Plants foraged from high-altitude mountains and meadows are starring in a new skin-care movement—and their impact is impressive.

By By April Long
Updated: April 05, 2019
Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

For Kendra Kolb Butler, it began not so much with a vision as with a view. The beauty industry veteran, who had relocated to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from New York City, had a eureka moment sitting on her porch one day. She was pondering why so many of the women who shopped in her boutique, Alpyn Beauty Bar, suffered from skin issues-dehydration, hyperpigmentation, and sensitivity-that couldn't be solved by any of the products she sold.

"I was looking out at the purple flowers growing on the mountains, and I wondered, How have they been able to adapt to harsh elements like low humidity, high altitude, and extreme sun? Is there something that makes these plants more resilient that might make skin stronger too?" (Related: Does Your Skin Need to See a Psychologist?)

Looking for answers to these questions, she began gathering arnica and chamomile from uncultivated woodlands and meadows around Jackson Hole-a practice known as wildcrafting or foraging-and formulating them into a new skin-care line, Alpyn Beauty.

"When we sent our samples to the lab to be tested, they were off the charts in potency, measuring high in omegas and essential fatty acids-ingredients known to help improve skin," Kolb Butler says. "I truly believe the answer to more effective natural products-and better skin-can be found in wild forests." As it turns out, she's part of a growing skin-care trend.

The Rise of Wildcrafting

Similar to terroir in winemaking, the idea that a plant's soil and growing conditions can affect the way it tastes, smells, or behaves in a formulation isn't entirely new to beauty-roses grown in Grasse, France, are considered the pinnacle for perfumery, and polyphenol-rich green tea from Jeju Island, South Korea, is the secret sauce in many K-beauty anti-agers.

But companies are increasingly going off the map in search of wild botanicals. Skin-care doyenne Tata Harper, Grown Alchemist, and Loli Beauty are among those that incorporate foraged plants, believing they can possess a purity and potency that even organic, biodynamic farming can't deliver. Studies show that native-grown plants tend to be higher in antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids than their farmed counterparts-not only because they live in mineral-rich soil without pesticides but because they must amp up their production of protective phytochemicals to thrive through drought, freezes, high winds, and relentless sun. Skin-care products confer these superpowers on our skin cells in the form of hydration, DNA repair, and free radical protection. (All super helpful things for anti-aging your skin.)

"High-altitude plants have a higher medicinal value than low-altitude plants because they have a harder life," says Justine Kahn, the founder of natural-skin-care line Botnia, which recently released a juniper hydrosol made from the leaves of trees on her mother's ranch in New Mexico.

"When we ran tests on our hydrosol, we found that it had amazingly high amounts of flavonoids that help to exfoliate skin. We had to harvest the juniper ourselves and bring it back in big suitcases to our lab in Sausalito, [California], but it was worth it."

Beyond the Farm

It's not just small beauty companies out there foraging. Dr. Hauschka, the heritage German natural brand founded in 1967, has long used wildcrafted ingredients. This is partly because many botanicals with incredible skin-beautifying benefits resist cultivation-like soothing, pain-relieving arnica, which thrives in high-altitude meadows but tends to falter when farmed, says Edwin Batista, the director of education for Dr. Hauschka.

The key ingredients in Dr. Hauschka products that are gathered this way: eye bright, an anti-inflammatory herb found in the southern Vosges mountains of France; wild horsetail, which is astringent and firming on the skin and scalp but considered a nuisance weed by conventional farmers; and pH-balancing, collagen-stimulating chicory extract, which grows in clay soil along riverbanks and rural roads. (Related: 10 Foods That Are Great for Your Skin)

The Sustainability Factor

Wildcrafting can be very eco-friendly: Only small amounts of blossoms, bark, or branches are removed, so the plant is never killed.

"We work with environmental authorities to get clearance, harvest only what we need, and never pick from the same place twice in a given period of time," Batista says. "That ensures that the area can regenerate itself." There are, however, plants that have been overzealously wild harvested, primarily for medicinal and herbal use, including goldenseal and arnica. (The latter you might recognize as an ingredient in muscle-soothing rubs and balms.)

Sourcing active ingredients through wildcrafting could also help protect biodiversity by revealing benefits from plants that haven't appeared in skin care. Kolb Butler recently harvested wild chokecherry, which she says "is believed to have more anthocyanin [a superpotent antioxidant] than sea buckthorn oil," and Kahn is analyzing the anti-inflammatory potential of redwood needle extract.

At a time when alarming statistics show that only 23 percent of land on Earth remains untouched by human activity, we shouldn't need another reason to protect our wild spaces and the marvels they contain. Who knows what breakthrough is out there, growing in some backcountry frontier?

In the words of the great 19th-century naturalist John Muir, "Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world."

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