In nature, chlorophyll is a green pigment present in plants which allows the absorption of light from the sun. The function of chlorophyll’s molecules within the plant is to use the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen.
Chlorophyll is essentially the essence of a plant’s “greenness”, and since the fact that green vegetables are healthy is common knowledge among the public, it’s dead easy to sell as a health supplement. Chlorophyll supplements have been sold as internal deodorants, blood purifiers, detoxifiers, and for many mystical purposes; some claim that chlorophyll contains the essence of sunshine and encourages healing.
Fans of chlorophyll dub it the ‘green blood of plants’ and believe that the molecular makeup is so similar to real human blood that chlorophyll can be turned into or used in transfusions as an alternative to real blood. Recently many acne patients are jumping aboard the chlorophyll train.
Will supplementing with chlorophyll enrich your skin, or will it simply enrich the manufacturer’s bank account? Read on and find out.
Moderate evidence for increasing antioxidants
In short: there’s no evidence that chlorophyll does much at all. It doesn’t beneficially affect insulin levels, DHT levels, oily skin, or collagen output, and has no effect on indirect factors such as sleep quality or stress hormone levels.
The only condition behind acne for which there is anywhere near decent evidence is oxidative stress, AKA the balance between antioxidants and free radicals. For example, there’s this study which examined whether certain foods could protect against cancer-causing by-products from fried food.
As you might know if you read the newspapers, fried foods are far from the healthiest meals in the world because cooking with cheap vegetable oils leads to them going rancid and generates tons of free radicals, and additionally, coking meat proteins tends to warp them and also generate free radicals. Frying foods unprofessionally can cause cancer, damage to DNA, damage to colon tissue and so on.
Hence, scientists in the study fed human subjects fried meats but alongside yoghurt, chlorophyll, and cruciferous vegetables to determine whether they had a protective effect. They did: there was less DNA damage to colon tissue among those who ate the protective foods. Free radicals are a major villain behind DNA damage; hence this is a clue that chlorophyll may protect against them…
Then there’s this study which discovered that chlorophyll can protect against cancer-causing carcinogens which are capable of damaging DNA and tissues. There’s a certain family of carcinogen called pro-carcinogens which to begin causing cancer, must first be metabolised into active carcinogens by enzymes belonging to the so-called cytochrome P450 family.
Apparently, chlorophyll may lessen the activity of those cytochrome P450 enzymes, meaning that many pro-carcinogens don’t end up causing harm. Theoretically, that should prevent acne since a large proportion of carcinogens generate free radicals and deplete antioxidants as well.
Finally, “detox supplement” is the default label advertisers use when they want to sell a natural, herbal, or alternative medicine supplement, but there is actually some truth to the rumours that chlorophyll can massively accelerate the human body’s detoxification pathways. Human detoxification has three stages. Phase three is where the toxins finally get removed. Phase II detoxification involves enzymes binding to and degrading toxins in a manner that promotes and permits their later elimination from the body.
According to this study, chlorophyll can increase the activity of the phase 2 detoxification enzyme known as quinone reductase. This clears acne through an extremely indirect mechanism. The main antioxidant which humans manufacture themselves, glutathione, also functions as a phase 2 detoxification enzyme. Hence, if you increase the activity of quinone reductase, your limited glutathione stocks will be under less pressure to remove toxins, and you will have more glutathione free to protect against acne by hoovering up free radicals.
The evidence is flawed
Study one used yoghurt and cruciferous vegetables as a protective agent against the free radicals at exactly the same time. Whether chlorophyll was really responsible is thus shrouded in mystery. One study = useless.
The second study, on pro-carcinogens, has been used by some marketers to claim that chlorophyll can prevent cancer, but for acne patients the study only shows that chlorophyll can prevent a very narrow subset of carcinogen exposure, itself a very narrow subset of total free radical exposure. Finally, study three is also quite insignificant; an increase in quinone reductase will make little difference to acne overall.
In essence, there are no unequivocal studies proving that chlorophyll exposure can improve the all-important balance between free radicals and antioxidants, although we do have some interesting hints at it.
Marketers rely on people’s correct knowledge that dark green cruciferous vegetables are bursting with nutrition, but the fact is that vegetables have tons of other compounds and chlorophyll has never been demonstrated to be responsible. A plate of kale contains vitamin C, vitamin A, magnesium, calcium, omega 3s, sulphurous compounds like sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, and much more (note that kale is a terrific food for clearing acne).
