Plants can heal us from both the inside and out
An introduction to herbs for skincare including plants & flowers to use for different skin types and conditions. Includes herbal skin care recipe ideas.
Go to any beauty counter and you’ll find rows of skincare products featuring plant-based extracts. Regenerative creams with pomegranate seed oil, anti-wrinkle serums made with ginseng root, and face masks blended with kelp extract. There are two messages at play in the world of high-end beauty and the first is that plants can heal us from the outside. The other more veiled message is the mystique created around botanical extracts.
It’s an emotive word, botanical, and it creates a pseudo-scientific barrier between us and the plants that heal. One that only scientists and chemists specializing in beauty treatments and packaged potions can breach for us. The truth is that plants, flowers, and herbs can nourish and heal from the inside and out. Not only this, but that you can make use of them yourself.
Botanical extracts in your own backyard
Although many of the extracts you might come across seem exotic, many others grow closer to home. You can find them fresh and dried at the supermarket or farmers market. They may even grow in your garden – deliberately planted or as ‘weeds’. Acne fighting thyme, soothing aloe vera, and gently toning rose petals are just the tip of the iceberg.
This is the first piece in a series on creating your own plant-based skincare. It presents safe temperate climate plants that you can use for different skin types. Along with each herbal profile is general guidance on how you can use it to make creams, lotions, serums, balms, or other products.
- Plants, Flowers, and Herbs for Skin Care
- Grow a Beauty & Skin Care Garden
- Using plants and flowers to make DIY herbal skin care
Benefits of plant-based beauty
Beauty blooms from within. This well-known proverb is true on many levels but I’d like to highlight the one pertaining to skin. Many skincare herbs including thyme, rosemary, sage, and calendula, are edible and even common in food dishes. Not only does that make them safe to use in homemade beauty recipes but their use inside as well as out is important for healthy skin. A poor diet reflects itself in mood, energy levels, and how our skin looks, feels, and functions.
Skincare herbs contain natural antioxidants, vitamins, and emollients that make their way to your skin from underneath and from outside. Eating them is one of the easiest ways to get them in your system. Making skin products with them is a little more involved but can offer different benefits.
Growing your own skincare herbs can help in your health and beauty regime too. Just being outside and around plants can increase your life span. The light exercise, vitamin-D from sunlight, and effect on mood all contribute to your well-being. I can vouch for this personally.
Beauty product terminology
- Balm – a firm oil based product that needs rubbing into the skin. The hardness comes from a moderate amount of beeswax, soy wax, or another hard oil.
- Salve – Salves are oil based products similar to balms but much softer. They contain a higher percentage of liquid oils than balms.
- Lotion – There are two types of lotion. Either a thin cream (below) or a herbal water infusion used to bathe the skin
- Cream – You make creams by blending a small amount of oil into a larger amount of water using an emulsifier.
- Decoction – A concentrated liquid that you create by heating or boiling tough plant material like roots and bark in water.
- Oil infusion – Dried plant material infused into a liquid oil.
- Water infusion – Fresh or dried plant material infused into water, usually distilled. Essentially a tea.
- Rinse – a water infusion that you use on your skin or hair. When it dries, the water content evaporates off leaving botanical extracts behind.
- Serum – concentrated plant extracts in either water or liquid oil. You apply it to your skin after cleansing but before moisturizing.
- Tincture – dried (or low water-content) plant material that you generally infuse into alcohol. You can also make a tincture by infusing into glycerine.
- Toner – a liquid that you apply to your skin with cotton wool. Some are astringent and can remove oil and tighten skin. Some are gentler and aid in cleansing and refreshing.
Plants, flowers, and herbs for natural skincare
There are scores of plants you can use to form your handmade beauty arsenal. Some are great at soothing irritated skin, others moisturize, and yet others treat acne. Many plants have multiple skincare properties and can be used for a range of skin conditions. Calendula is one of my favourites and you can use it to treat eczema, burns, cuts, acne, and so much more.
