Herbal Skin Care Basics: Tools, Ingredients, Recipes

Discover the best natural ingredients for concocting your own herbal skin care products, and whip up these easy, refreshing recipes for Rose Water, Bay Rum Aftershave and Astringent, and Sea Salt Body Scrub.
By Rosemary Gladstar
March 24, 2011
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“Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health” offers 175 natural, homemade remedies for everything from moisturizing dry skin to relieving cold symptoms to simply getting a good night’s sleep. Author Rosemary Gladstar guides readers through every step of the process, including growing and harvesting herbs, matching herbs to ailments and determining dosage.
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The following is an excerpt from Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health by Rosemary Gladstar (Storey Publishing, 2008). In this inspirational guide to a greener, healthier life though caring for and honoring the body, you’ll find time-tested herbal remedies that are safe, effective and easy to prepare. Gladstar, a renowned herbal teacher and a driving force behind the contemporary herbalist movement, presents teas, tonics, oils, salves, tinctures and other natural therapies for dozens of common maladies and for promoting overall health and wellness at every stage of life. This excerpt is from Chapter 5, “Recipes for Radiant Beauty.” 

Gathering the Ingredients

It’s wise to assemble ahead of time all of the ingredients and utensils you’ll need. There have been times I haven’t followed this bit of advice, and in the middle of a project found I was out of a necessary ingredient. This can be either a big or a little inconvenience, but it’s always annoying.

As with any recipe, you can substitute ingredients and experiment with the formulas to create a more personalized product, but be sure you understand what the particular ingredient in the formula is “doing” so you can substitute one that has similar properties. Otherwise, the product may not turn out as hoped for. Ask yourself the basic questions. Is this ingredient an emulsifier? Does it help thicken the product? Does it add moisture? For instance, if you substitute liquid oil for solid oil in a cream formula, the cream may turn out runnier than you’d like.

These recipes have lots of room for creativity. I am one of those people who gets frustrated with exact proportions. Coffee mugs are my usual measuring cups, and spoons from my silverware drawer serve as measuring spoons. When adding essential oils, I lose count somewhere after the fourth or fifth drop and proceed forward by scent and common sense alone. Nothing is exact in my world, and, needless to say, things don’t always turn out exactly the same. But I’ve learned to follow my intuition, and generally it leads me in its own creative process. Using my common sense rather than exact measurements has often produced exquisite results.

Not to worry, however, if you prefer to follow exact directions! I have carefully formulated each of these recipes so that you can follow them step-by-step with assurance. I strongly suggest that you make the recipes as directed the first couple of times so you get a feel for how they develop. Later, you can try adding your own scent, substituting one type of vegetable oil for another, or using different herbs in the formula. Be sure to write down each of the ingredients and the proportions so you can re-create the formula at another time. Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that you’ll remember. I still lament the many times I’ve made a perfect product but couldn’t recall the scents I’d added or the proportions of oil to water.

Helpful Kitchen Tools

No special tools are needed for creating any of the wonderful cosmetics mentioned in this article. A kitchen with all its normal gadgets will supply you with most of what you need, and the ingredients called for can mostly be found in supermarkets or natural foods stores. If not available in your local grocery store, these items can easily be acquired from mail-order sources. Although you don’t need many specific items in order to create your natural beauty products, the following everyday tools will be helpful to use during recipe-making:

  • Blender — indispensable in making body lotions and creams
  • Fine-mesh strainers
  • Hand grater reserved for grating beeswax (beeswax is edible, but it is almost impossible to remove the wax)
  • An assortment of glass bottles and jars
  • Stainless steel or glass mixing bowls
  • Measuring cups

Natural Skin Care Ingredients

Following is a list of some of the more popular cosmetic ingredients and what they are used for. Not only is this practical knowledge, but it gives you greater ability to formulate your own recipes. If you are familiar with the result each ingredient produces in a formula, you will be able to substitute one item for another. This knowledge comes in handy if you either run out of or don’t care for a particular ingredient.

Almond Oil 

What it is: Made from the kernels of almonds, this sweet oil is one of the most versatile oils for skin care products.

