Natural antiseptics: safe for your skin and the environment

Natural antiseptics: safe for your skin and the environment
Essential oils and plant extracts can zap zits without causing lasting damage to your skin or the planet

We all get the occasional blemish, and it always seems to be at the most inopportune times. Some blame stress, while others target an affinity for greasy junk food. Whatever the cause, the sight of a pimple is enough to have most of us running to the nearest pharmacy to pick up a tube of cream before the rest of the world catches a glimpse of your less than lovely complexion. Despite the current economic climate, we’re more concerned than ever about our skin. In September, Mintel predicted sales of women’s facial skincare products in the UK will reach £1 billion this year. And men are beginning to catch on, spending €420 million on skincare products in 2010, according to the researcher. Encouragingly, Mintel also found that men are increasingly keen to purchase herbal and botanical products.

Common blemish busters like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid undoubtedly get the job done, but at what cost? ‘Anybody who’s ever used benzoyl peroxide knows that it tends to dry the skin out, strip it, and cause redness and irritation if it’s overused,’ says Dee Atkinson, of The National Institute of Medical Herbalists. In addition, chemicals can be absorbed by the skin, according to the Soil Association, so you should be wary of the ingredients in your favourite beauty products. The Environmental Working Group, a U.S. NGO, has compiled a Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, which rates products based on potential health concerns. ‘If you use a gentle plant product on your skin, like tea tree oil, it’s antiseptic and it also encourages tissue and skin healing, and it doesn’t cause the skin to break down,’ Atkinson says.

Witch hazel, thyme, calendula, tea tree and lavender have natural antiseptic properties and can be used to treat or stave off infected blemishes, pimples and acne. Possessing natural antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal actions, such extracts are effective and gentler on the skin. In fact, salicylic acid was originally derived from willow bark, Atkinson says, though that is no longer the case. ‘Plants are nature’s most productive and unstoppable alchemists,’ says Dragana Vilinac, resident herbalist at Neal’s Yard Remedies. Many natural compounds derived from plants stimulate tissue regeneration, and keep out potentially harmful microorganisms, she says.

But even natural remedies can be damaging if not used with care, Vilinac warns. ‘Natural compounds always require respect and the dose is the only difference between something that is a medicine (heals, soothes, remedies, nurtures) and something that is a poison (pollutes, endangers health and life),’ she says. ‘There are some that can be harsh if not used in the correct dilution while applying the correct method.’ Susan Kemp, of Aromantic Natural Skin Care, says there are many ways to use plant products effectively. ‘A face wash can be made by making a strong  tea or infusion from either dried or fresh herbs, straining them and using as a wash or toner on the face every day,’ she says. For this, Kemp recommends witch hazel leaves, yarrow flowers, sage leaves, rosemary leaves, olive leaves, nettle and elderflowers. Some oils can be added to existing lotions and creams, such as Aromantic’s Anti-Acne Active Formula, £3.95, which is a natural blend of acai oil, andiroba oil and copaiba balsam. Aromantic and Neal’s Yard Remedies also offer courses for those who want to learn how to create their own beauty products. Aromantic’s one-day Beginners Course in Natural Skin Care costs £125 and is held in London, on April 19th and 20th, while Neal’s Yard Remedies runs Recipes for Natural Beauty one-day courses, £110, throughout the year.

While it may be tempting to meddle with tinctures on your own, Atkinson says it’s better to find a certified NIMH herbalist who can provide guidance. It’s also important to look at the ‘whole person’ when treating a skin problem to determine what else might be contributing to the issue, she says. ‘You try and work out why that person has acne,’ she says. ‘Is there a hormonal imbalance? Is their diet poor? Is it due to a familial tendency to have acne? And then you try and correct those underlying issues. And hopefully by improving the whole general health you would correct a problem like acne.’

Natural antiseptics are not only better for your skin, but also kinder to the environment as they are biodegradable. ‘After the recklessness of the last century we are only beginning to address the effects of the pollution already introduced to our planet by the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, processed food and household chemical industries,’ Vilinac says. Though she recognises the need for some man-made chemicals, Vilinac says we can learn from nature and develop our own products, thereby minimising our impact on the planet. ‘As consumers we literally have the power to protect our skin, and look after our immediate environment by choosing only natural products,’ she says.

Treat yourself to something natural

Organic Essential Tea Tree Oil
Vegan and certified by the Soil Association, Neal's Yard Remedies' 10ml bottle will cost you £6.75. The company recommends blending one part tea tree oil with one part lavender oil for a gentler effect with added anti-inflammatory properties.

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Witch Hazel Water
Witch hazel is a mild antiseptic and has known toning properties, according to Atkinson. This soothing astringent can help refine pores and prevent blemishes. Vegan and approved by BUAV, a 100ml bottle costs £9.75.

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Organic Calendula Tincture
Known for its healing and antiseptic properties, calendula can be added to lotions and creams or blended with other tinctures. And at £2.45 for a 10ml bottle this tincture is a steal. Combine with the Calendula CO2 Extract, £4.50, to benefit from both the fat-soluble and the water-soluble parts of the plant.

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