Cleopatra bathed in milk, Japanese geishas washed their faces with rice water, and the Romans slathered themselves with olive oil. For thousands of years, it was understood that certain foods had the power to nourish the skin not just when consumed, but when applied topically. In recent years we’ve become more reliant on mass-produced cosmetics, with sales of these products in the United States expected to top more than $62 billion this year. But reports on ingredients like endocrine-disrupting phthalates and the potentially carcinogenic foaming agent sodium lauryl sulfate may be cause for concern. While Canada and the European Union have banned more than one thousand cosmetic ingredients—including retinoic acid, an acne-fighting ingredient commonly prescribed in the U.S.—the Food and Drug Administration has not yet followed suit.
In response to these mounting concerns about the ingredients found in skin care products, consumers are looking for more natural products. A 2016 report from Mintel indicates widespread interest in food-based and probiotic skin care options among American consumers, 78% of whom already use, or are interested in using, products containing fruit-based ingredients. Eveline Ashton, a bioenergetic practitioner and holistic healer, has noticed this trend as well. “With the growing awareness of climate change and movement toward organics,” she says, “I think people are waking up to some of the old ways, where natural is better. I certainly found in my practice that many people came to me because they were not happy with the standard medical emphasis on pharmaceuticals, and more and more people are developing allergies and becoming sensitive to chemicals.”
To nourish your skin the way your ancestors did, set aside the expensive products full of questionable ingredients, and try out these natural skin care options. Most of these dermatologist-approved ingredients are probably already in your kitchen cabinet!
Oatmeal is best known as a nutritious breakfast food, but did you know that it offers topical benefits as well? “Oats have long been used, as a paste or solution, for bathing and soothing skin problems and dermatitis,” says Alan M. Dattner, M.D., a holistic dermatologist based in New York and author of Radiant Skin From the Inside Out. A compound found in oats called saponin acts as a surfactant, cleansing the skin by binding to impurities in your pores. Oats also contain numerous amino acids, including lysine and arginine, which aid in moisturizing and healing damaged tissue. Many skin care products include oat-derivatives, but with potentially harmful additives. Dyes like Yellow #5 Lake have been linked to cancer and hyperactivity, and the generic term “fragrance” often conceals a host of undisclosed chemicals. Why risk the effects of such ingredients when you can experience the benefits of oats directly from the source?
In addition to their cleansing and healing properties, ground oats make an excellent gentle exfoliator. In December 2015, President Obama signed into law an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, effective in 2017, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of products containing polyethylene (plastic) microbeads, which are the key ingredient in many exfoliating scrubs. While opinions vary on the actual effectiveness of using these beads on your skin, there is no question that they wreck havoc on marine life, as they are insoluble and too small to be filtered out by most wastewater plants. Alternative exfoliators containing salt, sugar, and coffee grounds have gained popularity in response to the microbead problem, but the sharp edges of these substances can cause small tears in the skin. Oats, on the other hand, are less abrasive when ground up into a fine powder, which you can do at home in a food processor. Dattner says the ground oats “should feel a little gritty, but not chunky,” like almond meal. And if you are sensitive to gluten, be sure to use a gluten-free variety. Ashton recommends the following uses for oats:
To soothe rashes, eczema, hives, acne, or redness: Mix water and finely ground oats to form a paste, and apply as a facemask or to any affected area. Rinse off with warm water after about 15 minutes—up to an hour, for a particularly bad rash—or when itching subsides. For a full-body soak, add ground oats to lukewarm bath water.
To cleanse and exfoliate: Combine two parts ground oats, one part finely ground almonds (which contain healing vitamin E), water, and a few optional drops of essential oil to form a paste. Gently massage onto dampened skin then rinse with warm water.
