Three plants, one name

Ginseng RootGinseng is the name given to the roots of several plants in the same Panax genus. The most common three are South China ginseng, Korean ginseng and American ginseng. Unlike many plants, these are each unique species rather than different variations of the same species that have been bred for some unique characteristics in different geographies.

Ginseng is further distinguished by whether it was grown wild or cultivated, and by the degree of processing it has undergone. Fresh or green ginseng undergoes the least processing, white ginseng is peeled & dried, red ginseng is steamed & dried, making it less vulnerable to decay.

Why ginseng matters in the modern world

Ginseng is widely used in various eastern medicine traditions, and is gaining popularity in the US as a nutritional supplement.

It is purported to have a number of health benefits, although none of these have been yet sufficiently studied for the FDA or medical establishment to support ginseng’s medicinal use. However, some preliminary studies have shown promise with regards to possible effects on fatigue, memory, diabetes and menopause.

Both the root and leaf are also eaten or infused in beverages, particularly Korean cuisine.

Okay, but why is it on a beauty blog?

One of the most interesting proposed benefits — from the perspective of the cosmetically inclined — is early research suggesting that ginseng can promote hair growth and prevent hair loss.

Hair loss and hair growth are actually two separate phenomena. Hair loss and alopecia (balding) occur when the amount of hair fall exceeds the amount of hair growth, or when new hairs do not replace those that have fallen.

Hair growth concerns both the rate at which hair grows, and the ultimate length hair is capable of reaching before it reaches the point in the growth cycle when it is ready to fall. (More on this in a future blog post).

There is preliminary evidence suggesting that ginseng, and its major bioactive constituents called ginsenosides, can promote hair growth by keeping hair in the growth stage longer, and prevent hair loss by interrupting the signal that triggers hair fall.

It is fairly common knowledge at this point that skin should be protected from the sun, and slowing damage from free radicals by using antioxidants. What is less well known, is that the same applies to the part of the skin responsible for hair growth, the hair follicle.

Sun damage to the hair follicle can interrupt the hair growth cycle as a whole. Early evidence suggests that ginseng has a protective effect on the hair follicle, reducing oxidation and the creation of tissue degrading enzymes in the hair follicle.

Any downsides?

Although early studies have shown significant promise, ginseng is not medically recognized to date because it has not yet undergone the extended human trials.

So, while you will find ginseng offered in an increasing number of hair growth products on the market, none of these are yet officially medically cleared, and none have been vetted and approved for sale by a medical oversight commission.

This is important because it means that any topical ginseng product you do buy will not have the sort of official quality oversight you would expect from anything regulated as a medicine, drug, or over-the-counter product.

There are extensive and well-documented problems in the ginseng supplement market, where an alarming number of product either either do not contain ginseng at all, or have harmful contaminants alongside the ginseng. This is known only because some degree of quality assurance testing has taken place around consumable ginseng.

So if you do opt to try a ginseng product for your hair, make sure you purchase from a known, reputable company to ensure that any product you get actually has ginseng in it. Moreover, be aware that there is no minimum threshold of an ingredient a product needs to contain to put the ingredient on the front of the label. So, a product may contain 0.05% ginseng and be called a “ginseng shampoo” even though there is practically no ginseng in it.

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What is myrrh?

Myrrh is a type of natural gum or resin, which means dried tree sap. It can be made from several species of small, thorny tree native to parts of the Middle East and Africa, the most common of which is Commiphora myrrha. The resin is extracted by making cuts in the tree through the bark to the sapwood. The sap then rises to the exterior of the tree and hardens, much as a wound would scab over in humans. The resin must be allowed to fully harden following harvest, and can then be used to make oils and perfumes, or burnt as incense.

What does myrrh look and smell like?

Fresh myrrh looks similar to another more commonly recognized tree resin, amber. Like amber, it is a rich honey color with a high degree of translucence. As it is not a rock or crystal, it does not have a regular shape or structure and can be ridged, lumpy or jagged. As the amber ages, it grows both darker and more opaque, eventually becoming entirely brown.

Myrrh resin, myrrh oil, and myrrh burnt as incense all smell different, but are universally termed rich and complex. The resin has both sweet and bitter notes, with a dark fruitiness like plums or figs. Myrrh oil has a warm scent that is earthy and woody and more faintly sweet. When burned, myrrh gives off a piney, bitter smell (which is why it’s been used to balance the sweet, citrusy scent of frankincense since before biblical times).

Historic uses for myrrh

Myrrh has been not only used, but prized, continuously for millennia, with its earliest recorded use in Babylon and Assyria some 5000 years ago. Despite differences in culture and religion, myrrh has been associated with the gods (or god) across most ancient civilizations that knew of it.

Owing to fundamentally different understandings of the relationship between the spirit, the body, and the senses, ancient peoples saw a connection between their senses and prayer, and between the gods and healing, leading to a variety of what we today would view as nonsensical applications of a divine substance.

