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Novel cosmetics ingredients from tribal & aboriginal medicine: an understanding of natural materials used by ancient people can lead to the discovery of new ingredients for cosmetics and other topical product innovations.


The use of medicinal plants for personal care applications has precedence in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic literature. The knowledge of topically active ingredients from native resources, while quite abundant, has received scant attention due to their limited commercial availability and lack of scientifically proven applications. (1)

Indigenous native healing traditions have played an important role in treating tribal and aboriginal populations worldwide, via both topical and ingestible therapies along with ceremonial rituals and holistic sessions. Conceptually, an ideal state of well-being and health in ancient therapies, whether Ayurvedic, Chinese, Aboriginal or Native American, requires a holistic connection of human body to the earth and living in harmony with the environment--a triumvirate of body, mind, and soul connecting with the environment. (2)

Relative to commercial availability of such botanicals from indigenous farming, it is noteworthy that tribal agricultural land and forests have highly degraded over time with a loss of their natural capacity for regeneration. Restoration of such soils for sustained availability of indigenous source-based ingredients is paramount. (3) Also, bio-piracy and over-exploitation of a particular plant species can lead to near-extinction and thus hinder sustainable utilization of native plants. (4)

Gems from Traditional Ethnobotany

The development of active chemical compounds that may be present in traditional healing potions can lead to future utilization of ancient, yet still practiced, therapies for topical product innovations via modern-day science. (5)

Beyond hallucinogens or intoxicants practiced so commonly in ancient ceremonial medicine, this article focuses on select, newly discovered active chemical compounds from native tribal and aboriginal ethnobotanical resources--via a blending of ancient art with modern science--in anticipation of their increased commercial awareness for innovative skin and personal care applications (see Table 1 on page 22). (5)

Medicament from Buddhist Monasteries

"Buddhist practice focuses on cognition, on motivation, but also, as the Zen tradition frames it, on understanding 'the way things are.' The teaching of cause and effect is one aspect of this endeavor. Much of what we deal with in daily life, and in the practice of health care, are affects of actions, behaviors, and stresses." (6) The medical treatments in Buddhist and Hindu traditions amalgamate body, mind and environment.

Antioxidants from Rubus spp.

Manubzhithang, a Tibetan medicine found in different regions of China, contains one of the three Rubus species: Rubus amabilis, Rubus niveus and Rubus sachalinensis. Interestingly, Rubus niveus has become one of the most widespread invasive plant species in the Galapagos Islands. (7) Nature has a way to transport living matter from Tibet to Galapagos.
Native Plant            Topical Benefit

Maipighia glabra        Antioxidant

Alstonia macrophylla    Vasodilator

Sida cordifolia,        Antioxidant, Anti-inflammatory, Anti
Sida Indica             cell proliferation, Antimicrobial,

Rubus spp.              Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant, Enzyme

Acalypha spp.           Eczema Antioxidant, Anti-inflammatory,
                        Antimicrobial, Antiproliferative

Phyllanthus             Antibacterial, Anti-inflammatory, Col-
muellerianus            lagen synthesis, Keratinocytes &
                        fibroblasts proliferative

Phyllanthus emblica     Anti-aging, Anti-inflammatory,
                        Immune-regulatory, Antioxidant,
                        Anti-collagenase, Anti-elastase, Anti-

Emblica officinalis     Free-Radical trap, Anti-inflammatory,
                        Antioxidant Immuno-regulatory

Uncaria tomentosa,      Anti-inflammatory, Antimicrobial,
Croton lechleri         Antioxidant, Wound healing, Antifungal.

Achillea millefolium,   MMP-2, MMP-9 Inhibition, Anti-inflam-
Tanacetum vulgare       matory, Wound healing, Fibroblasts

Anemopsis californica   Antimicrobial

Penstemonambiguus       Anti-inflammatory, Antimicrobial

Saururuscernuus         Anti-inflammatory

Native Plant            Key Active Agents          Tribal Source

Maipighia glabra        Polyphenols,               Nicobarese tribe
                        Anthocyanins,              (Andaman Isle)
                        Carotenoids, Sarpagine,
Alstonia macrophylla    Indole alkaloids

Sida cordifolia,        Caffeic acid,              Maroon, community
Sida Indica             Hypaphorine, Vasicine,     (Brazil), The
                        Vasicinone, Vasicinol      Americas, Asia,

Rubus spp.              Isovitexin, Isovitexin     Tibetan Monastery

Acalypha spp.           Geraniin, Corilagin,       Mascarene Isle
                        Quadrangularic acid,       (Madagascar), Randa
                        Shikimic acid              tribe (Djibouti)

Phyllanthus             Geraniin, Nitidine,        Western Africa
muellerianus            Corilagin, Furosin,
                        Astragalin, Caffeic
                        acid, Chlorogenic acid,
                        Phaselic acid

Phyllanthus emblica     Putranjivain A,            Rural Asia
                        Chebulagic acid,
                        Triacontanoic acid,
                        Daucosterol, Lupeol
                        acetate, Ursolic acid

Emblica officinalis     Corilagin, Geraniin,       Rural India
                        Elaeocarpusin, Pro-
                        delphinidin, Ascorbic
                        acid, Ellagic acid

