Botanicals and botanical extracts are big in skin care right now. But what are they, do they work and how do you use them? We’ll touch on these topics here in a series of blogs. One advantage to using botanicals and herbs as active ingredients is that they are a renewable resource and they support farmers and open space and thus promote sustainability. Take care though because sometimes botanicals can be unethically harvested from the wild in a way that damages the environment and that defeats the purpose. And the image of herbs or natural products as being safe has to be lost because it just isn’t true. Too much of anything is harmful; water is fatal if inhaled. On the flip side, not enough of something can have no effect at all and simply be used as filler or label appeal. Herbs are not only nutrients for us but also for bacteria and mold. So preserving and testing your product is important; unless of course it something to be used within a few days. Lotions are like food; you wouldn’t leave a sandwich on your bedside table to be eaten over a period of weeks and neither should you do so with a cosmetic that is not preserved properly.

The simplest herb preparation is simply dried herb which can remain whole or be ground. Herbs used like this are great added to your melt and pour or cold processed soaps. Herbs can also be processed in a number of ways from distilling for essential oils or essential waters (distillates/hydrolates) or a variety of different types of extracts. These processes concentrate certain aspects of the herb that are typically either water soluble components or oil soluble components but not both. Know what properties you are after.

Herbs are rich in flavonoids, polyphenolic plant pigments. These are useful to humans as antioxidants but are mainly found in the water soluble extracts. Fat soluble vitamins such as A, E and K are also common in herbs but are mainly found in the fat soluble extracts and not water soluble extracts. Essential oils and small molecular weight organic acids are extracted by distillation because they have a boiling point near that of water and so will vaporize with heat. However, after distillation they will separate out into oil soluble portions (essential oil) and water soluble portion which is the watery distillate also called a hydrolate or a hydrosol. Because essential oils are concentrated terpenes they can be toxic to the skin or cause sensitivities (immune response) so shouldn’t be used willy nilly. Essential waters distilled from herbs are more dilute and safer but keep in mind that anything can cause sensitivities be it natural or synthetic.

There is a lot of redundancy in the herb world so you may not need that exotic, hard to find, expensive botanical from far away. Those same properties you are after may exist in a weed in your back yard. Of course, label appeal may not be the same for that!

Shannon Thompson from The Bath Project and part of the blog team at the Etsy Green and Clean has asked me to contribute some posting on herbs for skin care. This blog is part of a series of blogs I will also be posting at