For instance, myrrh was burned as an incense during religious worship as an offering to the gods or incorporated into ‘purifying’ ceremonial anointing oil. It was also seen as having healing properties as a result of its divine connection and used in some medicines, which included salves and other topical applications or as a spiritual tool in prayer and fumigation. Finally, it was used in fragrances and cosmetics to bring the individual closer to the gods, to provide holy cleansing of the body or soul, and/or to assert the individual’s connection to the divine.

Thus, myrrh is mentioned as an ingredient more than any other substance in the medical texts of Greek physician Hippocrates from the 4th century BC; was one of the most important embalming agents for Egyptian mummies across the practice’s 3000 year history; and is mentioned in both the Old Testament (2nd and 12th century BC) as a main ingredient of holy anointing oil, as well as one of the gifts given to Jesus in the New Testament from the 1st century AD.

Incense in general, and myrrh in particular, continued to be used as part of religious worship in both the western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church through to the present. At least until the Middle Ages, the ancient belief in the healing properties of incense and the ability to ward off disease “miasma” through healing smells persisted. Myrrh, an increasingly distant and therefore valuable import, continued to be mentioned as a key ingredient in incense recipes in Europe through at least the 8th century, and in the first European cosmetics treatise from the 12th century.

Myrrh even made it as far as India in antiquity and China in the 7th century and was incorporated into both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines.

How is myrrh used today?

In addition to the other uses mentioned above relating to purification and perfume, myrrh was historically used as an antiseptic, antifungal, and wound healing agent (owing to its slight astringent properties).

Today, myrrh is still used by various Christian denominations as a traditional incense and in many perfumes. A tincture derived from myrrh is also used as a component of various dental remedies and mouthwashes, ointments, paints, and coated tablets in Europe and the US, while its traditional uses in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine persists.

As a cosmetic preparation, myrrh oil is sometimes used for skin, mostly to combat fine lines and wrinkles or acne. Myrrh oil may have an impact on aging skin owing to its antioxidant content and astringency. Myrrh may also have anti-inflammatory properties, with some evidence supporting this, but nothing conclusive having yet been demonstrated. Should this prove the case, myrrh would act on both major symptoms of acne, by reducing inflammation and healing wounds, while its antiseptic and antifungal properties could potentially reduce bacterial and fungal growth.

Although research on its use is scant, there is significant anecdotal evidence that myrrh promotes stronger, less brittle and less ridged nail growth when applied to nail beds and cuticles. This is likely due at least in part to its moisturizing properties and ability to combat bacteria and fungus, but more research is needed to establish why myrrh has this effect.

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What is Horsetail?

'Horsetail' can refer to a specific plant, Equisetum arvense, or to the entire genus of plants of similar-looking plants. We use "horsetail" to specifically refer to arvense, as all other types of horsetail besides arvense are toxic to some degree.

Both the species and genus are 'living fossils,' with the genus emerging hundreds of millions of years ago and remaining largely unchanged since. It is an incredibly hardy perennial plant with hollow stems, tubular "leaves" that have little photosynthetic capacity, and - key to its cosmetic interest - a very high silicon content.

Cosmetic Uses of Horsetail

Before we dive into why this high silicon content is cosmetically significant, we need to distinguish between several compounds:

  • Silicon is a naturally occurring, non-toxic trace element, like hydrogen or gold, that appears on the table of elements and is the third-most abundant trace element in the human body
  • Silicone refers to a group of synthetically created polymers that are used in a variety of applications from some skincare products, to heat-safe kitchenware or body safe plastics. Given concerns over silicone's impact on the human body, some natural skincare products are advertised as being "silicone free." Conversely, other products are advertised as using dimethicone, an extremely popular silicone polymer used as a lubricant and conditioning agent.
  • Finally, silica (silicon dioxide) is a naturally occurring oxide of silicon that is commonly found in nature and living organisms. Almost always non-toxic (the exception being inhaled fine particulates) it is found everywhere from plants and sand to microelectronics.

While horsetail contains a high amount of silicon, as it dries, the silicon forms silica crystals as the silicon is exposed to air and oxidizes. Silica has been taken orally and topically for millennia to treat a variety of medical and cosmetic complaints, including thinning or brittle hair and weak nails.

While the modern scientific literature has demonstrated that orally ingested silica does have benefits for hair and nails, study of topically applied silica in general, and horsetail in particular, is too sparse to confirm its benefit from a scientific standpoint. However, a variety of anecdotal evidence and lore exists supporting its efficacy in stopping hair loss and growing brittle, ridged nails. For instance, see this for a highly informal before & after from Cosmo, or here for a study of one product from 2006.

Horsetail Throughout History

Though often considered a pest today, horsetail has been used medicinally around the world for millennia.

Despite significant differences among ancient understandings of medicine and the human body, resulting in wildly different systems of medicine, there are some startling overlaps in the use of horsetail.

Ancient peoples from Japan to Rome to the Pacific Northwest recognized that it could be used to suppress coughs, staunch bleeding and cause a diuretic effect, leading it to be prescribed anywhere where physicians believed one of these symptoms was at play. It is also been traditionally prescribed for brittle nails.

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