We've just passed the midpoint of winter, and many of us here in the northern hemisphere are buried in snow and weathering freezing temperatures. The trees outside my office are covered in a slowly-increasing layer of ice, the cold rain pelting down nonstop.
Not coincidentally, this is the time of year when our skin can really take a beating. Temperature changes, dry indoor air, hot showers after a day in the cold...all of these contribute to dry, cracked, itchy and irritated skin.
I've gotten a few questions about keeping skin healthy during these midwinter months (and a few requests to add some more hand cream to my shop!), so I thought this would be a great month to talk a little about winter wellness for the skin and some of the herbs that help to keep it balanced, soothed and moisturized.
As a redhead with seriously sensitive skin, I've also got a few non-herbal winter survival tips I've thrown in at the end!
Herbs for the Skin
Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Calendula is probably the one of the most well-known herbs when it comes to skincare - and for good reason. Its sunny, resinous, deep golden-yellow flowers are anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and have a vulnerary (healing) action, making them something herbalists reach for when the skin is irritated, dry, or damaged. It's also wonderful at taking care of minor cuts, scrapes and burns.
The flowers are often infused in oil to make the base for herbal skincare products (I've got a few jars of calendula flowers steeping in different oils next to me right now, actually...). I find it to be very stabilizing and balancing, calming redness and irritation and leaving the skin a little brighter and clearer.
Another wonderful aspect of calendula is that it's so gentle it can be used on children and people with very sensitive skin.
In addition to infusing the flowers in oil, a nice way to use them is to add a handful of them to a bath for a nice skin-soothing soak.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): Comfrey is another herb that's fantastic for skin that's irritated, really dry, and in need of repair.
Because it supports fast healing and regeneration of tissues, the big soft leaves of this plant are often used to make an oil or salve for cuts, scrapes and minor wounds. I love to make an infused oil and add it in to my general skincare preparations as well - it's deeply moisturizing, and I find it to be very beneficial for skin that needs to be brought back into a balanced, healthy state.
Rose (Rosa spp.): Beautiful, heart-opening rose is one of the most nourishing plants you can use on your skin. It brings down inflammation and the mildly astringent property helps to keep tissues healthy and toned. Rose supports cell repair as well, meaning it helps skin appear a little more youthful and glowy.
Applying a rich, good-quality organic rosehip oil is one of the nicest things you can do to protect and replenish your skin. The petals are lovely in oils, scrubs and bath blends too. In addition to its effects on the skin, I think many of us can agree that just the scent of rose helps us release stress and feel calmer - definitely a wonderful element to include in a self-care ritual like applying a nice rich body oil or cream!
Lavender (Lavandula spp.): Laaaavender. Just thinking about the scent of lavender makes me feel a little more relaxed - which is probably why you'll find it in so many bath and body products.
In addition to smelling totally wonderful (in my opinion, anyway...), lavender has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, meaning it's wonderful at helping skin recover from minor burns, scrapes, rashes and other irritation.
Like comfrey, lavender helps the skin regenerate more quickly, too, which could help reduce scarring and support the skin as it ages.
Infusing the fragrant buds in oil makes something really special, but even just diluting a few drops of the essential oil in the bath or in a body oil is a lovely way to enjoy the benefits of this herb.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): Chamomile tea is a famous remedy for calming down the nervous system, aiding the digestion, and bringing restful sleep. It has many of those effects on the skin, too.
Chamomile is wonderful for bringing down inflammation and soothing irritated skin. One of the best ways to use it is to simply throw a handful of the flowers into a nice soothing bath - it'll calm your skin, and your mind, too. It can also be infused in oil and made into salves and creams, and is gentle enough to use even on children.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): Ok, yes, nettles sting. And they're generally pretty rough to the touch. And very wild. So, at first it may seem a little counterintuitive to use it for skincare...but stick with me.
Nettle is one of the most nourishing plants out there. It's filled with vitamins and minerals that support the health of the whole body. It's just a gorgeous, amazing, wonderful green ally. So, a few years ago, I decided to try using it in my oils, creams, and even haircare products, and I have to say...I think it's vastly underused as a skincare herb.
