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An evidence based report on the role of botanicals in sun damaged skin

Naturals, phytochemicals, botanicals, bio-actives, herbals, you must have read all these words on your product labels. Botanicals are increasingly being used in beauty products throughout the globe. This old world tradition is becoming a new-age trend and is appealing to the masses with ever increasing fervor.

The natural ingredient market today comprises of about 25%-30% of the skincare product industry, but this number is expected to triple by year 2023. We are now seeing a paradigm shift where the botanical based cosmetic industry is blazing into the future with bold, proud and scientifically-backed strides.

‘I love my planet, I respect Mother Nature, I love my skin’

This may appear to be the new slogan but in reality botanicals have ruled the world since ancient times.

What is a Botanical?

The National Institutes of Health defines botanicals as ‘a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor, and/or scent. Herbs are a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals that are used to maintain or improve health may be called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines’.

History of Botanicals

The ancients loved their lotions and potions. The Indians, Chinese, Africans, Greek, Romans, Babylonians, and the Native Americans were leaders in the ancient practice of herbalism. It has been reported that botanicals were being used for medicinal purposes and skincare since 3000 B.C.


But who was responsible for ushering in botanicals into the modern world?


William Harvey (1578-1657) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) were pioneers in highlighting the medical importance of plant derived substances. They were responsible for creating awareness within the scientific community that would establish plant extracts as respected biological substances of medicinal value.

The role of botanicals in sun damaged skin

Our ozone layers are thinning out, leading to increased levels of solar radiation (UVL mainly UVA-UVB) escaping into our atmosphere. Urban lifestyles bring in new threats, such as infra-light emitted from laptops, phones and other devices. All these kinds of harmful light put together will result in what is called photo-aging and infra-aging where the dermal fibers are damaged, distorted and disorganized. Other negative changes take place over the entire cross-section of the skin due to the damage caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are produced every time our skin is exposed to radiation. The end picture is multiple structural aberrations, biological dysfunctions, dropping levels of innate antioxidants and fragile DNA that externalize as physical signs.


Hallmarks of skin that has been exposed to UVA, UVB and Infra- radiation are:

  • Leathery, dry, flaky and yellowish skin
  • Sunburnt skin
  • Various degrees of wrinkles
  • Various stages of skin cancer
  • Broken blood vessels and blood vessel instability
  • Uneven pigmentation and a dull complexion
  • Diminished immune functions
  • Compromised protective functions of the skin
  • Sagging skin folds
  • Loss of plumpness
  • Enlarged facial pores
  • ‘Skin crippling’ – inability of the skin to heal and repair itself

Can botanicals really help in protecting our skin from solar and infra-radiation? Let’s don our Sherlock Holmes hat and examine the hard evidence in order to understand how plant extracts can offer some practical magic. Here’s a simplified list of a few stellar botanicals that play a key role in healing UVL induced damage.

