Your Guide to Botanicals and Why You Should Be Using Them

It’s everywhere. The notion of swapping out toxic chemicals has permeated the entire consumer goods industry, ranging from beauty products to mattresses, and everything in between.

But with this increased awareness of what’s in the products we use every day, comes an even greater responsibility for consumers to be able to decipher the ingredient list on their labels. Many synthetic organic chemicals and their replacements are disguised within hard-to-pronounce words like “dibutyl phthalate” and “propylparaben”—and we’ve heard the advice to avoid the ingredients we don’t recognize. So what should we be looking for in our products?

Enter plant-based ingredients.

You’ve likely heard of plant-based botanicals, and it’s no secret that herbalism and nature-based products are trending. But it’s when we dig a little deeper and begin to uncover the benefits of plant-based ingredients that we’re able to begin to cultivate a holistic lifestyle that lasts. When we understand the “why” behind the choices we make, they become even more powerful.

The Basics: What Are Botanicals?

Botanical ingredients, or plant-derived additives, are known for their healing and medicinal properties. Sebastian Kneipp was one of the first people to commercialize the use of healing plants, and is commonly viewed as the “father of naturopathy.” He discovered over 40 plant remedies, with Arnica, a plant commonly used to reduce pain and swelling in joints and muscles, being one of his favorite herbs. He processed herbal remedies to form medicines, treatments and eventually bath and body products.

Largely viewed as a means of preventative care, botanicals harness the power of plants to promote holistic health and wellness. Ranging from creams and tinctures to oils and salts, botanical products can be used in a variety of ways, most commonly in skincare and bath products.

That’s right—botanicals can be used preventatively, rather than reactively. Throughout history, generations before us have used the wonders of Mother Nature to proactively fight disease and maintain healthy bodies and minds.
In fact, modern research suggests that our ancestors might have had the right idea in reaping in the benefits of botanicals:

  • They fight premature aging. Plant extracts are rich in antioxidants, which can protect the skin from the effects of harmful UV exposure. Some types of plants can even help promote collagen synthesis and weaken the activity of enzymes that degrade healthy, supple skin.
  • They prevent inflammation. Plant oils contain phospholipids, which exhibit anti-inflammatory properties that can help maintain homeostasis within our skin barrier. A healthy epidermis, or outermost layer of skin, is especially important for preventing harmful microbes and bacteria and maintaining a balanced pH.
  • They promote hydration. Plant oils can also create a protective barrier and help our skin cells maintain the water needed for proper function. As an added benefit, balanced skin is more hydrated and can better access the components that contribute to the skin’s natural moisture, called Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF).

The biggest takeaway? Using plant-based ingredients can actually help our bodies enhance physiological processes designed to keep us healthy, balanced, and connected to our natural rhythms. Given these research-backed benefits of botanicals, it’s no surprise these plant-based ingredients are used throughout body and skincare products in the modern world.

hand holding green sprout

Photo by Alex Loup

Supporting the Physical Body

Certain botanical ingredients are utilized in products and therapies that might support the physical body. Arnica, for example, is widely-recognized to soothe aching muscles and joints. Eucalyptus has also been acknowledged for its physical benefits, especially for those suffering from congestion or other cold symptoms. Women have used plants like black cohosh to deal with the symptoms of menopause since the beginning of time, and it’s rumored that Cleopatra’s skincare routine included natural baths with salts and sugar to exfoliate her skin. To support digestive health and immune function, we frequently use ginger today in a variety of formats.

Regardless of these widely-known uses for physical wellbeing, botanicals are classified as supplements rather than medicine—though they may indeed be nature’s medicine cabinet.

Exploring the Uses of Aromatherapy

Botanicals are a key component of aromatherapy, which can be used for both physical and emotional treatment. Also referred to as essential oil therapy, aromatherapy focuses on the holistic use of essential oils to promote well-being in applications ranging from body butters to therapeutic inhalers. While the use of botanicals can be traced far back within human history, the modern concept of aromatherapy was born in 1937, thanks to French chemist and perfumer Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. He wrote a book called “Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy,” highlighting his clinical findings for using essential oils to address physical conditions—clearly differentiating their medicinal usage from their commonly accepted cosmetic applications at the time.

Over the past several decades, the study of aromatherapy has continued to expand and evolve into a more holistic approach that considers the mind, body, and spirit. Since our mental health is closely interrelated with our physical health, it should come as no surprise that our sense of smell affects our brain function, which impacts our mood and stress levels. Studies show that it can even trigger immediate changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, and muscle tension.

The bottom line? Aromatherapy plays an important role in the mind-body connection and has a strong correlation to both physical and mental well-being.

One of the most well-known aromas for relaxation is lavender, often used to help decompress and unwind after a long, stressful day. Valerian is another plant used to calm the mind and foster a more restful sleep. Also known for its mood-boosting qualities, rosemary can support healthy hair growth and may improve memory and brain function. For those of us that suffer from chronic migraines, peppermint can be used to enhance focus as well as relieve headaches and muscle pain.

The list of beneficial essential oils goes on, and the path for self-exploration within aromatherapy and botanicals is truly limitless—especially since these products are so accessible in the modern world. Our friends at Kneipp has a helpful guide on botanical ingredients; check it out here.

Whether you’re just beginning your exploration of plant-derived botanicals, or already use them as part of your regular wellness routine, appreciating the benefits of nature’s medicine cabinet can help you create a more conscious approach to your holistic health.

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