Once best known in sprouted form thanks to a nationwide bout of ‘80s-era Chia Pet fever, ch-ch-ch-chia seed is currently enjoying a resurgence as a dietary darling and skincare superfood. “Chia is the real deal,” says Susanne Norwitz, founder of Maya Chia Beauty, a skincare line based on the tiny seeds. According to her, it delivers on its various claims of imparting radiance and moisturizing the skin.
It may be the ingredient du jour, but salvia hispanica is no flash in the pan—pre-Columbian Aztecs were using the seeds centuries ago as the basis for face and body paints, ointments, and medicinal infusions, according to Sage: The Genus Salvia. In modern times, Norwitz says, demand for chia has increased exponentially. Nick James, founder and CEO of Body Bliss concurs. “We’ve been using chia-seed extracts for a few years, but it’s just very recently that it seems to be gaining more attention as an ingredient,” he says. “It’s heartening that even in this day and age, there are still so many healing and beneficial botanicals hiding in plain sight.”
A flowering member of the mint family native to Guatemala and Mexico, the chia plant’s seeds are a wellspring of the omega-3 fatty acids (also known as alpha-linolenic acid, a kind of omega-3 found in plants) that help skin maintain healthy moisture levels, says Emilie Davidson Hoyt, founder and CEO of Lather. They also have 30 percent more antioxidants than blueberries, plus high levels of protein, vitamins A, B1, B2, and B3, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, niacin, potassium, and zinc, all of which, according to Norwitz, makes them one of the most nutrient-dense plant sources in nature. “It’s similar to placing a topical multivitamin and an omega-3 supplement on the face,” she says. “We knew that if it was great for taking internally as part of the diet, it must be great for the body’s largest organ—the skin.”
Moisturizing and nutritious, chia has also been known to help with issues ranging from eczema and acne to psoriasis and aging—and research has shown that it can relieve more extreme conditions as well. In 2010, a small study published in the Annals of Dermatology exploring the effectiveness of chia-seed oil on patients with end-stage renal disease found that topical use significantly diminished severe dryness and itchiness, thanks to marked improvements in the skin’s barrier function and hydration levels—with zero negative side effects to boot.
Not surprisingly, the qualities that make chia seeds valuable in a clinical context are the same elements attracting spa-industry insiders. “Because of the high concentration of alpha-linolenic acid and phytosterols in chia seeds, the oil they yield helps to prevent drying and scaling, which makes chia a classic ingredient for anti-aging and dermatitis,” says James. “It’s a great addition to the skin formulator’s arsenal.” Body Bliss chose to include the extract in products such as its 5 Seeds Extract Repairing Serum, a popular facial elixir that partners chia with millet, pomegranate, raspberry, and rosehip-seed extracts to build the skin’s moisture-retaining, regenerative powers. “Clients like the fact that it is purely botanical and very easy for the skin to assimilate, yet produces clear improvements in skin hydration and in slowing signs of aging,” says James. The serum features in the mini facial portion of the Shangri-La Body Treatment ($310, 1 hour and 40 minutes), a full-body indulgence ideal for mature, chapped, or sun-damaged skin at Spa Ojai at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa (CA). “The 5 Seeds serum has a strong impact on the skin in a short amount of time,” says assistant spa director Kate Morrison. “It has the healing and lasting effects of a mask that might be used in a longer facial experience.”
James is not the only one name-checking those fatty acids. “Omega-3s help strengthen cell membranes’ barriers, and good barrier function means water and nutrients can enter the cells while toxins are kept out,” says Hillary Peterson, founder and CEO of True Nature Botanicals. “When your cells are adequately nourished, skin glows.” The line’s nourishing Pacific Face Oil and Pacific Soothing Face Oil marry chia- and kiwi-seed oils with cold-pressed passion fruit and papaya-seed oils, because the extracts are “high in the antioxidants, vitamins, and essential fatty acids the skin needs to function optimally,” says Peterson. True Nature Botanicals’s chia-seed-rich face oils are a key component in the Pacific Ultimate Anti-Aging Facial ($180, 50 minutes; $240, 80 minutes) at Auberge Spa at Hotel Jerome (Aspen, CO).
