The skin-care world likes to focus on scientific innovation and breakthrough technologies. But sometimes, ancient techniques can make the happiest complexions, especially for those who seek chemical-free products.
While Ayurvedic skin-care treatments have been around for 5,000 years, there’s something about products made from edible ingredients (which include neem, cardamom, sunflower, coconut, sage, mint, and lavender) that’s particularly appealing to the modern woman.
But, since Ayurveda is a life science rooted in the Indian Vedic tradition — one that takes into account medicine, diet, and lifestyle in its quest to heal and create balanced bodies — understanding the appeal behind the culture's particular skin care and its potential can be hard to grasp.
As a whole, Ayurveda considers energies that rule our bodies, inside and out, including wind, fire, and earth (or the Sanskrit doshas of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, respectively). Though each of us is predominantly Vata, Pitta, or Kapha-governed, our skin gets knocked out of balance (by stuff like chemicals, pollution, and bad diets) and can require special attention to bring these energies back to balance.
Yes, the concept can sound a little new agey, but when you consider the fact that our skin is our largest absorbing organ, then the idea of feeding it “skin food” that mirrors our dietary food doesn't seem like too wacky of an idea.
“The skin functions just like any other organ in the body, yet we seem to have this disconnect when it comes to the skin. We see the skin as a shell, separate and of a lesser importance from our internal organs,” says Ayurvedic doctor, chemist, and botanist Pratima Raichur. “So, when Ayurvedic herbs, or anything for that matter (good or bad) is applied topically to the skin, [it can be] absorbed into the bloodstream. [That] affects both the body and the mind, much in the same way that food does when it is ingested.”
Dr. Raja Sivamani, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Dermatology at University of California, Davis who specializes in botanical extracts, phytochemicals, and clinical Ayurvedic theory, notes that that skin is designed to absorb and protect. “Rates of absorption aren’t super high when you’re putting on creams all over the body,” he notes, “because people don’t typically cake on a cream.” Still, he adds, “when you put on certain creams with certain chemicals, they can be measured in peoples’ urine.” Finally, when we absorb nutrients through the skin, those nutrients go right into the bloodstream and bypass the liver, unlike when taking nutrients orally.
Considering that what we put on our skin could feasibly work its way into our bloodstream, herbs used in Ayurvedic skin care fall right in line with the foods we consume as part of a healthy diet.
“When we give our skin dosha-appropriate nutrients, in a form as close to nature as possible, the skin knows how to use it and will reflect that with healthy, supple, glowing qualities,” Raichur says.
Aside from being agreeable with our insides (in the event that absorption takes place), herbs and nutrients used to balanced doshas (like sesame, lemon, geranium, and ginger for Vata; sunflower, sandalwood, neem, rose for Pita; safflower, bergamot, sage, mint, lavender for Kapha) are also used to treat what’s going on at the surface of the skin, as well.
Just like many skin-care brands formulate products for dry, oily, or combination skin, the Ayurvedic tradition does something similar with its doshas. Balancing ingredients are used for Pita, moisturizing ingredients for Vata, and absorbing ingredients for Kapha. Oat flour, for example, can soothe skin, absorb excess oil, and help with inflammation, according to Sivamani. And Brahmi, Raichur says, is known to both stimulate the brain and stimulate cell regeneration in the skin.
While there are several handy quizzes online to determine your dosha, and using products geared toward your dosha will likely benefit your skin type, those wishing to delve into Ayurvedic health should consult an Ayurvedic doctor for customized skin care and dietary suggestions.
And, as Sivamani points out, “when you think about Ayurveda for skincare, it’s really a lifestyle change. It’s not about putting something on the skin that’s going to change everything. It’s how diet affects skin, and how your body feels it has to be used, in conjunction with lifestyle change.”
Raichur agrees: “Where Ayurveda is different from other approaches is its belief that each individual is different and unique, requiring us each to have a slightly different approach to diet and skin care. What may be good for a Kapha dosha could potentially be less effective to a Vata dosha. So, to obtain ultimate wellness, it is important to be aware of your own personal dosha constitution.”
With that in mind, those looking for more natural products may find a magnetic pull toward Ayurvedic lines, despite their lifestyles, since Ayurvedic skin care is largely free of GMOs, parabens, chemicals, metals, and leads. Whether using Ayurvedic skin care to fit a certain lifestyle or because of its holistic tendencies, Sivamani suggests easing into Ayurvedic skin care to avoid skin freakouts.
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