Uncaria tomentosa,      Indole alkaloids:          Peruvian Amazon
Croton lechleri         Isopteropodine, Ptero-
                        Isomitraphylline, Iso-
                        Uncarine F,

Achillea millefolium,   Leucodin, Matricarin,      Aboriginal tribes
Tanacetum vulgare       Achillin, Polysac-         Boreal Forest
                        charide                    Canada

Anemopsis californica   Chaetocuprum,              Native Americans,
                        Cochliodone-A, Equisetin   Desert Southwest
Penstemonambiguus       Catalpol, Verbascoside,    Native Americans,
                        Specioside                 Desert Southwest
Saururuscernuus         Neolignans                 Creole Nation

Three potent antioxidants, 2,6-dimethoxy-4-hydroxyphenol- 1-O-[beta]-D-glucopyranoside, procyanidin B4 and isovitexin, have been identified in the extracts obtained from all three Rubus plants. (7) Rubus fruticosus has recently been reported to contain steroids, lipids, flavonoids, glycosides, terpene acids and tannins in various parts of the plant that show antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-diabetic, anti-diarrheal and antiviral activities. (8) Isovitexin, in a recent report, has also shown potent enzyme inhibitory activity against xanthine oxidase, nitric oxide synthase, human neutrophil elastase, matrix metalloproteinase-2, matrix metalloproteinase-9 and squalene synthase. (9) This active agent offers promise for anti-aging skin care formulations via modulation of key enzymes that trigger skin aging biochemical processes.


This polyphenolic polylactone compound has recently been isolated from Phyllanthus emblica, a well-known ancient Hindu and Buddhist medicinal plant. This compound can be useful as a multifunctional cosmetic ingredient for skin anti-aging and anti-acne applications due to its anti-inflammatory, immune-regulatory, antioxidant, anti-collagenase, anti-elastase, anti-hyaluronidase and wound healing attributes. (10)

Native Offerings from Andaman Islands

Throughout history tribal people have depended on herbal medicines. The Nicobarese inhabit islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. The daily life of these people is closely linked to nature and mostly isolated from modern technologies. The knowledge of their traditional ethnomedical practices, while extensive, remains mostly undocumented and unexplored. However, recent work has shed much light on this subject, and new ingredients are emerging for modern-day use. (11)


Alkaloids are biologically one of the most potent yet least-utilized ingredients in cosmetic applications. Sarpagine and related indole alkaloids have shown very diverse and interesting biological properties that are widely dispersed in 25 plant genera, principally in Apocynaceae. Antimicrobial property was reported in a study of six medicinal plants (Alstonia macrophylla, Claoxylon indicum, Dillenia andamanica, Jasminum syringifolium, Miliusia andamanica and Pedilanthus tithymaloides) traditionally used by Nicobarese tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (11)

A total of 115 newly isolated sarpagine-related macroline and ajmaline alkaloids have been identified. The topical application of vasodilatory activity of these alkaloids, especially more abundant sarpagine, awaits further study in topical wound healing, hair restoration and lip plumper (possible taste concern) formulations. (11)

Native Peruvian Plants

Traditional Peruvian medicine uses more than 1,400 plant species; however, only a few have undergone scientific investigation, among which are Smallanthus sonchifolius (yacon), Croton lechleri (sangre de grado), Uncaria tomentosa/U. guianensis (una de gato), Lepidium meyenii (maca), Physalis peruviana (aguaymanto), Minthostachys mollis (muna), Notholaena nivea (cuti-cuti), Maytenus macrocarpa (chuchuhuasi), Dracontium loretense (jergon sacha), Gentianella nitida (hercampuri), Plukenetia volubilis (sacha inchi) and Zea mays (maiz morado). (12,13)

Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, wound healing, antifungal and antiviral activities have been reported. (14) Isopteropodine has been reported as the most potent antibacterial agent from Una de Gato, which deserves further attention in topical applications such as skin anti-aging, acne and antibacterial wash preparations. (14)

Salamina Maroon Community, Brazil: Malva Branca Sedosa (Sida cordifolia).

The Salamina maroon community (Brazil) possesses knowledge of the medicinal value of the local flora from the tropical forests. Their pharmacopoeia is a hybrid mix of wild and cultivated species; most are associated with spiritual and magical medicine. Among 118 medicinal plant species distributed in 100 genera and 51 families, Sida cordifolia was one of the most used herbal medicines for skin problems. (15,16)

Among more than 142 chemical agents isolated from Sida cordifolia, vasicine and its derivatives have shown potent anti-inflammatory, free-radical scavenging, antimicrobial, antifungal, enzyme inhibitory and anti-lipid peroxidation activity, potentially applicable in skin anti-aging formulations. (17) Sida cordifolia extracts have shown topical antinociceptive properties, which may be useful in topical pain relief compositions. (18)

Aboriginal Tribal Medicine from Boreal Forest, Canada

Native people in boreal were established between 20,000 and 5,000 years ago. With about 1 million people in 600 communities across the country, the boreal is home to 80% of First Nations people in Canada. Ojibwa women from Superior's northern shore wrapped newborns in the skin of a rabbit and diapered them with sphagnum moss collected from the forest floor. Algonquian women gathered berries from the understory. The aboriginals regard the forest as critical to their cultural survival as indigenous people. Their traditional cultural beliefs hold that land and life should be viewed as a whole, reminiscent of Buddhist philosophy that people should live in harmony with their environment.