Italian skincare brand [ comfort zone ] prizes the oil, too, but it also values the seeds in their natural state. As part of the line’s nutricosmeceutical Skin Regimen system, Juvenate Body Scrub matches chia seeds with cellular-oxygenating nasturtium extract to gently exfoliate and aerate the skin, while facial products like Hydra-Pro Booster and lip and eye balms feature a patented Longevity Complex that teams chia oil “with spinach extract to help fight glycation while improving cellular methylation and with maqui berry extract for extra antioxidant support,” says Jimmy Moss, director of sales and education. According to him, Skin Regimen products have been positively received. “Our renewing nutricosmeceutical products represent approximately 24 percent of our national sales,” he says.
Of course, before the oil even makes it to the marketplace, it has to travel from seed to bottle. According to a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, chia oil can be extracted one of three ways: With the help of hexane solvents, by cold-pressing the seeds, or via supercritical fluids. The yield, quality and content of fatty acids, level of antioxidants, and more vary with each method. Solvents reduce chia’s natural antioxidant levels and carry inherent health and environmental risks, the paper reports, while cold-pressing the seeds better preserves the antioxidants but doesn’t manage to wring out all of the oil. Supercritical CO2 extraction, a process that uses pressure to release the oil, results in optimal purity and the highest possible levels of alpha-linolenic and linoleic acids.
Like many other manufacturers, Norwitz favors the latter approach. “When chia is cold-pressed, oxygen is present throughout the process and causes the oils to start oxidizing immediately,” she says, but oxygen-free supercritical extraction “best protects and preserves the botanical properties of the plant. No oxygen means absolutely no risk of oxidation, which is particularly important for oils prone to turning rancid, such as chia.” Maya Chia only uses supercritical extractions, she says, so bestsellers like pure Supercritical Omega-3 Chia Face Oil and newcomers like The Super Couple, which pairs chia with a carotenoid antioxidant called astaxanthin, have a two-year shelf life.
Astaxanthin comes from the same microalgae plant that gives flamingos, salmon, and lobsters their bright pink color. According to Norwitz, when used in conjunction with chia, it helps reduce wrinkle size, improve texture and tone, and revitalize photo-aged skin. The pure facial oil is used in the Four Seasons Customized Facial ($160, 50 minutes) at The Spa at the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, where it can also be added to any massage as an enhancement for hair or body ($15). “Clients love the smell, feel, and glow they get from the nutrient-rich oil, especially in the dry winter months,” says spa director Jenny Bradley. “And maybe even more importantly, our therapists and estheticians are true believers in its benefits. They are the first to recommend and incorporate the oil into treatments, and its popularity in treatments leads directly to retail sales.”
Lather alchemists selected supercritical CO2 extracts for their Chia Seed & Passion Fruit Cleansing and Facial oils as well, combining the organic chia with sustainably sourced Brazilian marajuca (passion-fruit seed) oil for its omega-6 and vitamin C-rich content. “Since its launch a year ago, the facial oil quickly became one of our bestselling moisturizers,” says Hoyt. The oils feature in the Lather Facial ($150, 50 minutes), Radiant Facial ($190, 80 minutes), and Men’s Facial ($150, 50 minutes) at Lather Spa at the Modern Honolulu (HI). But it’s not just the “super-hydrating and nutritious” vitamins and minerals that appeal, says Shaana Melendrez, Lather’s director of spa and retail development—industry buzz also plays a role in these treatments’ popularity. “Guests love hearing that we have products with chia seed, because it’s such an interesting ingredient on the market now,” she says.
Tree Hut also took chia’s current prominence into consideration when developing its Oatmeal Scrub Pear & Chia Seed. The company was searching for a “food for skin” ingredient that would work with oatmeal, the product’s main player, and bring with it a little cachet, says brand manager Cindy Ramsey. “We looked at trending ingredients and found that chia seed provided that for us,” she says. “Chia seed is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that are important for skin regeneration.”
Meanwhile, estheticians at MajesticSpa at Majestic Hotel & Spa (Barcelona, Spain) are discovering that chia’s fame crosses international borders. The customizable Facial Treatment by Dr. Perricone ($133, 60 minutes), which features Perricone MD’s Chia Serum, has proven to be a crowd-pleaser. During the treatment, which includes a lifting massage, a hydrating blend of chia oil and fat-soluble nutrients and vitamins is applied to the face to firm the skin. “All of MajesticSpa’s treatments that use chia result in similar feedback that skin is noticeably rejuvenated, firmer, hydrated, and much more luminous,” says spa director Eva Crespi. Suitable for all skin types in facial and massage treatments alike, chia seeds are certainly making a splash. Incorporate them into your spa menu or add a related product line—either way, you won’t need to add water to watch your fan base grow.
