiful wearing more makeup, dying their grays, or having cosmetic procedures done should be able to do so proudly as well!
I fully support incorporating herbs and lifestyle habits that can help us to age in a way that gives us the highest quality of life possible. Genuine quality of life, not just the appearance of not aging: sharp mental cognition, wide range of motion, strong bones, a happy heart, and functional independence are so much more important to me than how shiny my hair is or how deep my crow’s feet are. We often don’t appreciate these things until we no longer have them, and by that time we’re often forced to rely on pharmaceuticals, operations, and pain management for chronic conditions that possibly could have been prevented (pharmaceuticals have their place but are often not terribly successful at managing chronic conditions associated with aging).
And two: on average, Americans spend between $244 and $313 on cosmetics every month. You’d think for that much money and with all of these promises made by these manufacturers, we’d have some more long-term solutions to our complaints. And yet, whether we see amazing results, moderate improvement, or no changes at all, it always seems that the problem comes back again later. We see this especially with skin conditions like dry skin, acne, eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis.
I get asked about herbs for these issues time. Most people are expecting a treatment they can apply topically because, logically, that's where the problem appears. But, more often, these issues need to be addressed internally. They can be caused by a number of different things, from allergies and autoimmune responses to hormone imbalances and sluggish elimination organs.
(Learn more about supporting elimination organs in this post. Or keep reading for my favorite herbs we can harvest in the Summer for topical use.)
There are a couple of categories of plants I like to focus on when it comes to topical applications:
Antimicrobial, or antiseptic, plants contain properties that allow the body to better defend itself against disease-causing pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.
Some of these plants may more specifically be referred to as antibacterial, antiviral, anti fungal etc. depending on their particular actions. “Antiseptic” or “anti-microbial” is somewhat of a catch-all term for something that is broadly anti-pathogenic.
I like to avoid using the term “antibiotic”, first off, because it literally means “against life” which plants are not, and second, so as to not misconstrue the uses for antimicrobial herbs...
Prescription antibiotics, though widely over-prescribed, can be life-saving when implemented appropriately. While we don’t want to become reliant on them (as we’re already seeing so much antibiotic resistance and gut flora imbalances) we also don’t want to belittle their life-saving abilities by implying that “antibiotic” plants can treat conditions like sepsis (a life-threatening condition that occurs when the blood steam becomes infected with pathogens and requires ICU care).
While there are supportive and preventative herbs that can sometimes help keep us from getting to that point, when emergencies happen we must be thankful for antibiotics!
Astringent plants have a constricting effect on tissues, usually due to the presence of tannins.
Tannins are a type of polyphenol that got their name from their ability to turn animal hide into leather, aka tanning. They are responsible for the tight dry feeling in your mouth when you eat or drink foods rich in tannins like wine, cranberries, and unripe Hachiya persimmons.
In human skin and mucous membranes, tannins have an astringent action. Meaning they cause a constriction of tissues to form a watertight protective layer that is resistant to disease. Blood vessels constrict, reducing swelling and bleeding. Fluids can’t leak out and irritants and microbes can’t get in, promoting rapid healing and formation of new tissue over wounds.
Tannins can be applied as a compress for swellings, a gargle for sore throats, a mouthwash for gingivitis, and as a tea for diarrhea, however excess tannins can cause irritation to the stomach and damage the liver, even when applied topically.
Demulcent (dee-MULL-scent) plants are ones that can soothe and protect irritated or inflamed tissues, either internally on mucous membranes of the respiratory and GI tract, or externally on skin. Demulcent plants that are used topically are referred to as emollients.
Demulcents are rich in a carbohydrate called mucilage, which becomes thick and slippery when it comes in contact with water, creating a protective barrier over inflamed tissues.
So- What are my top ten herbs that fall under these categories?
I'm so glad you asked.
1. Calendula - Calendula officinalis
Calendula was the first medicinal plant I grew and made medicine with myself. She's second to none when it comes to soothing and calming skin inflammation. A wonderful introductory plant to any budding herbalist, this easy-to-grow flower is extremely gentle but quite potent, with resins and terpenes that have shown strong antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. Gentle enough for nipples and diaper rash but potent enough for traumatic injuries, there aren’t many skin ailments that don’t cause me to reach for calendula. Calendula cooperates beautifully with other herbs, and is often called upon in blends not only for topical application but for digestive ulcers and painful menstruation as well.
The entire flower head (including the sticky green calyx) can be popped off and eaten fresh. in salads or dried for teas and oil infusions.
Both narrow leaf plantain P. lanceolata, often called ribwort, and broadleaf plantain P. major have valuable healing properties. One of the primary topical healing plants western herbalists will reach for since plantain grows abundantly from spring until late summer. It is often called “nature’s bandaid” since it’s so easy to wrap around a finger. Seeds of P. psyllium bring us the famous psyllium husk emollient and laxative, and either narrow leaf or broadleaf seeds can be substituted, if taken with plenty of water. Indigenous populations called plantain “white man’s footprint” since it spread as aggressively across the US as colonization did.
The leaf can be harvested any time Spring through Summer to be eaten fresh in salads, crushed into a poultice, extracted into glycerin, or dried and infused into oil for topical use.
Whether topically or internally, yarrow is a classic astringent and antiseptic plant. Hikers and outdoorspeople would do well to recognize yarrow’s feathery leaves, as she is one of our best allies for stopping bleeding and healing wounds. Just as often, she is relied upon as a diaphoretic for helping to sweat out fevers. By simultaneously relaxing blood vessels to reduce blood pressure, and constricting tissues to seal up gaps that allow blood and fluid loss, yarrow is one of our best tools for the initial treatment of wounds.
