Indonesian jamu, Korean hanbang, traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda. The most ancient medical systems in the world are rooted in healing the body, soul and skin through traditional, fruit-of-the-earth medicine. Believed to have originated up to 5,000 years ago, they all share similar philosophies to remedy and rejuvenate from the inside out, through the art of blending natural ingredients into tonics and topical treatments, with key differences being the diversity of natural, native plants that have been passed down the generations. Beyond feeding the soul, these superfoods have evolved over the centuries, making their mark in some of history’s first beauty products and today, powering some of the most cutting-edge skincare formulas and refined ingestibles that bridge the gap between time-honoured traditions and elevated wellness rituals.
Going back to our roots
According to Dr Rupali Gondhalekar of Om Vedic Heritage Centre: “Ayurveda believes that everything in the universe, living and nonliving, is made of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. These five are further grouped into three metabolic types, or tridoshas, which form the life forces or energies of our body: vata, a combination of air and space responsible for the body’s movements and mobility; pitta, for fire, which takes care of digestion and metabolism; and kapha, where water and earth provide structure, deliver nutrients and nurtures stability.”
Any imbalance in these three doshas can lead to health or skin conditions like organ disorders, menstrual irregularities, eczema, psoriasis and even dandruff—all of which can be treated by Ayurveda therapies available at the centre, like warm oil massages and shirodhara, which is the ritual of dripping medicated oil on the forehead.
One of the key staples in their concoctions is ashwagandha. “Ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, is one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicines,” affirms Gondhalekar. “It is a rasayana (tonic) because of its rejuvenating, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, with the ability to boost immunity, alleviate stress, calm nerves and enhance physical-mental stamina too.” This unique root has risen as a superhero ingredient in modern skincare formulas over the last few years, taking centre stage in Dr Dennis Gross’s B3 Adaptive Superfoods range, which is powered by vitamin-rich niacinamide to reduce hyperpigmentation, superfoods like goji berries to brighten and reduce redness, and a host of potent adaptogens including cordyceps, macca root and ashwagandha, that together, help to revitalise stressed-out skin, reduce fine lines and lock in moisture.
Similarly used in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine to benefit circulation, treat ailments and promote vitality, ginseng has seen a resurgence in various configurations, from easy-to-consume sachets of and scalp-stimulating Ryo shampoos, to complexion-revitalising elixirs that have been 60 years in the making. Korean ginseng has powered Sulwhasoo’s beauty science and research for six decades, with the fifth-generation Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream EX reigning supreme thanks to exclusive ingredient, Ginsenomics. Sulwhasoo scientists tested 30 types of saponins, also known as ginsenosides, before discovering an extremely rare, active one, Ginseng Saponin, which is only found in trace amounts—one gram for every 1,000 grams of ginseng. Through proprietary Bio-Conversion technology, the brand was able to extract this precious substance, concentrating it 6,000 times to create Ginsenomics, which accelerates skin’s self-regeneration to restore elasticity and tautness. The moisturiser has also been infused with a ginseng peptide and peptide blend to amplify its efficacy with anti-inflammatory and skin barrier-strengthening properties, protecting and soothing against environmental aggressors that are key aggravators for skin.
At The History of Whoo, its Hwanyu Imperial Youth Eye Cream is a product of a treasured beauty recipe prepared with PalJinBoJeongDan, a complex formula consisting of 70 rare and rarefied raw ingredients available only to the royal family. And at the heart of it all is the entire body of an organic wild ginseng—from leaves to roots—which contains a robust amount of saponin, minerals, amino acids and polyphenol that instantly brighten, lift and deeply hydrate, proven to increase the activation of skin and stem cells while repressing the decomposition of collagen by 122 percent. An elaborate and traditional method where ingredients are heated for 100 hours in ceramic is used to preserve and increase their concentration levels to cultivate and enhance the efficacies of wild ginseng.
Products of nature
Touted as the caviar of the East, bird’s nest has long been known not just as a luxurious source of nutrition but also as a status symbol when savoured—or gifted—in premium, copious amounts. Who would’ve known that the humble swiftlet’s nest would turn into an imperial delicacy? According to Eu Yan Sang, which retails bird’s nest in dried, bottled and even face mask form, this all-in-one health food boasts a host of seriously good benefits, said to have high glycoprotein content and growth factors to help fortify a weak immune system, aid the recovery of ailments, and nutrify the body against chronic illnesses. Many studies have also shown that the delicate ingredient is rich in collagen and epidermal growth factor, the substance responsible for skin and tissue repair. It then comes as no surprise that many down a bottle or two regularly for plumper skin just as much as they do for better cognitive development and respiratory health.
