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Out of the many, many skin care ingredients that constantly flood my inbox and Instagram, saffron is one that I’ve personally noticed popping up more often. Yes, I'm talking about the same bright red spice that your favorite Indian joint uses to season their rice. This somewhat sweet and nutty-tasting spice also happens to be the most expensive in the world, and it’s been lauded for its medicinal properties for centuries—and it turns out that some of the same properties that give this spice its total-body benefits can also brighten, calm and protect your skin.
To find out more about the skin-boosting benefits of saffron, including whether or not I should be slathering it all over my complexion (or if I can even afford to), I spoke to board-certified dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali and Shrankhla Holecek, founder of Ayurvedic skincare line Uma Oils.
Meet the Expert
- Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. He is internationally recognized as an expert in the fields of cosmetic and medical dermatology, and is a media advisory member for the American Academy of Dermatology.
- Shrankhla Holecek is the founder of Uma Oils and an expert in Ayurvedic and holistic medicine.
What is saffron?
Saffron is a very rare Ayurvedic spice, which is precisely what makes it so costly. “Saffron is actually the tiny stigmas, or stems, from the crocus sativus, a flower in the Iris family,” explains Shrankhla Holecek. “Approximately 170,000 flowers yields about one pound of saffron, which speaks to why it's so expensive.”
Another reason for its high price tag: The plant can only be harvested for two weeks out of the year, and each saffron flower has to be hand-picked.
Typically, saffron is used in cooking, wherein it gives food a bright yellow-orange tint, but it's also used around the world in fabric dyes and perfumes.
Why is saffron beneficial for skin?
When eaten, saffron’s health benefits are impressive and wide-ranging—and the same goes for your skin. This tiny red flower has so many beneficial properties that it’s actually difficult to list them all. For starters, saffron is chock full of antioxidants, including vitamin C, and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It’s also rich in minerals, but its most notable healing property skin-wise lies in the carotenoids (which give it its bright color, just like carrots). Specifically, saffron contains two types of powerful carotenoids: crocin and crocetin.
“Carotenoids occur naturally in plants and aid in photosynthesis, [and] saffron is a great source for carotenoids,” explains Holecek. “They are believed to be effective in damage repair and ensuring overall cellular health, so they'll help skin recover from daily environmental, oxidative, sun damage [stress], healing everything from photodamage to loss of suppleness.”
But wait, that’s not all. When used topically, saffron also “promotes circulation, improves the appearance of scars, lightens hyperpigmentation, and reduces the appearance of under-eye circles and fatigue lines,” Holecek says.
Because it is an anti-inflammatory, saffron is also ideal for those with sensitive skin, explains board-certified dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali. “It’s a calming ingredient and provides great brightening properties,” he says. “As an antioxidant, it can protect against UV damage and pollutants that produce free radicals.”
In other words, saffron is an all-around healing powerhouse, both internally and externally. On the skin, it can brighten, protect and heal.
Who should use saffron skincare products?
Saffron boasts beneficial properties for all skin types, but certain types may benefit just a bit more. “Like most Ayurvedic ingredients, I like saffron for sensitive skin and those who need more calming products,” Bhanusali says, noting that oily skin types “may benefit from stronger acids and other high-powered ingredients.”
How to add saffron to your skincare routine
You’ll find saffron formulated into many different types of products, from masks to cleansers to serums, but per Holecek, you’ll reap the most benefit from a leave-on product (or at least a product that's left on for a few minutes, like a mask). “Given its preciousness and miraculous benefits, saffron is most used in skincare intended for leaving on the skin to promote ongoing repair,” she says. “It'd be cost prohibitive, and perhaps a little wasteful, to use it in a cleanser as it won't be on skin long enough to have all the impact it can have.”
The best products with saffron
Suitable for all skin types, this facial serum is packed with a hand-picked saffron that helps even skin tone, fade fine lines, and boost elasticity. It's also formulated with low molecular weight hyaluronic acid (for better absorption), peptides and amino acids.
The saffron in this fast-acting mask helps fade the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation for a brighter, more even-toned complexion. It also contains clarifying bentonite clay and sandalwood, which is said to calm the skin.
This super hydrating cream is ideal for those with dry or extra dry skin. In addition to saffron, it also contains a trio of omega oils (6,7 and 9).
If you're in the market for an ultra-fancy eye cream, look no further than this saffron-infused option from YSL. The entire YSL Or Rouge collection features saffron extract.
This lightweight misting toner actually contains saffron flower stem cells, plus rose and orange blossom to keep skin hydrated.