Good enough to eat
Our bodies have complex nutrient needs, and so too does our skin. But does that mean, if something is a powerhouse of nutrients when added to your diet, it’s going to be just as nourishing for your skin?
If you’re into skin care, it’s hard to miss the latest trend and marketing hype around superfoods. Natural ingredients have been big in skin care for some time. But now we’re seeing superfoods, such as kale, marshmallow, liquorice, purslane, rhubarb and matcha, making it into the natural skin care limelight.
Superfoods are also appearing in cosmeceutical skin care, the fastest growing sector of the cosmetic industry right now. The global cosmetics market is worth $827 billion a year. It has been growing at a rate of 7-8% a year, while cosmeceutical skin care has been growing at 25-35%.
Interest in natural active ingredients in skin care is not just coming from veggos and eco warriors, as once may have been the case. Now that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish skin care product names from smoothie bar menu boards, the question that needs to be asked is: “Do these ingredients do anything for the skin?
Superfoods in skin care
The superfoods used in skin care are actually plant extracts, known as botanicals, and they’re not new to us, but the superfoods marketing that goes with them is. Some botanicals have a strong scientific pedigree and have been shown to improve skin health, prevent premature ageing, support wound health, calm inflammation and soothe irritation. Many have their origins in medical treatments in ancient cultures and some of these can still be found in modern medical texts. Traditional Chinese medicine uses botanical ingredients as a mainstay of its treatments, including skin conditions.
The great strength of botanicals is that they usually offer multiple benefits for the skin, unlike chemical actives that have more of a single focus.
For example, Benzoyl Peroxide is extremely effective at killing off of the bacteria linked to acne, Propionibacterium acnes (now Cutibacterium acnes), but it doesn’t reduce the production of sebum, slow the abnormal shedding of skin cells or fight inflammation. Single-focus actives sometimes can be so concentrated that they can cause other skin problems, such as dryness, irritation, sensitivity and an impaired skin barrier.
Krave Beauty, Youth to the People, Eminence, First Aid Beauty and Dr Sturm are just some of the brands that are using superfoods to power up their skin care.
But if you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that just because the skin care industry claims something is good for your skin doesn’t mean it is. As I always say, the rarest ingredient in skin care is the truth. So I set out to find our whether layering delicious ingredients all over your face does as much as sauteing, tossing or blitzing these in a food processor.
In this article, I look at six powerhouse food ingredients that also come in botanical form and are used in cosmetic products:
Read on, but don’t expect to find any recipes here.
You’ve heard it since you were knee-high to a grasshopper: “eat your greens!” Kale is everywhere right now. Eating your kale gives your body vitamins A, C, K, zinc and potassium. It provides antioxidant benefits due to its polyphenols, derived from kaempferol, quercetin and hydroxycinnamic acid derivatives. It may help manage blood pressure, support digestive health and be protective against cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Not bad for a leafy cruciferous vegetable. Because kale is a good source of beta-carotene, which gets converted to vitamin A in the body, it’s required by all body tissues for growth and function, including the skin. Vitamin C helps build and maintain collagen, which is part of the skin’s support structure. One cup of cooked kale will provide you with about 20% of your daily requirement of vitamin A and 23% of vitamin C.
But this queen of the greens is also high in oxalates and difficult to digest when eaten raw.
When applied to the skin, kale is claimed to protect skin elasticity, decrease the appearance of wrinkles, improve suppleness, build the skin’s resilience, decrease inflammation and tighten pores. And even some dermatologists are on the fan train for this one.
But is kale really a superfood for the skin?
In skin care, kale comes in the form of Brassica Oleracea Acephala Leaf Extract and it’s this extract that is used in very small amounts to cleansers, toners, serums and moisturisers.
Despite quite a bit of digging, I wasn’t able to uncover much bye way of research on kale in skin care. However kale does contain phyto actives, such as 1-Isothiocyanato-Methylpropane, Tryptophan, Methyl Methanesthiosulfonate, Flavonoid Glycosides, Flavone Derivative and Sinapine Alkaloid.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. Amino acids are present in the skin and form part of our natural moisturising factors that help keep our skin hydrated. Flavonoids contain levels of antioxidants, which neutralise free radicals and prevent damage to the skin from environmental factors. Flavonoids help maintain the skin’s health and appearance. More interesting is Sinapine Alkaloid. This active prevents acute inflammation, so it may have some benefits for stressed skin, including acne, dermatitis and rosacea.
Kale may have some benefits for the skin and is unlikely to do any harm, but the type of research you’d like to see published in dermatological journals isn’t there yet.
