Translated from Afrikaans: A cup of red-bush tea. Rather don’t say this, its frowned upon here in SA, we’ll laugh at you. I have no idea how to type the pronunciation so you can go YouTube it if you like. The video is super lame so I highly recommend it for the cringe factor.
Fynbos – how does rooibos fit in
Since I am delving into botanicals I thought I’d start with the lovely Proudly South African vegetation: Fynbos. You’ll probably know something about it, most likely that proteas exist and look pretty in a bouquet.
The name is derived from the Afrikaans/Dutch Fijnbos, meaning fine bush because if its small scratchy looking leaves, I assume. There are many different families that make up fynbos; grass family, daisy family, protea family and legume family, to name a few. Its endemic to South Africa meaning it only grows here. Table Mountain alone has 2,200 unique species that can not be found anywhere else in the world. To read more about how awesome it is I’d recommend you visit Notes From A Cape Town Botanist, as she has all the knowledge and some beautiful pictures.
The Rooibos plant, Aspalathus linearis, is part of the fynbos legume family. The red-hued tea we are familiar with is the “fermented” version and the name “Rooibos” was actually only recently protected by South Africa so only tea produced here can be called Rooibos, much like Champagne and Karoo Lamb (also South African, awwww yeah). One of it’s most important characteristics is that it is caffeine free making it popular with health nuts and South Africans alike.
Chemical compounds in Rooibos
There have been quite a few studies suggesting that a group of polyphenol compounds, named flavonoids, have shown some health benefits. Rooibos has a unique set of these compounds that scientists have been curious about for a long time (see below for some of the chemical structures if you want to look at them and impress your friends with some random chemical structures). Their antioxidant properties are especially of interest, particularly aspalalinin and aspalathin which are unique only to Rooibos.
Antioxidants – quick summary
When people talk about antioxidants, there’s a kind of authority that they do it with. Like its the next elixir (besides CBD – a future topic for sure) that will save humanity. So a quick summary in basic terms:
- Chemical reactions in your body and external stress can create things called “free radicals” – they have one unpaired electron (this means they’re looking for a buddy/a pal/a friend).
- They go around breaking shit trying to find that mate which in turn creates an angry mob of new free radicals- this is called oxidative stress
- This causes damage in your body if left unchecked
- Antioxidants also have unpaired electrons but they’re the chilled ones, they give their unpaired electron and the free radicals are neutralised. They have learned to be happy with themselves and no longer wreak havoc looking for a mate.
- Your body does all this naturally but if there is a lot of damage ie. too much sun exposure, then things can get out of control.
- Many different compounds can show antioxidant behaviour so some compounds may be given the tag antioxidant but they could also be classed as something else, for instance a vitamin or an enzyme.
Find a detailed explanation with diagrams here from LabMuffin who is pretty great. I will make my own post in the future.
Rooibos in skincare
So from what I’ve gathered, there are not that many in vivo studies (studies carried out inside a living organism) involving rooibos and its antioxidants. However, studies looking at the activity of the flavonoids using very specific assays – tests – show that there are definitely antioxidants present. They do have some effect against all sorts of lovely things but I won’t get into that. You can go have a look at the bottom for those links.
The only skin study I could really find was from CPUT reported by CANSA, where they linked rooibos extracts to helping get rid of UVB damaged cells. So it could help with post-sunburn treatment to prevent skin cancer development and it has shown some preliminary anti-inflammatory action. This link between sun damage and antioxidants isn’t new and that is why there is such a craze about antioxidants for anti-aging formulas.
My overall opinion
Overall I think that there is cause for the scientific community to get excited and for more studies to continue on Rooibos antioxidants but the action of supplementary antioxidants to combat oxidative stress inside of the body is still under review. Applying it directly on the skin may be the better choice because:
- It doesn’t have to go through your digestive system and potentially be broken down.
- The skin sees a lot of UV damage directly. So if you’re playing the odds, this would be the best place to actually apply the active ingredient. Especially since there is evidence that the skin can absorb compounds in the upper layers of the skin.
Now speaking specifically about polyphenols in Rooibos, I’d say its not going to harm you but its also not really fully studied yet so the healing effects are a bit wishful. I would say that the “Green” Rooibos, which is not fermented, is the one to look for on the list of ingredients. This form has more antioxidants present because its less “processed”.
So lets keep enjoying Rooibos in all the weird and wonderful ways South Africans do. In our gin, beer, soap, creams, food and pretty much whatever else we want to make smell nice and look naturally wholesome.