Back to the BasicsHealthy skin begins as clean skin. Cleansing is important to remove dirt, dust, excess facial oil and makeup from your face. But more is not necessarily better—more scrubbing and harsher soaps will not produce finer skin. No matter what your skin type, I recommend using as little soap as possible. Most soaps and liquid skin cleansers are very alkaline (this helps them clean better). For this reason, they have a tendency to alter the skin's natural acidic barrier, which keeps out harmful, infection-causing agents. Ideally, skin should regain its acidity soon after you wash it, but this is not always the case. Diluted vinegar and other toners and even oatmeal make good alternative cleansers.
Steaming is another skin care fundamental. A facial steam or sauna surrounds your face with an herb's essential oils. Steam with fragrant herbs (nonfragrant herbs like comfrey or strawberry leaves contain no essential oils and are therefore useless in a steam) or essential oils. A steam won't remove dirt and grime, but it will soften the skin's surface enough to help cleanse and unclog pores. The heat increases circulation and relaxes facial muscles while the combination of steam and essential oils acts as a moisturizer.
I know exfoliation sounds like a term more suited to reforestation than beauty, but aestheticians consider it one of their most important tools. Exfoliation is the removal of dull, dead surface skin. Carefully scrubbing your face exposes underlying, fresh skin and encourages the growth of the undeveloped skin in the skin's deepest layers. I recommend exfoliation to everyone but those with the most sensitive complexions. It is important that exfoliation be performed properly, using gentle, circular movements. If overdone, too much new skin is exposed before it is ready to face the world. Avoid the chemical exfoliants used by some beauty salons and even natural products containing ground almond shells, which are too harsh for the face. A far better and gentler abrasive can be found in your kitchen—cornmeal. The currently popular vitamin A derivatives used in some cosmetics are also exfoliants, but these are so concentrated that they can produce prolonged skin irritation and are available only by prescription.
A toner can be any substance that improves the general appearance and health of the skin. In this chapter, however, the word "toner" is used to describe only lotions and other liquid cosmetics. Facial toners should be misted, dabbed or splashed on after a shower, to cool down on a hot day, after exercising or to freshen your face and attitude on long trips. Instead of rinsing them off, keep toners on your face so that they have a chance to work. For men, toners double as aftershaves.
Aloe vera, with its skin-healing properties and neutral pH, makes an excellent facial toner. Herbs extracted into cosmetic vinegars were the rage for centuries, until they lost their popularity with the arrival of modern cosmetics that do not have vinegar's pungent odor. But do not let the smell deter you from using vinegar—its odor lingers for only a short while, but its beneficial effects last much longer. During the Renaissance, herbs extracted into wine were popular as facial toners. These doubled as edible cordials that women sipped in the privacy of their dressing rooms! (Marie Antoinette's nightly facial was brandy and milk with lemon.)
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are also important as facial toners. Both vinegar and wine have the advantage of containing natural AHAs, which restore natural acidity to the skin, improve moisture retention, smooth out fine lines and roughness, lighten dark spots and improve acne. In one study on the AHA lactic acid (the same acid produced by our skin), biochemist Walter Smith, Ph.D., showed that it worked as an excellent moisturizer to improve skin hydration. It made skin almost twice as smooth and one-third firmer than it was before! The regeneration of cells was revved up, and lines and wrinkles were reduced, at least temporarily. To take advantage of the benefits offered by AHAs, use foods that contain these compounds as the base for your masks and incorporate them into your toners. (For examples of foods that contain AHAs, see "Masks" below; for directions for toners and masks, see the recipes in the specific skin type sections in "The Face" in chapter 121.)
Aromatic hydrosols, by-products of essential-oil distillation, also make excellent toners. They contain water-soluble compounds not found in the essential oils themselves, such as soothing and anti-inflammatory carboxylic acids. Since they are distilled, they will not spoil, as herb tea does. Hydrosols are sold by mail, and at some natural food and cosmetics stores specializing in aromatherapy. You can also buy rose water and orange-blossom water from a liquor store or an Indian grocery. Intended for use in drinks and foods, these waters are generally less expensive but are also of lesser quality. Although they do not have the same moisturizing agents as hydrosols, floral waters—essential oils mixed with aloe vera gel or water—are a viable alternative.
Moisturizers are also extremely important—healthy skin is at least half water, which keeps it soft and supple and reduces flakiness, dryness and wrinkles. Although water is important to your complexion, by itself it is actually very drying; it quickly evaporates from the skin, drawing out moisture in the process. Oil, on the other hand, makes cosmetics feel silky, smoothes rough, scaly skin and forms a protective barrier that prevents water from evaporating. But oil cannot moisturize skin all by itself. The perfect skin solution is a moisturizer that combines the best of both worlds—water to keep skin youthful, fresh and soft, and oil to stop the water from evaporating. Typical moisturizers are creams and lotions held in suspension by emulsifiers (which prevent separation) such as beeswax, glycerin and lecithin.
Our skin care efforts are intended to let our natural beauty shine through, so we shouldn't forget the potential of masks—in private, of course. Roman women were so fanatical about wearing facial masks to retain their beautiful complexions that the satirist Juvenal complained that their husbands could barely recognize them at home. In the words of the poet Ovid, these masks, which were made of honey, flour, ground lentils, eggs and herbs, made the complexion "more brilliant than a mirror." You might not care for a face quite that shiny, but a mask does leave your face with a healthful glow. Masks also pull impurities from the skin, increase circulation and remove (exfoliate) dull surface skin.
Clay, which is the most astringent of the mask bases, is ideal for mixing with ground herbs, essential oils or both. Use a cosmetic-grade bentonite, kaolin or Fuller's earth clay rather than pottery or building clay, which may contain impurities. Honey, avocado, eggs, fresh fruits, oats, cream of wheat and nutritional yeast are a few other possibilities for a facial mask. So are ginger, papaya, pineapple and cucumber, which have skin-softening enzymes. Yogurt, sour milk, vinegar, apples, citrus fruits and wine contain AHAs, which are particularly important for a mask because they loosen the tight bond that holds the old surface skin (they also restore the skin's natural acidity). For hundreds of years (until the beginning of the twentieth century), sour milk was used as a face wash throughout the Western world; it is still used today in India. Yogurt is a better choice since it does not smell as sour, but either one can be mixed with other mask ingredients. Acidic fruit such as lemon and strawberry also help maintain acidity. Feeding your skin with nutritious foods is not as silly as it may sound. External use of minerals, vitamins and other ingredients can benefit the complexion just as much as taking them internally.
If you wish to use a mask, apply it to your face in an even layer and leave it on for five to fifteen minutes, as long as it does not become uncomfortable. Then wash the mask off with warm water and gently pat your skin dry. Recipes for masks can be found in this chapter's sections for individual complexion types.