Slather on your vegetables, they’re good for you …botanicals in skin care. |

Slather on your vegetables, they’re good for you …botanicals in skin care.

It’s organic! It’s natural! It’s green!  What is it?

Snot, when you have a bad cold.  

Sorry for such a disturbing illustration here, but I wanted to point out that these good-sounding labels can be somewhat meaningless,  and are often used as marketing tools rather than as helpful descriptors.  Of course, anything that comes from a plant must be good, right? Just like anything that comes from an animal must be bad (and humans are the worst).  Well, consider than deadly nightshade comes from plants, and that 96% of what you read on a list of deadly poisons are plant-derived.  So, obviously not everything is good for you, just because it comes from plants.

Sidebar: DrJohn writes about snot as a cosmeceutical ingredient elsewhere.  I think it was snail snot though.

Now back around to our topic of the day – botanicals in skin care.  Ingredients that come from plants.  In fact, more skincare ingredients are of plant origin than from any other source. Indeed, the histories of some (e.g. aloe vera and olive oil) go back more than six thousand years. Yet, the search continues in earnest for new additional candidates. Often, it seems, for the purpose of a new marketing “hook” that has not been previously exploited. There is always some segment of the consuming public willing to try the latest plant miracle in a jar.

Did you see the melons on that woman?

Did you know that Cindy Crawford has her own line of face creams? Did you know that the anti-aging properties are supposedly due to the key ingredient, Charentais cantaloupe, a “rare French melon”? (Gee, it seems to BFT that every woman would want more melons in their life if this is what happens.)

Right now, fortunes are being made convincing people that a small cantaloupe grown in Southern France is especially strong in antioxidants when compared to those from anywhere else in the world (allegedly, Cindy Crawford’s secret to flawless skin.) Apparently the ingredients for fruit salad and the world’s most potent anti-aging miracle can be found in the same produce section of your favorite Parisian supermarket. Interesting how the special name of that special cantaloupe translates in my French / English dictionary into the same word used to describe an everyday, ordinary muskmelon. Amazing what a fancy name can do for perceived value.

Do people really believe this fruit has special anti-aging potency over our California grown variety? Apparently so, especially in the wee hours between two and five in the morning. So in inimitable BFT fashion, let’s do something different – let the scientific literature drive the case of what has value and what is hype in the realm of botanicals. Doesn’t it seem that a magical muskmelon with a French accent that is a true medical miracle should already be on the cover of Scientific American and Discover? Or, at least Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal? It’s not; there has got to be a reason

With our “Truth Matters” buttons securely in place, we’ll address that and other matters in our series about skin care and the plant kingdom. We will explore the world of botanical extracts and single compounds that have proven to be efficacious and safe in treating a variety of skin conditions. We’ll begin by examining uses of botanticals in anti-aging formulations, an increasing focus of all cosmeceutical brands, and in later installments look at some specific skin conditions where botanicals have demonstrated value: acne, inflammatory skin disease, skin infections, UV-induced skin damage, skin cancer, alopecia, vitiligo and wound healing.

But first – re: Botanical Stem Cells fuhgeddaboudit

By way of brief review, and to get it out of the way quickly, we urge readers to dispense with the notion that plant stem cell concoctions are anything but hyperbole and hype by reading our posts on them found elsewhere on BFT. We acknowledge that “ground up” parts of plants (including parts purportedly containing stem cells) can be of value as sources of antioxidants when applied topically, but that’s about it. Nowhere have we seen scientific validation that the biosignals of plant stem cells are of value in directly influencing human cellular behavior or stimulating resident stem cell activity in the skin.  This series will be ONLY about plant derived substances that have withstood scientific scrutiny. Plant stem cells, form whatever tree, shrub, or flower, have clearly not.

The World of Botanicals 

The term ‘botanicals’ includes preparations derived from herbs, spices, roots, stems, and other materials of botanical origin. Botanicals are used for therapeutic or cosmetic purposes in the form of fresh plants, dried or extracted plant material. Botanical medicine is also referred to as herbal medicine, phytotherapy, or phytomedicine.

Increasingly, consumers are seeking plant-based products as complementary to other more conventional dermatologic therapies. Botanical therapies are often considered a safer choice than conventional therapy, or by some, the preferred way to treat a certain skin disorder. The cosmetic industry is profiting from this trend by introducing plant extracts from herbs, flowers, fruits, and seed oleates (fats) into their products, promising a gentler, more organic approach to beauty and health. Botanical-based cosmetics are preferentially accepted by some consumers because they are thought capable of helping to detoxify, hydrate, strengthen, stimulate, relax, and balance the skin and hair in a “more natural” way. Sounds nice, but is it true?

