Go beyond oil! The science behind why using herbs for itchy, severe dry skin can hydrate skin naturally

Go beyond oil! The science behind why using herbs for itchy, severe dry skin can hydrate skin naturally

Dry, itching skin can drive you a little crazy.  If you've been slathering on balms and oils but still not getting the relief you crave we've got news for you.  Your skin needs more than oil to be comfortable.

Oils protect your skin and help to fortify against what's called transepidermal water loss (TEWL).  But if you don't have enough water in your skin to start with then adding oils is only half the solution.  You need water, plus a few other key compounds to get back to balance.

Dehydrated skin is literally caused by a lack of water, so you want to know how you can increase hydration.  It may not be enough to just drink another glass of H2O though.  All that lovely water may be evaporating right back out of your skin if your skin chemistry is not right.  Plus it takes a while for water to travel all the way from the drink you take to your outer layer of cells.  Your body will put that water to work first in other jobs like circulation, digestion, and removal of toxins from the body.

Cold weather, indoor heating and air conditioning, sun, wind, stress, the wrong ingredients … the list of things that cause skin dehydration, itching and dryness is long. Certain skin types need no outside persuasion and experience dryness most of the time.  But with the right ingredients in your skin care products you can help rehydrate and balance skin so it stays hydrated.

What Causes Dry, Itchy Skin?

If you deal with dryness seasonally or occasional you want to know about your skin's Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF).  Natural Moisturizing Factor is the combination of free amino acids, PCA, lactates, urea, inorganic salts and sugars, and small amounts of glycerol and hyaluronic acid that allows your skin to attract and retain hydration.   Your Natural Moisturizing Factor has three big jobs.  It maintains plasticity and suppleness of your skin (skin needs to stretch and move without cracking!), it allows skin cells to exfoliate at the proper time through keeping certain enzymes active, and it helps keep your protective skin barrier strong.

Your NMF is in your outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum.  NMF is made by the gradual breakdown of an important skin barrier protein called filaggrin.  The stratum corneum layer contains what are known as corneocytes - dry, dead skin cells.  It might seem funny to think that dead skin cells can have so much effect on if you are comfortable or not, but they help shield your tender, living cells underneath from dry air, chemicals, and other things that can compromise balance and sap the skin of moisture.  Your stratum corneum is a very biochemically active place.

Itchy skin is often caused by more than just dryness, and can involve an immune system reaction.  If you have a reaction to something you eat that your body does not like, or touch something that your skin does not like your immune system can set off a reaction that can result in itching.  Itchy skin and dry skin are not always the same thing, but they can go together and make each other worse.

How does Natural Moisturizing Factor get low?

Some people's skin is better at maintaining NMF than others.  People with skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, icthyosis, and xerosis have lower NMF levels.  This can be because some people's bodies may just not produce these compounds as efficiently because of a difference in their genetics, or it can be because of a reaction to something you put on your skin and the inflammation that results.  Filaggrin production levels are affected by inflammation, so people that have skin that is prone to inflammation are at a big disadvantage and much more prone to developing dry, itchy skin.

One way that you can end up damaging your NMF is by routinely washing your skin with soap.  In fact the two biggest ways that people reduce their own NMF is by bathing or exposure to UV light.  If you are older chances are the amino acid content of your skin is also lower because your body is just not functioning as efficiently as it did when it was younger.

If you live in an arid environment your body's production of NMF will likely be impaired since skin hydration levels affect how efficiently NMF is made.  The drier your skin gets the less well you make NMF, which can seem a little unfair since that is when it is more needed.  But dry skin is a self reinforcing cycle, which is why you need to interrupt that cycle to create more balance.

Transepidermal water loss can also contribute to dehydrated skin, as your skin is constantly evaporating at least some water.  In dry air conditions you will lose more water from your skin from TEWL than if the air around you is humid, which makes winter a prime time for dry skin to occur.

Herbs for Dry Skin

What can you do to hydrate your skin?

You may not be able to change your genetics, and you may be stuck where you live, but you can still give your skin some help with hydration.

If you live in an arid environment consider getting a humidifier for your living space.  Adding some humidity to your indoor air will make it easier for your skin to retain more moisture, and it's good for your breathing too.  This one simple change could make a big difference for your skin.

