People have harnessed the power of nature's plants for thousands of years. Herbs don't just make your food tastier; they also smooth skin, add shine to hair, aid digestion, and reduce inflammation.
"Herbs and other botanical ingredients—from gentle, emollient vegetable oils to fruits rich in skin-softening plant compounds—offer an alternative to the harsh chemicals found in many synthetically based commercial beauty and hair- and skin-care products," says Michael J. Balick, PhD, author of Rodale's 21st Century Herbal. "Equally important, they provide exquisite natural fragrances that uplift the spirit, rejuvenate the body, and add to personal allure."
Think oats can only be used as a delicious breakfast staple? Think again! According to Balick, oats can be used externally to help clear up and relieve the pain and itching of skin conditions like dryness and eczema. To reap its medicinal benefits, Balik recommends taking an oatmeal bath. The trick is to put whole oats in a clean, dry sock. Seal the open end with a rubber band and drop the sock into a warm bath for 15 to 20 minutes to calm itchy skin.
Because burdock is a mild antibacterial agent, eating this root can help treat skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Balick says to use, just slice, soak, and stir-fry the roots with sesame oil and soy sauce. Eat them raw in salads or cook them like carrots.
This herb does double duty. "Used in hair rinses, calendula brings out gold highlights," says Balick. Plus, for your skin, used externally in salves, creams, and ointments, calendula can help heal irritations such as rashes, insect bites, and sunburns.
The leaves of this herb help keep dandruff at bay (pun intended!) while stimulating hair growth. To use, Balick recommends adding an infusion of bay leaves to your bathwater. Also keep an eye out for fatty oil extractions from the fruits that are used in some skin-care products and shampoos. If you're worried about sensitive skin, apply the oil in diluted concentrations.
Considered the most important herbal hair dye, Balick says henna has been used for around 8,000 years to provide hair with an extra shine and red highlights. While commercial henna hair dye comes in a variety of colors, Balick explains that only true, unadulterated henna creates the red color. (Black henna, for example, contains a synthetic black hair dye.)
Thicken and shine your hair by drinking nettle tea. Balick recommends steeping two teaspoons of the herb in one cup of hot water for 10 minutes before straining and, if desired, sweetening the tea. You can also use a nettle infusion as a hair rinse or facial steam. Quick word to the wise: Balick advises always wearing gloves when harvesting and preparing the herb to avoid its notorious sting.
When used externally in a salve or compress, Roman chamomile helps soothe puffy eyes, explains Balick. Its essential oil can also be used in shampoos and bath oils to add golden highlights to your hair. For a soothing bath, simply pour boiling water over the chamomile flowers and steep them for a half an hour. Next, strain, cool, and add liquid to your bath.
Roman chamomile is generally a safe, time-tested herb but can provoke an allergic reaction in people sensitive to ragweed or other members of the aster family, explains Balick. Consult your dermatologist if you experience a reaction.
Forget expensive beauty creams or dangerous treatments and get familiar with gotu kola. Gotu kola speeds up the formation of collagen while reducing the formation of scar tissue because of its anti-inflammatory agents known as glucosides, explains Balick. Plus, it's been shown to be helpful in the treatment of varicose veins.