I find it to be deeply nourishing to the skin - it seems to lend it a wonderful resiliency and softness. I think it's a fantastic wild herb to add to oils, baths, toners and creams. I've always got a few nettle infused products in the shop, and I might be adding even more this year as I see more and more how wonderful it's been for my own skin - so keep an eye out for that!
Chickweed (Stellaria media): Chickweed is another wild plant that I love to use for the skin. Often condsidered a common weed, chickweed is in fact a wonderful thing to find in your yard. It's filled with nutrients and is incredibly cooling and soothing, both internally and externally. It's very gentle, which makes it wonderful for children and people with delicate, sensitive skin.
The one caveat I should mention about chickweed is that I think it should be used fresh - once dried, it seems to me to lose much of it's potency. Thankfully, chickweed is a herb that continues to thrive even in the winter - if you go to your favorite chickweed patch and clear away the snow, odds are you'll find some growing.
You can use chickweed as a fresh poultice on troubled skin, add it to a bath, or infuse it in oil. I should note that I'm very careful when infusing fresh plants in oil, as introducing any moisture into oil increases the risk of it going rancid - if you decide to steep chickweed in oil, keep a very close eye on it.
Whatever herb you choose to use, treating your skin to a daily moisturizer in the winter is so important. Putting on a nice oil or cream in the morning can go a long way to protecting your skin from everything it will encounter throughout the day - itchy wool sweaters, harsh temperatures, or dry indoor air.
Oils vs. Creams
One of the skincare questions I hear the most is whether cream, body butter, or a body oil is the best bet for reviving dry skin.
So, here's my opinion as someone who has spent a good bit of time researching skincare:
Oils, salves and body butters may intuitively seem like the best thing to use on really dry skin, but when you need a quick hit of real moisture, creams are honestly a better bet - because they've got a water component, they will sink deeper into the skin and do better at reviving dry tissues.
Oils and body butters are lovely too, of course, but the best time to use them is right after a shower, when your skin is still damp. That way they will act as a humectant, forming a barrier on top of the skin and trapping in that moisture as they sink in. Oils can also be lovely to put on at night, as the warmth of your bed and your increased body temperature while asleep will help them absorb better.
When I have an area of really dry, rough skin, I like to slather on a cream first, let it sink in for a minute or two, and then follow with a nice layer of salve, oil or body butter to seal in that moisture.
And Some Other Tips for Keeping Skin Healthy...
Skip the Shower (Sometimes): In our culture, admitting you don't shower every day is definitely seen by some as taboo. But think about it: do we really need to be scrubbed squeaky clean on the daily? Frequent washing and scrubbing can strip the skin of its natural oils and leave it dried out. Slathering on creams and oils afterward might help skin feel moisturized in the short term, but we're not really allowing our skin the time it needs to build up its own healthy barrier of lipids (a.k.a. moisture) if we're always dousing it in soap and hot water.
Skip the harsh stuff: When you do shower or wash your hands (because, like, you should definitely still do those things occasionally), consider forgoing harsh soaps and body washes - a nice, natural, oil based bar of soap is totally adequate for getting clean. There is more and more evidence that the fine layer of beneficial bacteria on the surface our skin can go a long way in keeping us healthy; trying to scrub it all away, using antibacterial soaps, or layering on chemicals and artificial stuff can upset the balance of our external microbiome and even impact our immune systems (if you really want to geek out about the skin microbiome, this paper and this paper are super interesting).
Drink Plenty of Water: Kind of obvious, but still bears repeating. Drinking plently of pure, clean water is one of the best ways to keep skin hydrated from the inside out. It's also a nice idea to mix it up by drinking herbal teas (check out last month's post about nourishing infusions here). Herbs like burdock, red clover, chickweed, and calendula help to keep the liver and lymphatic system clean and moving, which can go a long way toward having clear, healthy skin.
As always, be sure to do your own research and determine which herbs are safe and will be good for you on an individual level. All the info here is strictly educational and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any illness or disease. Use caution when introducing new herbs into your routine, and consult a doctor if you are pregnant or nursing, or have any medical conditions.