We wrote about the magic of phytochemicals and identified some of the major groups in our previous blog. Phytochemicals are the thousands of complex compounds produced by plants in order to protect themselves from predators and diseases; whilst at the same time giving it colour and aroma to attract pollinators.
These phytochemicals which are essential for plants have also been proven to be beneficial as natural remedies for a wide range of human conditions from malaria to pain management. As a result, components of plant chemicals have been synthesised in laboratories in the manufacture of therapeutic drugs.
It's no surprise that plant chemicals are a valuable resource to the natural skincare industry. Plants have been used for centuries as elixirs for youth and beauty. Here are a few reasons why phytochemicals are so highly valued in the world of natural beauty.
Before we begin to appreciate how plant chemicals help improve the condition of the skin, it is important to have a basic understanding of what makes skin deteriorate. Skin can atrophy due to loss of collagen, fibroblasts and elastin. This leads to wrinkles and the flattening of the dermis.
Ageing is accelerated when the skin is exposed to strong sunlight. Photoageing is a result of UVB rays damaging the cells on the outer later of the skin and UVB rays impacting the middle later (dermis) .
Ageing is also associated with the free radical damage caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS) during oxidative cell metabolism. Free radicals are reactive chemical species that contain one or more unpaired electrons; they are products of oxidative cell metabolism. The body and especially the skin are routinely exposed to stressful environmental factors such as pollutants and UV radiation, stimulate a large number of aggressive oxidants which damage skin cell membranes.
Oxygen is the culprit that causes food to decompose or go rancid. Likewise the cells in our body can also be oxidised from eating oxidised food or through exposure to toxins. Oxidation creates free radicals that are unstable and in turn causes a chain reaction, triggering other unstable cells. This process causes cell death and mutations.
Here's how phytochemicals come in handy. We cited in our previous blog how phytochemicals are powerhouses of antioxidants. So how does this help our skin? Using the example of food again, when you leave a freshly cut piece of fruit eg avocado, it turns brown, no thanks to the process of oxidation. However dipping it in an antioxidant, like Vitamin C helps prevents the browning process. The same applies to skin. Getting as much antioxidants as you can from your diet or skincare will help 'preserve' your skin by warding off oxidative damage.
Inflammation is another cause of skin atrophy. Inflammation produces enzymes which break down collagen and elastin, resulting in sagging skin and wrinkles. It can also cause acne and rosacea. Phytochemicals contain naturally occurring anti-inflammatory properties.
Certain plant chemicals have also been shown to stimulate cells and correspondingly, collagen and hyaluronic synthesis.The root of Astragalus (radix astragali), Camellia Japonica and Panax Ginseng have been demonstrated to stimulate type 1 collagen production.
Phytochemicals can also be used as pigment-lightening agents. Licorice, mulberry and raspberry extracts inhibit tyrosinase acitivity. Over-activity of tyrosinase leads to over-production of melanin. Abnormal accumulation and biosynthesis of melanin pigments are responsible for skin disorders such as Melasma and freckles.
Plant extracts have also been shown to improve the elasticity and hydration of skin because of the synergies of their antioxidant, anti inflammatory and UV protective properties. Isoflavones and saponosides present in certain plants such appear to restore elasticity and firmness of the dermis.
The antibacterial, anti-fungal and antiviral properties of plants can be harnessed to inhibit acne causing bacteria and inflammation caused by fungal infections. The phenolic compounds of plants are an essential part of their defence mechanism against pathogens.
Astringents are useful agents for tightening pores and clearing away excess sebum making skin appear smoother. Plant astringents include witch hazel, green tea and apple cider vinegar.