While yarrow can grow aggressively in some regions, she is a US native plant so by definition cannot be considered "invasive" here. Invasiveness is a measure of how detrimental introduced plants are to local ecosystems. When we see a native wildflower outcompeting other plants we may want in the area, however... we love that for her.
The leaf and flower can be harvested and crushed as a poultice, tinctured, or dried for sitz baths, teas, and oil infusions.
4. Burdock- Arctium lappa
Greater Burdock is a textbook example of healing from the inside out. Strongly supportive of the liver and digestion, burdock supports our body to detoxify itself so that inflammation doesn’t make it all the way to the skin in the form of acne, eczema, psoriasis and other irritations. Commonly eaten as a cooked vegetable in Japan and China, in the US if we are familiar with it at all it’s as a burr or thistle weed.
Lesser burdock Arctium minus is reported as noxious in several states. Be cautious when growing thistles such as Burdock, as their seeds can spread aggressively and become invasive.
The root can be harvested in late Summer and cooked fresh in soups and stews, applied topically as a hot poultice, or dried for decoctions and tinctures.
5. Marshmallow- Althaea officinalis
One of our most gentle yet powerful demulcent herbs, marshmallow is my top choice in the category, both topically and internally. Incredibly soothing and cooling, marshmallow’s mucilage is visibly apparent in the cold extract, offering immediate relief to inflamed tissues.
The leaves, flowers, and roots all contain mucilage, but we want to save the roots to harvest until Autumn or Winter and harvest the leaves and flowers in Summer. It's best to extract the plant into room temperature water for 30 minutes up to 4 hours before straining, since heat damages mucilage.
6. Klamath Weed - Hypericum perforatum
Klamath weed, more frequently called St. John’s Wort, gained a bit of a misrepresentation in the mainstream in the early 2000’s. While it is a known nervine, with strong effects on nerve pain, and does show antidepressant effects, Klamath weed is not a catch-all antidepressant, especially for those who are on medications.
Despite research that shows Klamath weed can be an effective anti-depressant for some people, especially those with anxiety or PTSD, several other people have experienced worsening depression symptoms and dangerous side effects when incorporating oral Klamath weed extracts. For that reason, many herbalists only work with Klamath weed topically, since it is very effective at helping heal wounds from the inside out by being antiviral, astringent, anti-inflammatory, as well as easing all kinds of nerve pain.
Klamath weed flowers and buds can be harvested near the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere and tinctured fresh, but are most often traditionally infused into oil for topical use. The extract should take on the most beautiful maroon color. If it doesn't then you may not have a medicinal species of hypericum.
7. Comfrey - Symphytum officinale
Comfreys scientific name Symphytum appropriately comes from from the Greek “Sympho” which means “to make grow together.” Having earned the nickname Knitbone, comfrey has been shown time and again to have a powerful effect on things growing together, even to the point of helping bones grow back together. This is largely due to the allantoin she contains, but she also is rich in mucilage. So not only is comfrey antiseptic, astringent, and emollient on wounds, but we can actually see wounds heal over faster (almost too fast, which is why we don’t work with comfrey on deep wounds), damaged muscle and bone tissue regenerate, and proper scar formation.
Safety note: Because comfrey contains a type of pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PAs) that is toxic to the liver (not all PAs are), I only recommend using it topically. Many herbalists still work with comfrey internally, but personally, I'd rather work with plantain (which also contains allantoin and mucilage without the PAs.) If you have liver issues or are pregnant you should not work with comfrey topically or internally.
Comfrey leaves can be harvested Spring through Summer and worked with fresh for poultices, fresh or dried for sitz baths, washes, and compresses or dried and infused into oil for topical use. The root, which typically contains both higher contains higher concentrations of both allantoin and PA's, can be harvested and dried in Autumn for the same purposes.
8. Lavender- Lavandula angustifolia
As a widely popular relaxing and antispasmodic nervine, lavender is beautiful on her own or blended with other plants. Her volatile oils lending to her aroma and taste have shown to ease tension headaches, uplift a sour mood, and invite sleep. It’s thought that lavender, when inhaled, works directly on the olfactory nerve to in the brain to produce a calming effect. In recent years, it seems that many have become burnt out on lavender, or, at least, the overabundance of commercial household products laden with perfumes that claim to invoke lavender but end up being much more chemical or artificial smelling. But connecting with true lavender in her whole form is an entirely different experience.
Lavender buds can be harvested near the 4th of July, just before opening, to be tinctured, distilled into hydrosols, or be dried for teas, sitz baths, and oil infusions.
Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile or Anthemis nobilis)
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamomilla recutita)
Chamomile tea is one of the world’s most popular herbal teas, and it’s estimated that one million cups are consumed every day. As a safe and reliable antispasmodic nervine, chamomile is especially valuable when anxiety and tension produce digestive symptoms. By working on peripheral nerves and muscles, she is able to relax the whole body, allowing the mind and heart to follow. Topically, it’s difficult to find a skin condition that chamomile can’t benefit.
Chamomile flowers can be harvested throughout Summer and tinctured fresh, distilled into hydrosol, or dried for teas, sitz baths, and oil infusions.
10. Rose - Rosa spp.
Highly regarded for their beauty and aroma, roses also hold strong medicinal value. The petals are rich in compounds that have shown to be highly anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, analgesic, and astringent, and several studies have shown rose extracts to be effective in supporting conditions like arthritis as well as painful menstruation and mood.
Rose petals can be harvested in Summer to be distilled into hydrosol (rose water) or dried for teas, sitz baths, or to be extracted into witch hazel as a skin toner.
There's so much more to share about each of these plants- I can talk about each of them for ages!
So if you're interested in learning more about the many ways to work with these plants and so many more---from growing them and making the preparations mentioned in this post to folklore and medication interactions---consider joining me in my Herbal Skincare course or my Full 10-month Herbal Intensive.