I walk through a garden and see a rainbow of blooms—all shapes, sizes, colors and scents. But put a cosmetic chemist in that same garden, and chances are they will see a million different skin-care formulations just waiting to be tinkered with in a lab. “Nature is the best chemist in the world,” says Boldijarre Koronczay, president of Éminence Organic Skin Care. “Due to their healing powers and potent actives, flowers can benefit just about every skin issue, from acne to aging.”
Evidence of flowers used for skin treatments dates back to 1500 BC when ancient Egyptians created ointments combined with essential oils, aromatic waters, resins and incense for the mummification process. “We don’t know for certain, but it is possible that the skin (of the embalmer) improved in areas that came in contact with these substances, leading to the use of them on living subjects,” says Paula Provenzano, national education manager for Jurlique. New York dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD adds that “archaeological remains of bottles have revealed that Egyptians knew how to extract essential oils from flowers, including geranium and rose, with a technique called enfleurage that involves soaking parts of the flower in oil.”
Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis, director of scientific and environmental communications for Dior, says the skin-care benefits of flowers stem from their desperate need to protect themselves. “Flowers have a huge advantage over us: They have more than 1.2 billion years of evolution; they are the most evolved part of the vegetal world,” he explains. “But, they have a big disadvantage, too: They are not able to move, so they cannot escape environmental aggressions that surround them, such as UV rays, oxidative stress, climate variations, draught and frost. As a result, they have developed an extremely rich biodiversity of molecules made to defend their structures.” To extract these molecules from flowers and create precious essential oils, chemists typically use steam distillation: Hot steam causes dried flowers to open up and release their oils, nutrients and liquids.
On skin-care ingredient labels, floral extracts are listed by their INCI name (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients), which aligns with the Latin or scientific name. More than 28,000 INCI names, published by the Personal Care Products Council, have been developed by the INCI Committee with participation by the FDA.
One flower is not more beneficial than another for the skin, says Fresh cofounder Alina Roytberg. “Different flowers provide different benefits that address skin’s varying needs.” From petal to stem, these six flowers bear complexion- perfecting essential oils.
INCI Name: Hibiscus sabdariffa
According to Michelle Shieh, scientific communications manager at Amorepacific, a hibiscus tree boasts vitality that is powerful enough to blossom up to 5,000 flowers over 100 days. “The team at Mamonde researched this vitality and discovered active moisturizing substances in the outer layer of hibiscus roots,” she explains. “These substances have the ability to form a strong protective moisture barrier on the skin and deliver intense moisturizing effects. Our scientists conduct research alongside a hibiscus specialist, and through extensive experimentation, a new variety of the floral essence—hibiscus syriacus bark extract—was created.” Hibiscus flowers also contain a variety of exfoliating acids, including pyruvic acid, which Koronczay says “has incredible effects for lightening hyperpigmentation and stimulating collagen. It’s also known to increase elasticity.”
INCI Names: Rosa damascena, rose absolute, rosa canina, rosa centifolia
“Christian Dior once said, ‘After women, flowers are the most divine creations,’” says Mauvais-Jarvis, noting that the House of Dior was the first company to create a rose dedicated specifically to cosmetic purposes. “Rose petals contain a valuable, emollient oil, that when extracted and formulated in skin care, can be used to hydrate, soothe and tone skin,” explains Provenzano. “It also strengthens the skin’s barrier, helping to prevent moisture loss.”
Another skin benefit of this beloved flower is the stimulation of microcirculation, which oxygenates the skin, creating an overall glow. “This increase in circulation promotes detoxification and healing within the cells,” Koronczay explains. For those who suffer from redness, rose’s anti-inflammatory ability “can help reduce it and calm the skin for a more even-toned complexion—it’s also great for rebalancing dry and sensitive skin,” says Provenzano.
Unlike rose oil, rose hip oil comes from the seeds of the rose hip fruit, which predominantly grows on wild rose bushes in Chile, but also in other parts of the world. Tata Harper, founder of her eponymous skin-care brand, says rose hips contain a specific galactolipid that has amazing anti-inflammatory power, and potent antioxidants tocopherol and carotenoids give it anti-aging potential. Cosmetic chemist and cofounder of Chemist Confessions, Victoria Fu, finds rose hip seed oil to be the more efficacious ingredient in the rose category. “It has a great fatty acid profile and good overall tolerance across all skin types, and it adds a glow to dull skin. As a bonus, it contains a little vitamin A too!”
INCI Name: Lavandula angustifolia
Although lavender is most often linked to aromatherapy and sleep-inducers, it boasts other benefits that may surprise you. “Lavender has been used for more than 2,500 years and continues to be one of the most widely used flowers in skin care,” says Harper. “I call it the do-it-all flower because it’s effective at killing acne-causing bacteria—it can even help prevent future breakouts—and also increases skin healing, regulates oil production and reduces inflammation. It can do all of these things while also promoting relaxation.”
However, cosmetic chemist and cofounder of Chemist Confessions Gloria Lu points out that despite lavender’s many positive properties, it is one of the well-known essential oils that can actually be sensitizing in skin care, and is often used to add fragrance to a product. “We may often think of plants and flowers as natural, and therefore safer and gentler, but in actuality, these oils are complex and can contain allergens,” she explains. “Before you apply a new product, I suggest patch-testing on a small area of your face to make sure your skin is happy with it.”
INCI Names: Matricaria chamomilla (German chamomile), Anthemis nobilis (Roman chamomile), Eriocephalus punctulatus (Cape chamomile)
Dr. Waldorf says chamomile is the most commonly and reliably used floral extract in skin care. One of several species in the daisy family, it’s actually an herb that comes from daisy-like flowers. “Chamomile’s antiseptic and inflammation-fighting qualities can impart a calming effect on the skin,” she explains. They also promote healing of the skin, reduce redness and minimize blemishes. Fu likes German chamomile in particular because it contains a compound called bisabolol, which has been “shown clinically to have great data as an anti-inflammatory, and can even help brighten skin tone.”
INCI Name: Calendula officinalis
Similar to chamomile in that it’s part of the daisy family—it comes from bright orange and yellow marigolds—and known for its soothing properties, calendula oil is used to promote skin healing. “Its anti-inflammatory ability allows it to reduce swelling and irritation, including that associated with rosacea and eczema,” Koronczay says. “Calendula can also help tone and moisturize, and works even more effectively when paired with linden, which also supports hydration in the skin.” Cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson praises the flower’s antioxidant levels, which come from its carotenoid and flavonoid compounds. “These help neutralize free radicals and minimize oxidative damage,” she says.
INCI Name: Nymphaea caerulea
As Fresh cofounder Lev Glazman describes, in Southeast Asia there is such a respect for the lotus plant that the natives use every part of it—petals, roots, seeds and stem—for food and fabric, and also as a remedy for the skin. “When I learned of this, I became consumed with tapping into the flower’s resilient beauty and strength, and leveraged it for our products to address early signs of aging,” he says. “In clinical testing, we discovered that lotus contains high levels of polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants known to defend against wrinkle-causing free radicals.”
Lotus leaves, specifically, are known as a symbol of purification in Asia due to their unique ability to keep themselves clean at all times. “When the surface of a lotus leaf is magnified under a microscope, a large number of ultra-fine bumps over other fine bumps are observed,” says Shieh. “This structure blocks water drops from spreading out, and also pushes out pollutants, which allows the leaf to protect itself from a contaminated environment, like dirt and mud.” When applied in skin care, this special detoxifying mechanism can be especially helpful, particularly in cleansers.