What it does: A liquid oil, almond oil is light and works well for most skin types. It smells delicious, too.

Availability: You can find almond oil in natural foods stores.

Aloe Vera 

What it is: Native to Africa but common around the world, aloe vera is an excellent plant to keep around the house.

What it does: The gel from the large, succulent leaves of aloe vera is used to treat and soothe burns, rough or irritated skin, and wounds. Aloe is a wonderful moisturizer that also firms and tones the skin. It is a common ingredient in many natural cosmetic products.

Availability: Aloe gel and juice are readily available in natural foods stores and some pharmacies. I keep aloe as a potted plant in my home; when I need fresh gel, it’s right there. Though fresh aloe gel is wonderful for use in products that you’ll be using up in a few days, for those that need a longer shelf life, use aloe gel that has at least 1 percent citric acid added as a natural preservative.

Caution: Aloe vera gel should never be used on staph infections. It can lock in the infection and make it worse. 

Apricot Kernel Oil 

What it is: Derived from the cold-pressed apricot pit, apricot kernel oil is a versatile moisturizer.

What it does: This is another of those perfect, odorless liquid oils that are excellent for skin care products. It is a light emollient and is suitable for most skin types.

Availability: You can find apricot kernel oil in natural foods stores.

Castor Oil 

What it is: Castor oil is thick, viscous oil extracted from the toxic beans of the castor plant. This oil is not used in cooking but does have a great reputation as a medicinal oil. It’s well known for its purging properties and its ability to dissolve cysts and tumors.

What it does: This oil can be used in cosmetic preparations for deep emollient properties. Castor oil is perfect for dry and mature skin.

Availability: Castor oil is widely available in pharmacies and grocery stores.

Clay 

What it is: Clay is another wonderful substance mined from the Earth. It is the essence of mountains ground down through the ages into a smooth powder. It has been blessed by thousands of sunrises, sunsets, windstorms and rainstorms. When we use clay in our cosmetics, we are mixing the energy of thousands of years and using it as a beauty aid.

Europeans have used clay for thousands of years both as a medicine and as a cosmetic. Clay baths, facials, and body care products are popular throughout Europe and are only just catching on in America, where fancy spas now offer a variety of clay-based treatments.

What it does: There are many types of clay, each used for a different purpose. The concentrations of minerals are what determine the color and effect of the clay.

Availability: All the different kinds of clay can usually be found at natural foods stores and spa shops. Look for the following popular varieties:

Bentonite. This softer, more mucilaginous clay has mild properties good for most skin problems. Bentonite can also be taken internally to help supply minerals to people lacking them. It aids in binding toxic minerals, making them insoluble, so they can be more easily eliminated.

Green Clay. High concentrations of plant material and volcanic matter give this clay its rich mineral content and green coloring. It is my favorite clay for medicinal purposes, but I also find it excellent for most cosmetic purposes. It is fairly mild and can be used successfully for most skin types. However, its green color isn’t appropriate for some body powders.

Red Clay. Rich in iron, red clay sports a rusty color. It is very drying and drawing and is primarily used in medicinal preparations for poison oak/ivy, rashes, and wounds. Red clay is also useful in skin preparations for oily skin, acne, or other problem skin.

White Clay. This is the most versatile of all clays and the one used most often in cosmetics. Because it’s milder and less drying than other clays, white clay is used in skin masks, body packs, powders, and bath salts. The white clay generally used in cosmetics is called kaolin. It is available in natural foods stores but can also be purchased at a much lower price in ceramic supply stores.

Cocoa Butter 

What it is: Cocoa butter is the fat surrounding the cacao bean. No wonder it smells heavenly! In fact, everything that’s made from it has the possibility of smelling like chocolate milk if you are not careful in the formulation.

What it does: A thick, solid oil, cocoa butter is one of the richest oils available. Use sparingly in formulas intended for oily skin! On the other hand, cocoa butter is excellent for dry, mature skin. Along with its emollient properties, it will help thicken body care products. If you get small, tapioca-like kernels in your cream, this is an indication that you’ve added too much cocoa butter to your base.

