Both skin and hair reflect our overall health and this article discusses the importance of diet, optimal nutrition, and herbal remedies for boosting our inner health and enhancing the outer glow. If you are looking for natural remedies that enhance skin and hair health, medicinal herbs have many properties to support this. Read on for advice on choosing herbs for specific skin and hair problems such as acne and hair loss.
Brief anatomy and functions of skin and hair
Anatomy and functions of the skin
Both hair and skin, along with the nails, form part of the integumentary system which protects the body from the elements such as cold, heat, radiation, and infection. Part of the innate immune system, the integumentary system is composed of skin, hair, nails, glands, and nerves. Skin is the largest organ in the human body having a surface area of about 2 square meters and weighing 10 lbs. Skin is composed of two parts: a thin, outer layer (the epidermis) and the thicker, inner layer (the dermis).
Most cells of the epidermis are keratinocytes (90%) which produce keratin, a substance that protects the skin from sun rays, chemicals, and microbes. Around 8% of cells in the epidermis are melanocytes which contain skin colouring pigment melanin, melanin also absorbs ultraviolet (UV) light.
The dermis consists of two layers of connective tissue which contains collagen, elastic fibres, blood vessels, nerves, glands, and hair follicles. A natural oil known as sebum is produced by the sebaceous glands which keep the skin supple and moist, whilst sweat, which cools us down, is produced by the sudoriferous glands.
The skin has the following functions:
- Thermoregulation - temperature control
- Protection from abrasion, infection, radiation
- Cutaneous(skin) sensations
- Synthesis of Vitamin D
- Wound healing
Anatomy and functions of the hair
Hair has a shaft and a root, the shaft is the visible, external part whilst the roots are deep in the skin surrounded by the hair follicle (skin that connects to the sebaceous gland).
New hair cells are made at the base of the hair in the bulb where the papillae are found. Papilla supplies blood to the hair root and new cells are made in the bulb causing hair growth.
Hair functions include:
- Protection from external environmental factors such as sun
- Production of sebum, sweat, and pheromones
- Temperature regulation
Diet and lifestyle factors for skin and hair
Exercise benefits all physiological functions and hair and skin reflect our general health. Benefits to our cardiovascular system will promote better circulation providing nourishment to the hair and skin. Reducing stress and getting adequate sleep will also benefit hair and skin health, as will good personal routines around skincare and haircare.
Diet is vital to healthy hair and skin and having nutritional deficiencies will result in hair and skin problems. Following a balanced and nutritional diet is the key to skin and hair health. This includes adequate proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and more importantly water for optimum hydration.
According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), the following are vitamins and minerals important to maintain healthy skin.
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin B3
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Including omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, with food sources such as low-fat dairy, nuts, pulses, fish, and lean meats, ensuring optimal gut health by increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables, and consuming probiotic and prebiotic foods will greatly enhance hair and skin quality.
An overview of herbs for skincare
Medicinal herbs can be used to improve physiological functioning generally. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that act to maintain homeostasis by reducing the damaging effects of stress on the body. Such herbs have the capacity to enhance all systems, which will reflect in skin and hair.
Herbs can greatly improve the digestion and absorption of nutrients consumed in the diet so that their benefits can be optimised.
Medicinal herbs can aid toxin removal from the body, enhance immune system functioning, and support hormone balance, all of which will benefit skin and hair.1
Mood issues such as stress, sleep disturbance, depression, and anxiety can impact skin and hair health as well. There are many excellent calming (nervine) herbs, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anti-depressant, and sleep-promoting (sedative) herbs to choose from.
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Holy Basil - Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
- Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)
Externally herbs can provide many benefits when included in skin preparations as many have moisturising qualities, healing actions, and antimicrobial activity.
An overview of herbs for hair care
As discussed above herbs can enhance physiological functioning throughout the body systems and these benefits will enhance hair quality.
Many herbs have an affinity with the hair and can be used to clean and condition as part of hair preparations, some having specific benefits for conditions affecting the hair and scalp.
Herbs for haircare include:
Which skin problems will herbs treat?
Below are a few examples of common skin conditions and herbs that can help.