Like the once popular chia pet, hair, too, can benefit from the nourishing ingredient.
Chia has proven to be such a successful ingredient for face and body that some companies are introducing it into their haircare lines. Body Bliss recently debuted its Coconut Kukui Hair & Scalp Serum, which couples chia with a gluten-free CO2 extract of wheat bran to help prevent inflammation and scaling of the scalp, while argan, kukui-nut, and virgin coconut oils improve the hair’s strength and luster. The product has already received a warm welcome at The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Key Biscayne, Miami. It’s a boon for dedicated haircare brands like Trissola as well, says president Lilly Balasanyan, who reports that sales of the company’s Chia Smoothing Oil have been so “amazing” that she’s expanded the line to include Chia Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner, with plans to launch a curl cream by the middle of this year. The serum’s lightweight formulation hydrates, nourishes, and protects the hair for increased shine and manageability, says Balasanyan, and “clients love the fragrance and the fact that it absorbs without making the hair oily.”
Check out these products, which incorporate chia seeds, one of nature’s richest antioxidants.
1. Body Bliss Original Face 5 Seeds Extract Repairing Serum: This natural, organic serum contains chia seeds and supercritical CO2 extracts of millet, pomegranate, raspberry, and rosehip seeds. It delivers the perfect balance of essential fatty acids and phytosterols needed to regenerate the skin so it retains moisture better. www.bodybliss.com
2. [ comfort zone ] Skin Regimen Juvenate Body Scrub: This rich scrub featuring a creamy formula filled with chia seed granules helps to detoxify and re-oxygenate the skin. When massaged into the skin, the seeds release omega-3 fatty acids. www.comfortzone.it
3. Herbivore Face Elixir: Hydrate and restore skin with this nourishing elixir that contains a powerhouse of facial oils, including organic argan, golden jojoba, and rosehip. www.herbivorebotanicals.com
4. One Love Organics Oh Mega Calming Chia Oil: Perfect for all skin types, this oil offers antioxidants, a superior level of omega-3s, and a probiotic complex to promote strong and healthy skin. www.oneloveorganics.com
5. Lather Chia Seed & Passion Fruit Cleansing Oil: This gentle plant-based cleanser dissolves and sweeps away makeup, dirt, and impurities, while nourishing, moisturizing, and soothing skin with omega-3 alpha-linoleic fatty acid. www.lather.com
6. Latínoil Chia Oil Hair Treatment: Rich in antioxidants and omega fatty acids, this nourishing and repairing oil treatment helps deeply moisturize hair, seal split ends, and restore capillary fiber to the hair. www.latinoil.com
7. Maya Chia The Super Couple Astaxanthin + Chia Ultra Luxe Face Oil: This serum contains a powerful combination of astaxanthin, supercritical chia seed oil, and complementary plant actives that combat free radicals, improve skin texture, and illuminate dull and tired skin. www.mayachia.com
8. Sonoma Naturals Chia Oil Serum: Reduce skin inflammation with this oil, which is rich in antioxidants, humectant properties, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins. It provides deep hydration and free radical protection. www.dermapeuticsinc.com
9. Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil: Decrease the signs of sun damage, scarring, and hyperpigmentation with this oil that contains a gentle blend of moisturizing botanical oils including avocado, blue tansy, chamomile, and chia seed to calm the skin and relieve flakiness. www.sundayriley.com
10. Tree Hut Oatmeal Scrub Pear & Chia Seed: Ideal for sensitive skin, this scrub blends chia and ground oatmeal with aloe, cocoa butter, and organic shea butter to gently exfoliate and soothe skin. www.treehutshea.com
11. Trissola Chia Smoothing Oil: This serum’s lightweight formula hydrates, nourishes, and protects hair for increased shine and manageability, without making it oily. https://www.facebook.com/Trissola/
12. True Nature Botanicals Pacific Face Oil: Featuring a blend of therapeutic seed oils, including chia, kiwi, and papaya plus potent marine antioxidants, this oil helps to restore the top layers of skin and maintain the integrity of the hydrolipidic barrier function. www.tnbotanicals.com