Herbs for Beauty

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The cosmetic use of plant material runs through all ancient cultures. 7000 years ago, the early tribes of the Nile Valley painted and anointed their dead both to preserve the body and make it more attractive for the world beyond. The Egyptians who followed assimilated their practices and developed them into an elaborate routine of beauty preparations for religious rituals and ceremonial occasions.

The ancient Greeks changed the focus of cosmetics from ceremonial to personal, developing a philosophy of all round health and beauty akin to modern concepts. Hippocrates formulated the study of dermatology and recommended diet, exercise baths and massage for improving physical health and beauty.

The Romans indulged further in aromatic rituals and body pampering. Citro, a Roman writer in the first century AD, wrote four books on cosmetics with a range of recipes for bleaching, tinting, and greasing hair, avoiding wrinkles, and dealing with body odours.

By the time of the Renaissance there was an awareness of skin care as seperate from medicinal disorders. Recipes for soaps, creams, and herbal waers were collected and recorded in herbals and still-room books, which were handed down from mother to daughter for generations.

In ancient India, cosmetics and perfumes were limited to the use of flower-garlands and gandha, sandal-paste to beautify the persons of gods and humans. The word sugandhi, well perfumed, is used twice in the Rigveda. Frangrance and hair tinting have even been mentioned in the Taittiriya Samhita, Maitrayani samhita and Taittiriya Aranyaka.

The first examples of the staining of the fingernails dates from 3000BC in China. The Chinese used gum arabic, egg whites, gelatine and beeswax to create the varnish. The royal family in China used gold and silver nail colours. In the first century AD black and red were also used. The lower ranks were only allowed to wear pale colours. In Egypt the colour of nail varnish used also represented social class. Henna was used to dye the nails.

Did you know

  • The word "cosmetae" was first used to describe Roman slaves whose function was to bathe men and women in perfume.
  • Modern nail varnish comes in a variety of colours and is actually a variation of car paint.

Commercial Beauty Products

During the nineteenth century, cosmetics became an organised industry in America. In 1846 Mr. Theron T.Pond offered his "Pond's Extract" to the public and other manufacturers soon followed. The innovative use of preservatives and mass production created an unprecedented choice.

Today's commercial products are often expensive, having vast amounts of money spent on advertising, packaging, distribution and testing (which by and large involves cruelty to animals). Allergies have increased along with the use of chemical preservatives, synthetic perfumes and artifical colourings. As a result, demand has risen for natural ingredients, and since research has demonstrated the remarkable therapeutic properties of herbs, many firms are rushing to create their own ranges of herbal cosmetics.

Homemade herbal cosmetics

By making your own cosmetics, you can be sure of their contents and there's also the satisfaction of having substituted beautifully packaged though highly suspect cosmetics bought at a store with one's made in your own kitchen. If you can find some of the ingredients in your kitchen, you'll either find them at the local chemist, health store, food store or the herbalist. It's possible these days even to get a lot of the ingredients through mail order, or internet stores.

Useful Equipment for Herbal Cosmetics

This is a list meant only as a guide but it is a good thing to avoid using utensils that are made of aluminium, copper and non-stick pans as their chemical contents can affect the ingredients' beneficial properties. All containers and utensils must be absolutely clean. Ideally, they should be sterilised by being placed in a hot oven or boiled for 10 minutes.

  • Heatproof glassware or pottery cookware
  • Enamel double boiler
  • Wire whisk or electric whisk
  • Measuring spoons
  • Measuring jug
  • Small glass 1 oz or (25 ml)
  • Small funnel
  • Nylon sieve
  • Pestle and mortar
  • Set of small measuring scales
  • Electric blender /grinder
  • Juice extractor
  • Glass dropper
  • Wooden spoons
  • Glass rods
  • Spatula
  • Clean dark glass bottles and jars with airtight lids
  • Labels
  • A perma pen

Basic Herbal Preparations

  • Infusing

Put one and a half handfuls of fresh herbs or about 25 grams of dried herbs into a heatproof container (not aluminium or copper). Bring about 600 ml of distilled water to boil. Pour over the herb immediately, cover witha lid to prevent the loss of any volatile elements through evaporation. Steep for at least half an hour. Strain and store in a refriegerator for upto 3 days.

  • Decocting

This method is usually employed for the tougher parts of herbs for example roots, bark, stems, or seeds. Put about 25 grams or 1 oz of the herb, cut up if necessary, into a saucepan (not aluminium or copper). Add about 600 ml distilled water, bring to boil and simmer for about half an hour. By the time the liquid should have reduced by half. If more has evaporated, top up with water to make about 275- 300 ml. Cool, strain and bottle. Keep in the refrigerator and use within a few days.

  • Macerating

Herbs likely to lose some of their therapeutic value if heated should be steeped in oil, vinegar or alcohol. Pack a glass jar witht he crushed, fresh herb. Cover with vegetable oil, cider vinegar or pure alcohol. Seal and leave for two weeks, shaking the jar each day. Strain and top up with fresh herbs. Repeat until the liquid smells strongly herbal. Strain, seal and bottle. this keeps well.

  • Pulverising

Grind, bruise or mash plant fibres and seeds in a pestle and mortar or electric blender.

Non-Herbal Ingredients

The common non-herbal ingredients are

  • Agar agar - it is derived from seaweed and used to make gels.
  • Alcohol - it is a preservative and solvent and ethyl alcohol is most commonly used for perfumery as it is least irritating to the skin. Isopropyl alcohol is the second best but has a medicinal scent. Vodka can also be used sometimes.
  • Beeswax - It acts as an emulsifier for oil and wter in creams.
  • Benzoin
  • Borax
  • Bran or Oatmeal
  • Buttermilk
  • Calamine lotion
  • Castile soap
  • Cocoa butter
  • Emulsifying wax
  • Fuller's earth
  • Gelatine
  • Glycerine
  • Honey
  • Iodine
  • Kaolin
  • Lanolin
  • Liquid paraffin
  • Oils
  • Oleic acid
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Vinegar
  • Vitamin capsules
  • Zinc oxide

Skin Types

Skin Creams and Lotions

Plants to use in Creams and Lotions

Many plants and herbs have beneficial cosmetic uses. Those listed here are particularly effective in skin creams.

Aloevera avocado Borage Calendula Chamomile Comfrey Cucumber Dandelion Elderflower Essential Oils



  • Ancient Cosmetics and Fragrance: Egypt, Greece and Rome
  • Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art, by Kathi Keville, Mindy Green
  • Review: History of Technology in India. Bag, A. K. (Ed.) 1997. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy.
  • A History of Fragrance
  • History of Cosmetics
  • Iranian Women & Cosmetics in Ancient Iran