Botanicals in Anti-aging Skincare

Anti-aging continues to be the fastest growing category within the cosmeceutical sector with botanical extracts being touted as highly important ingredients in many formulations, in part because of consumer interest and demand for natural products. Plant extracts have been used for millennia in skin care and were the basis of medical treatments in many ancient and traditional cultures. They are still common in most cleansers, moisturizers, and astringents. The search for new botanical ingredients is ongoing, perhaps as much to gain marketing leverage by having a unique “breakthrough” as for their actual benefits.

The cosmeceutical market is in constant flux responding to consumer demand. Skin care companies are pressured to release innovative products capable of transforming the appearance of aging skin – overnight, if possible. Over the past decade, there has been fervent interest in products found in nature because of their perceived safety; many believe that if a product can be safely ingested, it will also be safe for topical application.

In general, plant-derived, botanical, cosmeceutical products tend to be antioxidant in action since these organisms must thrive in constant direct ultraviolet (UV) light, the Earth’s most prolific manufacturer of free radicals. In this article, BFT will review the most popular ingredients in this class and their possible usefulness in skin care protocols.

Soy Beans

Soy extract has positive research support for antioxidant, antiproliferative, and anticarcinogenic activities. Topical application can reduce hyperpigmentation, enhance skin elasticity, control oil production, moisturize the skin, and delay hair regrowth. Soy also has potential to decrease photoaging of the skin and prevent skin cancers through the estrogen-type and antioxidant effects of its metabolites.

The major components of soy are phospholipids, such as phosphatidylcholine and essential fatty acids. Its most active compounds are its minor components – isoflavones, saponins, essential amino acids, phytosterols,  and proteases( trypsin inhibitor). The most potent isoflavones are the phytoestrogens known as genistein and daidzein. Genistein is a potent antioxidant that inhibits lipid peroxidation and chemical and ultraviolet light B (UVB)-induced carcinogenesis. Genistein was shown to significantly inhibit chemical, carcinogen-induced, reactive oxygen species; oxidative DNA damage; and proto-oncogene expression, as well as the initiation and promotion of skin carcinogenesis in mouse skin. Topical estrogens have been shown to promote collagen synthesis and increase skin thickness, which may be beneficial for postmenopausal women who develop a thinner dermis and decreased collagen. The small proteases appear to promote skin lightening and reduce unwanted facial and body hair in human clinical trials.  In addition, soy lipids, lecithins, and phytosterols are believed to restore barrier function and replenish moisture.

Beyond its moisturizing ability, soy appears to be a safe and effective treatment for postmenopausal women and for hyperpigmentation disorders. Although further research is necessary, the antioxidant and anticarcinogenic activities of soy and its isoflavones show a promising role for this botanical in the cosmeceutical industry. Soy has therefore become a popular addition to a wide variety of skin care products.

Black, White, and Green Tea

Tea extracts are among the fastest-growing herbal products. While there has been enormous growth in green tea consumption as a dietary supplement, the use of tea extracts in cosmeceutical formulations is also on the rise. The complex polyphenolic compounds in tea provide the same protective effect for the skin as for internal organs. They have been shown to modulate biochemical pathways that are important in cell proliferation, inflammatory responses, and responses of tumor promoters. Green tea has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in both human and animal skin.

Since inflammation and oxidative stress appear to play a significant role in the aging process, green tea may also have antiaging effects by decreasing inflammation and scavenging free radicals. Researchers have found that the main active ingredient in green tea, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), works well as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and sunscreen. Topical green tea applied to human skin has been shown to provide a photoprotective effect, reduce the number of sunburn cells, protect epidermal Langerhans cells from UV damage, and reduce the DNA damage that formed after UV radiation. Green tea polyphenols, when combined with traditional sunscreens, may have an additive or synergistic photoprotective effect. Green tea has also been found to decrease melanoma cells in tissue culture and squamous cell carcinoma cell formation in mice with topical and oral administration. Additionally, it improves wound healing by increasing keratinocyte cell differentiation and has been shown to inhibitStreptococcus species and Escherichia coli.

Natural flavonoids, such as green or black tea polyphenols have been shown to reduce UVB-induced erythema, tumorigenesis, and immunosuppression in mice. White tea appears to be a more potent antioxidant than green tea. Black tea has a much lower content of catechins than green tea, but a higher content of other flavonoids, such as quercetin, theaflavin, and kaempferol. Black tea extracts applied before and after UV light challenge has been shown to decrease signs of cutaneous photodamage, carcinogenesis, and inflammation in human and mouse skin.

