How nature can contribute to our skin’s health

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Avocado pears, peaches, apricots and olives for example, all have more to offer than mere culinary ingredients. Because these fruits are organic – that is, they have grown and developed as living plants – their structures, whether skin, fruit or nuts and seeds contain proteins, fats and vitamins which are not found in mineral oils such as petrolatum. (Petrolatum is the oil left over from the production of fuel oils such as unleaded petrol and diesel oil and is widely used in cosmetics – a good example is baby oil.

Not having been produced from a test tube means that one little drop of plant oil can offer a lot more than a single lonely chemical.

Avocado pears are a good example. The botanical name for the avocado is Persea (a tender evergreen tree) gratissima (a Latin word meaning “most pleasing”) and a most pleasing evergreen tree it is, having been cultivated for over 7000 years in those tropical parts of the American continent where it originates.

The fruit of the avocado is virtually a whole food in itself with a wide range of vital oils both saturated and unsaturated in its flesh, and unsurprisingly the oil extracted from it is rich in vitamins A, B1,B2 and D and minerals which we ourselves need for healthy metabolism such as magnesium, calcium and copper.

The Aztecs used to apply the pulp of avocado pears as face masks to prevent wrinkles, so using avocados as part of your beauty regime is obviously nothing new.

I love avocado oil in soap and always use it. Although it is expensive it adds a uniquely moisturising quality to the lather and many people find soap made with avocado oil very calming for dry or irritated skin. Avocado oil is felt to be exceptionally well absorbed by the skin and as, like shea butter, it can remain unchanged in a batch of soap after it has been made, using it in natural soap means that you are applying avocado oil with each wash, helping to keep mature skins supple and benefiting anyone who finds their skin on the dry end of the spectrum.

As we are used to finding peaches and apricots next to each other in the supermarket it should come as no surprise to find that they are both part of the same genus of plants, Prunus, which also includes cherries, plums and almonds. The oils extracted from them also have a lot in common.

The kernels of both apricots and peaches are crushed and the oils extracted to release complex oils which are readily absorbed and excellent for protection of the skin, being emollient and nourishing and a source of a number of essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid and alpha linolenic acid , precursors of Omega oils, vital for our health. These gentle odourless oils are very popular for the relief of itching caused by eczema and for dry or ageing skin.

Peach kernel oil in particular is often recommended for facial massage and these oils provide an ideal base for body oils and skin care creams which need to be non-irritating and non-sensitising. Rough skin conditions such as keratosis pilaris and ichthyosis can benefit more from gentle massage with pure plant oils than scrubbing with exfoliators and scrubs, while research has shown that the best long term outcome for scars and stretch marks is obtained with regular massage rather than “miracle” creams.

Until the advent of foreign holidays and the likes of the Galloping Gourmet (an early version of Nigella Lawson) most of us only came into contact with olive oil (Olea europaea) when our ears were blocked with wax, when out would come the little bottle of oil most homes kept to restore hearing DIY-style. Nowadays olive oil is a regular item on the groceries list.

The popularity of olive oil has increased so much, partly as a result of increased awareness of its health benefits, and we can now pick and choose from a fantastic variety of olive oil-based spreads and dressings and indeed closer inspection of the labels on popular skincare products illustrates just how significant a role olive oil plays for our general health. Taken internally whether in cooked foods or neat, olive oil is a central part of the famous Mediterranean diet but olive oil is equally valuable as a skincare staple.

Like avocado oil, olive oil is extracted from the flesh of the fruit, not the seed and the resultant oil is then filtered to be prepared for use. It is a particularly rich source of unsaturated fatty acids and is also rich in Vitamin E.

Unlike peach and apricot oils, olive oil has a greasy feel and distinctive smell that makes it unsuitable as a stand-alone massage oil, but it is widely used in cosmetics and has been used for centuries in soap as it can help reduce itching and to relieve dry skin.

Castile soap is famous worldwide and was traditionally made with olive oil alone; however, soap made with too high a proportion of olive oil is inclined to lather poorly and can have a slimy feel so, although tradition has its place, I feel that we should take advantage of the other options now available. Much as I value olive oil for its moisturising and skin-friendly qualities, experience has led me to feel it is better to combine it with other oils which provide a better overall balance of properties in the finished article, such as sweet almond, avocado and neem oils. Nonetheless, soap with too little olive oil is not as emollient or soothing to the skin and it cannot be left out if a well-balanced, cleansing, yet moisturising soap is required. As always, finding the right balance is the key.

After all these years and so much development in the laboratory it is striking that nature has provided us with virtually all we need to maintain our skin and well-being – a balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables allied with a naturally-based skincare regime can help keep us looking and feeling our best with no need for the additives chemically-based alternatives require.

I look forward to focusing next time on some of those plant oils which have become available to us recently and which are helping to revolutionise modern natural skincare, including Shea butter  and Argan oil, both of which have been helping people stay healthy and look good for centuries in the countries where they grow wild.