The Evidence

  • Sage :When applied to the skin surface in appropriate concentrations it was seen to diminish fine lines on the face and help revitalize the skin barrier. It was also shown to have high natural anti-oxidant activity.
  • Licorice root extract : Has an immediate effect on scavenging free radicals by enabling the skin cells to fight off damaging reactive oxygen species through upregulating cellular signaling pathways and deactivating enzymes that degrade collagen.
  • Red pepper fruit family : This festive colored family of peppers not only elevates your flavor profiles but exerts potent DNA protecting abilities to the skin cells. Studies indicate that extracts from peppers actually prevent the cells from dying.
  • Green Tea : Acids extracted from these miraculous leaves have diverse photo-protecting effects. Not only do they protect your skin cell DNA/RNA from being damaged, they actually promote collagen synthesis and will help in rebuilding your skin from ground up. They are one of most potent anti-oxidants found in nature.
  • Apple : This humble fruit is anything but. It contains a powerful chemical called phlorectin that influences skin cell gene expression and modulates RNA repairing pathways. Therapeutic applications of this compound will actually prevent sunburns.
  • Artic Root : This miraculous plant thrives in high altitudes and has demonstrated powerful sun protecting abilities. It also helps the skin cells to regain vitality and prevent sun-induced cell death.
  • Passion fruit : This fruit is certainly passionate about your skin health. It actually discourages production of reactive oxygen species, hence protecting your skin cells from degradation.
  • Soybeans : These magic beans are notable for their pro-aging and anti-mutation benefits. They offer skin protection by decreasing the level of enzymes that lead to cell death. They also help encourage cell multiplication by affecting the cell cycle.
  • Carrots and all things yellow : Lutein is one of the most powerful anti-oxidants found in nature. It actually prevents cells from dying through its potent UVB-protecting ability.
  • Blue is the color of pro-aging : Blue fruits and flowers are teeming with delphinidins. This is a powerful anti-oxidant that has the ability to reverse the damaging effects of free radicals and restore the cell to full health.
  • Bison grass and Tonka Beans : These plants contain high levels of coumarin that have shown to be natural and high photo-protectors (SPF). Cells exposed to this plant derivative recovered completely from solar irradiation induced damage.
  • Fennel : This plant will tickle your taste buds and enrich your skin. Rich in ferrulic acid, rutin and chlorogenic acid, fennel extracts are able to increase innate levels of antioxidants such as glutathione and also attenuate ROS levels in the body. These aromatic plants are true pro-aging botanicals.
  • Coffee distillates : Known chemically as SCG, these marvelous coffee derived compounds display potent cell protective actions. It has been shown that SCG treated skin has less wrinkles and also increased levels of hydration.
  • Orange peel : Extracts of orange peel contain a 90% whopping dose of flavonoids that are known for their powerful antioxidant abilities.
  • Red bush : Rooibos has been used for centuries to treat skin ailments. But science shows us that it has true anti-inflammatory properties. Skin treated with rooibos extracts showed a significant reduction in wrinkles and improved levels of skin smoothness after a month of regular applications.
  • Garden angelica : It truly possesses angelic qualities when it comes to sun damaged skin. Plant extracts have shown to support dermal collagen synthesis by decreasing the levels of harmful catalytic collagen degrading enzymes and reducing markers of inflammation.
  • Turmeric root : Curcuminoids are some of the most powerful antioxidants found in nature. The list of positive and protective benefits is so vast that it requires an entire article devoted to its life maintaining properties. Applied topically to skin, it will exert various anti-pathogenic, anti-inflammatory, cyto-protective, anti-tumor, anti-itch, immune-regulating and skin rejuvenation properties.
  • Ginseng : An ancient herb known for its remarkable regenerative and healing qualities. White and red ginseng contains extremely potent bioactive compounds that combat solar damage with incredible force. It increases collagen formation, reduces wrinkles, maintains hydration, and helps all the layers of the skin to regenerate and rejuvenate. Studies conclude that ginseng extracts have unparalleled healing properties, especially when applied to sun damaged skin.
  • Grapefruit : This bitter fruit packs a punch when it comes to healing sun damaged skin. Brimming with gallic acid, studies indicate that skin cells treated with this compound show marked reductions in free radicals and sunburn cells.

The Verdict

The list above highlights just a few of the top botanicals that can help in the recovery of sun damaged skin. As technology advances, concentrated compounds derived from various other botanicals will be available for study, formulation and standardization.

There is an entire planet full of botanicals waiting to be explored.

On a more passionate note, we need a purer, truer and more respectful skincare industry that not only respects the planet, but appreciates the farmers who devote their lives into harvesting the precious raw materials. It’s through this harmonious approach that we will begin to attain meaningful beauty along with honest and transparent business practices.

Let’s never forget the power of Mother Nature and the role it plays in skincare.


  • Cavinato, M., Waltenberger, B., Baraldo, G. et al. Biogerontology (2017) 18: 499.
  • Grieves Margaret, The Modern Herbal, 1931
  • National Institutes of Health
  • University of Virginia – History of Herbs
  • Happi

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