One of the best known ways to hydrate skin is to use a moisturizer.  Moisturizers have three major actions to slow TEWL, and they can even help replace some components of your NMF.  The quality of your moisturizer matters, though, and not all moisturizers are created equal.  As we'll discuss below moisturizers that include whole herb extracts will give you better overall results than those that don't.


Humectants applied to your skin attract water from the air or from the deeper layers of your skin.  Glycerin is a natural humectant.  Humectants should be used in combination with occlusives and emollients to make sure the attracted hydration stays in the skin instead of just evaporating right back out.


Occlusives form a barrier to hold the attracted hydration in.  Beeswax and candelilla wax are two types of natural occlusive ingredients that can help "seal" the skin.  These ingredients do not absorb into skin, but instead remain on the outside to help protect it.


Emollients soften and nourish the skin while also helping to reduce water loss.  Plant oils like cranberry seed oil, pomegranate seed oil, sunflower seed oil, and many others fall into this category.  

A lotion can be as simple as water, an emulsifying ingredient, a single oil, and a preservative, but while this might provide the basic structure it does not give maximum benefit.  Think of humectants, occlusives, and emollients like macronutrients, the same way that fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are macronutrients in your diet.  If you eat a diet of only macronutrients you will quickly become malnourished because your body relies on many more trace compounds known as micronutrients to operate smoothly.  In a similar way your skin benefits from getting a wide range of micronutrients too and herbs are one of the best possible sources of micronutrients for skin that can help improve skin hydration naturally.

Studies show that herbal skin remedies, when topically applied, improve the barrier function of the outer layer of skin, decreasing water loss and environmental stress. These remedies improve both normal skin and irritated skin conditions, like atopic dermatitis, with few adverse effects.  This is because herbs carry a multitude of unique phytonutrients and minerals that interact with the skin cells.

Herbs don't necessarily directly replace your NMF, but they do stimulate skin repair.  Herbs are capable of reducing transepidermal water loss when used routinely on skin, and increase overall stratum corneum hydration.  Compounds from herbs act as messengers to skin cells and affect their behavior for functions like growth and differentiation, encourage an increase in production of lipids like ceramides that help the skin retain more water, and can increase production of peptides on the skin's surface that help defend the integrity of the skin.  Many herbs also have anti inflammatory properties, and quelling inflammation is key to getting filaggrin production back to normal, improving the skin barrier and getting NMF production functioning well again.

Herbs for Dry Skin

Herbs for Dry Skin

For generations people have been using herbs for dry skin to quell feelings of itchiness and irritation and hydrate skin naturally.  Now science is proving that there is a reason we have kept these natural treatments for dry skin around.

Herbs are defined as seed-bearing plants that do not have woody stems. Leaves, seeds, flowers, and roots from the plants are commonly used to flavor food, and to create medicines, skincare, and perfume. These little multi-taskers have benefits unique to each plant.  A quality extraction is necessary to get the best dry skin treatment benefits from these herbal wonders, so seek out companies who work with organic herbs and who give careful attention to how herbal ingredients are handled.  You can also make yourself a decoction to use for a compress or infuse a bath tea to soak in these herbs on your own.

Adding in the best herbs for skin experiencing dryness and irritation will help to get your skin back to comfortable and glowing. 

Licorice Root

Licorice root has been shown to have an anti inflammatory effect when ingested and also when applied topically.  The herbal extract of licorice has been studied for topical use on conditions like eczema and psoriasis that involve dry, itchy, uncomfortable skin. The active compound glycyrrhizin has been shown to be valuable, effective, and safe for skin.

Astragalus Root

Astragalus has been shown to increase production of the skin's own hyaluronic acid content when used topically.  This popular Chinese herb has a calming effect on skin and has been shown to increase the growth and differentiation of skin cells as well, which can contribute to overall skin repair and treatment of dry, itchy skin.

Calendula Flowers

Calendula is well known as a skin calming ingredient used around the world from Europe to India that helps to reduce feelings of irritation and upset that come with dry skin. This simple seeming herbal ingredient is actually a heavy hitter for dry and irritated skin.  Calendula contains dozens of valuable phytonutrients for dry skin treatment including triterpene glycosides, more than 15 different flavonoids, carotenoids, phenolic acids, sterols, mucilage, amino acids and more. Calendula contains both oil and water soluble active compounds and it can appear in skin care products for dry skin in a variety of ways.  It may show up as an infused oil, as a CO2 extract (which is oil based), as a water based infusion, or as a hydrosol.  All these types of ingredients can help improve the condition of dry skin.

