Beauty botanicals: Which botanicals make promising skincare ingredients?

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 22 No. 4
Volume 22
Issue 4

A look at herbal beauty ingredients, from turmeric to CBD.

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Not long ago, the words organic and botanically based applied mainly to things we ate-or, like supplements, swallowed in pill or powder form. But lately, says Ramon Luna, marketing coordinator, Ecuadorian Rainforest (Clifton, NJ), “Store shelves are lined with more than just natural foods and supplements. There are natural cleansers, shampoos, body-care products, and more.”

And it makes sense: Given the inordinate energy we spend vetting what goes into our bodies, shouldn’t we devote the same scrutiny to what goes onto them-skin, hair, and nails-as well?

So with consumers “shopping more scrupulously,” as Luna puts it-even for ostensibly surface-level lotions and potions-“they’re more aware of what they use on their bodies, and they’re realizing that instead of using chemicals, they can rely on natural products to get the look they desire.”

The upshot: These are boom times for botanical beauty and plant-based personal care. And as suppliers refine their crop of botanical ingredients, the benefits both to consumers and to brands promise only to grow.

Better Botanicals

“Natural, sustainable, and plant-based beauty is taking a major stake hold in the market today,” declares Paula Simpson, nutricosmetics formulator and founder, Nutribloom Consulting (New York and Toronto; “Plant-based and botanical ingredients are a natural fit within this category.”

Of course, botanical ingredients have been standard in personal care since before it was even a category. So if you thought those green bottles of Clairol Herbal Essence were a throwback, consider that “we’ve relied on plants and botanicals for thousands of years to promote health and vitality, manage chronic conditions, and contribute to skin and beauty regimens,” Simpson says.

The difference is that science is finally catching up to the folklore, elucidating how whole-plant or isolated phytochemical actives work “either systemically or topically for natural beauty,” Simpson continues. “From large classed groups like carotenoids and polyphenols-with their effects on oxidative stress, inflammation, epigenetics, or even the microbiome-to isolated actives that target a specific mechanism of action, botanicals offer a multitude of benefits and a variety of claims that both nutricosmetic and natural skincare products can capture.”


Not Just Cosmetic

Even better, contemporary extraction and processing methods are improving ingredient quality, stability, and effectiveness, while granting consumers the transparency they prize. That’s giving botanical beauty ingredients more than just a cosmetic role in…err, cosmetics.

As Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide, Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ), puts it, “Though botanical ingredients have been included in modern beauty products for years, they were present mostly in small amounts as ‘claim’ ingredients-people liked that the botanicals were there, so the ingredients helped sell the product.”

Now “there’s been a shift toward using botanicals as performance ingredients because they deliver benefits,” Majeed continues. “This advance happened as technology evolved to process them into stronger actives and to measure performance, thereby demonstrating benefits.”

Contemporary purification and standardization methods for natural ingredients also ensure performance consistency, too, Majeed adds, “which is important with a botanical that can vary from season to season.”


Work It

We also better understand how botanical ingredients act on skin, hair, and nails-enabling brands to fine-tune formulations to target benefits.

In most cases, says Brien Quirk, director of R&D, Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA), a botanical’s mechanism of action produces “a physical effect, such as moisturizing or enhancing the skin’s barrier function. But at a deeper level, the bioactive phyto-compounds exert effects on cell signaling and at the genetic level to modify inflammation, protein synthesis, cell growth and division-rejuvenation-and, ultimately, cell longevity.”

Majeed adds that some nutricosmetic beauty botanicals help inhibit formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which research implicates in exacerbating myriad age-related ills, including those that weaken skin. Meanwhile, other ingredients stanch free-radical and singlet-oxygen-induced lipid peroxidation and prevent the fragmentation and degradation of collagen and elastin fibers.

Applied topically, Majeed says, “Botanical extracts can even skin tone and provide antiaging properties by inhibiting tyrosinase enzyme and melanin production”-responsible for darkening skin-“and can protect cells from harmful UV radiation, act as antioxidants, improve hydration, and promote synthesis of fibrous proteins in the dermis.”


Inside or Out?

So are consumers better off ingesting beauty botanicals, or letting them work from the outside in?

“Beauty ingredients applied topically show more immediate effects compared to ingestion, which is more subtle and takes time,” Majeed says. “The activities are different. Oral ingredients are taken in milligrams, whereas for topical application they’re used in percentage levels.”

