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What Are Adaptogens and How Do They Benefit Your Skin?

Adaptogens list 1

Meet the hot new buzzword in wellness: adaptogens. Although adaptogens have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, they’re having a moment in natural health circles right now, including as a way to keep skin looking luminous. If, like most of us, you’re feeling stressed—and your skin is showing it—adaptogens could be the answer.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbs that reduce fatigue and the toxic effects of stress. They’re called adaptogens because they adapt to what the body needs, “regulating the body rather than pushing it in one direction or the other,” explains Alan Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist in New Rochelle, New York. For example, Dr. Dattner continues, “some people need ginseng because their energy is down, while others need it because they’re too fired up to go to sleep.”

The term “adaptogen” was coined way back in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev, a Soviet pharmacologist. According to Lazarev, an adaptogen must not only regulate the body’s response to stress, but its effects must also be beneficial to the body’s overall well being, as well as nontoxic even with long-term use.

How do adaptogens work?

Since the 1940s, thousands of studies have been done on adaptogens, primarily in the Soviet Union, Korea and China. Eleuthero (a.k.a Siberian ginseng), for example, has been found to increase the lifespan of single-cell animals, while rhodiola (a.k.a Arctic root) has been shown to reduce perceived fatigue in humans.

That said, adaptogens have not been approved for use by the FDA, and some question the methodology of the studies that have been done on the subject. However, others point to the long history of using adaptogenic remedies in the Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions and argue that the studies, if not definitively conclusive, are strongly suggestive.

What are the benefits of adaptogens?

Adaptogens are said to work by normalizing the adrenal system. And “since skin rashes can often be traced back to a hyper- or hypo-adrenaline condition,” according to herbalist Michael Forman, a doctor of Oriental medicine in Miami, “they can also benefit the skin.”

Dattner agrees: “I do a lot of treatment of the digestive system in order to treat skin disorders. Licorice, for example, calms the digestive system and slows the breakdown of cortisone, acting as an anti-inflammatory,” which may help with skin irritations and rashes.

In addition, adaptogens are thought to slow the appearance of aging. “Eleuthero has antioxidant properties that may help delay skin aging by preventing free-radical damage to the skin,” notes Joe Feuerstein, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. Likewise, he continues, “Angelica may have estrogen-like effects on skin to keep it looking youthful.”

Just plain stressed and exhausted? If so, your appearance—including your skin—will show it. However, “if you get a boost from adaptogens like ginseng or maca,” says Dattner, “you’ll give your skin a boost as well.”

How do you use adaptogens?

Forman recommends taking herbs in a high-quality liquid concentrate with water. And while incorporating adaptogens into the diet may be beneficial, says Feuerstein, “to get to clinically meaningful doses, I use pharmaceutical-grade herbal preparations.”

According to Forman, “Ashwagandha, ginseng and eleuthero are the three most powerful regulators of adrenal activity and can be used long or short term to address skin conditions,” but there are many other adaptogens as well. Want to try them for yourself? Consult with a doctor or herbalist who can prescribe the appropriate herbs and dosages for you. Though most adaptogens are perfectly safe when used in skin care, be sure to read the product label and consult with a skin specialist, if possible, before use.

The best adaptogens for your skin

Ready to try adaptogens? Lucky for you, some of our favorite beauty products already have them in the mix. Keep scrolling to read about notable herbs and how they can improve your skin. 

  1. Indian Gooseberry/Amla
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    Indian Gooseberry/Amla

    Indian gooseberry, or amla, has been utilized in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years and grows in India, the Middle East and a handful of Southeast Asian countries. This vitamin C–rich fruit is sour to the taste but full of sweet immunity-boosting and anti-inflammatory benefits. A natural antioxidant, studies have shown Indian gooseberry to be an effective ingredient to increase fibroblast and collagen production in the skin. Dr. Dattner concurs, “Amla supports the skin and improves the complexion by strengthening the digestion, detoxifying the liver and being rich in vitamin C and minerals. It moisturizes the skin and removes toxins from tissues and supports the immunity of the skin against bacterial infection,” he adds.
    Find it in: Tracie Martyn Amla Purifying Cleanser

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  2. Ashwagandha
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    Commonly referred to as “Indian ginseng,” “Indian winter cherry” or its scientific name, “withania somnifera,” ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3000 years. Native to the dry climates of India, the Middle East and Africa, ashwagandha is a nightshade scrub from the same family as the tomato, baring red fruit and yellow flowers and known to treat a wide range of issues, including stress and fatigue. According to the European Commission Health and Consumers Directorate, ashwagandha has a laundry list of benefits including antimicrobial, antioxidant, skin-lightening and -softening abilities. The herb also stands out for its ability to retain moisture in the skin.
    Find it in: RMS Beauty Oil

