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As an industry pro, you’re familiar with a handful of commonplace botanicals you consistently come across on product labels and use within your spa. But do you know how these plants are grown and farmed, or how their curative powers are harnessed? What about the ways in which their native properties come into play in skin care? To find out, read this primer—a guide to some of the most popular natural skincare ingredients—and learn how to take that knowledge from the wild into your treatment rooms.

Aloe Vera

Part of the succulent family, aloe vera is one of nearly 400 aloe varietals; it has a shallow root system that grows in rocky soils and stores water in its leaves. The moisture takes the form of a gel (the colorless substance at the center of the leaves) or a juice/latex (the yellow liquid on the edges of the leaf). Aloe has long been revered: Ancient Egyptians wrote of its medicinal attributes in 1550 B.C., and the Greeks used it to heal wounds and treat hair loss. Succulents, which can be sensitive to cold weather, are handpicked and cut into quarters, then pressed into juice while still fresh to retain the plant’s natural hydrating properties. They can also be dried and pulverized into a powder, which is then incorporated into skincare products. Aloe’s high water content is ideal for soothing skin that has been stressed by sun damage, environmental pollutants or allergic reactions. Diana Ralys, owner of Diana Ralys Skin Health in Santa Monica, California, and formulator of her own organic skincare line, uses organic aloe vera juice—rather than water—in all her product formulations. “Water can penetrate up to two layers of the skin, whereas aloe vera can get seven layers deep and also triggers cell-renewing properties,” she points out.

RELATED: The Amazing Benefits of Using Calendula

Eucalyptus

The tallest flowering plant on Earth, eucalyptus trees can tower higher than 300 feet. There are more than 700 species of the Australian-native plant; today, they grow all over the world in the form of trees and shrubs, and can even thrive indoors. For more than 200 years, eucalyptus leaves have been used to temper infections, fevers and coughs, due to their strong antibacterial qualities. “In skin care, eucalyptus is used mostly in products for oily and acneic skin because of its effective antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties,” explains Jordanna Antonoff , an account executive with Shira Esthetics, who adds that eucalyptus twigs and leaves are crushed and boiled, then incorporated into an oil. “Distilling eucalyptus with steam creates a refreshing, stimulating, uplifting and antibacterial essential oil with a minty, cooling aroma,” she says.

Green Tea

A rich source of antioxidants, green tea is revered for its antiaging and antibiotic properties. “Its polyphenols are especially effective for targeting free radicals caused by UV-induced oxidative damage,” says Ralys. Most white, black and green tea varietals come from the Camellia sinensis plant; green tea undergoes minimal processing and is not fermented, therefore the leaves retain more nutrients. The production method, purity, extract strength and dosage of green tea in skincare products are all significant factors in how effectively its nutritional properties are delivered to the skin. “Products must contain a sufficient amount of extract from high-quality and organically grown green tea, and should never be mixed with chemicals or exposed to heat,” Ralys says. “That way, the essence of the green leaves can truly be harnessed.”

Lavender

Part of the mint family, nearly 40 plants are classified as lavender. Their pretty purple buds are covered in tiny hairs, which contain the coveted essential oils. Cultivating organic lavender requires farmers to carefully strip flowers off the stems, then dry them in a dark room before distilling their oil. Other formulators create lavender tinctures out of buds and grain alcohol. For centuries, lavender has been lauded for its natural ability to calm and soothe, but its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties also help alleviate muscle pains and headaches. This powerful combination explains why the ingredient is so popular in massage and body products. “Lavender’s scent increases alpha waves in the area of the brain responsible for relaxation,” says Ralys. Aside from its soothing aromatherapeutic properties, lavender is also used to cleanse, purify and calm inflamed, stressed skin. “The plant contains powerful antioxidants that prevent and counteract pollution-caused irritation,” explains Boldijarre Koronczay, president and founder of Éminence.

RELATED: Green Tea for Internal and External Care

Licorice Root

Grown in Greece, Turkey and Asia, licorice has an expansive, wrinkled root system that thrives underground. These earthy, subterranean roots should be harvested about three years after a seedling has been planted—usually in the fall. When dug up, roots contain up to 60 percent moisture and must be thoroughly dried. Oil is extracted from the small, brown tendrils and typically made into brightening serums, though it also promotes skin elasticity, and fights inflammation and wrinkles. “Since Ancient China, licorice has been used to combat skin disorders and soothe irritation, due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties,” says Ralys. “The root naturally blocks melanin production, leaving skin brighter, clearer and more hydrated.” She notes that licochalcone, a main component of licorice extract, bolsters skin’s defense systems to protect it from UV damage as well.

Rose

Used to soften, balance and restore the skin, roses are native to southern and central Europe, and typically harvested in the spring when they’re in full bloom. However, Jurlique educational manager Sara LaBree notes that roses should be hand-pruned throughout winter “to encourage the sweetest flowers,” and their petals handpicked individually. “This ensures the highest quality and integrity of plant material,” she explains. After harvesting, roses are laid out on drying racks and their petals processed for oil. Rosehip oil, conversely, is extracted from the fruit that’s left once the rose has bloomed and lost its petals. The hip’s oil offers a natural source of powerful antioxidants including lycopene and vitamins E and C, plus essential omega fatty acids. Rose can be used to address wrinkles, scars, pigmentation and sun damage, and to treat dry and sensitive skin.

RELATED: Why Rose Is a Skincare All-Star

Seaweed

Derived from unicellular marine microalgae—present in the ocean for more than 3.5 billion years— over 40,000 species of red, green and brown seaweed exist today. Seaweeds aren’t technically plants, rather multicellular algae, and uptake minerals only via absorption from seawater. “As a result, they naturally become dense concentrations of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, macroelements, phytohormones, amino acids, proteins and lipids,” says Lydia Sarfati, founder and CEO of Repêchage. Much of the seaweed sourced for skin care around the world is wild harvested or farmed from shallow waters in the north Atlantic. “Harvesters carefully cut seaweed from kelp beds to allow for sustainable growth and ensure minimal impact on the local ecosystem,” Sarfati explains. Once on land, seaweed is hung to dry away from direct sunlight, becomes “shelf stable” within a day or two, and can be stored for up to a year.

Tea Tree

Melaleuca alternifolia, more commonly known as tea tree, is a member of the myrataceae (myrtle) family indigenous to Australia. Tea tree was originally used by native peoples who crushed the leaves to treat coughs and colds; placed them on wounds, bites and other abrasions; and brewed them into a tea to soothe sore throats. In the 1920s and 1930s, the tea tree oil industry took off thanks to a series of research papers explaining the oil’s benefits; as a result, people around the world used tea tree to treat foot fungus and infections, dandruff , lice and yeast infections. Today, the oil derived from these trees is mainly known for its antibacterial and purifying properties—it’s a powerful antimicrobial and antiseptic that can be incorporated into everything from homemade household cleaners to shampoos and cuticle treatments. In skin care, tea tree is used to assuage acne and minor skin infections and irritations.

Willow Bark

The use of willow bark can be traced back thousands of years to the time of Hippocrates, when Greeks were advised to chew on the substance to reduce fever and inflammation. White willow trees, native to Europe and central Asia, have inner and outer barks that contain compounds believed to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. White willow bark extract also contains salicin, a chemical similar to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), which boasts pain-relieving benefits and prevents the buildup of dead skin cells. The bark also contains tannins, which are toning and rich in antioxidants. When harnessed for facial cleansers, Koronczay reports, willow bark is great for “gently clearing out pores of excess oil, and helping to encourage healthy sebum production.”

–by Katie O’Reilly

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