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Why the Beauty- and Wellness-Obsessed Are Turning to the Age-Old Practice of Herbalism

It's trending, although we wouldn't necessarily call it a "trend."
HRBLS Chews. Photo: Courtesy of HRBLS

HRBLS Chews. Photo: Courtesy of HRBLS

Every Thursday, Rachelle Robinett has a standing residency at a hip, cozy spot in New York City's West Village neighborhood. Her sets last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the crowd; but if you're not the type for a live performance, Robinett's talents can be streamed online, as well.

Oh, did you think she was a musician? Nope, Robinett is an herbalist, and her weekly gig takes place at CAP Beauty, the clean, green skin-care and supplement retailer at the forefront of the beauty-as-wellness movement. Literally — the company's tagline is "Beauty is Wellness." (Robinett also creates her own herbal products under the brand HRBLS, single-dose chews shown in the image above.)

CAP has had a metaphorical finger on the pulse of what's next in naturals since launching in 2015 (its own branded products include coconut butter, meditation oil and adaptogenic supplements, and it also stocks big-name brands like Vintner's Daughter and May Lindstrom), so the fact that the company has brought an herbalist into the fold is a sure sign that herbalism is about to be The Next Big Beauty Thing. But while herbalism may be trending, I wouldn't necessarily call it a "trend."

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But what does an herbalist do? In short, herbalists use plants to heal. "An herbalist is someone who is trained and knowledgeable in the practice of plant medicine for total wellness; for treatment, prevention and nutritional support," Elizabeth Dorow, an herbalist and co-founder of skin-care brand Ona Organics, tells Fashionista. "An herbalist will take a holistic approach to ailments, considering the physical and emotional needs of the individual."

It sounds new age-y, but really, it's quite the opposite: The practice of treating people with plants can be traced back to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, both of which originated around 5,000 years ago. Hippocrates, the "father of modern medicine," was an herbalist; as were Paracelsus and Nicholas Culpeper. Interestingly, the first sign of herbalism falling out of favor coincides with history's first major mention of female herbalists: "Witches" burned at the stake in the Salem Witch Trials were likely practicing plant medicine, as outlined by the Herbal Academy… and not, you know, casting spells.

From there, herbalism steadily gave way to what we now know as Western medicine — a.k.a., the use of drugs to treat symptoms, rather than plants to remedy root issues. But every so often, the modality sees a spike in popularity (1960s "hippie" counterculture, today's holistic health boom).

Since it's largely based on tradition, passed-down recipes and communing with the land, there's not a particular training program or certification that transforms one into an herbalist. "It isn't a regulated title like an M.D. or R.D.," Barbara Close, an herbalist and the founder of Naturopathica, tells Fashionista. "Herbalism is an art that's primarily passed through experience and apprenticeship."

Close developed her own practice through hands-on study with different types of healers throughout Europe — aromatherapists, hydrotherapists, herbalists — guided by "my Great Aunt Eleanor, an expat who lived outside of Paris and was viewed by many as a bit of an eccentric, since she eschewed prescription drugs," she explains. Together, the two would visit herboristerias, "where they would prepare a verveine tea to assist with sleep, or recommend a chamomile-and-yarrow salve to help with dry skin." A Hemingway-esque education, indeed.

Although Close built Naturopathica based on this "ancestral knowledge" of internal and external plant medicine, she went on to earn her Masters in Therapeutic Herbalism from the Maryland University of Integrative Health in 2017.

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"As it becomes more and more popular, there’s a call towards certifications," says Robinett, who is certified herself. "There are fabulous herbalists with decades of experience that exist within and without of the systems — and the school-taught education isn’t always necessarily the best."

To be clear, herbalism is about overall health — but "there is a strong relationship between herbalism and skin care," Dorow says. "Herbalism seeks to restore balance and heal the root of all disease in the body; and your skin is a reflection of how well your body is able to eliminate toxins." The founder takes the concept of "skin-care as self-care" a step further, and believes "skin-care is health care, as everything in the body is interconnected."

It's a concept that seems to resonate with today's beauty and wellness enthusiasts, who are increasingly one) chemical-conscious and two) curious about trading in prescription medications for plant medicine. After all, a script for tretinoin may put pimples on hold, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying imbalance causing said pimples in the way herbal "prescriptions" do. ("Spoiler alert: Most skin issues are actually digestive issues," says Jessica Taylor, the herbalist founder of Native Nectar Botanicals — in which case, she recommends a dandelion root tincture.)

"This mentality is what has shaped our holistic approach to skin health from the beginning and allowed us to look at stress, diet and lifestyle as factors that show up on the skin," says Close. "We heal from within." If you've given into the skin-care supplement craze — perhaps with a stress-busting "dust" from Moon Juice, or makeup artist Bobbi Brown’s new beauty tea — you’ve scratched the surface of botanicals-as-beauty.

Then, of course, there's the literal surface of botanicals-as-beauty: topical treatments. "Clients were coming to us with skin concerns like acne, rosacea and premature aging, yet a majority of the skin-care products on the market were using irritating fillers and actives that were actually exacerbating these conditions — not helping them," Close says. "That's what inspired me to tap into my knowledge of herbal medicine to create skin remedies." It was a natural transition; many of the founder's go-to ingestibles — calendula, gotu kola, lavender — happen to be just as useful from the outside in.

Naturopathica, which Close launched almost 25 years ago, was one of the first herbal beauty brands on the market. It paved the way for today's new wave of plant-based skin-care companies: Dorow's Ona Organics and Taylor's Native Nectar Botanicals, along with, oh, pretty much every brand stocked at CAP Beauty, Credo Beauty or Follain.

Considering the sheer number of "inner beauty" supplements on the market and natural skin-care ingredients available to the masses, do you really need your very own herbalist? Well, I guess that depends on your definition of need.

I would say the main reason to hire a personal herbalist and the main argument against readily-available herbal remedies are one in the same: efficacy. "Herbalism requires that you address the health of a whole individual, to treat the source of an imbalance," Close says. In other words: Buying into a trendy smoothie stir-in won’t necessarily deliver results if it’s not the right smoothie stir-in for you; and the same goes for botanical beauty products. But an herbalist can help unearth the underlying cause of your particular skin issues and suggest a more tailored course of treatment that actually works — whether that's a hormone-balancing tincture, a stress-regulating adaptogen or a face oil infused with soothing chamomile.

"In addition, plant medicine is typically more gentle on your body with less side effects" — so no retinoid uglies — "and can be very effective in treating other common health issues like anxiety, adrenal fatigue and digestive issues," Taylor says. Essentially, you can consider an herbal practitioner your nutritionist, holistic health coach and "skin therapist" in one easy, plant-based package. (Although every herbalist interviewed agrees: They do not and should not take the place of your regular physician.)

"It can be life-changing," adds Robinett. And honestly, when a potentially skin- and life-changing consultation with an herbalist is as easy as stumbling into a natural beauty shop in the West Village after work on a Thursday… why not? 

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