Adaptogens have become the skincare buzzword for 2018. The seemingly-magical ingredients are purported to help with everything from acne to aging to even sun damage. Trendy brands have plastered the word all over their new releases, beauty editors can’t stop talking about them, and even the displays in stores like Sephora are telling you to use them. But despite their recent popularity, many people don’t know exactly what adaptogens are. Allow us to break it down for you.
Stress Is the Enemy
Before we start talking about adaptogens themselves, we have to discuss stress levels. Stress of all kinds, both physical and emotional, triggers a natural hormonal response in the body in the form of cortisol. It’s part of our "fight or flight" response (remember this from science class?), and the cortisol helps alert the other parts of the body to possible trauma.
The problem arises when cortisol levels are high for long periods of time. Chronic stress keeps your that hormone boosted — and that can have a negative effect on nearly every part of the body. Because cortisol serves to notify bodily systems of potential risk, chronic stress keeps the body in a constant state of high alert. That’s as bad as it sounds — it can cause inflammation throughout the body and adrenal issues which can manifest as problems with digestion, fatigue, and yes, even skin issues.
My Skin Can Get Stressed?
When your body is under stress, your skin can actually be one of the biggest indicators. “The skin is the map of our stress,” says NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler. “We usually think of stress only in terms of internal organs, but our skin can be the first to show signs. It is our biggest organ so it tells us a lot about our body inside.” Think of how you get flushed when you’re upset, for example. The redness you experience on your face is a superficial indication of your cortisol levels rising.
Stress, however, doesn’t always show on the skin in the same ways for all people. Our personal physiology dictates how our skin reacts to cortisol and inflammation. When high cortisol levels cause chronic inflammation, this can show up in the form of acne, premature aging, dehydration, hyperpigmentation, rosacea, and even hair loss. It’s difficult to know whether a skin issue is completely attributed to stress unless you see a doctor, but you can be on the lookout for patterns. (For instance, do you break out more easily when you’re on a deadline?) Observing your skin’s response to stressful situations can give you insight to how your body handles it and how it shows up on the surface.
What Does Stress Have to Do With Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are like a meditation class for your cells: they are a specific group of plants that actually help your body adapt (get it?) to stress on a molecular level. These botanical ingredients not only assist in regulating and moderating the body’s immediate response to stress, but they can also help your body handle future stress better. According to Dr. Wexler, they are similar to antioxidants in that they can assist in cortisol regulation and boosting energy.
While used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine, adaptogens only began to be scientifically studied in the 1940s. The effects of adaptogens on bodily stress are by now well documented, but not everyone can agree on the exact mechanism of how they work. “This group of plants is actually causing a non-direct effect on the body,” says Ido Magal, herbologist and founder of Lavido skincare, who acknowledges that adaptogens’ function can’t be totally explained. “It’s herbal medicine, so it sometimes works in ways that we can’t fully understand.” What we do know is that adaptogens can have just as much of an effect when applied topically as ingested, which is great news for your skin.
Which Botanicals are Considered Adaptogens?
The recent interest in holistic wellness and natural ingredients has forced trendy ingredients with wild-sounding names to the forefront of the conversation. But chances are you’re pretty familiar with these plants already. Some classic skincare ingredients like ginseng, green tea and licorice root are considered adaptogens.
“Aloe is an adaptogen, we just haven’t called it that,” says Dr. Wexler. “Now we can call it an adaptogen and it makes it [sound] cooler. She herself has been using and recommending products containing adaptogens for years, but only recently started to call them out using the buzzword.Many of Dr. Wexler’s go-to products contain adaptogenic products with little fanfare. Skinceuticals Redness Neutralizer ($66), which contains eperua falcata bark extract, Eminence Facial Recovery Oil ($76), which contains tea tree oil and sesame oil extracts, and cult brand Sunday Riley UFO Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil ($80), which contains tea tree oil and licorice root extracts, are all staples in her practice.
It’s the buzzy wellness brands that have really put adaptogens on the map by using less-known plants like maca and ashwagandha mushroom. Holistic wellness company Moon Juice recently came out with its first skincare product, Beauty ShroomTM Plumping Jelly Serum ($58), which uses mushroom extracts to topically plump the skin and address signs of aging caused by stress. Millennial-friendly superfood skincare line Youth to the People similarly released a new Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream ($58), which also uses mushroom extract paired with holy basil (another adaptogen common in herbal medicine)
Are Adaptogens a Cure-All?
When it comes to skincare, adaptogens target the cause of an issue (stress), not the symptom (a pimple, for instance). What they really do is help your body function at a higher level. Jeremy Muijs, co-founder of Grown Alchemist, believes that “beauty equals health equals function,” meaning that a functioning body is a healthy body and thus a beautiful body. “Stresses on the body take away function,” he explains, which is why Grown Alchemist has used adaptogens since its beginning in 2008. Products like the Balancing Toner ($34) and Hydra+ Oil-Gel Facial Cleanser ($59) use adaptogens ginseng and rosemary, respectively.Dr. Wexler similarly believes that to get the full benefit of adaptogens, they have to be a part of the skincare picture, not the whole concept. “You can combine eastern and western [medicines],” she says, “We can have traditional skincare or cosmeceuticals using both natural products and products like peptides which are formulated.” Like anything in life, incorporating these ingredients into your routine is all about balance.
Thousands of years of adaptogen use is hard to argue with. Most of the confusion around adaptogens comes from the word itself, not the benefits. Since chances are high that you’ve been using them all along, consider yourself right on trend.
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