“Usually the first signs of ageing appear on our faces. We believe that regular consumption of bird’s nest helps the skin maintain its elasticity and therefore delay the appearance of wrinkles. Many take bird’s nests regularly, too, as they believe that it can help their skin glow, while others take it as a health tonic as they believe it helps with asthma, dry cough, inflammation and bronchial ailments”, says Cieyou Lim, founder of NestBloom. When this epicurean beauty brand debuted in 2017, it took the industry by storm with flower-shaped sculptures made with 30 grams of freeze-dried, double-boiled bird’s nest, combined with rock sugar, almond milk and other ingredients like matcha and red ginseng. Each handcrafted bloom dissolves when hot water is added, melting into a naturally sweet and creamy, heart-warming treat. Lim adds: “As edible bird’s nests are mostly protein, our bodies need to break them down into amino acids to be fully digested. Cooking them to a soft consistency optimises the absorption process to reap the full health benefits”.
Another flying species that creates by-products prized in the health and beauty world are bees. These hardworking insects pollinate a massive range of flowers and food crops to produce three nutrition-rich active ingredients: propolis, which contains antiseptic characteristics to combat acne-causing bacteria, boost skin renewal and regulate oily skin; royal jelly, which soothes stressed skin, improves elasticity and stimulates collagen production for a firmer, bouncier complexion; and honey, an age-old beauty staple that empresses used to mix with ground orange seeds for a gentle exfoliating scrub.
Found in all of BSkin’s skincare offerings, these potent, bee-based active ingredients have been packed into its proprietary B2O complex that powers products such as the Eye Care Multi-Tasking Power Serum. Infused with Jeju spring water, this under- and around-the-eye elixir treats dark circles, fine lines, sagginess, pigmentation and dryness, while also creating a protective aqua layer over skin to soothe, replenish and lock in long-lasting hydration.
One of the most commonly reached for home remedies, aloe vera is a nutrient-rich plant with a wealth of therapeutic compounds and a long history of medicinal purposes, with the ability to thrive in some of the harshest climates worldwide. Gondhalekar explains: “Aloe vera is called kumari, which means beautiful young girl. It is used to treat issues young girls are facing, like pimples topically or menstrual problems when consumed—plus it balances all of the three doshas and is useful in tvak rog, or skin disorders, like psoriasis and acne with its deeply moisturising, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties that soothe sensitivities, repair damage, calm redness and fight acne-causing bacteria.”
Often compared to hyaluronic acid, aloe vera ticks more boxes as a natural humectant that draws moisture to the skin while supporting skin’s collagen and elastin production, aiding in exfoliation, and protecting against environmental damage as it boosts skin barrier function. This is why aloe vera can be spotted in some of the most luxurious formulas, including Chantecaille’s Vital Essence, which is chock-full of pure and powerful botanicals including soybean extract, cherry leaves extract and the viscous essence of aloe vera to deliver reparative, plumping and moisture-locking results.
The goji berry is yet another example of a modest fruit that packs a punch. Although native to China, goji berries—also known as wolfberries—have transcended the region to become widely cultivated and consumed around the globe. As a result, these little berries have been incorporated into tons of bestselling formulas, like Clarins’ Extra-Firming Energy, a day cream with coveted firming, radiance-boosting action thanks to its optimal concentration of organic, plant-based ingredients, like kangaroo flower extract to reactivate elasticity, mitracarpus that promise collagen synthesis, and superfruits including acerola seed extract to revive skin’s oxygenation process and goji berry extract that’s proven to stimulate skin’s energy.
Another product tapping into goji berries’ key benefits is Sigi Skin’s Bright Skies Gentle Gel Exfoliator. Designed to deeply exfoliate skin without the use of physical abrasives that risk over-exfoliating or even damaging complexions, this is formulated with nourishing skin barrier-protective botanicals, including vitamin-dense spinach extracts that promote skin cell turnover, pigmentation-lightening pumpkin extracts that are natural sources of alpha-hydroxy acid, and of course, goji berries. Founder of Sigi Skin, Xenia Wong, muses: “We advocate healthy living and healthy skin with carefully formulated skincare powered by highly potent botanicals and superfoods that are proven to be effective in tackling skin issues caused by urban lifestyles and environmental pollution. One such active ingredient is the goji berry. Not only do these hold the power to reduce hyperpigmentation and even out skin tones, these tiny but mighty berries also help accelerate collagen and elastin regeneration, have soothing effects, and infuse skin with a good dose of juicy hydration. It’s a superfood for the skin and soul.”