Conscious consumers care about both what goes in their bodies and on their skin. The practice of applying botanicals to the skin to keep a youthful glow dates back to ancient Egypt, but now knowledgeable customers can also stave off the aging process internally.
Research is showing that certain oral supplements, known as nutraceutical cosmetics, or simply nutracosmetics, can enhance skin health, treating the skin from the inside out. Active compounds in plants have the ability to reduce free radicals; rejuvenate healthy cell turnover; and heal and soothe stressed, mature or sun-damaged skin from within.
Anti-inflammatories are the first go-to supplement to complement a healthy skin-care regimen. All of the herbs covered here fit into this category. Inflammation may lead to skin redness, pain or swelling, but subclinical inflammation—the kind we don’t notice—is now recognized as the first step toward disease and is part of the breakdown of overall healthy cellular regeneration. Stress and poor lifestyle choices, as well as excess sun exposure, all bring on inflammation.
Antioxidants counteract the oxidative damage that assaults us on numerous fronts—air pollution, ozone, sun exposure, smoking and poor diet.
Other nutraceutical ingredients provide important nutrients and vitamins to the skin, or improve the production of connective tissue components such as elastin and collagen. This is sometimes known as the extracellular matrix of the skin, providing contour, plumpness and bounce to young-looking skin. The enzymes that break down this matrix increase as we age, but research shows that certain botanicals will counteract these enzymes and reduce the destruction of these youthful structures.
Here are emerging botanicals for inside-out beauty.
This isolated compound found in a number of plants is usually derived from Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), though other sources include grapes, berries and chocolate. This polyphenolic compound is a premier anti-inflammatory and is considered a leading ingredient to slow the aging process. It can extend life at a genetic level by producing sirtuin 1, an enzyme involved in cellular regulation. Resveratrol also acts as an antioxidant.
The nutrient-packed wolfberry (Lyceum barbata), also known as goji berry, is available as an extract or juice, and an oil pressed from the seed can be used both internally and externally. Many of these forms are currently being used for a variety of antiaging benefits. Goji berries are rich in antioxidants, particularly the carotenoids beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, which not only improve the skin, but also contribute to eye health. A study in which hairless mice were given 5 percent goji juice demonstrated antioxidant activity against lipid peroxidation (cell damage) induced by ultraviolet A radiation.
This protein- and mineral-rich fruit contains polysaccharides that fortify overall immunity and support healthy skin from the inside out. A concentrated extract is most potent for skin health, but the mildly sweet flavor of this superfruit also makes it an easy and tasty addition to beverages.
Formerly known as Siberian ginseng, this well-known adaptogenic herb (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has multiple effects that benefit skin health, but in a less direct way. Eleuthero is best known for athletic recovery and stamina, working through a variety of mechanisms. It is used to boost immune function, detoxify the liver and protect against radiation exposure. Its antioxidant properties prevent cellular damage due to oxidative stress, such as through excess sun exposure and physical overexertion.
Eleuthero’s adaptogenic effects are the subject of most studies. Stress, fatigue and mental and physical endurance have been shown to improve with the use of this herb and, quite possibly, it increases longevity. Eleuthero has an important role in cell survival and apoptosis (potentially beneficial programmed cell death) affecting levels of circulating stress-hormone cortisol. This regulates the resistance to stress and enhances mental and physical performance.
Indian pennywort, as it is sometimes known, is an edible plant native to India, Southeast Asia and Africa, and was once thought of only as an herb to improve memory and detoxify the body. But antiaging claims for this herb are not new; Centella asiatica has been used for centuries throughout these native regions to help prevent wrinkles.
Anecdotally, gotu kola is also said to be useful in the treatment of psoriasis, varicose veins, stress and arthritis, and it aids in wound healing and weight loss. Research on asiaticoside, a saponin from Centella, shows it supports the speedy healing of burns through the promotion of angiogenesis (new blood-vessel growth). This same compound induces type I collagen synthesis in human dermal fibroblast (skin) cells. Another compound in gotu kola helps sun-damaged skin: Madecassoside, also known to induce collagen expression and/or to modulate inflammatory mediators, was used in 20 women; after six months of treatment, two-thirds of the women showed improvements in superficial skin suppleness, firmness, wrinkles, elasticity and hydration.
This resinous plant extract (Boswellia serrata) is anti-inflammatory through several mechanisms. It reduces the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase and decreases the activity of human leukocyte elastase (HLE). Blocking these two inflammatory enzymes makes this herb an active compound to consider in formulation with other synergistic botanicals. Frankincense also limits degradation of the extracellular matrix of skin and reduces elastase, the enzyme that breaks down the production of elastin in the skin. Elastin and collagen give skin the plump, full look of youth; these break down with age and lead to visible wrinkles, sagging and skin laxity.
This most ancient of food-herbs is high in proanthocyanidins—flavonoids found mostly in the seed and skins of grapes (Vitis vinifera). Research on mice shows grapes offer skin-cancer protection. In addition, grapes influence one of the most widely known causes of aging—advanced glycating end products (AGEs), mainly from excess sugars and carbohydrates. These cause cross linking of elastin and collagen fibers and, thus, damaged skin. Gallic acid, catechin and epicatechin, the three major polyphenols in grape seeds, can all significantly decrease AGEs.
Mindy Green is an aesthetician, author, herbalist, former research and development employee of Aveda and an industry consultant.