Botanicals are a large and diverse group of chemicals, which are extracted from leaves, seeds, bark, roots, and flowers of plants. They have been used in medicine / traditional medicine since human history and there is trace of their cosmetic use since ancient Egypt. Recently they have been brought to fame again by cosmetic, supplement, and pharmaceuticals companies.
The extract from one part of a plant often contains several different chemicals, even hundreds of them at the same time, which provide different effects. Pharmaceutical companies with modern knowledge and tools have been able to extract, isolate and purify each one of them and after studies and trials their effort lead to the development and market of new FDA approved drugs.
Going through all of the botanicals that are today available in topical commercial formulations would require the compilation of pages and pages of:
- Botanical ingredients sources: this alone is a neverending list. They are over 370’000 and each year over 2000 species are being discovered.
- Active ingredients: the chemicals in the plants that have biological effect are hundreds for each of the considered species.
- Claimed benefits: each of the chemicals aforementioned has several different properties and benefits.
Therefore, I would rather write an overview on this topic, trying to keep it simple and clear.
Botanical Ingredients Sources
Soy, Milk Thistle, Lemons / Oranges, Tomatoes, Rosemary, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum), Pomegranate, Turmeric Root (Curcumin), Marine Pine Bark, Ginkgo Biloba, Grape Seed, Blue Grape, Green / Black / White Tea, Coffee Berry, Tea Tree (Melaleuca), Licorice, Chamomile, Aloe Vera, Mulberry, Horse Chestnut, Date, Rose, Honeysuckle, Lavender, Lotus, Almond, … among the others.
The following are some of the ingredients you might encounter when reading labels and information about products: some of the categories I will mention should actually fall under other categories (for example Vitamin A is a vitamin, but is also an antioxidant, a carotenoid, a terpenoid, a cell regulator, …), but I will mention them since different products might refer to them in different ways.
Vitamins, polyphenols, catechines, flavonoids, terpenoids, proteasis inhibitors, antioxidants, carotenoids, cell regulators, phospholipids, essential fatty acids, saponins, phytosterols, minerals… .
The claimed benefit list is not much shorter than the previous ones, so only the main effects will be listed.
Anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, , anti-carcinogenic, anti-microbial, anti-mutagenic, immune-stimulatory, photo-protective, increased moisture and moisture retaining capacity, skin smoothening, amelioration of fine lines and wrinkles, barrier maintenance and repair, protein production stimulation (collagen, hyaluronic acid, elastin, … ), protein repair, protease inhibitors (proteases are enzymes which degrade proteins), lipid synthesis stimulation (essential fatty acids, phospholipids, …), reverse hyperpigmentation, whitening, improvement of overall feeling and appearance… .
Advices and Warnings
So what is real and what is not? Here are some things to know:
- Plant ingredients are listed as all other ingredients on the product label. It is usually used their latin name (for example the lemon tree is Citrus limon). The higher an ingredient is on the list, the more of it is contained inside the product.
- Bioavailability is an issue: in order to be effective, an active ingredients needs to reach its site of action. Therefore, even though a product might contain a proven effective ingredient, if this is not bioavailable, it will not work.
- The product needs also to be stable in order to be effective. If it is spoiled before application, it clearly will not work, so stability is another main concern.
- Another important factor to consider is the concentration of the active ingredients. There is a threshold to cross for them to be effective.
- Depending on brand and formulation, the same botanical might have great to little or no effect at all. This is due to bioavailability, concentration and stability as well as the other substances in the product, which might help preserve the ingredient, help penetrate the skin, etc.
- Sometimes the companies will write about lab tests and trials and how they demonstrated that one ingredient actually has been proven effective. However, was the effect In vitro (cell cultures), In vivo (on living organisms, from plants to animals), or human subjects? Was the trial a placebo controlled peer-reviewed double blind randomized trial (the gold standard of research)? On how many subject was it tested? (if the studied group isn’t big enough, the results might not be true as it might not have statistical significance).
- Does “natural” mean no adverse effects? No that is false. Just think of the many poisons available in nature, or all of the drugs that are synthesized from nature.
There are hundreds of published studies available and many more are ongoing or will be set up in the future. Cosmeceuticals and botanicals research and knowledge are advancing year by year and have great potential. Before trusting the efficacy of a product, you might want to ask your dermatologist or doctor to review the available scientific literature and give you an advice.
Last edit: 20/05/2018
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Former paramedic, instructor and medical school student.
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