Sage (Salvia officinalis) is an herb which has been valued for centuries for its fresh scent, the peppery depth of flavor it adds to foods and for its special constituents which help to keep skin healthy and beautiful. Sage grows as a small perennial shrub, usually no more than 24 inches tall; the oblong leaves have a slightly rough texture and hair-like growths. It is a member of the mint family and is related to rosemary. The plant is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean region, but spread to northern Europe during Medieval times. It is now, of course, a treasured garden herb grown throughout the world. Salvia officinalis, usually called common sage or kitchen sage, should not be confused with Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, which has a similar scent), sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate, native to the plains region of North America) or Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa).
Sage has been used as both an herb for food flavoring and as a source of healing ingredients for more than 2,000 years. The earliest records of its use show that the Egyptians prepared a tea-like beverage from its dried leaves to increase fertility. The Romans apparently introduced the plant into Europe, where it quickly found favor as both as a culinary ingredient and as a medicinal plant. The scientific name for the genus, Salvia, is taken from the Latin word meaning "healthy" and is the root of the modern English word "salve," reflecting the curative value associated with the plant. Throughout the Medieval period in Europe, sage was credited with the power to heal almost every ailment. It was even an ingredient, along with thyme, rosemary and lavender, in "vinegar of the four thieves," a concoction believed to provide protection against infection by bubonic plague. It was considered such a valuable herb that it was perhaps the only “spice” that was traded to the Far East; during the 16th century, the Chinese would give four times as much of their precious tea for the same weight of sage.
While sage was valued in the Middle Ages for its healing powers, modern studies have shown that it does have a number of active ingredients which can confer benefits to human health. Leaf extract of sage includes a range of powerful and active ingredients. These include a type of phenolic acid called rosmarinic acid, as well as tannic, ursolic and caffeic acids. Constituents also feature cineole, borneol and thujone. Together, these ingredients provide a powerful combination of benefits for skin care. In particular, sage is shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. A little less dramatic, but still useful, effects include its use as a natural antiperspirant and insect repellent.
The cineole constituent in sage is a form of eucalypotol, a compound which provides a pleasant scent. When applied to the skin, it produces a gentle cooling sensation and has been shown to reduce inflammation. Rosmarinic acid also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent, providing a redoubling of this effect. As part of this combined action, topical application of sage extract can reduce skin pain while it helps heal tissues. Sage’s benefits as an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent make skin care products containing sage useful when treating dry, damaged and infected skin, such as acne, dermatitis and over-exposure to the sun. Several of the ingredients, particularly the tannic, caffeic and rosmarinic acids, are antioxidants which scavenge free radicals and provide anti-aging protection for the skin.
The value of the wonderful scent of the herb should not be overlooked. Sage is credited by aromatherapists as being mentally stimulating. It has been shown to be helpful to overcome depression and mental fatigue. Sage is often used in skin care and hair care products not only for its physical benefits but as a mood lifter.
Care should be taken not to apply the essential oil of sage directly to the skin. In concentrated form, the essential oil can cause contact dermatitis and irritate the eyes. This rarely presents a difficulty when present in skin care products, but if a skin rash develops during use a dermatologist should be contacted. Pregnant women should avoid using skin care products containing high concentrations of sage, as it may cause premature contractions.