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st johns wort

How to Make St. John's Wort Oil and Skin Serum

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Facial serums are silky and light oil-based preparations that are used to nourish and protect the skin. A few years ago, I created a self-heal serum recipe that I used for years. Last year I decided it was time for a new recipe.

About that same time I was doing research for an herb monograph on St. John’s wort for HerbMentor.com. As part of the research for that article, I talked to several people who had used St. John’s wort topically to address pre-cancerous cells. I was intrigued! In my youth, I was not always careful about avoiding sunburns, and there was a time when I lived in the Dominican Republic where I got lots and lots of sun on my skin for many months.

Using St. John’s wort oil topically to protect my skin seemed like a great idea. 

St. John’s Wort and the Sun

Often blooming around the summer solstice, St. John’s wort has a poetic and complex relationship with the sun.

In modern times, St. John’s wort is often pigeon-holed as the “depression” herb. While there are an impressive number of clinical trials focusing on using the herb for depression, for many herbalists (myself included), St. John’s wort is a minor herb for depression. When I think of St. John’s wort, I first think of its ability to address viral infections like Herpes simplex or to abate nerve pain like sciatica.

It is also known for protecting the skin against sun damage.

However, there is a degree of controversy surrounding St. John’s wort and its ability to protect people from the sun vs. increasing the negative effects of the sun. As is often the case, the reason for the controversy stems from complexity.

Many herbalists use an infused oil of St. John’s wort topically to protect their skin from the sun, as a mild sunscreen of sorts. This protective action can probably be attributed to St. John’s wort’s excellent anti-inflammatory and vulnerary effects. However, there have been several case studies showing that internal use of St. John’s wort increased photosensitivity, leading to blisters and severe burns.

After using this plant regularly for over a decade and reviewing this literature, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Regular internal use of St. John’s wort in whole-plant form (tea or tincture) does not appear to cause photosensitivity.
    Internally using large amounts of hypericin, an isolated constituent of St. John’s wort, increases the likelihood of experiencing photosensitivity.
  • When cows eat pounds and pounds of St. John’s wort, they experience severe negative effects. (This is why St. John’s wort is considered a noxious weed in much of the western United States.)
  • Topically using St. John’s wort infused oil can be a mild protectant from the sun. However, it would be ill-advised to attempt this on someone with fair skin who is suddenly getting unusual amounts of sun exposure.

Be aware that there are reports from herbalists of people using St. John’s wort in normal amounts who have experienced photosensitivity. I think it’s prudent to keep this in mind and to slowly test out someone’s personal level of sensitivity.

Modern clinical trials have verified that a cream made from St. John’s wort has the ability to protect the skin from the harmful effects of sunburn. In this study, the UV-protective effect of the St. John’s wort cream was tested on 20 volunteers in a randomized, double-blind, vehicle-controlled study. The herbal cream was found to significantly reduce UVB-induced erythema as opposed to placebo.1

How to Identify St. John’s Wort

There are many different species of St. John’s wort. Most herbalists use Hypericum perforatum, but I am told that any St. John’s wort that stains your fingers red when crushed will work. There are many ornamental St. John’s worts that will not work, so be sure to give the finger crush test.

Hypericum perforatum is native to Europe and parts of Asia but has now spread throughout the temperate regions of the world.

It’s an herbaceous perennial plant that likes to grow in sunny fields, but also enjoys getting a fair amount of moisture from the earth. I often find it growing in the gravelly sand beds of rivers or wet meadows.

It can grow anywhere from one to three feet in height. The yellow flowers are radially symmetrical with five petals. They have an obvious superior ovary with many stamens.

The “perforated” leaves give this plant its species name. If you hold a leaf up to the light, you’ll see tiny black “holes” or oil glands in the leaf, giving it a perforated appearance.

If you are unable to find St. John’s wort growing wild near you, you can often order it fresh from herb farmers or wildcrafters. Another option is to buy St. John’s wort infused oil from an herbalist or a company like Mountain Rose Herbs.

How to Make St. John’s Wort Oil

When making a St. John’s wort infused oil you need to use the fresh or freshly wilted plant. I wouldn’t waste your time using dried St. John’s wort for oil, because it simply won’t work.

I like to make an especially potent St. John’s wort infused oil by only using the young flower buds before they have opened. If you don’t have access to a lot of St. John’s wort, then you can also use the flowering tops including the uppermost leaves.

To make the infused oil, I pick the buds from the plant and put them in a half-pint canning jar. I lightly pack the buds in the jar, filling it almost to the top. I then fill the jar with oil. For the facial serum recipe, I prefer to use jojoba oil because it is nourishing for the skin and it has a light, non-greasy feel. You can use any carrier oil of your choosing.

Once you have the fresh St. John’s wort and the oil in the jar, stir it well and cover it with a tight fitting lid. While the flower buds are infusing, I place the jar in the sun.

Visit the oil every day for several weeks to make sure all plants parts are below the surface of the oil. Some herbalists think that placing an oil in the sun increases its degradation, but while that rationally makes sense, I have always done St. John’s wort oil like this and have never experienced problems. In researching this article, I read that King’s American Dispensatory even recommends the solar infusion method.

After several weeks, once the oil has turned to a brilliant dark red, strain off the flowers. The resulting oil can be used as is, or in the decadent recipe below.

Also note that although the oil is often infused in the sun, once the herb has been strained off, it is best to keep it in a dark, cool location.

Here are the essential oils and extract that we will be adding to the facial serum:

Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum)

Also known as everlasting or immortelle, this essential oil is well known for its ability to support skin health, reduce inflammation, and reduce pain. Herbalists commonly use helichrysum for minor injuries, such as bruises and contusions, and we also frequently use it for scars. This is an expensive essential oil. I use it sparingly and a small bottle has lasted me for years.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

One of my favorite essential oils because of its lovely scent, lavender is also a wonderful choice for protecting and healing the skin. It has a long history of use for healing burns as well as infections.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Antioxidant Extract

Rosemary antioxidant extract contains rosmarinic and carnosic acids, both extensively studied for their antioxidant qualities.23 Product makers often use it in cosmetics to increase the shelf life of natural products. You can find rosemary antioxidant extract at herbal apothecaries.

St. John’s Wort Face Serum

This face serum combines several sources of oils, extracts, and essential oils to create a deeply nourishing and restorative oil for the skin. I use it both morning and night on my face, neck, and shoulders. This blend is also ideal for healing scars.

What you’ll need…

  • 2 ounces fresh infused St. John’s wort oil (see above for instructions)
  • 1 teaspoon rosemary antioxidant extract
  • 12 drops helichrysum essential oil (optional)
  • 20 drops lavender essential oil (optional)
  • Need herbs? Visit Mountain Rose Herbs.

This post is sponsored by our friends at Mountain Rose Herbs.

  1. Add all the ingredients to a glass measuring cup with a pouring spout. Stir well.

  1. Pour the mixture into a 2-ounce glass jar. Cap with a lid. I prefer using a treatment pump bottle so I can easily dispense the oil. You could also put it in a traditional tincture bottle with a dropper, or any other small decorative bottle that seals well.

Yield: This recipe yields approximately 2 ounces of oil. With daily application it should last about 3 months.

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Rosalee de la Forêt

Written by Rosalee de la Forêt

Rosalee de la Forêt is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal and co-author of Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She’s a registered herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Explore Rosalee's website and podcastAll content and photos in this article are © Rosalee de la Forêt.

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