Borage (Borago officinialis) is an example of how appearances can be deceiving; this unassuming-looking plant hides many surprises. At first, borage does not appear particularly special. It is an annual plant that grows readily in most moderate climates, reaches a height of about 24 inches and usually blooms throughout the growing season. Borage is raised in some flower gardens, but is not generally considering to be very exciting: It has a mild cucumber-like scent and its blue flowers, while attractive, are not flamboyant. The blooms have long, separate petals (which gives the plant the common name "star flower") and produce enough pollen to attract a great number of bees (which gives it another common name, "bee’s bread"). The leaves are long, broad and covered with a fuzzy appearance (called trichomes), giving the plant another name, ox-tongue. In Central and Eastern Europe, the leaves are used in salads and occasionally in soups, although cooking soon breaks down the organic content, cucumber aldehyde, which gives them their cucumber-like flavor. The best-known culinary use of borage as an herb is in Grüne Sosse, a traditional cream sauce used on fish and meats in Frankfurt, Germany.
Yet, Borago officinialis is quietly famous. Grown commercially for its seed, the pressed oil has a gamma linolenic acid (GLA) level of at least 25%, much more than any other known plant oil. This is a far higher level than other oils derived from plants: Black cumin (Nigella sativa) has only 17%, black currant (Ribes nigrum) 14% and evening primrose (in the genus Oenothera) has less than 10%. The reason borage oil's GLA content is important is that, when absorbed into the system, GLA is converted into dihomo-gamma linolenic acid (DGLA), which actually inhibits the cause of the inflammatory response in human tissue. By working on the root causes of inflammation, DGLA can help counteract the effects of a range of skin conditions in which inflammation is a major component: acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis (also called cradle cap) and scalp folliculitis (inflammation of hair follicles). External causes of inflammation, such as wind chapping, over-exposure to the sun and even contact dermatitis in reaction to irritants can be improved with topical application of skin care products containing borage oil.
Of course, even without the conversion of GLA, the linolenic acid and the range of other fatty acids present in borage oil also provide excellent emollient effects. Skin tissues are hydrated and the moisture barrier efficiency is improved, to allow the tissue to retain moisture. Properly hydrated skin also encourages the growth of new, healthy skin cells. These benefits work well in tandem with use of the oil to treat dermatitis, as repair of the skin is an important follow-up to treatment of inflammation. Combined with its anti-inflammatory effects, the use of borage oil helps to normalize the appearance of skin, providing a smooth, youthful and healthy look. Borage oil also contains tannins, which provide an astringent benefit. This means that skin tissues are firmed and smoothed, helping to overcome the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. In addition, borage oil contains saponins, which have an anti-aging benefit, helping to improve skin tissue health in general. In addition to its use in skin care, borage oil is also used for other medical conditions. Its excellent anti-inflammatory properties make it a valuable treatment for the swelling of joints caused by rheumatoid arthritis.
Borago officinialis originated in the Middle East, probably in Syria. The name "borage" is derived from the Medieval Latin name borrago which, in turn, appears to come from the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq. This term can be translated as "father of sweat" and seems to refer to the Arab use of the plant to increase perspiration. The plant has been naturalized throughout the Mediterranean region (including North Africa), in most of Europe and even in parts of the Americas, all of where it is grown both as a decorative plant and, in some places, cultivated commercially.
Borage oil may cause an allergic reaction in some people and, in sufficient quantities, may cause premature labor. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also consult their physicians before using any topical skin care product or a supplement containing the oil. If use causes a skin rash or shortness of breath, discontinue use and consult a physician.