UNLESS YOU HAVEN'T SET FOOT INSIDE A GROCERY store or a Starbucks in the last couple of years, you're sure to have noticed the surge in popularity of the pomegranate. The ancient fruit—it's been cultivated in arid regions like Northern Africa, India, and Iran for several millennia—has certainly moved beyond its religious (some historians claim it was actually a pomegranate and not an apple that Eve used to tempt Adam) and mythological history to become firmly established in the mainstream. It was clear that the fruit had made it big when the omnipresent coffee chain Starbucks began offering the Pomegranate Frappuccino last summer, a tea-based drink laced with the sweet yet somewhat bitter fruit.
Its recent trendsetting status aside, healthcare professionals praise the pomegranate for its many scientifically proven body benefits. Pomegranates are a great source of potassium and vitamins B6 and C, and they're low in calories, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Beyond being a nutritionally great food, they are also rich in polyphenols, compounds in fruits and vegetables that have shown powerful disease prevention and anti-aging abilities," adds Blatner. There have been studies that show eating pomegranates or drinking their juice can prevent cancer, decrease the risk of heart disease, and reduce systolic blood pressure.
So how does this panacea of fruits play into the skincare world? Unlike many health foods that came before them, pomegranates are scientifically proven to have a protective effect on the outside of the body in addition to the inside. "I'm a big fan of the pomegranate because there's actually data proving it's very beneficial for the skin," says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston-based dermatologist who occasionally recommends skincare products that contain pomegranate to her patients. One example of the pomegranate's proven powers can be found in a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food. Researchers discovered that pomegranate extract may aid wound healing as effectively as commercially available topical antibacterial products. The extract, which was taken from the peel of the pomegranate, helped facilitate collagen synthesis—a key component in wound healing. Scientists at Texas A&M University are still studying the fruit to find out which of its components are responsible for this reaction. Someday, those components may be used as alternatives to chemical and synthetic antibacterial ingredients.
In another study conducted at Human Matrix Sciences, researchers found that tannic acid and ellagic acid (polyphenols found in dark red and purple fruits like pomegranates, as well as raspberries, blackberries, and cranberries) may slow skin's aging process. The compounds helped decrease the rate at which the elastic fibers that keep skin firm degrade. Various other studies have shown that pomegranates possess skin cancer prevention capabilities and can reduce the damage done by the sun's UVB rays.
"Most of the benefits commonly attributed to pomegranates are an extension of the fruit's antioxidant characteristics," says Hirsch. There is still some ongoing debate, but many experts claim that the antioxidant levels in the pomegranate are higher than those in red grapes, vitamin C, and even green and white teas. This, above all other reasons, explains why so many cosmeceutical companies have incorporated pomegranates into their products. After all, antioxidant is still the buzzword in preventative skincare.
"Polyphenols as a group of antioxidants have become more and more important in skincare," says Howard Murad, M.D., founder of the Murad Medical Spa (El Segundo. CA), who is widely recognized as being one of the first to harness the power of the pomegranate in topical skincare products. There have been several studies pointing out that pomegranate extract effectively protects cells from damaging free radicals.
But plenty of botanicals can claim high levels of antioxidants, so what makes pomegranates so special? "One nice thing about ellagic acid is that it's not as sensitive as other antioxidants like vitamin C," says Zsuzsanna Piso, director of research and development for Repêchage, which recently created a body scrub that contains antioxidant-rich pomegranate and cranberry extracts. "It stays stable for longer so it can be used in many ways, in many different types of skincare products."
Pomegranates could also be the key to more natural sun protection. In a study Murad conducted in 1999, he found that infusing sunscreen with pomegranate extract boosted its sun protection factor by 20 percent. By adding pomegranate extract to various products in his line that offer sun protection, Murad believes he can increase the SPF without using as many chemical ingredients.
A pomegranate smoothie can help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Another potential benefit of the pomegranate is its ability to boost moisture levels in the skin. "The main reason we chose to include pomegranate in our products is because our clients want moist, plump skin," says Susan Skelton, director of marketing and sales for DermAstage. "Purified pomegranate extract has the ability to create a better flow of water in the skin and can improve skin's ability to retain moisture." The theory behind claims such as these is that the fruit can strengthen the channels, called aquaporins, through which water flows between the body's cells. Stronger channels mean water can flow more freely, leaving all cells, including those in the skin, better hydrated. While some experts are quick to point out there is no clinical data to support this claim, Murad believes the theory. "Ellagic acid can certainly strengthen cells, which makes them more capable of carrying water around in the skin."
Super Fruit Sources
No matter how valuable an ingredient the pomegranate appears, it's not a magic bullet. "You can't rely on just one ingredient to give your skin everything it needs," says Sigrid Konrad, vice president of training for Babor. "You have to couple it with others for a product to be as effective as possible." But whatever those other ingredients may be, it's unlikely they'll outshine the star power of the pomegranate.