Botanicals – Hype or Hope

These days, depending on who you speak to, a subject that elicits emphatic positive or negative response, is the question, “Are Botanical Cosmetics Hope or Hype”?

It is true that Botanical extracts have been widely used for ailments for thousands of years by many Eastern and Middle Eastern medical systems as well as by the native populations of Australia and the Americas well before the arrival of European settlers. Although, in general, their actions are as soothing, antioxidative and anti-inflammatory agents, it is only in recent times that definitive scientific studies have been conducted that have validated their usefulness for treatments of various ailments and conditions.

Today, since Botanicals are considered safe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they do not have the same restrictions for marketing as do drugs, even though they form the largest category of additives that are seen in cosmetic formulations. Whether these additives are from flowers, fruits, berries, leaves, stems, twigs, bark or root, all are extractions obtained by varying methods such as steam distillation, crushing, grinding, drying, boiling or pressing.

Many plant actives are the result of their protective antioxidative mechanisms to UV exposure of the sun. These antioxidants generally fall into 3 categories, carotenoids, flavanoids and polyphenols which we largely get from the foods we consume in daily life. Their benefits are shared by the whole body. Botanicals in topical skin formulations, however, can be specific to the area of application. Further, due to their soothing and anti-inflammatory effects, they are used for corrective anti-aging solutions, as aging is in part the result of chronic inflammation.

As time passes, a growing belief increasingly insists that “natural” is better, and has deemed Botanicals not only effective, but superior to synthetic chemical duplicates which are associated with “unnatural and prone to side effects”. It should however be pointed out that Botanicals have to go through chemical processing before they can be incorporated into a formulation. Furthermore the heating processes required may well diminish or destroy some of the actives in the essential oils, distillates etc.

Thus the method by which a botanical is extracted is as important as its source. Active chemical constituents and concentrations not only vary with different family members belonging to the same species of a plant but also their geographic location. Other variables include the time of the year harvested and the specific parts of the plant that are used. Also of critical importance to the efficacy of a formulation is the correct concentration of plant extract, packaging and ingredient synergy as many botanical actives have a “prima donna” attitude – enhancing the capabilities of some and voiding those of other ingredients when present together in a formulation.

There are many foods, whose pastes etc. can be used topically, but not all are necessarily of great value primarily because the molecular size of the extract may not be small enough to pass through skin barrier. However there are new studies underway that are focusing on drug additives that will open up the skin for infusion of actives. A published break through by a physician/chemist/scientist team* at Northwestern University, demonstrated that certain spherical arrangements of nucleic acid nano particles, (normal – ‘linear’) are able to attach themselves to proteins. These structures combined with commercial moisturizers can break through the stratum corneum and have deep dermis penetration, targeting biomarkers associated not only with cancers but possibly those associated with wrinkling and the aging skin. The development of this technology, pioneered by Chad A. Markin, rather than merely affecting a general topical area, could result in therapeutics that precisely target and turn off mutant gene responsible for certain diseases and conditions.

A genuine botanical active, that is pure, attains results in low concentrations. Unfortunately there are a growing number of commercial companies making dubious claims and outright imposters in the marketplace shelves. Furthermore since a regulatory body has not set efficacy standardization for production or dose for botanicals, the buyer and user alike should “be educated and be wary”. However used correctly, botanicals can be very effective.

Smita M Patel – Skin Clinic Director
KayaKalp Aesthetics

Published – SPSSCS Newslette.2013