I’ve categorized the below skincare plants based on their main uses. The main extracting method you use for each of the plant is listed in the description. I also share potential uses and beauty products you can make with each too.
Hurt and damaged skin
There are so many reasons that your skin may become damaged. Burns or sun burn, medications or medical treatment, cuts and bruises are just a few. When treating damaged skin stick to gentle rinses, salves, and creams that protect and encourage skin regeneration.
Herbs for skincare: plants for healing damaged skin
Calendula (Calendula Officinalis). Extracts from the golden petals of this flower soothe the skin, reduce inflammation, and heal burns, sunburns, acne, eczema, and skin abrasions. Use the oil or water infusion method for extraction. Possible uses include salves, balms, creams, lotions, toners, and rinses. You can also make a tincture from calendula and then dab it on pimples to promote healing. For an in-depth look at using calendula in skincare, head over here.
Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis). If your climate is not warm enough to grow aloe vera outdoors, it does well as a house plant. You can use the gel inside its leaves to soothe burned skin and to reduce inflammation. You can also use aloe as an oil-free moisturizer though regular use can over-dry your skin. For daily skincare it’s better to use aloe vera as part of a light lotion. Extract by cutting the leaves open and scooping out the gel. Aloe can be used on its own but also in creams and lotions though it needs blending and/or straining first. Idea: Organic Aloe Face Cream Recipe + Instructions
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea). Echinacea extract can help speed up skin regeneration, reduce inflammation, and treat acne. It’s also a gorgeous flower that would look beautiful in any garden. Use a decoction of the roots or water infusion of the flowers as a toner or to drink. You can also use the liquid to make creams and lotions. As a tincture it’s especially helpful for treating blemishes.
Comfrey (Symphytum offinale). Comfrey leaves and flowers have powerful anti-inflammatory properties which make it a good option for treating inflamed skin. Infusions can be made from these parts for use as a toner or in creams and lotions. It’s especially good for promoting skin healing and treating eczema, psoriasis, acne and other skin eruptions. Infusions of the root are best for spot-treating pimples. Please note that comfrey should not be taken internally.
What causes acne?
Pimples and black/white heads are caused by various factors that lead up to increased oil production. It could be stress or hormonal changes (puberty or the menopause) but what ends up happening is pores getting blocked with sebum. It’s then that the common and harmless Propionibacterium acnes bacteria becomes an issue. They build up inside the clogged pore and your body responds by sending cells in to deal with the infestation. The result is a raised red bump that may or may not form a head.
If you’re suffering from pimples, try to reduce stress, keep hydrated, and gently cleanse and treat your skin. Your skin may respond better to some treatments than others so don’t give up in finding the right one for you.
Skincare herbs for pimples and blemishes
Green tea (Camellia sinensis). Contains antioxidants that can control sebum (oil) production, inhibit bacterial growth, and reduce inflammation. Make an infusion of the fresh or dried tea leaves and use in creams, lotions, or as a facial toner.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). A common and fragrant garden shrub, lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it beneficial for those with skin irritation and inflammation. Lavender oil has also been shown to help speed the healing of cuts, burns, and abrasions. Use dried flowers to make an oil infusion and use in creams, lotions, or as a facial toner. You can also infuse dried or fresh flowers into a mixture of water and alcohol (or witch hazel) to make lavender water. Here’s how to grow lavender for skincare recipes.
Burdock Root (Arctium lappa). Burdock is a unique skincare herb since it should mainly be taken internally. It’s a cleansing herb and works from the inside to help heal acne, boils, psoriasis, and eczema. Drink a decoction of the root daily for up to a month.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Recent studies have shown that thyme is more effective at clearing acne than treatments using Benzoyl peroxide, the most common ingredient in acne treatments. Scientists used a tincture to conduct the study and presumably dabbed it on spots. It killed the bacteria responsible for blemishes within five minutes.
