This blog post is the part of a series I’m writing on cosmeceuticals and their biologically active plant-derived ingredients. This month we’re looking at a major constituent of chamomile called Bisabolol.
Bisabolol is very common ingredient in the cosmetics industry. You can find it in lotions, creams, aftershave, hair treatments, hand wash, mouthwash, toothpaste, sunscreen and lip gloss, to name but a few products.
Bisabolol – the Basics
Bisabolol or alpha-bisabolol is a natural monocyclic sesquiterpene alcohol. “Woah! What’s that?”, I hear you cry. Sesquiterpenes are compounds often found in essential oils. They often play an important role in plant defense and it is thought that plants evolved these compounds to protect themselves from fungal attack or animal grazing. So you can see how a sesquiterpene could be useful in a cosmeceutical skincare product if it can fight off fungal or bacterial infections.
How is it made?
Bisabolol is mainly found in German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), the plant with which it’s mostly associated. This chemical compound is also found in the essential oil from the bark of a small tree from New Caledonia called Myoporum crassifolium and in an oil steam distilled from the wood of the Candeia tree (Eremanthus Erythropappus) in Brazil. Despite the fact that bisabolol is mainly associated with chamomile, global production of natural bisabolol comes from the Candeia tree and this is where we encounter some environmental problems.
The best yields of bisabolol come from older Candeia trees that are at least 12 years old. A big tree of 40-45cm yields approximately 11kg of Candeia oil. Researchers estimate that to produce 100 tonnes of Candeia oil, it is necessary to harvest around 850ha of Candeia trees. It should therefore not come as a surprise that there is currently a worldwide shortage of naturally produced bisabolol.
Brazil has experienced significant deforestation over the last decades from the mining industry, coffee plantations and urban growth. Illegal logging of the Candeia tree, whilst a serious problem for the sustainability of this species, does not feature high enough on conservation agendas in the region as there are simply too many other issues higher up on the list demanding attention. Thankfully several small-scale NGOs are now working with farmers to set up reforestation programmes which is thought to be having an impact on the illegal logging of the Candeia tree (Clark et al, 2011).
A synthetic version of bisabolol is also available. However according to Hallstar.com, 1kg of natural bisabolol contains a minimum of 950g active bisabolol, while 1kg of synthetic bisabolol contains about half of that. You can see why the natural version is in high demand.
What does it do?
Bisabolol is a very clever little compound. It is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties, but is also antibacterial, anti-irritant, anti-fungal and non-allergenic (Kamatou & Viljoen, 2010). It promotes tissue regeneration (Thornfeldt, 2005).
Adding to its impressive range of functions, bisabolol works as a penetration enhancer and helps other molecules get across the top layers of the skin. One particular study found that skin pretreated with bisabolol made it up to 73 times more permeable for certain molecules (Kadir & Barry, 1991). This mechanism will obviously appeal to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries as it will help other beneficial compounds to get further down into deeper layers of the skin.
The final verdict?
This chemical compound is fantastic in cosmeceuticals. However, skincare companies that use it need to be careful that they are sourcing bisabolol from reputable suppliers. It’s likely that many manufacturers don’t know enough about their supply chain. If you want to make sure you are buying a cosmeceutical that hasn’t contributed to unsustainable forestry practices in Brazil, you might want to question your cosmetics manufacturer about their sourcing of bisabolol.
You could also avoid bisabolol altogether and instead stick with products that contain organic German Chamomile essential oil. German Chamomile can contain up to 50% bisabolol and also has some other fabulous compounds such as chamazulene which we’ll cover here soon.
References and Further Reading
Clark, A., Khweiss, N., Salazar, L., Verdadero, L. 2011. Promoting sustainability in the value of chain of natural bisabolol, a Brazilian rainforest product. School of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University.
Kadir, R. & Barry, B.W. 1991. Alpha-Bisabolol, a possible safe penetration enhancer for dermal and transdermal therapeutics. International Journal of Pharmaceutics Volume 70, Issues 1–2, 31 March 1991, Pages 87–94.
Kamatou, G.P.P. & Viljoen, A.M. 2010. A Review of the Application and Pharmacological Properties of α-Bisabolol and α-Bisabolol-Rich Oils. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society January 2010, Volume 87, Issue 1, pp 1-7
Thornfeldt, C. 2005. Cosmeceuticals containing Herbs: Fact, Fiction and Future. Dermatol Surg 2005; 31: 873-880.