Basil oil (Ocimum basilicum) a woody herb which thrives in warm climates. Europe learned of basil from India, where it was placed in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey to the netherworld. Ancient Egyptians scattered the delicate blossoms over tombs in belief that basil would open the gates of heaven.1
Basil leaves were used in ancient times as an insect repellent by rubbing on the skin. Like rosemary, basil leaves were strewn on walking surfaces as an antibacterial. Today,basil oil is used extensively in aromatherapy and is a favorite of perfumers. The essential oil contains anti-oxidant and antibacterial agents which are effective against a variety of gram positive and negative bacteria.2
Calendula extract (Calendula officinalis) (pictured above) Calendula is native to the Mediterranean areas. Used medicinally since the 14th century for fever relief.3 The ancient Romans used it as a remedy for warts. Recent studies show the activity of the extract, when used at a high concentration, is comparable to the anti-inflammatory effects of the synthetic drug, indomethacin.4
Castor oil (Ricinus communis) The tropics of Africa are said to be the origin of the Castor bean. The plant is depicted on sarcophagi by the Egyptians, who in turn, introduced it to the Greeks.31 A few thousand years later, Castor plants found their way to the Americas and even Norway. Today's Castor plant favors the warm climates of Spain and Sicily where it can grow to 4-5 meters. Castor leaves contain a dye that provides a deep blue color.
Though its bad rap comes from the toxin it can produce known as 'ricin'; its fresh seeds are quite poisonous. The castor plant has many redeeming uses and accolades worldwide. Use of the bean as an anti-rheumatic crosses cultural and regional boundaries. In Madagascar, Castor leaves are applied to the afflicted area.32 India utilizes the root for the same purpose. Castor's use as an anti-rheumatic may be attributed to the chemical composition of the leaves- rich in potassium nitrate and ricinine, the therapeutic effects can be found in the heat (or hyperthermia) generated in the treated area.33
Guineans use castor seeds with the husks removed, boiled in water and the oil which floats is collected and used against scabies.34
Among several generations who may still remember, Castor oil's most famous use, world-wide, is that of a purgative.35 Yes, that dreaded spoonful of castor oil has been the bane of many a child and revered by mothers as the 'go-to' treatment for its laxative effect. This same luscious oil produces a soap which lathers readily and a transparent bar. 36 Lip sticks, balms and other cosmetics all get their shine from castor oil.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) Chamomile flowers resemble daisies with their small white petals and yellow centers. The dried flower heads produce the essential oil which can be described as lightly grassy,sweet and fruit-like. Chamomile is often used externally for skin inflammation and irritation, eczema and insect bites.5 Common uses include baths, compresses or rinses. The naturally occurring agents chamazulene carboxylic acid and bisabolol are believed to be responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects of chamomile.6 In fact, the synthetic drugs ibuprofen and naproxen are structurally similar to chamazulene.7 The medicinal use of chamomile can be traced to the writings of Hippocrates and Galen. Internally as a tea, Chamomile is traditionally used to treat an upset stomach and as a sleep aid.8
Cocoa butter (Theobroma cacao) Who would think that a rather spindly, evergreen tree would produce a seed pod so useful and important worldwide? Native to Mexico, central America and northern South America, cacao was so valued by the Aztecs, its seeds were used as currency.47
Cocoa seeds are fermented and roasted, the hot oil is expressed from the seeds. The oil solidifies at room temperature and becomes cocoa butter. The emollient-rich oil from cacao seeds is added to lotions and creams to protect skin from moisture loss and subsequent drynes. Studies exploring the protective action of cocoa butter applied directly to the skin have shown a positive affect in skin tone, elasticity and ability to prevent UV-induced wrinkle formation.48
Coconut oil (Cocos nucifera) One of the ten most useful plants in the world, the coconut provides food for millions of people. It takes 8-10 months for one coconut to reach maturity. All parts of the tree are useful: flowers provide honey for bees;37coconut water, only recently popular in the West, is produced from a 4-5 month old nut. 'Meat' from the coconut is scraped or grated and squeezed for its cream or 'milk'. Dried nut-meat is processed for the oil used in soap. Due to its high saponification value, coconut oil creates an abundant lather. So much so, soaps made with coconut oil will lather even in sea water! Pure coconut oil is traditionally used as a lotion in many parts of the world. It has been shown to have antiseptic effects.38
The oil-pulling method of oral care is thought to be effective due to coconut oil's high lauric acid content. The oil is believed to react with sodium hydroxide present in saliva to form sodium laureate; the main constituent of soap which may be responsible for the cleansing and plaque removal.39 Wood of the trunk is used in building sheds; in India, leaf rib is used to make mats, slippers and bags.
Honey Evidence of honey used in skincare date back to 3500 B.C, found in Sumerian tablets as well as 4500 B.C in Egypt where women chewed tablets made of mixed spices and honey to sweeten their breath.9 In folk remedies of central Italy, honey was used as a poultice for swelling.10,11 Chinese women crush orange seeds and mix with honey as a softening cream for acne. Honey's natural hydrating ability comes from the presence of amino acids as well as fructose and glucose.12