Who doesn’t have a fond memory of toasting marshmallows on a fire under the night stars or biting into some gooey rocky road chocolate and feeling like a kid again! Sweet, mushy and irresistible.
The marshmallows we’re familiar with today aren’t even made from the marshmallow plant anymore. This confectionery is made with gelatin these days.
The marshmallow plant, however, has been known and appreciated by herbalists for centuries, and you can easily find it in teas, tinctures and capsules.
But why is marshmallow making into skin care products?
Marshmallow root, or Althea officinalis, is a perennial plant indigenous to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. It’s been traditionally used as a pain reliever, diuretic and in relieving coughs by reducing mucus and inhibiting bacteria. It’s also used to aid digestion and to help repair the gut lining. It may even lower blood sugar levels when taken orally.
Traditionally, the roots and leaves of this plant have been used to treat burns, wounds and insect bites. Marshmallow extract has high amounts of Vitamin D.
Of course, it sounds rather enticing to have marshmallow listed on the ingredient list. But what role does it play in modern day skin care products?
Marshmallow extract may be beneficial for those with eczema, rosacea and problematic skin, given its anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory properties. The ingredient is also included for its skin moisturising and softening benefits.
The roots of the marshmallow plant exude mucilage, a botanical form of Hyaluronic Acid, which can be helpful to keep the skin hydrated. Hyaluronic Acid is known for its crazy ability to hold onto water and it’s used in skin care to increase moisture retention in the skin. The roots of the marshmallow plant also contain polysaccharides and flavonoids, which are beneficial to the skin.
Flavonoids contain potent antioxidants and neutralise free radicals. Flavonoids in skin care products help maintain the skin’s overall health and appearance, while polysaccharides support the skin’s ability to hydrate and retain moisture and support skin repair and renewal, thereby helping the skin to be more resilient and look younger.
One study found that Marshmallow Root Extract significantly reduced UVA-induced DNA damage to lung and skin fibroblasts. While this was a lab study rather than on actual people, this botanical ingredient may have anti-ageing and protective benefits when used in skin care formulations. UVA accounts for 95% of the UV radiation we are exposed to, and UVA rays can penetrate windows and clouds. All UV rays can cause premature ageing of the skin, including wrinkling, hyperpigmentation and skin cancers.
So it appears that Marshmallow Root Extract is a helpful active to have in the ingredient list, especially if your skin experiences irritation, redness or is prone to dryness. And what’s more, it may play a protective role against UVA exposure, but don’t rely on it to do the work of your sunscreen!
For most people, liquorice is a hard, soft or chewy candy that has a very distinctive taste, and you either love it or hate it. But it’s really a leafy green plant that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine because of its array of benefits. In fact, liquorice has been used for 4000 years and was even found in King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.
Liquorice is derived from the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra, which means sweet root in Greek. The plant is a legume and is native to Africa, Southern Europe and parts of Asia. Two important extracts are derived from the roots:
- Glycyrrhizin Acid – gives liquorice its distinctive flavour and is 50 times sweeter than sugar
- Glabridin – provides liquorice’s medicinal benefits
Liquorice extract is used for stomach ulcers, heartburn, indigestion, congestion, sore throat and hepatitis. Research suggests that liquorice’s antioxidant compounds may be protective against certain types of cancer, specifically skin, breast, colorectal and prostate cancers.
Liquorice extract is generally safe, however it does interact with several medications and caution needs to be exercised when taking it.
Just as liquorice extract is popular in traditional and alternative medicine, it’s a mainstay favourite in skin care … because it’s a great multitasker. Liquorice root is used in skin care to combat acne, redness, inflammation, hyperpigmentation, and uneven texture and tone, and wrinkles.
Liquorice extract has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticarcinogenic properties.
In addition, it contains 2-9% of Glycyrrhizin, which has been found in clinical trials to have a powerful soothing and redness-reducing effect, similar to cortisol. The Glycyrrhizin works alongside Licochalcone, another natural anti-inflammatory compound, found in liquorice root. These two actives make liquorice root a wonderful ingredient for those acne, dermatitis, psoriasis, rosacea and sensitive skin.
Its other main component, Glabridin, is a potent antioxidant and skin soothing ingredient, which is why you often find it in skin care products for sensitive skin, often alongside marshmallow root. Glabridin also functions as a skin brightener and helps prevent hyperpigmentation caused by UV radiation, while also diminishing the appearance of pigmentation spots and scars.
Glabrene, Licochalcone A and Isoliquiritin are other active compounds found in liquorice extract, and they also help with skin brightening by dispersing melanin.