Comfrey Leaf and Root

Comfrey, often used in irritation and pain relief solutions, delivers a super soothing feel to skin. A water based extraction of this herb delivers a healthy dose of hydration to make the complexion feel soft and supple.  The compound allantoin from comfrey is often isolated and used alone but a recent study has shown that whole herb extracts of comfrey improve the condition of irritated skin better than allantoin used alone.  This is yet another confirmation that whole herb extracts are best and most effective to for dry skin treatment because they contain dozens of compounds that add to the total effect.  Look for the whole comfrey herb in your ingredients labels versus isolated allantoin for the best results.

Helichrysum Flowers

Helichrysum herb makes skin look plumped up and hydrated and is perfect for visibly diminishing irritated conditions, like eczema and dermatitis.  The water based extract, hydrosol, and essential oil of helichrysum are all used in herbal skin care because of the complex chemistry of this herb and the benefits it offers.

Marshmallow Root

Marshmallow. You may think of those sweet puffs of yumminess when you hear that word. But marshmallow root is one of the best herbs for itchy skin and dryness. What’s so sweet (pardon the pun) about marshmallow is that it contains carbohydrates bonded by sugar molecules known as polysaccharides. Marshmallow polysaccharides create a mucilage that deeply and naturally moisturizes dry skin.

Olive Leaves

Olive leaves contain a compound called Oleuropein that has been shown to decrease TEWL.  Oleuropein is heat sensitive though, so it needs to be carefully extracted from olive leaves at low temperatures to remain viable and beneficial for dry skin.  This compound is also a fantastic antioxidant, so you get more than one benefit from it!

Oat Grains and Oat Straw

Oats and oat straw are some of the best herbs for dry skin.  They contain mucilage polysaccharides that deeply hydrate dry skin, proteins, and antioxidant flavonoids that work together.  One of the polysaccharides called Beta-glucan has anti-inflammatory effects that work with the immune system, and these herbs are some of the best to use to treat itchy skin because of how calming they are.

Helichrysum can hydrate skin naturally and is a good herb for treatment of itchy and dry skin problems

Other Natural Skin Remedies for Dry, Itchy Skin

Dry skin is delicate and easily irritated, so using gentle herbal skin care that is free from harmful ingredients is key. Follow these tips to caring for dry, itchy skin.

Using a natural moisturizer that includes water and oil provides more of what dry skin needs to replenish itself.  Overall skin moisture levels have been shown to dramatically increase when water and oil is provided together to skin since it helps prevent the water from evaporating right back out.  Choose creamy emulsions to directly improve skin dehydration.  You can use your balms and oils as a protective, final layer once you have applied a hydrating herbal toner and a moisturizer first.  And of course your moisturizer should include herbs that benefit dry skin since they do more than a moisturizer without herbs.

Add oils from the inside out by eating up on whole foods that are rich in fatty acids. Fats are a crucial part of your skin's ability to avoid water loss, and many people unwisely avoid fats or eat the wrong kinds.  Many people consume too many Omega 6 fatty acids and not enough Omega 3s, which can cause inflammation and imbalances in the body.  Choose quality, fresh, unrefined fats that will help your skin produce more ceramides.  Make walnuts, salmon, fish, avocados, and ghee a regular part of your diet.

Want more tips to hydrate your skin naturally?  We've created a dry skin treatment guide with even more detailed and unexpected tips that you can use to solve your dry skin for good.

Simply click the banner below, enter your email and we'll send you this valuable guide.  Our natural, easy, and cost effective suggestions are based on years of research and helping people with dry skin every day.

Solve your dry skin bonus guide with severe dry skin treatment tips for itchy dry skin

If treating dry skin is a constant in your beauty regimen, it’s time to enlist the help of herbal skin care. The right ingredients, plus a few other dry skin tricks, and your skin will look healthy, smooth, and glowing no matter what it’s like outside.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is general in nature and for informational purposes. It is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. None of the statements on this site are a recommendation as to how to treat any particular disease or health-related condition. If you suspect you have a disease or health-related condition of any kind, you should contact your health care professional immediately. Please read all product packaging carefully and consult with a healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise, supplementation or medication program. Cosmetic products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.