This Toxic Fruit Could Hold an Anti-Aging Skincare Breakthrough

It pumps up collagen, protects against UVB damage, and stitches up wounds.

woman making an appointment with a doctor doing cosmetic medicine.Doctor taking care of woman and do...
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People have done some pretty wild (and downright dangerous) things in the pursuit of everlasting beauty and youth. The ancient Greeks and Romans made facials out of crocodile poop, and Victorian women tightened their pores, brightened their complexions, and lengthened their eyebrows with radioactive mercury. To be fair, these bizarre skincare regimens seem almost tame considering that we, in the 21st century, smear actual blood on our faces (or bathe in it as one MTV: True Life contestant did) and inject ozone into our bottoms.

Of course, you don’t need to resort to vampiric means to zap your skin to youthful perfection. It could, new research suggests, be as easy as plucking an invasive weed straight out of your backyard.

In findings presented this month at a meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, researchers at Myongji University in South Korea found that the spiky fruit of the cocklebur, a summertime weed of the daisy family native to North America and naturalized in parts of Europe and Asia, contain chemical compounds that can spur collagen production, reduce skin damage from ultraviolet radiation (specifically UVB), and speed up wound healing.

“We found that cocklebur fruit has the potential to protect the skin and help enhance the production of collagen,” Eunsu Song, a Myongji University doctoral student, who conducted the research, said in a press release. “In this regard, it could be an attractive ingredient for creams or other cosmetic forms. It will likely show a synergistic effect if it is mixed with other effective compounds, such as hyaluronic acid or retinoic acid, against aging.”

Protect those mitochondria

While cocklebur has been used as an herbal medicine in China and other parts of the world for thousands of years, its potential clinical use has so far been investigated in treating cancer and arthritis, not so much for skincare.

At their lab at Myongji University, Song and her colleagues first set out to see if the chemical compounds in cocklebur fruit had any antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the skin.

The researchers took fruit extracts from cockleburs collected from both Korea and China and applied these extracts to human skin cells in Petri dishes. The cocklebur fruit extracts from Korea and China weren’t mashed together but tested separately, and a natural plant compound called nordihydroguaiaretic acid, normally found in creosote bush, was used as a control.

Right off the bat, the Korean cocklebur fruit extracts showed slightly more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity than their Chinese counterparts. However, both cocklebur fruit extracts appeared to protect cells irradiated with UVB by preventing the mitochondria, a cell’s energy powerhouse, from flipping the switch for programmed cell death, called apoptosis. But this protective edge seemed to be dose-dependent: When cells were given higher doses of cocklebur extracts upwards of 50 grams per milliliter, it seemed to, instead, encourage skin cell mitochondria to flip that cell death switch, reasons for which the researchers aren’t entirely clear.

The rough cocklebur, also known as the common cocklebur, is an invasive weed species prevalent in North America, Europe, and Asia.

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When it came to the plumping perks (because let’s be honest, that’s what we really care about), both Korean and Chinese cocklebur fruit extracts pumped up genes involved in hyaluronic acid production, a slippery, moisture-retaining goo your body produces that hydrates skin, cushions and lubricates joints and other tissues, and is also involved in muscle growth.

The extracts also stimulated collagen production and inhibited enzymes that break down collagen, called collagenase.

In Petri dishes containing chunks of the human epidermis (the outermost layer of skin), the cocklebur fruit extracts both helped in accelerating wound healing, although the Korean extract appeared to be more effective in wound closing compared to the Chinese one.

Great skincare benefits but toxic to humans

Since cocklebur is pretty widespread and easy to find literally anywhere, such as by roadsides, ditches, pastures, and crop fields, it wouldn’t be hard to make an anti-aging potion from the weed’s fruit. However, before you race off to your nearest ditch, know this: Cocklebur fruit is actually toxic to humans. “In its burrs, cocklebur fruit also has a toxic constituent, carboxyatractyloside, which can damage the liver,” said Song.

And, the optimal dose to see a skincare benefit isn’t exactly known (i.e., don’t try to DIY a cocklebur fruit lotion at home). “Cocklebur showed potential as a cosmetic agent by increasing collagen synthesis; however, it showed negative results with higher concentrations,” said Song. “Therefore, finding the proper concentration seems very important and would be key to commercializing cocklebur fruit extracts in cosmetics.”

It’s also not clear exactly which chemical compounds are the heavy players and the exact biological mechanisms they’re using. It’s important to note these findings are based on experimental findings in human skin cells, not actual humans, so we’d need to see if the science holds up. That’s the next stage of research, along with animal testing, to find ways to safely use cocklebur fruit extract without harming us.

Because in the pursuit of everlasting beauty and youth, safety has to come first.

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