Have you ever gargled salt water when you have a canker sore or noticed softer, clearer skin after swimming in the sea? Salt is one of the oldest remedies used to fight infection and inflammation, and salt mining caves in Eastern and Central Europe have long been used as therapeutic environments for those suffering from respiratory conditions. The healing effects of salt are again coming to light, as controversial salt lamps and salt rooms imitating the ancient caves gain popularity, promising results including decreased stress and relief from asthma. The jury is still out on whether these particular treatments are truly effective, but you don’t have to buy a glowing chunk of pink salt to feel some of the benefits. One proven way to use salt is as a disinfectant. “The secret,” says Dattner, “is to make a concentration of salt in water that is as close as possible to the concentration of salt in our tissues,” a solution called physiological or normal saline. This is the same saline solution used in hospital IVs and to rinse contact lenses. “Sea salt contains more minerals, as our bodies do [so it is ideal for healing purposes,] but table salt will also work.”
To cleanse a wound, ulcer, or irritated piercing: Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt into a pint of pre-boiled water and use to rinse the affected area before dressing. Repeat with each dressing change. Do not store solution for more than 24 hours, as bacteria can start to grow.
To prevent a minor burn blister: “In my family,” Dattner recounts, “if someone touched a hot burner, and didn’t want to get a blister, you put salt on it. But be careful, it stings!” Sprinkling salt onto the burned skin will draw out moisture that would otherwise form into a blister. But do not use salt and ice together on a burn. Salt lowers the melting point of the ice and can cause a “cold burn.”
Ayurvedic texts prescribe honey to soothe pain, prevent and fight infection, and promote healing of the skin. The ancient Egyptians, too, knew of these effects and used sugar-rich substances like honey to treat wounds on the battlefield confirm that honey is indeed antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory. This amazingly multipurpose substance may even have the potential to inhibit the growth of cancer tumors, according to one small study on mice. It seems like there’s nothing a little sweetness can’t heal!
To feel the benefits yourself, Ashton says, “You must use raw, organic honey. If the honey has been processed, which means heated, you have destroyed the anti-bacterial qualities of it, making it less effective.” The most common type of acne occurs when the bacteria P. acnes, which naturally occurs on the surface of the skin, becomes trapped in layers of skin cells and sebum (the oil that forms a protective coating on your skin), resulting in inflammation. Honey’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties fight the bacteria and soothe the irritated skin. Dattner goes even further, recommending Manuka honey from New Zealand, which has demonstrated the greatest healing benefits, particularly for acne.“Its effectiveness is in its molecular density,” he explains, so it is best not to dilute whatever kind of honey you choose. Just use it straight out of the jar.
For a nourishing face mask: Apply about a tablespoon of honey to clean, dry skin. After 30-45 minutes, rinse thoroughly with warm water. According to Ashton, this mask “removes impurities, brings a fresh flow of blood to the surface of the skin, and leaves you with a lasting glow.” As long as you don’t notice any negative effects, Ashton says it’s safe to use this mask as often as once a day until breakouts begin to clear up.
Related: Natural Solutions to Treat Acne
4. Cooking Oils
Coconut oil has recently been touted as a cure-all, with bloggers suggesting uses ranging from deodorant to insect repellent. Ashton cites antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties as the secret to this oil’s popularity. But coconut oil isn’t the only one you can use topically. Dattner says, “Any oil you use has the benefit of providing a coat through which moisture cannot evaporate. But the skin must be wet before you put the oil on in order to have a moisturizing effect.” The anti-inflammatory properties of oils like sunflower and safflower make this moisture treatment particularly effective for dry skin conditions like mild eczema (atopic dermatitis).
However, some oils are more comedogenic than others, meaning they are more likely to clog your pores. Coconut oil is one of the most comedogenic oils, whereas almond, avocado, and safflower oil are far less likely to cause breakouts. But everyone’s skin is different, so feel free to experiment as long as your oil is unrefined and organic. Organic because you wouldn’t want to put pesticide residue on your face, and unrefined because the high-heat refining process damages compounds like polyphenols, which are important antioxidants. However, Ashton warns against using canola oil, which has been the subject of controversy over its potential toxicity.
For dry skin and rashes, or as a simple moisturizer: Wash face with warm water and gentle cleanser, pat away excess moisture, then massage on your oil of choice while the skin is still damp. Apply once or twice a day. For eczema: Massage safflower or sunflower oil into moist skin as often as necessary to ease itchiness and dryness.