Maple trees beautify the North American landscape with their colorful foliage and provide humans around the world with an all-natural sweet treat thanks to their sap. And now, following the recent work of a group from the University of Rhode Island, we have another reason to love these deciduous hardwoods: chemicals produced in their leaves could form the basis of potent new anti-aging skincare products.
In a presentation at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society on Monday, lead researcher Navindra P. Seeram explained that her group had previously demonstrated that glucitol-core-containing gallotannins (GCGs) – a class of six-carbon-ring-based (polyphenolic) compounds present in high concentrations in red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves – may be able to protect skin from age-related inflammation and the development of sunspots. Their findings were based on the results of several cell culture experiments.
To see whether GCGs could hit a cosmetic trifecta by also preventing the formation of wrinkles, Seeram’s team assessed whether or not the molecules could inhibit an enzyme called elastase. Elastin is the connective tissue protein that, in combination with fibrillin, forms elastic fibers. As the name suggests, these structural protein bundles give organs and vessels their ability to stretch and then recoil back to their original size. Elastase is the enzyme tasked with breaking down elastic fibers, and though this process is important for tissue growth and repair and even immune defense, past studies have shown that as we age, skin cells begin to over-secrete elastase, leading to the formation of wrinkles.
Using computer modeling and laboratory tests, the team examined the anti-elastase activity of several GCGs, ultimately finding that the types with multiple phenolic groups are more effective than those with only one.
Hoping to bring their exciting discovery to consumers as soon as possible, Seeram and her colleagues have already developed a purified extract of summer and fall maple leaves and sap that contains the most potent GCGs. This formulation, named Maplifa, has been licensed to a botanical ingredient supplier so that cosmetics companies can begin incorporating it into new products. It remains to be seen, however, how well the compounds will work on living skin.
"You could imagine that these extracts might tighten up human skin like a plant-based Botox, though they would be a topical application, not an injected toxin," Seeram said in a statement.
She notes that if Maplifa takes off, the demand would allow maple farmers to get more benefit from their crop without taxing the forest ecosystem the trees create. Maples naturally drop their leaves each season, so harvesters going out to collect sap for syrup could simply gather fallen leaves and take those that are removed during normal pruning sessions.