You must have seen those images on Instagram of smiling people, brimming with health and vitality, sipping a glass of green goodness; or a jade liquid in attractive bottles and salt-rimmed glasses, with a playful garnish of lime and mint; and faces plastered with an emerald paste and before-and-after shots of acne-scarred skin transformed into smoother and clearer complexions—an image grid united by one ingredient: chlorophyll. Yes, the same green pigment that allows plants to make their own food by absorbing energy from sunlight.
‘Chlorophyll water’ and other forms of supplements claiming to have chlorophyll as the primary ingredient are becoming increasingly popular, with health, skincare and wellness enthusiasts using them for potential benefits like improved digestion, more energy, weight loss support, clearer skin and fresher breath and body odour. It's a global phenomenon: recently, the New York Times updated a 2019 article with newer information on how this trend is fast becoming a wellness fad. “In the past year, consumers in the United States spent $6.7 million on supplements of chlorophyll and chlorella (a type of algae), a 17% increase from the year before, according to the market research company SPINS. Sales of water with chlorophyll also jumped 356% percent in the same time period,” the NYT reported.
Though medical and health professionals advise caution about jumping on the trend, with limited research linking chlorophyll use to these marketed benefits, many users continue undeterred, anecdotal evidence of success and no apparent adverse effects prompting their experimentation. But do we really need them? Various Indian skincare enthusiasts and healthcare professionals offer their views.
Does it work?
Chlorophyll is a phytochemical found in plants, which helps them absorb light to provide energy for photosynthesis. It breaks down quickly when removed from plants, so the ingredient in supplements is actually chlorophyllin, a semi-synthetic chemical created by replacing the magnesium in chlorophyll with copper, a more stable compound.
Raisa Tolia tried chlorophyll supplements before they went viral, about 18 months ago. “I have acne-prone skin and heard about chlorophyll’s skin improvement benefits. I tried it consistently for three months,” says Tolia, a skincare enthusiast from Mumbai. While she has not used the supplements since then, she recalls some improvement to her skin during this time. But Tolia is also careful of her diet and wellness regime, so she is undetermined about attributing these benefits solely to the tablets.
Aishwarya Kandpal sees the trend as a fad, her own experience with wheatgrass powder, which contains chlorophyllin, not convincing her of its efficacy. “I took it for two months in 2020 and I didn't find any difference in my skin or hair. Perhaps the trial period was too short and I turned inconsistent later, but I did not see any changes,” says the Delhi-based skincare blogger.
Experts advise looking at health more holistically, as there are no shortcuts or magic pills. “Our environment and food supply chain are now, more than ever, contaminated with toxins and obesogens that can cause inflammation in our bodies. Chlorophyll supports our liver health, the main detox centre of our body and helps in getting rid of toxins.” said Lovneet Batra, nutritionist and author of the book 50 Desi Super Drinks. Natural sources of chlorophyll include green vegetables and herbs like wheatgrass, green beans, parsley, spinach and peas, but if our daily greens consumption is low, supplements can be useful to fill the gap.
“But, it’s not simply the chlorophyll, but various phytochemicals and sulphur-containing compounds present in these plants that together have a healing effect. No one ‘superfood’ can make or break your health, but in many cases chlorophyll-rich foods help in supporting the system,” says Batra, who drinks wheatgrass juice every day and uses it in liver detoxes for her patients.
Priya Dhammi-Sharma, a holistic nutritionist in Noida, has used supplements with chlorophyll for several years, but always combined with vitamins and multiple greens like spirulina, moringa and alfalfa. “Aping trends blindly is never advisable. I think it is unnecessary to take just chlorophyll supplements unless specifically prescribed for medical conditions. Rather than isolating one ingredient, the nutrient is better absorbed when consumed with other vitamins and phytonutrients.”
What about the risks?
Potential side effects include digestive problems, discoloured stool, stained teeth, and sunburn or skin rashes. “I did feel a bit gassy when I used them,” recalls Tolia. She chose tablets to avoid possible teeth staining from chlorophyll water, but did not experience any other adverse effects. The effects of chlorophyll use have not been studied in pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Because of its photosynthesizing effects, chlorophyll can apparently make skin more sensitive to the sun, potentially causing sunburn and blisters. Could this pose a risk for users in countries like India with a lot of sunlight? Batra feels it is unlikely. “I am not sure if that’s physiologically possible as chlorophyll is broken down quickly by our digestive system and does not quite sit under our skin like in plants.”
Chlorophyll’s benefits like skin improvement, cancer-reduction, weight loss and improvement in the quality of red blood cells are derived from studies focused on small groups. Experts feel that more extensive research with larger, more controlled studies is needed to conclusively establish these claims.
Dr. Aman Sharma, Skin Physician at Delhi’s Sparsh Skin Clinic, feels that chlorophyll may have some benefits, but there is no concrete proof linking it to them. “I have tried chlorophyll capsules, but not found any dramatic results. It may have anti-proliferative properties, but there are several other evidence-based options. Without the research to back it, I don’t know if these supplements can claim these benefits,” says Sharma.
What’s the verdict?
“The supplementing trend is fairly recent in India, which has always been a DIY country with home remedies for everything,” says Dhammi-Sharma. “Traditionally we always included a wide variety of seasonal greens in our diets. I don’t think chlorophyll supplements can do you harm, but always check ingredients, as additives like artificial sweeteners can cause other issues. Consult professionals before taking anything. No supplement can work in isolation. Include it as part of a larger nutrition and health regime.”
“Chlorophyll is present in so much of our food, even dhania chutney.” said Dr. Sharma. “Each body type differs and supplements must be chosen accordingly. These products may be available over the counter, but choose wisely and always consult a professional before taking them.”
Trends are fleeting, but most agree that a holistic approach to health, where short cuts or one-size-fits-all solutions do not exist. “A diet with the right amount of protein, minerals, vitamins and nutrients should be capable of keeping the body, skin and hair healthy.” said Kandpal. “I don't think chlorophyll is a necessity unless there's proven evidence that it benefits the human body in great measures, cures an existing ailment or fulfills the gap that a regular diet cannot.”