Chamomile is one of the best skincare herbs available and is particularly useful for skin conditions such as contact dermatitis (eczema). This apple-scented herb comes in several different forms, but thankfully they all offer natural beauty benefits.
Chamomile is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It is also considered to be hypoallergenic with the ability to neutralise skin irritants.
Different types of Chamomile
Let’s start off this blog post by looking at the different types of chamomile available, as they are very different in their appearance, growing habits and active chemicals.
- Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) – also known as English, Noble or Common Chamomile, this variety is perennial and grows low to the ground where it spreads as ground cover. Its essential oil contains around 80% esters, <4% chamazulene and looks clear to pale yellow in colour.
- German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – also known as Hungarian, or Blue Chamomile, this variety is annual and grows tall. It doesn’t have the same spreading habit as Roman Chamomile. Its essential oil is deep blue due to its high chamazulene content (2-5%) and it contains a high percentage of alcohols such as bisabolol.
Despite the fact that these are different species, their flowers look similar and they contain similar properties. Other varieties include Moroccan Chamomile (Anthemis mixta ssp multicaulis), Cape Chamomile (Eriocephalus punctulatus), Double flowered Chamomile (Flore Pleno), Lawn Chamomile (Chamomile Treneague) and Dyers/Yellow Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria).
History of Chamomile
Chamomile is one of the most widely used and well documented medicinal herbs in the world. Its use dates back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt where it was considered a sacred gift from the Sun God Ra, although it’s likely that chamomile had been in use for many thousands of years before then already. A chemical analysis undertaken on embalming oil for one of the Pharaohs found that chamomile was one of the main constituents. Hieroglyphics also show that chamomile was used in skincare by Egyptian noblewomen.
Chamomile was widely used by the Greeks and Romans too and records show it was used in medicine, drinks and incense. In fact, the word chamomile, and the genus name Chamaemelum come from the Greek word ‘χαμαίμηλον’ (chamaimēlon), “earth-apple”. This word is derived from χαμαί (chamai) “on the ground” + μήλον (mēlon) “apple”, because of the apple-like scent of the plant.
In the Middle Ages, chamomile was strewn on the floors of gatherings to improve the smell (along with herbs such as lavender). Chamomile was also one of the herbs mentioned in the Nine Herbs Charm, an old English charm used in the 10th Century to treat poison and infection. Other herbs in the charm included plantain and nettle.
Chamomile in Skincare
This miracle herb has been shown to ease upset stomachs, heartburn, nausea, vomiting and colic in infants. Research has suggested that chamomile could help with other conditions such as diarrhoea, anxiety, insomnia and haemorrhoids. So it’s no surprise that chamomile continues to be used widely, in herbal medicine as well as skincare and cosmetics. In skin care preparations it is used for teething babies, toothache, acne and boils, allergies and rashes, inflammations, dermatitis, eczema, cuts, wounds and as a lightener for blonde hair.
Because it has been used so widely for such a long time, chamomile is one of the few herbs that has been included in clinical trials to look into its effectiveness in skincare. Most documented studies have been completed in Germany using a chamomile cream or ointment. In one trial with humans, chamomile was found to have an effect that was 60% as active as 0.25% hydrocortisone when applied topically. In another trial, the chamomile ointment was effective in reducing dermatitis following a single application of sodium lauryl sulfate (Brown & Dattner, 1998).
Floral Skincare Magic
So what is it that makes chamomile such a great skincare herb? Both Roman and German chamomile are used in skincare and both are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Chamomile contains a long list of chemical compounds which are individually known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Most studies, however, have found that the whole extracts were more active than their individual constituents. Nonetheless, a few chemicals in particular give chamomile its reputation as a fantastic skin healer:
- Bisabolol – As we saw in my last blog post, bisabolol is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-irritant, anti-fungal and non-allergenic. Bisabolol is found in both German and Roman chamomile essential oils although German chamomile has a higher concentration.
- Chamazulene – one of the azulenes, chamazulene is only found in the essential oils of both Roman and German chamomile and is created during the distillation process from another compound called matricin. This compound causes the essential oil of German chamomile in particular to go bright blue. Roman chamomile essential oils is often distilled in a way that prevents the formation of chamazulene as the industry prefers this oil to be a pale straw colour. Chamazulene is credited with providing the anti-inflammatory properties of both chamomiles.
- Apigenin – this flavonoid is gaining notoriety following some recent research which has shown it to reduce DNA oxidative damage, inhibit the growth of human cancer cells and act as an anti-inflammatory. Apigenin is found in both chamomiles, but is only present in the flowers and not in the oils.
Chamomile is a fabulous skincare herb and is suitable for all skin types. As it is so strongly anti-inflammatory, it is particularly suited to sensitive skins that are prone to inflammation. It is herbs such as chamomile that demonstrate yet again that botanical extracts are generally the best choice for your skin.
Note – Don’t use chamomile in skincare if you are allergic to any of the Asteraceae family of plants – these include chamomile, celery, ragwort, daisy, calendula, or chrysanthemum. People who are allergic to this family of plants generally have a reaction to chamomile.
References and Further Reading
Bown, D. 2000. Chamomile (Herb Library)
Brown, D.J. & Dattner, A.M. 1998. Phytotherapeutic Approaches to Common Dermatologic Conditions. Arch Dermatol, Vol 134, 1401-1404.