Liquorice extract is a phytoestrogen. Oestrogen in the body stimulates the production of collagen. The use of liquorice extract in skin care may be supportive of collagen, which is part of the supportive structure found in the dermis. More collagen in the skin helps improve the textural appearance of the skin, including scars and wrinkles.
Additionally, liquorice extract contains amino acids, which are skin replenishers that play a role in maintaining the skin’s hydration, resilience and overall health.
Liquorice extract also functions as an antioxidant, and like other antioxidants reduces the signs of skin ageing caused by UV exposure.
This botanical is suited to most skin types, except those who may have an allergy or intolerance to it.
So liquorice extract does have some science behind it to back up its use in skin care, just not the sweet stuff you eat.
Purslane is widely recognised as a pot herb in Central Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean region. It is used in salads and is an integral part of Middle East cuisine; which uses it fattoush and baldieh salads.
Purslane was once a favourite and common vegetable, given it grows abundantly, but fell out of favour. However it has made a comeback in more recent years because it’s incredibly nutritious and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Recent research has shown that purslane has better nutritional value than most cultivated vegetables. It contains beta-carotene, provitamin A, ascorbic acid, B vitamins, vitamin E, and alpha-linolenic acid, as well as minerals potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and iron.
Alpha-linolenic acid is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. It’s an essential nutrient that plays an important role in human growth and disease prevention. Purslane contains about five times more omega-3 fatty acid than spinach. It supports healthy vision and cell integrity, and lowers the risk of heart disease. Given its nutritional composition, purslane has been named a superfood.
Not only is purslane one of the most common plants in the world, it’s one of the most widely used medical plants, even though it’s considered a weed in the United States. Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to relieve pain, oedema and infection, as well as to treat bites, wounds and irritated skin. It is also analgesic.
Purslane has a complex phytochemistry and has many active compounds, including polysaccharides. These have been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer and immunity-enhancing properties.
Purslane is also recognised and used in skin care, particularly Korean skin care. It’s rich in antioxidants and has regenerative effects on the skin. Beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E are potent antioxidants that can reduce UV-induced damage and brighten the complexion. In addition, it also contains glutathione, another potent antioxidant that benefits the skin. Additionally, the omega-3 fatty acids present are useful for skin regeneration and healthy skin barrier function.
Purslane, however, has been pushed onto the stage by Dr Barbara Sturm, who has made it front and centre of her eponymous brand. Dr Sturm was intrigued by the potential of Portulaca oleracea to activate telomerase, the fountain of youth enzyme shown in a Harvard animal study to reverse the ageing process.
In clinical trials, purslane has been shown to have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory and antifungal and wound-healing properties. However this was through oral supplementation. Mice fed purslane herb extracts had a lengthening of their telomeres, those little protective caps at the ends of our DNA molecules that make up our chromosomes and determine ageing.
But don’t get too excited! Not one yet has been able to come up with a way to upregulate the telomerase enzyme in the body without the risk of also activating cancer cells.
Keep in mind that most of the research that keeps being used to declare purslane a wonder anti-ageing skin care ingredient comes from studies looking at oral supplementation. Science to support the extraordinary claims made for purslane in skin care are scarce at this stage.
So what can we say about the benefits of purslane in skin care? It functions as an antioxidant, stimulates cell repair, improves hydration, brightens the skin, decreases inflammation and it may improve blood flow, thereby enhancing skin tone.
There are also claims that purslane, or rather the potassium ions in purslane, decreases wrinkles by relaxing facial muscle activity, but given the lack of evidence don’t expect it to take the place of Botox any time soon.
Rhubarb is a tart reddish green vegetable that makes a delicious pie, sorbet or jam when combined with loads of sugar, so long as you stick to the stalks, and avoid the toxic leaves! But is it just as sweet a treat for the skin?
Rhubarb packs more antioxidant punch than kale, and is rich in polyphenols. It’s also high in vitamin C, vitamin K, minerals and prebiotic fibre, which is essential to gut health. Polyphenols may have benefits for those with high cholesterol, digestive problems, constipation, weight issues, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and cardiovascular diseases.
Rhubarb hasn’t quite made the hit parade yet in the way kale and matcha have, but it’s starting to show up in skin care products, more particularly those targeting the natural segment.
Rheum palmatum is the medicinal version and is a relative of the rhubarb we eat. It’s been used for more than 2000 years in traditional Chinese medicine for a wide range of symptoms including high cholesterol, menstrual symptoms, digestive issues, and liver and kidney complaints. Rhubarb is also extensively used as medicine in Tibet and India. It may also reduce histamine release in the body.
The medicinal properties of rhubarb are found in the underground stem and roots. There’s some evidence that it has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and wound-healing properties.
