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8 Herbs for Ayurvedic Skincare

Getty/Yulia Lisitsa

In ancient Ayurvedic texts, the Sanskrit word used for dermatological issues—kuṣṭha—roughly translates to “that which pulls beauty out of the skin.” Try these Ayurvedic skincare herbs for healthy skin.

Ayurvedic herbs have been used in the treatment of skin issues from acne to aging for over 3,000 years. In fact, ancient Ayurvedic medical texts list over 200 herbs that might provide relief from dermatological issues. Many provide antibacterial and antioxidant protection and are likely to sound familiar since we’ve already incorporated them into modern skincare.

While we might fault Western medicine and the 21st-century skincare industry for overwhelming us with treatments for every little blemish and playing to an impossible standard of perfection, the truth is that treating skin ailments in the name of beauty is nothing new. In fact, the Sanskrit word often used in ancient Ayurvedic texts to refer to dermatological issues—kuṣṭha—roughly translates to “that which pulls beauty out of the skin.”

Ayurvedic skincare involves the use of herbs—applied as topical treatments or ingested—to address a variety of issues, including acne, aging, hyperpigmentation, scarring, sun damage, and inflammation.

Ayurvedic Skin Care in the Western World

Our skin is our largest organ and can betray other issues going on in our bodies. Perhaps that’s why the holistic Ayurvedic system is especially adept at helping us understand how the different parts of our bodies all work together. It recognizes the fact that a delicate balance and respect for our entire being is necessary for overall wellbeing. Ayurvedic herbs play a large role in this balance.

At the heart of Ayurveda is the concept of the dosha, or a specific bodily constitution, which is the main contributing factor to overall health. To put it simply, both nature and nurture dictate your dosha, whether it’s vata, kapha, pitta, (or some combination), and any imbalance in your dosha is thought to affect both physical and mental health.

[Read: “Balance the Doshas and Build your Senses with Ayurveda.”]

Lisa Mattem is an entrepreneur, author, and management consultant, as well as the founder of Sahajan, an evidence-based Ayurvedic skincare line. She feels strongly that Ayurveda and Western medicine are not oppositional sciences and, in fact, can be practiced together. Ayurveda, she says "is a belief system that understands the interconnectedness of the mind and the body, the power that lies within plants, and how lifestyle changes can greatly impact your health.” Perhaps most importantly, she reminds us that using an alternative system doesn’t mean abandoning more mainstream interventions: “Ayurveda doesn't have to be daunting and one doesn’t have to strictly adhere to every principle to enjoy the benefits.”

The Science of Ayurvedic Skin Care

While we can’t reasonably list the hundreds of herbs mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit texts, there are some superstars that stand out when it comes to Ayurvedic skincare. These eight herbs are applied topically for the most part, either mixed with a carrier oil and massaged into the skin or mixed together with other herbs and ingredients as a mask. But many of these ingredients are already present in skincare products, so you can simply look for preparations that contain them.

Manjistha (Rubia cordifolia) has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties and is used to treat dry and irritated skin as well as lighten scars, combat hyperpigmentation, and treat acne. It’s also used to heal wounds such as burns, so it’s no surprise that it’s a good choice for rejuvenating aggravated skin. Manjistha is also thought to support the lymphatic system, which plays an important role in healthy, vibrant skin.

Turmeric (Curcuma aromatica) belongs to the ginger family and has been the subject of a wide range of research from dermatology to digestion. Mattam has called the Ayurvedic herb a “game-changer,” noting that its anti-inflammatory power “has an ability to help detox the skin and it’s a powerful antioxidant. Traditionally, turmeric is used for acne, hyper-pigmentation, and for overall radiance.”

Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) is also known as Indian gooseberry, and according to Mattam, this Ayurvedic herb has twenty times the amount of vitamin C as an orange. It’s a powerful antioxidant that has been shown in studies to enhance collagen production. “We’re seeing the benefits of amla in skincare and the ancient Ayurveda texts talk about amla as critical to radiance.”

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is another collagen stimulator. It improves blood circulation, which is a vital component in delivering nutrients to the skin. You’ll find gotu kola in many skincare formulations because it’s high in amino acids, beta carotene, phytochemicals, and fatty acids—a potent combination in warding off the signs of aging and sun damage.

Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), or holy basil, is a popular ingredient in anti-inflammatory skin-care remedies and blemish control. It also helps protect skin from environmental pollutants and has such wide-ranging antimicrobial qualities that it can be used in hand sanitizer. It is also used as a brightening agent; Mattam uses it in her skincare line’s brightening mask, noting that one “ancient recipe for hyper-pigmentation, scarring, and melasma is turmeric, holy basil, and fruits like papaya and pineapple.”

Neem (Azadirachta indica) also has antibacterial properties and is high in Vitamin E, calcium, and fatty acids. That makes it an ideal component in acne and anti-aging treatments. It’s also used to treat dry and thinning skin.

Moringa (Moringa oleifera) is often distilled into an oil when it’s used in Ayurvedic skincare, and the proteins and vitamins it contains can help hydrate skin as well as protect it against free radical damage. This herb is also a natural source of vitamin C and is thought to help produce collagen, thereby reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

Madhuyashthi (Glycirrhiza glabra), also known as licorice, can help fade blemishes and dark spots and works a lot like the prescription alternative, hydroquinone. But this more natural alternative inhibits the production of melanin while still being safe for black and brown skin. Licorice also contains glycyrrhizin, a potent antioxidant that protects skin from environmental stressors.

Respecting the Whole Body

While the idea of treating the body as a holistic entity is what appeals to many people looking for alternatives to modern, allopathic medicine, that also means there’s no silver bullet for skin conditions that don’t involve also looking after your overall health. In other words, poor diet and lack of exercise have an effect on your skin that no moisturizer or serum is going to magically solve.

If you’re interested in the finer points of Ayurvedic skincare, you should see a trained practitioner who can diagnose and prescribe the appropriate treatments, especially if you suffer from skin ailments such as dermatitis, rosacea, eczema, and the like.

But if you’re interested in dabbling in Ayurvedic herbs for clear, bright skin and anti-aging benefits, there are plenty of products available to you. And while there are homemade options, it’s important to look into the purity (and possible side effects) of anything you use on your skin and be sure to tell your medical practitioner what you’re using.

Go beyond skin deep with 4 Ayurvedic Herbs for Immunity.