Is birch water the ingredient your skin’s been missing?
by Megan McIntyre
I stared apprehensively at the non-descript bottle of clear liquid in front of me. It’s just water, I admonished myself, stop being such a baby. Another voice countered that it was not quite that straightforward. It’s tree water, it snarked. From some random person’s backyard.
Why was I engaging in an internal debate over woodland water? Because I had volunteered myself as tribute to test out the beauty benefits of birch sap.
My skin, to put it nicely, is a brat. Hormonal acne has been the bane of my existence since I hit puberty, waxing and waning depending on my age, environment, time of year, and general stress levels. I have tried a lot of somewhat questionable treatments in my eternal quest for clear skin, from replacing my face wash with honey to subjecting it to repeated stamping with dozens of tiny needles. And, after a few months (if I’m lucky) of clarity and gunk-free pores, the acne always returns.
I have tried a lot of somewhat questionable treatments in my eternal quest for clear skin.
Because of this, whenever someone suggests a new method that might just help my skin, my ears perk up. And when that method also happens to be both natural and good for your whole body, I’m practically groveling at their feet to learn the secret. So when I was introduced to Monica Behan, the founder of a skincare line called Modicum, I listened intently to her suggestions on winning the war against blemishes. She said two simple words to me: birch water.
Behan’s line of no-frills products all contain sap from the birch tree. In fact, she sources hers from trees on her own land in upstate New York. Coincidentally, the area she lives in just so happens to be a scant 15 minutes away from the small town where I grew up, so I went to see the Modicum birches in person.
The “sap” from the tree comes out as a liquid, rather than the sticky stuff that you might associate with the word. She taps the trees for only three to five days in the springtime, when the leaves are just starting to open up. “That’s when water from the earth is transported up the trees, and it delivers all of the minerals and nutrients to support the leaves opening up,” she explains.
Now, it’s important to note that the birch tree isn’t exactly a new ingredient in skin care. “Plant extracts from birch are considered an all-around miracle treatment in my native Austria,” says Susanne Kaufmann, whose line of complexion products includes a detox oil filled with extracts from the tree. Other brands such as Weleda, Red Flower, and Kiehl’s also tout birch as a star ingredient.
But back to that water. As a holistic health expert, Behan discovered that Scandinavians drink birch sap as a natural way to keep cholesterol levels low. “I started tapping the trees and I felt amazing when I would drink it,” she notes. “And I noticed a difference in my skin.” She attributes that to the high levels of vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and something called MSM—methylsulfonylmethane. Studies have shown that these organic sulfur compounds have anti-inflammatory benefits and help fight the oxidative stress that can cause everything from acne to premature aging. It helps your body to produce the collagen and elastin that keep your skin firm, toned, and smooth.
Behan uses the majority of the water she takes from her trees in her line of products, but every year she also sets aside some to drink as a health tonic. She poured some of that water into bottles and advised me to drink four ounces of it a day to “heal” my skin. I took a tentative sip. It did not, in fact, taste like wood—it was a crisp, mildly sweet liquid that was pretty damn refreshing. I could have chugged the whole bottle, but Behan told me that while it wouldn’t cause any negative side effects per se, your body can only process so much of those essential vitamins and minerals. Therefore, it would be a waste to drink any more since you wouldn’t get any additional benefits. And there was no way I was wasting any of that precious liquid.
For the Modicum line, Behan had also just released a birch water face mist, which is made up of over 50 percent of the water. Since taking care of your skin is both an internal and external practice, I added the spritz to my routine. Might as well go all in, right?
My bottled water stash lasted for about two weeks. In that time, my skin pulled a complete 180. The breakouts and blackheads were visibly diminished, almost all of the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. those red marks left behind after a pimple) vanished, and my face had an almost ethereal glow about it. I wanted to go back to Behan’s house to get one of those five-gallon buckets of birch water and lug it back home with me.
Unfortunately, the water’s effects lasted only as long as I was drinking it. While using the products did make a difference in my skin quality, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as when I was also consuming the water. As Behan explained, your body absorbs nutrients different ways, which is why skin care is considered an inside-out treatment. Ingesting the good-for-you ingredients and applying them topically are going to give you the most bang for your clear-skin buck.
Sadly, Behan doesn’t have plans to sell her water commercially (although she also didn’t rule it out), so for now I’ll have to make do with spritzing my face with it. Or, at least until I figure out how to grow a birch tree on my NYC fire escape. Where there’s a will, there’s a way…