Rooibos helps protect against skin cancer

People who spend a lot of time in the sun should consider using a skin care product containing rooibos extracts to prevent the development of skin cancer and to delay the onset of malignant tumours.

People who spend a lot of time in the sun should consider using a skin care product containing rooibos extracts to prevent the development of skin cancer and to delay the onset of malignant tumours.

This is one of the findings of a recent study in which normal and cancerous skin cells were analysed to determine how exactly rooibos extracts in skin care products such as soaps, sun creams and lotions help stop the development of skin cancer.

“Lower concentrations of rooibos extracts may be able to prevent the development of skin cancer by stopping the multiplication of cancerous cells and removing these cells by prompting them to commit ‘suicide’,” says Dr Tandeka Magcwebeba, who conducted the study as part of her doctorate in Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University.

“Once the skin has been exposed to the sun’s ultra violet (UV) rays, rooibos extracts will remove precancerous damaged cells and also block the onset of inflammation – the latter being one of the processes that promote the formation of tumours in skin.”

According to Magcwebeba, it is better to use rooibos extracts during the early stages of cancer development when they are more effective in prolonging the progression of cancerous cells into a tumour.

She says one of the major reasons why rooibos extracts are incorporated into skin care products is because “they contain certain natural compounds (polyphenols) which give them their anti-oxidant properties”.​

Magcwebeba adds that these compounds, which are found in most plants, are linked with the prevention of various chronic disorders, including cancer.

She says the presence of these compounds in an extract may also help to predict its activity and may thus serve as a measure of quality control to ensure that rooibos extracts are biologically active before being used in cosmetic products.

Magcwebeba is quick to point out that her study focused on promoting the use of rooibos extracts in an ointment rather than consuming it as a beverage to protect the skin.

“Studies on well-researched skin products have shown that topical application is more effective as the product is easily absorbed when it is directly applied on the skin.”

Her research will provide knowledge towards the development of topical products that would be less invasive and cheaper to prevent cancer development, says Magcwebeba.

“South Africa has one of highest rates of skin cancer, and one of the factors contributing this problem is attributed to non-compliance to prevention strategies and the treatment is reported to be highly invasive, expensive and tends to have a high recurrence rate.”

Magcwebeba mentions that rooibos not only helps to prevent the development of skin cancer but is also used to treat eczema, acne, nappy rash, colic in babies, nausea, heartburn, cramps, hay fever and asthma in folk medicine. It is also known to improve appetite, reduces nervous tension, promotes sleep and boosts the immune system, she adds.

Magcwebeba says she now focuses on how a different plant (Gannabos) can help fight cancer and inflammation, but will definitely go back to rooibos in future.

Dr Tandeka Magcwebeba is currently a postdoctoral fellow in SU’s Department of Biochemistry. She recently spoke about her research at SU’s annual New Voices in Science colloquium held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advance Study (STIAS).

​Photo: Tandeka with one of the apparatuses she used as part of her research.

​Photographer: Justin Alberts

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