Lemon juice. The astringent properties of citrus, dabbed on with cotton wool, can help remove excess oil and brighten your skin
Aloe vera. Not only does it’s fresh gel help with healing and inflammation but aloe vera is a gentle toner and oil-free moisturizer. Over use can lead to dryness so on its own try to use it as a spot treatment rather than as a daily moisturizer. If made into a balanced lotion like this one then it’s great to use every day.
Herbs for skincare: plants for mature skin
Mature skin is delicate and can be dry and lacking in luminosity and firmness. It may also have wrinkles, larger pores, and hyper-pigmentation. Keep treatments gentle and make sure to take precautions against further sun damage and dehydration.
Roses (Rosa). Rose water is a mild astringent and great as a toner for all skin types. It’s especially great for mature skin since it’s both gentle and hydrating. It also smells incredible. True rose water is a by-product of the distillation of rose petals to make essential oil. However, you can make a hack version of your own using this infusion method. Both wild and cultivated rose petals are suitable.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis). High in anti-oxidants, green tea has been shown to help repair skin damaged by age and environmental factors. Drink as a tea or use the water infusion as a toner or in creams and lotions.
Ladys mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris). Found in anti-wrinkle creams, lady’s mantle helps firm the skin and decrease the size of pores. Use a water infusion of the leaves as a toner or in creams and lotions. It’s also a woman’s herb and you can drink it as a tea to soothe menstrual pains, and during the menopause.
Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum). Helichrysum has natural anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness and promote regeneration. It’s also an effective skincare herb for conditions ranging from acne to aged and damaged skin. Use the flowers in a tincture or an oil or water infusion to help diminish fine lines and wrinkles. The solutions can be used on their own as a toner, or in creams and lotions. Helichrysum is also known as the curry plant due to its distinctive scent.
Herbs for skincare: astringent and toning herbs
Toners and astringents are liquid solutions that cleanse excess oil, tighten skin, and reduce the size of pores.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis). Used in many commercial toners, witch hazel contains naturally high levels of astringent tannins. These help to remove oil and tighten the skin. You can make a tincture by first making a decoction of the bark and mixing it with alcohol such as 80 proof vodka. It’s best to use the smaller twigs from fresh growth but dried bark will also work. Use a water infusion of the leaves as a natural toner.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Every garden has ‘weeds’ but some are more useful than others. In a skincare garden you might want to encourage yarrow, a common wild plant used in herbal medicine. A water infusion of the leaves and flowers can be used as an astringent toner, helping remove oil, improve skin tone, and reduce inflammation.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). A lemony and minty plant that works as a refreshing toner for oily and acne-prone skin. Use a water infusion of the leaves as a toner and a water and/or oil infusion for use in light lotions. Lemon balm has also shown anti-viral properties which makes it an ideal extract to use in cold sore creams and lip balms.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). An infusion of Rosemary leaves can be used as an aromatic astringent for all skin types. It also helps in promoting healing by stimulating blood flow to the skin. Use an oil or water infusion of this herb in making massage oils, toners, creams, hair rinses, balms, and lotions. Idea: Natural Rosemary Soap Recipe for Oily Skin
Treating Dry Skin
Dry skin is often caused by skin disorders, environmental factors, dehydration, medications, or using certain products. Even over-using some herbs for skincare can cause over-drying, as in the case with aloe vera. Moisturizing the skin should begin with drinking enough water and enabling your skin to hold moisture in. Avoid using very hot water, especially on your face, and moisturize with gentle creams and lotions. These plants contain extracts that can help.
Herbs for skincare: plants that moisturize skin
Violet (Viola odorata or Viola canina). Fragrant and only slightly astringent, violet leaf and flower extract is juicy and moisturizing. Perfect for dry skin, violets are also anti-inflammatory and help heal cuts and wounds. Infuse fresh plant material in oil or water and use the extract to make creams, lotions, balms, massage oil, and toners.
