By Cynthia Bailey MD. This page was updated on Tue, Oct 15, 2019
What are botanical skin care products?
The term 'botanica skin care' simply means that ingredients in a product were derived from plants; plant-based material including plants, algae, fungi and lichens were processed through extraction, distillation, purification, concentration, fermentation etc. into botanical substances, and then added to a skin care product.
It is important to understand that the term ‘botanical’ is quite broad and unregulated. Botanical ingredients may or may not be organic, stable, purified or even processed with care. There are no standards for quality, composition, safety and potency of botanical ingredients. This makes it difficult to read a product label and know what results to expect from a product.
That said, botanicals are the largest category of ingredient in cosmeceuticals today due to consumer interest in “natural” products.
Top botanical ingredients in professional skin care products.
Some of the more popular botanical ingredients are,
- teas (including green tea),
- oats and,
- essential oils.
What is the best botanical ingredient in skin care? Green tea polyphenol EGCG antioxidants.
Over my 30+ years practicing dermatology, I’ve seen the botanical ingredient trend grow. Some botanical ingredients are quite beneficial, such as the pharmaceutical grade, stabilized and concentrated green tea polyphenol EGCG antioxidants and caffeine in Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy. I’ve used this product in my practice for years to calm facial redness, and to load the skin’s antioxidant reserve in people at risk for skin cancer. I’ve documented improvement in rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, and irritation from harsh anti-aging or acne products. I’ve also documented reduction in precancer and skin cancer formation in many patient’s chart notes. My patients and I see a negative effect on their complexion if they stop using it. We see a positive effect when they resume using it. These observations are anecdotal, individual, and not based on scientific study. This lack of standardization and rigorous scientific study is a key problem with botanical skin care ingredients. Scientific studies are a huge financial investment. The observations from my practice are consistent, however, and I think high quality green tea antioxidants are a 'game changer' botanical skin care ingredient.
What botanical ingredients are potentially harmful in skin care?
Conversely, I have seen products with botanical essences that cause harm to my patients. There are many products sold in my community that contain taunting botanical essential oils at concentrations that are allergens and irritants. Essential oils are made by distilling plant materials so that the oils are separated from the water components. Each essential oil includes over 100 components. I’ve seen many patients who are surprised by side effects from botanical essential oils, including contact allergic dermatitis, phototoxic skin burns from sun exposure of a botanical product placed on the skin, and irritant dermatitis from harsh botanicals applied to skin. Some of the more common dermatologic side effects are seen with,
Tea tree oil
All of these botanical oils seem harmless and wholesome to consumers. Some of the oils have benefits, but the concentration applied to the skin needs to be carefully considered. Just because an ingredient or product is plant-based doesn't mean it is safe.
Are botanical ingredients in skin care always useful?
Yes, if you are trying to sell a product! Studies indicate that 1 in 5 adults in the US are using an herbal product. Some are skin care products. Most of the time, I see “natural” products that boast botanical ingredients that are simply added for market appeal but offer no tangible benefit. I call this “fairy dusting” a formulation for the purpose of enhancing a products label. It will continue to be impossible to predict a products efficacy from the label because there is no standardization of botanical therapeutics, there is growing consumer interest in natural products, and so we will continue to see more products claiming botanical ingredients.
Dermatologist's opinion on the use of the term 'botanical' in skin care.
I use the term “botanical” to refer to either products where the majority of a formulation is plant derived, or where I know the product formulation includes well-made botanical ingredients. For example, my Naturally products are primarily vegan and plant based. They include soaps, moisturizers, oils, lip balm and toner. I have other products made with key functional botanical ingredients added that are pharmaceutical grade, stabilized and concentrated. Others have lesser amounts of pharmaceutical grade botanical essences that have some supportive function but are not primary ingredients essential for the product’s intended purpose.
Hypoallergenic botanical skin care products.
All of my products are hypoallergenic. As a dermatologist I know how important this is. Any essential oil in my products is added under the threshold that I know as a dermatologist would significantly taunt the skin into mounting an allergic reaction. Of course, almost all skin care products carry some risk of allergic reaction, but I’ve created the formulations mindful of allergenicity and irritancy risks for even the most sensitive skin.
Botanical ingredients and products are an important part of my dermatology practice.
I have practiced in Northern California for many years. My patients and I want food and skin care products that are natural, organic and safe. I value botanical formulations, stable formulations of therapeutic botanical ingredients, and a trend towards natural skin care. I also understand that the term ‘botanical’ is often used for marketing purposes and so I evaluate products and claims with a high degree of skepticism, and from the perspective of dermatologic safety. Just because something claims to contain botanical ingredients does not mean it is natural, efficacious or safe.
Miroddi Marco, et. all, Research and development for Botanical Products in Medicinals and Food Supplements Market, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2013: 64972 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625613/
Stallings, Alison F., Lupo, Mary P., Practical Uses of Botanicals in Skin Care, J Clin Aesthetic Dermatol., 2009 Jan; 2(1): 36-40 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2958188/
Ribnicky David M, et. al., Evaluation of botanicals for improving human health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(2); 2008; 472s-475s. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/2/472S/4633400
Bent Stephen, Herbal Medicine in the United States: Review of Efficacy, Safety and Regulation, J Gent Int Med., 2008 June, 23(6); 854-859. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2517879/