Ultimately, given that visible signs of aging like wrinkles and sagging skin result from both extrinsic and intrinsic factors, Majeed recommends a tag-team approach of topical application and ingestion to supply the optimum “synergistic potential compared to using either alone.”

And what’s next for botanical beauty? “Lately we’ve seen requests for multi-botanical formulas that deliver more therapeutic aspects, addressing such conditions as itchy scalp, hair loss, and antioxidant skin protection,” Quirk says. “Antiaging seems still to be trending strongly-probably never will let up-and moisturizing is always essential.”

Whatever perks consumers seek, they’ll likely keep looking for them in the garden. As Majeed says, “People like naturally derived ingredients, and they also like products that work. With today’s botanicals, they can have both.”

Read on to see which beauty botanicals experts think are sitting pretty.

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Fruit-Derived Polysaccharides

Those of us who get our five-a-day of fruit know how good apples, peaches, pears, and the like are for our insides. But Quirk points to “exciting developments with fruit-derived polysaccharides” that hint at benefits for our outsides, too.

“We know that fruit extracts, such as apple, pineapple, peach, apricot, jujube, and goji berry, have high levels of pectin-based polysaccharides that are good at locking in moisture because of their enormous, complex honeycomb molecular structure,” he explains. These compounds are water-based and leave no oily sheen, and can replace synthetics like carboxymethylcellulose and carbomer, too, he adds. “Another good example is from Japanese Elm bark, which has been compared to hyaluronic acid in terms of efficacy.”

The catch: To ensure peak efficacy, water extraction of fruit-derived polysaccharides is best, Quirk says; products made via ethanolic extraction exhibit poor solubility and polysaccharide content.

Photo © Zwerver

Cannabidiol (CBD)

According to Quirk, the domestic market for botanical beauty still tilts toward topicals-particularly in the absence of sufficient clinical support to breed full consumer confidence in ingestible “beauty-from-within.”

But cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in hemp and marijuana, offers a case study in how botanical beauty ingredients can “code-switch,” so to speak.

“Even though topical use of CBD is mainly marketed for transdermal absorption into systemic circulation for pain relief and calming actions,” Quirk says, “there are growing uses for local topical benefits, like reducing acne inflammation and addressing other inflammatory skin conditions, such as psoriasis and possibly general skin inflammation.”

Brands can also pair CBD with agonists-like those derived from black pepper, clove, and cinnamon essential oils-to support cannabinoid receptors and enhance CBD absorption and activity, Quirk says.

Photo from Sabinsa Corp.

Pterocarpus marsupium

What does insulin response have to do with aging skin? More than you might think.

When the body’s ability to release insulin following a blood-sugar spike flags, levels of circulating sugars remain high. “Increased sugar levels bind to proteins by the process of glycation,” Majeed explains, “and produce AGEs, which in turn damage collagen and elastin.”1

Pterostilbene-a stilbenoid compound related to resveratrol and found in the Indian kino tree (Pterocarpus marsupium)-has been shown to effectively control blood-sugar levels by inducing the pancreas’s beta cells to release insulin.2 That means fewer building blocks for age-promoting AGEs.

Sabinsa’s branded ingredient Silbinol is sourced from Indian kino and standardized to contain a minimum of 90% pterostilbene.


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Andrographis paniculata

Practitioners of both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine have turned to the South and Southeast Asian herb Andrographis paniculata for centuries, prizing its antibacterial, antifungal, even its adaptogenic benefits. Now, Draco’s Quirk calls attention to its “most pronounced and unique antiaging effects, with evidence of a clinically proven mechanism of action.”

To wit, topical application of the extract appeared in a study to increase epidermal stem cell proliferation and boost type-1 collagen production in normal human fibroblasts. The researchers found that eight weeks of treatment improved skin hydration, dermal density, wrinkling, and sagging, leading them to suggest A. paniculata “as a possible antiaging agent.”3

Artocarpus lacucha

What could possibly be better than resveratrol, the polyphenol credited with everything from the “French Paradox” to fighting oxidation? If the research is to be believed, the answer may be its cousin oxyresveratrol, derived from the dried heartwood of the monkey fruit tree (Artocarpus lacucha).

One study4 found the compound to be 150 times stronger than resveratrol-and 32 times stronger than kojic acid-in its ability to lighten skin and potentially even out skin tone, Majeed says. Another reinforced the compound’s superior antioxidant activity, inhibition of the tyrosinase enzyme, and capacity to protect against UV radiation.5 “It’s also known to reduce the formation of AGEs and the crosslinking of collagen,” Majeed adds. Sold as Artonox, Sabinsa’s A. lacucha product contains a minimum of 95% oxyresveratrol.