In addition to possibly reducing free radicals, there is a study showing that chlorophyll can lessen chronic inflammation.
The scientists compared chlorophyll a, the natural version with a magnesium molecule in the centre, to the synthetic version chlorophyll b. Chlorophyll a managed to downregulate TNF-a, a major pro-inflammatory chemical. That’s good news since acne patients generally have higher levels of TNF-a. However, chlorophyll b, the form used in many supplements, had a much weaker inflammatory effect. Chlorophyll also had no effect on the inflammatory molecule cyclogenase-2, so its effects are limited compared to an all-conquering inflammatory powerhouse like turmeric.
Furthermore, that was the only study I could find. Evidence for the benefits of chlorophyll on inflammation and hence acne is severely limited. Many stories of history speak of the anti-inflammatory, soothing benefits of green leaves when applied to wounds. But see above; any compound in the leaf could be responsible.
Perhaps the only other feasible benefit is of some extra magnesium intake, as all natural chlorophyll molecules have a magnesium atom in the centre, to spark the photosynthesis process. But the amount is likely tiny; supplement companies tout the magnesium in chlorophyll a lot, yet broccoli, which is as green as any vegetable, contains only 4% of the RDA per 100 gram serving. Clearly, chlorophyll does not guarantee a massive magnesium content, and there’s no research showing tons of magnesium in chlorophyll supplements.
The official Supernatural Acne Treatment recommendation for chlorophyll supplements is: save your money! If you have money to burn on an item which will improve your acne, you’d get far more benefit and far more pleasure from a tasty box of blueberries or raspberries.
I’ve seen a couple of stories of benefits from chlorophyll on the internet, but in total, I’ve seen far more stories speaking of breakouts. Theoretically, chlorophyll is harmless, if useless, but many chlorophyll supplements are actually chlorophyllin, a synthetic version extracted using the neurotoxic solvent hexane. It’s possible that such contamination could trigger breakouts, and given the dodgy nature of the chlorophyll industry, many manufacturers involved probably don’t care about keeping their products clean.
Don’t fall for any of the other arguments either. The most ludicrous is the claim that chlorophyll can function as a human blood substitute.
It began with the research of Richard Willstätter, a German chemist who studied the chemical composition of chlorophyll in 1913 and found that its structure is very similar to that of heme, the oxygen-transporting part of hemoglobin in blood. Hence, proponents of chlorophyll claim that it can both purify the blood and even function as blood and hence increase oxygen delivery tissues.
These powers then extend across the body; chlorophyll is claimed to help food digestion, anaemia, and even skin disorders through increased delivery by blood. Again, many even claim that the molecular makeup is of chlorophyll and blood are so similar that chlorophyll can be used in transfusions instead of blood.
Don’t be fooled! It’s true that chlorophyll and heme are very similar at a molecular level. The main difference is that chlorophyll’s central atom is magnesium whereas in heme it’s iron. The iron in blood causes blood to absorb the whole light spectrum and reflect back only red, whereas chlorophyll absorbs the whole spectrum and reflects back only green.
The heme in blood has a sole purpose: to carry oxygen around your blood. Meanwhile the job of chlorophyll is create oxygen from sunlight. Some claim that chlorophyll could be converted to oxygen when it enters the body, but when ingested chlorophyll is broken down by the body’s digestive system into various by-products. It’s long gone before it can be converted, and furthermore, that conversion would never happen anyway!
It has an interesting logic to it, but chlorophyll cannot replace your blood. I think the whole story might be targeted towards iron-deficient vegans. They often face anaemia and blood problems from not eating iron due to the lack of animal foods in their diet, so a product which they could use to replace their blood with vegetable juice would have serious appeal.
It’s pretty easy to deduce where this chlorophyll craze started. After all it must be the cheapest supplement in the world to manufacture, given how many blades of grass there are on planet earth. There has to be a very smart and very rich businessman somewhere drinking tons of champagne and laughing his head off about the whole thing.
Nevertheless, don’t fall for it! There’s almost no evidence that chlorophyll can improve or prevent acne. Some also claim that chlorophyll can improve your health because it is alkaline and can balance out excess acidity…
…but any case you’d be much better off just eating real vegetables for acne, in which you’d get some chlorophyll and a ton of other acne nutrients too.
Thanks for reading!