Herbs for treating acne
This common condition is often associated with the teenage years and hormone changes around puberty, but acne can affect any age group, particularly those susceptible to hormonal fluctuations.2,3
Acne causes oily skin and spots, larger spots, and cysts that can result in significant scarring and considerable emotional distress. Conventional treatments include antibiotics, vitamin A derivatives, and oral contraceptives.2,3
Herbal treatment internally will focus on ensuring the elimination of toxins from the system and balancing hormones where applicable as discussed previously.
Acne herbs for internal use:
- Heartsease (Viola tricolor)
- Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus)
- Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)
- Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale radix)
- Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)
- Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Acne herbs for external use:
- Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
- Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium)
- Chamomile (German) (Chamomilla recutita)
Herbs for treating dry skin and eczema
Eczema causes the skin to become very dry and itchy and in severe cases, the skin can become very sore and cracked.4 The cause of eczema is not always known but it is often hereditary and linked to allergies. Common treatments are moisturising creams, topical steroids (to treat inflammation), and avoiding allergens.
Treating eczema internally with herbs follows the same principles as the acne treatment in terms of offering general systemic support. An addition to this would be to use such herbs as nettle and elderflower to address any symptoms of allergy.
Medicinal herbs can be added to base creams and lotions for treating dry skin and eczema, marigold is a soothing and healing herb, chamomile also soothes and can relieve itching and oats are highly moisturising and will work extremely well in a bath.4
Eczema herbs for internal use:
- Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
- Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)
- Elderflower (Sambucus nigra fol)
- Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Eczema herbs for external use:
Herbs for treating ageing skin and wrinkles
Aging of the skin and wrinkle formation is caused by the natural ageing process and by lifestyle factors such as exposure to strong sunlight and smoking. Conventional treatments include topical vitamins and private cosmetic procedures such as Botox or chemical peels.
Internally general skin health herbs (as discussed) will be of benefit, where hormone deficiency is a factor read about menopause.
The following herbs have been found to demonstrate anti-agin and anti-wrinkle benefits:
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Holy Basil - Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
- Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
- Rose (Rosa damascena)
Which hair problems can herbs treat?
Herbs for treating dry and brittle hair
Many herbs will be useful for moisturising hair due to their high essential oil content. Herbs also can be infused in carrier oils such as jojoba to nourish hair.5 Rosemary has a long-standing reputation as a beneficial hair herb and can be infused as a hair rinse or the essential oil added to conditioning treatments.
Herbs for treating hair loss
Rosemary would be indicated as an external and internal treatment where hair loss occurs.5 The following herb suggestions have been researched for internal use.
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
- Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)
The condition of skin and hair mirrors our general state of health and any problems with health may affect their appearance. Diet is key to skin and hair health as is ensuring body systems are balanced and functioning at optimal levels. Medicinal herbs can support these processes and provide natural and effective therapy to maintain skin and hair health.
- Mehrandish R, Rahimian A, Shahriary A. Heavy metals detoxification: A review of herbal compounds for chelation therapy in heavy metals toxicity. J Herbmed Pharmacol. 2019 Feb;8(2):69–77. Available from: http://herbmedpharmacol.com/Abstract/jhp-9359
- Nasri H, Bahmani M, Shahinfard N, Moradi Nafchi A, Saberianpour S, Rafieian Kopaei M. Medicinal plants for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a review of recent evidences. Jundishapur J Microbiol. 2015 Nov;8(11). Available from: https://brieflands.com/articles/jjm-56552.html
- Reddy D, Jain V. An overview on medicinal plants for the treatment of acne. JCR. 2019;7–14. Available from: https://www.ejmanager.com/fulltextpdf.php?mno=302644834
- Bone K. Phytotherapy for atopic dermatitis (Eczema). (Phytotherapy review & commentary). Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients. 2003 May;(238):41–5. Available from: https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&issn=15254283&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA100767854&sid=googleScholar&linkaccess=abs
- Jain. “Prospect of Herbs as Hair Growth Potential .” International Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Science, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 25–33. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312167161_PROSPECT_OF_HERBS_AS_HAIR_GROWTH_POTENTIAL