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  3. Siberian Ginseng
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    Siberian Ginseng

    As an adaptogen, Siberian ginseng alleviates a plethora of woes but might be best known for increasing endurance and mental clarity within Chinese medicine. Also referred to as “eleuthero,” the plant is harvested in Eastern Asia and Russia for the root’s bare polysaccharides and eleutherosides, which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. One study measured anti-viral activity within the herb and showed a strong antioxidant presence, making it a prime addition to your diet or skin care routine for added skin protection and balance.
    Find it in: Hum Nutrition Uber Energy

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  4. Tulsi
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    Considered a sacred plant within the Hindu belief, tulsi is believed to be one of the most potent anti-viral herbs of Ayurveda and is often referred to as the “elixir of life.” Also known as “holy basil,” tulsi is thought to have originated in North Central India and grows throughout the tropics of the East.
    Dr. Dattner values this adaptogen for its antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, neuroprotective, stress-reducing and radioprotective properties. “Its antimicrobial effects are used in acne preparations as a fragrant, skin-conditioning agent. It was shown that linolenic acid present in tulsi is responsible for the anti-inflammatory effect on acne. A paste made from tulsi’s leaves can help reduce itching and it may have skin cancer prevention benefits,” he explains.
    Find it in: AGENT NATEUR Holi(youth) The Oceanic Adaptogen

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  5. Chaga
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    Trending in your coffee mug and your skin care cream, the perceived health benefits of chaga mushroom are many. “Chaga” comes from an old Russian word for mushroom and has been used to treat a range of internal problems from diabetes to digestive issues. A parasitic fungus, chaga can be found growing on birch trees in the cold climates of Russia and parts of Asia and North America. The mushroom has been sought after for generations and is believed to have antibacterial, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant clout. One study even found chaga to have cellular protection against DNA damage.
    Find it in: Cover FX Tinted Moisturizer

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  6. Panax Ginseng
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    Panax Ginseng

    Panax, or Asian/red ginseng, is a medicinal root plant derived from China, Korea and Siberia. Believed to be “true ginseng,” it contains many nutrients including ginsenosides, beta-glucans and oligosaccharides. Its very name suggests an adaptogen ability as “panax” comes from the Greek word, “panacea,” meaning “all-healing.” Used by ancient cultures, and still to this day, panax ginseng is believed to add vitality and energy to the mind and may calm the body’s systems. A 2017 double-blind study of the ingredient showed a significant increase in collagen production, clinically validating it as a viable anti-wrinkle agent.
    Find it in: Elemis Rehydrating Ginseng Toner

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  7. Reishi Mushroom
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    Reishi Mushroom

    Mushrooms have been having a major moment in skin care lately—and reishi is no exception. Unlike most mushrooms that grow underground, reishi is harvested on tree stumps over a span of several months. The name reishi translates to “spiritual potency,” which is fitting since the fungi has played an important part in traditional Japanese and Korean medicine to regulate the mind and body—including the skin.
    In recent years, reishi has been formulated in a variety of cosmetic products to detoxify, smooth and protect skin as it has been shown to have antiallergic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant potential. A 2016 study on reishi highlights the calming nature of the ingredient as it shows a quick regression of skin lesions after being applied atop irritated skin.
    Find it in: Eminence Organic Skin Care Birch Water Purifying Essence

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  8. Goji Berry
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    Goji Berry

    When in doubt, bring on the berries! Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, goji berry has been an antioxidant staple in Chinese medicine for treating “yin deficiencies” in the kidneys and liver. A few folk tales even credit goji berry as the promise for a long life and a beautiful appearance. Research has found that oil from goji seeds may improve the skin barrier and prevent water loss. Studies have also shown that the vitamin-rich fruit may help stimulate collagen, promote cell viability and aid in wound healing.
    Find it in: Dr. Brandt Detoxifying Antioxidant Water Booster

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  9. Passion Flower
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    Passion Flower

    Known for its calming effects, passion flower has been used around the globe for centuries to treat several ailments including sleep disorders, anxiety and general and localized pain. The vibrant purple flora, regarded for its ability to treat burns, is native to the Southeast United States and Central and South America. It’s no surprise that passion flower is trending as a hot ingredient in skin care these days because as a folk medicine herb it is known to be antibacterial, wound-healing and wrinkle-preventing.
    Find it in: Naturopathica Passionflower Sleep Tincture

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