Common Plantain (Plantago major or Plantago lanceolata). Another ‘weed’ that you’ll find happily growing in most gardens, plantain leaves contain moisturizing mucilage. It’s also an effective skin healer that you can use to help heal wounds and bruises. Prepare the leaves by water or oil infusion for use in salves, creams, lotions, balms, and massage oils.
Roses (Rosa). Rose water or an infusion of rose petals refreshes and hydrate the skin. Roses are an excellent extract for all skin types but especially for those with sensitive and mature skin. Try some of these rose skincare recipes.
Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis). The roots, leaves, and flowers of marsh mallow contain rich sources of mucilage, pectin, and sugars that soften and moisturize the skin. The roots contain the highest amounts though. Soak the root in cold water overnight and use the liquid to make silky lotions and creams.
Treating inflamed skin
Skin can feel inflamed for a number of reasons — allergic reactions, menstrual cycle, poor health, or the consequences of a night out on the dance floor. Use these herbs for skincare to create simple herbal rinses or as one of the suggested skin products. Each will help to relieve redness, puffiness, and inflammation.
Herbs for skincare: plants for red, puffy, and inflamed skin
Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys). An anti-inflammatory flower used to relieve the redness and itch caused by eczema and other skin conditions. It grows wild in some places but makes a lovely addition to any garden. Use a water infusion of the leaves and flowers as a toner or in creams and lotions.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). A gentle herb, it’s used to soothe dry and irritated skin such as caused by dermatitis and eczema. You can use it for all skin types though. Use oil or water infusions in balms, creams, lotions, toners, or massage oil. If you have an allergy to ragweed (ragwort) avoid using chamomile.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus). A common garden vegetable, the moist flesh of cucumbers reduces puffiness, sooths irritation, and tightens the skin. Use a water infusion of cucumber in creams and lotions, puree the flesh and use it as a facial mask, or use the well-known treatment of slices of cucumber over the eyes to soothe, tighten, and brighten dark circles.
Chickweed (Stellaria media). A very common weed in many gardens, chickweed is an effective anti-inflammatory. Infuse the leaves in water or oil and use it to make balms, salves, creams, lotions, and other beauty products. You can also use it to reduce redness, irritation, and to soothe chronic itching.
Gradual color change
Some herbs for skincare can help gradually lighten or darken hair, blemishes, and nails. Although their effects aren’t as immediate as chemical options, you can use them with the assurance that they’re natural and completely safe.
Herbs for skincare: plants that naturally lighten & darken
Elderflower (Sambucus). Elderflowers blossom in late May through June and you can use them to make making sweet drinks and desserts. Lesser known is that water or oil infusions of the flowers can be used to help fade freckles, age spots, and scars. The extract is also anti-inflammatory and can help condition mature skin.
Sage (Salvia officinalis). Although this herb helps to cleanse oily skin, you can also use it as a rinse for dark hair. Infuse the fresh or dried leaves in water and apply to hair daily. Though it won’t permanently tint your hair, it can gradually darken hair. Grey or coarse hair may be resistant to picking up color though. You could also use it in combination with rosemary, crushed black walnut hulls, nettles, and coffee for increased darkening effects.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary can be used similarly to sage in helping to darken hair. Use as a water infusion as a rinse for the hair.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Chamomile is a natural hair lightener. Use a water infusion of the flowers as a hair rinse or in leave in conditioners. If you want to increase the lightening power of chamomile, use it together with lemon juice.
Homemade Herbal Skincare Series
- Plants, Flowers, and Herbs for Skin Care
- Grow a Beauty & Skin Care Garden
- Using plants and flowers to make DIY herbal skin care
 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “More exposure to vegetation linked with lower mortality rates in women” April 2016
 Society for General Microbiology. “Thyme may be better for acne than prescription creams.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 March 2012