One of the fascinating observations in nature is that plants exposed to massive amounts of sunlight over the course of decades, or even centuries, show no damage or “aging.” We, on the other hand, are destined to pay dearly for every sun burn or unprotected exposure to sunlight with uneven pigment, dry skin, wrinkles, and even sun related skin cancers. Why?
It turns out that plants have far more effective molecules for preventing penetration of unwanted wavelengths of sunlight. They are also better at revving up mechanisms that repair injury from the rays that do penetrate. What plants don’t do, however, is use glycolic acids, other peels, retinols, or a host of molecules popular in human skin care that would thin their outer layers, irritate the deeper layers, and allow more damaging rays to penetrate. So why do we?
Until recently, we humans had little choice in how to atone for the sun damage we endured other than to use creams or treatments that:
- strip away the outer layers of skin (glycolic acid, other peels, microdermabrasion, etc.) in hopes of allowing the deeper layers to “heal” with a more vibrant new surface, or
- create irritation and inflammation (retinols, isotrentoins, azeleic acid, etc.), in the name of “healing,” or
- shut down our own sun defense systems that would otherwise create protective melanin pigment (hydroquinone, kojic acid, etc.).
If that doesn’t sound so wise to you, it doesn’t to us either. It's no wonder that while we’re trying to treat our damaged skin with conventional methods, we actually become more sensitive to the sun and the outdoors becomes the enemy. Now I don’t mean to sound trite, but how come those uneducated plants are so much smarter than we are? Well, at least until now.
With every passing month of journal publications, a new field of phytochemical (plant chemicals) skin care is catching the eye of skin scientists around the world both for its sun protective and anti-inflammatory effects. In essence, we’re learning how plants do it. Healing molecules include caffeine, Vitamin C, calendula, arnica, resveratrol, circumin, green tea extract, and many more. In addition, other natural molecules that have meaningful protective and reparative properties (melatonin, Vitamin B3/niacinamide) show further exciting promise. Like plant defense mechansims, they don’t peel away the outer layers of protective skin, they calm rather than irritate the skin, and they even help protect the skin and its DNA from further sun damage.
As the science around these molecules grows, it offers a new and more rational approach to skin protection and repair. Rather than making skin more vulnerable to injury, we repair and protect it. Hmmm. Why didn’t we think of that before?