Taking an alternative approach: how plants can be used to heal and beautify

We speak to two entrepreneurs about how plants and their by-products can contribute to our beauty regimes.

Plants from the herb garden at De La Mer Spa in Dubai, which grows thyme, mint, rose, papaya, rosemary, eucalyptus, aloe vera, lemon grass and strawberries. Alex Atack for The National
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Since ancient times, plants have been used to heal and beautify. We may tend our gardens predominantly for the aesthetic pleasure they bring us, or as a source of food, but many of the plants we grow also have applications for beauty and well being.

Aly Rahimtoola is the founder of Herbal Essentials, a home-grown skincare line that references the ancient principles of Ayurveda, one of the oldest holistic healing systems in the world. The Sanskrit word, Ayurveda, translates as “life knowledge” or “science of life” and its teachings, which were developed more than 5,000 years ago, can be applied to diet, exercise and nutrition.

Rahimtoola saw an opportunity to use these same principles for skincare and beauty. Skin is reflective of general well being. If you’re in equilibrium, your skin will look good. When things are off-kilter, this will manifest itself in your skin. Through Ayurveda, you can use nature, plants and natural ingredients to correct that imbalance.

See more: Ayurvedic plants found in the UAE

The skin is the body’s largest organ. As much as 60 per cent of what goes on our skin can find its way into our systems, where it can potentially accumulate. Rahimtoola figured that it would be better to use something that grows naturally in the environment (something that you might also potentially eat), rather than a product that is synthetically generated, which is reflective of current thinking on food and nutrition.

“What got me into this business, and the whole business of plants and using nature as a powerful force for beauty and for other things, is that it’s been around since the dawn of time. If you think about it, our antecedents did not have Google or Wikipedia telling them what to do – but they had good lives, knew how to look after themselves and were also, relatively speaking, healthy. How do you know to put cucumber slices on your eyes? Perhaps your mother or your grandmother did it? It’s intuitive that it’s refreshing, cooling and soothing.”

Seven years ago, Rahimtoola, who has a background in shipping, went on a mission to seek out a new recession-proof business venture, and had a chance encounter with an Ayurvedic guru at a local trade show. This led to his “light-bulb” moment. “It’s ancient wisdom; old is gold; if people are rediscovering these principles in nutrition, why not also for skincare and well being?” he says.

For example, the leaves of the neem tree are known in Ayurveda for their antiseptic properties; you can put a leaf directly onto a cut, and it helps to prevent infection. The philosophy behind the Herbal Essentials brand is based on activating the body to heal itself, and harnessing the powerful forces already inherent within nature.

As the name suggests, all the plants in the Herbal Essentials Himalaya range can be found growing in the Himalayas and surrounding areas, but for economies of scale and to take seasonality into account, plants for the skincare products are sourced from across the wider subcontinent, before being blended with Himalayan spring water during production, which takes place in Germany.

Rahimtoola might have founded his company as a hard-nosed business decision, but he speaks with passion about his subject, and is a real convert with a desire to read more and expand his knowledge of Ayurveda.

“I can genuinely see that this works,” he says. “I was speaking to a pharmacist at a training session a couple of years ago, and she was telling me about a gentleman who’d had very bad acne, and as a last resort he tried some of our neem-based products. It cleared up within weeks. It was at that point I realised that this was more than just a business; if you are helping people and getting that kind of feedback, then you are doing something good.”

Also specialising in plant-based treatments is the De La Mer Day Spa on Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai. It was founded by Sara Pirzad, in partnership with her mother, Moira, three years ago. The spa’s treatments use plant-based ingredients that it blends itself, using plants from an on-site spa garden.

When the family first took over the garden, it consisted entirely of sand. It was Moira’s husband who originally had the idea to cultivate it and harvest the plants for treatments at the spa. Thyme, mint, rose, papaya, rosemary, eucalyptus, aloe vera, lemon grass and, sometimes, strawberries are grown there now. (Unfortunately, the recent storms turned all the cucumbers to mush, but new planting is already underway.) The salon also makes its own coconut oil, and uses dried rose petals, almond derivatives and coffee grinds, among other things, in its treatments.

The plants and plant products are mainly used in wraps, scrubs, pedicures, facials, massages and hair treatments. It’s not only about what goes on the skin, it’s also about the scents of some plants, which are released during the treatment to affect the mood. The Pirzads like to vary the treatments according to the season and prevailing weather. Citrus is used to refresh, while thyme, eucalyptus and mint are mostly used in soaks for their antibacterial properties and the benefits for tired, aching feet. Strawberries are used in facials for their anti-inflammatory, exfoliating and brightening ­properties.

“We like to do these kind of treatments with our own blends, so that we know what is going into our products and what we are putting on the skin of our clients,” says Sara, who has a background in aromatherapy, as well as a degree from the CIDESCO international beauty therapy association. “These days, people are more aware of what they are putting in their bodies, as well as on them, and labels can sometimes be deceptive. This way we can be sure and can show our clients exactly which elements we are using.”

Natural blends

Organic salt scrub from De La Mer Spa

This scrub is invigorating, energising and hydrating. Salt and sugar provide the key exfoliating ingredients, so should be added at the end of the process, once the other products have been thoroughly blended. Note: the ratio of plants to scrub will depend on personal preference.


• Thyme leaves (stripped from the stalks)

• Mint essential oil (the leaves can also be used)

• Eucalyptus essential oil

• Sweet almond oil (add to bind)

• Sea salt

• Sugar

Rosemary-and-mint scrub from De La Mer Spa

This scrub is refreshing, stimulating, restorative and relaxing.


• Dried rosemary leaves

• Peppermint essential oil

• Sweet almond oil (add to bind)

• Sugar

Ayurvedic honey-and-lemon mask from Herbal Essentials

This mask will help to fade blemish scars or marks and brighten skin. Blend and apply onto a cleansed face. Leave for 10 minutes, rinse with cold water, and pat dry with a clean towel.


• 1 tbsp of organic honey

• 3 to 5 drops of fresh lemon juice

• 1 tbsp of besan or gram flour

• A pinch of turmeric

• Rose water

Disclaimer: While every care is made to ensure that these recipes can be made at home and are suitable for all skin types, it's recommended to first patch-test a small amount on skin to check for any adverse reactions. Each person's skin type can be affected by ingredients in a different way. For example, a very small proportion of people may have an adverse reaction to honey.