German chamomile

German chamomile, or Matricaria recutita, has been used throughout history as an herbal treatment for various skin conditions. It functions as an antimicrobial, antiallergic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic for inflammatory mucocutaneous diseases and wound and burn therapy. The active constituents of chamomile include the terpenoids (bisoprolol, matricine, levomenol, chamazulene), flavonoids (apigenin, luteolin, rutin, quercetin), hydroxycoumarins, mono- and oligosaccharides, and mucilages. Chamazulene exhibits anti-inflammatory activity and promotes wound healing. Levomenol is an anti-inflammatory and natural moisturizing agent that has been found to diminish the signs of photodamage, reduce pruritus (itching), and ameliorate skin texture and elasticity. In addition to reports of anti-inflammatory effects, chamomile is also purported to have some antioxidant properties, which have been identified through chemical assays.

While chamomile is generally considered a safe product, there have been reports of contact dermatitis and conjunctivitis following topical application of chamomile products, and there is a potential risk of angioedema and anaphylaxis. Chamomile can also interact with warfarin, promoting an additive anticoagulant effect. Clinical studies appear to support the traditional uses and therapeutic benefit of topical chamomile. This herb has been included in a wide variety of cosmetic products including soothing moisturizers and cleansers as well as color-enhancing hair products.

Coffeeberry & Caffeine

Coffeeberry, harvested from the fruit of the coffee plant Coffea arabica, is considered to be one of the richest sources of antioxidants and is well known for its skin-rejuvenation properties. Coffeeberry contains potent polyphenols including chlorogenic acid, ferrulic acid, quinic acid, and condensed proanthocyanidins. Studies demonstrate coffeeberry to have high antioxidant properties, surpassing green tea extract and vitamins C and E.

Proprietary research has shown that 0.1% coffeeberry cleanser and 1% day and night creams showed statistically significant improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, and overall appearance when compared to vehicle. In addition to the evidence of safety and efficacy provided by the randomized, double-blind trials, further support comes from positive pathologic and in-vitro studies showing enhanced collagen production by fibroblasts. Studies are currently in progress to evaluate the use of the coffeeberry skin care system in conjunction with retinoids and intense pulsed-light treatments. More clinical studies need to be performed to fully assess the topical preparations containing coffeeberry extract, but polyphenols have already demonstrated efficacy in photoaging and skin cancer prevention.

Caffeine, the chemical stimulant in coffee, tea, and some soft drinks, has demonstrated anticarcinogenic and antioxidant properties. Oral administration of caffeine alone and the addition of caffeine to decaffeinated teas show inhibitory effects of UVB-induced carcinogenesis. Research revealed that topical application of caffeine inhibits carcinogenesis and also promotes apoptosis in sunburn cells of hairless SKH-1, UVB-pretreated mice.  Oral administration of caffeine has also been associated with up-regulation of tumor suppressor genes. These studies present a potential use for caffeine in formulations used to decrease the risk of skin cancer formation after cutaneous damage from UV exposure. The vaso-constrictive effects of caffeine are also of potential use in reducing periorbital edema; many manufacturers add caffeine to eye creams and serums for this reason.


The inclusion of botanicals in skin care products is becoming ever more popular. Potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits may prove beneficial for a number of conditions that dermatologists routinely treat, such as rosacea, photoaging, and skin cancer. The published effectiveness of prescription retinoids is well known, but equally well known is the irritation and redness often caused by the initiation of therapy. Botanicals may hold the promise of utility to reduce such inflammation. This is one of the best and most practical reasons to include botanicals in skin care protocols.

In future installments in this series BFT will explore the role of botanicals in the treatment of specific skin conditions.


1. Baumann LS. Cosmeceutical critique: soy and its isoflavones. Skin & Allergy News. 2001;32:17.

2. Wei H. Photoprotective action of isoflavone genistein: models, mechanisms, and relevance to clinical dermatology. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998;39:271–272.

3. Thornfeldt C. Cosmeceuticals containing herbs: fact, fiction, and future. Dermatol Surg.2005;31:873–880

4. Weil H, Spencer JM, Gelfand J, et al. The soy isoflavone genistein: a new agent in dermatology.Cosmet Dermatol. 2001;14(2):13–19.

5. Paine C, Sharlow E, Liebel F, et al. An alternative approach to depigmentation by soybean extracts via inhibition of the PAR-2 pathway. J Invest Dermatol. 2001;116(4):587–595.

6. Katiyar SK, Ahmad N, Mukhtar H. Green tea and skin. Arch Dermatol. 2000;136(8):989–994

7. Elmets C, Singh D, Tubesing K, et al. Cutaneous photoprotection from ultraviolet injury by green tea polyphenols. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2001;44:425–432. ]

8. Spencer JM. Chemoprevention of skin cancer and photoaging. Cosmet Dermatol. 2001;14(6):25–28.


  1. Jina says:

    Please correct me if I am wrong but I’m sure I have read somewhere that long term coffee berry use can dehydrate skin. Is that possible? Does soy oil have same benefits as the extract?