Availability: Cocoa butter is found in most natural foods stores, some pharmacies and mail-order catalogs.

Coconut Oil 

What it is: This is probably the most used oil for cosmetic purposes. Long treasured for its protective emollient properties, coconut oil was prized by tropical island dwellers as a cosmetic aid. It was liberally smeared on the body to protect against dryness and combed into the hair to ensure healthy, shiny locks.

What it does: Coconut oil is a rich emollient. Not as thick or fatty as cocoa butter, this oil is more suitable for most skin types. It is commonly used as a moisturizer for skin and hair.

Availability: Found in most natural foods stores, herb stores, and some pharmacies, coconut oil is also available through mail-order catalogs. The best source, though, is the local people who make it and sell it on the beaches of tropical islands.

Grapeseed Oil 

What it is: This fixed or liquid oil is one of the lightest and best oils available.

What it does: Considered a “non-oily” oil, grapeseed oil is quickly absorbed by the skin and leaves no oil residue. It’s perfect for oily or blemished skin, and especially for teenage skin. It’s also odorless.

Availability: Grapeseed oil is readily available in natural foods stores and some grocery stores.

Lanolin 

What it is: Lanolin is the protective oil found on the wool of sheep. It helps keep the sheep warm and makes their coats somewhat weather-resistant.

What it does: This thick, viscous substance is the oil most like our own skin oil, making it one of the best moisturizers for humans.

Availability: Hydrolyzed lanolin, which is odorless but heavily processed and often laden with synthetic chemicals, is readily available in pharmacies. Though it is a bit more challenging to use, I always recommend pure or anhydrous lanolin. Use only small amounts, or the sheep-like odor will permeate everything you make. Anhydrous lanolin is available in some pharmacies, as well as in most natural foods stores.

Rose Water 

What it is: You must be careful when purchasing rose water to buy only the 100 percent pure form. Often what is available in pharmacies and even some natural foods stores is synthetic rose oil and water with preservatives added. Pure rose water is the distilled water of roses. It is usually made by steam distillation, and it smells heavenly and tastes delicious.

What it does: Rose water is used in cosmetics mainly for its lovely scent, but also because it has light astringent properties. It is often used as toner for fair and dry skin.

Availability: Rose water is available in most health food stores and herb shops. You also can often find rose water in delicatessens; it is used as a flavoring in Greek pastries, puddings and cakes. Try making your own rose water with the recipe below.

Witch Hazel Extract 

What it is: This is an old-fashioned herbal product made from the bark of the witch hazel plant, a small, shrub-like tree native to North America. It is produced by steam distillation.

What it does: Witch hazel extract is used in many cosmetic products for its light astringent and firming properties. Witch hazel also has mild antibacterial properties, making it an excellent treatment for acne and skin problems.

Availability: The extract can be found in most pharmacies and natural foods stores. You can make your own witch hazel extract by purchasing witch hazel bark from an herb company and soaking it in alcohol (use rubbing alcohol for extract to be used externally and brandy or vodka for extract to be used internally). However, the commercially available extracts are of good quality, so I usually find it simplest to buy witch hazel extract.


Rose Water Recipe

Though distilling fresh rose petals generally produces rose water, the following method is simple and effective, and it ensures a perfect rose water every time.

Be sure you use fresh roses that have just begun to open — they are at their prime and will yield the strongest water. The more fragrant the roses, the stronger the scent of the rose water. Using roses that have been sprayed with insecticides will result in the toxins being extracted into the water.

Ingredients: 

3 parts witch hazel extract, vodka or gin
1 part distilled water
Fresh, organically grown roses or rose petals
 

Instructions: 

1. Mix the witch hazel extract (or vodka or gin) with the distilled water. Place the fresh roses in a quart jar. Completely cover the roses with the alcohol mixture, adding enough extra that the alcohol mixture rises 2 to 3 inches above the flowers. Cover tightly and place in a warm shaded area. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 weeks.

2. Strain out the roses and rebottle the water for use. Rose water does not need refrigeration, though storing it in a cool place will prolong its shelf life.


