Researchers eye red maple for anti-aging skin treatment

Published: Oct. 4, 2018 at 1:53 PM EDT
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Could an extract made from red maple leaves turn back the clock? New research indicates a possible way to combat aging using the Vermont staple, but does it actually work?

Ask many people and they'll tell you, the first and last thing they do each day is put some sort of skin care product on their face.

"Twice a day I cleanse, which in the morning a few times a week, is followed by a vitamin C serum," said Jude Stevens, describing her skin care routine.

"I actually use soap and water at night, believe it or not. But then I use Rodan and Fields," said Julie Edwards.

There's a multi-billion dollar market for it. Countless products claim to make your skin look younger, but not everyone is sold on their benefits.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Do you think those actually work?

Jude Stevens: I think most of it is marketing gimmicks, quite frankly.

"I don't really buy into that at all," Edwards said.

But many people swear by them. And new research wants to tap into that money market with maple.

"The maple is exotic. It's exotic to me," said Navindra Seeram, a professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island. For the past nine years, his lab has been studying red maple trees to try to turn over a new leaf in the skin care industry. "It was very clear that the native peoples were using various parts of the maple trees as their sources of medicines."

They started with syrup, then sap, then leaves and bark, eventually isolating maplifa -- an extract from leaves that blocks elastase. That's the enzyme that breaks down elastin, the protein that keeps your skin tight. His lab's goal is to turn that extract into a cream that could prevent wrinkles. Their research has so far only been in test tubes. But in two or three years they hope to try a test product on people.

"Nothing dramatic like, 'Boom, tomorrow I look younger,' but certainly the human clinical trials we're envisioning it to be used over time to see what the effects are," Seeram said.

But dermatologist Dr. Melanie Bui cautions there's still a long way to go.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: So it's early stage research, which means people who see a headline like, 'Maple might cure wrinkles' -- what do they need to understand?

Dr. Melanie Bui: That has not been show in any way shape or form yet. There's evidence that it might work, but until they check it on a person, they won't know... We just don't know if it will work at all, let alone how well it will work. But if I had to guess, with creams, they're low risk, but they're also low reward.

Here's why -- your skin is designed to keep the outside out of you, and that includes all those creams you put on your face.

"A lot of them do work, but not by much. Anything that you're going to get over the counter, your expectations really have to be managed because it's not going to turn back the clock by much. You might take three years off. You're not going to take 15 years off," Bui said.

She says to get that, you have to get under the skin with Botox or fillers. She says in most cases, with topical creams, you'd need a side-by-side photo to tell the difference. "Things like Retinols that you can buy -- vitamin C -- they work. They're very safe, but you don't get a huge bang for your buck," Bui said.

And she says the best way to combat fine lines, wrinkles, and discolorations isn't that expensive and is probably already on most people's shelves. "Use sunscreen, because 90 percent of photo-aging, or what we notice as aging in the skin, is the effects of sun exposure," Bui said.

Back to the maple research. This is for red maple trees only, not sugar maples. The researchers do hope that their discovery -- If it proves effective -- would give maple producers in the Northeast a new way to make money. And they say the plus side is that you don't need to cut down any trees. You can collect the extract from leaves after they fall.