The term herbal skin care has become a misleading term referring to anything with a plant in it. Because of this, the difference typically comes down to how and who is formulating products. Skincare made by someone who’s been trained in herbal medicine vs. someone trained in traditional cosmetic chemistry (or someone who’s just been browsing botanical benefits on the internet) will be very different. A cosmetic chemist’s approach is looking at the effect of chemicals on the skin, regardless of whether they are plant/animal based, synthetic or concentrates. On the other hand, someone self-trained from the internet may have a lot of good information and intentions, but they are missing the vast depth associated with formal herbal training and formulating. Herbal skin care made by practitioner who is formally trained in herbal medicine, be it Western, Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, etc. is rooted in using the innate philosophy and science of plants. True herbal skincare works to carefully combine plants in order boost and balance their effects, utilizing whole-plant extracts from medicinal plants.
Let’s break this down: A whole plant extract involves using a plant as it’s presented in nature, as opposed to extracting individual elements from the plant. Many “plant-based,” “natural” skincare brands extract specific compounds out of plants (like corn or soy), leaving the remainder of the plant unused. In herbal medicine, however, we believe in using the entire plant, as nature created it, so that all of its components are allowed to work synergistically together. Because we as organisms are so tied to the botanical world, our cells most easily recognize plants in their natural state. The more we leave plants in their whole, unadulterated form, the better our bodies can recognize and absorb their benefits. When we start manipulating plant chemicals–extracting compounds and altering chemical ratios–our bodies begin to lose the recognition of these ingredients. This can reduce our absorption capacity and, in some cases, it can lead to imbalances in the skin.
Furthermore, from the point of view of an herbalist, herbal skin care considers the relationship of plants with each other–which plants are allies, which plants regulate other plants, which plants help the plants communicate with each other so they can develop a beneficial hierarchy. It also considers the energetics of the plant–is it warming, cooling, drying, energizing–in order to create balanced mix. A balanced formula will help bring us into balance, whereas an unbalanced formula can promote our imbalance. The body is a deeply intelligent organ that can be affected by the energetics of the ingredients we put on it (or lack thereof). Herbal skincare is the closest to the plant and, therefore, the closest to us.
Finally, at its core, herbal skin care uses potent plants and herbs that hold the capacity for a vast array of benefits. Horsetail, for example, is a high silica-containing plant, so it feeds the collagen and elastin fibrils that support skin elasticity. When you get silica from horsetail, the plant not only works to strengthen these fibrils, but also to help them stay aligned and straighten out to minimize wrinkles. This is the inherent intelligence of horsetail and a simple example of the magic that can happen from using a whole-plant herb. Burdock root, another highly intelligent plant we use in many of our products, has the innate ability to read the skin. If you’re producing too much oil in some areas it will decrease oil production, whereas it will increase oil production in dryer areas. This capacity to be bi-directional is contained purely of and within the plant.
We like to think of herbal skincare as a representation of how we can approach the world in a holistic way–to take the whole thing as it is, rather than picking and choosing bits and pieces. The miracle might be held in the piece we don’t completely understand or feel has less significance, so taking it all in can help us to open ourselves to the full spectrum of benefits.