Spotlight On: Elemi — Could it Stop Aging?

Woman looking down in the mirror

Could elemi be the elixir of youth? OK, that might be a bit melodramatic, but one company’s researchers think that it could help to stop aging where it starts.

For the most part Elemi is a very under-researched plant extract, but it is used for a variety of things, ranging from treating coughs and stomachaches to flavoring soda. And it’s reported to have all kinds of herbal medical uses.

But Chanel Parfums Beaute filed a patent claiming that it might be anti-aging. Elemi can be found in products like Decléor Life Radiance Flash Mask ($42, amazon.com), claiming that elemi helps to promote microcirculation in skin.

Anti-Aging? It’s Possible!

If future research shows these preliminary findings are true, products like Decleor's Mask could keep you looking young.

If future research shows these preliminary findings are true, products like Decleor’s Mask could keep you looking young.

In 2009 Chanel Parfums Beaute Company filed a patent for elemi extract, claiming that it had anti-aging properties. To test this they did in vitro (i.e., in petri dishes, as opposed to in vivo, or in the body) tests on skin cells. The idea is that as one ages, the parts of the extracellular matrix — which include collagens, elastin, glycosaminoglycans, and fibronectin — have a decrease in interaction. This inevitable loss of activity over time causes skin to sag with age.

Chanel argues that other anti-aging techniques are inadequate because they don’t stop the problem at the source. They claim that instead of solely increasing cell proliferation, agents should be able to organize and firm the extracellular matrix as well. For instance, some treatments have been shown to increase the proliferation of elastin fibers within the skin, but have not been shown to make the elastin fibers organized into neat, orderly rows. This is an issue, because elastin becomes more disorganized with age – who wants faster-aging skin?!

In the case of elemi, Chanel points to Tensin-1, a phosphoprotein that helps bind cells to the extracellular matrix. Chanel’s researchers claim that they’ve discovered a decrease in the expression of Tensin-1 as we age. In their in-house tests on skin cells, elemi increased the expression of Tensin-1 (Chanel Patent). But so far I haven’t been able to find any in vivo tests that show that elemi increases the organization of Tensin-1 fibers when used on people’s skin — it is not certain from what is publicly available right now.

Elemi Might Help Formulations from Separating

In a study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology, elemi oil was combined with gum Arabic and orange oil to tests it emulsion levels, or how evenly it could mix with dissimilar substances. It was found that the elemi oil had a significant level of adsorption to oil droplets, meaning that it attached to and formed a thin protective coating around the droplets (International Journal of Food Science and Technology).

In some respects, this speaks to elemi’s potential in products. It’s a bonus that elemi could help emulsify dissimilar ingredients, making them work better in skin care formulations. 

Antibacterial: What Does Elemi Protect Against?

Ancient Egyptians often used elemi oil when embalming their dead, leading many to hypothesize that elemi oil is a great antibacterial agent. A study published in the Philippine Journal of Biotechnology found that elemi oil was particularly strong against E. coli and staphylococcus aureus, but had weaker protection against klebsiella and salmonella. The researchers concluded that this oil would be beneficial in pharmaceutical preparations for its antibacterial properties.

While this doesn’t mean that elemi will fight the bacteria that causes acne, P. acnes, it’s still a great antibacterial agent and future research might look into its effects on skin, wounds, and also how well it works as a preservative in products.

Could it Irritate Skin?

What makes elemi oil so iffy (aside from that lack of research), is that it contains limonene, which has been known to irritate skin. Specifically, studies have pointed to limonene being anti-proliferative (discouraging cell growth and multiplication) and inducing apoptosis (cell death). Moreover, oxidized limonene was shown to cause skin sensitivity and allergic reaction (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology).

However, limonene has also demonstrated chemo-preventive properties by preventing/reducing oxidative stress and inflammation (Human and Experimental Toxicology).  A study published in Biological Pharmaceutical Bulletin found limonene to be non-irritating/sensitizing, but also that it increased skin permeability, or the skin’s readiness to absorb substances. This can be good if you are applying moisturizing lotions or cleansers, but also can make you more susceptible to skin damage/infection/irritation but allowing bacteria and harsher cosmetic chemicals into the body.

Bottom Line 

Elemi oil could very well be an exciting new anti-aging ingredient, but there needs to be more research before we declare it a favorite here at FutureDerm. The lack of study is intriguing and caution-inducing — while elemi could have all kinds of novel uses, it could also have some unpleasant properties that could potentially make it a problematic skin care ingredient. Be sure to patch test new ingredients on a small area of skin and consider talking to your dermatologist before using them. And if you have a reaction, see your doctor.

We’ll be sure to keep you posted on an studies that come out about elemi!

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