The boreal forest is the largest forest ecosystem on earth. It is actually 50% bigger than the Amazon rainforest. One can only imagine natural resources yet untapped from the boreal.

Aboriginal people in the boreal forest of Canada have used medicinal plants for thousands of years. In a review, 546 medicinal plants used by the Aboriginal people of the Canadian boreal forest were reported to treat 28 disease and disorder categories, including 100 plants for dermatological applications. (19) Among those, Achillea millefolium and Tanacetum vulgare have been two of the most widely used plant species. (20)

In a testing of extracts, MMP-2 and MMP-9 inhibition, antioxidant, and antimicrobial activity was noted. Achillin, Leucodin, Matricarin, Epoxydesacetoxymatricarin, and a polysaccharide were identified as main components. (21) Extracts of Achillea were used to treat topical inflammation and wound healing. (22) Production and stimulation of human skin fibroblast cells by Achillea millefolium has been reported. (23) These findings clearly indicate application in skin anti-aging formulations. It is interesting to note that leucodine and related guaianolide lactones are also present in Chamomile tea, further indicating topical anti-inflammatory applications in skin care. (24)

Golden Nuggets from the U.S.

"Medicine men" (or women), revered as "doctors," performed healings in Native American medicinal tradition. Before treating a patient, the medicine man diagnosed the ailment. A medicine man then administered a natural materials-based (mostly herbal) medicine to treat the condition. Ritual purification may have been performed, which was intended to rid the body of harmful toxins. Herbal concoctions were used for such healing rituals.

The ethnobotany of Native American communities is quite extensive. (25) Most of these botanicals have traditionally been used for the treatment of various illnesses and ailments. Today, their topical applications are becoming increasingly known in view of modern science. There is a plethora of information available on chemical constituents of botanicals from the desert southwest, a comprehensive inclusion of which is beyond the scope of this article. However, a few nuggets serve as examples.

Anemopsis californica (Yerba mansa, Lizard Tail): Pima, Mayo, Yaqui, Mexican, Chumash, Shoshone and other tribes have used Yerba mansa. A number of fungal endophytes from the roots of Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), a botanical traditionally used to treat infection, have been identified. Potent antimicrobial activity of several active constituents has been reported. (26) Among those, equisetin has shown antimicrobial activity even against penicillin-resistant bacteria, which offers an opportunity for effective topical skin care compositions. (27)

Penstemon ambiguus (Sand Penstemon, Cows Tobacco): The Dine (Navajo) used it to increase recovery rate of open flesh wounds by inhibiting inflammation. Several iridoid-class of compounds, such as catalpol, have been identified that have shown potent anti-inflammatory activity due to their Cox-1 and Cox-2 inhibition. (28)

Creole Folk Medicine: Creole have used plant-based therapies throughout their history. An interdisciplinary approach focusing on cultural anthropology, botany, biochemistry and endocrinology has been developed to screen native southwest Louisiana plants. (29) Gene-expression study of extracts obtained from several plants for inflammatory markers revealed Baccharis halimifolia (Groundsel Bush), Croton capitatus (Goat Weed), Saururus cernuus (Lizard's Tail), and Persea borbonia (Red Bay) to have strong anti-inflammatory activity. This further confirmed the records of Creole folk medicine for the use of Lizard's Tail and Red Berry as treatments for inflammation. (29)

Saururus cernuus, widely used for medicinal purposes in Creole history, contains a plethora of interesting bioactive compounds for topical applications. Neolignans, recently discovered in Saururus cernuus, have promising hypoxia-modulating activity that may be useful for the management of topical inflammation. (30) Molecular oxygen is required for aerobic metabolism and as an electron acceptor in many biochemical reactions. Shortage of oxygen (hypoxia) occurs in a variety of pathological conditions, including stroke, tissue ischemia, inflammation and tumor growth.

Formulation Strategies

A complex array of chemical structures of active agents obtainable from tribal and aboriginal resources requires a careful selection of formulation ingredients to assure their maximum topical delivery and optimal product stability. Although a detailed discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article, references are available. (31)


The native and aboriginal medicine practiced since ancient times, irrespective of its geographic place of practice or origin, interlinks a holistic trio of body, mind and environment. The herbal and other nature-based treatment methods, whether ingested, topical or inhaled are now being better understood via modern science. The application of newly discovered active agents in the development of skin care and other topical products await their commercial availability.

By Shyam Gupta, PhD

Bioderm Research

Shyam Gupta is an international consultant in innovative topical and skin care products based on new ingredients and delivery systems with more than 100 patents, patent applications, cosmetic publications, and book chapters specializing in consumer desirable nature-based formulations with incomparable efficacy and performance attributes. He can be reached at 602-996-9700;;


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Author:Gupta, Shyam
Publication:Household & Personal Products Industry
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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