Notes From China

TCM in Cosmetics: Back to the Future

By Ally Dai | June 6, 2013

How big of a role can Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) play in cosmetics? Many TCM experts I’ve interviewed say the potential is enormous because the materials are so effective.

Proper storage of herbs is essential to their efficacy.

For example, one TCM derma professional relayed the following story. His client, a 40-year-old woman, returned to his office to treat blemishes that had been successfully treated months before. After careful examination, the professional finally asked the woman a question that seemed irrelevant to her skin: “Is there any issue that is causing you to be angry?”

The answer was yes. Turns out, there was a family issue that led to numerous sleepless nights and the outbreak of the skin problem. As a result, psychological counseling, rather than topical and oral medications, became the major treatment for her skin problem.

When pressed to find out how could detect such a cause for the customer’s skin problem, the professional referred to the basic principle of TCM.

“The facial area where the woman’s skin problem occurred happened to indicate something wrong with her liver, which is the organ vulnerable to inappropriate anger based on TCM theory. Plus, she also displayed an unstable emotional state,” he explained. “Physical health and emotion are intimately connected.”

All About Being Holistic
Yes, the core of TCM theory is all about being holistic; i.e., the human body is always intricately connected to the external environment. Based on the notion of harmony and balance, Traditional Chinese Medicine is actually a very vital holistic system of health care with its own unique ways of prevention and treatment.

Focusing on adjusting and boosting the human body’s own immune system, it emphasizes prevention and tends to use the combination of different ways of treatment including diet and medicine, as well as acupuncture, massage and exercise.

When it comes to TCM, herbals, as well as animal and mineral products and even human ones, all can be utilized. Some of the animal or human products would seem rather strange in western eyes, such as cow’s gallstone and antelope’s horn, or even unacceptable like human placenta. But nowadays, many of these non-plant-based materials are either no longer in use or are strictly constrained by regulations, due to ecological, legal and health concerns.

Herbals are the most common raw material category in TCM. Under the basic TCM application principle, the origin, harvesting, processing and storing of herbal materials should all be dealt with great caution by following the instructions handed down from ancient times, on the ground that these factors can determine the quality and efficacy of botanical ingredients.

Another general principle of TCM application is the synergistic effect. Apart from the efficacy of individual primary ingredients, the final efficacy of a formula relies upon the interactions between different ingredients; therefore, their combination should be carefully selected to enhance the desired effect, which requires better understanding of action mechanisms and overall effects.

Ancient Herbals, Modern Applications
Catering to the natural green trend in the global market, Chinese traditional herbals also account for the vast majority of TCM-derived materials currently used in cosmetics. In an attempt to differentiate their products, an increasing number of beauty brands, both international and domestic, are borrowing botanical ingredients from TCM.

The most common are ginseng, paeonia, pomegranate, white tea, Centella asiatica, Radix Astragali, Angelica root, Rhodiola, Saus-sureainvolucrate and Perilla, according to Dr. Li Jinhua, vice director of Guangzhou General Pharmaceutical Research Institute. Two of these, ginseng and paeonia, also happen to be two of the most effective anti-aging and whitening actives—both of which are major trends in today’s China personal care and cosmetic market.

Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is native to China and Korea. The Chinese name of this well-known herbal refers to its human-like shape. Ancient TCM attributes various medical benefits to ginseng, ranging from promoting vitality to prolonging life, and despite a lack of scientific evidences for these ancient claims, modern research find that ginsenosides, unique compounds of the Panax species, can promote skin microcirculation, replenish skin nutrients and even brighten the complexion.

Two types of ginseng are widely incorporated into today’s cosmetic products. One is white ginseng, which is mainly found in Chinese, European and US brands and it is said to enhance cell nutrition intake, hydrate and whiten skin. The other is red ginseng, which is often added in South Korea brands, and is said to promote skin blood circulation and have strong antioxidant capacity.

Paeonia (Paeonia suffruticosa), known as “king of the flowers,” is a symbol of richness and honor in Chinese art, and was declared as the national flower in the Qing Dynasty. Paeonia, in particular its root bark, has a long history of use in TCM for treating wounds and infections. Recent studies also reveal the anti-inflammatory property of peony root bark, largely due to its active compounds of paeoniflorin and paeonol. As for cosmetic application, peony root bark is increasingly valued as a natural whitening/anti-pigmentation ingredient.

Hurdles to Innovation
TCM botanical extracts, from either the whole plants or its effective parts, are by far the most common active ingredients used in cosmetic brands positioned as “inheriting traditional Chinese culture” and “natural.” But modern chemists and traditional medical professionals remain at odds over TCM herbal applications. In fact, from the TCM professional’s point of view, many of these formulas don’t follow the basic TCM principle and philosophy. As a result, the botanical ingredients within are no more than advertising statements, largely due to their low dosage and their lack of synergic effect.

Some other issues also impact the application of TCM herbals. According to Dr. Jinhua, these include accessibility and controllability of raw material sources, extraction and purification of effective parts of the whole plant, and evaluation of efficacy and side effects, as well as regulation constraints. When it comes to innovative botanical ingredients, the technologies of extraction/purification and efficacy evaluation don’t necessarily match the clinical application. That’s due to inadequate research on the identification of plant origin, limited capability of quality control, and incomplete studies on the formula compatibility and synergistic effects of different components.

But we also hear some encouraging news for TCM development. According to the Pharmaceutical Industry Development Plan during the 12th Five-Year Plan period released by State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine last year, strong support will be offered for the development of TCM health care services, such as encouraging social capital to establish TCM institutions. Along with the recent efforts by China’s State Food and Drug Administration to crackdown on substandard or fake materials used in TCM, there are reasons to believe that TCM has a bright future, especially in cosmetic applications.

Ally Dai
Happi China

Ally Dai is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Ringier Trade Media Ltd, responsible for trade publications including Happi China. She has more than 10 years of experience in the cosmetic and food industries. Happi China is a leading media for the China household & personal care industry. Published by Ringier Trade Media in strategic editorial partnership with Happi, it helps local manufacturers update their knowledge on formulating, testing and packaging, as well as providing market insight.