  2. Josie says:

    If folks understood the damaging effects of the SAD (Standard American Diet) on health as well as aging, they’d bid a fond farewell to animal protein and dairy. Embracing a plant based lifestyle is not only beneficial for disease prevention and survival, but positively affects anti-aging. The best cosmeceuticals……fruits, veggies, legumes and grains. Try it and see the difference! Thanks for your research on botanicals.I’ll look forward to more info.

  3. Curious says:

    What about fermented botanical products? I think I may have read that fermentation increases bio availability.

    • drgeorge says:

      By definition, fermentation is a group of chemical reactions induced by microorganisms or enzymes that split complex organic compounds into relatively simple substances. Perhaps the most popular form of fermentation is the anaerobic conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol by yeast. The process has been incorporated into food preservation and preparation for mellenia. A list of foods produced via fermentation includes:

      • Miso. A paste made of fermented soy beans, it forms the base of soups or glazes.
      • Sauerkraut. This familiar condiment is made of finely shredded fermented cabbage.
      • Sourdough bread. Real sourdough bread is made with milk and other foods that have been allowed to ferment before making the bread dough.
      • Kefir. A fermented drink made from milk.
      • Yogurt. Yogurt includes live bacteria called probiotics.
      • Kimchi. A traditional Korean dish made from pickled vegetables like cabbage or radish.
      • Buttermilk. Buttermilk also includes probiotics.
      • Natto. These fermented soybeans are a traditional Japanese breakfast dish.
      • Poi. A fermented paste made from taro root.
      • Tempeh. A cake made of fermented soybeans.

      Fermentation, in fact, is required for herbivores to extract energy from the cellulose they ingest since no cell in vertebrate animals produces cellulase, the enzyme required to hydrolyze the beta[1-4] glycosidic bonds that create cellulose from sugar molecules. The bacteria in the gut of herbivores, however, do produce the necessary enzymes that enable cellulose to be transformed into fatty acids, lactic acid, methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Additional transformative steps convert these substrates in amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and synthesize B and K vitamins.

      So, what is the value to the skin of applying “fermented” botanical products as opposed to those that are not fermented? One can conclude from the above that because the average molecular size of post-fermented botanical products is smaller, skin penetration is likely to be enhanced. The question of enhanced benefit to the skin of the specific molecules produced by fermentation is less easy to answer. BFT wonders and would be interested is learning: Are there benefits that have been scientifically validated, or is this just another “marketing hook” to entice consumers to buy yet another product for their skincare regimen?

    • drjohn says:

      You should read this very early BFT post “Preservative Thick, Preservative Thin: A Little Kimchi on your Chin” We actually thought that the evidence for benefit from fermented veges in this case was good. Since beer and wine are also from fermented veges, DrJohn & DrGeorge can hardly be opposed to them, now can we?

  4. Lucas says:

    If I remember correctly, caffeine is lipolytic in high dose applied topically. Is it safe to use on the face?
    Also, I have a question about tea. Isn’t it true that tea polyphenols are very unstable and hard to use in cosmetic formulations?

    • drgeorge says:

      Caffeine is being increasingly used in cosmetics due to its high biological activity and ability to penetrate the skin barrier. The commercially available topical formulations of caffeine normally contain 3% caffeine. As for a cosmetic purpose, caffeine is used as an active compound in anti-cellulite products because it prevents excessive accumulation of fat in cells. This alkaloid stimulates the degradation of fats during lipolysis through inhibition of the phosphodiesterase activity. Caffeine also has potent antioxidant properties and helps protect cells against UV radiation to help slow down the process of photoaging of the skin. Caffeine, when applied topically through masks and other skincare treatments, constricts the blood vessels and helps reduce inflammation and puffiness. It is helpful in reducing the appearance of undereye bags.

      Caffeine’s Mechanisms of Action and Its Cosmetic Use. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 2013;26:8–14

      Tea polyphenols have potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and photoprotective properties but are sensitive to the environmental factors like temperature, light and pH. Therefore, the effective application of tea polyphenols requires a protective mechanism to maintain its activity. The utilization of compounded tea polyphenols, instead of raw materials, can potentially help to improve their stability. Compounding technologies for tea polyphenols include physical technologies, chemical-interfacial technologies and nano-scale compounding technologies. To improve the stability, green tea extracts have been studied following encapsulation using different carrier materials including maltodextrin (MD), gum arabic (GA) and chitosan (CTS).

      Applications of Tea (Camellia sinensis) and Its Active Constituents in Cosmetics Molecules. 2019 Dec; 24(23): 4277.

      Improvement of Stability of Tea Polyphenols: A Review. Current Pharmaceutical Design, Volume 24, Number 29

      Protective Mechanisms of Green Tea Polyphenols in Skin.
      Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2012; 2012: 560682.

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