Rose Water Recipe II

This recipe is the more traditional way to prepare rose water. Though it’s a little more involved, it’s fun to do and the results are outstanding. You can make a quart of excellent-quality rose water in about 40 minutes. However, if you simmer the water too long, you will continue to produce distilled water, but the rose essence will become diluted. Your rose water will smell more like plain distilled water than like heavenly roses.

Be sure you have a brick and a heat-safe stainless steel or glass quart bowl ready before you begin.

Ingredients: 

2 to 3 quarts fresh rose petals
Water
Ice cubes or crushed ice
 

Instructions: 

1. Place a brick in the center of a large pot with a rounded lid (the speckled blue canning pots are ideal). Place the bowl on top of the brick. Put the roses in the pot; add enough flowers to reach the top of the brick. Pour in just enough water to cover the roses; it should rise to just above the top of the brick.

2. Place the lid upside down on the pot. Turn on the heat and bring the water to a rolling boil. Then lower the heat to a slow, steady simmer and toss two or three trays of ice cubes (or a bag of ice) on top of the lid. You’ve now created a home still! As the water boils, the steam rises, hits the top of the cold lid, and condenses. As it condenses, it flows to the center of the lid and drops into the bowl.

3. Every 20 minutes, quickly lift the lid and take out a tablespoon or two of the rose water. It’s time to stop when you have between a pint and a quart of water that smells and tastes strongly like roses.


Bay Rum Aftershave and Astringent Recipe

This recipe is inspired by the gorgeous aromatic bay tree, which grows in abundance around my home in the California coastal range. This wonderful, all-natural tonic is a bracing astringent or perfect aftershave to tighten and firm pores. It makes a great gift.

Fresh bay leaves are really the best to use; the dried leaves maintain little of the pungent intensity.

Ingredients: 

Bay leaves (fresh, if possible)
Allspice, ground or grated
Whole cloves
Ginger, grated or ground (grated is preferable)
Rum
 

Instructions: 

1. Pack a wide-mouthed jar with bay leaves, leaving some room at the top. Add the desired amount of allspice, cloves and ginger to give the product a bit of a spicy aroma. Fill the jar with enough rum that it rises about an inch or two above the herbs. Cover tightly and let sit for three to four weeks in a warm place.

2. Strain out the herbs and rebottle the herbal liquid. You may wish to add a drop or two of essential oil of bay to strengthen the scent, especially if you have used dried bay leaves to make the astringent.


Sea Salt Glow Recipe

This recipe is far too easy for the remarkable benefits it gives. Again, it is the simple gifts of life that are often the best. A salt glow is one of my favorite exfoliating treatments. It leaves the skin feeling silky soft and renewed, relaxed but refreshed.

I first had the opportunity to experience this wonderful body therapy while camping in southeastern Ohio. Two women friends were insistent on treating me, and being the glutton I am for goodness, I acquiesced. As they rubbed salt and oils over my body — massaging and gently scrubbing it in, then rinsing it off with warm water — I knew I had reached heaven. If you think I’m exaggerating, just try it!

Similar recipes are a favorite treatment at many famous and expensive spas, but it’s so wonderfully simple, inexpensive and easy to do that you should try it at home. Invite a friend over for a “salt glow exchange.” It’s nicest to do it outside, where you can rinse off the salt and not worry about getting it everywhere.

Ingredients: 

2 cups fine sea salt
4 cups grapeseed, apricot or almond oil
25 drops essential oil of choice
 

Instructions: 

1. Place the salt in a wide-mouthed jar and cover with grapeseed, apricot or almond oil. Scent with essential oil. For best storage, place it in a cool area.

2. To use, dampen your entire body. Using either your hands or a loofah mitt, vigorously but gently massage the salt-and-oil mixture into your skin. Begin at your feet and work upward in a circular motion. Be careful to avoid any scratched or wounded areas. When you have massaged your entire body, rinse with warm water. Finish with a dry-towel rub.


Reprinted with permission from Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, published by Storey Publishing, 2008. 


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