Photo © Studio

Curcuma longa

Botanicals are remarkably rich sources of compounds that inhibit the melanin-synthesizing enzyme tyrosinase-making them key ingredients in formulations that aim to lighten skin tone. A fitting example comes from turmeric root (Curcuma longa), which is the source of the tetrahydrocurcumin used in Sabinsa’s trademarked SabiWhite ingredient.

Majeed says the active inhibits tyrosinase powerfully enough to slow melanogenesis and is more effective than kojic acid, licorice root extract, and vitamin C as a natural depigmenting agent.

But don’t just take his word for it; a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 50 human subjects found a 0.25% cream preparation of the ingredient to be a safe and effective alternative to a standard 4% hydroquinone cream for topical depigmenting.6


Photo © Steinbach

Croton lechleri

Don’t let the name put you off; dragon’s blood is the common term for a resin oil extracted from Croton lechleri, a native South American tree, and it’s getting attention for its potential as a beauty ingredient.

With flavonoids its main class of actives, the extract’s benefits appear to run mainly to improved circulation, anti-inflammation and oxidative defense-all of which contribute to healthier skin.

“Dragon’s blood may also help soothe skin,” adds Ecuadorian Rainforest’s Luna, although the scientific evidence for its precise effects and mechanism of action is still cooking. Meantime, “It can be found in many antiaging products such as creams, eye-care products and facial sculpting gels,” he says.

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Ceramide beauty products are a popular and effective segment of the nutricosmetic and cosmeceutical markets. Ceramides are the major lipid constituents of the skin’s outer layer, or stratum corneum. Using a brick-and-mortar metaphor, ceramides act as the “mortar” that helps keep skin cells together-and, as such, they play a key role in maintaining the skin’s barrier and structure and keeping the skin moist and supple.7

Unfortunately, aging, along with environmental stressors, significantly depletes the skin’s ceramide production and content over time, particularly in the skin’s outer layer, leading to dryer, rougher skin. By boosting ceramide levels either through supplemental topical or ingestible product application, consumers can see improvements in skin moisture and a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Interest in plant sources of ceramides continues to grow in the market. At April’s SupplySide East trade show, Vidya Herbs (Fullerton, CA) highlighted its new ceramide ingredient derived from the konjac plant (Amorphophallus konjac) for the nutricosmetic market. The ingredient, whose trade name is Skin-Cera, is equipped with a U.S. patent covering compositions and methods of use. (U.S. patent number US10004679.) Konjac is one plant known to be a rich source of glucosylceramides, which are a ceramide precursor. (Skin-Cera is standardized to 10% glucosylceramides.)

According to Vidya Herbs, a recently conducted, six-week, 51-subject, randomized, single-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study showed that oral supplementation with Skin-Cera, at 100 mg daily, compared to placebo, resulted in significant skin-health benefits, including improvements in dryness, white/blackheads, hyperpigmentation, redness, lesions, itching, oiliness, and roughness. The company’s patent describes the ingredient as being suited for a wide range of delivery formats, including pills, gummies, powders, lotions, ointments, and creams, as well as food and drink.



  1. Singh et al. “Advanced glycation end products and diabetic complications.” The Korean Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, vol. 18, no. 1 (February 2014): 1–14
  2. Tastekin et al. “Therapeutic potential of pterostilbene and resveratrol on biomechanic, biochemical, and histological parameters in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Published online May 16, 2018.
  3. You J et al. “The antiaging properties of Andrographis paniculata by activation epidermal cell stemness.” Molecules, vol. 20, no. 9 (September 22, 2015): 17557-17569
  4. Kim et al. “Oxyresveratrol and hydroxystilbene compounds. Inhibitory effect on tyrosinase and mechanism of action.” The Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 277, no. 18 (2002):16340-16344
  5. Majeed M and Pande A. “Artonox™ - A multifunctional extract for skin and beyond.” Euro Cosmetics. vol. 6 (2012): 22-25
  6. Majeed M et al. “The safety and efficacy of 0.25% tetrahydrocurcumin (tumeric) cream as depigment agent against 4% hydroquinone cream.” Household and Personal Care Today, no. 3 (2010): 44-46
  7. Paula’s Choice Skincare website. “What Are Ceramides and How Do They Work in Skincare Products?” Accessed April 23, 2019.
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