Application and Prospect of Plants in Cosmetics

Plants have been used in cosmetics since ancient times. Applied to the skin, the active ingredients from plants interact with skin cells and affect the skin's well-being and appearance. Years of traditional use have led to the appreciation of this natural ways of skin care. Additionally, modern science and technology have pictured a rich inventory of plants with the potential to enrich cosmetic products. 

1. The definition of plant-based cosmetics

An official definition of plant-based cosmetics has not yet been produced. However, in light of the research and practical use of plants in cosmetics internationally, it is widely acknowledged in China that the plant utilized in cosmetics shall meet these four criteria.

· It is directly from plants. The extract of apple fruit cells culture and the filtrate of sea fennel callus culture are not directly from plants and are different from plants in shape, so they are not cosmetic plant materials.

· It shall be a multi-component mixture, and the content of a single component shall not exceed 80%. Although malic acid and citric acid refer to plants in their names, they are single compounds. Thus, they do not belong to cosmetic plant materials.

· It shall not be chemically modified or biologically transformed, i.e., it maintains its original shape, chemical structure, and composition. For example, hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrolyzed orange fruit extract, grape fermentation extract, etc. are not cosmetic plant materials.

· It shall be in compliance with the regulations on cosmetics in China. For instance, rose petals, ginseng roots, apricot seed powder, etc are original plants or original plant powder;  oils extracted from seeds or from other parts of fruits are vegetable oils; acid orange fruit extract, grape extract, licorice extract, apple extract, lemon extract, etc are the crude extracts of plants extracted by solvent. Therefore, all the mentioned materials are cosmetic plant materials.


2. Different forms of plant materials utilized in cosmetics

Plant materials utilized in cosmetics are of different shapes and forms. They can be used directly or obtained from the whole plants or parts of plants through solvent extraction, mechanical crushing, mechanical pressing, and steam distillation. The following are the widely accepted forms of plant materials.

· Extract

It is a preparation containing the active ingredient of a substance in concentrated form through solvent extraction, such as Citrus Sinensis Extract.

· Powder

It is the powder from plants through the mechanical crushing, such as Citrus Aurantium Powder.

· Liquid

It is obtained from mechanical pressing or trunk secretion, such as Aloe Barbadensis Liquid, Betula Alaba Liquid

· Water

It is generally referred to water solvent containing volatile oil obtained from steam distillation, such as Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Water.

· Oil

It can be obtained through steam distillation, like Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Peel Oil; It can also be obtained through mechanical pressing, such as Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Seed Oil.

· Direct use of plants

It refers to the direct use of plants, such as panax ginseng roots, rose petals, etc.


3. Application of plants in cosmetics

Plants are living organisms of the kind exemplified by seed plants, ferns, mosses, and algae. Among them, seed plants and algae found an increasingly wide utilization in cosmetics.  In The Catalogue of Used Cosmetic Ingredients (2021 Edition)-the objective collection of cosmetic ingredients produced and sold in China, 97% of them are seed plants and 3% are algae. Seed plants typically have 6 basic parts: roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. While algae is a simple, non-flowering, and typically aquatic plant of a large group that includes seaweeds and many single-celled forms.

In light of the regulations, the ingredients notified are named in the form of X the botanical name of the plantExtract. It basically means that the whole or parts of plants are notified as used ingredients. Species and genus are the basis for judging if they are the same plant. Additionally, the specific parts shall be clarified in the utilization of plants, since the chemical compounds and concentrations are different in different parts of plants. For instance, Sophora roots are allowed to be used, while its seeds are not allowed.

It is noteworthy that the safety of plant materials varies with the ways of obtaining them.  The following are some examples.

· When water is used to extract tea leaves, the compounds extracted are mainly polyphenols, anthocyanins, proteins, and amino acids, polysaccharides, etc. Whereas alcohol is used to extract tea leaves, the compounds extracted are mainly small-molecule alkaloids, flavonoids, organic acids, etc.

· Banksia rose root extract is allowed to be used in cosmetics, while banksia rose root oil is prohibited.

· Extract from fig fruit and leaves is allowed to be used in cosmetics, while fig fruit and leaves oil is prohibited.

In the process, special attention is required to pesticide residues when plants are directly utilized or materials are obtained through mechanical crushing or pressing.


4. Prospect of plants in cosmetics

Natural cosmetics are often preferred by consumers as their action is not based on molecules produced by chemical synthesis in the laboratory but through plant metabolic pathways that have evolved through the centuries. The use of plant ingredients can offer support or even replace synthetic ingredients such as preservatives, whitening, anti-pollution, and sun-protection agents. However, the complex and dynamic interaction between the skin and plant ingredients still requires further and wider research to maximize benefits for consumers. Anyway, plant-based cosmetics are an unstoppable trend in our society driven by consumers’ desire for safe, natural, and toxic-free products.


5. Plant ingredients successfully notified as cosmetic ingredients in China



Dendrobillm Officinale Protocorm

Anti-wrinkle agents, moisturizers

Chenopodium Formosanum Extract

Skin protectants


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