Scan the label of nearly any skin-care product and you'll find them there, clustered toward the bottom of the ingredients list: rose hips, lemongrass, peppermint, chamomile, rosemary, white willow bark, and more. Herbs are making their way into everything from facial cleansers to foot creams--and not just because of their evocative names and alluring aromas. "These botanicals aid the skin with their anti-inflammatory properties," says Mary Lupo, M.D., a New Orleans dermatologist.
Though they may be present only in small amounts, they're a powerful presence nonetheless. According to Cindy Angerhofer, director of botanical research at Aveda, some plants can be highly active at low doses. "You don't need a whole lot of these herbs," she says. "They can have activity at 1 or 2 percent."
Here, we weed through an expansive garden of herbs to find the essential six (plus five runners-up) that will best soothe your skin and satisfy your senses.
Rose Hips (Rosa affinis rubiginosa)
Benefit: Rejuvenates dry, aging skin
Rose Mosqueta is a pink-colored wild rose that grows throughout the Americas and lives for one brief but glorious day. As the petals fall off, its seeds--known as rose hips--are revealed. These seeds contain essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acids, which can help soften dry skin, fade scarring, and even erase sun damage. Dermatologist Nicholas Perricone, M.D., author of The Perricone Prescription, claims that if your diet is lacking these essential fatty acids, skin cannot heal itself properly, and so begins to look lackluster and dehydrated. Applied topically, the essential fatty acids found in rose hips moisturize skin and aid in rejuvenation and healing. Rose hips oil is also rich in antioxidant vitamin C, and research has shown it may help protect skin from sun damage and improve the appearance of fine lines.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Benefit: Calms acne
This tropical Asian plant is harvested for its earthy, lemony flavor and pungent aroma. In a study conducted at a medical research center in Bhubaneswar, India, researchers compared the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities of 10 different essential oils, and found lemongrass oil to be the most effective--it discouraged 22 types of bacteria and 12 kinds of fungi. "Lemongrass is marvelous for acne since it's an astringent and it's anti-bacterial," says Melinda Minton, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based herbalist and product-formula consultant. "It's great for circulation, refines the pores, increases skin elasticity, and, when used as a toner or spritzer, can refine and even out skin tone."
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Benefit: Cools and refreshes
Peppermint's essential oil is a source of cooling menthol--which makes it a natural remedy for aches, pains, and itches. "Menthol is accepted by the Food and Drug Administration as an effective topical treatment for pain and stiffness of joints and muscles," says Aveda's Angerhofer. "Peppermint oil cools the itch because it increases blood flow to the skin to temporarily reduce pain and discomfort." The invigorating aroma also helps awaken the senses. In fact, researchers at Coventry University in England found that peppermint successfully reduced daytime sleepiness, according to a 2005 study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Benefit: Soothes sensitive skin
If you're the type that's easily irritated, chamomile can be a source of serenity for your complexion. The plant--which has small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centers--has been used throughout history to calm itchy, reactive skin and ease rashes. Herbalists have dubbed it nature's own cortisone for good reason: Chamomile cream worked better than .5 percent hydrocortisone in treating the inflammation and irritation associated with eczema, according to a German study published in the European Journal of Medical Research. Its calming, anti-inflammatory powers also make it highly effective at evening skin tone. "Chamomile is vasoconstrictive," explains Lupo, "which means it helps shrink blood vessels temporarily, decreasing facial redness and blotchiness."