Botanical ingredients have kept skin beautiful and healthy for thousands of years. Some skin experts are a big fan of their plumping, soothing and smoothing qualities. Here are some of their favorites:
Pure natural plant oils are used in skincare for their therapeutic effects and because they're so easily absorbed into the upper layers, where they get to work beautifying our skin.
One of the 'secret' ingredients for helping to restore a youthful glow is Moroccan argan oil, so precious the locals call it 'liquid gold'.
Around the coastal town of Essaouira in Morocco, the one place in the world where the argan trees grow, you might see a goat or three balanced precariously on the branches. The goats love the nuts, which look like a cross between a walnut and an almond, as much as the Berber women who gather them.
Berber women's skins were smooth, despite the fierce climate in which they live – at the sub-Saharan desert region. They extract the oil from the nuts by hand and lavish it onto their skin, hair, nails - and even their babies. It's delicious used as the Moroccans do, drizzled over salads and couscous.
The oil proved to be remarkably high in antioxidant vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), which protects and repairs skin cells, and also phytosterols (plant fats). The combination of these phytosterols is unique to the argan tree and includes relatively rare types. More research revealed clinical studies with claims that argan speeded wound-healing, skin cell stimulation and regeneration: these were particularly linked to two compounds - alpha-spinasterol and delta-7 stigmasterol.
French scientists have also demonstrated the oil's ability to boost moisture within the skin, as well as stimulating oxygenation between the cells. It also helps neutralize free radicals, the molecules that break down the structure of skin cells, causing the signs of premature ageing and, potentially, skin cancer.
Borage seed oil is a rich source of two essential fatty acids called linoleic acid (LA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and it's particularly good for people with dry, flaky complexions.
Extensive research has confirmed that a daily dose of GLA (in the form of borage seed oil or evening primrose seed oil) quietens inflamed skin. In addition, applying borage seed oil topically starts to moisturize skin immediately and visibly.
Herbalists have long used borage for sore or inflamed skin, including eczema and other chronic skin conditions. Studies show that skin creams containing borage seed oil significantly decrease skin roughness and water loss through the skin. Some regard it as a key 'naturally active' ingredient and use it liberally throughout many of the nourishing skin creams for face and body.
Borage is an easy plant to grow. Its pretty, star-shaped flowers, which range from bright blue to purple as the blooms go over, contrast with the soldier-straight stems covered with stiff, white, prickly hairs. The amount of GLA extracted from the seeds varies according to where the borage is grown. In the UK, for example, Yorkshire farms have a higher GLA yield than borage grown in Kent.
This vine, which will climb up to 4-5m, is one of the most beautiful and colorful medicinal plants, with its stunning purple-tinged petals. The dense corona of filaments, or threads, around the central stamens seemed, to sixteenth-century Italians, to resemble a crown of thorns - which led to its common name 'fior della passione' or flower of the Passion (of Christ) and later to its botanical equivalent passiflora.
Some experts discovered the oil in Kenya, where the lovely flowers grow like weeds; the pure passion fruit seed oil is found in rows of small amber bottles, which are sold at roadside beauty kiosks to use as an emollient skin and hair oil.
The flowers are succeeded by large, purpley-orange fruit. These passion fruit are delicious to eat (cut them in half and scoop out the pulp with a teaspoon) and packed with seeds which yield the skin-cherishing, pale yellow oil. As well as vitamin E and trace minerals, it has an extraordinarily high content of linoleic acid, one of the essential fatty acids that is quickly absorbed by the skin and helps reduce water loss, thereby restoring elasticity.
There are some 400 types of passionflower, mostly originating from tropical America, with some species coming from Asia, Australia and the Polynesian islands. The passionflower was probably brought into Europe by Spanish explorers who had found it in South America in the mid to late sixteenth century, where it was widely used by the native Indians. Passionflower extract has been documented for its calming, sedative action for over 200 years (often in combination with valerian root and melissa -commonly known as lemon balm), and these days is recognized by regulatory bodies, including the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy.
Delicious to eat (and so good for you - and your skin), the creamy-textured, greeny-yellow flesh of avocados yields an unctuous oil that some experts love to use in skincare for its super-moisturizing properties. As well as vitamin E (also traces of B vitamins and beta-carotene in unrefined versions), avocados contain omega-9 essential fatty acid, a little omega-6, plus chlorophyll, which may help regenerate skin cells. The rich oil, which is very easily absorbed, is also high in plant sterols, which may help to reduce age spots and to heal sun damage and scars. Avocado oil is especially useful for those with dry or mature skins. It works very well for most with sensitive skin, also eczema or psoriasis. Some experts like to see it as an ingredient in soaps, massage oil and facial masks for its emollient properties. Avocado oil can be found in supermarkets and is a fabulous addition to salad dressing.
Apricots, which come from the same prunus genus as peaches, plums and almonds, have been cultivated in their birthplace in the mountains of north China for four thousand years. Trade and military expeditions by plant-loving generals such as Alexander the Great brought them to the Middle East and onto Greece and Italy in about the first century BC, where they are now cultivated.
The kernels are crushed to yield between 40-50 per cent pure oil, which contains much the same array of fatty acids as sweet almond and peach kernel. The wonderfully light texture means it's easily absorbed into the uppermost level of the skin: dry, mature, sensitive and inflamed skins benefit most. Apricot oil also has very little odor, so it's an ideal base for facial and body massage oil blends. For a bath oil, add a drop or two of your favorite essential oil to one tablespoonful of apricot (or peach kernel) oil and mix with your fingertip before adding to a full tub.
Sweet almonds are incredibly generous with their oil, giving nearly half their weight when the shelled nuts (in fact, the seed) are pressed. Almond oil, which contains essential fatty acids, vitamin E and traces of B vitamins, has long been used topically. It's certainly accepted today that sweet almond oil is very mild and non-irritating, so is particularly suitable for sensitive and/or allergic skins and is often used by aromatherapists as a base for massage oil. Many natural health professionals recommend it for people with acne, too, because it is lightweight and non-comedogenic, so doesn't clog pores. It's also a wonderful oil to use on your hair, for lustre and gloss. You can use it neat to strengthen nails, to soften the skin on your face and body and in the bath. It's an excellent carrier for essential oils: beauties in ancient Egypt blended a few drops of frankincense essential oil with almond oil as an 'anti-wrinkle' formula.
And, of course, almonds as food are a marvelous source of vegetable protein, providing significant amounts of the essential amino-acids that the body can't make, plus useful minerals.
This luxurious oil is pressed from the seeds and is one of all-time favorites for its visibly regenerative properties. It's probably the most effective plant oil for skin repair and restoration, which makes it perfect for older skins.
Rosehip oil is rich in antioxidants - notably vitamin E -and essential fatty acids. It also contains vitamin A in the form of trans-retinoic acid, which helps remove the top dead layer of skin cells, exposing the fresher, brighter skin underneath by natural exfoliation.
Clinical studies have proven its ability to soften scars, reduce 'age' pigmentation spots and patches (which also tend to affect women in pregnancy), and improve the appearance of fine surface lines. A trial of 141 patients with scarring and dried or much wrinkled skin used a high percentage (26 per cent) of rosehip oil added to a cream base. The 123 patients with scarring greatly benefited, as did the patients with leathery skin; the five patients with keloid (raised) scars also showed surface improvement. This effect is thought to be due to interesting compounds called phyto- (plant) sterols, which are fats, or lipids.
You blend it into the facial oil for overnight nourishment, or you can use it neat on specific problem areas, such as scarring. The older the scar, the longer it will take to work but, applied daily, you should see a difference after about a month.