Many plant extracts, juices, waxes and butters yield unique skin benefits only found in botany.
This African native, which also grows obligingly in a pot on a windowsill, is one of the oldest known medicinal plants. Break open a leaf and the juicy, gel-like sap that seeps out has proved to be a dramatically effective healer of wounds and burns (including sunburn), speeding up the rate of healing and reducing the risk of infection. Aloe juice contains salicylic acid, both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, which can help soothe inflamed skin conditions, such as dermatitis. Unlike its conventional rival, hydrocortisone, which treats inflammation but blocks wound healing - aloe actively helps skin to repair by stimulating cell production and increasing the collagen content of the damaged tissue. Aloe is also reported to increase elastin fiber which, with collagen, forms the matrix underpinning the skin and giving it tone.
This succulent plant with long, mottled, spiky leaves, which looks cactus-like but, in fact, belongs to the Asphodelaceae family, was depicted on Egyptian temple friezes as early as 4,000BC. Cleopatra is reputed to have used aloe as a beauty staple and it's been shown to reduce the formation of 'age' or 'liver' spots, due to substances called anthraquinones, which help block the production of melanin (the brown pigment).
Taken internally, the gel helps inflammatory bowel disease, while 'bitter aloes' (dried liquid from the leaves) stimulates digestion and, in higher doses, relives constipation.
This fabulously effective, totally natural moisturizer is indispensable for nourishing and soothing dry and inflamed skin; it's also used in haircare products. Shea butter (or shea nut butter) is a creamy-colored, natural (and edible) fat extracted from nuts inside the crushed fruit of the shea tree. It's a similar skincare ingredient to cocoa butter, another pod 'butter' that's solid at room temperature. But shea literally melts on contact with the skin, to produce a deceptively light, spreading oil. The trees grow in 19 countries across the savannah zone of Africa, from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, where it has been a beauty staple for centuries, as well as a cooking oil. The West African shea (V paradoxa) tends to be slightly thicker than the East African (V nilotica), which is why you might find different types in skincare.
Shea is not a quick crop: the first plum-like fruit are produced when the tree is about 20 years old, it reaches maturity around 45, then goes on producing fruit for up to 200 years. The abundance of fatty acids (linoleic, linolenic and arachadonic, sometimes collectively known as vitamin F) and high content of antioxidant vitamins A and E has made shea a useful ingredient in moisturizers and hair conditioners (and it sometimes can turn up in chocolates, too). It's quickly absorbed, non-irritant (so can be good for inflammatory skin problems such as rosacea) and doesn't clog pores.
Renowned as a health-giving and disease-fighting drink for at least 3,000 years (a reputation that's supported by current scientific research), green tea is increasingly found in skincare. This is due to its powerful antioxidant activity, which combats the effects of free radical damage and also acts to quell inflammation. Scientists believe that the antioxidant polyphenol compounds derived from this fragrant shrub help to prevent sun damage and thus the signs of premature aging. Research suggests that it helps to combat the mechanisms that play a role in initiating skin cancer, so green tea extracts are mostly used in anti-aging and suncare products. Accordingly, polyphenols in green tea safeguard healthy cells, while ushering cancer cells to their deaths. Using green tea extracts may help not only with wrinkles and sun damage, but psoriasis and rosacea too. As with other plant extracts, it's important to choose good-quality products that contain sufficient levels of green tea extracts to deliver these benefits.
Natural vitamin E
This wonderful skin-friendly substance, mainly derived from vegetable oils, was discovered in 1922. It wasn't until 1962, however, that its role as an antioxidant, which could delay skin aging, was proposed. Used in cosmetics, natural vitamin E (more than twice as powerful as the synthetic version) helps to defend the skin from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light, to optimize moisture levels and improve appearance, and to delay skin aging by fighting free radicals. One of the main ways it works is by protecting the phospholipids (fatty acids) in cell membranes, which form the 'cement' of the skin barrier and are major targets of attack by free radicals. It also improves wound healing.
Although it's used mainly in cosmetics, doctors are increasingly interested in it too. Research shows that vitamin E can reduce acute and chronic skin damage from UV radiation. Regular application of skin care products containing antioxidants may be of the utmost benefit in efficiently preparing our skin against exogenous [external] oxidative stressors occurring during daily life. Sunscreens could also benefit from a combination with antioxidants. Vitamin E actually exists in the stratum corneum but, while some antioxidants can be synthesized by humans, this “essential nutrient” must be obtained from our food (fresh vegetables, vegetable oils, cereals and nuts) and by topical delivery. Since the majority of people fail to meet the current recommendations for vitamin E intake, there is a big argument for using well-formulated moisturizers to protect your skin and also taking a supplement of natural-source vitamin E.
HA, as it's known, is one of the newer wonder ingredients touted by the beauty industry. The thing is, it might be just that. HA is natural to the body, where it carries out many crucial roles, notably lubricating our joints. It also acts a shock absorber and, together with collagen and elastin, forms the scaffolding of the skin, which gives tone and “bounce”. Because of its remarkable ability to attract and bind water, HA - also an antioxidant - has been nicknamed “nature's sponge” and one of its functions is to hydrate the all-important collagen fibers.
The American Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of animal- and non-animal-derived HA as an injectable dermal filler, which testifies to its safety. Research has shown that topical application of HA helps wound-healing and can reduce scarring. Some research suggests that, unlike most compounds, topical HA can penetrate the epidermis to hydrate skin tissue and plump up wrinkles, as well as helping to give a more velvety texture. It is definitely an important ingredient in skincare and will become more so. The main source of HA is rooster combs, but, for people who prefer not to go down the animal route, it is also available in non-animal form.
Watch this fruit
A tree called Kigelia Africana is known as the sausage tree because of the shape of the huge, cylindrical fruit, which weigh between 5-10kg and dangle like salamis in a deli. Kigelia has a long history as a medicinal plant, applied topically. The dried and powdered fruit is used in Africa to clear the skin and for eczema, acne, ulcers and infections caused by wounds, insect or snake bites. In southern Africa, it has a considerable reputation for being effective against solar keratoses, which may develop into skin cancer. Women in Africa rub an ointment made from the fruit pulp onto their breasts to tighten and firm the skin, as well as enlarging their bosom (or so they believe). The extract from these unusual fruits does seem to have skin-tightening properties and it's one to watch out for in future skin firmers. Certain active compounds have been found in Kigelia, including one called kigelinone; this comes under the group scientifically called napthoquinones, some of which are being researched for their anti-inflammatory action on the skin. Other extracts from this amazing fruit have shown antibacterial activity, which probably accounts for its anti-acne properties.