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Scientists are learning if compounds found in the cocklebur plant may help protect and improve skin. Paola Iamunno/Getty Images
  • Researchers have found that the cocklebur plant may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.
  • These components may help protect the skin or even help increase collagen production.
  • The plant also contains a toxic compound so researchers say more studies will be needed to see if the plant can be beneficial overall.

Research presented on Tuesday reports that the fruit of the cocklebur plant – considered by many to be a weed – might have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components that could be used to protect skin.

The study also found that the spiky plant could influence the production of collagen, a protein helping skin elasticity, and preventing wrinkles.

Researchers from Myongji University in South Korea say compounds in the plant’s fruit reduced damage from UVB exposure and sped healing in tests using cells and tissues.

The study’s findings were presented March 25-28 at Discover BMB, the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in Seattle. The results of this study have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“We found that cocklebur fruit has the potential to protect the skin and help enhance production of collagen,” said Eunsu Song, a doctoral candidate who did the research with Myongji professsor Jinah Hwang, in a statement.

“In this regard, it could be an attractive ingredient for creams or other cosmetic forms,” Song said. “It will likely show a synergistic effect if it is mixed with other effective compounds, such as hyaluronic acid or retinoic acid, against aging.”

Cocklebur is a plant native to China, Central Asia, and Southern Europe that eventually spread worldwide. It’s often found in moist or sandy areas such as riverbanks and roadside ditches.

Its distinctive fruit is covered in stiff husks and burrs, which people have used for centuries in medicines for headache, stuffy nose, skin pigmentation disorders, and tuberculosis-related illness.

In recent years, scientists have explored its possible use in treatments for cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

The authors of the new study say their work is the first examining the fruit’s abilities as a skin protectant and wound-healing agent.

They studied the molecular properties of the plant’s fruit and isolated compounds they said can contribute antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. They then used cell cultures and a 3D tissue model similar to human skin to discover the fruit extracts encouraged collagen production, sped wound healing, and offered protection against UVB radiation.

The team said fruit grown in South Korea had slightly higher antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and more wound-healing activity than those from China. But they cautioned high doses of cocklebur fruit extract could be harmful and further research is needed before using it safely in cosmetic or pharmaceutical applications.

“In its burrs, cocklebur fruit also has a toxic constituent, carboxyatractyloside, which can damage the liver,” Song said. “Cocklebur showed a potential as a cosmetic agent by increasing collagen synthesis. However, it showed negative results with higher concentrations. Therefore, finding the proper concentration seems very important and would be key to commercializing cocklebur fruit extracts in cosmetics.”

To that end, the researchers said they will study the biological mechanisms involved and conduct experiments in animal alternatives.

Medical experts told Healthline there’s real potential in researching benefits of cocklebur fruit. But they said there’s just as much potential for harm if not done correctly.

“Traditionally, this herb is used for fevers, rabies, chronic lumbago, headaches, and allergic rhinitis,” Dr. Noor Hanif Said, a U.K.-trained dermatologist for Renaissance Dermatology Specialist Clinic, told Healthline. “The extract is also believed to treat epilepsy, poisonous insect bites, inflammation, and rheumatism. The Chinese and Native Americans utilize this herb as tea to get relief for rheumatism, kidney diseases, colds, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and other nasal ailments.”

“However, the seeds of this plant contain carboxyatractyloside that can be toxic,” Said told Healthline. “It can lead to experiencing unpleasant taste, abdominal pain, nausea, seizures, vomiting, and in worse cases, liver problems. Further tests and studies must be made.”

Ginger King is a cosmetic chemist and the President and CEO of Grace Kingdom Beauty. She told Healthline cocklebur seeds can be used as a dye, but cosmetic colorants are regulated in the U.S.

“However, this plant is also highly poisonous so (people) should avoid mucous membranes like the eye or lips area,” King told Healthline. “Being poisonous, there is potential to be used as a preservative but need to be tested out via micro challenge test.”

Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician and medical director at National Capital Poison Center, told Healthline cocklebur’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties are “intriguing.”

“It’s important to know that the fruits of the plant can also be poisonous,” Johnson-Arbor said. “Cocklebur is poisonous when consumed by pigs, cows, and other animals. Humans can also be poisoned after eating cocklebur seeds, which are contained within the fruit of the plant. Consumption of as little as ten cocklebur seeds can lead to liver damage in children. Death has also been reported in people who have eaten cocklebur.”

Johnson-Arbor said people have traditionally put the plant “through a special baking process designed to reduce toxicity.”

“Because of the plant’s poisonous potential, people should not consume cocklebur fruit, and should only use cocklebur under the close supervision of a physician,” Johnson-Arbor told Healthline.

Researchers in South Korea say compounds in the cocklebur’s fruit may help protect skin. In tests using cells and tissues, these compounds promoted collagen production, reduced damage from UVB exposure, and sped wound healing. However, further testing is still needed.