Its history may date back to 114 BC, when the dried rhizomes were traded as a medicinal herb and made its way to Europe. By the 18th century, Europe started cultivating the edible variety of rhubarb for therapeutic use as a gentle laxative, but it doesn’t have the same potency as Chinese rhubarb, Da Huang.
As recently as 1988, Chinese rhubarb was listed in the British Pharmacopoeia.
The two therapeutic components of Chinese rhubarb are tannins and anthraglycosides. While anthraglycosides have a laxative effect, tannins have astringent properties, making it rather contradictory therapeutically – and possibly the reason western herbalists generally don’t favour it. However in Chinese practice, it’s seen as harmonising.
In homeopathy, rhubarb is used topically for boils, burns, sores, mouth ulcers and cold sores, as well as a mouthwash. It may be effective against the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which is often associated folliculitis. But what’s it doing in skin care products?
In skin care it’s used to brighten, fight wrinkles, reduce inflammation and redness, boost collagen production, strengthen elastic fibres, minimise pores and reduce sebum. And it’s claimed to be effective for atopic dermatitis, reducing sebum, improving skin roughness and hydrating the skin.
Rhubarb contains antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin B, vitamin E, phenolic acid and anthocyanins. These antioxidants work to neutralise free radicals and thereby reduce their ageing effects. Antioxidants play a role in protecting important elements in the skin, such as collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid, and therefore keep the skin looking plumper longer.
Rhubarb has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, which may make it helpful for those with skin conditions, such as dermatitis, acne and rosacea. Inflammation is involved in acne, rosacea, sagging skin and can delay wound healing.
Rhubarb belongs to the Polygonaceae family, a group of plants that are tyrosinase inhibitors. These help create a brighter complexion by reducing or preventing the release of melanin in the skin, which leads to hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone, when it is exposed to UV rays.
Research on the cosmetic use of rhubarb is hard to find, however there is a lab study confirming its antioxidant and tyrosinase inhibiting benefits for the skin.
The tannins in the rhubarb root make it astringent, which is why it was used traditionally to treat haemorrhoids and other inflammations. For the same reason, it’s claimed to reduce the appearance of pores, but this isn’t a credible claim considering what causes enlarged pores.
I love my matcha lattes for their antioxidant benefits and they take me to my Zen place, so I was intrigued about matcha in skin care products.
Matcha and green tea come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The green tea version is derived from the leaves of the plant and comes in the form of loose tea or tea bags. Matcha also comes from the leaves of the plant, but is finely milled into a powder. Matcha makes a thick, rich and nutty beverage, and of course can be used to make matcha ice-cream, cream brulee, cookies, puddings and much more.
Green tea is being used as a dietary supplement. Green tea contains complex polyphenolic compounds that have a protective effective on the body due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Green tea extracts have been shown to modulate biochemical pathways that are important in cell growth, inflammatory responses and tumour development.
Just as green tea can deliver benefits to internal organs, it also has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the skin.
Inflammation and oxidative stress are two key factors in ageing. Like other antioxidants, green tea scavenges free radicals and reduces inflammation, thereby having anti-ageing benefits. Many of these benefits already have been discussed above.
Researchers have identified the main active ingredient in green tea as epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG. Not only is EGCG a strong antioxidant, it also helps maintain the barrier function of the skin and thereby improves hydration.
In studies, green tea extract applied to human skin has been shown to reduce sunburn, protect the epidermis and reduce DNA damage to the skin. It contains natural flavonoids, polyphenols, and they enhance photo-protection of the skin when used with sunscreen. These polyphenols can reduce redness in the skin caused by UVB exposure.
Green tea also improves wound healing and inhibits the Streptococcus species and Escherichia coli bacteria.
Another one of green tea’s party tricks is its ability to decrease skin cancer cells in mice when used topically and orally.
Most cosmetic products with green tea extracts or phenols have not undertaken clinical trials, however there’s enough evidence to support its use.
If you’re thinking of using skin care products with matcha or green tea, look closely at the ingredient list to ensure there is enough in there to deliver the claimed benefits. Look for a percentage of at least 5% green tea extract.
So there is much ado about something when it comes to matcha, not because it’s matcha but because it’s green tea.
Super active ingredients in the form of botanicals can be found in skin care, and some even have a long history of use in traditional medicine. I’ve discussed six of these here and detailed their uses and benefits, however always look at how much of the ingredient is in the actual product. If it isn’t in the top 10 ingredients, it’s unlikely to be at a concentration that’s going to do much at all.
Look for these and other botanicals in the skin care products in our shop. We have carefully selected each and every product we carry based on science and actives, so that you get results, safely.
Yours truly in better skin